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? 

Craft & Art

This week, I received a package from my sister.  She lives in Old Crow, a community of about 250 people. A Vuntut Gwitchin community.  Old Crow, (Teechik in Gwich’in) is a two-hour flight north of Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory.   

I gasped when I removed the box’s lid.  Inside: a beautiful pair of slippers.  The slippers are made of moose leather and decorated with white rabbit fur round the ankle.  They are intricately beaded with a flower pattern.  The slippers are infused with the wonderful scent of woodsmoke.  I held them to my face and inhaled deeply. I imagined the woman’s hands, the sharp needle, the glass beads, the stitching together, a warm room with snow steaming off parkas and boots while the night sky—a round-the-clock reality at this time of year—wheels round, constellations glowing, aurora borealis crackling.  It’s amazing to smell a place that is over 6000 km away from where I stand.  

The slippers were crafted by Neta Arnold.  My sister also laboured to make a pair of her own, in a sewing circle, under the mentorship of women, including Neta, in the community.  My sister’s beading started in September and took four months to finish.  The stitching together of leather pieces, another few months.  What we now slip onto our feet are truly works of art, crafted with care, beauty and utility.  

When I slipped them on, the slippers were stiff, but with my body’s warmth they softened and hugged my toes, heels, ankles. A perfect fit.  They feel magic.  

Unlike art, the word craft acknowledges the effort, the utility, of objects created.  Unlike art, craft is both a noun and a verb – a thing and the making of the thing, but also the “trying” to make the thing.  Craft acknowledges continual effort, continual dedication, continual improvement.  In this way, the word is accurate and precise, more closely covered in the sweat and tears and joy of process.  

One of my favourite online literary magazines, one I frequently turn to for solace, for solidarity, for technique, to improve, is called Craft.  

The slippers wait for me each morning beneath my writing desk (an old table).  When I slip them on, I feel the beadwork, the hand-stitching at the seams. I am reminded how dedication, time, persistence and care shape art.  I am grateful for the lesson.  I am grateful for warm feet.

Read to write

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.

Bernardine Evaristo

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.

Cheers to the next decade! Clink clink!

Rabbit holes and Wormholes

Wrestling “time” again this week [1].  I have only myself to blame, climbing into the ring with too many opponents under the guise of some super woman with a cape that’s quickly fraying.  

I’ve hit another bad patch of resistance in my writing.  These weekly posts are beginning to highlight patterns of behaviour I’m good at ignoring.  Example? When creativity becomes difficult, I make myself so busy I can’t face it.  Spirals of dark descending and self-loathing [2].   I’m trying to work through it. This is process too. 

Deep breath. Look outwards for inspiration and it will find you.  Fill you.  This week a few superb finds as I let myself fall down the rabbit hole into the warren of the internet:

Brevity’s nonfiction blog [3] featured a most beautiful visual essay created by Nina Gaby.  I love how her essay looks on the page with muted pastels and transparent paper bits that make the whole thing feel ephemeral.  And I love her sense of humour and play that rolls off the type-written statements like we’re sharing a laugh together.  I love that she loves James Brown. 

On her own website, a gallery of Nina Gaby’s artwork is well worth the visit: soft folds of porcelain with a variety of media.  Inspiring. Gorgeous.

Roving over Nina Gaby’s visual essay, I come across her suggestion #6: Read Brian Doyle’s “Playfullnessless”. So, a few clicks later I’m reading a piece by a writer who always makes me cry and laugh.  Brian Doyle passed away (too young!) a few years ago and I discovered it’s possible to mourn the loss of someone you have never met or known in real life.  I miss his writings.  And here, a piece I hadn’t come across before, fresh and new and fun, published on Welcome Table Press (with several more inspiring works on the essay form).  

I start to question why I’m trying (essaying) to write fiction when non-fiction would be so much the better fit for working through my shit.  Brian Doyle makes a good case. 

And on the Welcome Table Press I follow the link in a red banner on the top of the webpage to (un)common sense, a digital chapbook|for times that try one’s soul.  The universe is listening! And I descend into reading…and I’ve moved through an invisible wormhole, from feeling dark to feeling better.  

I’m also reading Kyo Maclear’s gorgeous memoir Birds Art Life and it is full of passages I wish I could tear off and eat and embody [4].  Passages like this one: 

“I understand.  I understand getting stuck.  I understand wanting to make a change while circling around the same neural cage.  I understand that sometimes, when you are at a stage of life when you have given yourself over to mothering and daughtering and you get to keep very little of yourself, it can be hard to live with open doors.  Yet in an effort to hoard solitude and keep people out, there is a risk that all you end up doing is fencing yourself in.”

Kyo Maclear, Birds Art Life (page 47)

[1] Can I start a paragraph with a gerund?

[2] annoying analyst notes: don’t worry, not THAT bad.  It just feels good to write these lines.  A colleague at work suggested it’s the shortening daylight and that I should get a lamp to sit in front of.  Good idea…

[3] I regularly read this blog/online lit mag and it’s always fulfilling, inspiring.  I suggest subscribing if you don’t already.  It’s free!! 

[4] inner critic notes: ok, that’s really weird.  

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.