Creating Observations

I’m in the middle of a 4-week human figure sculpture class. I love the way the cool clay yields to my fingers, the weight of it.  I love the way it feels wet, but dries to a chalky powder on my hands, leaving prints against my thighs when I accidentally wipe them there. I like to challenge my creativity using different mediums; I always discover deeper awareness for my writing practice this way. 

This is a class in observation.  We are creating “a study” of the human figure, in clay, using an armature (a stick like human figure made of bendy wires). There is a nude model instructed to maintain the “study posture”, but to rotate every 7-10 minutes.  The study pose is a contrapposto, or counterpose, where the body appears to be in mid-step with a slight twist of the torso that signals a certain vitality to a finished sculpture. The model’s timed rotations mean students never stick to rendering one view but must rotate armatures to match the model’s stance, building out only the three-dimensional form from their unique viewpoint in the room.  

At the end of this class (which, due to covid-19 has been a bit bumpy with some classes cancelled and rescheduled), we will destroy our works by pulling the clay from the armature to be stored in a plastic bagged blob. The forced breaks, shifting viewpoints, and the fact that the finished product is nothing more than the end of a “study” process, has made me feel a light creative freedom.  

I’m delighted working in the small class, listening to the murmurings of conversation, the shushing hiss of spray bottles and overplayed classical tunes.  To be in the moment of “trying” for no other joy but to try. It is a focused peace.    

In sculpting, I’m working to render gesture, observing the live, three-dimensional form, and attempting to replicate a scaled down version with my hands. I’m assessing volume and shape, curves and hollows, the points of bones and how the softness of body, muscles, skin, drapes over them. Expression is captured in the stance and gesture of how the body stands in place. 

In drawings, gesture is captured in the line. A move from rendering “the study” from three-dimensions to two. A line can capture energy, a subject’s vitality, by how it is it rendered on paper – thin and fast, thick and slow, etc. 

But the experience of observation captured on the page through writing transfers the three-dimensional world (even four or five dimensional if we start to add things like emotion and interior thoughts) into flat words on a blank page. Words are abstract symbols of representation.  Each word sparks connotations and connections unique to our own experiences and interpretations.  I guess this is why reading another’s words can feel so magically transportive. Just as my viewpoint of the art class model rotates on a platform in the middle of the sculpture class, my experiential viewpoint alters the interpretation of words. I witness – eyewitness – the object or the sensory experience – I interpret it (my own way) and render it into words to be able to convey my interpretative experience through writing.  And if that sensory experience, imagery, or idea is understood and resonates with the reader, there is a frisson of recognition and pleasure in sharing these experiences and thoughts across time and space. 

But getting the words to come through…not so easy.

Some observations from the last week:

I saw a porcupine. I thought it was a beaver at first because the animal was so round with a paddle like tail but as I passed (quickly – I was road cycling) – I realised the tail was not so big but rather narrow and flat– the animal was approaching the base of a large old oak with, I believed, an intention to climb it.  It was mid-day. The sun was high and bright but the wind, blowing east, blew strong against my direction of travel, stole the warm huffing of my exhalations fast past my ears. But how to describe the porcupine’s unrushed perambulation?  Its roly-poly demeanor? The animal wobbled. 

And a swan, bending its neck, s-like, to its back, its wings, still folded, raised and what?  Trembling? Quivering?  Shivering…yes, shivered and fluffed. 

A friend’s high-pitched reaction to one of my questions. A squeak. 

The dairy farm’s manure and powdered milk smell that makes me want to gag. 

The scent of pine sap needling the shade when I passed beneath their feathery boughs. 

The friendly waves from motorcyclists as they passed me cycling.  Is this a thing?  Are we in solidarity somehow, riding through the fresh air with bodies exposed to the spring? Not just one, but three different motorcyclists at different points along my route. One even when they must have seen me gagging for breath on a long uphill. Maybe that is why they waved.  For encouragement?  I waved back regardless.

This is the process of art making: observing the world with loving attention, transferring that loving view as a gift for the viewer/reader to share in that joy and delight.   

