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.
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.
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.
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.
Sometimes, the right words of encouragement arrive at the point when you most need them.
In writing workshops, when pressed to write (without thinking too much) in response to creative writing prompts, my writing reveals some beautiful phrases that retain spontaneous energy and emotional authenticity, the magic every writer wishes for. I believe in these small beauties…they embody a promise: I can produce good work.
I’ve been trying to cultivate the same playfulness, the letting go, in my regular writing practice. For the first few years, it seemed easy (easier?). But, the more I study the craft, the more I practice and revise, the more I read and read to understand the deeper aspects of literary technique…well, the harder it is, it seems for me, to echo the spirited performance on the page.
I’ve contracted, what Philip Pullman so accurately diagnoses in his essay, Heinrich von Kleist: “On the Marionette Theatre”, subtitled, Grace Lost and Regained, a “self-consciousness” in my writing. Through knowledge, I’ve lost the “wonderful freedom and expressiveness—the natural grace—[children] bring to such things as painting [writing]”. I’m verklempt.
And I’ve been lamenting and grieving the loss…mourning I will never regain my original (and beautiful and spontaneous) innocence.
I’m stuck in the gap perfectly articulated by Ira Glass:
“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.
But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit.
Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.
It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
Philip Pullman’s essay intensifies Glass’s gap to illuminate my short-sighted grief over the loss of childish creative abandon: “if we want the wisdom that comes with experience, we have to leave the innocence behind.”
What is most encouraging though, and has lifted a weight from my shoulders I hadn’t realised I was carrying, Pullman explains, “ …eventually, after great study and toil…[there] will be better, deeper, truer, more aware, in every way richer than…[what one] could achieve [as] a child.”
And then this in my email inbox (there’s no mistaking serendipity), Robert McKee’s latest update about the reality of writing story:
“No matter your chosen medium, remember this: it will take you ten years to master your art…It takes many years of work, but the disciplined writer knows that given determination and study, the puzzle of story yields.”
Returned to work after a week and half off over the holidays. I had planned to paint and to draw and write and read with all that time. I didn’t paint. I didn’t draw (with the exception of the daily index card drawings). I did some writing, but it was “thoughts jotted down in my notebook with no particular purpose” kind of writing. Nothing serious. But I read. I always read.
Writers of books are readers first, last and always.
With the roll over into the new decade, I’ve reflected using the lens of a decade instead of my usual day or week-long filter that, too often, chalks up another failure to produce something. The ten year lens is far kinder. I’ve accomplished much in the last decade to be proud of.
I won’t list the books I have read in this time, but what is interesting is the type of reader I have become. I have become a reader who writes. A reader who writes reads differently. I read more slowly now, I savour words and sentences. I re-read paragraphs. I copy sentences out of books into my own notebooks. I admire. I read books on writing craft. I read literary magazines, discovering new ones all the time, and through that process, discover new writers. And yes, often the green eyed monster of envy enters my heart. But I am deeply inspired by writers. I want to be friends with the authors. I imagine the conversations we would share over a meal, the questions I would ask about their myriad composition choices. I read poetry, creative non-fiction and fiction, cartwheeling gleefully between genres. I read works that refuse categorization, that explode into a fireworks display of writing possibilities. I have to believe reading is making my own writing better.
I have always been a late bloomer. Slow. Methodical. Last week, a dear friend told me I’m being too hard on myself. I’m forced to hold the thought up to the light, explore its many facets. Maybe I should be measuring my progress in decades as opposed to days.
Here’s a pretty cool infographic depicting the length of time different authors took to write their books (please ignore the fact it’s an ink ad). It’s a comfort to know The Catcher in the Rye took 10 years to write; not so much comfort to learn The Lord of The Rings trilogy took 16 years to write….I would have thought longer. And of course, the shiny examples of books produced in hours or days. Shit. I will never be among their company. But it’s okay.