Writing & creativity


The only rule is work

Last year, a friend bought me a poster-sized copy of Sister Corita Kent’s rules for artists, which I promptly posted in my office at school. Although all of Sister Kent’s rules are helpful, my favorite is #7: “The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.”

Wire panther

I don’t consider myself to be a naturally creative person: I don’t write fiction, for example, because I’m not good at dreaming up imaginary worlds. But I’m a naturally curious person, and I’m not afraid to work. A creature of habit, what I lack in creativity, I make up for in sheer stubbornness. Whether or not I have anything to say, I show up at my notebook, and once I set pen to paper, I fill pages out of obligation, having trained myself through long habit to follow Natalie Goldberg’s exhortation to “keep my hand moving.”

Two headed turtle

I suppose some people see creativity as being a delicate, fluttery thing, like a butterfly or hummingbird that flits and flirts according to whim and mood. My muse, on the other hand, is more like an old ox that no longer fights his yoke. Others might follow a muse that is as occasional and enlightening as a shooting star; I follow a muse that plods down predictable paths.

Wire rat

I don’t know what sort of muse visited Sister Corita Kent, but I know this much: I’ve been following the rule of work for years, and it’s the best way I know to create. Perhaps there are writers, artists, and other creatives who can show up only when they feel inspired, but I’m not one of them. My muse requires regular practice even when I don’t feel like writing, and the rule of work points to that truth.

Reggie takes a swim

After taking my time deciding upon a project for the summer, I’ve started to revisit the blog entries I wrote from 2003 until 2006: that is, the years I lived full-time in Keene, New Hampshire, before I met J and moved to Massachusetts.

Water lily

When I first started blogging in December of 2003, my then-husband and I had lived in Keene for a couple months, and blogging was one of the ways I made myself at home in a town that was new to me. Taking pictures and writing about my daily dog-walks helped me find my way both literally and figuratively. When my then-husband and I separated and then divorced in 2004, blogging helped me navigate the alien landscape of my solitary life in a town some 700 miles from my family. During a particularly tenuous time, writing about my life helped me make sense of my life.

Pickerelweed

It’s been more than ten years since my first husband and I divorced, so revisiting the posts I wrote both before and after that event is a strange experience. Some aspects of my life in Keene are still crystal clear, but others have grown foggy with time. I vividly remember the dog-walks I took with Reggie along the Ashuelot River and around Goose Pond, for instance, but it seems like a lifetime ago that I lived alone in an apartment within walking distance of Keene State College. Revisiting the posts I wrote then is like bumping into an old friend on the street: here is a person I was intimately acquainted with, but we’ve lost touch.

Pickerelweed

Ultimately, I’d like to collate these several years’ worth of posts into a single year, just as Henry David Thoreau combined the two years he lived at Walden Pond into the single seasonal cycle recounted in Walden. Just as I love May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude for its clear-eyed account of her life as a writer in Nelson, New Hampshire, I’d like to distill my own experience in Keene into its barest, most essential truths. I moved to Keene as one half of a couple, but I ultimately lived there longer as a single woman than I had as a wife. How is it, I wonder, that solitary souls like Thoreau, Sarton, and myself found our way in our respective hometowns?

Reggie goes wading

As I work on this project, I find myself wondering how people who don’t write–people who don’t have the memory aid of a journal or blog–go about processing their pasts. I don’t have a particularly strong memory, so I rely heavily upon my journal, blog, and photo archives to remind me of where I was and what I was doing last month, last year, or last decade: without this record, I think my life would quickly fade into fog. It’s a psychological truism that we should learn from our mistakes, but to do this, we need to remember and revisit our past actions. If something as life-changing as my own divorce has already started to fade from memory, how can I internalize its lessons? Or do fading memories indicate an experience that has been gradually digested down to the dregs?

I shot the photos illustrating today’s post on a hot day in July, 2005, when Reggie and I went walking at Keene’s Ashuelot River Park.

Float like a butterfly

Some days I rail against the page, reluctant to come to it: antsy. There is no clear reason; I just balk like a spooked and skittish horse.

Yum

Some days the words flow freely. I sit down with a thought in mind, and that thought leads to another and another like a parade of circus elephants, each attached to the next, trunk to tail.

