Creating Observations

I’m in the middle of a 4-week human figure sculpture class. I love the way the cool clay yields to my fingers, the weight of it.  I love the way it feels wet, but dries to a chalky powder on my hands, leaving prints against my thighs when I accidentally wipe them there. I like to challenge my creativity using different mediums; I always discover deeper awareness for my writing practice this way. 

This is a class in observation.  We are creating “a study” of the human figure, in clay, using an armature (a stick like human figure made of bendy wires). There is a nude model instructed to maintain the “study posture”, but to rotate every 7-10 minutes.  The study pose is a contrapposto, or counterpose, where the body appears to be in mid-step with a slight twist of the torso that signals a certain vitality to a finished sculpture. The model’s timed rotations mean students never stick to rendering one view but must rotate armatures to match the model’s stance, building out only the three-dimensional form from their unique viewpoint in the room.  

At the end of this class (which, due to covid-19 has been a bit bumpy with some classes cancelled and rescheduled), we will destroy our works by pulling the clay from the armature to be stored in a plastic bagged blob. The forced breaks, shifting viewpoints, and the fact that the finished product is nothing more than the end of a “study” process, has made me feel a light creative freedom.  

I’m delighted working in the small class, listening to the murmurings of conversation, the shushing hiss of spray bottles and overplayed classical tunes.  To be in the moment of “trying” for no other joy but to try. It is a focused peace.    

In sculpting, I’m working to render gesture, observing the live, three-dimensional form, and attempting to replicate a scaled down version with my hands. I’m assessing volume and shape, curves and hollows, the points of bones and how the softness of body, muscles, skin, drapes over them. Expression is captured in the stance and gesture of how the body stands in place. 

In drawings, gesture is captured in the line. A move from rendering “the study” from three-dimensions to two. A line can capture energy, a subject’s vitality, by how it is it rendered on paper – thin and fast, thick and slow, etc. 

But the experience of observation captured on the page through writing transfers the three-dimensional world (even four or five dimensional if we start to add things like emotion and interior thoughts) into flat words on a blank page. Words are abstract symbols of representation.  Each word sparks connotations and connections unique to our own experiences and interpretations.  I guess this is why reading another’s words can feel so magically transportive. Just as my viewpoint of the art class model rotates on a platform in the middle of the sculpture class, my experiential viewpoint alters the interpretation of words. I witness – eyewitness – the object or the sensory experience – I interpret it (my own way) and render it into words to be able to convey my interpretative experience through writing.  And if that sensory experience, imagery, or idea is understood and resonates with the reader, there is a frisson of recognition and pleasure in sharing these experiences and thoughts across time and space. 

But getting the words to come through…not so easy.

Some observations from the last week:

I saw a porcupine. I thought it was a beaver at first because the animal was so round with a paddle like tail but as I passed (quickly – I was road cycling) – I realised the tail was not so big but rather narrow and flat– the animal was approaching the base of a large old oak with, I believed, an intention to climb it.  It was mid-day. The sun was high and bright but the wind, blowing east, blew strong against my direction of travel, stole the warm huffing of my exhalations fast past my ears. But how to describe the porcupine’s unrushed perambulation?  Its roly-poly demeanor? The animal wobbled. 

And a swan, bending its neck, s-like, to its back, its wings, still folded, raised and what?  Trembling? Quivering?  Shivering…yes, shivered and fluffed. 

A friend’s high-pitched reaction to one of my questions. A squeak. 

The dairy farm’s manure and powdered milk smell that makes me want to gag. 

The scent of pine sap needling the shade when I passed beneath their feathery boughs. 

The friendly waves from motorcyclists as they passed me cycling.  Is this a thing?  Are we in solidarity somehow, riding through the fresh air with bodies exposed to the spring? Not just one, but three different motorcyclists at different points along my route. One even when they must have seen me gagging for breath on a long uphill. Maybe that is why they waved.  For encouragement?  I waved back regardless.

This is the process of art making: observing the world with loving attention, transferring that loving view as a gift for the viewer/reader to share in that joy and delight.   

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.  

Crack(s)

I am a month or so out from completing a six-week online writing course. Another one. 

I attend a couple of writing courses each year. A friend quips I’m addicted to them…as if they are a bad habit, or a catchy disease. 

