Writing & creativity


Bee on stonecrop

I recently started reading David Sedaris’ Theft By Finding, a lightly-edited collection of journal entries from the years 1977 to 2002. The early pages of the book recount a Kerouac-like stint of hitchhiking, fruit picking, drug using, and general penury. In his introduction to the book, Sedaris advises against reading the book from cover-to-cover: as a diary, the book lacks anything remotely similar to a plot, instead reflecting the crazy daily existence of a person without a clear direction. Instead of reading it cover-to-cover like a conventional narrative, Sedaris suggests readers dip into the book at random, reading it like a joke book where some episodes or anecdotes are funnier than others.

Bee on stonecrop.

I have two good reasons for ignoring Sedaris’ advice. First, I’m reading a library copy that I have to return in two weeks, so I don’t have the luxury of a leisurely and random read. Instead, I have to start at the beginning and plow right through.

But my second reason is the more important one. I too am a journal-keeper, so whereas normal readers might grow tired of a the senseless ramblings of a young man trying to find himself in the most random of ways, I’m admiring the narrative fluency of that young man’s mind. I’m not reading for story as much as psychology: not what happened to young Sedaris so much as how he responded to what happened.

Bee on stonecrop

What I’m interested in watching is the suppleness of mind that allows Sedaris to write whatever comes to mind, even when what comes to mind isn’t remarkable or particularly noteworthy. Non-writers believe, I think, that you can spend your life not writing and then suddenly open your noticing eye when something important, exciting, or inspiring happens. But that isn’t how writing works.

Bees on stonecrop

How writing works, in my experience, is you practice by keeping track of minutiae. You scribble things down every day even when your everyday life is boring or uninspiring. You practice noticing the quality of light through the window, the sound of crickets chirping, or the insistent chip of a cardinal. A journal is to writers what scale-playing is to pianists. Playing scales isn’t interesting for listeners, but it’s how pianists keep their fingers flexible and their minds focused. After playing scales, scales, scales, a pianist hones her ability to play measure after measure of actual music. The music happens because of (not despite) the hours of disciplined drudgery that precedes it.

Bumblebee on stonecrop

When you’re in the thick of your life, you’re not very good at determining what will be life-changing or profound. That’s why journal-keepers record all of it. Theft By Finding is a massive book–more than 500 pages–but Sedaris explains it’s still not exhaustive: he edited out the most boring, repetitive, and inane material, and even then, there’s still a lot that might bore or befuddle many readers. But that’s exactly what I love about reading the journals of practiced writers. I don’t read because every page is wonderful; I read because it’s wonderful to encounter a gem-like line in the middle of otherwise unremarkable stuff.

Karner Blue, by Evan Morse

One of my goals for this summer is to write daily. When I sit down to write each day, I don’t usually have a topic in mind. Instead, I have a commitment to sit at my desk, uncap my pen, and fill four journal pages with whatever comes up, following Natalie Goldberg’s advice to “keep my hand moving” as faithfully as interruptions allow.

Karner Blue, by Evan Morse

This practice of sitting down and seeing what arises is very similar to what I do when I meditate; in fact, I’ve come to think of writing and meditation as being basically “sitting with and without pen.” When I write, I allow my sentences to follow wherever a given thought leads, regardless of how silly, stupid or scary that thought may be. When I meditate, I watch my thoughts without either chasing or repressing them. Like a flagpole planted on the edge of the sea, I stay standing no matter what the tides and surges throw at me, using my breath as an anchor.

Karner Blue, by Evan Morse

It turns out that these two practices–following random thoughts with a pen on one hand, and watching thoughts come and go on the other–are flipsides of the very same coin. In both cases–whether you’re following and recording your thoughts or simply watching them–the muscle you’re exercising is what Buddhists call non-attachment. You aren’t judging your thoughts, and you aren’t weighing their worth. You aren’t sorting your thoughts into piles to keep and piles to discard. You aren’t rating or ranking or recoiling from any of them. Instead, you remain firm and rooted in your commitment to simply stay sitting. Whether writing or meditating, you commit to staying firmly planted, regardless of what comes up.

Karner Blue, by Evan Morse

What you don’t do, in other words, is stop because you think your writing or your meditation “isn’t working.” The phrase “isn’t working” is code for “This activity isn’t immediately delivering the kind of results I want, so I’m going to stop and do something that feels more rewarding.” Both meditating and writing require you to ignore the demon named “Isn’t Working” and press on regardless. Does it feel like your writing “isn’t working” because what you’re writing seems stupid, disorganized, or inane? Keep writing anyway. Does it feel like your meditation “isn’t working” because your thoughts are scattered and disjointed? Keep sitting anyway. Ultimately, the quality of your writing or your meditation isn’t contingent upon the quality of your thoughts; it’s determined by the strength of your staying.