A poke in the wound

WordPress will not allow this image to be the right way up…perhaps it’s better posted this way …moving against gravity.

Making art when there is war. It feels wrong. Or useless. Selfish. I spiral into guilt and shame about my privilege, my luck. In the boundaries of my skin, my brain, the sorrow seeps. 

There are mountains of sorrow at the heart of all conflicts. The fired heat of hurts hoisted through generations, coded, we now know, in our DNA, and patterned far too comfortably in memory. 

Russia and the Ukraine, China and Taiwan, the continued killing in the Middle East, too many countries in Africa, we speak of warring geographies as if they are sentient beings themselves rather than the individual people, plants, animals, collected and hurting beneath? Behind? Within? the skins of borders. 

Bodies of power in the shape of countries, in the shape of cities, in lake shaped wounds, in fist shaped educations, in the curved shape of a parent’s spine twisting from a child’s longing for love. 

This is a habit of mine: to speak in abstractions, to hide behind the illusions of words, to climb my mountain of sorrow instead of burying deep within it to try and understand. 

What is it I’m trying to say? 

That I feel so very sad.  That I wish humans could be better. That I wish I would do better. That I could truly believe that making art, which is to say making love, creating love, holding love, sharing love, could save us.    

Even if it is so hard to believe when fire rains down from the skies, I must.

Being Seen

I have not written this last week or so. 

Feeling not up to it following intense preparation and performance for in interview related to my day job. 

The self-loathing that accompanies not writing creeps in fast.  And I know there will be difficulty getting back into writing practice the longer I put it off.  It’s exactly the same as working to maintain some level of physical activity…as soon as you ease off, skip a few workouts or runs, your muscles start to soften.  Getting back to the practiced level is going to hurt, there’s no way round it.  

Reading helps.  So, I am reading.  

I’ve been wrestling with writing. I’ve been trying to write a piece about marriage.  How I feel about it.  What erupts on the page is hard for me to face: grief.  Alongside love, yes. These two emotions cradle beside one another and I don’t know how to rock them. In the writing, I start to shoehorn the paragraphs (long before they are ready) into a from that shows off my humour or intelligence.  I am hiding.  A tactic that works to control and manipulate and keep my softer self from being seen. Dazzling with language and laughter, I am skimming the surface again. 

I read. 

In an essay by Chloe Caldwell, The Red Zone: A Love Story, I copy down this line about her relationship with her partner in my notebook:

“I have never felt more seen-through, more transparent…”

On Facebook a friend comments in a thread,

“Dickinson is right, being seen is the heaven of heavens…”

In an interview between Leslie Jamison and Sarah Sentilles in Orion Magazine, How to Write Love, I read,

Stranger Care [book written by Sentilles]is a tale not just of love but of grief, as if we could ever tell one of those stories without the other. That’s where I wanted to start, with the question of love and how many different strands any love holds. How do you write love? Whenever I try, it feels like staring straight at the sun.”

And I read a most beautiful essay about poppies written by Katrina Vandenberg, also in Orion [print Autumn 2021 edition] , a paragraph that steals my breath away,

“Perhaps the poppy itself is a door.  It swings open-closed, life-death, pleasure-pain, freedom-slavery, remember-forget, suffer-release, and when not swinging, it lives on its threshold, ready.  It knows how to be more than one thing at a time, even when those things contradict one another. It knows everything about living and dying that we struggle to understand.”

I love this paragraph.  I love how the second sentence is gorgeous but doesn’t quite make sense.  And yet, makes so much sense.  Reading it, on the heels of the other fragmented gifts that have floated my way, I realise I am withholding my self in my writing. I am not writing enough of my own thoughts and worries and joys on the page…I am simply trotting out the scenes and stitching them together with wit.  I am not sharing my self with my reader.  In short, I am not loving.  Too afraid of ridicule…too afraid of being seen and not being loved.  Isn’t that it?  

The reading helps me see that I must open myself up to be seen, as Leonard Cohen’s Anthem

“Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in”

And as I practice writing and work to gift my self on the page: trying, failing, trying, failing, I am comforted knowing that reading will always hold me, rock me with the lullabied lessons I long for.  

