A Shaky Devotion

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.

Ira Glass

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.” 

Robert McKee

Prescription: keep working. 

Craft & Art

This week, I received a package from my sister.  She lives in Old Crow, a community of about 250 people. A Vuntut Gwitchin community.  Old Crow, (Teechik in Gwich’in) is a two-hour flight north of Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory.   

I gasped when I removed the box’s lid.  Inside: a beautiful pair of slippers.  The slippers are made of moose leather and decorated with white rabbit fur round the ankle.  They are intricately beaded with a flower pattern.  The slippers are infused with the wonderful scent of woodsmoke.  I held them to my face and inhaled deeply. I imagined the woman’s hands, the sharp needle, the glass beads, the stitching together, a warm room with snow steaming off parkas and boots while the night sky—a round-the-clock reality at this time of year—wheels round, constellations glowing, aurora borealis crackling.  It’s amazing to smell a place that is over 6000 km away from where I stand.  

The slippers were crafted by Neta Arnold.  My sister also laboured to make a pair of her own, in a sewing circle, under the mentorship of women, including Neta, in the community.  My sister’s beading started in September and took four months to finish.  The stitching together of leather pieces, another few months.  What we now slip onto our feet are truly works of art, crafted with care, beauty and utility.  

When I slipped them on, the slippers were stiff, but with my body’s warmth they softened and hugged my toes, heels, ankles. A perfect fit.  They feel magic.  

Unlike art, the word craft acknowledges the effort, the utility, of objects created.  Unlike art, craft is both a noun and a verb – a thing and the making of the thing, but also the “trying” to make the thing.  Craft acknowledges continual effort, continual dedication, continual improvement.  In this way, the word is accurate and precise, more closely covered in the sweat and tears and joy of process.  

One of my favourite online literary magazines, one I frequently turn to for solace, for solidarity, for technique, to improve, is called Craft.  

The slippers wait for me each morning beneath my writing desk (an old table).  When I slip them on, I feel the beadwork, the hand-stitching at the seams. I am reminded how dedication, time, persistence and care shape art.  I am grateful for the lesson.  I am grateful for warm feet.

Attending to Attention

I’m not very good at noticing things. Paying attention.  Observing [1].  Too much in my own head. Many writing books suggest journaling to capture observations [2]. I’ve practiced using a technique proposed by Lynda Barry: the 6-minute diary. It’s fast and illuminating.

Take a piece of paper (or page of a notebook), draw a vertical line to divide it in half, then, a second, horizontal line across the page, about a third or a quarter of the way from the bottom (see the picture below).  In the top left quadrant, list 7 things that “happened” today. In the top right quadrant, list 7 things you “saw”.  In the lower left quadrant, list one thing you “overheard”, and in the lower right quadrant, list one “question” you came up with.  So, 2 minutes for each list in the “happened” and “saw” quadrants, and a minute each for the bottom “hear” and “question” quadrants.  Boom.  Done. 

Practicing this I confirmed my attention is heavily loaded towards what I “see”.  In fact, when it comes to filling in just one teensy tiny sentence I overheard, my mind draws a complete blank.  This, despite the highly entertaining daily trip(s) to the water cooler in a buzzing workplace with upwards of two hundred employees!  For the question section? Well…I have so many. They require more than a minute of concentration to remember them.   

I kind of fell off the wagon practicing this diary technique these last few weeks… and it shows: drawing this morning (see picture above), I captured a meeting I had with a director, a person I have worked with for…shit, 9 years, and I couldn’t remember what type of hair he has?! Is he bald? Does a band of hair ring his ears?  In the picture I’ve left him bald.  The drawing also reveals a power dynamic I felt powerfully in the meeting but couldn’t articulate…but the drawing answers why: I’m sitting and he is standing and gesticulating at me with an open palm (pushing me away).  Interesting. 

But I have to practice…just like playing a musical instrument or running, the skills deteriorate quickly if one doesn’t exercise them. It’s a dual exercise: first, noticing things, second, translating what I see into words on a page. 

There’s a beautiful excerpt from Lydia Davis’s newest book, Essays One, on Literary Hub this week about practicing observing.  Following Davis’s recording of a variety of types of observations, I’m thinking of adapting Barry’s 6-minute method to this:

If I get my shit together and actually practice this, I’ll write about it…no promises though, keep’n it light. 

[1] annoying analyst notes: Actually, it’s that you notice too much.  You rely a lot on interpreting emotions through body language and tone, taking a barometer reading of the dynamics and interactions between people.  It’s a survival technique honed from quite a young age. 

[ancillary] inner critic notes: It’s very simple stupid, you need to practice remembering what you observe.  Slow down.  And write it down. 

[2] I keep a notebook.  Actually, I keep several notebooks…worthy of a post in itself, so will write about this next week.  But when I have “journaled”, the writing seems only to capture my whining…abstract emotional thoughts and ideas and reflections…archeologists of the future unearthing my notebooks will be relieved to know they’ve found a reliable source of fuel for a fire. It would burn for days…

[ancillary] annoying analyst notes: That’s a bit harsh; you sell yourself short.  Archeologists of the future may be very interested in your complaints about marriage and raising kids and the hamster wheel of a 9 to 5 job.  Heck, even your angst and self-loathing may be a crucial clue for…something…I’m sure…

[ancillary] inner critic notes: They’ll fucking burn it. 

Dog tired dogmatic

Part of my art problem is that, too often, I approach creativity in a kind of hacking-through-the-weeds-in-a-straight-line-will-get-you-through-the-field attitude instead of cultivating a flow state which is natural and organic, allowing work to emerge in its own time, with its own associations.  And it shows in my work [1]. So, I read craft books and literary magazines and mine twitter for nuggets of inspiration and follow rabbit holes of promise that lead me, if not to some sort of satisfying solution, then surely to a chunk of time wasted not writing [2].  

Listening to podcasts about writing is a satisfying way for me to get two things done at the same time: learning, but also stacking logs in the wood shed or getting the dishes done or folding laundry.  Lat week, Lit Mag Love’s podcast[3] and an interview with Doretta Lau[4].  She said, (and I’m paraphrasing), that a writer needs to ask oneself: did I do the hard work on this story? Did I take this to the farthest point of where I can go to make it emotionally satisfying, to really look deep into it and ask, did I do that craft work? 

Asking this of my current short story, the answer is a definitive NO.  Not even close.  

So… I keep working.  

[1] inner critic notes: it’s shit. There’s no emotion in it.  No movement either.  There’s a lack of tension, a lack of questioning, because you’re just barreling through to “finished”.  The work bores me!

[ancillary] That’s a hard one to swallow.  Maybe I’m not cut out for this.  Maybe writing fiction is something I just can’t do.  Like physics. Or skydiving.   

[2] annoying analyst notes: Reading about how to do something is not practicing.  It’s not writing.  

[ancillary] I have to believe I’m learning, that the lessons move into me somehow.

[3] Lit Mag Love is a podcast hosted by Rachel Thompson, author and literary magazine editor, Lit Mag Love grew out of the course by the same name. Rachel’s conversations with literary magazine editors reveal what different editors like to see in submissions and how much they may work with writers to build a piece to a finished product.  

[4] Doretta Lau (also writes about writing process on her blog) and M. Paramita Lin (here too, on her beautiful blog!). Together they create The Unpublishables “a platform for all kinds of rice eaters everywhere to get together and make shit happen through our words, music, and artwork.” Check these smart—FUNNY—creative writers out!