On April 1st, I started a 30-day journaling project (inspired by Suleika Jaouad’s Isolation Journals). What I’ve noticed so far is that prompts really help. On days when I try to jot down random thoughts, not much comes squeezing out. I’m preoccupied by surface tasks and must-dos, and a feeling of emptiness prevails. This is a most unpleasant feeling. So, today I said to myself, what advice would you give your students, if they were feeling stuck? You’d say, Stop trying to “journal” and do a daily diary (a la Lynda Barry), or an X Page prompt (ditto). Get out of your own head. Come alive by entering the world.
Other prompts have worked well too. My word-of-the-year group is spending April responding to each other’s words (we were each assigned someone else’s word to reflect on). My assignment was to reflect on the word ROOT. One of the associations that jumped out was “long-standing friendship.” A long-standing friendship, like a long-standing tree, has deep roots, has weathered many storms, and has had good fortune.
Reflecting on this imagery, related to ROOTS, and separate from the word-of-the year assignment, I landed on a journaling prompt: What roots in your own life are long-standing? And also, what roots are tender and new? It’s spring, after all! People are planting seedlings, tiny buds are opening. Feel free to use this prompt if it sparks something in you, too.
Words unfurling across a page, a screen, scrawled in the margins and end pages, marking time, holding ambition, bright with rage, lyrical, lyrical, lyrical
Born family, brothers and sister, all of us rooted in time, in blood and DNA
Music, song, rhythm, pulse
My feet walking, running, my body in motion, powerful, strong
Friendships that hold, light in the window, light at the door, and bread, and wine, and laughter and forgive me
Performance, putting on a show
Reading, imagination’s flow
The trees themselves, and water, mud, grass under bare feet
A big appetite, hoarding, cheapness, knowing best
A quietness amidst chaotic flow
The impulse to make places home
Loneliness, fear of not belonging
Thrift against decadence, earnestness
Wanting to make people laugh, to entertain, to put at ease, and yet aloof, sharp edges
Horses, dogs, children
Memory, curiosity, mystery, questions without answers
Tender new roots
Medication to lift the load
Healing estrangements, more trust, talking about tough stuff, tender stuff too
Kids moving home and away, vegetarian meals
Big job interview, looking for work that satisfies my need to earn a living and to feel/be purposeful
Transitioning X Page workshop to a sustainable long-term project
Parenting teenagers and young adults
Spending time with little kids again, delighting in their presence
Getting reacquainted with teaching
Practicing social skills and conflict resolution
Expanding my skill set, seeing my skills as having other applications, exploring outlets for my desire to connect, create, be fruitful, self-sufficient, purposeful, to serve
Doing “the work” to counter harmful patterns and habits
Yoga and meditation—soaking it up!
Body awareness, body love, healing
Caring for elders, patience, tenderness, listening to the wisdom of elders
I’m attempting to post here about once a week; but that is not always possible. There are weeks when I prioritize writing in my notebook over writing publicly if I have some moments to spare; or lying on the couch and reading a book. Setting priorities is becoming a habit, of necessity. Am I filling my cup, so that I can serve the needs of others? For example, I’ve figured out that it takes me at least 2 hours to get up and out the door in the morning — one hour minimum to do my wake-up and exercise routine (including yoga and meditation), and one hour precisely to shower, dress, make and eat breakfast, pack a lunch, and screech out the door clutching a travel mug of coffee, the correct set of keys for the job of the day in my pocket, and a backpack over my shoulders loaded with whatever items I’ve determined will serve in the hours ahead (this may include but is not limited to licorice, Birkenstocks, head-phones, notebook and pen, and folder with instructions on various systems and processes).
