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.  

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 

Go Deeper

Last week, writer Lauren Groff tweeted this: “Recently, at every single class visit, some new writer asks me why short stories are so depressing and I usually just fumble an answer about how stories need conflict and tend to be written in a minor key (as opposed to the novel’s span of keys). But honestly, I don’t know.”

This intrigued me.  Of course, twitter is not the right medium for a conversation…it can’t contain the nuance, gesture and tone tools enacted through speech.  These tools we use (and need) to properly grasp and share meaning. Short stories incorporate these tools through craft. And though twitter can promote expansion by provoking further questions: what does depressing mean? Do students ask this question implying depressing stories are no good?  What does Lauren Groff mean by minor key? And, how lovely is that, describing a novel as a span of keys? But on twitter, debate is polarised, appreciation of nuance is non-existent, and rhetoric lands heavy.   

Lauren Groff’s recent story Wind, published in the New Yorker, is a stunning short story that is most definitely “not happy”. The story could serve as the very definition of “not happy”. But I would not call it depressing. The story holds a horrible truth up to the light and makes us (the reader) see and experience its facets of terror and violence and love. (And yes, these constructs frequently share the same bed.) Calling it depressing is an indication the reader has not engaged in the deeper work of questioning our reactions to the story. For stories, written as works of art, are tiny calls to action. Even if that action is a way to tip our minds toward different ways of thinking. Or feeling. Even for a moment.

Lauren Groff’s story Wind is a call to action: to be an active witness to violence against women. The story provokes the question: is witnessing enough?  And goes on to answer that question: absolutely not. The story raises a mirror to show us our participation as simple witness: participation through non action; participation through acceptance. And yes, that makes us feel depressed. But here’s the thing, the story is told through the eyes of a child. This ratchets up the emotional tone, and the fear is visceral. But this point of view does more work: it forces the reader into an innocent perspective…signalling a chance to learn, to experience—to change our minds. And the brilliance of this short story (although, like a diamond, her story’s brilliance has so many facets), is that the narrator begins from the point of view of an adult remembering an episode in her childhood…so…the story is inviting us, as adults, to engage deeper consideration, but from a compassionate stance…an understanding that even as adults, our knowledge in this issue is underdeveloped. We are given a chance to expand our thinking.  And this may never be named “depressing”.  

Narratively, stories do need conflict. Otherwise, they don’t really move and might be better represented as a sculpture. Or a photograph.  I believe Lauren Groff hit upon the answer herself by inserting a music analogy. Think of how many sad songs (lyrics) are layered over beautiful music?  This is what art is.  And what it does.  It uses a medium to move us. To tilt our minds. To help us experience a point of view outside our own. It becomes so much more satisfying when it explores complexity by creating a “thing” that we too can explore and experience a symphony of meaning. 

Like Lauren Groff’s students, I am learning. And when a story strikes us as depressing, it is a little poke of a reminder to ask ourselves why we react this way? Deeper reading of “depressing” short stories helps us hear that minor key. Helps us understand how it fits into the larger song of our lives. And love.   

Writing Groove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.      

Broken into Beauty

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.    

While dealing with the stress of sudden change, I couldn’t write or draw so one evening moulded bee’s wax into this little sculpture. The smell of honey wafts up from between your fingers working with bee’s wax, it’s lovely. I call this little piece, Horny Lady.

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. 

Word follow: Creativity

‘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?  

Warm up life drawing exercises

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.  

(1) Trevor Strong