Writing & creativity


Wood sorrel

What if discipline and habit are not the key to creativity? This morning as I sat reading then writing, a woodpecker called overhead; in the distance, a sparrow trilled. On sunny summer days like today, Toivo and I take a short stroll, then we settle on the patio to enjoy some fresh air before the day gets too hot. Opening my notebook without a particular topic to explore, my thoughts naturally turn to the question of inspiration.

Day lilies

My life revolves around the discipline of many schedules: the cats need to be fed and medicated specific times, the dog needs to be walked regularly, and there is always a daily litany of chores. I live most of my life at the mercy of schedules and checklists. Even when I’m not teaching–working for pay, that is–I’m always working. They say a woman’s work is never done, and although I can’t speak for men’s experience, as a woman I can say there is always something that needs to be done.

My perpetual goal–one that is perennially unsatisfied–is to perfect a routine where both work and chores unwind almost automatically: a time for everything, and everything done in time. For mindlessly repetitive tasks like scrubbing dishes or cleaning litter boxes, this approach works fairly well: my morning routine is so deeply ingrained, all I need to do is wake up, show up, and my daily tasks all but do themselves.

Spiderwort

Creative endeavors are different, though. Some days I show up at the page and the words are there waiting for me; other days, they are reluctant to come. I haven’t discerned, even after all these years of more or less daily writing, why I have Something To Say on some days but not on others. Is it something I can control by perfecting a smoother routine that lands me at the page well-read, well-fed, and well-rested? Or is it a matter outside my control, like the weather?

I’m coming to realize that discipline–the setting of and adhering to habits, which I am so very good at–is necessary but not sufficient. You need the discipline of hard work–the habit of showing up to the page whether you feel inspired or not–as much as a fire needs fuel. But discipline alone is like a dry pile of wood without a flame. I can religiously show up to the page, and I try my best to do so, but there is something else I can’t control. The blank page is kindling; the inspiration, a spark. In all my years of writing, writing, writing, I still can’t describe or explain why some days the lightning comes.

These past few months, my writing–both in my journal and on-blog–has been uninspired, my mind mired with the muck of an unremarkable life. But some days, I look up right as a hawk slices silently across the sky. Why does randomness happen: why do stars and starlings fall? As I write these words, a pair of titmice set up to scolding in a nearby hedge. Why here, why now? Or better yet, why not? Perhaps hawks fly and titmice scold at all and random hours, and occasionally the disciplined ones are lucky enough to notice. Isn’t this reason enough to keep watch?

Babson redtail

The best time of day for writing is the early morning, before the rest of the world is awake–but the next best time is long after dark, when the earth herself is leaning toward sleep. On a cold winter’s night, you can almost hear the darkness, the hush of your neighbors tucked into their houses entirely different from the sound of midday, when cars zoom and dog-walkers pass.

Don't tell me I'm the only one who takes pictures like this to find my car.

The worst time to write is afternoon, when the world is restless and your body weary. A writer should ideally be awake when others are sleeping, or watchful while others are oblivious. In the afternoon, the eyes of the world are casting about, hungry, and my own eyes feel heavy. Better to wait until one’s soul is completely depleted, spent with the exertion of the day, because then you come to the page empty-handed and defenseless, your first-thoughts bleeding onto the page without impediment. In the early morning and late evening–before dawn or after dark, when others are asleep in the beds or mesmerized by their own distant, private pursuits–you come to the page raw and without pretense, your guile stripped away by the sheer exertion of being.

Babson College

This open-eyed, undefended perspective–this stance of standing like a bare nerve, ever-sensitive and reactive, watchful and incapable of fleeing–is how I picture May Oliver, writing, her poetry offering a clear mirror into truths that anyone with open eyes could see, but which are so rarely recognized. Oliver had a gift of observation, which means she had a firm grasp of the obvious–a phrase that sounds like an insult but is the highest praise. Most of us fool ourselves by clamoring after the remarkable and spectacular, thereby missing the all-abiding wonder that is our miraculous hand right in front of our ever-wonderous nose.

