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Doing It Anyway

Thank all that’s holy for Anne Lamott.  When she wrote, “All first drafts are shitty*,” she gave a generation of writers permission to unabashedly write crap the first time out and be okay with it.   That was huge for me when I read it a few years back.  And it was especially huge today.

Today I did my very best to ignore negative portents of futility, obstacles, no energy and too much of a good thing. I refused to allow myself to be dragged down by discouragement and pain.  And so I wrote crap.  Inserting some new words into what I thought were some pretty decent words.   Gilding the lily, from my perspective.

But what really mattered was that I did it.  I wrote.   When I was scared.  When I was discouraged.  When I felt like chucking the whole damned thing. When I really didn’t feel like it.  When there was no huge inspiration, no feeling of excitement and bliss that I get sometimes when I’m really one with the creative spark.

Normally, I would have run yipping to the couch with my tail between my legs to seek succor in Other People’s Stories.  But, I didn’t do that.  Instead, I wrote.  I wrote anyway.

And at the end of a tough day, when I had to refuse to discuss a job further that sounded so fun because the money was only half of what I needed to live on.  When I called my mother to enjoy our verbal sparring, and she was vague and retelling the same things she’d told me yesterday and slurring and searching hard for words.  When I was discouraged that both my books fell short of the word count requirement of a publisher accepting submissions.  When a third review of a short story was panned by most reviewers. Today, I had one laurel to rest on.

I wrote using my unsticking formula, and it worked.  Some of what I wrote was decent.  And some of it was downright shitty.

Thank you, Anne Lamott, for making shitty a perfectly fine thing to draft.

So, on a no-good, lousy, rotten, terrible day, shitty writing was a major triumph.   Because I felt better afterward.  Because I did it anyway.

I can go back to what I wrote tomorrow, and it will still be shitty, but I can work with that.

 

* in her book, Bird by Bird.

The Jekyll and Hyde of Creativity

Creativity is an interesting gift because it’s so hooked in to our humanity.  There’s such an elemental, even primal, emotional aspect to it.  Creativity seems alternately fragile or compelling in the wake of emotion — a rather Jekyll and Hyde-ish characteristic, if you will.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was originally written by Robert Louis Stevenson.

I saw a movie in the past couple of weeks, The Words, that aptly described how emotion compelled  creativity.  The Words was the layered film of a young author who stole the work of another man when he found a manuscript in an old valise bought from a shop in Paris.  The story was so gripping that the young author wanted to experience the sensation of those words leaving his own mind and fingers, so he typed it into his computer.  I won’t spoil the story for you, but the original author finds him eventually and relates his tale of how the story came to be.   The real author wrote it obsessively after his child died and his wife left him.  And it was brilliant.

I also recall seeing a documentary on Claude Monet, the impressionist, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art a few years back when several of his paintings were displayed.  In one section of the film, they read from his journal regarding an incident immediately after his first wife’s demise.  He reported being utterly grief-stricken at seeing her lifeless face.  But, his Muse (his word, not mine) imprisoned him in obsessive creativity.  He was compelled to execute his “Death Mask” painting while being horrified in one part of his mind because he should have been grieving.  Because of the shame he felt around it, the painting was not released for public viewing until after his death.

In my own life, emotion plays a big part in how available my creativity is to me, which I’d suspect many of you can relate to.   Recently, being unemployed, my creativity has been wide open, kind of like a fire hydrant – woohoo!! And believe me, I’m unabashedly wallowing in it!

However, a month or so back, my mother called me and laid into me — for no darned good reason.  She’s elderly, 79, endured and survived breast cancer, chemo and radiation, a stroke and seizure, my father’s death a year ago and is showing signs of dementia, which is hereditary in her family.  But, her diatribe pushed my buttons, major – regardless of her circumstances.  I spent the next few days mad as hell, hurt, frustrated, and my anxiety  was Mars-high.   The obsessive thoughts going through my head weren’t pretty nor was it any fun for the calmer side of me, listening to it and at its mercy.  And could I write?  Hell, no.  Until.  I got up in the wee hours one morning and slashed all that emotion down on paper as a rough poem.  Then, the obsessive thoughts were completely gone – a minor personal miracle.

I haven’t looked at that piece of paper since, and that’s okay.  Some of those emotions are still pretty raw.  I may never look at it again.  It may not really be a poem, instead just a way of getting that toxic* emotion out of me.

But it was an interesting study in emotion and how it first blocked my creativity and then exploded in a welter of creativity as catharsis.

Food for thought.

*For me

The Door

I built it myself, you know.

 

 

“You’ll never make a living at it,” he said.

