Excerpts from my notebook, written sometime during the past eight days, which we spent at my stepmother’s boat-access-only cottage. I wrote every day. Every time I sat down to write, I began by drawing an “attendance cartoon” (Lynda Barry-style), to a random song from my Spotify playlist. Then I wrote for 3 minutes, beginning with the question: What’s on your mind?
I am staring out at the lake, through the piney trees from my perfect sheltered vantage point in the bunky — my office for this week. We are so fortunate, so very fortunate, to get to spend time here every summer, so that this place has become part of our lives and our children’s lives. Today is sunny and warm, and the water is warm, apparently — I have not set foot into it yet. I did drive the pontoon boat yesterday, proving again that I can.
What would I give up to write more? I don’t know. Let’s make this new writing plan / routine work. Please, dear God, I don’t want to give anything up.
The scene I worked on before lunch is unfinished. Instead of finishing it, I ate lunch with the family, then read in the sun for hours. I am reading I Capture the Castle and I’d forgotten how romantic it is and also how much that romance moves me, or triggers in my mind such delicious feelings.
Finished I Capture the Castle, furious at the description of the constipated mad genius father (a writer), whose inspiration may derive from violently attacking his family members, including throwing his teenaged daughter Cassandra into a wall, almost breaking her arm. Is it that I hate the implied privilege of the artist — Artist with a capital A — or is it the male artist in particular whose privilege I abhor? But haven’t I been reading about women writers, too, how are childless or who steer clear of their children for long stretches, so as to write? And what would I sacrifice in the long run? Would I give up coaching or teaching, let alone parenting intensely, in order to serve the “genius” of artistic creation? No. It seems a nonsensical thought. Yet when I am writing, don’t I want to go on living in this other world and not come back — or not for a long while?
I don’t know how to draw a mosquito. My eyesight seems to be getting worse. I stare at letters that my hand is making and the words are blurred. Somehow I can keep writing without seeing.
From this angle, the boat parked in the middle of the lake looks like a car that’s been driven there by accident, and is half-sinking. I am not doing a good job on a number of fronts. That is the feeling I am having. But it’s been an exciting couple of weeks of writing. Writing and imagining. Yet other things have fallen to the side, and I wonder how I will have anything to give to my students this fall, or even to my children. The forecast is calling for rain. What is joyous about my writing right now is the pleasure I’m taking from it, that doesn’t seem connected to worries about publication. This might not last. My eldest daughter says I’m always trying to improve myself and failing: I’m really just always the same. The more I think on it, the more I’m convinced she could be right.
I think all of this burst of writing comes from calling myself, naming myself, WRITER. Can I change in other regards? I don’t want to be a prickly person, constantly challenging others.
Sunlight is shining through the glass door and warming my office / bunky. I had a feeling after yesterday’s work that I’d written a scene that was the culmination of about 15 years of trying to write that particular scene, with that particular combination of effects — a scene about children playing in a makebelieve world where pretend and real blend together so seamlessly it’s almost impossible for the children to tell them apart. That feeling of being immersed in imaginary play. I’ve been sitting here trying to remember the first version of that scene while staring out the window at the roofline of the cottage, shingles, pines, smoke from the fire, child outside petting Suzi (dog) who was recently sleeping in the sun on my stoop. Gillian Welch is playing “Revelator” on Spotify and this mood seems exquisite and impossible to capture, and yet that’s what I’m attempting to do when I write.
The brain is on my mind, the two selves, as described in Thinking, Fast and Slow, by a psychologist who won the Nobel for economics. The experiencing self is not made happy by the same things that please the remembering self. Writing, I think, is the most peculiar linking of the two selves — the remembering self immersed in the experiencing self. My knowledge on this subject is pitifully inadequate.
Today I am having difficulty focusing and getting into characters. This has been an intense week and I fear it coming to a close, but I’m also growing a bit weary and perhaps a rest will be good — a day off.
Sometimes I draw something, and I think, that comes right from the back of my mind. The front of my mind couldn’t have drawn that.
