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.
This is my 1500th post since launching my blog, nearly nine years ago. Today is a gorgeous spring day, and I am spending part of it indoors, writing, which is just where I want to be, in fact. This morning, a cardinal visited the bare branches of a small tree outside my window, a bright little jewel dancing and holding my attention, until he flew away. Friends invited us for an impromptu lunch. It’s a holiday and it feels like the weekend, only more relaxed. Across the street, there are police visiting the neighbours, but I don’t detect any violence, no shouting. When we walked by earlier, the neighbours were sitting in a patio area behind the small apartment complex, and it looked like they were having a meal together. People are outside.
I might have a small sunburn. My fingers are getting warmed up on the keys.
Last night I went to my sister Edna’s show. She made music that was like a soundtrack for a movie inside my head. I closed my eyes and the half hour vanished, fed by beats that rumbled up through the floorboards and through my whole body, a soundscape that produced vivid images in my mind. Mostly images of war, but I think that’s because of what’s happening not so covertly in a number of countries which Donald Trump (or his generals) have deemed evil. How many beautiful children of God were incinerated when a bomb the size of a bus was dumped into the wilderness of Afghanistan, its burn radius a mile wide? Yesterday, I waited with my Syrian friend at a bus stop and we talked about two homeless men we’d seen asking for change, sitting on the sidewalk as we walked by, and she said in Lebanon there were Syrian children at every stoplight crowding up to cars, begging, or trying to sell a single tissue at a time from a box of Kleenex. Small children, this high, she showed me. I saw the same sight when we visited Nicaragua a decade ago; I remember. I could not think what to say, except, That is so sad. I felt the shame of a response so wholly inadequate. As if I could fix it, as if there were an adequate response. I did not give change to the men sitting on the sidewalk, but, I told my friend, sometimes I do. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Same, same. Does it make a difference? I did not say this last part out loud.
There are too many things that infuriate and enrage me, so I choose not to think about them most of the time. Banks that seem to exist to make money for the wealthiest. A stock market that seems to exist to make money for those who know how to game the system. Corporate boards that seem to exist to inflate the already obscene salaries of the wealthiest. Corporations that traffic in the tools of warfare. Leaders who will never suffer for even their most craven and cruel decisions. The insulation of individuals due to privilege and extreme wealth. Why isn’t there a maximum wage? The furrow in my brow grows deeper.
I’ve had a good week. In addition to being asked to teach again this fall, I’m taking over the spring creative writing course at UW, something I’ve never done before. If I think about it too much, I’ll panic at the unexpected workload, but I wouldn’t have said yes if didn’t think it was manageable. Teaching is my version of a writing grant. Plus I get to work with young people. There’s an office on campus. A classroom. A big library. I can bike or walk to work.
No matter what happens, people need to get their stories out. Sometimes I think this is my life’s work: bearing witness, and helping others to bear witness. Bear witness, expel torment, see the red cardinal in the bare tree.
Girl Runner is the gift that keeps on giving — miraculously and when I least expect it. Yesterday, my agent called with the news that Girl Runner had earned more royalties, enough to help me shore up the flood walls once again.
It’s been a few years since Girl Runner was published, and she owes me nothing. Early on, when the manuscript first sold, I was overwhelmed by the expectation that I would need to write a follow-up that would tick all of the same boxes — sales, attention, literary recognition; a successful book, in other words, that most ephemeral of books. Any attempt was doomed from the outset by my expectations. For awhile, I’ll confess to my great shame that Girl Runner felt like a weight that I had to get out from under, not proof of success, but proof that I was an idiot who had lucked into a fortune much beyond my capacity to repeat. And that may be true enough. But the funny thing is that I don’t mind, now, not at all. I love that Girl Runner exists. She’s been a gift in my life. In a strange way, Aganetha is as real to me as anyone I’ve ever met, and I’m glad I got to know her.
The truth about gifts is that we don’t ask for them. We don’t choose them. We receive them. We can accept what we receive or we can reject what we receive. I don’t know why I spent so much time struggling against the gift that was Girl Runner. My overwhelming emotion now is gratitude.
Whoever I write and publish next, she doesn’t need to be Aganetha. She just needs to be herself.
I can do that.
To do it, I may need a writing week (or four or ten), but I know that I can. It’s strange and foolish and fortunate to feel such hope and optimism in the midst of a personally difficult time in my own life. But this is what writing does for me — gives me hope. There is hope in telling a story, hope in finding a voice. Hope and power, too.
Writing is a gift. It’s the gift I stumblingly try to give when I lead workshops and teach. Story, voice, hope, power: this belongs to you, too. Here.
I love my blog most of the time. I love that it exists and that I can come here to pour out ideas and wonder and dream out loud. But my blog isn’t always useful or helpful. Sometimes it’s like a window on which I just want to pull the blinds.
Sometimes, a simple old-fashioned journal works better. Or a walk with a close friend. Or family time.
“I don’t really know what you do all day, Mom,” said one of my children recently.
A few days later, there was a detailed discussion, involving all my children, on the subject of all the books I should be writing, mostly revolving around riffs on Girl Runner. Sequels, prequels, spin-offs. A great deal of laughter.
I got so depressed, I finally asked them to stop. It has been years since I’ve written a publishable novel. A person starts to wonder, you know.
The work goes on. It’s what I do all day.
This is not an uncommon story, to be sure.
“You have to be able to stand not knowing long enough to let something ALIVE take shape.” -Lynda Barry
I don’t know how long I can stand not knowing, but, aha!, there’s my word of the year, standing right there inside that sentence, firm and strong and useful, if a bit itch-inducing. It never occurred to me that I would or could use it in this way, but I can and will.
I’m blogging during the Superbowl, pausing to go watch the commercials and the half-time show.
I want to write about the lovely rituals that are sustaining me these days. At some point every day I spend 15 minutes doing kundalini yoga while listening to music (Mongolian throat singing; Tanya Tajaq; and Leonard Cohen’s last album are my current go-to’s). I follow yoga with 10 minutes of meditation, using Headspace, which is an online app. I’ve added in 15 minutes on the spin bike once a day, too, to get my heart rate up and start working on my cardio again, now that my head can handle it. And I’m walking about four times a week. Of course, I’m also writing by hand and spending a lot of time drawing, too. My hours are blessed and peaceful.
I am grateful.
I’ve been thinking that artists must be humble, must have humility before a higher power, as Leonard Cohen himself seemed to, because to make art is to be reliant on gifts beyond our grasp. We can only beg to be blessed, to be used, to serve, to be spoken through. So the work that gets done, the effort and discipline, it’s like trying to break a code, or tap some mystery that we know does not belong to us and cannot be grabbed, only given. Maybe that’s why my daily rituals seem so powerful to me.
I used to believe that work was the thing. Now I believe almost wholly in mystery. I believe in stumbling, through work but also through ritual, through faith, through any trick that might cast a spell, into the path of mystery; you might say, also, into the path of grace. I believe that whatever I’m here to do, I do not know, and it isn’t up to me to decide. What’s up to me is the choice to show up, again and again, with hope. To sing great praise, to open myself, to listen. I know nothing. I know nothing of what I am making, only that I am making it, planning it and studying for it (reading, researching, filling my brain with information and images) and making it. Surprise is the best part of the exchange. I am almost always surprised by what I’ve made, on the other side of making it. It is a simple joy. I want to share this joy, because it seems so easily discovered, like it’s always there, always waiting to be found.
I believe in mystery. I believe that anything I’ve made comes not from me, but through me, and it is not for me, and anything I gain from it is not for me, but for a power greater than myself, something I can’t know, but only glimpse, as through a glass darkly.