Category: Big Thoughts
On the weekend, I walked to the library with my elder daughter. While she browsed in the non-fiction stacks — the theoretical physics section — I played a little game that has served me well over the years: I wandered a little further (no theoretical physics for me) and plucked titles at random from the shelves, my choices based only on title or subject. In quick succession, I skimmed and rejected two books on Scottish folk and fairy tales, but my third choice had me sitting cross-legged on the floor, entranced.
It was a biography of Rachel Carson, the American scientist who became famous for her books about the sea and the beauty of the natural world, and who is remembered now as the author of Silent Spring, a book that warned the public about the dangers of pesticides and other chemicals. Silent Spring was published in 1962; Rachel Carson died in 1964 of cancer. If you google Rachel Carson, you will find that to this day she is reviled in some circles as a “feminizi ecoterrorist.” The biography, Witness for Nature, by Linda Lear, and published in 1997, is a little more nuanced. It evokes a portrait of a self-effacing, deeply intelligent, patient, hard-working woman who was led by her love of nature and science to become outspoken on conservation issues. Rachel Carson began her career as a government biologist, writing educational pamphlets on a variety of subjects. But she’d always wanted to be a writer. Science became her subject. And with enormous effort and obsessive care, Rachel Carson fashioned a successful literary career; eventually, she became successful enough that she could afford to resign from her government post, in her mid-40s, to devote her life to writing about science in poetical narratives that appealed to a broad audience.
It goes without saying that Rachel Carson was an unusual woman for her era. What strikes me most, however, is how fresh and relevant her message remains today.
Even though the book was an enormous tome, I decided to check it out and carry it home, and I spent the weekend reading it with pleasure. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy biographies, especially of writers. I look for clues, I nod in recognition, or admit to envy for those who have a knack for self-promotion. Rachel Carson’s attention to detail, her push for publicity, her irritation with her first publisher, who failed to promote her first book — all of this impressed me. She had a vision for the entire publishing process and she saw it through, little deterred by criticism, yet open to critique, actively seeking it out, so as to better her own work. She also frequently turned down promotional opportunities, speeches, honorary degrees, etc., to preserve time and space for her research and writing. She knew how to say no. (Is it too late for me to learn?)
Rachel Carson lived with her mother, who kept house for her; she was the main breadwinner for her family, which included at times her older sister and brother, mother and father, and later, her orphaned nieces. She did not marry, had no children. Our lives, in their domestic details, do not much meet and overlap.
But reading about her life has got me thinking about the importance of devotion to a subject; no, the critical imperative of devoting attention to a subject, if one is to hope to learn, to understand, to teach, to share knowledge, to find solutions to human problems large and small. Our lives on earth depend upon it. We cannot be lead by those who would ignore deep, complex knowledge in favour of simplistic superficial fixes. We cannot give power to ignorance. (Too late? Well, then let’s stand true against powerful ignorance.)
Here is Rachel Carson on her belief in the universal accessibility of science:
“We live in a scientific age; yet we assume that knowledge of science is the prerogative of only a small number of human beings, isolated and priestlike in their laboratories. This is not true. It cannot be true. The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience. It is impossible to understand man without understanding his environment and the forces that have molded him physically and mentally.”
Here is Rachel Carson on the human tendency to focus on egocentric problems, and to fail to see our place in the vast sweep of time:
“Perhaps if we reversed the telescope and looked at man down these long vistas, we should find less time and inclination to plan for our own destruction.”
And here is Rachel Carson on the danger of seeing humankind as separate from nature:
“Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself, in his cities of steel and concrete, from the realities of earth and water and the growing seed. Intoxicated with a sense of his own power, he seems to be going farther and farther into more experiments for the destruction of himself and his world.”
Her solution? Wonder and humility.
“Focus attention on the wonders of a world known to so few, although it lies about us everyday.”
Recognize your place in the grand sweep of time. Know yourself to be part of the natural world. Wonder at your participation in the cyclical turnings. In this way, by becoming very small, by being a piece of something much larger than yourself, you will be of the world around you, not against it. I am fascinated by her repetition of the word “destruction” — her insistence that the human belief that we are above nature, not of nature, springs from a dangerously destructive impulse, that it invents and experiments with destruction.
I love when a book finds me.
On spiritual food
I have less than 15 minutes in which to write this blog post, so necessity will determine its structure: a list. Here are a few things that have been feeding me spiritually, lately.
Cycling. Cycling at a leisurely pace, on safe trails, through the beauty of our Canadian spring. Biking home from campus, the thought comes like a refrain: this is exactly what I’ve always dreamed of, teaching at a university, being able to bike to and from work, taking life at a pace that does not sap it of its natural rhythms.
Church. I’ve been drawn to church this calendar year. I grew up in the Mennonite church, attended a variety of different churches, in different settings, and despite long lapses and absences, feel at home there, at home in the hymns, the passages of scripture (like poetry, my daughter whispered to me recently), and in the community. My mind and spirit are fed in the Sunday services. It helps to have found a church that appeals to me as someone who seeks and questions, rather than someone who yearns for answers and prescriptions.
Poetry. I can’t say enough about how poetry is feeding me right now. I’m teaching the poetry unit in my creative writing class, and everything about it feels fresh and alive. I’m alert to the necessity of poetry, how it moves toward meaning and mystery in a way no other art form can, quite, except maybe for song.
Music. Playing it, singing it, listening to it. On Saturday, driving home from an event in Chatham (a presentation at a library), I kept myself awake by singing along to opera. Harder than it sounds (or maybe not!). Only possible when alone in a vehicle (as I’m sure my children would assure you).
Friends. Every human connection sparks something in me — gratitude, appreciation, comfort, hope. I am blessed with friendships that are old and have weathered much, and by newer more fragile friendships too. I am aware of a web of connections that opens around me and my family, supporting us.
Dogs. Our dogs, these two formerly homeless animals that we adopted almost five years ago, who took at least three years to settle in and trust us, bless us daily with their in-the-moment animal presence.
This list could go on and on. But I’m about to get on my bike and cycle to campus (in the rain!) to work in my quiet office before teaching this afternoon. And I’m hungry. (Literally and figuratively.)
The deeper I get into this current phase in my life — call it middle age, maybe — the closer I come to an understanding of what it means to be at peace with all these elements and circumstances within a life that cannot be changed. So much that envelopes me right now can’t be shifted. Some things are consequences of choices I’ve made and responsibilities willingly adopted. But others are like the weather — unpredictable and impossible to alter by will or imagination or self-deception.
If it’s raining, it’s raining. You can bring an umbrella and wear rain boots, and that will help, but you can’t by prayer or wishful thinking or desire alter the fact that it is raining. Sometimes you didn’t know it would be raining and you don’t even have an umbrella. This happens too. So life is often about rolling with what’s coming at you — the unexpected — and often it’s the hard kind of unexpected, not the exciting kind.
People you love will suffer, do suffer — and you will suffer when someone you love is hurt or sick or struggling, especially when you feel responsibility of care. There isn’t a solution to this. You can’t not love just because you will suffer too, in loving others in their suffering. Love is love. You have to accept that you can’t fix everything. You have to know what makes you feel comforted, what brings you peace and hope and even joy, and you have to do those things as often as you can. And you have to be prepared to change course quickly, to let the shape of your expected day be shifted by what is happening before you. Resistance in this regard is worse than futile — it will become resentment so fast.
If you can do this, even at the end of a challenging rainy day, you may find yourself saying, This was a good day. Because it was.
“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.
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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