Point being, setting priorities requires first knowing what these priorities are — not ignoring what makes me a happier healthier person. It helps to identify why I’m choosing to do certain things instead of other things. What I’ve discovered is that the why is usually about pleasure, ease, fun, enjoyment, fulfillment, connection, and purpose. The good things in life. My exercise routine makes me happy, energized, calmer, in tune with my body and mind, which sets the whole day on course, so I choose it over sleeping in — and I get to bed earlier in the evening in order to make this habit sustainable. I love savouring my cup of coffee, which makes it perfect to enjoy while sitting at a desk somewhere. But breakfast is a sit-down affair with the newspaper and two poached eggs on toast, so I make time for that (even if it’s just 12 minutes — I’ll literally calculate how much time I have to relax and enjoy this ritual, setting a timer on my phone to cue me when it’s time to switch gears).
This morning during quiet meditation, a complex and wild and wonderful thought came upon me. Here it is: everything I’m doing to serve and understand my own needs reverberates outward, so that I am able to better serve and understand the needs of those around me. When I teach creative writing, what I’m actually offering are methods and practices for how pay attention to the world, how to observe others with curiosity and openness, and how to respond (through writing) without judgement. This is a deep mindset shift, I think. Attention without judgement, without the desire to manipulate or change or profit from, is love. If you pay attention to the world, you will love it more than you realized was possible. This love will break you down and build you up. And you will want to serve others because you can see them more clearly. The skills I’ve honed and continue to hone as a writer might make me a better writer; but I’m coming to believe that’s a side product of the real gift of these skills — of creativity itself. At the core of my being, I don’t want to be a better writer in order to publish books that become bestsellers and earn me fame and fortune. I want to practice writing and creativity because I believe these deeply intuitive and generative acts will help me become a more observant, open-minded, human being while I’m here on planet earth.
I teach creative writing. And I’ve struggled with this, because I don’t believe it can really be taught effectively. I can’t download my knowledge of how to write creatively into the minds of students in a rational, lecture-based, logistical way. All I can do is open opportunities for students to interact with their own minds and experiences creatively — and with each other. Creativity isn’t a state of being that can be monetized or harnessed for profit. If you get into it, if you allow yourself to follow the energy and be led by whatever magic and mystery and grace is pulling you, money, power, and profit will feel so insignificant that you won’t be able to make sense of them. They don’t make sense, in the vast universe of creative action and practice.
Here is what I know: To create is also to destroy. It is to witness the breaking down of what appears substantial, and to witness and partake in a generative improbable renewal. The impossible presents itself. What you discover in this state can’t be explained adequately through words, so words climb into images and images emerge and show themselves to be transferable between human beings, and expression of deep emotion and experience is possible. It is possible.
So. I teach creative writing, but what I really hope to do is to plant seeds. I know that my job in the schools (not teaching creative writing) is an outward expression my own potential beginning to root and grow. By becoming more grounded and secure (paradoxically, through becoming more vulnerable and soft), I can serve others with less fear, judgement, and hunger for external reward. Every day I’m in a school, I have the opportunity to practice paying attention. I love this practice. I get to do it over and over again. I ask, how can I help you? I listen to what the other person is saying. If possible, I look them in the eye. If appropriate, I ask how they are doing. I listen to what they tell me, and I repeat back to them what I’ve understood them to say, because I want to be sure it’s clear to me. If possible, I try to solve their problem, or brainstorm a solution they can try (it’s usually a small problem that has a simple solution).
That’s it. That’s the practice. Greet, listen, repeat, ask questions, acknowledge, try to understand, solve or resolve.
Greet, listen, acknowledge.
Over and over again, throughout the day. I know these interactions have the power to change me. They have the power to change my approach to creativity and writing too. It’s an integrated and interactive and generative cycle, the relationship with self, other, and creative spirit.
What are you practicing these days? Where are your practices, habits, and routines leading you?
Yesterday, while working at the end of my dining room table, I looked up and saw this (above).
I saw that a room can be a composition of light, colour, shadow. Even the corner of a room can be a poem. Or the end of a table. A windowsill. I am curious about performance art, about sculpture, about creating ritual and integrating it into the every day. A few years ago, I drew an artist’s statement for a course I was leading, centred around these words: What if the purpose of life is to seek beauty?
Well, what if?