Retreat journal - March 1994

I recently discovered a journal I kept when I was on a week-long retreat in Rhode Island in 1994, when my then-husband and I lived in Boston. I don’t remember journaling during that retreat; as far as I remember, we were told not to write, just as we were discouraged from reading. So when and how did I scribble a substantial number of pages in looping longhand?

Dharma room Buddha

This morning I started reading Hourglass, a thin memoir of “time, memory, [and] marriage” by Dani Shapiro. In the opening pages of the book, Shapiro discovers a journal she kept on her honeymoon some eighteen years earlier. Like me, Shapiro doesn’t remember keeping this journal; even more oddly, it is a journal where she refers to herself in the third person, as “D.”

Shapiro is a memoirist; I am not. I continue to keep a journal all these years later; Shapiro’s honeymoon notebook, on the other hand, is significant in large part because it is one of the last she kept.

Diamond Hill Zen Monastery

Because of this, Shapiro and I have different approaches to memory and journaling. When she did keep a journal, Shapiro did so as an orderly act of closure. By laying down the details of her life in writing, Shapiro suggests they could be filed away and forgotten:

Keeping journals was a practice for me, way of ordering my life. It was an attempt to separate the interior from the exterior. To keep all my trash–this is the way I thought of it–in one place.

I, on the other hand, lack a memoirist’s memory: I rarely write about my childhood, for example, because I remember so little of it. For me, journaling is a necessary act of remembrance. Knowing I won’t remember anything I haven’t written down, I trust my days to the page so that it, my journal, will remember my life for me.

Retreat (not) in progress

Shapiro and I have different perspectives on memory and journaling, but we share one thing: we each have earned the wisdom of hindsight. Shapiro reads her honeymoon journal after being married for eighteen years, and I am re-reading my retreat musings more than two decades after I wrote them. Both Shapiro and I peek into the lives of our younger selves with a knowledge of how things turn and are turning out.

People sometimes talk about the advice they’d give their younger selves: what do you know now that you wish you’d known then? This is an interesting if useless exercise: useless because our younger selves would never listen to the advice of us oldsters, and interesting because it forces us to take stock of the wisdom we’ve acquired the hard and messy way.

I’m not sure whether Shapiro offers any advice to her younger self: I haven’t read far enough into her memoir to know. But all I’d say to my younger, greener self is this: Keep writing, and keep everything you write. One day, you’ll marvel to think you ever were so young and so green.

I shot the photo of my 1994 journal this afternoon and the photos of the Diamond Hill Zen Monastery in Cumberland, Rhode Island some ten years ago.

In clover

I rarely sit down to write with a specific thing in mind; instead, I wait to see where the words lead. This means the first few paragraphs of my daily journal pages are often a scattershot account of mundane concerns and quibbles. Only after the first few paragraphs have made their way from brain to page do I settle into the deeper, more substantial stuff that’s on my mind: the inner tune I’m humming beneath the surface static.

Yellow vetch and red clover

For this reason, I often tell my students to start revising early drafts by deleting their intro paragraph, especially if their second paragraph does a better job of cutting to the chase. Intro paragraphs (and especially opening lines) are difficult to write: most of us don’t get them right on the first try, especially if we start out not knowing exactly what we want to say.

Instead of assailing readers with the rhetorical equivalent of throat-clearing and ahem-ing, start with a paragraph that goes straight for the jugular. Especially if you’re writing a short piece, there is no time for dilly-dallying.

New leaves

I rarely write my journal pages first thing in the morning: there are too many other things to do. On teaching days, I get up, immediately start my kitchen chores, give Bobbi her breakfast, shower and dress, then give Bobbi her insulin right before I head off to campus. On days when I work from home, I sleep later, give Bobbi her breakfast and insulin first thing, and then do my kitchen chores. In either case, “kitchen chores” and “tend diabetic cat” come before “sit down and write,” and I’ve made peace with that. This is the shape of my life these days, and a daily writing practice needs to conform itself to any shape.

Spring green

On mornings when I’m working from home and J has a morning meeting, however, we get up hours earlier than usual, and I meditate then write in my journal before setting foot in the kitchen. When I write my journal pages first thing, I either focus on whatever I did, read, or thought the previous day–a narrative debrief–or I rehearse in writing the tasks of the coming day. When I write my journal pages first thing, in other words, I often don’t have much to say because the day is young: the house is quiet, the neighbors are still asleep, and my notebook and desk feel like the center of a dormant universe.

Honeysuckle leaves

Julia Cameron, whose book The Artist’s Way had a big influence on my life at a time when I was stuck in nearly every way, insists that morning pages be written first thing in the morning, before anything else. (I picture Cameron waking alone in bed, wearing a peignoir and swaddled in satin sheets, her journal on a nearby nightstand so she can scribble pages before her feet touch the floor.) But even before I had a diabetic cat and kitchen chores to tend to, Cameron’s approach never seemed entirely practical: dogs’ bladders take precedent over journal pages, and when I lived at the Zen Center, morning practice came first. Anyone with pets, a spouse, children, or a meditation practice might understandably struggle with Cameron’s insistence that writing in one’s journal take priority over everything else.