The Saw

Some days each word emerges slowly and with difficulty, like a foot pulled from sludge. Some days each line is a hard-fought battle, the end of the page an impossible destination.

WeMissUBradley

Some days I have something to say; some days nothing. Some days I have something to say but the words won’t come, or they come slowly and with painful effort, each one creeping on crippled feet.

2016

Some days I come to the page empty and exhausted, without a thought in my head, and the words nevertheless appear.

Curly

Some days I write as if I understood this thing called writing, my lines fluid and fluent, flowing. And other days I write as if I know nothing at all, following nothing but the sound of my pen scratching the page.

This is what appeared when I wrote this morning’s journal pages. I guess today is one of those days.

Journal pages

In yesterday’s mail I received the UK edition of Alexander Masters’ A Life Discarded, which I’d ordered online after Steve had mentioned the book on his blog. Masters wrote A Life Discarded after friends gave him a stack of 148 diaries they’d found in a trash bin, and the book recounts his attempt to reconstruct the life of the person who wrote and then discarded the volumes.

Keeping a journal is an immensely personal endeavor, but it is also an inherently egotistical one. You have to be a little bit crazy to think your life is worthy of a faithful day-to-day record. Even if you don’t plan on inflicting your thoughts on an unsuspecting public, as bloggers regularly do, when you set pen to page you make an implicit assumption that your thoughts–your mundane life and the things you believed and felt during that life–are worth jotting down for future reference.

There is, in other words, a hint of egomania in journal-keeping–a step or two beyond merely talking to oneself. And there is a complementary kind of craziness in the urge to read someone else’s journals: the friends of Masters who retrieve the notebooks are more than a little nuts in their belief that a life recorded and then discarded is worth diving into a dumpster to examine.

Shelved Moleskines

I’ve read only the first few pages of Masters’ book, but I’m already sucked and suckered into the mystery. What kind of person faithfully records the mental minutia of their life only to toss that record into the trash? This impulse to record–to scribble down inane thoughts into notebooks that are then carefully numbered and shelved–is obviously one I share, which is why I was eager to buy a UK edition of Masters book, which doesn’t come out here in the States until October. There is something both crazy and compulsive about journal-keeping: it’s an obsession that is but steps away from collecting old newspapers and stockpiling empty tin cans. (Surely it is no accident that the name of my blog contains the word “hoard.”)

But one person’s insanity is another’s art, and I am grateful that the likes of Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Merton, and May Sarton all decided to trust their thoughts as well as their days to the page. When great men and women keep diaries, it is the stuff of history, but when the rest of us do it, there is a hint of pathology: egotism, error, or worse.

Journaling about journaling

Part of what attracts me to the story behind Masters’ book are the layers of obsessive behavior it describes. A nameless woman is obsessive enough to chronicle five decades of her life, strangers are obsessive enough to retrieve her diaries out of the trash, and Masters is obsessive enough to read, research, and write a book about the whole story: obsession stacked upon obsession.

If a stranger were to happen upon the shelves of filled Moleskine notebooks I have dating from 2002 to the present, what would they discover about me? They’d learn my mind often falls into the same predictable ruts, with page after page recounting mundane chores and errands, the litany of an ordinary life. They’d see moments of observational brilliance interspersed with whines about the weather and a catalogue of aches and pains. They’d find, in other words, the kind of stuff pretty much any of us have rattling around in our heads: hopes and disappointments, resolutions and regrets, faults and failures. They’d find nothing at all remarkable, just random bits that are noteworthy only because they are captured and contained.

A journal is like a fossil, preserving one creature at a single moment in time. Pressed between the pages of a journal, you’ll find the faded flowers of someone else’s life, preserved. The journals tossed into a dumpster in Cambridge, England were discarded and then saved, the life they chronicle frozen into prose like a fly in amber.

The first and third photos illustrating today’s post show yesterday’s journal pages, where I wrote a first draft of this post. The second photo shows part of the shelf where I keep my filled Moleskine notebooks.