These are the words that poured out tonight when I sat down belatedly to write my daily journal pages. In the morning, I attended a faculty retreat at Babson College, where someone recalled a colleague who often used the phrase “a firm grasp of the obvious” to pooh-pooh the presumably pedestrian observations of his co-workers: an indirect insult. After I’d heard of poet Mary Oliver’s passing today, however, the phrase took a different meaning in my mind.

Oonas

Today I’m finally getting around to the mundane task of shelving the past few years’ worth of Moleskine notebooks. Every time I fill a notebook with journal entries, I add it to a pile in my closet, and when that pile starts to loom too ominously, I take each notebook, use a silver Sharpie to write the relevant dates on the spine, and then shelve it alongside its fellows.

Worth a shot

Today’s closet pile contains the ten notebooks I’ve filled since July, 2015. When I shelve my journals, I occasionally dip into a random entry or two to see what I was doing or thinking at any given point in my past. (Spoiler alert: the things I was doing on any random day in 2015, the year after, or the year after that are largely the same as what I did yesterday or today. The more the dates on the calendar change, the more human nature and a thing called karma stay the same.)

And so on Saturday, November 21, 2015, I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, which I had mixed feelings about:

Art, etc.

I don’t buy Gilbert’s glowing talk of magic, but I agree with what she says about permission. It is too easy to fall into the trap of seeking either permission or legitimacy rather than simply doing what you do because you enjoy doing it.

The only thing keeping me blogging all these years is the fact I enjoy it, and the only thing that’s kept me teaching all these years (even in the face of perpetual disappointment) is the fact I can’t picture myself doing anything else. In some cases, it pays to be stubborn, just keeping one’s head down doing one’s thing because that’s how you work–slowly and gradually, like water wearing away stone.

My life’s work of blog and journal entries has grown like a stalagmite, each drop gradually growing the thing incrementally. You can’t see the progress–it’s too slow for that–but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Enter only

Three years and a couple months after writing those works, they still ring true. I’m still stubbornly journaling, blogging, and teaching even though none of those activities have led to consistently full-time employment: I just journal, blog, and teach because these are the things I do. The motivation is both internal and intrinsic: if I weren’t writing and teaching, I don’t know what else I’d do with myself. So page by page, day by day, I build up a stack of notebooks that gather dust on my shelves: a life in handwritten lines.

Pan with his pipes

I recently finished David Sedaris’s new book, Calypso, a collection of essays that was a perfect follow-up to Theft By Finding, which I’d read last year. Theft By Finding was a collection of journal entries, and the essays in Calypso make perfect sense when you remember that Sedaris isn’t just a comedic writer; he’s a long-time diarist.

Moss steps

Reviews of Calypso invariably point out that the book is darker than Sedaris’s previous books. Many of the essays feature the beach house that Sedaris and his partner, Hugh, buy in North Carolina and the vacations they spend there with Sedaris’s father and siblings. Essays set at the house Sedaris names the “Sea Section” often mention the death of his alcoholic mother decades before, the suicide of his sister Tiffany in 2013, and the inevitable embarrassments of aging.

Turtle fountain

This isn’t to say, however, that Calypso isn’t wickedly funny. What makes the book striking, in fact, is the manner in which Sedaris writes essays that are simultaneously funny, poignant, and honest without a hint of pity. This emotional fluidity makes perfect sense when I remember Sedaris’s journals. As a diarist, Sedaris has trained himself in the nonjudgmental art of keeping an account of all the intellectual and emotional detritus of his life.

Castor and Pollux

When you keep a journal, you keep track of whatever is on your mind: the profound stuff, the silly stuff, and everything in between. Keeping a journal is very much akin to the litter-picking Sedaris does while he walks the roadways around his home in Sussex: you notice and pick up everything. If you’re not used to walking for miles and picking up trash, it will leave you sore, but it’s just another day’s work if that’s what you’re in the habit of doing.

Turtle fountain

One of the things that makes David Sedaris funny is the way he doesn’t censor himself: whether he is saying something tender, rude, or self-deprecating, he makes a statement then moves on without justification or apology. This is, I’m convinced, a skill honed through long and regular journal-keeping. The mind is like a child’s corn popper toy, where colored balls pop and tumble inside a clear plastic dome. Pop, pop, pop come your thoughts, which are disparate and nonsensical, and the diarist’s hand simply records them, one by one, without stopping to explain or make sense of them.

Faun of summer

When you’ve trained yourself to sit with your corn-popper mind, you learn not to judge or reject: you simply record without shame or blame. You also learn to appreciate the beauty and even wisdom of randomness. Things don’t have to fit to get along, and disparate things can happily coexist. It is this tolerance for randomness–an absolute fearlessness about saying anything that comes to mind, even if it doesn’t fit or flow with whatever preceded it–that is the main genius of Sedaris’s work.

Faun of wine

I’m not suggesting, to be clear, that Sedaris’ essays aren’t consciously constructed and revised: it takes a good deal of craft to assemble and arrange just the right assortment of anecdotes, and this means knowing what to leave out as much as what to include and accentuate. But if you’ve never arranged a bouquet, you might think the flowers all need to match, whereas an experienced florist knows the value of complementary colors or an occasional splash of the unexpected.

Classical

If you’ve never sat down and watched your corn-popper mind tumble thoughts, you might not realize how humor complements pain and how a seemingly irreverent story can be particularly poignant if includes just a dash of sadness. Readers who aren’t writers might think that sad stories, funny stories, silly stories, and serious stories can’t and shouldn’t mix, but journal-keepers are long accustomed to the way the colors of the mind blur and swirl.

The most tragic stories aren’t necessarily the ones that are solely and unremittingly sad. One of the most poignant moments in Calypso, for instance, is a brief, passing mention Sedaris makes to the last time he saw his sister Tiffany before her suicide, when he directed a security guard to close the door in her face after she’d shown up unannounced at one of his readings.

Forest folly

Many writers would have been tempted to linger on this story, voicing regret or offering some sort of explanation. Sedaris, however, mentions the memory in passing and lets his readers decide what to do with it, the details of his life slipped like a live grenade into his reader’s pocket. Sometimes a serious topic is best approached slantwise, like a wisp of cloud troubling an otherwise sunny sky.

Peeking rose

I’m currently reading Ursula Le Guin’s No Time to Spare, a collection of blog entries from her final years. The editor has sorted these entries into broad categories–aging and writing and cultural trends–interspersed with stories about Le Guin’s cat, Pard. Even with the categories, there is a delightful sense of spontaneity as you turn from one entry to the next. It’s the delight that comes from reading a well-written blog or journal. Whatever you encounter is whatever the writer was thinking or reading on a particular day: a direct insight into the writer’s mind, and the intellectual equivalent of a fisherman’s catch of the day.

Multiflora rose

Sometimes, the thoughts Le Guin shared on her blog are deep, as when she writes about utopian novels or the diminishments of age. But as many times as Le Guin’s random thoughts lead to insightful connections, there are times when a given thought peters out, a seed fallen on rocky soil. Whether the topics Le Guin pursues are profound or mundane, however, they are always fresh, the product of an active and engaged mind.

Those thoughts would have never met a reader’s eye if Le Guin hadn’t set pen to paper or fingertip to key. That’s why the first step to good writing is simply showing up. In order to snag the catch of the day, you first have to cast your line.

Iris

Today I revisited a writing project I’d worked on last summer and then abandoned when the school year started. Over the intervening months, I remembered the various sticking-points I’d struggled with, but in revisiting the actual prose today, I was surprised at how much better it was than I’d remembered: yes, this is a draft with real problems, but it’s also a project with promise.

