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.  

Reading backwards to write forwards

I started to read back through my own notebooks.  I have about twelve or so, plus a few others dedicated to recording specific things: poems that move me; writing project ideas; a do-it-yourself-MFA-in-progress where I synthesise ideas and craft elements gleaned from listening to podcasts and reading essays and books on writing. 

I’ve been practicing writing, solidly, for eight years. But I haven’t read back through my notebooks beyond a superficial flip of a few pages every now and then.  I’ve been afraid to. Until now.

I’ve learned the creation of art exists in a sort of dream space time…it’s malleable and stretches and contracts in unpredictable ways. I’ve learned too that time is only one element of many that shape a work of art. 

I’ve trained myself to allow notebook writing to be completely free…no cross outs, no fixing…and over the years I have been able to (almost) silence the inner editor.  And so, the writing in my notebooks captures my thoughts as they come.  

I’ve trained myself to be patient.  Images and thoughts arrive in fragments…often when I’m not at my writing desk…like a dandelion seed floating on a breeze.  First, I notice and recognise the inspiration and then I make a herculean effort to remember and write it down as soon as I can.  And over the years I’m getting better at not judging the fragments…better at not forcing them to fit writing I already have in place.  This is hard work for me.  Waiting.  Noticing. Not judging. Recording. 

I haven’t read back through my notebooks. I’ve been afraid. Afraid of pages and pages of, “I can’t write” or “I suck at this”, or some variation on that theme. And yes, there’s a lot of that in there.  A lot. 

But reading back I discovered something else:  the fragments have been arriving for years…little tiny bits and pieces that serve different writing projects (I have many projects on the go)…arriving like dust motes drift, to land between my pages. They arrive not in a line, or in sequential order, or one project at a time…they bubble up and splash and explode, bump up against each other, circle, loop back…they are wild, they are of their own energy.  

So, I’m reading backwards to write ahead. And practicing: waiting, noticing, not judging, recording.

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

I see you there, in the dark: thank you.

Early morning writing—this last week or so—I’ve heard an owl hooting from somewhere close in the backyard.  It’s wonderful listening to its song of wisdom calling out from the dark. 

A common cultural impression of the writing life is that it’s a lonely, solitary endeavor. I guess the hours of actual writing can be like that (though, I like the solitary time…I don’t find it isolating in the least). But this is a myth. Really, there is too much encouragement and inspiration offered from fellow creators to be discounted.  

In this same week of listening to the owl’s song, I’ve had wonderful email correspondences about creative process with a playwright, a poet, a concert pianist, and four other writers (four!).  A songwriter shared one of his songs via digital file; a film maker one of his films via FB messenger (the wonders of social media). What gifts!! I walked and talked with an artist (painter), a weekly routine that has become essential, not just for discussing artistic pursuits, but for nourishing my soul and my heart and our friendship. I’ve sat and discussed process with another dear friend while she knit a rainbow-striped heel into a wool sock the colour of an ocean in a storm.  

Also, always, inspiration and encouragement from poems I’ve stumbled across and words gleaned from others’ meanderings in books.  This week: Ross Gay’s beautiful collection of tiny essays, The Book of Delights, poems by Laura Gilpin and Bukowski, and a collection of fables edited by Rawi Hage, Lisa Moore and Madeleine Thien

Flip to the acknowledgements section of any book and you will see there are paragraphs (pages!) of people to thank for their contribution to the pages one holds in one’s hands.  The songs calling out from the dark.  

One does not glide to glory without a supportive wind.  The creators and makers (all of you – mechanics, gardeners, bread bakers, chefs etc.) I know, and continue to meet while pursuing my art, expand this glistening net[work] to enrich my life beyond the beyond.  I know I’m blessed by your words and thoughts and I’m grateful your gifts help my own writing to swoop and soar on beating wings.  

A Shaky Devotion

Sometimes, the right words of encouragement arrive at the point when you most need them. 

In writing workshops, when pressed to write (without thinking too much) in response to creative writing prompts, my writing reveals some beautiful phrases that retain spontaneous energy and emotional authenticity, the magic every writer wishes for. I believe in these small beauties…they embody a promise: I can produce good work.  

I’ve been trying to cultivate the same playfulness, the letting go, in my regular writing practice.  For the first few years, it seemed easy (easier?). But, the more I study the craft, the more I practice and revise, the more I read and read to understand the deeper aspects of literary technique…well, the harder it is, it seems for me, to echo the spirited performance on the page.   

I’ve contracted, what Philip Pullman so accurately diagnoses in his essay, Heinrich von Kleist: “On the Marionette Theatre”, subtitled, Grace Lost and Regained, a “self-consciousness” in my writing.  Through knowledge, I’ve lost the “wonderful freedom and expressiveness—the natural grace—[children] bring to such things as painting [writing]”.  I’m verklempt.

And I’ve been lamenting and grieving the loss…mourning I will never regain my original (and beautiful and spontaneous) innocence. 

I’m stuck in the gap perfectly articulated by Ira Glass

“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.

But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit.

Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.

Ira Glass

It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Philip Pullman’s essay intensifies Glass’s gap to illuminate my short-sighted grief over the loss of childish creative abandon: “if we want the wisdom that comes with experience, we have to leave the innocence behind.”  

What is most encouraging though, and has lifted a weight from my shoulders I hadn’t realised I was carrying, Pullman explains, “ …eventually, after great study and toil…[there] will be better, deeper, truer, more aware, in every way richer than…[what one] could achieve [as] a child.”

And then this in my email inbox (there’s no mistaking serendipity), Robert McKee’s latest update about the reality of writing story:

“No matter your chosen medium, remember this: it will take you ten years to master your art…It takes many years of work, but the disciplined writer knows that given determination and study, the puzzle of story yields.” 

Robert McKee

Prescription: keep working. 

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!

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.