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. 

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!

Rabbit holes and Wormholes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kyo Maclear, Birds Art Life (page 47)

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

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

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

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

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. 

Looking, Seeing

I know that if I’m to make any sort of progress with any of my creativity projects, I have to push myself to get uncomfortable.  Last week, I went to a life drawing class.  It was terrifying.  The last time I tried to draw a figure from a live model was in high school, thirty years ago.  

There was a piece in Narrative Magazine recently, written by Kirsten Valdez Quade, reflecting about the best way to approach drawing from still life or model: “Draw what you see, not what you think you see.”  

This is much harder than I had thought it would be.  Throughout the three-hour class I kept reminding myself to look at the nude model not as “a person”, but a series of connected shapes, a composite of lights and shadows, lines and angles stringing together, a build-up of spaces between limbs and body. But I kept having to remind myself to lift my chin, consciously, intentionally, to look at the shapes and spaces of the figure in front of me and try to transcribe them to paper.  Often, I found I was relying on my own internal representation of what I was seeing, on memory that was miserably inaccurate.  And also, idealised.  My mind kept thinking about the person, wondering about personality, character, wondering at the courage of a person who will remove all clothing and strike a pose while fifteen pairs of eyes rove along their curves.  Slowly, slowly, by really “looking”, I began to see muscles and the angles bones make at the knees, the elbows. I began to see the beautiful wing-shapes at the base of the neck, the stunning ridged curve of the spine. 

The instructor used several fantastic exercises to get the class to “draw what we see, not what we think we see”:  we drew with a stick (a participant was sent outside to retrieve them!) and black ink; we drew with our non-dominant hands; we drew with both hands at once; we drew the figure in under a minute; we built our own drawings on top of what other participants had already sketched out; we used a variety of different drawing materials; we dusted our faces and hands with charcoal.  It was fun.  

And I thought about how these lessons transfer to writing. Too often I’m thinking about the whole of “a story” or “a poem”.  So, just like refraining from looking at “the figure”, I can practice slowing down and honing the pieces of a story or poem—the words, the sentences, the actions in a scene, the emotions in a character, how the story moves, the arc and shape of that movement from beginning to end—these things will come together to make a whole. And there are plenty of exercises to practice each of these.  Part of the practice is just letting go.  Letting the pieces of a story or poem speak for themselves instead of trying to control them.  

“To see—and to see properly, without interference of preconceived ideas…is the writer’s central responsibility.”

Kirsten Valdez Quade

Kirsten Valdez Quade explains the value of this drawing lesson to writing: “To see—and to see properly, without interference of preconceived ideas…is the writer’s central responsibility.” And perfection is not to be strived for, because there is so much beauty in the roughly sketched (both drawing and writing). How much gesture can be summed up in a minimal line? How much “personality” captured in the angle of the head? How much weight of the body is conveyed through a juxtaposition of shadows and highlights?

Writing is another form of still life, one that moves from internal to external, through time, through imagination, through space…as writers we have to question ourselves all the time: how am I seeing? how am I looking? Let the mind’s eye loose…and see, really look, at what materializes out of the dark spaces of not knowing.

Attending to Attention

I’m not very good at noticing things. Paying attention.  Observing [1].  Too much in my own head. Many writing books suggest journaling to capture observations [2]. I’ve practiced using a technique proposed by Lynda Barry: the 6-minute diary. It’s fast and illuminating.

Take a piece of paper (or page of a notebook), draw a vertical line to divide it in half, then, a second, horizontal line across the page, about a third or a quarter of the way from the bottom (see the picture below).  In the top left quadrant, list 7 things that “happened” today. In the top right quadrant, list 7 things you “saw”.  In the lower left quadrant, list one thing you “overheard”, and in the lower right quadrant, list one “question” you came up with.  So, 2 minutes for each list in the “happened” and “saw” quadrants, and a minute each for the bottom “hear” and “question” quadrants.  Boom.  Done. 

Practicing this I confirmed my attention is heavily loaded towards what I “see”.  In fact, when it comes to filling in just one teensy tiny sentence I overheard, my mind draws a complete blank.  This, despite the highly entertaining daily trip(s) to the water cooler in a buzzing workplace with upwards of two hundred employees!  For the question section? Well…I have so many. They require more than a minute of concentration to remember them.   

I kind of fell off the wagon practicing this diary technique these last few weeks… and it shows: drawing this morning (see picture above), I captured a meeting I had with a director, a person I have worked with for…shit, 9 years, and I couldn’t remember what type of hair he has?! Is he bald? Does a band of hair ring his ears?  In the picture I’ve left him bald.  The drawing also reveals a power dynamic I felt powerfully in the meeting but couldn’t articulate…but the drawing answers why: I’m sitting and he is standing and gesticulating at me with an open palm (pushing me away).  Interesting. 