The way my attendance cartoon matches with the song and a mood and whatever is happening is uncanny, although this may only be my mind making magical connections. Today, on the day we leave the cottage after having been here for eight days, the song is Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going.” It is a song about the changing seasons; it even has a chevron of geese flying south. And I’m sitting here with rain falling on the roof, cool or almost cold, fog rising off the lake, and smoke rising from the chimney in the main cottage, reflecting on this time of transition. In the cartoon I’ve drawn this morning, I press my hand against the window from inside the cottage and try to say goodbye. This has been the most blessed month. Time has stretched and expanded and we have been content.
A person wonders whether she can carry home the things she learned, whether transformation in a radically different setting from home is sustainable. A person yearns to be the self she was while she was away. But a person knows, coming home is coming back to a crowd of needs waiting to be met. Even the house needs her. A person has so many loves. Loves are obligations but loves are also earned and cherished and what would a person write about were she to have no loves to tend to?
I can hold two oppositional thoughts in my head at the same time. I want to go home. I miss my family. I want to stay forever in this ridiculously rich creative space.
What I’m trying to say is that I’m home from Omega, in upstate New York, home from the Lynda Barry + Dan Chaon workshop, a 5-day intensive experience in a summer-camp-like setting, with an amazing yoga class every morning, ultra-healthy vegetarian/vegan food served three times daily, virtually no responsibilities, no chores, and perhaps most critically, almost no emotional labour except for the work that poured onto the page. My mind was uncluttered and immediately more open to images and connections. Will I be able to be joyful, I wondered on the evening we arrived, will my spirit find lightness? Is it still possible? I had my answer in less than a day: yes. It was so easy, under the circumstances, to be playful, attuned to what’s under the surface, easy to meet any challenge.
Writing isn’t easy, but it’s enjoyable, said Lynda Barry. She likened it to seeing runners go by in the middle of the day, and you can tell they’re enjoying it, but you never once think, hey, that looks easy. Writing — it’s the same. What this week kindled in me is a fire for the writing. For the possibility in writing, which is seductive to someone who entertains as rich a fantasy life as I do.
After Lynda Barry said goodbye, on the last morning, Dan Chaon, with whom she co-taught this workshop, helped us debrief our experience. Someone asked him about writing to an audience, and his answer had me in tears. It must have answered something very deep inside me, something neglected, lost, forgotten. I’m writing to my peers, he said. I’m writing to the writers I love, my kindred spirits.
I’m writing to my peers.
Am I capable of thinking of the writers I admire as peers? How does it change my mind and body to think: I am writing to Helen Oyeyemi. I am writing to Rumi. I am writing to Eden Robinson. I am writing to Ann Patchett, to Rilke, to Mavis Gallant, to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to Mary Oliver. Feelings of love and awe and excitement come over me. I am writing so my work will speak to their work. In Lynda Barry’s classroom, we show our drawings to each other, but we also show our drawing to each other’s drawings. It sounds flaky, but it’s a reminder: this work, once created, lives a life separate from our own.
On Wednesday, I walked the labyrinth on campus, and spent a lot of time writing — my own writing, not guided writing. It was late in the evening. I decided to do one last project before snack and bed, something I’d been wanting to do for awhile: make the Rilke poem I’ve memorized and repeat often into a little cartoon. For the pictures, I looked at my peers’ attendance cards, hanging from the walls, and I chose images that seemed to speak to the words in the panel, and I copied them as best I could. All the drawings are drawings I admired, made by hands and minds I did not know. Then I taped the cartoon to the classroom wall and left it there for the rest of the week.
It was the kind of space that makes a person want to leave behind gifts. But on the last day, I untaped the cartoon from the wall and brought it home. It was the kind of space that makes a person want to believe she can bring what she found there home.
I know we were in another world, a bubble of creative vibes and chickpea scramble, but what was happening in the world was with us too, if at a remove. I mean, there we were in the United States of America during the week when the president spoke out in support of Nazis. There was pain and confusion in that classroom too. This feels like a crisis, said Lynda Barry, doesn’t it feel like a crisis? And everyone said yes. We are facing a crisis. What are we going to do about it? What are we going to do?
