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.
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.
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…