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.
Happy New Year!
I am gathering materials for my experimental 12-week creativity course based on Lynda Barry’s Syllabus, which could also be called a writing & drawing course, a cartooning course, or a graphic novel course; it encompasses aspects of all of the above.
Here are the materials I’ve gathered:
*Books: Lynda Barry’s What It Is, and Syllabus. The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks. The Poetry of Emily Dickinson. (I’m still waiting on the arrival of Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice, by Ivan Brunetti.)
*Materials: 48 Crayola crayons; 12 Primsacolor pencil crayons; Uniball vision pens, fine; Black flair pens; a non-photo blue pencil; pencil sharpener; travel watercolour set with fine brush, brand name Winsor & Newton; India ink; Elmer’s glue and a glue stick; scissors; a box cutter; 1-inch Chinese brush; nylon brush; cork-back 12-inch ruler; a Staedtler pencil set. (Note: most everything on this list was a Christmas gift from my family, and mainly from my husband, with help from the woman at the art store on our corner.)
*Paper materials: compositions books; index cards; copier paper; watercolour paper; blank sketchbook; scraps of different kinds of paper saved from a variety of sources.
I’m going to test out Week One of my course curriculum tomorrow, possibly with the participation of a child, who has expressed interest in joining in. I’m aiming for three hours of dedicated “classroom” work each week, for twelve weeks, plus smaller homework assignments.
This wall of colouring pages, which includes work by friends from last night’s New Year’s Eve party (yo, I know how to throw a rocking party….!), is just the beginning.
This is a post I meant to write on my birthday, which was yesterday. Yesterday, I fully intended to plan out my writing adventures for this upcoming year. I would journal and blog and make schedules and send messages and plot workshops onto calendars. Instead, I indulged every lovely whim: I was treated to lunch by a friend, hugged my dad, went to the movies, opened presents and cards, and went on a dinner date with Kevin. When I sat down at 10PM to write in my journal, I was promptly interrupted by my youngest, who needed me to read Harry Potter to him — the last book in the series has become too dark for him to read alone in his bed: “It’s like she [JK Rowling] dug down so far that she hit a sewer pipe and then she just kept digging!” He pronounced it “swer” pipe. I love when my children mispronounce difficult words — it means they’ve learned the word by reading it. Thus ended the journaling.
Listen, my mind is humming with ideas and plans. Listen, I’m going to get them down on the page, out into the world.
I’ve been working on sketching out the curriculum for a 12-week creativity course, based on Lynda Barry’s Syllabus. (That’s what it looks like, above.) The course involves a lot of writing and perhaps even more drawing, using a variety of materials (crayons, watercolours, pencils, ink). The goal of the course is to create an illustrated handmade book, roughly in the form of a short graphic novel, although the book could take any form, really, so long as it has stories and drawings. In order to refine the curriculum, and understand my own capacity to teach this course, I’m going to test out my ideas over the next twelve weeks. I am looking for a few guinea pigs to test the ideas with me. You don’t have to live nearby, as I’d also like to discover whether it would be feasible to administer and take this course from a distance.
Are you interested?!
If so, please contact me, and I will send you details of what I’m imagining for this very rough, experimental, alpha version of the course. It’s a reasonably big commitment (12 weeks of serious writing and drawing assignments), but I’m looking forward to exploring in new and creative ways. I’m looking forward to building new stories.
UPDATE, JAN. 3, 2017: Thank you to everyone who volunteered to be a guinea pig! The trial spots have all been filled. Stay tuned for progress reports throughout the term, and let me know if you would like to be contacted with info about future courses.
Soon, I will teach my last class for another term. Because I am a sessional lecturer, there is no guarantee I will teach again. But I would like to; I would like, in addition to the introductory creative writing course I’m teaching now, to teach an advanced course that combines writing and drawing and collaboration, and demands serious commitment, a heavy workload; at the end of the course, everyone would have made a book (illustrated, but for adults).
Here are the questions this course would address, and engage with:
“What is creativity and where can I find it?”
“How can I get into the creative flow?”
“How can I stop procrastinating and do what I want?”
“Is creativity something I can practice? Can anyone?”
