The stacks of books and papers on her desk, the tumble of folio, recto and verso, that spilled across two, no, four, no, five tables, sturdy wooden dark standing tables surrounded her and constituted the workshop of Viola the bookbinder. Bookbinding was an old art. Not the oldest art in the world by any means, but one of the oldest in history. A piece of literate history, anyway. She connected to it that way, endpapers and headlines, folios and book covers, illustrations, words, texts. The soul of a book was more than the sum of its parts. If her father had not taught her bookbinding she might have become a scientist or a rabbi, yes, they did have women rabbis these days, ever since the 1970s. And when her friends had gone off after college in the 1980s to become Wall Street traders or go to law school – so many lawyers in her crowd of college compatriots – Viola set up her workshop on the third floor of a 1920s brick building in her childhood neighborhood, a room with an abundance of natural light and a wealth of passing people who waited at the bus stop for downtown or went into the park opposite. She used to hope when she first saw the place that the walls held secrets, that ghosts of the previous tenants would keep her company on those long days of hand-binding books on her work tables. She used to listen to NPR all day when she first started, until she gave up on news radio. Now it was the local jazz station alternating Miles Davis and Oscar Peterson, with a little Brubeck thrown in. The jazz music would strangely suit the rhythms of fitting the hard boards in their cloth covers, gauging the gutter and setting the foot and, anchoring the signatures into the text block. Music was a little-known companion to books, Viola often thought, and the playlist of her day took her into history and back to the present as she formed the hand-bound books for her customers, many of them Asian or European, where the book had long been conveyor and purveyor of a certain economic class. Gauze, cardboard, and adhesive. Hinge and corner. Top edge. Footband.
We have had the most lovely cool week, a few days with modest showers! In my garden over the past few years I’ve been rehabilitating our planting beds with native varieties, including Oregon Grape (mahonia), sword fern and salal, red flowering current shrubs (which is loved by pollinators!), evergreen huckleberry (no berries, but very drought-tolerant!), and vine maple (drought-tolerant, can have colorful autumn leaves!). This year I noticed that my efforts have started to pay off, with some of these varieties self-seeding and filling in the bare areas. Gardening takes time, both the time to work in the yard, and the time to wait for one’s efforts to take hold. But when it does, it makes you feel great.
In this photo of my yard, the red flowering current bush is up front – bright green leaves, no flowers! – surrounded on all sides by the mahonia-Oregon Grape, and backstopped by a lovely sword fern. All was bare dirt or grass when I started. Cool, huh?
What I am doing now
I have been stuck. Stuck-stuck-stuck-stuck. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but if I sit down to write, I feel afraid to work on a promising project because if I touch it, I might ruin it. If I think about writing, I hesitate even to sit down to write, because it feels doubtful that I’ll have anything to say that delights, surprises, or enchants … which is what I hope for, but which seems very far off right now. I’ve been consulting resources on procrastination and on not-writing, but I’m still feeling stuck. This is not new for me; I’d hoped I was beyond feeling paralyzed by the Blank Page, but it is an affliction that I’ve had all my writing life, and I thought I had developed techniques and strategies, in graduate school or after, that would ensure I would not feel this acute paralysis again. Unfortunately not.
Last week at the suggestion of a creative friend who plays music for a living, I finally dusted off my copy of The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron’s book about creative recovery. My friend said, “I don’t know why it works, but it does. Try it again!” So I decided to follow his suggestion, and I very reluctantly pulled out the book, which I’d read years and years ago.
When you’re at a loss for words (or ideas, or paintings, or sculpture, or …), the problem is complicated. One can feel discouraged and uncreative and disheartened all at the same time. Even evidence to the contrary – like the daily poetry work I’ve been doing – can sometimes not help to dispel the sense of creative doom that seems to hang overhead.
Well, I didn’t think it would help. But some of the exercises have shown me that the critical voices in my head have been working overtime. Doubting my work. Tearing down my ability as a writer. Throwing stones at my creative dreams. Who knows why these voices come up, at this particular time, and even when I can point out several successful writing efforts to these inner critical voices, the discouragement continues. It’s a puzzle, and it’s a non-logical one. Emotional, irrational, repetitive arguments that erode one’s self-confidence.
Those of you familiar with this well-known book and approach to creative recovery will know the basics: morning pages and artist dates. Today, as an “artist date,” I went to the Seattle Japanese Garden on a quiet drizzly Seattle morning. It was quite lovely.
Photo by Theresa Barker.
Photo by Theresa Barker.
Photo by Theresa Barker.
Photo by Theresa Barker.
Photo by Theresa Barker.
One of the bridges that crosses the garden is a bridge for thwarting evil spirits! Earlier this month my daughter and I, participating in the tea ceremony at the Japanese Garden, heard from the narrator-host that this bridge is in the shape of zigzag, or offset, pattern, because it is believed that evil spirits cannot turn, and can pass only along a straight path. The bridge is made in this shape to prevent evil spirits from passing. So, next time you want to obstruct evil spirits, make your path into a zigzag instead of a straight line!
In spite of my ultra-stuck feeling for writing prose, I’ve been continuing my poem-a-day exercises from The Practice of Poetry, by Robin Behn and Chase Twitchell. At least it puts me in the pond playing around with words and language, I figure! Here is one I wrote yesterday. We were to write five pages of “stream of consciousness” writing, then underline words or phrases that caught our attention, and then write a poem using those.
All the late nights and the bone-chilling mornings,
All the anxious nights keeping watch in case the power goes out.
The bitterness in the winter,
The heat in the summer,
The incessant work,
The incessant list of tasks,
The natural world going against you.
The unforgiving nature of the weather.
The constant and continual cycle of work, work, work,
All to almost make it,
“Next year we’ll break even.”
I am from the Iowa – Nebraska – Colorado farming family
Who stick it out, blizzards and heat waves,
Cattle and water and government decisions,
Drought and flood.
We’re not travelers, we’re not nomads,
We put down roots and we stick.
I’ve left the farm,
But I still work hard. I’m here to stay.
In Seattle, in my yard, the bushes are in bloom, especially the rhododendrons. I think of June as the Month of Blooming. For a few weeks now as I walk down the street I am struck by the bright pinks, whites, reds, purples, that gleam from people’s gardens. So many colors, so much celebration of life in between green leaves. So many pollinators at work resting on flowers and gathering pollen and nectar to keep their own life cycles going. Even in this day of dramatic changes in our weather and in our natural surroundings, it is encouraging to see beings of nature – pollinators, birds, bugs – going about their business as they always have, the best they can, gathering and feeding and propagating and bobbing about our world. Life goes on, right?
What I am doing now
A few weeks ago I found this illustration, “The A to Z of a Writer’s Routine” by writer Grant Snider, in the New York Times Sunday Review of Books. I thought: “Yes! This is really something of what it is like, to get up every day to try to write, to try to make it count, to doubt yourself and your work. To try again anyway.”
In the past few weeks I’ve been plowing ahead with my endeavor to turn to writing novels vs. short stories. At times I feel I’m not making any progress, but I have to remind myself that you can’t always see the movement in your own work. Two steps forward, one step back, is how it seems, like the very slow advancement of a snail, antennae dipping up and down, sampling the air, feeling the ground beneath one’s foot, moving forward stitch by stitch. If you could fly up and hover over the path of your life, if you could see where you are headed, you might not give up so easily. But when you’re inside the effort and deep in the path of your life, you have to trust that you are learning, that you will one day come out of the struggle with ideas and insights and experience that will carry you forward, often in ways you had not predicted.
So. Awake. Breakfast. First lines. Meditate. