Sentence as Seed Pearl

Recently, I was asked to provide an example of one of my favourite sentences I have written (to date).  It was part of an exercise: use one of my own sentences as an anchor to return to when feeling desperate or lost in my writing projects. An anchor to remind myself of why I write and what I’m capable of writing by plucking pearls from a sea of words.  

This isn’t something I drop in casual conversations, but in the last wee while (I don’t know how long this is, half a year? A year?), I’ve started studying sentences.  I feel I ought to learn how to build sentences.  I’m not referring to grammatical construction though, I mean I want to learn how to craft a sentence (read: a sentiment…this is what I’m really talking about) that is so beautiful, so true, it stops a reader in their tracks.  

I’m lucky.  Twice I’ve witnessed this effect of my words on readers/listeners.  Once in a poem, once in a letter to a friend following his father’s death. This experience of connecting through a sentence is addictive….it’s what I chase in my writing. For a writer, it is rare one discovers whether a reader connects this way.  It is only confirmed through reader response, something no reader is obligated the provide, even if they are so moved. I have had readers quote my own sentences back to me and it is one of the more pleasurable experiences I can think of.  I am lucky.

Writing transforms thinking into something externally concrete, shapes what is felt, intuited, onto a page for better scrutiny. And sharing. 

But, two times in ten years of writing?  Slim odds and a lot of writing.  And dedication to the craft.

Let’s see if I can articulate what it is I’m chasing.  

Qualities of sentences that I love:

  • Reading, images burst forth in my mind’s eye like a waking dream.
  • The content moves …in time or space or, better, with the palpable energy of shifting emotions. 
  • There are layers of meaning, but the layers are connected, and the connection is meaningful, not random. 
  • The content deepens understanding, expands ways of knowing and being in the world.  
  • The words are playful.  Joyful.  Intellectual if the subject is horrific.  
  • The words are placed in an order to curate an experience for the reader. 

Learning how to do this is very very slow…it happens at the same speed (maybe slower?) as watching plants grow.  

And here’s the hardest part: I must write and write and write, pretending all these qualities don’t matter. Because it’s only when I’m not paying attention, letting my body take over the writing, free from my mind’s controlling, that the sentiments emerge just so, their lustre barely visible, easily missed beneath the tidal wave of word count.  Too often my impatience prevents me from discovering what it is my body and subconscious yearns to communicate.  

Learning to write beautiful sentences is about retracing my steps, peering into the crevices, picking out the tiny grains and questioning what it is that really lies in the palm of my hand.  Questioning what the ink of my fountain pen has pulled from my darker recesses. Slowing down.  Paying attention.  Listening.  Feeling. 

When I went searching for my favourite sentence I have written, one that would serve as an anchor, I couldn’t pick one out that satisfied. But instead of thinking of a favourite sentence as a completed thing, it is better if I think of it as a speck of sand that niggles and won’t be forgotten, a grain that irritates the mind to expansion and moves and grows through long formation/formulation to the pearl it promises to be.

Here is the sentence I chose as my anchor, for now anyway: We leave signatures of ourselves in flakes.

Some references I have found helpful: 

Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg 

Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon

How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish 

Chapters on point of view from Ursula K LeGuin’s Steering The Craft and David Jauss’s On Writing Fiction.  

Essay: The Sentence is a Lonely Place by Garielle Lutz in Believer Magazine 

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 facets 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.   

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.  

Practice what it is to be Other

One of my many challenges practicing creative writing has been writing character…writing a character who is not me.  One who does not sound like me, does not think like me, and bounces gracefully against a protagonist who seems more like me, but also isn’t me.   I’m trying to figure it out…how to write character better.  

I have thought the difficulty has related to my own imaginative ability, or rather, my inability.  Can I “play” someone else on the page?  Many writing days I conclude with a definitive no.  But the heart of it is, writing character requires a lot of work…a lot of writing about a character to get to know them…writing that will never make it into a story, but nevertheless will inform the story by letting me know how my character is likely to behave in a given situation….and more importantly, understanding the reasons for that behaviour.  It requires I move through exercises of questioning, reflecting, understanding, and entertaining possibilities beyond my comfort zone to learn what that space is like.  And it’s work.  Hard mental work.  And often research…a rabbit hole of distraction I’m far more comfortable tumbling down. 

And I can’t help but see a connection.  

The current uprising against police brutality and systemic racism has made me think a lot about the work I need to do myself, to question my own beliefs, to check myself, my thinking. It’s slowly dawning… it takes a great deal of intention and sustained commitment to stop and consider other points of view, other experiences, other histories, other cultures, the destructive effects of violence, war, poverty, injustice. It requires I enter a space of discomfort and enter into active dialogue to work and question and sit cross legged with sorrow and hate and greed and anger and welcome these conversations.  