I do love them.  

But my friend’s analogy is not far from the mark.  It needles. 

The weeks following a class are rough. I feel hung over. The sudden loss of structured deadlines induces the same vertigo one gets at the midpoint of a swing bridge…petrified by the choice of moving forward or going back, with all the freedom to simply tumble sideways and fall, fall fall.  

The classes inject fresh creativity. My own writing spools effortlessly from the instructor’s prompts and exercises, surprising me always, pleasing me frequently. I love reading the diverse interpretations of the prompts, and the variety of voices from other writers in the class. 

The act of reading to comment on other people’s writing forces me to engage intimately with their words, their sentences, their paragraphs, their structures. It’s an intellectual exercise that teaches me a lot about my own writing (and thinking) and how it might be improved. It also challenges me to use a framework of positivity, consciously eschewing the traditional critique approach that points out all the wrongs or picks apart a piece error by error.   

But most enslaving—and this is where the shame seeps in—I crave the focused feedback about my own writing from my peers. I long for their comments. I’m curious about the phrases they are drawn to, about the places they feel stuck, about learning how I might improve my language, pacing, punctuation, structure, atmosphere, metaphors. This level of scrutiny detects and signals what may be missing. 

So why the shame? 

I’m addicted to the feeling of confirmation. I have such a hot desire to be seen, to be heard. To be loved? I’m supposed to be writing simply for the joy of writing, without any need for validation. The art ought be an end unto itself.  

But that’s not right either is it? 

Writing is communication.  One does not write simply to put words on a page, fold the notebook closed and shove it in the back of a drawer.  Though, most (all?) of my own writing suffers this fate.   

Writing to share becomes a dialogue with the power to transcend time and space.  Writing stuff down transforms thoughts to an object I can hold in my fist, paper or book, and hand it over to others. Here, I’ve dumped this beautiful tangle of words on this paper, what do you think?  The difference is that the reader has no obligation to the writer.  The reader may take and walk away.  The reader must only feel entertained, provoked, and, one hopes, inspired.  There is no contract a reader must respond. 

So, the writer must learn to create in isolation. Must learn to dialogue with oneself.  And this ought to be enough.  For an addict, enough never is.   

Beginning. Again.

Always, when I have taken a break from creative writing, no matter how short, the doubt creeps in and halts my hand.  No, that’s not what I meant to write; it halts my mind.  

The act of putting words to paper is not the challenge.  Rather, it’s the practice of reflection–of asking myself questions as I write, the practice of opening up the writing itself to its umpteen possibilities–that is so difficult to recover. It’s like any other muscle flaccid with underuse…asking questions and allowing the words to appear and be transcribed as they arise from the mind’s eye, must be practiced to make it strong. To make it responsive.

I am learning that to write well is to propel myself on a journey of discovery, to mine my own mind for what I think and why I think this way and how that way of thinking might have come to be.  It is about taking the tangents, following the diversions, trusting, as the cliche goes, a leap into the dark.  

I am learning to query the shimmering in-betweens. 

I am learning to trust that the metaphors that appear are really way finders to what lies buried beneath.  Beneath what?  The usual, the expected, the mundane, or that dreaded and most accurate of descriptions: mediocrity. Too often I’m in a rush…I want to get to the end…but this process of unfolding, engaging, unknowing (yes, this is exactly it), is slow.  

So, onwards with deliberate plodding.  Query.  Expand. 

Feels like the first day at the gym. Again.  

But the music is playing. The sun is shining. I am warm on the heated side of this window. Blue shadows stretch along the snow blanketing the fields. The cardinal’s feathers glow by the feeders.  Juncos press tiny prints into the white.  Sunflower seeds pepper the ground beside a mourning dove and a clutch of hopping chickadees. A nuthatch and a downy headed woodpecker swing from opposite poles of the suet cage. The paper in my notebook is cream, the ink in my pen is teal, and I am ready to begin.  Again.  And again.   