Face to face

There is only the solitary self facing the page.
–Dani Shapiro, Still Writing

I’m reading a ragtag assortment of books at the moment: this seems to be how my brain works. If I were a naturally disciplined, focused person, I’d read one book at a time, and those books would be on the same or at least similar topics, one logically following the next.

How are you?

But instead, I’m an omnivorous reader set loose in a banquet world. I read books I’ve browsed on library shelves, books I’ve heard reviewed (or even briefly mentioned) on the radio, or books quoted in other books. If in passing conversation I hear someone mention a book that might be interesting, I’ll add it to my to-read list and request it from the library. Some people have an in-depth knowledge of a particular topic, but for better or worse I’m a dabbler who is easily distracted in diverse directions.

One of the books I’m currently reading is Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, a book that one of my colleagues mentioned in the context of a yoga retreat she had gone on. The book is a ragtag assortment of short musing on writing: the kind of inspirational stuff writers always have (and presumably always will) publish because it’s easier for aspiring writers to read about writing than it is to face (and fill) the blank page.

In progress

The blank page is a mirror that reflects your insecurities, doubts, and fears. Writing is a form of meditation because it requires a quiet, unheralded kind of courage. The world is quick to praise (and rightfully so) the obvious courage of heroes running into burning buildings, leaping in front of oncoming trains, or standing up to bullies to save another. But it takes its own kind of quiet, inconspicuous courage to face the blank page with nothing more than an embryonic hope that something you say could be of use–inspiring or encouraging or even just entertaining–to someone else.

Blocks

Last week I heard a radio interview with Sherman Alexie, who was discussing a children’s book he’s written about a young Native American boy who shares his father’s name. In the interview, Alexie mentioned reading Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day as a boy. Alexie said it was the first time he’d encountered a brown-skinned boy–someone like him–in a book, and the moment was life-changing. It was a moment of realizing he wasn’t alone in the world: there were other little brown-skinned boys who looked at the world the way he did.

I grew up as a little white girl in a world full of books about little white girls. But because I grew up as an introvert in a family of extroverts, I grew up befriending people in books more deeply than I did people in the real world.

BBQ dad's unite!

I remember wanting to be Anne Labastille when I was a girl reading about her work in Guatemala to study and save endangered grebes, and I remember feeling like I’d met not just a friend but a version of my own true self when I first read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. These were books I felt I could have written because they were inspired by eyes that viewed the world how I did.

Surveying his work

It takes courage for a solitary self to face the empty page: there seems to be so many more important things to do. But writers face the page with a deep-seated faith that somebody, someday, might find in their words an idea or insight they’ve waited their entire life to hear.

RIP Prince

Decades ago when I was an undergraduate trying to figure out what to do with my life, one of my professors gave me a terrifying bit of advice. Instead of quickly settling upon a major and then promptly getting down to the business of fulfilling my academic requirements, this professor said I should wait until the last possible minute to declare a major. “Keep your options open,” he said, and it’s a bit of advice I’ve always remembered even though at the time I didn’t follow it.

Wall at Central Square

Unlike many of my peers, I didn’t waver or waffle much when it came to choosing an undergraduate major. After initially declaring as a biology major, I switched to English before setting foot in a science class, and I remained faithful to English as I pursued my bachelors, masters, and PhD. But now after what seems like a lifetime of taking and teaching English classes, I think I understand what my undergraduate professor meant. When you rush to label yourself and your interests, you potentially miss out on other, seemingly unrelated influences that don’t fit your immediate goals.

Wall at Central Square

In retrospect, for instance, the most helpful class I took as an undergraduate wasn’t a literature or writing class but one that was completely tangential to my major: Group Voice for Non-majors. Group Voice was a singing class for non-musicians, and I took it only because I thought it might help me feel more comfortable teaching. If I could stand in front of a group of my peers and sing, I reasoned, then standing in front of a classroom of students would be no problem.

Wall at Central Square

I ended up taking Group Voice for Non-majors several times: it was a one-credit class that promised an easy A to students brave enough to participate, and I came to enjoy the break from my lit class it provided. While I was driven to do my best in the literature classes that counted toward my major, it was elective classes like Group Voice where I could simply try something new without worrying about my future, my GPA, or my eventual career. At the time, taking a class that taught me terms like “castrati” and “bel canto” and required me to sing at least one song in Italian didn’t seem to have anything to do with my career path, but in retrospect, learning how to sing (poorly) in front of a group gave me a confidence I rely upon every single day.