I fall too easily into a position of defense. I want to write here: I’m compassionate! I’m empathetic!  I want to explain how I read avidly, across genres and authors, to actively participate in a process of broadening my mind, challenging how I think about sex, identity, ethnicity, gender, culture, poverty, and yes, race. In my professional life, I work to change policy to promote health and wellness in our community; I work to promote equality and equity. So why do I use the word “defense”, I ask myself?  Unpacking this makes my skin prickle, makes me admit my privilege: I have choice; I have freedom…I have time to read! And therefore, I am in a position of power over others who do not.  

And with power comes responsibly. Responsibility to be an active witness, an active listener to the stories of others, and use my imagination and my position to create a different way of doing things. 

And instead of being strong, I think it’s important to be soft, tender, and vulnerable…the true way to remain open. 

Writing Groove

I’ve finally found a groove of writing that fits me.  It’s taken years to settle into it.  I feel silly posting it here, except it seems that so many people who write are obsessed with knowing how other people write.  Me too.  It’s as if, by knowing the steps Writers take, the magic will dust its sparkles across my body and I’ll produce sentences that are equally sublime.  Turns out that’s a fairy tale. I’ve always loved fairy tales; I won’t easily let them go, but the stark truth is that each writer must find what works best for them…and it takes a lot of trial and error.  Well, continual trial and error.  Like, forever.  That’s part of it. 

The steps that work for me, and why.  Part 1.  

It’s essential I wake early in the morning and write for an hour and half. Sometimes I can squeeze two hours in, seldom three, before my job-job demands begin for the day.  I can’t manage the 5 am wake up seven days a week because I need to catch up on sleep one or two mornings, but I do manage it five days a week. I think this is pretty good.  

There are two reasons (am I so obsessed with numbers?  It appears I am.) the early waking helps me write.  The obvious first is that I write knowing no one in my family will interrupt me.  I write undisturbed and focused for the brief time allotted.  This may seem trivial, but for a mother and wife, the waking hours that fill the rest of the day are always “on call”.  I am able to defend my morning space if someone wakes early and ventures to start a conversation…they will retreat and let me alone most of the time. But any other time, my defense of writing time is ignored, even if—ha ha, when—I become a spitting bitch  With an iron will and gritted teeth (and it appears, a heady list of clichés) I tell myself I chose these paths in my life too: wife, mother.  I do want it all.  And a lonely cabin in the woods, by a lake, with decent wifi, where “someone” delivers breakfast in a basket and a gin and tonic at 4 in the afternoon. In fairy tales one can dream.  

This segues nicely into my second, more important, reason for rising before dawn to begin writing.  My brain remains asleep, closer to a dream state than a waking one.  It is easier for me to access my subconscious this way…the place where imagery is strangest, and the juxtaposition of disparate words move to the page unquestioned.   My inner critic sleeps on while my inner dancer prances.  It is not unusual for me to re-read in the afternoon what I wrote in the morning and not recognise a word or thought that is there.  Often, it’s a discovery.  “Later day” writing always sees me tinkering a perfectionism that dulls the shine, completely rubs the magic away.  Stories rise out of our subconscious…our bodies are trying to communicate something to us.  There is a deeper knowledge there that requires patient practice to fish it out.  

I write by hand, in a notebook.  I used to write stories and prose directly on the computer and use my notebook for journaling by hand…but I discovered my thoughts are freer when I write by hand.  I also discovered that when I type on the keyboard and watch the text laid down on the page, I read and re-read and re-read the sentences and paragraphs and I can’t help myself correcting them and forcing patterns prematurely (I’ll return to this idea shortly). In contrast, when I write by hand, I never stop my progress on the page to read what I have written.  Instead, I keep my pen moving and the ideas and images in my brain rise out of the murk steadily and easily.  I think there is something to this, the fine motor skill associated with forming letters with one’s fingers, the drawing of squiggleys, and some association with cognition.  Steiner, the founder of Waldorf schools, used to have his students knit while learning lessons as he believed the small movement of fingers aided memory. I’m looking into it…subject for a different post. For me, the reading and correcting on the computer is a disruption to the creative writing process. It’s taken me a long time to understand this.   

I write with a pen instead of a pencil.  Unless it’s poetry. Poetry generation is always done with a pencil and never stays within the lines…it just doesn’t.  I allow myself the use of an eraser with poetry.  For prose and reflection, I write with a pen…a pen that feels good in my hand and doesn’t drag too much on the page…this helps relieve finger and hand fatigue…very real if you haven’t practiced handwriting.  And I have a rule that I’m not to cross things out, if I can help it. All words count.  And this permits a complete freedom in the generation of material. Handwriting speed seems to match my thinking speed.  Or, maybe it slows my thinking speed so that my attention is improved.  Most people prefer to type on a computer because it is fastest for getting their thoughts down.  But I need to slow my thoughts.  A pen helps. I’ll stop here for now.  I hadn’t realised writing about my writing would take up so much space.  I’ll post part 2 in the weeks to come. 

Growing A New Perspective

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.