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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Wrestling “time” again this week . 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 . 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  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 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)
 Can I start a paragraph with a gerund?
 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…
 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!!
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.
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?