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.
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 PictureVictoria, Empty, All Encores, Trance Frendz…others
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.
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.
Outside the window, the robins criss-cross the soil of the newly turned vegetable beds, listening for worms beneath. The recent years, filled with appointments and meetings and what seemed so important, witnessed the plots disintegrating into a weedy mess. This year, I’m out there again, with this mixed gift of virus-induced-stay-home-time, edging the garden earth against the encroaching lawn. It’s heavy work but satisfying. It’s work that can only go at the pace that I can, my legs and arms and back complaining if I do too much at a time.
And it’s work that unfolds—can only unfold—as the temperature rises. It can’t all be done at once, but rather moves in a predictable and ancient pattern of seasonal shift; only cold weather seeds can withstand the sudden wet snow squalls, the winds whipping in from the north. The nightshade cousins like it hot, the tomatoes and peppers and eggplants, and it’s a month or more before those seedlings will be planted out. By that time, we will be harvesting the first lettuce greens and hopefully some sugar snap peas. Spinach and rhubarb will already have bolted, erecting obscene seed heads into the humid summer air.
Digging out there, with the grit beneath my fingernails, the worms squirming against the light and the scent of earth wafting round, I can’t help but read the metaphor so blatantly presented about artistic practice. Yes, I know the comparison has been made before a thousand times over, but when one discovers something for oneself, it retains the fresh surprise of truth.
For all these veggies to grow, I must work with them, nurturing them in concert with their environment, just as I do my words and sentences when I’m trying to write a piece. And the thing is, when the first twinned leaves of cotyledons poke through the soil, it’s hard to tell the veggie seedlings form the equally virulent weeds. One must be patient, observant. With experience one knows, but it’s seasons of trial and error for the neophyte. As a writer, I’m still in the spring stage, the early spring stage. But with continual care, attentiveness and nurturing, what I plant on the page will one day grow, be trained and weeded and shaped into something beautiful for others to consume. As the writer, I am the only person standing between the garden of a finished piece and the chaos of the word weeds. How and what will grow is really up to me and will only unfold at the pace that it can, that it will for me alone. No rushing how a plant grows; only solid dedicated care will bring it to fruit. Writing too.
Adapting to this new way of living. We all are. Home now, I’m learning to inhabit altered intersections of time and space. Following various veins of social and news media, the cry of despair and boredom can’t be ignored. But it isn’t my own experience.
I suspect it isn’t for many people, continuing to work so very hard to keep supporting the planting of food crops, vital food chains, addictions services, police services, online education, delivery services of all kinds, old and emerging, policy work at every level of government, shifting arts and entertainment strategies, and of course, health services of every sort, from long term care homes to paramedicine to emergency departments and intensive care units to public health units. The list is long. I’ve missed too many I’m sure.
And people continue to do this work from their homes, as they can, attending virtual meetings and using VPNs, with their children and partners and extended family members to care for, in the same, increasingly restricted spaces. And some people are working from a home where they are completely alone. And some people don’t have a home to go to.
The cry of despair and boredom wailing from the internet is hard to ignore, hard to sympathize with, and also, hard to believe. But the internet is never a good representation of universal truth is it? Except to say that humans love cats and pornography the world over.
More problematic is the internet’s shriek of boredom paired with another pressure: to be creative. The message has been clear: use these yawning weeks of time to finally work on the projects we’ve always wanted to. But if spare time is a myth for so many, then creatives need recognise the promise of creative productivity, in the time of coronavirus, as what it is: a wispy curl of mist on a receding horizon.
Instead of choking ourselves on the smoking embers of our creative fires, so suddenly doused by the pandemic, we need to forgive ourselves. We need, instead, to be present and engaged. Creatives need to witness. Creatives need to experience.
Before now, communities lived through disruptions not unlike this one: other disease outbreaks; weather related calamites; earthquakes; tidal waves; wars. People suffering those situations were similarly stunned by their forced submissions. More so, by the tragedy of lives lost. Right now, we are in crisis. And crisis demands attention, vigilance and focus.
In time, and with distance from the here and now, as with the slow turning of the seasons or the harvesting of meaning from memory, art will bloom again.
Forgive ourselves for not forcing what cannot happen right now. The spark of creativity glows in all of us. It will fire again, in a time which is different for each and every one us. Process—the way we make meaning of our experiences by creating something new, something that moves through us as synthesis—is as unique as our fingerprints.
Within the span of weeks, society’s scaffolds have fallen away as nations kneel before the new coronavirus. No one wants to talk or read about Covid-19, but at the same time it’s all we can talk and read about. The sudden brokenness, for me, has cracked open a different way of thinking about my own creative writing.
