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.

Puzzle Patience

There is a painting in the office where I work that I have walked by countless times.  It’s pleasant enough, a picture of a water-filled ditch beside a farmer’s field.  Ditch isn’t a romantic word. I suppose it could be a dyke or a channel, but it isn’t.  It’s a ditch. The farmer’s house and barn are painted small, in the upper left-hand corner, to be far away within the painting’s horizon.  Trees with full leafed boughs hang over the brown water in the ditch.  The water and the leaves and the fields of grass are painted to suggest the winking bright light, a pleasing interplay of greens and yellows layered over darker browns.  The brushstrokes are only visible in the width of the lines depicting the grass.  This is not a painterly painting, but a realistic depiction.  I stopped to have a closer look, to decide whether it is one of those paintings that’s actually a photograph printed on a canvas and stretched on a frame.  A discovery that is both disappointing and smugly satisfying when it happens. But this painting isn’t a photograph; it’s a real painting. 

Standing there, scrutinizing the detail…the layering of colour to create the interplays of shadow and light, the hundreds of tiny lines that show the movement of the wind, a thought leapt to my mind: this is why I did not become an artist.  I don’t have the patience to paint those lines, to fill a canvas with so much colour variation and the details in sufficient proportion to convey to a viewer a wide field of grasses, a moving stream, tree branches swaying.  

When I paint, or draw, I work small, in a white space I can manage.  And, I confess, when I start, I’m impatient to be done.  My favourite part of painting is finishing. I feel a keen frustration blocking in colours, I become exasperated by the restricted palette in my box of pastels.  The shade I want is always elusive. The whole of the exercise is moving towards a climax I feel I can’t get to fast enough: adding those last flecks of white to the objects depicted, the highlight that makes the subject come alive.

I don’t have the same impatience with writing. But no, this isn’t true, I lie.  I write with a longing to complete a piece (or pieces).  This must be the subtext readers of this blog intuit when they suggest I’m too hard on myself.   If I’m honest, I write with (through?) continual disappointment that I’m not there yet.  

I agree, not a good place to be working from.  I’m trying to be more open in my daily writings…to let the interplay of thoughts and ideas and exercises run wild on the page.  To let the writing be “organic” …whatever that means.  I guess it means to relinquish control. I’m not good at this either.  

When asked by a writer friend the other day how my writing is going, I gestured with both hands, conducting the air between us, to emphasize that yes, I’m writing every day, “creating content” I said.  I admitted I had no idea how it might all come together.   And silently I worried whether it ever will.  

I also wondered whether the final white glint of light, that flourish of white paint that is so satisfying to lay on the canvas—the painted finish I crave—has a writing equivalent. 

It does. It’s the thousands of choices a writer makes before a story or an essay or a poem “is done”. It is the point at which all those choices – the movement of words in sentences, phrases and paragraphs, descriptions, dialogue, narrative arc, literary devices—fit together like a completed puzzle.   

At the moment, I think I’m working with three or four different puzzles all jumbled together with a few corner pieces laid down but floating.  I suppose the frustration is justified.  But also, it makes me realise there’s only one way through, to work on each unique puzzle piece—like each blade of painted grass in the painting at my office—and find the best place for it.  Also, settle in. Put frustration aside. Instead, think of longing as commitment, dedication, discovery. This could take a while. 

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.      

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.