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.  

Present Time & Process Time

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.      

Exhuming Plot: Just Ask

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.  

Two fantastic resources (shining guiding lights) for how to exhume plot from the heavy toil soil of drafts:Alexander Chee and Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew’s book, Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice.  

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.  

So….I’m writing questions.  I’m writing answers.  I’m going deeper.  Write On. 

Searching for [the] write words

“Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016, with a Journal of a Writer’s Week

I think about words a lot. Words are the atomic unit of writing.  I obsess about how to cram an experience, capture the essence of something, get to the elemental idea of a thought, into as few words as possible [1].  Or better, one perfect word, e.g., laconic. 

This week I stumbled upon [2] a wonderful art project, Leaning Out of Windows, a multi-year collaboration between artists at Emily Carr and physicists at the University of British Columbia “to open new pathways for the possibility of a much richer understanding of the human experience than can be attained separately”.  I was fascinated to see the words, shared by both disciplines, in a photo of a concept map (one of several products of the art project), created by Ingrid Koenig, mirror the messiness of the creation/discovery/exploratory process. 

In her latest book, Essays One, Lydia Davis counsels attentiveness to abstract words, often they disguise a real thing, such as “a herd, a seed, a rodent, a goat”. “Know what that concrete thing is.”  This is interesting, from a writing perspective for a number of obvious reasons…but also, if I were to review my own writing—notorious for tracts of conceptual thoughts and reflections, and rife with abstract words—I might discover some underlying feeling, my soul speaking through some imaginative space of authenticity that I need to divine [3].  

Winston Churchill’s essay, The Scaffolding of Rhetoric, lists “the continual employment of the best possible word” as the most important “element in the technique of rhetoric”. [A word] “must in each case absolutely express the full meaning of the speaker.  It will leave no room for alternatives.”  In this way, poets are masters of language.  

But it’s daunting, isn’t it, to find the right word?  The best I can hope for is recognition, in my own writing, for when a word is imperfect.  That my brain catches the signal there’s more to be unearthed, more digging to be done. Refinement needed.  The ripple of a misplaced word in the still waters of a sentence has the potential to wash out the larger piece.  I take heart with this quote from Philip Pullman, in Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling “If you want to write something perfect, go for a haiku.” And this one too: “But you just try to do better next time.”

[1] inner critic notes: well, you failed with that loquacious sentence, didn’t you?!

[2] I read about it.  The show is on in Vancouver later this month for those of you lucky enough to be close to that city.  I will have to settle with reading about it and looking at the few pictures of the exhibition posted on the web.  

[3] might be a good exercise to try …exorcise to try? 

Spin cycle

This week, I’ve hit another wall in my writing.  It’s happened before in exactly the same way:  I’m working at a good clip, revising a short story I’ve been working on, fiction, working through revision exercises, feeling like I’m finally making some progress. But then, the exercises require a complete re-draft of the story.  Not a re-working of the existing writing, but a complete re-write, starting with a blank sheet of paper.  And I stop.  I feel like I can’t fit it in.  

And then my brain enters a shitty spin cycle:  my writing isn’t good enough, how can I start again?  Won’t it be the same shit?  Why can’t I just write it in chunks?  I don’t have time!  And when I make time, I sit paralysed in front of the computer and it takes a monumental effort to just try and walk around my inner critic and start typing. 

A recent portrait of my inner critic

The brick wall of course is that the task is too big to fit my regular practice of writing for an hour and a half each morning.  The task demands an unbroken stretch of time, an unbroken stretch of thinking and writing.  But I don’t have unbroken time.  I have fragmented time.  It’s all I have. 

And the mind spin continues. Just write it!  If you were a real writer, you would have written it already!  No one is going to be interested in this.  You’re trying too hard. Why bother? 

Why bother indeed.  And a small voice calls from somewhere deep in my mind’s recesses –   bother because I’m interested whether I can write this story.  Bother because I’m curious about where it’s going. Bother because art is a process, an unfolding.  Bother just because…well, why not?  

And so, I keep writing. 

Looking, Seeing

I know that if I’m to make any sort of progress with any of my creativity projects, I have to push myself to get uncomfortable.  Last week, I went to a life drawing class.  It was terrifying.  The last time I tried to draw a figure from a live model was in high school, thirty years ago.  

There was a piece in Narrative Magazine recently, written by Kirsten Valdez Quade, reflecting about the best way to approach drawing from still life or model: “Draw what you see, not what you think you see.”  

This is much harder than I had thought it would be.  Throughout the three-hour class I kept reminding myself to look at the nude model not as “a person”, but a series of connected shapes, a composite of lights and shadows, lines and angles stringing together, a build-up of spaces between limbs and body. But I kept having to remind myself to lift my chin, consciously, intentionally, to look at the shapes and spaces of the figure in front of me and try to transcribe them to paper.  Often, I found I was relying on my own internal representation of what I was seeing, on memory that was miserably inaccurate.  And also, idealised.  My mind kept thinking about the person, wondering about personality, character, wondering at the courage of a person who will remove all clothing and strike a pose while fifteen pairs of eyes rove along their curves.  Slowly, slowly, by really “looking”, I began to see muscles and the angles bones make at the knees, the elbows. I began to see the beautiful wing-shapes at the base of the neck, the stunning ridged curve of the spine. 

The instructor used several fantastic exercises to get the class to “draw what we see, not what we think we see”:  we drew with a stick (a participant was sent outside to retrieve them!) and black ink; we drew with our non-dominant hands; we drew with both hands at once; we drew the figure in under a minute; we built our own drawings on top of what other participants had already sketched out; we used a variety of different drawing materials; we dusted our faces and hands with charcoal.  It was fun.  

