Stoking the Creative Fire

Dinosaurs I made from fabric I took down from my work bulletin boards.

As I discussed in my last post, I don’t think that there is any special condition we can label writer’s block; however, this year I have come to believe in ‘life block.’ Not only have I had my own dark year of the soul (as opposed to a dark night, which would be wonderfully short lived), but I’ve talked to many creative people who have stopped doing anything joyful.

“Why,” I ask my poet friend, “aren’t you writing any poetry?”

“Who cares about poetry right now?” She answers. She means that there is no room for creativity in our political reality, in our upside down world.

I can’t argue that when we don’t want to get up in the morning and face the latest tweet, we are somehow going to want to creatively celebrate our craft. More likely we are thinking, ‘I could make myself some breakfast. Or I could jump in the river.’

Fortunately for me, my environment is arid. 

For a nephew who loves construction equipment.

Ironically, it’s in times such as ours that the work of creative people can be most appreciated as it countermands the sense that there is nothing good left in the world. I’ve always felt that it’s important to be creating something, any little thing, if just to provide kindling for the passion until we have the energy to maintain a roaring fire.

So how do people fuel their creativity when it seems pointless to create?

Being a perpetually and hopelessly guilt-ridden person, I’ve often tried a work

My niece suggested that small tote bags just the size for children would be great for carrying toys around the house, so I repurposed more bulletin board material.

around when writing was just too much. I do write. But I also try all sorts of things that are less creative than writing and more utilitarian—thus, appeasing the scold in my head who says, ‘Don’t waste time on things no one will ever

Teddy bears for the nieces.

use!’ I am probably the perfect person to use as the ‘DON’T TRY THIS’ example. But since I’ve committed to the DIY MFA book club in both reading the book and answering the writing prompts, I thought it would be fun to show a few of the things I’ve done to get through extended bad patches.

At a very young age—twelve, I think—I started to needlepoint because I felt adrift. I had the sense that I came from nowhere, a person with no household heirlooms and no family stories. I was trying to create these and somehow make a connection between the past and my future. I wrote about the intensity of this feeling in a personal essay about the death of my grandmother that was published in the Longridge Review, an online journal in which adults reflect (one hopes with wisdom gained) on childhood experiences.

The bell pull, in those crazy colors that my parents loved.

So as a tween, and then as a teen, I took needlepoint classes with older women. I made many items for my parents, most of which have not survived to be heirlooms: a pillow meant to be decorative but that over the years wore out, a purse that was never used, Christmas tree ornaments, god knows what all. A lot of these items were stitched in blues and shades of avocado green because those were my parents’ favorite colors for decades. Those colors haven’t stood the test of time. I also made samplers for my sisters when they got married (the colors were more palatable).

A few years ago, my sisters and I were packing up my parents’ longtime home as they were downsizing. Hidden in a closet unused, I found a bell pull that I’d forgotten I’d made. I also found a rug I’d hooked—a tiger because at the time my dad worked at Tiger International, a shipping company. I’d thought he would hang the rug in his office—hooked rugs on the wall were quite the rage at that time—but it, too, stayed in the closet.

Since the things I had hoped to use as family heirlooms had come to nothing, I decided to take photos of them and then toss them. However, these two are still around. My oldest son wanted the bell pull and hung it in his apartment. I worked at a high school whose mascot is a tiger, so I brought the rug to work, and one of the teachers took it to hang in her classroom, happily giving it life for the first time.

One of my youthful creations that I discussed in a personal essay in “Longridge Review.”

As a teen, I made one needlepoint sampler that was just for me and matched the colors of my room—red, orange, and yellow. All the women in my class advised against those colors as they wouldn’t stand the test of time. They were right. I framed the sampler, but it didn’t last long on the wall.

About the only needlepoint pieces I have made that receive a regular public airing are five Christmas stockings—for my husband, myself, and each of my three sons.

While much of this work came to nothing, stitching is an activity that is meditative or lends itself to woolgathering because it can be done without much concentration on the work itself. It allows the mind to be open to ideas and to the invention of story; it keeps the self centered and yet allows open space. To those who have never tried it, it may seem like a strange practice for opening the imagination, but it works.

Not my sons’ pjs, but more recent Christmas creations for nieces and nephews.

Similarly, sewing and quilting can have the same effect on the imagination. I don’t know how many things I’ve sewn in my life—again, I began as a tween—but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a thousand. As a teen, I sewed all my own clothes. Since then I’ve made all sorts of crazy things when I needed to get through periods of anxiety and allow myself some creative space. When my sons were small, I would take them with me to the fabric store. There would be tables piled with remnants of all colors and patterns. They would jump into these and wrap themselves in various designs. I could be with them and in my own world at the same time.

Almost all of what I’ve sewn has been worn or used, but of course, I didn’t record the items. I do have some photos of my sons in shirts that I made for their first day of school and in matching Christmas pajamas that included booties and nightcaps, but I think they wouldn’t appreciate a public airing of those. I also have some photos (from social media) of my more recent creations.

Recently, I decided to use fabric from bulletin board displays because I thought it was a shame not to repurpose it. One set of bulletin boards became dinosaurs. Another, little girls’ dresses. (Right at the time of the solar eclipse, which is echoed in the design.)

Other than reading good books—which always spurs creativity—I think the last thing that helps me to find my way to writing is walking in natural places.

Poppies in a wilderness area near my home.

Last week, I was walking in the local botanical garden with my youngest son.

A rattlesnake on a walking path near my house. This walk/snake led me to write a short story entitled “Argyle.”

There was a display that played off the Game of Thrones popularity called ‘Grove of Thorns.’ In it were all sorts of thorny plants native to California. One display showed the loggerhead shrike, commonly called the “butcherbird.” It captures insects and spiders and then impales them on thorns so it can leisurely eat them. Tell me you can see that and not want to include it in a story.

My son commented that the desert areas with their Joshua trees reaching into the open alone appeared to be frozen characters and had, not the appearance of a prophet in the wilderness, but of the Medusa-killed character of the creepy statue people in the Dark Souls video game. Who knows—maybe that’s where the creator got the idea.

Open space for your thoughts and they will arrive.

A favorite wilderness path near my home.

Note: This is my answer to a DIY MFA book club writing prompt. The club is fun and will go a few weeks longer, If you want to try it, check the Facebook page. Next up is a prompt on your writing superpower. There’s a little quiz where you select photos of settings, character images, and books that you like best. This is to help you see what sort of writing (or personality) ‘superpower’ you have. While I find these sorts of quizzes fun, I don’t take them too seriously, so I am not going to write about my superpower, which turned out to be ‘Disruptor.’ However, if you’d like to take the quiz, try it here.

Writer’s Block, Real Life, and the Desire for Connection

I don’t believe in writer’s block because, generally speaking, there is no muse hanging out. In fact, I’m not entirely sure what writer’s block is supposed to be. I get a few ideas a day that seem like great subjects for short stories and novels. I don’t write about them because I never fill in the details. They remain just what they are—ideas.

Elizabeth Gilbert, who does believe in the muse, says that the many ideas writers get come from that living creative spirit. But if the writer is too slow to act on them, the spirit becomes restless and seeks another vessel to embody it and make it tangible. To her credit, she gives an example of this that is both excellent and incredible in her book Big Magic. (I reviewed and discussed it here.)

If writer’s block doesn’t exist, why are people—who claim that their lifelong/greatest desire is to write—so slow in acting on their ideas? Or worse, why do they never act on most or all of their ideas?

Let’s say some people are lazy because it’s true. Most people are not. I think writers who write little (or not at all) might be the do-gooders of the world. That is, duty binds them in a way that confounds others. This is particularly true of women, who have always been expected to put others first. It’s also particularly true of Catholics, at least previous to this generation, who were supposed to feel guilty whenever they did something that was self-glorifying or, well, self-anything. I’m not sure if it’s a misfortune—there are wonderful things about being female and wonderful things (so I’m told) about being Catholic. However, as I am the one and used to be the other, I can say the combination generates more anxiety and self-loathing than it does novels.

I’ve spent my life working pretty hard. There were times when I was working about fifty hours a week, was raising small children and was going to graduate school. I wrote when I could, but my sit-downs were far enough apart that I couldn’t keep any sort of through-storyline in my head. I’d forget pretty much all the details of my novel, even the minor characters’ names. Every time I wanted to pick up, I’d have to reread the entire text to remember what had happened. I’d think, ‘Wow! That’s pretty good—I forgot I did that.’ Time elapsed and notes were lost, computers crashed and software systems, as well as methods of backing up information, changed. (Remember those 5” floppy disks?) I lost a complete novel, tens of stories, dozens of poems, two children’s books. At the time, this felt like the universe was over and over again giving me the sign that I was meant for nothing beyond what I was already working at. I have since stopped believing in these sorts of signs, just as I stopped believing in writer’s block. Having moved past the heartbreak of loss, the experience has simply become part of the necessary 10,000 hours of practice required to become good at what I do. (My thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and the 10,000 hour rule are here.)