Each morning I wake there is a moment, while still suspended by sleep, I forget the new realities: isolating at home; the essentialness—and shortage—of masks and gloves; the importance of physical distances between people. As the bliss of sleep-induced amnesia evaporates, the realisation crashes in: the world we moved in no longer exists.
As a public health professional, these last weeks commanded almost all my waking hours. Creative writing practice was impossible; there was neither time nor peace of mind to do it. Remarkably, the guilt that normally accompanies a break in practice (and eclipses better thoughts) didn’t happen. Instead, it has been a relaxed fall into inevitability; there is no controlling the uncontrollable. I feel resigned. I feel forgiven.
So, when I returned to my writings the other day, for solace, to begin with, I reviewed the writings of the last half year with openness and possibility. Only in this way, was I able to see how much of my writing practice circles round a central theme. What I had taken to be sperate, disparate ideas, are really pieces of something whole… something I haven’t quite figured out yet, but clearly, I’m moving toward (or through). It feels like an epiphany. It feels like I’m on the right path, even though I don’t know where it’s going.
It has also changed my world view. For the first time, I feel optimistic about how, when the virus crawling continents relaxes its grip on our communities, the world might put itself back together differently. Perhaps in a way that is healing to the earth. Perhaps in a way that is inclusive and fair. It is up to us to imagine it and build it. For the first time, in a long time, I feel it’s possible to do so.
I used to sit down and write a short story in an evening, tinker with it through the week, prepare it for submission and send it out to literary magazines. Only one of the week-longs has been published; the rest are sticky with rejections. Some encouraging personal rejections from editors lets me know there’s possibility on the horizon.
So, these last years (yes, years), I’ve dedicated myself to the study of creative writing craft and practice. I’m better at the studying part. I continue to write every day, but the complexity of understanding and applying the layers of what goes into the making of a great story is daunting: word precision; grammatical sentence variation; paragraphing; elucidating the wonderful complexities of human beings through character development; the importance of setting as metaphor; tension and movement (that winding thread of impossible-not-to-follow suspense we writers gift our readers in its many guises of plot).
So far, I suck at writing plot. Funny thing: I can tell a story verbally, stringing along my listeners through crescendos to a climactic punchline and raucous laughter, but I can’t do it on the page. It’s not the same thing. It reads like a limerick: I know an old man from Nantucket…
Another aspect of writing practice I’ve learned…no, I am learning: I should suspend working on craft aspects of my story until all the generative writing (read: stream of consciousness, letting it all flow out, write to explore, write to open up) is complete. I make the mistake of thinking I am done my “first story draft”—my “generative writing”—over and over and over and over and over again. An absence of plot is a good indication more generative writing is to be done. Even I get bored by my characters not doing much of anything, you know, looking out the window and sighing deeply.
I’ve been working through Andrew’s Living Revision exercises on a short story I rewrote [again] in July. I was actually sailing through the exercises, exhuming some pretty interesting discoveries (like, my own memories and emotions—yes, I cried several times through these exercises—that are driving this story). Kudos to Andrew’s methods for helping me get that far. But I got stuck, petrified (in the stone sense), on page 101 (of 288) when tasked to write an “expansion draft”.
I found myself rewriting the same paragraphs of the story, and I did this without any copy and paste…it seemed I couldn’t expand anything, couldn’t go any deeper. I wondered whether I should just quit the project for a while and try something new (which feels like admitting defeat).
Then, last week, I listened to a podcast, Between The Covers and a craft talk with Alexander Chee and Tin House called, “From First Draft to Plot”. Chee explained his own experiences, through twenty years of teaching creative writing, how emerging writers (yes, after 6 years, more?, of part-time-squeeze-writing-into-my-busy-life I am only just deserving of the title, “emerging writer”) have not developed the skills (yet) to query the scenes they have written.
Chee explains there are many implications in student’s draft scenes that have not been dealt with…unmet implications the writer is ignoring. His advice: ask questions of your scenes, such as, how did the character end up there? Why? Where is this character from? What was their schooling like? Chee says, “to build a story and a plot is the process of interrogating the scene, again and again with questions and each time you get answers, push back further and further into the story as far as you can go.”
Of course, most of this additional writing never makes it into the story, but instead becomes the skeleton, the subtext, the backstory the writer must know, know on instinct, know on a sub-conscious level, in order to puppet master their story to life.
‘I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straightening shyness that assails one’
John Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters
I’ve returned from a week and a half vacation in B.C. Of course, I brought my notebooks, my computer, and some select drawing materials, believing I would have the much needed down time in order to create or work on expanding the draft of a short story I’m working on. That didn’t happen. The time change—even moving as little as three hours towards the sunsets—made me feel nauseous and exhausted. Wonderful visits with family and friends filled the days. The artistic practice routine I’ve guarded and carved at home, dissolved. I let it. Instead, I welcomed the laughter, delicious food and wine, the spectacular mountain views. It’s all essential.
Two weeks not practicing makes it hard to face a blank page. Like any exercise, I need to build back my muscles. Habits help. I’d be dishonest if I didn’t admit the tailspin of self-doubt and anxiety (again?! still?!) about my artistic abilities or my lack of productivity. It’s a comfort knowing most artists feel this way. Most creatives? And then, I wondered, why?
I attended a lecture at Queen’s University this week, a PhD student in the education department exploring how the concept of “creativity” is incorporated and has influenced the Ontario curriculum since the 1880s to now (no small feat) (1). His research demonstrated the word “creative” doesn’t enter common usage until the 1950s or so, an etymological fact that surprised me. The original use of the word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and a theological reference the student managed to track down, deviates from the modern definition we bandy about and follows an interesting progression through the next few hundred years.
In the 1640s, creativity was associated with “creationism” and the divine (read: God) ability to make all things, all of “creation”. This older concept of creativity became associated with the idea of a “God – given gift” and that association then became linked with “genius” and “ingenuity”. Read: reserved only for the special, “chosen”, few (and, historically, almost exclusively white males in Europe). Genius was reserved for those bestowed (by God) with the creative power and understood to be an innate gift, not something one might learn (through practice, for example). The tiny tinsel ring of recognition bells might be ringing in your mind….
From there, the concept of creativity grew and changed. But slowly. It wasn’t until the later 1800s that it slipped under a conceptual definition that was more inclusive, through the founding father of kindergarten, Fridrich Froebel, a German educator. He believed all humans are creative (not just geniuses) and ought to be left and encouraged, through play and exploration, to cultivate individual creativity. This seems closer to what we aspire to (and believe?) these days, but artists are still assaulted by imposter syndrome and fear…what happened?
Froebel’s ideas managed to influence curriculum development and implementation as far from Germany as Ontario, but in the early 1900s, it was believed too free and difficult to control alongside more traditional approaches to education. Two world wars with Germany on the opposite side did the conceptual definition no favours. It fell to the wayside. I wonder if it is any coincidence the surrealism, expressionism, cubist and art deco movements grew out of this time, following on the heels of impressionism? Did those artists as children attend kindergartens where they were free to explore their creativity?
J. P. Guilford, a psychologist, peppered his learning theories with “creativity” and the word took hold, sticking through a common usage from the 1950s onwards. Guilford’s conceptual definition broke creativity into component parts: as a problem that could be solved. In this way, creativity was recognized as a set of skills that might be taught. By the 1980s, curriculum had teased art making, “creating”, into a progression of increasingly complex building blocks (and why, perhaps, creative making is widely encouraged in primary schools, and then subtly, through omission, discouraged in secondary schools in favour of learning that supports social efficiency skills (those that will get you a job). This is my era of formative schooling and it makes me question whether my dogged pursuit of “learning to write” by searching and reading so many (too many) books on writing (instead of just getting down to the paper and practicing and exploring more freely, in the Froebel manner) is hindering my progress. I think it is.
More recently, the concept of creativity has embraced and shifted into the idea of creativity as social power: through creativity we are able to reform or revolutionize the world. I don’t know about you, but I feel an intense pressure to use my art toward the greater good. The pressure is immense. It can be, and has been, paralyzing.
The variety of conceptual legacies continue to percolate and bubble our modern sociocultural beliefs about what the definition of “creativity” is. Presently, we draw and squeeze together all five ideas. By looking backwards, following this etymological roller coaster, I’m beginning to understand the lenses I allow to cloud my artistic practice. If knowledge is power, then at least I can face the blank page with a little less reservation.
Early morning writing—this last week or so—I’ve heard an owl hooting from somewhere close in the backyard. It’s wonderful listening to its song of wisdom calling out from the dark.
A common cultural impression of the writing life is that it’s a lonely, solitary endeavor. I guess the hours of actual writing can be like that (though, I like the solitary time…I don’t find it isolating in the least). But this is a myth. Really, there is too much encouragement and inspiration offered from fellow creators to be discounted.
In this same week of listening to the owl’s song, I’ve had wonderful email correspondences about creative process with a playwright, a poet, a concert pianist, and four other writers (four!). A songwriter shared one of his songs via digital file; a film maker one of his films via FB messenger (the wonders of social media). What gifts!! I walked and talked with an artist (painter), a weekly routine that has become essential, not just for discussing artistic pursuits, but for nourishing my soul and my heart and our friendship. I’ve sat and discussed process with another dear friend while she knit a rainbow-striped heel into a wool sock the colour of an ocean in a storm.
