On Creativity and Stumbling Blocks

Photo by Theresa Barker.

Creativity is a strange thing. You sit down at your desk, determined to write. (Or paint. Or draw…) And then. Does the creative creature come out to make something wonderful, something beautiful, something inspiring? Likely as not, that creative self inside makes itself absent. “Don’t tell me what to do,” it seems to say. “I’m outdoors capering through that lovely shaft of sunlight, or maybe you can find me down by the urban creek listening for frogs, or sauntering along at the Farmer’s Market watching the brightly colored fruits and vegetables laid out in rows, getting caught up amid the bright and unusual sights. I’m not sitting at some dumb old desk Getting Work Done. No, thank you.”

Yesterday I saw a group of schoolkids, eight or ten of them, trailing along the sidewalk behind a teacher or parent volunteer. Do you think they were walking along solemnly, hands at their sides, staring straight ahead? No, of course not! It was a beautiful Seattle spring day, and to a child they were swinging arms, some of them half-hopping, moving moving moving. What a world there was to explore, it seemed. And then, in the next block, a young woman, white earbuds in her ears, exercise-garbed, sedately and purposefully walked down the pavement. No flinging arms, no half-hopping gait.

What happens to us when we become adults? What makes us so serious about our creativity that we have to box it up, put fences around it, and tell it what it must and mustn’t do? – Don’t make a fool of yourself, don’t fling your arms around as you walk down the sidewalk, even if it’s a lovely warm day and the air feels so good on your hands and your face and you just feel like hopping a few steps. No. We must get that Short Story written, we must Make Progress on that new novel, we must do the sketch for that painting. Life is Serious, mustn’t waste time, after all!

This spring I’ve been working on a new novel. How fervently I want to have a stack of pages completed, a thick file in my computer, a decently long sequence of scenes with wildly interesting characters doing lively and interesting things. Something that will demonstrate how wonderfully creative I am as a writer, as a novelist. Something I can dream of holding in my hand as a book, something people will love to read and get lost in. Instead, I have had to start over, restart a couple of times, come to insights about my writing and the way I write, go back to the seed of an idea, brainstorm new events in the narrative, backtrack and flesh out minor characters, write a new scene or two only to discover they are probably background and won’t be part of a final draft. Somewhere in there I have the thread of a promising story and the beginnings of a quirky character who interests me enough to keep going.

But it’s hard! When you come up against stumbling blocks, when you hit setbacks, it can feel keenly disappointing. One imagines all you have to do is sit down, think up the next thing that will happen, and write it out. How hard can it be? Yet it is. If you’re like me, you can’t just create any schlock. You need to feel the thread is worth following, the language is engaging, the characters are full-bodied and believable. And, creativity is not a thing that will just pour out on demand. At least, not for me.

Taking more walks. Writing a poem a day in April for National Poetry Writing Month. Joining Camp Nanowrimo and being part of a writing “cabin” for 30 days in April. Going to a weekend movie. Watching a TED talk or two. Doing yard work. Journalling.

Above all: trying not to take things too seriously.

Happily I am making some progress. That is something!

Here is a flash piece I wrote recently from a line of Emily Dickinson poetry, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant – / Success in Circuit lies…”.

Circuit

Image by pixel2013 from Pixabay

First it was to the grocery store. Then it was to the framer’s to pick up the picture. Then it was to the gym where to get in several reps and a time on the treadmill. Then it was back to the grocery store for the thing that was forgotten. Then to the dry cleaner’s for that item dropped off earlier in the week. Then to the bank for more cash. Then the library for the stack of books that had seemed so pressing, so welcoming, so interesting when read about in the New York Times Review of Books but which now seemed like nothing but another burden, a weight of items to be bagged and carted and put in the back of the vehicle in the parking lot. Then the coffee bar for more coffee. Then the playground and the movie theater and the skating rink and the mall. Always the mall. Again the mall. Forever the mall. Giggling tweens in the back. A glass of wine would not be amiss just now. A glass of beer even better. Molly’s house, Ashley’s house, Zoe’s house. And back again. The circuit, ever closed, ever open, now making more repetitions, iterations, machinations, and still and still and still meals to be prepared, kids to be put abed, kitchen to be cleaned and dishwashers to be operated. Laundry. Where was that shining literary career dreamed of when leaving MFA school? Columbia, Iowa, NYU. That was where all the gold lay. That was where there was something to be made of one’s mind. Not Dayton Ohio, Springfield Illinois, Salem Oregon. There was something to be said for poetry, for literary criticism, for the intellectual argument published in the New York Times Sunday Review. But now all that was to be said was concerning homework and clean clothes and weekend chores. School did not compare one, did not prepare one, for the disappointment of Life. Did it?

Happy writing!

Theresa

April-days of poetry-study

Hello everyone,

I’m happy to report we’ve had rain showers this week. Here in Seattle we have such a reputation for rain. People say that it rains all the time, but I think my friends in Florida get much more rain than we do. We often have the drizzly, mostly-mist days that don’t give you a lot of rain volume overall!

Here’s something I saw this week when I was walking around downtown. I looked down at the sidewalk and thought, wow, that looks like a bear’s claw.

Photo by Theresa Barker.

After I’ve been doing all this poetry this month for National Poetry Writing Month, I think images might be popping into my brain, unbidden. Finally! Hah!