SO

Capricorn practicality picked up the gauntlet:

Worked  myself ass-less between the ears

Sought and achieved sheepskins

paved a living

double-mortgaged a money-pit

went in hock for cars

all with the door shut.

 

 

But I didn’t just construct the door;

Far too miniscule for me —

Instead, obsessive door obstruction:

Stuffed every crack,

Caulked and varnished to seamless,

Hinged in iron-corrosion-rust.

Immuring that right-brain spark,

the flame self-immolated,

damn-near choked to death.

Hence, the jagged-sanity glare.

 

 

Now near-end:

The door’s mountain-high

With passes so snowed shut

That Life’s glacial.

Is that all there is?

This frozen door?

Give me dynamite or give  me death.

 

 

Door destruction in a single blast;

Clearing debris’s sucked time.

But the message is clear, Dad:

There’s making a living and then

There’s making Life.

 

 

Now

keeping the door open is the dare.

Fellow doorstops help.

Being Stuck and Unsticking

I attended a new meetup group on Sunday on the creative process. The attendees were a mixed bag of artists/crafters.  A common theme I heard during the introductions and subsequent discussion was on being stuck creatively.  We writers have a fancy name for it, of course, being word people.  We call ours is “writer’s block.”

In my experience, the whole phenomenon of stuckness has an emotional kernel. (For us experienced creatives, that’s no big surprise.)  And that’s what I heard from these folks.  One woman, a frustrated jewelry designer, works in jewelry repair, spending her days examining someone else’s broken jewelry for ways to fix them.  A left-brain problem-solving activity.  She says she has no energy for jewelry design when she gets home.

When I worked full-time, I noticed that after a day of dealing with the boss and co-workers, the inevitable conflicts that occur, negotiating about this, compromising on that, and juggling pace and projects, I had little creative energy, too.  Here’s my theory:  when the left brain has been ascendent for so long, it’s really hard to switch gears, especially when one’s mind is exhausted from all the tumult of the day.  The TV and utter vegetation beckon beguilingly.  “…Forget about life for awhile” might be one’s thinking.

After listening to the other experienced creatives talk in this meetup, I noticed a common theme for getting unstuck:  a tiny bit of energy, exposure and movement.  Ironically, like physical exercise, one needs to expend energy to get energized.  One woman said she’d just go into her studio, thinking to spend five minutes making a few lines with chalk.  But, she’d emerge over an hour later, not only having made a significant new beginning but feeling re-energized too.  She simply needed the energy to walk into the room and become exposed to her medium.

When I’ve gotten worried that I can’t write the next part, here’s my process:

  1. Bring up an empty Word page.  Not too hard, right?
  2. Next,  I blurt out my concerns like I’m journaling: “oh, crap, I can’t write” and other assorted whining — just to clear the pipes of emotional sludge.
  3. Then, I start asking questions like “Well, what if I did this?  How would that impact the story?  Would it shut off other plot lines or open up doorways to others?  How about this?”  And on and on.

It’s like an virtual brainstorming session.  That’s how I got the high-level plots for the next three books in my Race the Night series.

No, new ideas?  Write down your dreams.  Even just describe an image or two from a dream.  Then write around it.  There’s a kernel of the creative spark in there.  Then get rid of the dross.  (Remember. Anne Lamott said, “All first drafts are shitty.”)

Or read other people’s stuff, take an idea that intrigues you and give it your own creative spin.  I read poetry, too; vivid imagery always gets my creative juices flowing.

A little energy plus exposure plus movement.  Just having the energy to bring up that blank page, exposing my fears and new thoughts, the simple movement of my fingers on the keyboard and the ideas in my head make it happen.  And it’s so exciting and compelling while it’s happening.  Like drafting new work, this makes me feel alive…and like I’m making my own minor magic.

Hopefully, it’ll work like that for you too.  Or this will spark a process that works for you.  What are your thoughts on being stuck and getting unstuck?

On the Grey

A friend of mine had a post accepted by the Elephant. Her topic was the mystical in 50 Shades of Grey and the creativity that comes from diving into the murk.  http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/09/fifty-shades-of-transformation-vera-snow/  (I haven’t read any of the Grey trilogy, but, it’s on my “must-read” list.)

I found her position intriguing.  In this instance, the definition of “murk” was erotica. Interestingly and ironically, the ultimate act of creation for humans is at the culmination of sex. The cataloging or fictionalizing of it, however, is seen by some as filth. Granted that’s a very controversial topic, which I’m not talking about here; this isn’t about porn or any product that objectifies, harms, victimizes, or exploits the unwilling, innocent, ignorant or downtrodden. That’s how erotica is different in my mind; it doesn’t do any of those things.