While the novel, stories, and poems were lost, the craft is retained. Like most people who work long and hard, I haven’t found myself to be an outlier in any sort of Beatles sense (surprise, surprise), but I do find that having a passion for the discipline of writing is rewarding. (Which is not to say that going on to have that writing published isn’t more rewarding. I’ve been around too long to start lying to myself now.)

Since guilt is such a destructive force, writers who are hard at work on many things other than writing might remind themselves of the value of what they are doing. If you’re raising kids, you want to be present. If you are getting paid to work, you owe someone a job well done. Are you really a terrible person because your novel is unfinished? Maybe the way to think of it is that you feel lousy, but not because you aren’t good enough or working hard enough (“I’m waking at 5 AM, but couldn’t I get up at 3 AM to write for a few hours?”).

You feel lousy because you want to write as a way to connect with a larger community of thinkers, of people who sense the environment in ways similar to your own. You want to explain yourself to people who feel very different from you, and you want to understand those people as well. This, of course, is not only why you write, but why you read a shit ton of books—the other thing you have been making time for in a world that prefers the pace of tweets and posts.

While I attended a summer session in Cambridge, England—one of these things that anyone who can wrangle up the money is welcome to—I read E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End. I was already a teacher and went along with some dozen or so high school students. I don’t know how I missed Howards End as an undergrad, but I was so excited to finally read it that I went to a bookshop (Cambridge was a bibliophile’s dream in that regard—bookshops and knowledgeable booksellers at every turn), and bought a second copy to mail to my best friend. I wanted to talk about it as soon as I got home.

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

I had a similar feeling when I was a young teacher and my school got a new textbook for the junior year American Literature class. There was another famous piece I had somehow missed—this time from that most American poet, Walt Whitman.

“A Noiseless Patient Spider”

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

So, yes, for many years, I was an English teacher and then a teacher librarian. My job was to help teens become better readers and writers. That’s not a bad way to live a life. I never had to be unethical or immoral, and I valued what I was doing. I should have been able to turn off the inner critic, but I couldn’t. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who never has met the challenge to run faster and jump higher. I’m guessing most writers feel this way.

Something that I think about a lot now—but have no idea how to begin—is to start and edit a literary magazine that accepts work from people who are 45 years or more old and are emerging writers. I see many lists of young people to ‘watch out for.’ What of people with a good deal of life experience who have been quietly, slowly honing their craft while they were duty bound to children, to parents unable to care for themselves, all while they were working to put food on the table and volunteering in their communities because someone had to do it? They must have stories to tell, stories they’ve been working on in the rare quiet moments. They’ll tell them from a different perspective than they would have in their twenties.

My worry about such a journal is that a shit ton of ‘chicken soup’ type submissions would pour in. Because most short work we see anthologized about anyone middle aged and beyond is about getting to the settled place, where the protagonist is working or has already worked things out and come to a Hallmark-channel place of happy new beginnings. So, if I were to ask for the writing of the literary cocooners, the latent talents, I would have to make clear that sentimentality is not allowed. It’s time to spin the silk.

Note: This is my answer to a DIY MFA book club writing prompt. The club is fun and will go a few weeks longer, If you want to try it, check the Facebook page. Next up is a prompt on the tools we’ve used to feed creativity. I can share some of the weird and wacky ways I have kept the creative fire kindled over the years. (The photo is a hint.) Because let’s face it, even when a writer isn’t writing, everything she does, experiences, sees and feels is filtered through the author prism. She asks herself: how does that experience fit into the next story? And then everything becomes writing.

A Bowl Full of Jelly

 

I’m very happy about today’s launch of The Longridge Review, which includes my piece “A Bowl Full of Jelly.”  The journal seeks pieces by adults that reflect on significant childhood experiences. Something they sought was reflection on the first significant experience of death. My piece is about my feelings on the death of my paternal grandmother. The timeline of my youth is condensed for the piece, but the events are things I really did. As weird, old ladyish, and nerdy as it sounds, I did needlepoint in my early teens in an effort to create something that would last. I made things for my sisters, parents, myself. Crazy.

I hope you’ll have a look at the Longridge Review. The featured artist, Deb Farrell, created wonderful pieces to accompany the essays. The image above is entitled “Reluctant to Let Go”and accompanies mine.