With Gratitude

Hmmm…so many things wrong with this rendering. But I guess, also, so many things right.

On this day of (Canadian) thanksgiving, I want to acknowledge and extend my gratitude to all of you, the readers of my creative work.  Especially here, on this blog, this teensy tiny corner of the digital universe, a place where I slowly work out my thoughts about creative process. You are patient and kind and giving of your time and attention.  You make my writing a conversation. You are the connection I crave. Thank you. 

I have been writing down glimmer dumps, a practice of attention and sensory writing advocated by writer, Pam Houston, and described in detail by Maxima Kahn here.    

I leave two with you here, from the last week, small offerings of gratitude.  

One: 

Driving the rural roads round my place, the trees remain in full leaf but glowing yellow and red in the warm light of mid-afternoon.  With all the rain we’ve had, the lawns and livestock fields shine bright green. Cows in a clumped white herd (Belgian Blues? Charolais? Murray Greys? I wish I knew) on an emerald hillside, but one cow, off in the field on its own, jumped up, rocking in the air, its tail curved up in a smile. It leapt like a young puppy dancing, and I delighted I’d caught a cow mid-joy. 

Two:

As I write, the rain tinkles in the eavestroughs and a whole lot (a flock?) of starlings are singing from their perch atop the pine trees in the backyard…sometimes the song drops suddenly into silence and the whole lot of them lift off, rising through the air, each one morphing into a whole, a murmuration, and I am reminded again how magical the moments in this world can be. 

Celebrating you and your reading!  Cin-cin!

Crack(s)

I am a month or so out from completing a six-week online writing course. Another one. 

I attend a couple of writing courses each year. A friend quips I’m addicted to them…as if they are a bad habit, or a catchy disease. 

I do love them.  

But my friend’s analogy is not far from the mark.  It needles. 

The weeks following a class are rough. I feel hung over. The sudden loss of structured deadlines induces the same vertigo one gets at the midpoint of a swing bridge…petrified by the choice of moving forward or going back, with all the freedom to simply tumble sideways and fall, fall fall.  

The classes inject fresh creativity. My own writing spools effortlessly from the instructor’s prompts and exercises, surprising me always, pleasing me frequently. I love reading the diverse interpretations of the prompts, and the variety of voices from other writers in the class. 

The act of reading to comment on other people’s writing forces me to engage intimately with their words, their sentences, their paragraphs, their structures. It’s an intellectual exercise that teaches me a lot about my own writing (and thinking) and how it might be improved. It also challenges me to use a framework of positivity, consciously eschewing the traditional critique approach that points out all the wrongs or picks apart a piece error by error.   

But most enslaving—and this is where the shame seeps in—I crave the focused feedback about my own writing from my peers. I long for their comments. I’m curious about the phrases they are drawn to, about the places they feel stuck, about learning how I might improve my language, pacing, punctuation, structure, atmosphere, metaphors. This level of scrutiny detects and signals what may be missing. 

So why the shame? 

I’m addicted to the feeling of confirmation. I have such a hot desire to be seen, to be heard. To be loved? I’m supposed to be writing simply for the joy of writing, without any need for validation. The art ought be an end unto itself.  

But that’s not right either is it? 

Writing is communication.  One does not write simply to put words on a page, fold the notebook closed and shove it in the back of a drawer.  Though, most (all?) of my own writing suffers this fate.   

Writing to share becomes a dialogue with the power to transcend time and space.  Writing stuff down transforms thoughts to an object I can hold in my fist, paper or book, and hand it over to others. Here, I’ve dumped this beautiful tangle of words on this paper, what do you think?  The difference is that the reader has no obligation to the writer.  The reader may take and walk away.  The reader must only feel entertained, provoked, and, one hopes, inspired.  There is no contract a reader must respond. 

So, the writer must learn to create in isolation. Must learn to dialogue with oneself.  And this ought to be enough.  For an addict, enough never is.   