Spiderwort in bloom

The older I get, the more I find myself repeating the same advice to anyone who asks (and some who don’t). Whether you’re facing a work-in-progress, an abandoned resolution, or an obstacle that seems insurmountable, the same piece of advice is apt: always come back.

Iris in rain

I come by this advice the hard way: namely, by perpetually wandering off. I can’t count the number of times I’ve fallen out of the habit of meditating, fallen out of the habit of writing, fallen out the habit of exercising, flossing, or nearly any other beneficial-but-easily-procrastinated task. Whenever I find myself looking down the barrel of “how long has it been since you did X,” I return to my oft-repeated refrain: just come back.

Beauty Bush (Linnaea amabilis) in bloom

Always come back is a great piece of advice for those of us who are stubborn. Yes, we stubborn folk are easily derailed when we grow bored or frustrated with a given task, but we also are creatures of habit. We will return to tasks we’ve started–and we will keep on returning to those tasks–long after a saner soul would have given up for good.

Begonias

It’s not that stubborn folks aren’t quitters: I consider myself, in fact, to be a serial quitter, not only quitting one thing after another but the same thing repeatedly. But we stubborn folk often return to the things we’ve previously quit, unable to give up the ghost (or our hopes) entirely. Long after anyone else would have declared a project dead or a prospect hopeless, we return again and again to frustrate ourselves just a little bit more and more.

So this summer, again, I’ll be working on the unfinished writing project I failed to finish last summer. As many times as I wander away, I can’t stop myself from always coming back.

Library daffodils

April is National Letter Writing Month, and yesterday I finally wrote a letter to M, with whom I’ve (sporadically) corresponded since November, 2016, when she took a break from social media. I’d last written M in February, soon after we’d gotten Toivo, and her response had been sitting on my desk for months, awaiting a reply.

Spring green

It’s easy to procrastinate letter-writing; on any given day, there are so many other things demanding attention. But it’s wrong to think that jotting off a letter takes a lot of time or requires having much to say. If you keep stamps and stationery on hand, as I do, it doesn’t take long to check in with a quick note, hoping its arrival will brighten the recipient’s day just as her letters have brightened yours.

There is something serendipitous about receiving something handwritten in the mail that isn’t a bill or advertisement. This is, after all, the central premise behind the Postcards to Voters I write: in our always-connected era of email, Tweets, and texts, it feels like a gift to receive a handwritten things that took days to arrive.

I keep M’s letters in a box with my stationery: folded moments of connection to cherish. I don’t know what I’ll do with these saved letters; they aren’t momentous or particularly literary, just the scribblings of two gray ladies exchanging snippets from our everyday lives. This, of course, is precisely why I save these letters: not because they are greatly significant but because they represent a kind of considered care. Years from now when I’m an even grayer lady, I’ll have a box of pretty notecards in yellowed envelopes as a kind of proof that Someone Once Cared Enough to lick an envelope and walk to the mailbox on my behalf.

Spring leaves

As I wrote this latest note to M, I realized my blogging is also a kind of letter-writing, albeit in a different medium. Emily Dickinson described her poems as her “letter to the world, that never wrote to me,” and that describes my blogging as well. When you have a penpal, there is a particular person you imagine walking to her mailbox to find a handwritten note. When you post a blog entry, you have no idea who will receive your words: there are certain readers or commenters you might have in mind, for sure, but your words might find an audience–a receptive one, you hope–in anyone. A blog-post, in other words, is like a letter with no envelope whose address is the entire world.

When I write my Postcards to Voters, I’m mindful that bored or curious postal workers might read them: I’ve followed PostSecret long enough to know that postcards are not an entirely private medium. But just as you cherish the confidence of a trusted penpal, with the unspoken promise that what is mentioned in your letters stays in your letters, I hope my postcards (like my blog posts) will spread a spot of good cheer beyond their intended recipients.

Perhaps I’m as much like Walt Whitman as I am like Emily Dickinson. While Dickinson sent out unsolicited letters, Whitman sent out lines like spider-silk, an ephemeral and even invisible medium in perpetual search of connection.

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