She didn’t have an answer. She just had us knuckle down and draw ourselves as a dejected Batman, draw the statue of Liberty with our eyes closed, make a map of a familiar walking path. And then she made us show our neighbour.
xo, Carrie aka Treetop Annie
I’ve been making lists.
Every night before bed, I make a list in the journal I share with my fourteen-year-old daughter, and she replies with her own list. This is a list I made up on the spur of the moment, six simple questions to focus the mind, capture the day, and provide an opportunity to be thankful and reflective. It really works, and the answers can be as short or as long as you want.
For my last class, on Tuesday, I finished by asking the students to answer these six questions, as a way of reflecting on their experience in the class.
These are the questions, and my own answers:
- Something that surprised you? Surprised by how easy it was to teach during the day.
- Something you’re proud of? Proud that I kept thinking of ways to make this time slot work. [I taught twice a week in 90 minute chunks, rather than once a week in a 3-hour chunk.]
- Something silly? Me at the front of this class. Like basically every time.
- Something happy? Listening to my students share their work.
- Something sad? Worried I was boring students. Having to assign marks to their work.
- Something you’re thankful for? Thankful for summer, and bike rides through the park to and from work.
At the end of each term, there is a magical feeling in the classroom. It happens each time, and each time I am nevertheless surprised. Each time, I feel a joyful inner peace, welling up from the depths. I think of what Lynda Barry told us at the end of her workshop last summer, that she is just the person pointing the way, that what she’s doing isn’t magic. What we’re feeling, when we overflow with gratitude, is appreciation for a deep connection to something we thought maybe we’d lost; our gratitude should be directed toward ourselves, not her.
I understand afresh what she meant.
Because the outpouring from students this term has been so genuine, so unforced, like something spontaneous that can’t be stopped up, and I know that while I facilitated their experiences, it was the students themselves who tapped into their own wealth of knowledge, their deeper consciousness, or unconscious minds, and that is what brought them feelings of peace and joy. It wasn’t me. Anyone who went there — that was of their own doing. Anyone who was pulled into the spiral and moved by the recitation of Rumi’s poem, “The Diver’s Clothes Lying Empty” — that was something they found for themselves. I could never make them do this — I could only invite them to try, with the tools I understand to have worked for myself and for others.
A student visited my office on Wednesday, to give me a book by Eckhart Tolle that was meaningful to him. After he’d left, I opened to the first page and read:
“A true spiritual teacher does not have anything to teach in the conventional sense of the word, does not have anything to give or add to you such as new information, beliefs, or rules of conduct. The only function of such a teacher is to help you remove that which separates you from the truth of who you already are and what you already know in the depth of your being. The spiritual teacher is there to uncover and reveal to you that dimension of inner depth that is also peace.”
When I read these words, I thought: that is what I’m trying to do. My medium is the written word, and images, but my goal is to open you to yourself. I can offer you technical information, and I try to, but the point of all those exercises in class is to facilitate opening, diving to the depths of the self, adventuring down and in and emerging with something you can hold and look at and read and share. What you return with isn’t the thing itself, but a record of what you’ve experienced, a record of your imaginative travels. Will this process, repeated over time, make you a better writer? Honestly, I don’t know. But if you go there, you will write things that matter to you, which is a good start.
I accept that my methods won’t work for everyone. It’s been hard to come to acceptance; I want to reach everyone, and I can’t. But for those who connect with what I’m offering, the connection is deep and it is meaningful. It seems to give people the opportunity to feel emotions they’d forgotten they could. It gives people the chance to play, to imagine, to be silly. And to be still, in a world that moves quickly. How often do we get to sit and not be distracted? These exercises can be reminders of the better world that is within reach, that we can access if only we remember how. If only we are given the excuse to go there.
If you can spare a few minutes before bed, consider sitting down and answering six questions about your day. Even better, consider sharing the ritual with someone else.
- Something that surprised you?
- Something you’re proud of?
- Something silly?
- Something happy?
- Something sad?
- Something you’re thankful for?