And I thought about how these lessons transfer to writing. Too often I’m thinking about the whole of “a story” or “a poem”.  So, just like refraining from looking at “the figure”, I can practice slowing down and honing the pieces of a story or poem—the words, the sentences, the actions in a scene, the emotions in a character, how the story moves, the arc and shape of that movement from beginning to end—these things will come together to make a whole. And there are plenty of exercises to practice each of these.  Part of the practice is just letting go.  Letting the pieces of a story or poem speak for themselves instead of trying to control them.  

“To see—and to see properly, without interference of preconceived ideas…is the writer’s central responsibility.”

Kirsten Valdez Quade

Kirsten Valdez Quade explains the value of this drawing lesson to writing: “To see—and to see properly, without interference of preconceived ideas…is the writer’s central responsibility.” And perfection is not to be strived for, because there is so much beauty in the roughly sketched (both drawing and writing). How much gesture can be summed up in a minimal line? How much “personality” captured in the angle of the head? How much weight of the body is conveyed through a juxtaposition of shadows and highlights?

Writing is another form of still life, one that moves from internal to external, through time, through imagination, through space…as writers we have to question ourselves all the time: how am I seeing? how am I looking? Let the mind’s eye loose…and see, really look, at what materializes out of the dark spaces of not knowing.

Idea Catcher

Sometimes I imagine ideas are the energy of the universe, that ideas float around, ready to be harvested and processed.  Songwriters often speak about “catching a song” and writers describe the experience of a poem or phrase as “falling onto the page”. What if “inspiration” truly is as easy as breathing in, sucking in all those ideas hovering around like dusty moths [1]? 

But ideas are only the starting point.  For ideas to become something more, they cycle through ideation, then innovation, through development to actualization…and the process, even though it’s cyclical, isn’t linear…ideas move and shift through multiple iterations before they become “something” [2]. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

First, it’s important to manage ideas.  Running around, filling my butterfly net of a brain with too many ideas, my mind chatters and hums.  It’s noisy. And I’m an idea hoarder; I collect them like little museum pieces.  Where? Well, a number of places…scraps of paper, a tiny notebook in my handbag, but mostly digitally, using Evernote.  I’m pretty disciplined about moving ideas into this digital space.  And there they sit.  Trapped. They aren’t moving from the idea stage at all because I’m not working to build on them.  

I often wonder if the digital space, one that keeps much of our process invisible, might hinder our creative progress [3]?  In the digital space, i.e., my computer, ideas can be tagged and searched and filed, but I’m the one performing these actions, controlling the associations as I enter information in.  The digital space with its linear and algorithmic filing system makes it difficult (impossible?) to pull back and notice patterns, WITNESS how thoughts or interests change over time, mirror the curvy shape-shifting necessary to discover surprises or explore tangents.

I tried a method for tracking ideas, proposed by Vancouver writer Elliot Chan in this great 8.5 minute video. He suggests keeping ideas in a notebook, a new idea for each page. The hardest part of this exercise for me was buying a notebook I felt comfortable enough to leave blank (wasted?!) pages in [4]. Following Elliot’s method, I went through my extensive “ideas” files on my computer and transcribed them into a notebook, one fresh idea per page.

Working through this process I learned some interesting things that, for me personally, are quite amazing: 

  1. I don’t have “just ideas”. The files revealed I’ve been doing quite a lot of thinking.  I was able to write MANY related thoughts as I transcribed into my new “ideas” notebook, quite literally filling the pages beneath my initial ideas.  Hmmmm.
  2. Relatedly, I discovered I have a lot of ideas repeating…over time. I have been entering similar thoughts about the same subjects…a lot…a pattern started to reveal itself!
  3. Instead of feeling like I have too many ideas, once they got transcribed into a notebook—a physical object I can hold and flip through—the list of ideas coalesced into just 11 or so!  Amazing!  And not so daunting, from a working perspective…maybe.
  4. Most importantly, I could start to freehand and draw connecting lines that curved up and around the page…connecting associations that became visible because they were located in the same physical space….not locked under different file names or digital tags.     

And just as important as managing ideas…it’s important to let some go. I freed those jellyfish moths; they float away for the taking.  Or not.  

[1] inner critic notes: What? Like a vacuum cleaner?

[2] for some reason, when I picture what an idea might look like, I think they must be light and nebulous, with glass-like transparency, not unlike the way jellyfish float through the oceans, ephemeral, solid and not solid at the same time.  Visible and not visible…and then only for someone who might be looking in the right way, at the right time, slant-wise, out of the corner their eye, to receive them. They are gifts, aren’t they?

[3] I don’t know the answer to this. It would make a good debate topic (another idea!)

[4] I bought one on sale for 9 bucks that looks physically different from all my other notebooks but still has great paper that’s a pleasure to write on. 

Attending to Attention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dog tired dogmatic

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

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

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

So… I keep working.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Post is forthcoming…

Lots of reading to start you off on “about” pages already….

Plan to post once a week…

Incidentally, the idea for this blog (note: a product and also a process) materialized a month or two ago. Then it took me a good long while pondering whether there would be sufficient content to carry it forward.

It took a couple of weeks to write the static page content…half of that was just thinking about it and jotting down ideas and lists (I use Evernote for this…and my notebook…two places I try to keep consistent instead of collecting tiny triangles of paper with my “brilliance”[1] scrawled all over them (illegibly).

The “about me” page took a solid 5 hours to write. That was followed by roughly 2 hours (if I add it up) of re-reading and moving words around. Then I spent a good evening’s worth of time tensing my shoulders up to me ears and second guessing the whole idea and wondering whether I’m a narcissistic freak!? I did the same in bed, tossing and turning and kicking the cats and making the dog bark until the early hours of the dark morning. Then I thought, Plan B Man: Fuck it. And here we are.

[1] inner critic notes: loud guffaw!