One of my meetup groups about a month ago had “Does sex belong in science fiction/fantasy?” as its monthly topic. (Of course, the attendance for that meeting was off the charts…!) My position was “it depends on if it fits with the character and the story/plot.” I’ve seen authors in the throes of adolescent self-indulgence when it comes to fictionalized sex. For me, the problem was that it was inconsistent with the character and the relationship between the two engaged in sexual activity — or it ignored the story/plot entirely.

One example is a story I read in the magazine, Science Fiction and Fantasy. If the protagonist had perpetrated the acts on me that he (42-year-old pirate) did on the 18-year-old female character — ripping off the cargo, unintentionally disabling the ship, robbing her and her family of their last means of making money to survive, putting her life in jeopardy — not only would I (as an 18-year-old woman) have said “No” but “Hell, no!” to his sexual overture.  Was the writer being creative? In more ways than he intended — thus my “self-indulgent” charge. Because it was so self-indulgent, it threw me out of the story. At least, to this reader, his words didn’t ring true, so I couldn’t suspend my disbelief.  From where I sat, it didn’t contain the divine spark.  Whether it did when he was writing it, that’s his story to tell.

I’m still intrigued by Vera’s idea of finding the divine in the murk. Is erotica the only murk? I don’t think so. I think we might also find the murk in depression, anger, rage, anxiety, frustation, etc., and all their aftermaths. Think of all the celebrated artists who created from there: Monet, Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton…the list is endless since madness sometimes sits thigh-to-thigh with human creativity.

“You do not do, you do not do/ Anymore black shoe/ In which I have lived like a foot/ For thirty years ….”  Sylvia Plath’s poem, Daddy, is an excellent example of creation shining through murk.

Sylvia Plath

Her rage reaches all who read it, causing tremors to the mind’s mental ground as readers walk through her words. The poem has lived long past her because its power, utter truth and dark beauty are clear. Is it pretty? Is it kind? Romantic? Uplifting? No. But the creative spark shines bright in it. Is it self-indulgent? That argument might be made, but the poem’s resounding honesty belies it.

Are all murky works worthy of being called art? Hard to say, it depends on the creative and what’s behind the effort. But, murky emotions made manifest through the creative spark — when they’re honest and powerful — can rock our inner worlds…or at least mine.

Hello, world!

Hi!  I’m Deb!

I’ve been privileged these past several weeks to participate in groups with other writers.  It’s moved me deeply to witness their expressions of creativity.  There’s something sacred in it.  These experiences so touched me that I decided I wanted to share them and my observations with you all.

There’s a purity in hearing and reading my fellow group members’ work that’s close to the sublime for me.  It’s like seeing the Divine up close and personal on the gritty streets of Saint Paul, Minnesota.  The juxtaposition of the sublime with the grit is utterly delicious and fascinating.

It’s like the feelings I get when I’m up at the North Shore of Lake Superior — viewiing an ultimate work of creation, humbling yet thrilling at the same time.

Relishing the Work

Last night I sat at a sidewalk table with three other poets.  Listening to the music of their words against a background of foot and vehicular traffic produced utter delight in me.  Tim’s “Higitis Figitis” described the Disney cartoon/movie, The Sword in the Stone.  His playful language and clever use of white space gave me brain-tingles.  Ron’s poem that began “I too could die in November” was an answer to a poem written by someone in his over-50 poetry writers group.  His work was lush with dirty urban images and dogs, showcasing his observational clarity and passion for pooches — even to describing their fascination with biological emissions.  Andrea’s poem with a Spanish title “La luna yega negra” or something along that line (please forgive me for butchering it, Andrea) contained transcedent metaphors that engendered a mystical experience.

Later, when the whole group came back together, I listened to a young woman read her poem aloud to us.  While reading, she scoffed at herself and her words.  I was so disturbed by how she denigrated her work that I was way too presumptuous for a complete stranger.  I encouraged her not to do that.  It’s a work in progress, after all.  Harshness stifles creativity.

For me, creating is about the act of getting something out of the self that might look like dross at first, but with repeated review and polish can become something splendid — an expression of that person’s inner truth and/or beauty.  So, I say, don’t apologize for the dross or rough edges.  Simply see them clearly as they are in that moment.  Then, move them to the right spot, the next place, the next space that improves the expression of your creative intent.  Even if that next place is the delete key, the scrap heap or the trashcan.

The draft, review, edit and repeat cycle is all part of the process, part of the journey.  And for me, there’s something sacred in it. And I celebrate and relish it — both yours and mine.