What if that’s what I’m attempting to pull off, in the whole of my messy not-always-well-planned life? What if I’m already on this path? What if I already have a job to do, and I’m doing it (even if it doesn’t pay much, except in connections).
What are we here for if not to be held, at least for a moment now and again, in beauty, in the pursuit of beauty. What does beauty mean to you? For me, it is ease, delight, sometimes it is a shock to the system, it is new, original, wholly formed, or it is raw and unplanned, rising from seemingly nothing at all, unexpected, it is a moment of recognition, a moment of pause. It leaves a trace even after the glimpse is gone.
Welcome to my newly titled website, wherein, with the help of my dear friend Tasneem Jamal and my brother Clifford, I am declaring more fully that this is who I am: writer. Writer is a capacious carry-all for my spirit. It’s big enough to hold all the parts of me. I write for purposes both private and public, pen to page, keyboard to screen, words scrawled or printed, arrows pointing, words circled, underlined, crossed out and written again; words in response to; lists, poems, prayers, pleas, letters, dreams, captions, formulations; words reaching out to connect … with you and you and you.
Thanks for reading along, and for writing too.
PS More to come, more to unfold, in the weeks and months ahead. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, look up: is there a corner in your space waiting to give you a moment of pause, of delight, of relief, of release into beauty? Please share (here or elsewhere).
Long-lived friendship, enduring friendship, friendship that gets through and past some hard stuff, including conflict.
It’s not a subject that we talk about much. Maybe it can seem like talking about friends is a kind of a flex, like my friends are better than your friends, or something like that. Friendship can also be a place many of us have experienced loss we don’t know how to talk about, friendships that ended or faded, and we’re not sure why. Personally, I hold a fair bit of insecurity around friendship. I was very lonely some of those high school years, and that feeling of being an outsider burrowed deep into my brain. Am I good friend or a bad friend? What’s the rule book, and am I not understanding something that I should? People won’t like me if I’m too [fill in the blank]; or if I [fill in the blank].
But that’s a limited way to frame friendship, I think (note: I’m still figuring out friendship, even though high school was a long long time ago). Friendship isn’t about getting people to like you. It’s not a popularity contest, or a competition.
It’s about finding and connecting with people whose company you enjoy, people you admire and trust and love, people you want to be with and learn from, and to whom you can offer the same in return. There’s also some mystery in friendship: timing, chemistry, mutuality. It doesn’t always click or work out. Maybe part of being a friend is being okay with the relationship changing without feeling (or, more accurately, reacting to feelings of) resentment or jealousy or hurt. (I don’t know, as I said, I’m still figuring this out.) It can help if both people have similar expectations for the friendship (this seems really important, actually, but I’ve literally never discussed this with a friend — have you?)
Do you have role models for friendship? Older people in your life who have maintained and nurtured friendships you aspire to?
A few things I’ve noticed about myself and friendship: I’m most comfortable one-on-one. I like doing an activity with a friend, rather than sitting and chatting (like going for a walk, or making food together). I like hosting parties (this has not been a viable outlet during the pandemic!). In groups, I prefer meeting with a purpose or theme (and friend groups are even harder to talk about than individual friendship). I consider my siblings my friends.
I’ve been reflecting on this subject in part because I’ve been texting with a friend’s mother, who just lost one of her closest friends, quite suddenly. She sent me this poem from Rilke, which was part of a text thread between herself and her friend. (I aspire to send poems to my friends by text.)
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. -Rilke
A friendship is like any other relationship that is full of love and care. It is a most dangerous thing. If you love someone, losing them will break your heart. But these relationships, no matter how dangerous, are vital, life-giving, affirming, enriching. Each of us is like a locked room, or a book written in a very foreign tongue. In friendship, we walk the questions together. We feel less alone. Every one who has been your friend, at one time or another in your life, has walked the questions with you. And there are a few we may be fortunate enough to walk with till the end.