(In the above exercise, captions are paired with random illustrations; this is an example of an exercise one might do in my imaginary course.)
Last month, I spoke to a writer’s group about time management, and the question that arose most urgently was: How do I stop procrastinating? How do I get started? Which led into an even more complicated question: How do I get into the creative flow? Is this something you can learn and practice?
Yes, I said. You can practice getting into the creative flow. You can learn.
I believe this to be true. But in answering the question, last month, I got stuck on the how. And so I’ve been thinking about it, or my unconscious mind has been thinking about it, ever since. It isn’t just about discipline. (It is somewhat about discipline.) It’s about trusting that you can access something, fall into something, step into something that is unseen and unknown, without knowing or seeing it in advance. Can this be taught? I would like to try.
P.S. The course would be based around Lynda Barry’s Syllabus. It would be an unabashedly Lynda-Barry-styled course, even though I am a low-key Canadian who possesses not even a tenth of Lynda Barry’s charisma, and even though I am a writer not an artist; I believe the material would rise above my personal limitations.
A funny thing happened yesterday morning. I started reading old blog posts, from 2009/2010, and F and CJ sat down and read along with me. They loved the photos, but they also loved the snippets of dialogue and descriptions of our daily life — adventures in which they played starring roles as 1 and 4 years olds. We were in stitches laughing and remembering. I mean, I’d almost forgotten about our “cooking with kids” experiment, and how we would hold family meetings using a “talking crayon.”
I’d forgotten, too, how openly I wrote about my own writing struggles. This was a quiet and difficult time in my writing career. I was three years away from publishing The Juliet Stories, and five years from having published Hair Hat, at the time, my only book. Yet I shared when I finished a new draft of a manuscript — even though the manuscript would ultimately be sent back to the drawing board by my kind agent. I shared when I felt aimless and unsure. I shared the small joys, too. I didn’t seem afraid to let others see me fail.
I’m much more afraid now, I understand.
Why haven’t I shared my ups and downs since publishing Girl Runner? Why hold my cards so close to my chest? I would like to be as brave as my former self. I would like to tell you when I’m excited about a new manuscript, even though it may never be published.
I am excited about a new manuscript, even though it may never be published. It sprung from out of an abandoned idea, and tapped me on the shoulder, and I worked on it in a torrent of concentrated obsession for the past number of months, in locations that seem woven right into the book, in my mind: beside several different soccer fields, sitting in my little white car, or the camping chair I keep in the trunk, or at a windblown picnic table, and in a cool calm classroom in New York State that allowed me to find an ending. I wrote some of the book by hand. I drew cartoons of the main characters. I drew sequences and storyboarded scenes. It was fun. It was super-fun.
And I want to share that with you, whether or not the manuscript is ultimately destined to be published. Because it’s part of the story.
Because the writing felt like play. Because I’ve had a sense of well-being as I’ve worked on this manuscript, and that is a good, good thing. Because I’ve had a sense of spaciousness, of enough, but not too much, these past few months.
Now to go walk the dogs around the block with my Fooey and CJ, who have grown to the enormous ages of 11 and 8. Wow. I love that I can learn from my former self. I love that my kids have this virtual scrapbook to flip through, if and when they’re interested. And I’m glad, glad, glad it’s still summer.
PS Home again. CJ led us in an around-the block heptathlon. He got gold, Fooey got silver, Suzi took bronze. DJ didn’t appear to have Olympic ambitions, and I blame my sandals for my poor showing. That, and the late-afternoon inertia. We were having a grand old time right up until CJ stepped in dog poo (not ours) on the sidewalk, which Fooey found disproportionately amusing, which in turn put CJ into an even worse mood. “This is just a bad day,” he said, although he did take my hand as I tried to cheer him up, to no avail. By the time we reached our back yard, he was so mad that he took off his hat and kicked it into a small tree. The hat-kicking had a salubrious effect on his system. He and Fooey are friends again, and they are playing at the dining-room table with a craft kit dug up from heaven-knows-where that can be used to make miniature cakes and pastries, and probably, also, a major mess. What is this stuff? “It smells terrible,” says CJ. “Don’t worry,” says Fooey. “We’re using it all up.”
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