Category: Creativity course
On Monday, I’ll start another “writing sabbatical” spell, two weeks devoted to further revision (and maybe to writing another grant application, if there’s time). Meanwhile, I’m tidying up my interior life, sweeping cobwebs, sorting and organizing, ticking boxes on a to-do list. Seeking courage! There’s been some volunteer work, appointments, I voted early, and morning exercise continues, including several runs with my university kids, who live near enough that our running routes can overlap.
Today, I’ve devoted my hours of quiet to stepping toward that liminal space that is revision, stepping toward the unknown. In preparation, I’ve been reading a print-out of the most recent version of the manuscript, which includes my editor’s notes. I’m marking up the pages with a black pen, responding to her questions and comments. My intention is to finish this preliminary work before Monday. Here’s hoping I can read my scrawl when I head back to working on-screen next week…
Also in preparation, I’ve been doing some free writing, at the suggestion of a therapist.
And yesterday evening, I led a Lynda Barry “X Page” exercise at the inaugural meeting of a writing club we’ve begun at the X Page, with the intention of creating continuing connection and community for those (participants and team members alike) who seek it. Anyone involved in any of our past three seasons is welcome to join. The idea is simple: an hour-long meeting, monthly, to write a story together and then read to each other. Overcoming the limitations of Zoom, that’s exactly what we did yesterday evening, and it was … incredibly moving. Those who shared their brand-new precious stories gifted us with images that were by turns tender, vulnerable, personal, unique, relatable. I remember: two hands almost touching; arms flung out wide to feel the ocean breeze; being knocked down by a wave, fully-clothed; paddling toward sunset; skin burning under a hot sun; the beauty of a remembered city; sand, wind, sun.
The prompt was “ocean” or “lake.” We wrote for 8 minutes. No editing afterward, and no critique from the listeners; a brand-new story is truly a gift, it’s come from somewhere mysterious, and if we’re lucky enough to witness its beginning, all we need to express is thanks.
I often find the X Page exercise to be revealing of one’s state of mind (I’ve observed this in my own writing, in any case). When I analyze the story that popped up for me, what I notice is my desire to be in two places at once, and a resentment that I cannot be. I notice, too, that I’m upset to have missed an opportunity to soak in a unique sensory experience, I long to have that experience in my physical vocabulary (even now, oddly enough, I feel the pull of missing out).
If you’re interested in writing your own X Page, here’s Lynda Barry, in fabulous mirrored sunglasses, leading the exercise herself.
My ocean story, below.
I am in Grandma’s sedan, we are driving from her house in a tidy town in New Jersey to the Jersey shore — the ocean. I have just gotten to spend the night at Grandma’s, which is very special, just me! My younger brothers (I have three, and one is a new baby) were not invited. Grandma made my favourite food (mashed potatoes with hamburger gravy and peas) and she took me to see the movie “Annie” with my cousin, and she bought us candy. Now Grandma is driving me back to the tiny cottage on the Jersey shore where my family is staying — Mom, Dad, brothers. The cottage belongs to Grandma and her husband, and they let us stay there every summer. I sleep in the attic with my brothers, sometimes my cousins too, crowded together. There is an outdoor shower with the floor covered in sand. To walk to the beach you pass big houses with smooth white stones or shells in their front yards.
Grandma is talking. She is telling me about a sandstorm that blew in to the beach yesterday, while I was in town with her. I am feeling a bit upset, though I don’t want her to know. I missed the sandstorm! My brothers have had an adventure that I can’t quite imagine. “Oh, you don’t want sand in your eyes,” says Grandma; but I do. I want sand in my eyes, wind whipping, the ocean wild and exciting.
For the X Page workshop, I’ve been doing the writing exercises we assign and practice each week; I’ve always written along when leading workshops or teaching, mostly because writing something new is always an adventure and I don’t want to miss out on the experience. On Friday (May 14, 2021), I’ll be leading a writing workshop for the Canadian Nonfiction Collective’s conference, in which we’ll be doing some of these same writing exercises. (Check here, if you’re interested in attending!)