Today, this month, I turn and return to gratitude. I’ve been looking for poems about thanks and thanksgiving for a church service I’m helping to plan, and I’ve noticed the poems that draw me are tempered with grief, there are many colours woven into the fabric of the experience of thanks they describe. I’ll post one, by Jane Hirschfield, below.
Monday morning thank-you list:
1. Kasia’s yoga class this morning, and her invitation to greet the day by saying, “Good morning, I love you,” to ourselves. (Wow! That changes the wake-up script!)
2. Enough time to work on revisions. Solitude.
3. Invitations to speak. Connection.
4. New projects, old projects, ongoing projects.
On the “new projects” front, in addition to the novel, I’ve got a couple of creative non-fiction pieces being published in anthologies, this year and next. Both are very personal, and a bit raw — “In This River” has just been published in an anthology called Impact: Women Writing After Concussion. Here’s me talking about my concussion (oh, soccer!) and reading an excerpt from my piece. I also “composed” and played the music that accompanies this video (“composed” in quotation marks because it’s just pure improv). A strange after-effect of the concussion: I was able to improvise very freely on the piano; more to do with rhythm than melody, almost as if some interior barrier had been breached.
video edited by Jun Kim
(Monday morning thank-you list, cont.)
5. Stretching myself, learning new skills … like the opportunity to make the recordings, above.
As I think about my relationship to my writing life, I am aware that publishing is a piece of it, and that means a different kind of work and effort and engagement with the world: presenting, public speaking, sharing. Looked at from one perspective, publicity work terrifies me, I’ll be honest. I’m terrified of feeling exposed, of being drained, of being judged wanting, of feeling ashamed. But looked at through the perspective of thanks, everything changes. Good morning, I love you! What if THANKS were the baseline I returned to many times each day?
Thanks brings me closer to wonder and admiration. Thanks brings me closer to patience, calm, the ability to pause. Thanks brings me closer to others. It’s a lens of perspective that gives me a different relationship to time and to self.
(and one last thank-you on the Monday morning thank-you list)
I love these things because they make possible my engagement with everything else. I don’t want to live an entirely interior life — I love that part, it comes easily for me; but I want to be in the world, I want to connect, share, respond, serve, workshop, teach, coach, relate, cradle, hold, feed, nurture, offer of what I’ve been given. You know? It’s a short life. I want to live in it.
"When Your Life Looks Back," by Jane Hirshfield
When your life looks back —
As it will, at itself, at you — what will it say?
Inch of colored ribbon cut from the spool.Flame curl, blue-consuming the log it flares from.Bay leaf. Oak leaf. Cricket. One among many.
Your life will carry you as it did always,
With ten fingers and both palms,
With horizontal ribs and upright spine,
With its filling and emptying heart,
That wanted only your own heart, emptying, filled, in return.
You gave it. What else could you do?
Immersed in air or in water.
Immersed in hunger or anger.
Curious even when bored.
Longing even when running away.
“What will happen next?” —
the question hinged in your knees, your ankles,
in the in-breaths even of weeping.
Strongest of magnets, the future impartial drew you in.
Whatever direction you turned toward was face to face.
No back of the world existed,
No unseen corner, no test. No other earth to prepare for.
This, your life had said, its only pronoun.
Here, your life had said, its only house.
Let, your life had said, its only order.
And did you have a choice in this? You did —
Sleeping and waking,
the horses around you, the mountains around you,
The buildings with their tall, hydraulic shafts.
Those of your own kind around you —
A few times, you stood on your head.
A few times, you chose not to be frightened.
A few times, you held another beyond any measure.
A few times, you found yourself held beyond any measure.
Mortal, your life will say,
As if tasting something delicious, as if in envy.
Your immortal life will say this, as it is leaving.
Wherever you've come from, wherever you're going, consider this space a place for reflection and pause. Thank you for stopping by. Your comments are welcome.
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My name is Carrie Snyder. I'm a fiction writer, reader, editor, dreamer, arts organizer, workshop leader, forever curious. I believe words are powerful, storytelling is healing, and art is for everyone.