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.
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.
Put aside your potty brain, in case that’s where your mind has gone (mine did; I blame Trump, and I think that’s fair).
This post is about a different kind of flow.
As I continue to work on the curriculum for my creativity course, I’m reflecting on what this course is attempting to do. A creativity course is not a creative writing course or a drawing course, but something rather different that would use both of these forms as tools. I first conceived of the idea of designing a creativity course when I was asked to speak to a local writers’ group about time management. I’d prepared a tidy little 10-point lecture on subjects like organization, scheduling, efficiencies, with practical tips on each. But one point, a very important point, seemed to stump everyone, including me.
“Don’t procrastinate,” I said. “Get into the flow and just go.”
“But how can I do that?” one woman asked, genuine agony in her tone. “I can’t seem to get myself to sit down and just get to work.” The others agreed. Invisible barriers seemed to be invisibly stealing their time, distracting them from what they firmly believed they wanted to be doing—which, in this context, was to write.
How to get into the flow? I was unable to answer their question adequately, even though I seem able to get into the flow myself, sometimes with ease, though other times not easily at all—why is that? What does it mean to get into the flow? What, exactly, is flowing? Where is this flow located? Can I train myself to go there—wherever there is—at will?
As I continued to think about this question (or series of questions), I became increasingly intrigued by the nature of the flow mindset, by its qualities, which seem almost to be physical as much as mental, and by the similarities in experiences described across creative disciplines.
colouring page by student, Week One
Let’s consider some of these similarities in the flow experience: There is a feeling of immersion inside another world. Time slows, or one’s sense of time vanishes altogether. The smallest details pop—of action, of sensual awareness. Whatever you’ve given your attention to becomes immensely interesting, absorbing. You feel as though you are following an idea, a pattern, an image, a set of chords or musical notes, a line; you are not dragging something behind you, you are alert to what is before you. It commands your attention. You seem able both to anticipate and to be surprised by what you are making. And the feeling that accompanies you after such an experience is a wonderful high, a buoyancy, a delight in the world around you and its possibilities. You cannot explain what you have done, exactly. It is as if what you have done has been something you experienced as happening rather than made to happen. You reliquinshed control. You are yourself amazed and charmed by what you have done.
Athletes experience this during games; musicians experience this in performances (and in practice); writers experience this as they write; and artists as they create.
The experience is a gift. But it must be said that it’s also the result of discipline. You can’t improvise on a theme without knowing how to play your instrument, without practicing to create a foundation to ground you.
All of this I know.
But is it possible to teach this?
colouring page by student, Week One
This course is my attempt to answer the question: how do I get into the flow?
How do I do what I want to do, which is to create? What if the barriers to creativity are built into our brain structure? How can we convince the left side of our brain to cede control to the right side? How do we see with eyes that recognize the uniqueness of every grain of sand, every line, every shadow, every eyelash? It can feel overwhelming to the left brain. It can feel scary, because we are letting go, we are letting ourselves be flooded with sensory material, because we are leaving ourselves behind, in a way, in order to be immersed in a different experience, and because we are seeing differently, in ways that defy assumptions our left brain relies on to keep our world organized and our brain operating efficiently.
my own colouring page, Week One
You may be changed by opening yourself to the flow. Your left brain knows this, and it’s afraid. What does it feel like to let go and be led? When is the last time you did this? How to create trust in this process, to bring us all to a different place, or way of being, so that at the end of a 12-week course, we will be able to answer the question: how do I get into the flow?
Most of the time, I am not afraid to step into the flow. I make time for it, and when I do, when I’m there in the flow, I am perhaps the most content and at peace with my life that I could ever hope to be. I know the delight it brings me. I know I can’t get stuck there, and in fact that I am lucky to be there, in those moments. I know, too, it’s always there, waiting for me to return.
So. This is my starting place. I’m excited to see whether this is something I can share with others.
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.
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