The spot I hit

Today I remembered this advice to “Keep your options open” as I struggle to set my summer expectations. I finished the last of my semester tasks on Tuesday, so now I’m decompressing, trying to return to life outside the academic year. Friends who have retired describe the unsettling sensation of no longer having a set schedule of external expectations, and when you live an academic life, every summer is a miniature retirement. Once your grades are submitted and your other obligations are met, you wake to the simple but disarming question, “Now what?”

Wall at Central Square

I know I want to spend a lot of time writing this summer; I know I want to spend a lot of time reading. I know I want to spend more time walking and taking pictures and being creative, and I know I want to catch up with sleep, meditation, and the other healthy things that unfortunately fall by the wayside during a typically hectic semester.

Wall at Central Square

But apart from simply showing up at the page and waiting to see what words appear, I don’t have any clearly articulated goals for the summer. I have the desire to write, but I haven’t yet decided upon a definitive project. If anything, I’ve been trying to avoid the impulse to settle on a project too soon, just for the sake of settling: I want, in other words, to keep my options open. Because I’ve been writing long enough to know the stages every project goes through, I know there will be plenty of time later to get sick of (and need to stick with) whatever topic I choose: the dictum “Marry in haste, repent in leisure” applies to hastily chosen writing projects as well as mates and majors.

Wall at Central Square

I’ve been writing long enough to know that whatever summer project I settle upon, there will be plenty of time to solidify and reshape it later, but right now at the outset, absolutely anything is possible. Before you start, you can do anything, but once you begin, your options shrink: by going down this road, you eliminate the options of the other, alternate roads. So for the next few days, I’m trying to show up at the page without expectation, hoping the words themselves will tell me where they want to go. “Keep your option open” is a daunting bit of advice, but it is also an alluring invitation to obey your curiosity.

Snowy magnolia

We’re at the point of the semester when I have little time to write: right now my paper-piles loom large, and there are emails to answer and classes to prep. My colleagues are similarly stressed–the typical college semester is emotionally grueling for both faculty and students alike–and while I know I’ll catch up with my grading and other teaching tasks eventually, I lament every moment of lost writing time.

Snow on forsythia

During busy times when I don’t have much time to write, I grow anxious and unsettled, fretting like a dog separated from her pups. Writing isn’t simply a job or pastime for me: it’s how I process my inner world. When I’m not writing, I’m not taking time to make sense of my life: writing even more than meditation is the keel that keeps me upright and centered.

These days when I do find time to show up at my notebook, I come to the page feeling scattered and disjointed: uninspired. After even a few days away from my journal, I’m rusty when I return, having forgotten the route a feeble, circuitous thought takes from brain to hand then onto the page.

Winter into spring

What works, I know, is to write everyday. When I’m writing regularly, my thoughts flow automatically onto the page, my writing hand serving like an extension of my brain and my pen another finger. When I’m writing regularly, filling pages is no problem, even when I think I don’t have anything to say. When I sit and place pen to paper, the words simply appear: the secret to writing, I’ve discovered, is simply to be there with pen in hand, ready for whatever appears.

There’s an old Zen story about a young orphan living in a lonely monastery. An old monk tells the boy that if he sits in front of a certain shoji screen, an ox will eventually appear. The initial admonition to wait for the ox is a trick to keep an antsy boy occupied, like telling a child to sprinkle salt on a bird’s tail. But after the boy sits a long and faithful vigil, an ox does indeed arrive, leaping through the screen and astonishing both the boy and elderly monk alike.

Snow magnolia

Writing journal pages is a bit like sitting in front of a shoji screen, waiting. For months on end, you see nothing inspiring; instead, you face an expanse of blank paper that seems as impenetrable as any brick wall. But one day when you’ve nearly given up all hope, the ox of inspiration charges through the paper and carries you away, amazed. You never know in advance when this moment will come, and this is why you spend many lonely hours with eyes open and pen in hand, waiting for the words appear.

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