Rowing: a metaphor maybe

This summer has been a difficult one for me. We moved my mum into a long-term care home. She didn’t want to go. Mum has followed a slow cognitive decline over several years but a fall early in the spring of 2020 broke a couple of her ribs. The subsequent pain medications prescribed, coupled with the social isolation of the pandemic, contributed to a rapid decline. When she walked out her front door this past spring, snow still on the ground, wearing slippers and no coat, she was lost before she reached the end of her own driveway.  

With reluctance, I enforced my power of attorney, signing the papers committing her to long-term care.  

It felt—no, it feels—like I’ve served her a terrible injustice.  

There is a heavy pain in my chest, something that feels ancient. Some mornings I wake from dreams with my cheeks wet with tears, my lips contorted to a grimace. I realised ‘ve been grieving mum’s loss—the person she used to be who is no longer—for years, but without the ritualistic significance of a funeral. Corporeally she survives. But mum is gone. 

It’s hard to talk about mum with people who do not know her. She was not the mom you might have conjured between the first paragraph and this one. She was plagued by sorrows and suffered severe self-doubt. She was incredibly funny but also unbelievably cruel. She weathered storms of emotion from the bottom of emptied liquor bottles; on, then off, then on, then off the wagon in the years I was growing up.  

I will write about these complications one day.  How painful this love is. But not today. Composing these lines I feel a tightening round my forehead, my ears feel stuffed, and the call through the dusk from the crickets is muffled, far off. It’s like I’m underwater. There’s a pressure in my body alerting me to stop writing.  

Writing has been incredibly difficult this summer.

This wasn’t what I was going to write here today.  

I have written other posts, one for June, one for July, that, thankfully, I postponed publishing.  Age provides some wisdom, I guess.  And patience.  So, I broke the promise I made to myself to publish here once a month. It’s better this way. 

I was going to write about how I decided to take up recreational rowing this summer.  How I hadn’t been in a rowing shell since I was in high school, over thirty years ago.  How I used to love it. How the opportunity to learn to scull (two oars instead of one, which is called sweep…yeah, I didn’t know that either) summer evenings on the lake sounded like a great idea.  And it has been. In many ways. How the single racing shells are light and fast, only millimeters thick, slicing the water’s surface, skimming above the weeds. 

The hardest part is balancing the boat when you move your body from the top of the stroke, “the catch”, through the stroke, keeping the blades on the oars square when you pull through the water, your bum scooting backwards on a wheeled seat atop runners, then, feathering the blade fast at the end of the stroke when you lift it from the water by pushing down. Repeat, repeat, repeat. 

The boats tip frequently, but I’ve managed to keep mine from flipping so far.  I have had a few close calls, performing truly inelegant air punches and contorting my body into stiff shapes to counterbalance the slippery tipping point.  I was going to write about how I command myself, out loud, out there on the lake, to keep it the fuck together, to keep my wrists even and my stomach tight, to breathe out when I pull the lake water with the force of my oars.   

I was going to write about the spectacular silence of the boat’s glide when the oars clear the water and the boat remains poised, perfectly balanced, and my body moves without my thinking. It happens so infrequently and only improves with practice. 

I was going to write how the coaches, young people, motor up beside me, nod at my technique, say, just keep doing what you’re doing. I was going to write that there’s a metaphor about writing somewhere in here, but I won’t. And yeah, so what if I tip?  But the bay where we practice is shallow and the weeds sub-surface are thick and million fingered and the water snakes nose along among the geese and ducks and, sometimes, a bevy of swans.  

I stay stiff and tight and fucking serious in my rowing scull, muscling myself against tipping.

The youth rowers practice a short distance off.  The sun pools the horizon streaking ribbons of mauve and peach across the sky.  And one young boy removes his feet from the foot stops, unfurls his body from sitting and stands up tall on his seat rails, his toes holding his oars in place while he laughs and wobbles with complete control.  

