Earlier today I was writing, but then I had to stop writing because it was time to make a salad dressing, eat supper with my family, and clean up after supper. I was in a difficult part of the book, really struggling with it, and now I’m sitting down hours later, wondering how to find my way back in to that difficult spot? I feel a dull anger, but I don’t think it’s really to do with the interruption of thought, I suspect it’s a deeper frustration with my own inabilities to solve the problems in this book, which I fear I may not be clever enough or determined enough to do. The problem is that there is no big aha moment at the end of the book. There is no big reveal. No twist. The evil character remains evil. That’s another problem. The evil character is not an appealing and charismatic anti-hero who was once good and has fallen out of goodness, nor is he a polarizing or morally dubious character; no. All of his instincts and actions are reprehensible. Perhaps this points to a flaw in my imagination. I just can’t find his goodness, except possibly when he was a child. At the end of the book, has he changed? What’s revealed about him, ultimately?
So I sit here looking at the final page of this book, literally the final page, wondering where the redemption lies. Wondering whether this is a book about forgiveness or about revenge, or maybe it’s a book about being unable to forgive — and what happens then?
And then a few hours go by, and I’ve written a new ending that feels right, somehow, and the candle on my desk hasn’t burned out once this whole time. And now it’s bedtime. It’s getting late. I have a cartoon to finish and exercise early in the morning. It’s funny, and also comforting, to read what I wrote earlier in the evening. What I’ll probably remember about today is not the irritation or the frustration, which turned out to be momentary, fleeting, but the feeling of wholeness that arrived at the end of it all.
You have to withstand discomfort to make anything.
Title: Finding Footing
Captions: I ran with Heather this morning. It was snowing. The snow was so deep we couldn’t find our footing. We talked about our words of the year: fire and fresh. At home, I put unmelted snow from my hair on Annie’s forehead.
(What I like about this cartoon is the image of the snowflake that appears in each panel. It creates a visual motif that links the pictures with the text. The “on” should be “onto” but when writing in pen, mistakes get made and they’re permanent. So be it.)
The joy of embarking on a new project is the mystery of what its process will unearth. It’s too early into the cartooning project to guess what’s yet to be learned by doing it. What I’ve noticed so far is that already I have a sense of how many words can fit into each panel. Brevity and clarity are paramount. Thematic clarity is valuable, but sometimes a scattered cartoon, written and drawn in haste, can have its charms.
Captions: This particular cartoon is very time-challenged. Things that happened today: Forgot to pick up Angus from work … Tuned out during scripture reading at church … Walked backward into the cold wind with Calvin.
(This cartoon was written and drawn in almost exactly 10 minutes, which I think is the absolute minimum amount of time required.)
Some days I’ve drawn two cartoons, one on a political subject, and the other more personal. For the purposes of keeping the project streamlined, I’m allowing myself to post only one cartoon each day (on Facebook and Twitter); so far, I’ve chosen the personal over the political. The political cartoons have gone into blog posts instead. I don’t feel that I’ve settled on a drawing singular style, yet. I like that. I like the freedom to experiment with both subject matter and style.
Title: Is It Like Climbing A Mountain Of Snow?
Captions: What happens if I don’t feel like drawing? Is it like climbing a mountain of snow to get to campus? Like doing the dishes and vacuuming? If I just show up, just do it, just keep going, it will happen?
(This was the one day so far that I really didn’t feel like cartooning. I’m glad that I did. It’s a good reminder to just show up and do it, even if you don’t feel like it; good advice for life in general, for writing in particular.)
Questions I’m mulling: What makes a good cartoon? What’s too personal, in terms of subject matter? Would these cartoons be of interest only to family and friends? Is it possible to find the universal in the daily? (Of course it is! The question, really, is how?)
Title: Messy House
Caption: “My house is messy,” Asmaa said, and I said, “I won’t look.” But she wanted to show me. On the coffee table, a pan of butter, markings where dough was rolled out. She brought me a plate of baklava. “Too sweet?” “No!” I ate three.
(Most of these cartoons pair random scenes from the day with largely unrelated captions, and I enjoy discovering how these two dissimilar things respond to each other, but for this one, all the scenes drawn come from the story described in the text.)
Something interesting I’ve observed: that cartoons have the capacity to envelope sad, difficult narratives in a way that eases the pain, I think. Something I think about quite a lot is how to write about trauma without traumatizing the reader. I see in cartooning a possible means of tackling challenging subjects in non-traumatizing ways. Cartoons remind me of poems, a bit.