The exercises are based on Lynda Barry’s method of writing and drawing by hand: allowing the hand to be the eye that leads us into the story, and shows us the images that we’ve kept and may not even know are alive within us. I’ve seen this teaching method work over and over again to unearth stories, scenes, details, emotions and insights that would otherwise lie dormant. The process can also unearth material that’s painful or unexpectedly emotional, but what I’ve noticed is that the writing itself also seems to be a tool for healing — telling a story, letting it be shaped by our present self, can be healing.
Though we won’t be doing this is in either workshop, my personal temptation is to veer off into fictional territory, and expand the scene or story out into what could have been or could yet be, or swing into the viewpoint of another person. It’s a very malleable writing method.
(And of course I call on other methods and practices during different stages of the writing process; but even revision and editing can feel free-wheeling and surprising when I’m deep inside the process, which is always an adventure. Using Lynda Barry’s generous, expansive methods have helped me learn how to turn down the voice in my head that is telling me “this is good” or “this sucks.” That’s probably the most important lesson I’ve learned from this practice: that little voice is my ego, and my ego is terrified of making a mistake, and wants so badly to impress others that it is really not trustworthy.)
These days of lockdown and aimless waiting affect us all differently … but what I often feel is disconnected, lonely, a bit apathetic or lacking in energy or drive.
When I open my notebook and begin to write, something changes. It might only change for those minutes when I’m writing, but while engaged with the pen and the page, I go somewhere else in my mind. I travel. The monotony shifts, the day is different — it opens into a different place or time or perspective. And that’s a little gift to myself, which I hope to give to others, too.
Two years ago, I was preparing to teach the graphic-art-based creativity course at St. Jerome’s, which was really a class about developing an artistic practice, setting goals, and staying open to how a project may change and grow as it unfurls. There’s discipline, the verb, and discipline, the noun, and together they sustain an artistic practice. The hope is that the practice will hold and develop over a lifetime, unique and personal: a pathway into the flow, a mindset, a series of ever-renewing explorations that feed on curiosity and feed curiosity.
If all things flow, I can never step into the same river twice; yet I yearn to find ways to fix experience as it flies. That’s the paradox of being alive, existing inside these breathing time-stuck human bodies: how to occupy the liminal space between immersion and interpretation, how to dance between these ways of being in the world; liminality is what art emerges from, the desire for engagement mixed with the need for something more than preservation — for response, for improvisation, for metaphor, image, song. My practice(s) is a way to step into the river, and also a means of capturing what’s here to be found.
I started a new notebook this morning. To mark the first page of each new notebook, I trace my hand and write my birth date and today’s date, a ritual I learned in a Lynda Barry workshop. As I traced my hand this morning, using a brush rather than a pen, I thought: I love the artistic practices I’ve created. They are cobbled together from different times, teachers, discoveries, experiments, using different mediums, tools and technologies; and they do change as I change and adapt, but they are unique to me and durable.
I love writing by hand, even though I don’t always use it as a method of writing new material. There are easier ways to write, but some stories and reflections call out to be discovered by hand.
I love the playfulness of crayons, which I’m using in my current daily drawing project, begun on December 1st as a month-long trial, and which I’m considering continuing into January, maybe beyond. (I’m also considering scanning these cartoons + captions and posting them weekly on the blog; this will only work if it’s easy. That’s one of the principles of my personal practices, the ones that have stuck: they’re easy to maintain, the materials are easy to acquire, the technology is easy to access.)
I love my studio, this lively yet meditative space that I use daily, which is a retreat, a place I look forward to being in, comforting, cozy, tidy, organized, small, contained yet spacious (the high ceiling, the white walls).
There isn’t much movement out there. We are locked down again in Ontario. There isn’t much movement anywhere, on any front, not in my own personal or professional life. But in this studio space, on the pages of these notebooks, there is movement. There is a river ever-flowing, into which I can step, and be transported.
And that is a gift.
My project ideas for 2020 have changed quite a bit; some came to fruition, others vanished almost as quickly as I’d conceived them. Now, I’m planning my projects for 2021, and looking forward to sketching out new ideas and goals on a fresh index card, and glueing 2020’s into this latest notebook. How will 2021’s projects grow, change, develop? Only time will tell. But they’ll exist, in nascent form, in ripening and in bloom, inside these notebooks, in crayon drawings, in pen, in Scrivener and Word files, and here, online. Sharing what I’m making is an important facet of my practice, too; thank you for being out there.