And I laugh at the stupidity of myself. How I’ve lost my sense of play.  How stiff and tight and fucking serious I’ve been about my mum. And my writing. 

How I shouldn’t be so afraid of swimming with water snakes. Or crying. 

Be clear: what am I thinking?

It seems ridiculous I am only discovering now, closing in on 50 years of age, that my thoughts—how I am thinking/feeling, what I am thinking/feeling, speculating why I might think/feel this or that way—are not entirely well-defined, even to me, before I render them in words and sentences on the page.  What results are sentences that are unclear, and worse, the sentiments propping up the words are completely elusive for a reader.  

Let’s move from the abstract to the concrete…a place I am wholly uncomfortable in, it seems, given the frequency I dwell and wallow in the abstract.   

Here’s a short paragraph I wrote recently in response to a writing prompt: 

The promise of bread. All the flour and nuts and seeds were dumped in while the cries and thuds of my siblings wrestling for the swing floated from the back yard. The honeyed water splashed my chin. And then we added time. That most crucial ingredient for growth. 

When I wrote these sentences, I let my mind wander freely and captured the thoughts that bubbled up and, loyally, doggedly, transcribed them to the page, moving swiftly from one sentence to the next.  

And I think this is a good way to generate material. But it’s not enough. 

There are too many ideas or emotions crammed into the same space, tangled into the same sentence, instead of a deliberate, focused rendering of singular ideas or emotions, one after the other to guide myself and a reader along a path of discovery through my mind.  

My mistake with that paragraph, well, mistakes, there are a few:

  • that I thought the paragraph was finished 
  • that I imagined the paragraph communicated my thoughts, when really, my words simply list the images and actions, presenting them as some dreamlike sequence without attaching my thoughts and feelings
  • that I didn’t question what I mean by “time being the most crucial ingredient for growth”…that sounds really interesting but I just kind of plop it there on the page as if I’m tossing scraps over my should to a begging dog. What do I really mean when I write that?  Am I so condescending/inconsiderate of my readers that I just leave that hanging there, a completely ambiguous, no, amorphous phrase? Ugh abstraction again.  What I mean is, am I treating readers like a begging dog with these half-assed declarations, expecting them to “get it” and hang on my every word?
  • I haven’t worked through this paragraph to even know what it is I mean, what there is “to get”, let alone communicate that “idea/sentiment/feeling” clearly and effectively to readers  
  • Too often I believe beauty is sufficient in creative writing and understanding only secondary …except, shit, that’s not what I believe at all.  Understanding, a shared understanding between writer and reader is paramount, it’s the whole point. 

This is where revision starts. Re vision. Writing a first draft, I’ve cast out into the ocean of my subconscious, and I’ve hooked something, these sentences, these words, but I can’t land them as they are.  They must be studied, queried, and then, once I have a sense of what it is I am trying to say, I need to craft a sentence that is true and clear, in addition to beautiful, to communicate that thought to a reader.  

I’ve been studying sentences.  Not so much the grammatical construction of sentences, though syntax is definitely part of it, but more the conceptual constructions, how thoughts are layered, one after the other, using the form of a sentence, to communicate ideas or emotions to a reader.  

Take the first part of that second sentence above: 

All the flour and nuts and seeds were dumped in…

Some questions and additions for clarification: 

All the flour?  All the flour for the bread or all the flour in the house, and does it matter? It does, depending on the effect I want to create.  In this writing piece I don’t want to imply it was the last of the flour in the house, this is not a story about want…well, maybe it is, but it is not about hunger in that sense. Be specific:

My mother fisted whole wheat flour into a yellow plastic bowl big enough to bathe a new baby in. She added a small handful of white flour—to make sure the loaves would rise above the status of a brick in the oven—walnut,  sunflower and poppy seeds were dumped in…

Taking the time to add these clarifying details, I’m both delighted and horrified to discover more subconscious imagery bubbling to the surface.  Where did that new baby come from? And what about that riff, obviously related, that riff on “a bun in the oven” with the addition of brick in the oven (a word that won’t make the final cut but has surfaced to provide more here, in the discovery and writing process). And what the hell is the word “status” doing there? 