Title: This Day
Captions: This day has almost crushed me, yet it hasn’t been hard, objectively. I felt close to collapse, inside and out. I felt swarmed inside by anxiety that was almost pain. Yet, I did all of the things.
(Here, I think the scenes from the day soften the description of depression/anxiety in the text.)
Things I like about this project: I get to draw everyday. It’s an opportunity to reflect on my day, and pay attention to it in a different, unusual, creative way. It’s also an opportunity to invent thematic coherence and narrative out of the raw material of life. Life is raw. We humans, we have a tendency to pattern. Pattern may be illusion, but it is powerful. Pattern brings comfort — order to disorder, shape to chaos, coherence to uncertainty.
Title: Suddenly I Felt That I Understood
Captions: Today, I baked bread and I read Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook. In it, she quotes a line from Emily Dickinson… “After great pain, a formal feeling comes —” Which suddenly I felt that I understood absolutely.
(The drawing of my hands kneading bread dough didn’t really turn out. But now you know what that panel is all about. Kind of looks like two islands separating in the middle of a lake … or, I don’t know; what do you see? I’m trying very hard not to re-do any “mistakes” in the cartoons, but rather to accept them as speaking from or to some secret part of myself I couldn’t otherwise reveal.)
My word of the year for 2017 was STAND. As an exercise, partway through the year, I looked up all the meanings and synonyms for the word, and wrote them onto an index card that I carried around in my purse until at some point it turned into this stained and crumpled piece of paper you see above. The definition filled the entire card, in tiny letters, both sides.
1. v. To be upright, to be on one’s feet, to rise to one’s feet
2. v. Put, place, set
3. v. Take a position
4. v. Support, uphold, argue, champion, defend
5. v. Be present, remain, stay, exist, persist, continue, prevail, hold
6. v. Endure, abide, sustain, remain, last, bear up, carry on, withstand, suffer, submit to, face, weather, stomach, persevere
7. v. Be
There’s more, too. Of course STAND is also a noun with several meanings, including: position; kiosk; and a group of trees.
It was my original intention to explore meanings #3 and #4, above. I was going to take a stand and protest and speak out. But instead my year leaned heavily on #5 and especially #6. The many meanings of STAND expanded. The word took the shape of a tree in my mind, rooted with a strong spine, a good word and a good image for a year that rippled and buckled with unexpected heartache and news difficult to digest (most of which I’ve chosen not to write about on this blog, because it is either too personal or not directly my own story to tell).
STAND came to feel like a necessary, useful word, easy to incorporate into my thinking. I finished the year with greater confidence and inner quiet, at least about my writing. The word, and especially the image of a tree, seems to invite patience and calm, to look at the world and one’s own desires and human failures from a wide-angled view, as from a tree-top. In retrospect, I think I strived for less this year but nevertheless did the work I wanted to do. What more can a person ask for? It’s going to be hard to let this word go.
But it’s time to choose a new word, for a new year. I’m meeting with a group of friends tonight to share our new words. (I will share my word with you after I’ve shared it with them.) The bar is high. I’m a bit afraid. What hidden part of myself is seeking illumination?
To be continued …
PS If you choose a word of the year, please leave your word for 2018 in the comments.
Today is my birthday. It’s the first day I’ve had time to reflect, active reflection, since we waded into the Christmas season, and when I sat down before my notebook such a whirl of disconnected thoughts poured out. I am thinking of starting an autobiographical cartooning project, as shown above. I’ve developed a relatively efficient way of making a 4-panel cartoon: I write for 3 minutes using the prompt “What’s on your mind?”; then I use a timer to draw four cartoons, scenes from the past 24 hours of my day, each completed in exactly 2 minutes; and finally I pair ideas or phrases from “What’s on your mind?” with the cartoons, creating captions that aren’t directly related, and yet, combined, tell a little story. I’ve been making these half-hapzardly, often while waiting at piano lessons, squeezed into a tiny amount of time. I love creating a visual artifact. I love creating something to keep.
I have sad news. On the morning of December 23, we said goodbye to DJ. Above is the cartoon I drew that morning, while she lay on the floor beside me, still very much alive. We were fortunate to have a vet come to our house, and the whole family was present in the room as DJ passed out of this world in the most peaceful way possible, with loving hands on her, truly surrounded by love, so I can’t be sad about that. And although I miss her goofy presence underfoot, I also can’t be sad that her suffering has been relieved. The end felt like a surprise, even though we were preparing for it for a long time, and even though signs had been accumulating that the time was coming. But really, DJ was fine right up until she wasn’t, and thankfully, we were able to respond quickly. As we made the decision, and prepared to say goodbye that morning, one of the kids wept, “I don’t want DJ to be a body!” That struck a chord deep within me. Yes. Oh, yes, I know what you mean.