If you’ve got a moment, drop me a line or leave a comment and tell me about your artistic practices, what you’re doing right now to step into the river, both to enter the flow and to fix experience as it flies.
End-of-term launch party.
I’m done teaching for another term. My course was on the creative process: how to set goals, envision a major project, and lay the groundwork necessary to complete the work. I spent a couple of days this week and last meeting with students to hand back their final projects (stories in comic form), and to chat about the term. Some themes emerged in our conversations. Here’s what we learned.
The importance of mistakes. So many students talked about how important their mistakes had been in shaping their project, how an apparent mistake had turned out to be important or valuable to their drawing, or how freeing it was to allow themselves to make mistakes. My theory is that through mistakes our unconscious mind gives us important information we couldn’t otherwise access; and drawing is the perfect medium for this communication with the self, because we see our “mistakes” pretty much instantly, and have to figure out what they’re trying to tell us.
The freedom of stepping away from perfectionism. Students also expressed how freeing it was to embrace their mistakes, or even how freeing it was just to give themselves permission to make mistakes. Creating a major project by hand is time-consuming and laborious, and if you don’t accept the mistakes you’ll inevitably make, you’ll never finish what you’ve started.
The calm that exists inside creation. Every student in the class put a lot of time into their projects, and some put in vast swathes of time, far more than they’d anticipated, or really, that was required to meet the project’s guidelines. (In other words, they didn’t care about the rubric, they cared about the work itself.) Students talked about losing themselves in what they were doing. It didn’t feel like work. It was fun, it was relaxing. The time flew. There is a meditative quality to making things by hand, to being focused in this way; engaged.
The time for this is always with us. (To paraphrase Lynda Barry.) This feeling of calm, this experience of getting lost inside a pleasurable task, is available anytime. And yet, we seem to need someone to remind us of this, we need a reason to get engaged in this way, a task, a project for a class to give us the excuse to get lost in making something that requires focus and effort, that is time-consuming, and that ultimately may have no material or monetary value. We feel like we have to prove that it’s worth it. I wonder why? When it seems so obvious, looking at these wonderful students and their amazing artwork — their unique, truthful, serious, funny, silly, brave, thoughtful beautiful art — that it is worth it.
This course gave the students permission to make art. To draw. To colour. To turn their lives, their observations, their ideas into cartoons. Many expressed how valuable this practice was for them, and how much they hoped others would get the chance to take the course too. “Everyone should have to take this course!” “You have to teach it again for the sake of future students!” In truth, I’m not sure what I taught was a course so much as a concept: what I tried to do was make space for the students to make space for themselves.
Anyone can draw. Most of the students had no idea what they were signing up for when they entered my classroom on day one. They thought they were taking a creative writing course; the course description was vague; they were surprised to learn they’d be doing so much drawing. They weren’t sure they could do it. Many hadn’t drawn since high school, or even grade school. “I never thought I could draw well enough to …” And to a person, they could — they could tell the stories they wanted to tell through cartoons. (“Well enough” went out the window; “well enough” had no place in our classroom.)
Pride in accomplishment. The final projects undertaken by the students were big!! This was no small undertaking. And everyone did it! The deadline got met, and each project proved to be as unique and individual as the person who created it.
Thank you, Artists of ENGL 332! Thank you for your trust. It was an adventure.
Tomorrow morning (Wednesday), my students and I will be presenting our artwork at St. Jerome’s. It’s our last day of class this term, and in Monday’s class we worked on making artist’s statements (that’s mine, above). My instructions went like this: Include your name; Include a sentence or quotation that offers insight into who you are as an artist — why you make art, or why you believe art matters, or what motivates you, or inspires you; Include illustrations/cartoons.
The results were, in my opinion, brilliant. Within less than 45 minutes, students had created tabloid-sized, unique, creative, personal statements, illustrated with humour, freedom and personality — utterly delightful. I can’t wait to hang up these statements tomorrow. When I expressed surprise that so many of the students had managed to finish their work during the time allotted, they said they were used to it by now. Virtually every exercise I run in class is time-based — you have 7 minutes, 3 minutes, 5 minutes. Done. During one particularly gruelling exercise, I remember joking that the title of the course shouldn’t be Creativity Unplugged, it should be Creativity Under Pressure. And then a student requested I play “Under Pressure” by Queen/David Bowie. And I did.
