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

For the love of cats … and writing friends …

Hello everyone,

Photo by Theresa Barker.

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about connections. When you’re a writer you spend a lot of time alone. At a desk, in front of a computer keyboard or pad-and-pen. Writing. Yes, that’s important. To write you need to time alone, to create scenes or poetry, express yourself, to build a body of work. Just like an artist needs time in the studio to paint, to sculpt, or to create in whatever medium they use. Yes. You need to be able to tolerate solitude.

But.

There is such a creative joy in connecting with other artists or writers! This week I had coffee with a writer friend who told me about her outlining process in her new novel. I had a chat-room conversation with a writer-friend in the UK about using a 5-Act structure for her novel. I exchanged comments on poetry – and on cats – with poet Luanne Castle, and on Chinese food with Asian Australian writer Mabel Kwong, on snowy weather in the Pac. NW with blogger Kim Stirling, and on creativity and the UK’s climate with photographer-extraordinaire Amy Maranto. (And the tea in the photo came from a dear friend from college who lives in Houston, Texas!)

It really helps. When one goes back to one’s own desk to create more art, it really helps to know others are thinking of you and you of them. It’s a whole community that sits at that desk with you. Hah!

Photo by Theresa Barker.

And when all else fails, there’s always the love of cats to see you through. Here is my cat Pickles getting some much-desired attention. Prrr!

A recent “Poem-A-Day” from the Academy of American Poets caught my eye, “Helen Considers Leaving Paris,” by Jeananne Verlee. I wrote my own little riff on it – below.

Lois Lane Considers Leaving Superman

After Jeanann Verlee

After two glasses of presecco
Don’t mistake me, I’ve pondered this before. But today I’m wistful. Two glasses, not one, because he’s out on another rescue mission. Tomorrow: The Talk. Luggage. New apartment (him, not me). More hopes.

While walking the dog
Superman won’t even notice, even if Clark Kent will. I’ll send the dog to doggie day care, take my briefcase to work, file new stories, and slip something to salon.com. What it’s like to live with Superman, no really. A girl’s guide to sleeping with superheroes. That outta get my name on the map. Like the Kardashians – oops! maybe not.

While paying the bills
It was so much easier before. Workplace romances, especially if unrealized, are never at risk. You come into work, you smile over the water cooler or break room coffee, you stay in your own lane and he stays in his. Until. Why’d he have to tip his hand? That first rescue seemed like the scoop of the century. Little did I know.

When Superman comes home at three in the morning – again
Call up White. He’s the publisher, he’ll understand. I need reassignment. I need distance. I need time away. Maybe something overseas. As long as. Clark will take it hard, Superman will hardly notice. Laundry. Clean shirts. A goddamned date night out once in a while. Maybe there’s a book in this. Someday?
.

Take care and good writing,

Theresa

About life, writing, and “non-negotiables”

Hello everyone,

Photo by Theresa Barker.

Here in Seattle we’ve been getting snow, snow, snow, and now that the snow has melted, we’re still getting bright sunny days and cooooollllllddd temperatures (for Seattle!). In the 30’s (F), which, for us, is a bit teeth-chattering. As much as I enjoy our lush green Pacific Northwest surroundings, and as much as I understand that our winter marine-rain climate makes that greenery possible, I have discovered how uplifting it is to get up in the morning and be greeted with a bright clear sunny day. It sneaks up on you, that feeling of optimism when you’ve had a number of sunny winter days in a row. Those of you in Phoenix or southern California – Australia? –  and other tropical places know what I mean!

Photo by Theresa Barker.

In the early morning of a super-sunny day, it seems even more relevant to think about spending time on the things you want to do with your life. It’s as though a gray winter day makes one feel like slipping into pajamas, making a cup of hot tea, and finding something cozy to do. (Watch old movies? Read a book? Chat with a friend?) But those sunshine-startled days are different. As the sun pours across our green-green landscape of firs and evergreens, a little voice in my head says, “What do you really want to do with your life? What really matters to you?”

