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.
“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.
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.