I’m trying to write the draft of a new novel, but I’ll be honest with you—I feel no urgency to finish it. What I feel instead is a desire to keep it hidden away, like a secret treehouse where I can go to play and think, and where I feel safe. If I do finish it, it feels like that secret treehouse will vanish. Writing a novel requires time and solitude and there aren’t many moments available to sit and write, due to other things going on in my life; there aren’t many moments when my mind can rest, when I can trust that there won’t be an interruption. So I’m mostly writing at my office on campus, on days when I teach. I write by hand. I don’t seem to care whether the pieces match up, from day to day. I keep finding bits of the story written in random notebooks, forgotten. Who knows what these add up to? The story is a cocoon.
Just because I’ve published books, doesn’t mean publishing more is in my future.*
I’m strangely at peace with this. It is easy not to publish, after all. What would be impossible would be never to write again. I think that I will always write; whether that makes me a writer isn’t my business to decide. Right now, I am someone who tries to teach others how to write. It seems like a way to respond to the insularity and parochialism of Canadian literature—to nurture new voices, to make room for new stories.
The words from an Ann Patchett essay jump into my mind: “People like to ask me whether writing can be taught, and I say yes. I can teach you how to write a better sentence, how to write dialogue, maybe even how to construct a plot. But I can’t teach you how to have something to say.”
This seems to get at the essence of something that matters to me. I don’t want to publish unless I have something to say. Maybe it takes years to gather up something worth saying. Maybe it just does. Life has to be lived, experiences accrue, layer upon layer, and with time these turn into compost. A richness is turned over to feed new growth. I’m at a point in my writing life when I’ve got the skills I need. I know how to write a sentence, how to write dialogue, even how to construct a plot. Now I wait to see whether I have something to say; something worth sharing.
I am trying to memorize a poem, but it’s slow going. My mind can’t seem to hold the sequence of these words and images, maybe because my post-concussion brain is not the powerful instrument it once was (this is something I worry about, even though I tell myself not to worry). I would like to embed this poem into my being. Once you’ve memorized a poem, it becomes a part of you, it enters your cells. Lines of poetry flow from me at odd moments of the day, like mantras.
Part One, Sonnet IV
You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathing
that is more than your own.
Let it brush your forehead
as it divides and rejoins behind you.
Blessed ones, whole ones,
you where the heart begins:
You are the bow that shoots the arrows
and you are the target.
Fear not the pain. Let its weight fall back
into the earth;
For heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas.
The trees you planted in childhood have grown
too heavy. You cannot bring them along.
Give yourselves to the air, to what you cannot hold.
-Rilke, translated by Joanna Macy (with one small word change by me, because I didn’t like the original)
Whoa—I didn’t think I’d memorized it, but without referring to the text, I typed it out here, from beginning to end. I will check it over now to make sure everything is accurate, especially the line breaks and punctuation.
Hope is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul, / and sings the tune without the words, / and never stops at all. -Emily Dickinson (I haven’t memorized all of this poem … but these are the words that popped into my head as I realized that I’d memorized Rilke, above.)
Hope is the thing with feathers. Hope is the thing with feathers.
This is not a bad time, or a sad time, I want to be clear—being at peace, escaping to my cocoon of fiction. I trust that if and when the season changes, I will recognize it. For now, I give myself to the air, to what I cannot hold.
*My kids’ picture book, Jammie Day, comes out this fall; but publishing a children’s book is not the same as publishing an adult book, for many reasons, which I won’t detail here; a discussion for another time.
Poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
under unbearable duress and only with the hope
that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.
“I write in order to forget scorn, in order not to forget, in order not to hate, from hate, from love, from memory, and so as not to die. Writing is a luxury or, with luck, a rainbow of colours. It is my lifesaver when the water of the river or the sea tries to drag me under. When you want to die you fall in love with yourself, you look for something touching that will save you. …
“Writing is having a sprite within reach, something we can turn into a demon or a monster, but also something that will give us unexpected happiness or the wish to die. …
“The world is not magical. We make it magical all of a sudden inside us, and nobody finds out until many years later. But I did not hope to be known: that seemed the most horrible thing in the world to me. I will never know what I was hoping for. … What matters is what we write: that is what we are, not some puppet made up by those who talk and enclose us in a prison so different from our dreams. Will we always be students of ourselves?”
-Silvina Ocampo, Buenos Aires, 1987 (from the introduction to Thus Were Their Faces)
“Dante begins the Divine Comedy — which is both a poem and a record of the composition of that poem — with an account of finding himself in a dark, tangled wood, at night, having lost his way, after which the sun starts to rise. Virginia Woolf said that writing a novel is like walking through a dark room, holding a lantern which lights up what is already in the room anyway. Margaret Laurence and others have said that it is like Jacob wrestling with his angel in the night — an act in which wounding, naming, and blessing all take place at once.
“Obstruction, obscurity, emptiness, disorientation, twilight, blackout, often combined with a struggle or path or journey — an inability to see one’s way forward, but a feeling that there was a way forward, and that the act of going forward would eventually bring about the conditions for vision — these were the common elements in many descriptions of the process of writing. …
“Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.”
-Margaret Atwood, 2002 (from the introduction to Negotiating with the Dead)
“If playing isn’t happiness or fun, if it is something which may lead to those things or to something else entirely, not being able to play is misery. No one stopped me from playing when I was alone, but there were times when I wasn’t able to, though I wanted to — there were times when nothing played back. Writers call it “writer’s block.” For kids there are other names for that feeling, though kids don’t usually know them.
“Fairy tales and myths are often about this very thing. They begin sometimes with this very situation: a dead kingdom. Its residents all turned to stone. It’s a good way to say it, that something alive is gone. …
“In a myth or a fairy tale, one doesn’t restore the kingdom by passivity, nor can it be done by force. It can’t be done by logic or thought. So how can it be done?
“Monsters and dangerous tasks seem to be part of it. Courage and terror and failure or what seems like failure, and then hopelessness and the approach of death convincingly. The happy ending is hardly important, though we may be glad it’s there. The real joy is knowing that if you felt the trouble in the story, your kingdom isn’t dead.”
-Lynda Barry, 2008 (from What It Is)
“When I think about writing, about going into a story, it is like I am travelling inside another world, as vivid and real as this world, and I am picking up clues, I am examining every detail up close or swooping high to see what the land looks like from above. I kneel and put my hands into the dirt and it is as if my hands are covered in earth. I am there and I am not here, so much, which is hard on those who wish me to remain here.
“When I think about going into a story, sometimes I feel like I am in a river and it is pulling me along, drawing me within its current. This is a state without fear, only wonder. I see shapes in the dark forest on either side, and the mystery is not where I’m going, the mystery is within the thick forest that surrounds me, impenetrable and beautiful, and it is my job to describe what I am seeing, even if I don’t fully understand it.”
-Carrie Snyder, 2017 (from this blog post, today, Monday, May 8, 4:27 pm)
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.
The musical was The Addams Family, performed at her high school this past weekend. This was taken on closing night. Here she is with her dad and her auntie Fi. So much love!
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.
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