I’ve been thinking about how I want to write, what I want to write, and about how I would like to tailor my writing process so that it is even more meaningful. This mullling-over of how to write reminds me these lines from the Mary Oliver well-known poem “The Summer Day”:

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?"
- Mary Oliver, "The Summer Day"

(If you’re not already familiar with it, her entire poem is worth a look , and you can find it here, at the Library of Congress. )

It’s the things that stay with us that become part of our identity. On a beautiful sunny day, it feels like the world is full of possibilities.

And here is a fun piece I wrote last week!

https://www.flickr.com/photos/presenta/4405741154/in/photolist-7Hjzmo-iKY59P-cGjtnh-e4k8Zh-kbwmYg-fqA5UE-mVDSZX-9W4nAa-9kdHU3-FFBSiG-a1WWmH-5T5RTK-seP96W-4rHyTK-rk7bVW-pwd6YF-9aR3EF-avtvEz-eM6UMW-b1Zwuk-hKqL9G-iDU9Go-o4pmY1-bAd4FU-DEWUpG-mbq6JG-dNPXYu-gi3bLE-iRb4Xd-8jjG1N-a42CtZ-izPHiB-aDbmYZ-hbYsWF-nxy3xF-dr3a2p-avpyJ8-nebzqP-no25iu-rtPkcK-eBs8dV-bvTYDT-h3qCMf-nedbf8-bYHZT1-pgVGk3-nGoHwg-nxttha-dzYijn-nxv1Cp
Red red wine by juanpedraza is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Wine Regard

The bottle of wine had sat on the shelf too long. “It’s gone vinegary,” one clerk would say to the other. And if a customer came in, cast eyes up toward the bottle with its vintage gold and green label, the red cork-neck wrapper, the beguiling curve of glass containing its reclusive liquid, if a customer looked up at it, the clerks would redirect them quickly to a more suitable choice, on a shelf in the regular part of the store.

Why the owner kept this bottle on the shelf in a special position behind the counter was not clear. The wine would never be drunk for pleasure, it being too old and it having gone sour. But at times the old things are not the things you get rid of. Something old may still have value even if not for its original purpose.

The wine would cling to this hope. Wine itself is a hopeful thing. It begins as a grape popping off the vine of a treasured vintage. The sun had developed its sugars, the cool nights have set them into the flush of the grape. Moisture in the grape can make electricity in a microwave oven, that’s how magical a mere grape can be. The grape has been picked, plucked off the twisty sinew of its vine, placed into a vat and crushed, its juice spraying into life as an intoxicant. Then comes the vintning process, the intelligence and knowledge of generations of winemakers poured into the grape’s substance, never carelessly, never without thought or attention. This is the crucial element. After creation the wine becomes a poured liquid, into a bottle that will contain and convey it into the final place in which it will be imbibed. Perhaps a bar, perhaps a fine restaurant. Perhaps the table of a couple who will, afterward, make love. Or the family sharing a Thanksgiving dinner. There is nothing but hope in the process. The hope that the grape’s sweetness will be properly grown, the hope that the winemaker’s talent and skill will be borned out in a fine flavor, the hope of a customer purchase of a wine to toast their loved ones, or to romance a sweetheart. The wine has become a thing of hope in all this. Sitting on the shelf, object of curiosity and admiration in customers’ eyes, symbol of a thing lost, or found, a story yet to be told from the mind of the owner of the shop.

Take care and good writing,

Theresa

Why I love poets

Hello everyone,

Photo by Theresa Barker.

Every week I go to an appointment where they put out The New Yorker in the waiting area, among other magazines like O and The Atlantic, and every week I pick up the latest New Yorker and glance through it. Of course I read the cartoons! – but I also look for the poetry. I admit some of it is not to my taste, but that’s what poetry is about; it’s not all to one’s taste. A lot of it is not. But that’s part of what poetry is. It is a very personal experience, it is reading lines or words or phrases that either pull you into a different landscape or atmosphere, or they do not.