I didn’t want DJ to be anything but what she was: alive, breathing, present, animated, here with us. But when I look at the photo, below, taken on her last walk that morning, I see her distress. And I know we can’t keep what isn’t ours to keep.
It is hard to say goodbye. I am struck over and over this holiday season by how hard it is to say goodbye. Even a welcome change can create a hole, nostalgia for what was. I’m thinking of the new parkland across the street, created by knocking down the houses that were there before, none of them very pretty, and yet, I found myself in the days immediately after they were gone irrationally missing them. Absence is absence. It’s why we keep telling ourselves stories that may not be serving us. It’s why we hang on to old pain and shame. It’s why we are afraid of making space for something new. Instinctively, we know that any absence, any loss, any goodbye will reshape us in ways impossible to predict.
Today has been a great day, a good birthday, and I’ve been doing exactly as I please and wish, which is my definition of the perfect birthday. I woke early to go for a walk with a friend. Kevin made me breakfast. I went out for coffee with two of my brothers. I treated myself at the bookstore. I hugged my mom, and my dad. I worked on the logistics for this new cartooning project, figuring out how to scan and edit images. I listened to music while drawing and writing. Oh, yes, and I blogged. Tonight, Kevin is taking me out for dinner.
Every year that comes around is a blessing. This past year has been full. Full of the unexpected, the hard, the surprising, and the miraculous. I learned how to draw this year! How unexpected is that? Never saw it coming. I also wrote a book by a hand, something that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been concussed. I’ve been kinder to myself in many ways, this year, accepting aging (I’m wearing new reading glasses, for example), deepening relationships, sending roots down into the earth, humbled by my work, demanding time to exercise and also to write. Many tears. Much warmth. Quiet, too. I can’t guess what will come in this new year. I have ideas, plans, stories to write, poems to memorize, kids to snuggle, friends to embrace, a new word to play with, songs to learn, habits and rituals to nurture.
Cartoons to create.
Below, from December 15: “I didn’t leave room for a caption.” Hey, lots of learning to do, too.
PS Soundtrack for this post: Lullaby, by the Dixie Chicks.
Settle in. This is a long one. I’m going to try to answer the question: How do you write? It’s a question about process, about routine, and one I want to quiz other writers on too — how the heck do you do it? What does your day look like? How do you organize yourself to conceive, research, and complete large projects?
Is there a secret set of rituals? And if so, can I access that, please?
I always forget, by the time a book is published, how it was written. I retain a vague memory of the timeline, but the days and weeks and months and years muddle together, and so I create a new narrative: the how I wrote this book narrative. It’s highly romanticized in retrospect.
The bad news: there is no magic formula, or if there is, I’ve never figured it out.
This past year, from January till December of 2017, I’ve been writing a new novel. I just finished what I’m calling Draft Three. Let this post be a record of how I wrote it, while the memory remains fresh in my mind. (To be fair and frank, this novel’s conception includes two failed novels written between 2014-2106, both weird cousins to this one, but that’s another story.)
Here’s how I wrote this book, Drafts One through Three.
Step one: I didn’t stop writing it, even after the lousy first draft. (My first drafts are always lousy; 100% guaranteed; but if I’m bored with a novel after the first draft I take it as a sign to move on to something new.) I finished a sort-of version of a first draft in April. How lousy was it? It didn’t even have an ending. But it existed, and its characters existed. So that was an accomplishment. In case there are clues that I can follow later, here’s how I wrote this early draft: Due to my concussion, I couldn’t work on a screen for any length of time, nor was I exercising early in the morning. From January – March, I set my alarm and rose at 6am, three or four mornings a week, and wrote until 7:30am, when it was time to help get the kids to school. I wrote in my office, in pajamas, wrapped in a blanket, sitting in my great-aunt Alice’s rocking chair by the window. I wrote by hand, in pen or pencil, in a notebook. That’s all the time I put into it. Sometimes I was so tired, I would close my eyes and drift back to sleep. The light on those mornings was inky black changing to blue black and indigo as the sun rose. There were a lot of crows in the trees. Often, I wouldn’t know what storyline or scene might arise when I sat down. It felt dreamlike. In April, when my head was better, I arranged for a full writing week. I transferred the pencil scratches to my laptop, adding material, trying to complete the book. But no.