Go Deeper

Last week, writer Lauren Groff tweeted this: “Recently, at every single class visit, some new writer asks me why short stories are so depressing and I usually just fumble an answer about how stories need conflict and tend to be written in a minor key (as opposed to the novel’s span of keys). But honestly, I don’t know.”

This intrigued me.  Of course, twitter is not the right medium for a conversation…it can’t contain the nuance, gesture and tone tools enacted through speech.  These tools we use (and need) to properly grasp and share meaning. Short stories incorporate these tools through craft. And though twitter can promote expansion by provoking further questions: what does depressing mean? Do students ask this question implying depressing stories are no good?  What does Lauren Groff mean by minor key? And, how lovely is that, describing a novel as a span of keys? But on twitter, debate is polarised, appreciation of nuance is non-existent, and rhetoric lands heavy.   

Lauren Groff’s recent story Wind, published in the New Yorker, is a stunning short story that is most definitely “not happy”. The story could serve as the very definition of “not happy”. But I would not call it depressing. The story holds a horrible truth up to the light and makes us (the reader) see and experience its facets of terror and violence and love. (And yes, these constructs frequently share the same bed.) Calling it depressing is an indication the reader has not engaged in the deeper work of questioning our reactions to the story. For stories, written as works of art, are tiny calls to action. Even if that action is a way to tip our minds toward different ways of thinking. Or feeling. Even for a moment.

Lauren Groff’s story Wind is a call to action: to be an active witness to violence against women. The story provokes the question: is witnessing enough?  And goes on to answer that question: absolutely not. The story raises a mirror to show us our participation as simple witness: participation through non action; participation through acceptance. And yes, that makes us feel depressed. But here’s the thing, the story is told through the eyes of a child. This ratchets up the emotional tone, and the fear is visceral. But this point of view does more work: it forces the reader into an innocent perspective…signalling a chance to learn, to experience—to change our minds. And the brilliance of this short story (although, like a diamond, her story’s brilliance has so many facets), is that the narrator begins from the point of view of an adult remembering an episode in her childhood…so…the story is inviting us, as adults, to engage deeper consideration, but from a compassionate stance…an understanding that even as adults, our knowledge in this issue is underdeveloped. We are given a chance to expand our thinking.  And this may never be named “depressing”.  

Narratively, stories do need conflict. Otherwise, they don’t really move and might be better represented as a sculpture. Or a photograph.  I believe Lauren Groff hit upon the answer herself by inserting a music analogy. Think of how many sad songs (lyrics) are layered over beautiful music?  This is what art is.  And what it does.  It uses a medium to move us. To tilt our minds. To help us experience a point of view outside our own. It becomes so much more satisfying when it explores complexity by creating a “thing” that we too can explore and experience a symphony of meaning. 

Like Lauren Groff’s students, I am learning. And when a story strikes us as depressing, it is a little poke of a reminder to ask ourselves why we react this way? Deeper reading of “depressing” short stories helps us hear that minor key. Helps us understand how it fits into the larger song of our lives. And love.   

Beginning. Again.

Always, when I have taken a break from creative writing, no matter how short, the doubt creeps in and halts my hand.  No, that’s not what I meant to write; it halts my mind.  

The act of putting words to paper is not the challenge.  Rather, it’s the practice of reflection–of asking myself questions as I write, the practice of opening up the writing itself to its umpteen possibilities–that is so difficult to recover. It’s like any other muscle flaccid with underuse…asking questions and allowing the words to appear and be transcribed as they arise from the mind’s eye, must be practiced to make it strong. To make it responsive.

I am learning that to write well is to propel myself on a journey of discovery, to mine my own mind for what I think and why I think this way and how that way of thinking might have come to be.  It is about taking the tangents, following the diversions, trusting, as the cliche goes, a leap into the dark.  

I am learning to query the shimmering in-betweens. 

I am learning to trust that the metaphors that appear are really way finders to what lies buried beneath.  Beneath what?  The usual, the expected, the mundane, or that dreaded and most accurate of descriptions: mediocrity. Too often I’m in a rush…I want to get to the end…but this process of unfolding, engaging, unknowing (yes, this is exactly it), is slow.  

So, onwards with deliberate plodding.  Query.  Expand. 

Feels like the first day at the gym. Again.  

But the music is playing. The sun is shining. I am warm on the heated side of this window. Blue shadows stretch along the snow blanketing the fields. The cardinal’s feathers glow by the feeders.  Juncos press tiny prints into the white.  Sunflower seeds pepper the ground beside a mourning dove and a clutch of hopping chickadees. A nuthatch and a downy headed woodpecker swing from opposite poles of the suet cage. The paper in my notebook is cream, the ink in my pen is teal, and I am ready to begin.  Again.  And again.   

Writing a Narrative Helix

I listen to a lot of different podcasts about writing.  I’m particularly drawn to detailed craft discussions, conversations about process, and talks about how ideas make it to the page.  Often, by way of a podcast, I’m introduced to a writer I haven’t read yet. This is how I came to the work of Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Chronology of Water and Verge, among others. You can listen to her fantastic interviews with David Naimon on Between the Covers or with Brendan O’Meara on the Creative Nonfiction Podcast. She also has presented a TED Talk The Beauty of Being a Misfit

Lidia has created a space for writing workshops called Corporeal Writing and generously offers a free intensive 90-minute online session on the Narrative Helix form.  This is an example of a number of Write Now intensives offered online through the website.  I watched the narrative helix video and came to understand the form (two completely different strands of writing, one a themed list of the writer’s choosing, and a second narrative story delivered in short chunks of prose, then interspersed by selections from the [unrelated/maybe related] list…it sounds more complicated than it is…the video of course is much better.  Watch it.). I was intrigued to learn the value of using a different, structured way to enter and write difficult emotional material. 

So, I tried it. And it’s working.  I’ve completed a draft and it’s 7400 words.  I’m aiming to edit it down to 3000 if I can.  But I wanted to write here about the process and experience of working through the exercise.  The list was easy to come up with and populate: 1980s movies.  For the story aspect, I used a photograph from around that time as my jumping off point and a stream of consciousness approach to write everything and anything that popped into my head about each person in the picture.  This was interesting. My thoughts tumbled freely and the memories surfaced easily. The approach also suited my restricted writing schedule…these days only an hour each morning.  But, an hour of solid writing can generate a lot of material, especially if I’m not editing the writing as I work.  

In the video, Lidia discusses how the two narrative strands twist round each other to create a resonance between them (and become a helix).  I didn’t quite believe this would happen…but it did.  When I started writing I wasn’t sure where the project was taking me, I just followed the steps.  Now, after the first draft, I see the repeated imagery (knives) and can question its appearance (I won’t spoil the reason, but it has now become the focus of the essay, the thesis statement, if that makes sense). I’m looking forward to going back and crafting the piece, collaging it together, to carry a reader through my story.  Somehow, the exercise has helped me to understand how the pieces and process work together. I’ve challenged myself further and have signed up for one of the Corporeal Writing online courses…more to come.  

Reading backwards to write forwards

I started to read back through my own notebooks.  I have about twelve or so, plus a few others dedicated to recording specific things: poems that move me; writing project ideas; a do-it-yourself-MFA-in-progress where I synthesise ideas and craft elements gleaned from listening to podcasts and reading essays and books on writing. 

I’ve been practicing writing, solidly, for eight years. But I haven’t read back through my notebooks beyond a superficial flip of a few pages every now and then.  I’ve been afraid to. Until now.

I’ve learned the creation of art exists in a sort of dream space time…it’s malleable and stretches and contracts in unpredictable ways. I’ve learned too that time is only one element of many that shape a work of art. 

I’ve trained myself to allow notebook writing to be completely free…no cross outs, no fixing…and over the years I have been able to (almost) silence the inner editor.  And so, the writing in my notebooks captures my thoughts as they come.  