For a long time earlier in my life I thought something was wrong with me, that I wasn’t getting poetry correctly. If I encountered a poem I didn’t understand, I thought I wasn’t smart enough to puzzle it out. However, a few years back, during my MFA program in a master class on poetry, we had a session that changed my life. The professor asked us to read five poems she assigned in advance, and to bring in a list of those poems in order of favorite to least favorite. When we came into the classroom we brought our lists, and the professor made a big chart on the white board, with the names of the poems running down the left side, and our names across the top. In each column under our name she put the order of preference for each poem according to the list we brought in.

Guess what? Do you think that there was a consensus on which poems were “the best,” and which were “the worst”? In other words, did our lists look similar when we put them on the white board?

As you’ve probably guessed, they did not. In fact, there was a wide variation among which poems were “the favorite,” and which were “the least favorite.” In fact, it was almost an even distribution among all the poems, of most- to least-favorite status. Poems that one person hated were the favorite of another. I was shocked. And I was relieved.

Photo by Theresa Barker.

My takeaway was this: it’s completely okay to like a poem just because you like it. It’s also completely okay NOT to like a poem if you do not. This was a huge demonstration that understanding or preference for a particular poem is not a reflection of one’s intelligence or how smart one is. It is just that – understanding or preference of a poem because of what the poem is to YOU, and what it evokes or suggests or reminds you of when you read it.

This is not to say we shouldn’t try to understand poems that are hard at first try. I’m not suggesting all poems should be “easy.” What I want to express is, like art, it’s perfectly okay to enjoy a poem you like, and it’s okay to pass on poems that don’t appeal to you. What I look for in a poem, even if I don’t enjoy it very much, is a sequence of words, or a phrase, that I have never seen before, or that strikes me as unusual, or that makes me think of something else creative.

I really liked a poem from a recent New Yorker, Brenda Shaughnessey’s “Gift Planet.” I like the start of it:

My six-year-old said, “I don’t know time.” She already knows it’s unknowable. Let it be always a stranger she walks wide around.

Gosh, can you imagine that? Time is “unknowable.” Let time be a stranger that her daughter gives a wide berth to, something not allowed to dominate, to dictate, to determine the course of your life. Fun!

Why do I love poets? Last week at my writing conference I had the chance to hear recent work from two poet-colleagues and friends who are poets. And once again I felt drawn to, and transported, by the loveliness of their work. Not that their poems were all about flowers or gardens or the sunrise, not at all. But their language, their phrasing, their word choices really spoke to me, and when I heard them read their work I felt uplifted. I know that’s an overused word. I felt touched and connected and better than before I heard their work.

As you know, I like to start my daily routine writing exercise with a line from a Poem of the Day, and I have a very short piece I wrote using the first lines of a Robert Frost poem, “Fragmentary Blue” (what a great title, huh?). The opening of Frost’s poem goes,

Why make so much of fragmentary blue
In here and there a bird, or butterfly,
Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,

I wrote this piece, “Blink,” in recollection of my recent visit to Phoenix, Arizona, and on the heels of a lovely visit with poet-colleague and blogger-friend Luanne Castle.

Blink

Her eyes a fragmentary blue. She blinked, blinked, blinked again and the hills turned to valleys, the valleys to rivers, the rivers to lake beds. She blinked, blinked, blinked again and the stars fell to earth, the hills behind the mountains became the beyond. She blinked, blinked, blinked again and you could see eternity in the bowl of the desert, blue band along the rim of mountains, pink above, just as the sun rises over the turning earth, to the east, east, east, and every hopeful, ever the optimist, ever the punching declaiming sun to rule and to rune the desert earth. Petroglyphs sing the messages of the old ones. Here, here, here, the eyes blink and the earth sinks and the sun is evermore.