And that was the easy part of one sentence in that paragraph.    

What do I mean when I state, The promise of bread?  How do bread and promises come together?  Or, why have I put them together here?  Do I mean that baking always holds a promise?  I like how the sentence (or is it a fragment?) sounds, but what the hell do I mean? 

This blog post is too long already, but I hope you get the idea of how I’m working to make my writing…well, my thinking (my sloppy thinking!!!)  better. And my writing too.   

Here are some images of my completed sculpture right before the form was destroyed, the clay pulled from the support and returned to the plastic bag to be used to make something entirely different another day. It was a good lesson and a lot of fun. Thank you and credit to my good friend and colleague, JB, for the photographs.

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.   

Facts into Fiction

In the fall, I was writing personal essays.  Well…they were less essays and more fragments of thought, ideas, fits and starts recorded on paper.  But I strung them together. Discordantly. I forced the paragraphs to conform. To what?  I wasn’t sure.  Never a good sign.

The deep questioning I was trying to work through (thought I was working through?)…the essaying…wasn’t working.  The process was deeply frustrating. I forced myself to the writing and it resisted by clenching up. I couldn’t figure out what lay at the heart of my exploration.  Again, I’d fallen into my habit of going at the writing with my head instead of my heart. I thought…instead of felt. 

Then the holidays and the requisite relaxing of routine, reinforced with another public health lockdown as Omicron rapidly spread.  And New Year’s Eve I became symptomatic. It was two days before my scheduled booster (which I cancelled) and 6 months post vaccine number two when immunity wanes. It hit me hard.  Not dire, but unpleasant and uncomfortable. I released the writing routine to reading. And healing. And then, after stumbling across Douglas Glover’s (DG) essays (I write about that here), I worked through some intense studying of the craft of writing mirroring his methods. This was healing too. 

DG posted an exercise on writing emotions, and I challenged myself to write a fictional scene following his prompt. It flowed easily and felt fun.  And here’s the weird part…when I studied what I had written in those 1-2 paragraphs, I recognised the seeds of exploration I had wrestled with in the fall.  I still didn’t understand them…but I could see the concepts there. 

I flipped back to writing fiction.    

The writing progresses differently compared with how I have written in the past. Instead of sitting down to a timed write (30 minutes is my usual go to), and writing scenes from beginning to end, I’m writing in fragments untethered from a narrative timeline. 

I’ll try to explain how these arise.  I seem to be toggling through two different approaches. And they complement one another. 

First, as inspiration, I read other writers – stories, novels, poems or essays – I choose a book from my shelf almost randomly and thumb through the pages letting my eyes rest where they get caught. I pay close attention to how the words pile up there on the page and then I work to copy the syntax or concept or the work a line or paragraph is doing (techniques) for myself, using my own words for my own emerging story. This gets the engine of writing going.

Second, I let myself sit and relax and try to let my mind go blank…and the images that move with the story appear. I write them down.  Sometimes it’s a phrase or a word, often it is a picture. Sometimes it is a mood or feeling…these are harder to write down.  Sometimes I write most of a scene and what I think I’m going to write about I never get to.  Instead, it’s something related but tangential. 

I toggle back and forth between these methods (I stop to wonder here…perhaps this is how other writers write and I’m only discovering this now because I’m so dogmatic and literal I’ve never relaxed enough to do this? Maybe. Probably. Ugh. But the ability to do this relies on gaining an understanding of how to read for specific craft techniques instead of reading for meaning (symbolism) and I have DG to thank for pointing this path in way I can finally understand).   

There is a lot less knowing about how it will unfold (gasp! I have to release control!)…and I flip back and forth between liking what I have written and extreme anxiety about whether it’s working. Sigh. But fragments and phrases float to me throughout the day and I jot them down in my notebook, feeling them, receiving them as the precious gifts they are. 