In the background I’ve been working on planning for a new novel. I’m cautiously optimistic, and I’ll be blogging more about that soon. When NaPoWriMo is over!

Some of the recent prompts for poems have been a bit surreal. That’s something I can say about the following piece, which I wrote last week (spoiler alert – it may be a bit of a downer, sorry!):

Poem and photo by Theresa Barker.

The goal was to use repetition and the inspirational poem was of this pattern – repeating one line to the next, followed by a new line. I liked how it turned out. Even if it is a strange mix of words and images…!

Take care and good writing,

Theresa

Briefly II

Hello everyone,

I’ve been studying poetry for the past two weeks with National Poetry Writing Month., in which each day I write a new poem, from prompts and looking at other poems. Some days are better than others! – Which reminds me, it’s important to be gentle with oneself even when we are striving for excellence and perfection. (Maybe especially so!)

This is one on cherry blossoms, from the point of view of the blossom! – Inspired by a prompt to present a point of view other than the usual.

Poem and photo by Theresa Barker.

And this one inspired by a poet writing in the 1700s, which celebrates his cat:

 

Poem and photo by Theresa Barker.

Did you know? Poetry comes from a Greek word meaning “to create,” poein.

I just learned last week that prose comes from a contraction of proversus, “to turn forward,” thanks to Merriam-Webster’s “Word of the Day” podcast!

Take care and good writing,

Theresa

Briefly

Hello everyone,

Photo by Theresa Barker.

I was walking down the street last week with my son on the way to his student apartment, and suddenly we were surrounded by clouds of white-pink cherry blossoms. The entire block had tree after tree, planted in the parking strip, of these gorgeous flowering trees, the extra-fluffy type of cherry blossoms that feel like puffs of cotton candy. It was stunning. I stopped and breathed in the scene. I took a photo, too, and even if it doesn’t quite convey the feeling of being immersed in the petally flowers, at least it may give you something of the idea of what it was like. 🙂

This week I decided to try something new: National Poetry Writing Month. Each day in the month of April you write a new poem, following an optional prompt. Here are two of my attempts from this week:

Inspired by “The Two Trees,” Larry Lavis, http://www.napowrimo.net/day-three-5/.

and

Inspired by “[a poem about Naomi; unsent]” by Rachel Mennies, http://www.napowrimo.net/day-six-7/
Have you tried something new lately? Have fun writing, painting, photographing, poeming, singing, walking, dancing, enjoying time with friends!

Take care and good writing,

Theresa

On the ebb and flow of creativity

Hello everyone,

Photo by Theresa Barker.

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity. Where does it come from, what makes one feel more creative, less creative, how we seemed much more creative as children than we do as adults, how to capture more moments of creativity … etc.

Just at the moment I feel like I’m getting nowhere on a major story project. Yup, I have writer’s block.

One thing I have learned is that simply demanding more productivity from myself as a writer does not help. If anything helps, it’s usually a side project that doesn’t have high expectations or imagined outcomes. So, as a side project, I picked up the book Creative Workshop by David Sherwin, a visual designer and writer on design. The book holds 80 projects, mostly for a visual designer, to develop their craft.

Aside from the 80 projects, though, in the first 8-9 pages Sherwin talks about ways to come up with more ideas. If you’re like me, you are used to basic brainstorming; you start with a blank piece of paper or a white board/chalkboard and jot down every idea you can. The wilder the better. But here David Sherwin goes beyond basic brainstorming. A couple of my favorites:

  • Word Listing, where you make 3 columns, put a list of ideas in column 1, pick one of those ideas and expand on it in column 2; in column 3 you write down opposite words to columns 1 and 2, then connect relationships among the columns for new ideas.
  • Picture Association, where you grab a bunch of different photographs and illustrations and jot down ideas suggested by the images; I like Flickr for widely accessible photos, but there are lots of image-banks out there.
  • Idea Inversion, where you take a concept that is not quite working and write down everything that is the exact opposite of it, then mix and match with the original idea to come up with an improved idea.
Photo by Theresa Barker

Although I had picked up David Sherwin’s book for no particular reason, when I came across these multiple methods of brainstorming I decided to experiment with some of them on my story. I’m happy to report I have made some little progress. Today I’m probably going to start over from ground zero – again – but at least the notion of where creativity comes from has been widened for me.

Just for fun I did a couple of design challenges from David’s book. This was from an exercise where you have to make an alphabet out of everyday objects. I arranged yellow Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils into letters. It wasn’t as easy as I thought! Since the pencils were all the same length, it was hard to get curves to come out. But it also helped me think about the way objects need to be broken down into smaller segments in order to be able to complete a task or reach a goal.

Here is the complete alphabet made of No. 2 pencils:

Photos by Theresa Barker.

And, for my work this week here’s a short prose piece on a line from the poem “Rhymes for a Watertower” by Christian Wiman.

Rhymes for a Ghost Town

After Christian Wiman

The town is so flat she sees her thoughts pass by her on Main Street before the sun goes down. The dusk is the color of brown-orange candy her mother used to buy for her in the five-and-dime. The row of school desks harbor ghosts of memories read by candlelight. A row of houses nearly demolished by harsh weather and winter storms. A courthouse spreading its wings getting ready to fly. A bank clock’s lingering hands. A gleam of storefronts not quite spare enough for her spare thoughts. A memory of libraries in the dusty street.

Take care and good writing,

Theresa