Six small, important takeaways from my winter creativity course…
- Set a timer to get started. Give yourself tasks that can be completed in a set amount of time (7 minutes or 12 minutes or 30 minutes); or, give yourself a set amount of time in which to get started, then reassess when the timer goes (you will almost always want to add more time to the clock). Getting started is the hardest part. And you have to get started over and over, so you’d better figure out a way to trick yourself into beginning anew, repeatedly.
2. Don’t worry about making mistakes. In some of my favourite drawings, I made a big mistake early on but completed the drawing anyway. The mistake became an important part of the drawing, often creating depth that perfection couldn’t have; and making the mistake unconsciously freed me as I completed the work.
3. Mix it up. Even if your larger project is all text, and your expertise is writing, take time to draw if you’re feeling cramped or blocked. (Or sing or dance, etc.) Do/make/create something completely different, seemingly unrelated to what you’re working on. Remind yourself how fun it is just to make something.
4. Do the work even when you’re not feeling inspired. This goes back to item number one: just get started. You have an infinite capacity to surprise yourself.
5. Create routines that support your creativity. Perhaps more importantly, create routines that support your own mental health. Get outside. Meditate. Make time for friends. Volunteer. Help others. Share your enthusiasms. And when it’s time to do the work, do it. Don’t procrastinate. See item number one: set that timer and make something.
6. You can’t know what you’re making while you’re making it. “A writer is someone who, when faced with a blank page, knows absolutely nothing.” (to paraphrase Donald Barthelme) Remember this and be comforted, take heart. Your job is not to know what you’re making, or to explain what you’re doing, your job is to make something. See item number one.
This past winter, I developed a 12-week course based on Lynda Barry’s Syllabus (it’s a book), an idea that came from a chance conversation with the woman who camped next to my friend and me at the Omega Institute in New York last summer; we were all there to take Lynda Barry’s workshop. Our tent was an enormous embarrassing behemoth that towered over her one-person marvel of efficiency. Of course, she’d just hiked the Appalachian Trail. And we’d just driven in from Canada in a Ford Fiesta. Let’s just say, we didn’t exactly bond. But one afternoon, we all found ourselves in the swimming hole together, paddling back and forth through the muddy weedy water, and she mentioned that she taught Syllabus as a course (and that she was an English professor). I wondered how, exactly, she taught Syllabus as a course. But we didn’t paddle long enough for me to ask.
At some point, over the fall, I decided to try to figure out how I would teach Lynda Barry’s Syllabus as a course. The result was a 12-week creativity course, which I ran over the winter with a handful of dedicated volunteers, who answered the call-out on my blog, and who stuck with it. And let me tell you, sticking with it was a lot of work. I designed the course to fit within the parameters of a 12-week university term, which would include approximately three hours of in-class time per week, plus homework. All work was done by hand, writing and drawing, in notebooks. My volunteer students did not live nearby, so we couldn’t recreate the energy that would be found within a classroom; nevertheless, they did the work. They sent me samples of their work every week, and at the end of the course created a final project: a short book that combined drawings and text. I can’t express how much joy this brought me.
Of course, I did all the work, too. (To tell the truth, I wanted to invent the course so I could take it!)
Reflecting on its effect, I’ve stumbled upon several unexpected discoveries and insights.
So, here are two BIG THINGS I discovered through my creativity course.
One. External motivation bolsters internal motivation. Inventing for myself a tougher-than-strictly-necessary challenge allowed me to achieve what I set out to accomplish. I must stress that I did this instinctively, not deliberately. In other words, I made the task harder than it needed to be, by increasing the stakes: I involved other people. This had the effect of keeping me on track. Even during weeks that were stress-filled and busy, I continued to create course curriculum and to do the work, because my students were out there, doing it along with me.
What I learned is that a certain level of stress and challenge makes a task more meaningful, and therefore more achievable. We probably all have different thresholds for what would constitute a useful amount of stress, but my takeaway is that I must turn toward challenge and difficulty, rather than away from it.
I also re-discovered the value of creating an external reason for doing something, a goal, an excuse, even if the reason is an invention of your own making. It’s why runners sign up for races—the goal keeps them honest (and keeps their loved ones from questioning why the heck they’re spending a beautiful Saturday morning running 28 kilometres). We need tangible goals, and it helps for these goals to be connected to timelines and deadlines. A goal gives us permission we wouldn’t give to ourselves: Without the invented excuse of the course, for example, I wouldn’t have had the guts to sit in a public place sketching strangers. But the goal is also there to be completed, an accomplishment at the end of all that effort: without the course, I also wouldn’t have made the rough draft of a short graphic novel.
Two. Broadly speaking, creation has two different stages. Both are valuable and necessary. And both require different kinds of time.
The first stage is gathering. The second stage is synthesis.
At the gathering stage, you may feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re making things, but you don’t know how they’ll fit together; they may not seem to fit together at all, in fact. If you can let yourself relax and enjoy this stage, it’s the most fun you’ll ever have. You have to give yourself permission to make what you’re making without judging its ultimate point or purpose. You’re making it because it’s an adventure. You have no idea what’s going to bubble to the surface and emerge, and you’re constantly surprising yourself. This work takes up a the bulk of the creativity course.
The wonderful discovery is that this work can be done in bits and pieces, spread out over the hours of your week. All winter, I got up early and wrote from 6:30-7:30AM, for example, never getting to finish what I’d started, and simply picking up where I’d left off when I returned the next day. It’s comforting to know that a great deal of work can be done in this way—that it can fit into lives that are otherwise occupied.
Synthesis is a totally different stage. Synthesis is when you weave your material together to make something bigger than the sum of its parts. Synthesis requires an intensive span of uninterrupted time. It is much more difficult (I would say impossible) to do in fits and starts. You also need the capacity to be ruthless and focused. During this stage, you analyze your gathered material for a theme, or repeated images, and you build a coherent narrative around your theme and images. You enter the synthesis stage with an open mind. Your focus is structural. During this stage, you become inventive in terms of fitting disparate pieces together. You also throw out a lot of excellent material because it just doesn’t fit the larger purpose. This is less painful than you imagine it will be in advance because the larger purpose takes precedence. And also because you know the rest of your gathered material may be used for purposes and projects you haven’t yet imagined.
At the synthesis stage, you’re making something bigger, something that will ultimately feel complete (and also, inevitably, imperfect).
In practical terms, you need concentrated time at this stage: a writing week, I would call it. But the good news is, your material can wait for you to make this time.
The other good news is that once you’ve got your structure firmly imagined, you can return to creating the missing pieces using the same strategies you used during the gathering stage.
Here’s my takeaway, and it’s big. When we’re approaching a project, large or small, too often we expect ourselves to start with synthesis: with the big idea, the overview, the unifying theme, the purpose. We start here, even though we have only the vaguest notion of what we might find in our explorations. It actually makes no sense: our ideas haven’t yet been gathered—how could we synthesize them? The pressure can feel crushing. And nothing destroys creativity faster than pressure (and expectation).
What if we gave ourselves permission to start with the gathering? What if we let our ideas accumulate slowly over a long period of time? What if we let the story—the bigger project—find us, lead us, guide us, rather than trying to control and determine it by force? What if we found joy in the process of creation? What if the process was truly joyful, surprising, adventurous, kind of amazingly awesome, in fact?
So that’s a summary of how I spent my winter. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the discoveries I’ve made through my creativity course have been huge, even life-changing. My gratitude goes out to that fellow camper in her hyper-efficient tent, for sparking the original idea. But most of all, my gratitude goes out to those adventurous volunteers who did the work along with me, and kept me honest. I can’t thank you enough.
Just realized why this morning is feeling emptier than usual. For the past couple of months, I’ve spent Wednesday and Thursday mornings tutoring a new neighbour in ESL, and as of Monday, she’s attending formal ESL classes, which was always the goal. My intention was only to tide her over while she waited to get into the program.