Spring leaves

Fortunately, before I’d ever heard of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, I’d already read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg’s only rule about journal pages is that you keep your hand moving. Goldberg doesn’t care whether you write your journal pages in the morning, noon, or night; she simply urges you to write them quickly and with no mind to mistakes. For years, I shared Goldberg’s fondness for writing in cafes: my first consideration in choosing a new purse was the question “Will my notebook fit inside?” Nowadays, my journal lives at home and I only occasionally write elsewhere, but I long ago internalized Natalie Goldberg’s insistence to write not just early, but often.

Leafing

The beauty of journal pages is that they are, indeed, your own: various practitioners have their own rules and admonitions, but those basically boil down to “just do it.” This morning when I wrote my journal pages, the neighborhood was alive with a predawn chorus: cardinal, titmouse, crow, chickadee, robin, junco, goldfinch, nuthatch, house sparrow, and an occasional emphatic turkey. At one point, the other birds quieted while a white-throated sparrow whistled his clear, simple song: an avian aria I associate with distant alpine environments, too secretive for suburbs. These songs entered my ear then flowed out as ink onto the page: a secret stream of solitude to start the day.

One of these things is not like the others

Whenever I sit down to write and can’t find anything to say, I think of the nursery rhyme about Old Mother Hubbard, who went to give her dog a bone but the cupboard was bare. (Apparently that nursery rhyme has verses beyond the one I know: it sounds like Mother Hubbard’s dog was quite talented.)

Isn't all water "skinny"?

Sometimes when I sit down to write, my mind feels like an empty cabinet…or, more accurately, a messy drawer so crammed with junk, I can’t find much less extricate whatever I’m looking for. Sometimes “nothing to say” means “I have nothing interesting to say,” and sometimes it means “the only interesting things I have are little bits of this and that, and I don’t know how to stitch them together into something worth sharing.”

New Age Drinks?

My inner-artist resonates so deeply with Old Mother Hubbard, a quick search shows I’ve mentioned bare cupboards in seven different blog posts, all of them describing this same experience of sitting down to write and finding nothing. Whatever else might be going on at any given moment, you still have to feed the blog, even if all you have to offer is a handful of crumbs and scraps.

Maybe this all explains why I enjoy grocery shopping, a chore I find doubly satisfying. First, there is the comfort of seeing shelves and cases neatly stocked with wares: abundance in aisles. And then there is the satisfaction of coming home and unpacking one’s purchases: a pantry of plenty.

Notebook-finishing day

Today while writing my almost-daily journal pages, I filled one Moleskine notebook and moved onto the next. Notebook Finishing Day always feels like a special occasion: just by keeping at it, the pages fill.

Snow on the ground, new leaves on the shrubs. #signsofspring

I’m reminded of the story I re-read in Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street this morning: “Four Skinny Trees,” about the four city-planted saplings on Esperanza Cordero’s street. They teach her “how to keep” by sending down “ferocious roots.” These trees, she says, “grown down and grab the earth between their hairy toes and bite the sky with their violent teeth and never quit their anger.” It’s an image that could have been written only by a girl who had watched trees twist and toss their leafy heads in summer storms: a girl like me, or Esperanza, or Cisneros.

Almost spring

The four skinny trees give Esperanza hope when she is “too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, when I am a tiny thing against so many bricks.” The four skinny trees grow “despite concrete,” and so does Esperanza. Like the trees, she “reach[es] and do[es] not forget to reach.” This is how we all keep and keep keeping.

Emergent

I write my journal pages on paper, a product made from trees. This is, I think, part of why I like to write by hand. The touch of the page reminds me of all the trees I’ve known, like the big, branching maple tree in the courtyard of my childhood home, in whose leaves I’d play every fall: one of my closest childhood friends. Every child should have at least one tree–a big branching one, or several smaller skinny ones–to teach her how to stand, how to hold the sky, and how to keep. That last one is the most important: a lesson to last into adulthood.

Spring green

Tree at my window, window tree–why are there so many songs about rainbows, and so many poems about trees? Trees just keep keeping their quintessential tree-ness; there is no running away when you have roots. Day by day, page by page, I keep writing, most days not knowing what I want to say until the words appear under my pen: thoughts about the weather, worries about work, complaints and quibbles. All these are uttered page by page, leaf by leaf: baby leaves becoming big leaves becoming insect-eaten leaves becoming fallen leaves becoming compost. Leaves gathered in bushels and pages contained in books: this is how we keep keeping, “our only reason,” as Cisneros says, “is to be and be.”

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