And here’s the thing, writing through fiction this way I have come to understand what I was exploring through essay in the fall—but didn’t quite get there—coming at it slant has illuminated meaning and a story line to tell it. For the first time I feel how it ought to come together to share the experience with a reader.  This is a huge step forward for me.   

Once the material and the order of it is fully drafted, I’ll shift into a similar but third approach, which is to study what I have written, try to understand the work each paragraph/section is doing for a reader ( in service of the story), then turn back to my bookshelf to study techniques again for how to do it better. Feels good to follow a path.    

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.

Ta-da! I can read [to write]!

I have always had an incredibly difficult time trying to slow myself down when I read (or even re-read), to try to understand how a writer composes a work. I’m swept up in the magic of narrative, tumbling through the telling with joyful abandon and left feathering metaphors and symbols — those precious darts of meaning making — like I’m playing pin the tail on the donkey instead of aiming for a bull’s eye.  I had sort of given up on trying to teach myself to read as a writer.  I figured I just couldn’t do it…I couldn’t slow myself down enough.  And I told myself if I understood the magic, I wouldn’t be able to create any of my own.   

Over the holiday, I stumbled across Douglas Glover’s (DG) essays and lectures about reading at Numéro Cinq, a discontinued but still available online literary magazine. He applies a systematic approach to reading [to understand writing composition], whereby one suspends meaning making (just parking interpretation for a wee while) and analyzes the text as static data…and only using the text on the page…no lifting off into wonderment (bewilderment?) as to what the author might have thought or meant.  Instead, stick to the words (and most importantly, the order with which they are placed) on the page.  

For example, in his reading rubric, the first step is to “start by simply looking at the physical story, see how long it is” and he means, count the words, the pages and the paragraphs and the line breaks.  “see if it is divided into sections and how that division is accomplished technically (simple line breaks, numbers, chapter heads, etc.)”. In fact, there is a lot of counting in his approach to reading.  There is also a lot of bird’s eye view assessment of a story, whereby one zooms out from the work and tries to understand how much text might be devoted to back story, where aspects of a story command a greater amount of text, at what point—half-way through? A paragraph at the very end?—the climax of the story is revealed.  Do lines of dialogue permeate the piece or are they confined to one section?  How much dialogue in relation to other aspects? Using different coloured pens and highlighters helps me to see how chunks of different parts of text are placed on the page. I started to be able to tease the technical aspects of a story apart.  By analysing them I started to “see” the writer’s choices; the gossamer of the magical whole is pulled away and slowly revealed. 

DG also uses diagrams and graphs…something I do in my day job all the time but had never thought to apply to analyzing stories.  George Saunders also does this for story analysis.   I love drawing diagrams and suddenly I’m able to understand composition from a different perspective.  Here’s a few of my recent messy assessment diagrams: 

A time flow analysis – depiction of the time flow of actual story events along timeline compared with the series of events relayed in the narrative timeline (not the same!). The circled numbers represent the narrative timeline; the line represents the historical timeline.
A little graph to illustrate the energy in the story by scene.
A desire and resistance analysis to understand the dynamics of the story.

I have used DG’s reading rubric to work through three short stories. I have chosen stories just by picking ones I love and by picking ones I think might be very different:

I have started to record examples of things in a technical notebook. I have learned more working through these analyses than through any other craft exercise. It’s fun! I plan to allow myself the joy of working through a few more story analyses and then (gulp) I’m going to try applying different forms in my own writing. Scary, but these learnings have provided new writing confidence…at least, a method I might use to attack my shitty drafts and revise them to be better.   For those of you working with creative nonfiction/essay, there’s a reading rubric for this too.  

Because I am a researcher in my day job, this method…this systematic approach… specifically suspending meaning making to analyze text the same way one approaches research data (quantitative and qualitative), brought the whole thing home for me.  

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!

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.