But I have to practice…just like playing a musical instrument or running, the skills deteriorate quickly if one doesn’t exercise them. It’s a dual exercise: first, noticing things, second, translating what I see into words on a page. 

There’s a beautiful excerpt from Lydia Davis’s newest book, Essays One, on Literary Hub this week about practicing observing.  Following Davis’s recording of a variety of types of observations, I’m thinking of adapting Barry’s 6-minute method to this:

If I get my shit together and actually practice this, I’ll write about it…no promises though, keep’n it light. 

[1] annoying analyst notes: Actually, it’s that you notice too much.  You rely a lot on interpreting emotions through body language and tone, taking a barometer reading of the dynamics and interactions between people.  It’s a survival technique honed from quite a young age. 

[ancillary] inner critic notes: It’s very simple stupid, you need to practice remembering what you observe.  Slow down.  And write it down. 

[2] I keep a notebook.  Actually, I keep several notebooks…worthy of a post in itself, so will write about this next week.  But when I have “journaled”, the writing seems only to capture my whining…abstract emotional thoughts and ideas and reflections…archeologists of the future unearthing my notebooks will be relieved to know they’ve found a reliable source of fuel for a fire. It would burn for days…

[ancillary] annoying analyst notes: That’s a bit harsh; you sell yourself short.  Archeologists of the future may be very interested in your complaints about marriage and raising kids and the hamster wheel of a 9 to 5 job.  Heck, even your angst and self-loathing may be a crucial clue for…something…I’m sure…

[ancillary] inner critic notes: They’ll fucking burn it. 

Dog tired dogmatic

Part of my art problem is that, too often, I approach creativity in a kind of hacking-through-the-weeds-in-a-straight-line-will-get-you-through-the-field attitude instead of cultivating a flow state which is natural and organic, allowing work to emerge in its own time, with its own associations.  And it shows in my work [1]. So, I read craft books and literary magazines and mine twitter for nuggets of inspiration and follow rabbit holes of promise that lead me, if not to some sort of satisfying solution, then surely to a chunk of time wasted not writing [2].  

Listening to podcasts about writing is a satisfying way for me to get two things done at the same time: learning, but also stacking logs in the wood shed or getting the dishes done or folding laundry.  Lat week, Lit Mag Love’s podcast[3] and an interview with Doretta Lau[4].  She said, (and I’m paraphrasing), that a writer needs to ask oneself: did I do the hard work on this story? Did I take this to the farthest point of where I can go to make it emotionally satisfying, to really look deep into it and ask, did I do that craft work? 

Asking this of my current short story, the answer is a definitive NO.  Not even close.  

So… I keep working.  

[1] inner critic notes: it’s shit. There’s no emotion in it.  No movement either.  There’s a lack of tension, a lack of questioning, because you’re just barreling through to “finished”.  The work bores me!

[ancillary] That’s a hard one to swallow.  Maybe I’m not cut out for this.  Maybe writing fiction is something I just can’t do.  Like physics. Or skydiving.   

[2] annoying analyst notes: Reading about how to do something is not practicing.  It’s not writing.  

[ancillary] I have to believe I’m learning, that the lessons move into me somehow.

[3] Lit Mag Love is a podcast hosted by Rachel Thompson, author and literary magazine editor, Lit Mag Love grew out of the course by the same name. Rachel’s conversations with literary magazine editors reveal what different editors like to see in submissions and how much they may work with writers to build a piece to a finished product.  

[4] Doretta Lau (also writes about writing process on her blog) and M. Paramita Lin (here too, on her beautiful blog!). Together they create The Unpublishables “a platform for all kinds of rice eaters everywhere to get together and make shit happen through our words, music, and artwork.” Check these smart—FUNNY—creative writers out!  

First Post is forthcoming…

Lots of reading to start you off on “about” pages already….

Plan to post once a week…

Incidentally, the idea for this blog (note: a product and also a process) materialized a month or two ago. Then it took me a good long while pondering whether there would be sufficient content to carry it forward.

It took a couple of weeks to write the static page content…half of that was just thinking about it and jotting down ideas and lists (I use Evernote for this…and my notebook…two places I try to keep consistent instead of collecting tiny triangles of paper with my “brilliance”[1] scrawled all over them (illegibly).

The “about me” page took a solid 5 hours to write. That was followed by roughly 2 hours (if I add it up) of re-reading and moving words around. Then I spent a good evening’s worth of time tensing my shoulders up to me ears and second guessing the whole idea and wondering whether I’m a narcissistic freak!? I did the same in bed, tossing and turning and kicking the cats and making the dog bark until the early hours of the dark morning. Then I thought, Plan B Man: Fuck it. And here we are.

[1] inner critic notes: loud guffaw!