Last week, we spent Thursday morning walking and riding the bus together, so her new route to school would become familiar. The next day, I listened to The New Yorker’s fiction podcast; the February post is Junot Diaz reading Edwidge Danticat’s story “Seven.” At the story’s end, two characters, who are immigrants from Haiti, ride the bus together. The phrase that spoke to me was: trying to see through her eyes.
I spent Thursday morning trying to see through my friend’s eyes, and it seemed that although we moved through the same physical space together, what we saw and heard did not mean the same thing to both of us. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. How privilege, skin colour, gender, age, wealth, familiarity, health, past experiences alter the world as we move through it. We exist in relation to what surrounds us, and in relation to how we perceive and are perceived.
Here’s what I wrote after listening to “Seven.”
When I am with my friend, I feel as though I am almost wearing her skin, her headscarf, I feel the exposure and vulnerability of being a newcomer, unaccustomed to the weather, to the language, to what is safe and what is dangerous. As we walk along a sidewalk, I see she fears the big black dog whose owner clips its collar to a leash on our approach — she recoils as she passes the dog, politely pulled off the sidewalk by the owner, who says good morning. But she does not seem to fear the white man and woman who come toward us with dyed and shaven hair, who I fear might be skinheads. Instead, I recoil.
Later, as we arrange ourselves on the bus, it is I who stagger unsteadily to a seat, uncertain of my balance, while my friend stands braced against the stroller and a pole, concerned for me. Her face is tired. She has been in Canada for almost three months. I think suddenly, she is tough, tougher than I can guess, tougher than me. All this time, I have wanted to protect her, but as I see her now I am ashamed to have been so reductive. She has told me about the guns coming to Syria, bang bang. She has endured more than I can imagine. Even so, I recognize her anxiety as she tries to orient herself. I want to assuage it, to reassure her.
I tell her, This is the stop. I pull the line and stand. The men move out of our way to let the stroller by. I want to help her lift the stroller, but she doesn’t need my help. We begin to walk. She sounds out the letters on the building across the street: “Don McLaren Arena.” Yes, I say, ice skating. I mime ice skating. She laughs and I think she doesn’t understand so I continue to mime. She taps her head. What she’s trying to tell me is that she will remember “Don McLaren Arena” — this is her stop. Great idea! I stop ice skating and exclaim.
We walk in silence for awhile. I don’t want to fumble with my phone and Google translate in this bright sunshine. I see a man walking a big black dog, ahead, different man and dog. They are walking on a cross pass away from us. In Syria, dogs inside the house? I ask. She laughs, No! Brother, chickens, sheep, dog, she says. Outside. I tease her: Maybe someday, you will have a dog. In Canada, so many people have dogs and cats. No, no, no, she says. No dog, no cat. A bird, she says to me.
I can see her face, turned toward me, smiling, an objectively beautiful face, no makeup, clean and memorable. She is wearing a light-coloured headscarf.
A bird, I say.
A bird, she agrees. We walk past Tim Horton’s where she and her husband have come to buy coffee and roll up the rim to win. He won another coffee. She was hoping for a car, a TV. But just a coffee. No one wins the car, I tell her. She tells me that a little dog scared their daughter, who is five, who began to scream in fright, and the dog’s owner, a woman, picked up the dog and held it in her arms. It was okay? I ask. It was okay.
My friend is opening up the world to me. I see that I can’t see through her eyes, though I try, though I want to. I can only walk beside her, often in silence. Wondering what this place looks like through her eyes. Is it ugly or beautiful? Welcoming or closed? Is it safe or dangerous? Is it home? Could it be home? Everything looks both brighter and starker when I’m walking beside her. There is a clarity to the light, and a barrenness, as if the objects and structures are being stripped back to their bones.
The light is bright for February, and we are warm. Even my friend, wrapped in her black coat, always cold, admits that she is now warm. The baby starts to fuss as we near their apartment. I don’t want to say goodbye. It seems I receive as much from her friendship as she could possibly receive from mine, because I enjoy her company, because I am happy when I am with her, more curious, more alert, more aware, because even a bus ride feels purposeful, somehow, when I’m trying to see through her eyes.
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