Step two: Keep writing, even when hopelessly pressed for time. The book wasn’t done. I started teaching in May. I carted my notebook and pencil to campus and spent an hour before class, writing in my office. That hour, twice weekly, was the sum total of my time (mental and actual) available for writing. Life imposes its own demands at times, unavoidable and all-consuming. At the end of June, I arranged another writing week and attempted to finish the novel, using the new notebook material. Still no ending, but complete enough to warrant printing it out: I called this Draft One. In July, the English department assigned two more instructors to my shared office, and they overlapped with my office hours, so I stopped writing on campus. I felt deeply discouraged. I’d lost my writing space, couldn’t solve the problems in draft two, kids were out of school, soccer season in full swing, I was marking and reading student stories, etc. I satisfied my need to write (which is constant and near-daily) by writing along with my students inside and outside of class.
Step three: Embrace inspiration when it arrives. In August, on our family holiday to Quebec, I brought along some books to read. One was Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett, a favourite writer of mine. While reading it, I had a brainwave: a different approach to my novel. I remember exactly where I was: in a leather chair overlooking the indoor pool surrounded by fake tropicals and rococo plaster statuary. It would mean rewriting my novel from scratch. You might think this sounds exhausting. I felt exhilarated. Marking completed, August offered many opportunities for writing time. The week after returning from Quebec, I wrote every day. Again, I wrote in my notebook by hand. This time, I transferred the text immediately to my laptop, rewriting and revising as I went. But a major plot problem loomed, confirmed by research.
Step four: Don’t be afraid to play! In the middle of August, I spent a week in New York State at a writing workshop with Lynda Barry and Dan Chaon. The exercises were unrelated to my novel, and I didn’t try to link them up, but in that open playful environment, ideas flowed freely, my mind was uncluttered. On a walk on the second evening, a solution to the major plot problem floated in. Every evening, I went to our classroom space and worked on the novel, with freedom and joy. When I sat down to write, I followed Lynda Barry’s ritual: I listened to a song and drew an attendance cartoon; then I wrote for 3 minutes to dump out whatever was on my mind (this may be my own addition to the ritual); and then I got to work. Back home, I wrote as often as possible on weekdays. At the end of August, at my dad and stepmother’s cottage, I wrote every day, in 2-3 hour stretches morning and afternoon, kayaked before dinner, and spent the rest of the time with my family. Home again, I continued to write, whenever I could squeeze it in, even after school started and I was back to teaching. By the end of September, I was done. This time, my novel had an ending. I printed it and called it Draft Two.
Step five: Don’t stop now. Kevin read Draft Two. I was hoping he would say: this is brilliant, send it to your agent! He did not. Re-reading it, I agreed. I got back to work. This required identifying potential writing days each week, keeping these days clear, guarding them jealously, jamming errands and volunteer work and teaching and marking and answering email into the other days. I aimed for two or three writing days each week; not always possible. Again, I wrote by hand in my notebook, then transferred to screen. I started my writing time with a song and a cartoon. The momentum at this point became relentless. I could not turn myself off.
I finished. Draft Three.
As I reflect on these stages, I notice that the early gathering stage requires some small amount of regular time, the creation of a routine that allowed me to sit down and gather scraps, though I couldn’t quite see what I was making. But the later work required great swathes of time and focus. Just ask my family. For example, last Saturday, I decided to go through Draft Three line by line, and without considering the consequences sat down in my office around 10am. I proceeded to sit for hours and hours without eating or drinking or moving. Kevin dragged me out to a carol sing with friends around 2:30pm. Socially, I was almost useless. Home again, I drifted instantly back to my office, forgetting to eat or drink. Supper came and went. I did not move. I broke away, but returned around midnight, overtaken by another idea. This week, I was supposed to be marking my students’ final stories. But I had to finish the book. Do you see. I had to finish. It’s almost an addiction, I would have to say. The switch gets flipped and I can’t turn it off.
This is why I resist, sometimes, sitting down to write. Yet it’s the only way to finish a major project.
Here is one last thought. I work like this, this obsessively, on projects that fail, too. There is no guarantee that obsessive attention will result in success. However, the desire to continue pouring energy into a project, obsessively, has, in the past, allowed me to write books I’m truly proud of. Sometimes a project is dead, and I know it and accept it. But a project that lives tells me too. A living yet unresolved project feels like an itch deep inside my brain, almost painful; I know something is missing and I’m not sure how to fix it, but if I allow myself to sit with dissatisfaction, to hold cognitive discomfort, if I trust myself and trust the process, a new idea inevitably comes, a new thread to play with. The experiment begins again, afresh. I work and work and work until I run out of time or I finish what I’ve started.