And we got the work done, whatever it was.
Yesterday was an opportunity to reflect on what we’d expected coming into this course, and what had actually happened. I feel that these public “check-outs,” by their nature, encourage people to say nice things, so I take it all with a grain of salt, but it was gratifying to hear that students had absorbed from the course exactly what I’d hoped to offer.
I hoped that discipline and routine and structure would nurture creative practice, and curiosity. Yes. (Though one of the students said he loathed the timed exercises.)
I hoped that students would find the exercises relaxing, meditative, so engaging that they’d lose track of time. Yes.
I hoped that students would rediscover their inner child. Yes.
I hoped that students would be delighted and surprised by the things they were making. Yes.
I hoped that students would see progress in their technical skills. Yes.
I hoped that we would laugh a lot. Yes.
I wanted to let the course unfold naturally, to go with the flow, the way I do when I’m writing and drawing, and I think that I got a whole lot closer to this goal than I ever have before, as a teacher. I wasn’t even that scared or anxious … most of the time.
And tomorrow morning we’ll display some of what we made, do a little more drawing, a little more talking, give away a few prizes, and enjoy being together one last time before the term ends.
Too much. There’s too much on my mind. The kids were home last week on March break, and I looked at the surfaces around our house, covered with debris, and I thought, this could be a metaphor for the surface of my mind. I’m drowning in details, in crumpled to-do lists, in scattered responsibilities, in unmet needs, in forgotten or neglected tasks.
My solution is multi-pronged, and does not, as one might think would be prudent, involve a lot of cleaning. Whenever I clear a surface, more debris appears.
Instead, my solution is in connection. Connection outward and connection inward. I go to a kundalini yoga class, and chant, whirl, and root myself deep inside my body. I go to church and rest within an hour of spiritual reflection. I draw and I write. I go for a walk with a friend. I meditate. I help lead workshops, and I stand at the front of a classroom trying to connect students to the transformative magic of their own creativity.
I’ve been sharing a journal with one of my children, as a way to “talk” back and forth about big subjects. Our household currently has three teenagers, a time of life that is especially full of big questions — what is the purpose of my life, what am I supposed to do next, who am I, where can I find meaning? There aren’t one-size-fits-all answers to these questions, it seems to me, so I can only offer ideas, suggestions, places to search.
One of my teenagers said to me, earlier this week, that people are looking for connection with something bigger than themselves. That’s it, isn’t it. That’s the general answer. I think it’s why religion has played such a critical role in human society: religion is explicitly about connecting with something larger than oneself. Most religions involve community, ritual and practice, and some personal sacrifice; all of which are important ingredients, in my experience, to feeling connected to a larger purpose and meaning. It’s important to be aware that there are healthy connections, but there are also dangerous connections (if you’ve connected with something that demands that you hurt or denigrate other people, or yourself, for example, that is not a healthy connection with a larger cause).
Sitting in church on Sunday, I thought about who I am becoming as I age and grow more rooted within myself. I’m not someone who needs a clear surface to thrive. I don’t need to live in a clean house. But I am someone who needs to pay attention to the things that are causing the clutter, the people whose lives coincide with my own, whose interests interest me, the people who share my space (and I don’t just mean my own family); I carry their cares close, in other words. The debris isn’t all mine; I’m not even sure a quarter of it really belongs to me; certainly I generate far less than I take responsibility for. And that’s where I need to take care, be more mindful — recognize and accept responsibility for the choices I make, and recognize and let go of that which is not mine to tidy, clean up, or carry.
Somehow, it’s my spiritual self that recognizes what matters. Yet the spiritual self is the easiest to neglect, and the hardest to talk about. Here’s what I’ve been telling myself to maintain those connections, inward and outward, that give me meaning and purpose: If you don’t have time to meditate, you’re too busy; if you don’t have time to go to church, you’re too busy; if you don’t have time to talk to a good friend, you’re too busy; if you don’t have time to be alone, you’re too busy. (Here’s the thing: even though I’m busy, I almost always have time.)