Writing a Narrative Helix

I listen to a lot of different podcasts about writing.  I’m particularly drawn to detailed craft discussions, conversations about process, and talks about how ideas make it to the page.  Often, by way of a podcast, I’m introduced to a writer I haven’t read yet. This is how I came to the work of Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Chronology of Water and Verge, among others. You can listen to her fantastic interviews with David Naimon on Between the Covers or with Brendan O’Meara on the Creative Nonfiction Podcast. She also has presented a TED Talk The Beauty of Being a Misfit

Lidia has created a space for writing workshops called Corporeal Writing and generously offers a free intensive 90-minute online session on the Narrative Helix form.  This is an example of a number of Write Now intensives offered online through the website.  I watched the narrative helix video and came to understand the form (two completely different strands of writing, one a themed list of the writer’s choosing, and a second narrative story delivered in short chunks of prose, then interspersed by selections from the [unrelated/maybe related] list…it sounds more complicated than it is…the video of course is much better.  Watch it.). I was intrigued to learn the value of using a different, structured way to enter and write difficult emotional material. 

So, I tried it. And it’s working.  I’ve completed a draft and it’s 7400 words.  I’m aiming to edit it down to 3000 if I can.  But I wanted to write here about the process and experience of working through the exercise.  The list was easy to come up with and populate: 1980s movies.  For the story aspect, I used a photograph from around that time as my jumping off point and a stream of consciousness approach to write everything and anything that popped into my head about each person in the picture.  This was interesting. My thoughts tumbled freely and the memories surfaced easily. The approach also suited my restricted writing schedule…these days only an hour each morning.  But, an hour of solid writing can generate a lot of material, especially if I’m not editing the writing as I work.  

In the video, Lidia discusses how the two narrative strands twist round each other to create a resonance between them (and become a helix).  I didn’t quite believe this would happen…but it did.  When I started writing I wasn’t sure where the project was taking me, I just followed the steps.  Now, after the first draft, I see the repeated imagery (knives) and can question its appearance (I won’t spoil the reason, but it has now become the focus of the essay, the thesis statement, if that makes sense). I’m looking forward to going back and crafting the piece, collaging it together, to carry a reader through my story.  Somehow, the exercise has helped me to understand how the pieces and process work together. I’ve challenged myself further and have signed up for one of the Corporeal Writing online courses…more to come.  

Practice what it is to be Other

One of my many challenges practicing creative writing has been writing character…writing a character who is not me.  One who does not sound like me, does not think like me, and bounces gracefully against a protagonist who seems more like me, but also isn’t me.   I’m trying to figure it out…how to write character better.  

I have thought the difficulty has related to my own imaginative ability, or rather, my inability.  Can I “play” someone else on the page?  Many writing days I conclude with a definitive no.  But the heart of it is, writing character requires a lot of work…a lot of writing about a character to get to know them…writing that will never make it into a story, but nevertheless will inform the story by letting me know how my character is likely to behave in a given situation….and more importantly, understanding the reasons for that behaviour.  It requires I move through exercises of questioning, reflecting, understanding, and entertaining possibilities beyond my comfort zone to learn what that space is like.  And it’s work.  Hard mental work.  And often research…a rabbit hole of distraction I’m far more comfortable tumbling down. 

And I can’t help but see a connection.  

The current uprising against police brutality and systemic racism has made me think a lot about the work I need to do myself, to question my own beliefs, to check myself, my thinking. It’s slowly dawning… it takes a great deal of intention and sustained commitment to stop and consider other points of view, other experiences, other histories, other cultures, the destructive effects of violence, war, poverty, injustice. It requires I enter a space of discomfort and enter into active dialogue to work and question and sit cross legged with sorrow and hate and greed and anger and welcome these conversations.  

I fall too easily into a position of defense. I want to write here: I’m compassionate! I’m empathetic!  I want to explain how I read avidly, across genres and authors, to actively participate in a process of broadening my mind, challenging how I think about sex, identity, ethnicity, gender, culture, poverty, and yes, race. In my professional life, I work to change policy to promote health and wellness in our community; I work to promote equality and equity. So why do I use the word “defense”, I ask myself?  Unpacking this makes my skin prickle, makes me admit my privilege: I have choice; I have freedom…I have time to read! And therefore, I am in a position of power over others who do not.  

And with power comes responsibly. Responsibility to be an active witness, an active listener to the stories of others, and use my imagination and my position to create a different way of doing things. 

And instead of being strong, I think it’s important to be soft, tender, and vulnerable…the true way to remain open. 

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.