Flip to the acknowledgements section of any book and you will see there are paragraphs (pages!) of people to thank for their contribution to the pages one holds in one’s hands. The songs calling out from the dark.
One does not glide to glory without a supportive wind. The creators and makers (all of you – mechanics, gardeners, bread bakers, chefs etc.) I know, and continue to meet while pursuing my art, expand this glistening net[work] to enrich my life beyond the beyond. I know I’m blessed by your words and thoughts and I’m grateful your gifts help my own writing to swoop and soar on beating wings.
I like to write by hand. It took a while to build up the muscles in my fingers and my hand when I first started out because different muscles are being used compared to typing on a keyboard. I was never very fast on keyboards anyway. When I first started writing seriously, in a notebook, my hand cramped and the letters were large and loopy. Still, legible.
In high school, when my friends signed up for typing class (in those days it was on a typewriter), my father, who rarely weighed in on such matters, ordered: you will not take typing, you will take law. Turns out you can teach yourself to type fairly quickly…but it looks ugly…and I stare at the letter keys instead of the screen, dancing my hands backwards and forwards in what I’m sure is a most inefficient pattern. Ah well.
Writing by hand is freeing in a way that typing on a keyboard isn’t. A screen is a bordered two-dimensional space, whereas working with a physical page of paper, though still flat, I can draw arrows and pictures and write sideways or backwards or upside down, cramming words into a tiny shape in a margin, or expanding letters into a material emphasis. And there’s the advantage of seeing your progress: the pages slowly fill, front to back, and a page becomes a pile of pages and soon, a filled notebook. It’s satisfying in a way that an icon of a file on your desktop could never be.
But there’s another distinction I don’t quite understand, and it’s instinctual: writing by hand helps me to think differently as I create. It’s as if my thinking is more three (even four?) dimensional. On the computer, the sentences wind one after another linearly. And the delete key gets more of a workout than my penned cross-outs. I’m more forgiving of my “wrong direction thoughts” when I write by hand. But that’s good, because often there’s something bubbling up from the subconscious when we write, and it might appear in the margins or beneath a cross-out line but can never recover the fatal depression of the delete key.
Writing by hand is similar to drawing in many ways.
Writing by hand matches the speed of my thoughts…I can transcribe my thinking more easily by hand.
My husband’s uncle wrote a number of books, all by hand (transcription services were expensive, so one didn’t waste the money on a product that wasn’t quite finished). He used a large room and placed his handwritten papers on tables around the room, physically shuffled them from corner to corner and often used scissors to cut and stick paragraphs into place with scotch tape. I wonder if this physical immersion in one’s work enables you to know your work, your process and your progress differently. Only one way to find out I guess…
Sometimes, the right words of encouragement arrive at the point when you most need them.
In writing workshops, when pressed to write (without thinking too much) in response to creative writing prompts, my writing reveals some beautiful phrases that retain spontaneous energy and emotional authenticity, the magic every writer wishes for. I believe in these small beauties…they embody a promise: I can produce good work.
I’ve been trying to cultivate the same playfulness, the letting go, in my regular writing practice. For the first few years, it seemed easy (easier?). But, the more I study the craft, the more I practice and revise, the more I read and read to understand the deeper aspects of literary technique…well, the harder it is, it seems for me, to echo the spirited performance on the page.
I’ve contracted, what Philip Pullman so accurately diagnoses in his essay, Heinrich von Kleist: “On the Marionette Theatre”, subtitled, Grace Lost and Regained, a “self-consciousness” in my writing. Through knowledge, I’ve lost the “wonderful freedom and expressiveness—the natural grace—[children] bring to such things as painting [writing]”. I’m verklempt.
And I’ve been lamenting and grieving the loss…mourning I will never regain my original (and beautiful and spontaneous) innocence.
I’m stuck in the gap perfectly articulated by Ira Glass:
“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.
But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit.
Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.
It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
Philip Pullman’s essay intensifies Glass’s gap to illuminate my short-sighted grief over the loss of childish creative abandon: “if we want the wisdom that comes with experience, we have to leave the innocence behind.”
What is most encouraging though, and has lifted a weight from my shoulders I hadn’t realised I was carrying, Pullman explains, “ …eventually, after great study and toil…[there] will be better, deeper, truer, more aware, in every way richer than…[what one] could achieve [as] a child.”
And then this in my email inbox (there’s no mistaking serendipity), Robert McKee’s latest update about the reality of writing story:
“No matter your chosen medium, remember this: it will take you ten years to master your art…It takes many years of work, but the disciplined writer knows that given determination and study, the puzzle of story yields.”