It is painful to run out of time, but life needs time, too. I’ve sacrificed a lot of family time in order to write. I have and I do. I must, if I’m to write. Writing is my life’s work. I’m beginning to accept what that means. Sometimes there is no balance in the balancing act.
This is how I write.
P.S. Kevin is reading Draft Three now. I’ll keep you posted. Back to marking …
In the past couple of creative writing courses I’ve taught, I’ve devoted an entire class to listening to and writing fairy tales. Why? Sometimes I introduce an exercise without fully understanding its necessity, until I’ve been through it several times. After my fairy tale class yesterday, my brain was spinning, like I’d learned how to spin flax into gold. I may not entirely understand why the fairy tale is so valuable to listen to and enter into, but I’m getting closer.
Fairy tales are full of archetypal imagery: images that are powerful and timeless, even if they may be interpreted differently by different cultures and in different eras. Brothers and sisters; transformations; talking beasts; wise women and witches; kings and queens; red shoes; axes; forests; water. As we wrote our own fairy tales, some of these images no doubt found their way into our stories, and we knew they had meaning beyond themselves, we understood it at gut level. A dark forest conjures a meaning different from a river; the moon means something different from the sun; the power of a witch is different from the power of a king or a queen. Maybe we also understood that the meaning of these images was somehow malleable, too, and that we could work with it, we could subvert it, we could make it our own—we understood that meaning shifts. Sometimes it’s even our duty to shift meaning or fight against it.
Fairy tales are by their nature grim, even gruesome; the characters suffer horrors and sorrow that is difficult to comprehend. And yet the stories are told in a way that makes them enjoyable to listen to—not frightening, but compelling. One of the hardest tasks as a writer is to write about trauma without traumatizing the reader: fairy tales do exactly that. How do fairy tales protect us, even as they reveal traumatic narratives? Perhaps it is in part our detachment from their one-dimensional characters. But I think protection also relies on the use of archetypes to contain and control horror, and shape meaning.
What is the difference between meaning that is political or ideological and meaning that is literary? The world is not magical. In other words, what happens to us is not meaningful, in and of itself. We make it magical: we create the meaning. We impose shape onto the events we witness, onto our own experiences, onto the random gathering of routines, activities, sights and sounds, interactions and reactions that make up our lives—much of what falls through and into our lives is like the weather, out of our control. This could be terrifying, paralyzing. It is not a truth our brains accept easily; in fact, our brains are built to create narrative to explain the randomness, to comfort ourselves, in order to survive and to thrive. The same source of comfort drives our impulse toward religion, politics, and poetry: narrative. We need narrative because we need meaning. Meaning comes from shape, pattern, images that carry thematic weight, from threads being pulled together to weave a tapestry that is so satisfying to our brains that we don’t care that it’s not real because it feels real—it feels as it should.
Why do we seek to understand the motive of a man wielding an AR-15 in a church? (I’ve been wondering and wondering about this, because in my opinion, trying to pin down a motive in cases like this is a waste of our collective energy; but most news media would disagree.) There may be a fundamentally human reason driving this search: because without motive there’s no sense of cause and effect, there is only shapeless unformed chaos resulting in death and grief. Audiences want their stories to make sense, and the news media are storytellers and we are their audience. Think of all the different ways we impose narrative on the world around us—my interest is largely literary, but political narratives are inevitable and create competing storylines that truly fail to intersect. Some narratives exclude, lock out, imprison rather than connect.
How can literary narratives help us? By creating empathy—through windows and doors, through the lens of another’s eyes. By refusing to be ideological. By appealing to our human frailty and flaws—by showing us our possibilities and our hopes, and our failures. By releasing us from our humanness, too, sometimes, the way that fairy tales do. Fiction is inherently unrealistic (even so-called realism). Fiction will always be much more and much less than reality is—it contains both too much or too little of reality to be real. Fiction is interpretation. Fiction pushes the writer to identify what matters in whatever moment is being described. It creates magic inside of us all of a sudden! We become magical when we write and also when we read, because we are transforming what is into what could be—a recreation that has substance, shape, and meaning.
Something from something, as Etger Keret writes.
I wrote this in a white heat of emotionless thought after yesterday’s class, as if it were tearing from me whole: the reason I write, the power of writing, the value of it.
“The world is not magical. We make it magical all of a sudden inside of us.” – Silvana Ocampo
Write these words on my heart.