I’ve trained myself to be patient.  Images and thoughts arrive in fragments…often when I’m not at my writing desk…like a dandelion seed floating on a breeze.  First, I notice and recognise the inspiration and then I make a herculean effort to remember and write it down as soon as I can.  And over the years I’m getting better at not judging the fragments…better at not forcing them to fit writing I already have in place.  This is hard work for me.  Waiting.  Noticing. Not judging. Recording. 

I haven’t read back through my notebooks. I’ve been afraid. Afraid of pages and pages of, “I can’t write” or “I suck at this”, or some variation on that theme. And yes, there’s a lot of that in there.  A lot. 

But reading back I discovered something else:  the fragments have been arriving for years…little tiny bits and pieces that serve different writing projects (I have many projects on the go)…arriving like dust motes drift, to land between my pages. They arrive not in a line, or in sequential order, or one project at a time…they bubble up and splash and explode, bump up against each other, circle, loop back…they are wild, they are of their own energy.  

So, I’m reading backwards to write ahead. And practicing: waiting, noticing, not judging, recording.

Writing Groove Part 2

{Part 1 may be found here}.

I move through rituals.  The routine movements coaxe the muse from the nether regions and help the lines of words unspool my thoughts, travel the length of my arm, cross my wrist, tickle my fingers and draw along the page of my notebook.    

I light two candles to begin.  This is supposed to symbolise an activation, but really mimic the action of lighting a fire under my bum.  Though I love the glow illuminating the page, I love the sound of the match flaring, the scent of sulfur and smoke most.  I love the sandpaper drag of the match head against the striker, the deep hollow shake of the matchbox with wooden sticks clicking away inside. I love the white magnesium ignition and the brief ripping sound in the air that quickly silences into a steady flame.  I love the way the heat travels closer to my fingers in the long pause before the wick accepts the fire.   

I crave the smell of melting bee’s wax with its hint of meadow flowers and honey. Sometimes I remind myself about the work it takes the bees to make a candle’s worth of wax. This is a comfort.  Also, a reminder that writing a small amount each day will grow and build into something…not necessarily something bigger, but I do hope sweeter. At least, something formed. 

I listen to music while I write. (Though, through these summer months I prefer the bird’s morning chorus, the subtle intensification of song that follows the waking dawn).    Listening, a part of my brain becomes occupied – a cognitive necessity—and the muse tip toes out less fearfully.   

Here’s a small selection of recent artist favourites:

  • Garth Stevenson albums Flying and Voyage (the deep and haunting sounds of his double bass are so beautiful)
  • Nils Frahm – albums Music For The Motion Picture Victoria, Empty, All Encores, Trance Frendz…others
  • Hilary Woods – album Colt 

Over the years, I’ve collected writing tricks. Writing is trial and error.  Trial and error.  Trial and Error.  Process. 

It’s the magic I doggedly pursue.  The magic = words and phrases that drop together on the page…that work together perfectly…that surprise me so much I don’t believe I wrote them, instead, some creative spirit breathed through me for a moment I was lucky enough to have a pen in my hand and paper before me to catch them.   

The magic happens rarely. Like a gambling addict, I show up each day and try not to lose more than I have to spend. Of my self.  

Writing tricks get to the magic reliably…sometimes faster. 

Recent tricks:

I write questions on little squares of paper. I use red paper because it’s my favourite colour.  The questions relate to the piece or project I’m working on.  Some of them could be a prompt to dig into sensorial aspects of the piece e.g., what does a bed sheet smell like?  Some questions are meant to dive deeper into character: why would my character believe in an afterlife? Some questions are conceptually abstract or even philosophical: Is education culture?

All the squares are tumbled into a small cloth bag and shaken vigorously.

Each morning I pull one out at random—it’s important I don’t know what’s coming—and set a timer for 30 minutes and write.  The rule is to write without second guessing, without cross-outs, for the full 30 minutes.  A writing sprint. I am often surprised by what’s uncovered using this technique.

If I’m disciplined, I’ll transcribe the handwriting into a digital file on the computer Often, I’m not disciplined. The writings pile up. Sigh. Process.  But 30 minutes of writing regularly generate 700-1000 words. And usually one phrase or word or sentence that is magic, that I’ll use when the pruning happens later.