Take care and good writing,

Theresa

What are your core beliefs?

Hello everyone,

Photo by Theresa Barker.

Do you ever ask yourself, why do I write? What are my values and how are they connected to the writing I do?

This week I’m at a writing conference in Port Townsend, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula. In one workshop we spent time thinking about what landscape(s) we feel most drawn to and how those landscapes were evocative of our personal values. I wrote down two landscapes: the Desert Southwest, where I was born, and the Pacific Northwest, where I have lived all my life. To me, the desert  represents eternity in its rocky minimalist landscape, while the northwest represents renewal in its prolific greenness, but both of these landscapes convey a yearning for beauty. We talked about how the things that are important to us keep popping up as themes in our writing and in our art. Thinking about what themes come up in my work, I have to say it’s often about what it means to be human. What makes us act and think and believe a certain way? Can we become better versions of ourselves? – More fair, more generous and kind, more knowledgeable?

I’ve been doing a LOT of journaling in the past few weeks, trying to learn more about my own creativity and about the barriers that keep me back. Sometimes in the past I’m tempted to think of journaling as the “lazy way” to write, because you just have to write down your thoughts and feelings and you don’t have to make up characters, or try to use poetic language. But let’s face it, in journaling we can drill down into our thinking. We can elicit core beliefs. We can put together our approach to life and to our art.

Photo by Theresa Barker.

Through journaling and in some of the workshop sessions this week I’m starting to realize more of a vision about my writing. When I get up in the morning here the winter light beams across the water, over the lightened cliffs of Whidbey Island in the distance, and onto the rocky-sandy shore. Clouds mass over the water in whites, browns, and grays. It’s a complicated landscape. Like writing!

Here’s something I’ve been working on recently:

Daughters

https://www.flickr.com/photos/ericsilva2/3298259294/in/photolist-62srzy-amV61e-aAryyz-9AdVpu-39KSEN-Vxp5-8tf4i3-Au3Lm-5RaLaf-7CSfo5-73uEGY-aiifny-zsS1L-oq73Q-4r7uNS-oqvhLm-62srbE-tXgiJ-bcyvuV-619rRt-b1CaV-7DPE9p-tw8z-eR3jF-7DyAjD-8Eu9qi-7o4HFW-3Mi38M-8yXVf4-5RZbaq-cGx8Cm-7uZPny-9qyGEs-qRXZDy-9pxP38-5ZS6qk-cSZGAE-9fnWFr-4smadn-4mLNcV-9RKsfg-bghih-76jshm-6Ekj6d-D75w-7VGRqa-3fei-5J4g18-yosDf-8piVxJ
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Now that I have your face by heart I look at the way it looks back at me. The eyes, the eyebrows more, the curve of the cheek, the half-smile, these all reflect back the long pearl-chain of women who came before you and I. My mother, my grandmother, her mother, and so on and so on. The female mitochondria that don’t lie. They carry such a burden. My mother’s insouciance, my grandmother’s cratchetiness, a great-grandmother’s long-suffering, another’s dogged perseverance. They all lie together in our shared DNA, that X in my cells that became an X in your cells. Don’t forget you have an X from your father, an X that takes you back through his mother’s line, mothers of mothers of mothers of mothers. We all have the burden of Xing back to the lines out of Africa. There is, somewhere, a DNA-based Eve. Or more than one. Perhaps seven, a lucky number. They who scratched in the dirt for roots, who climbed down from the trees to the savannah, gathering nuts and berries and who dried the meat hunted by men, they who carried babies on their backs and around their chests, they who dried the tears of children who cried, they who cried themselves when they lost their own children to illness, to injury, to stealing raids by attackers.

Now that I have your face by heart I look at the way it looks back at me and I feel the presence of all those lineage ancestors. The hearted burden of inheritance brings danger, brings knowledge, brings love.

Take care and good writing,

Theresa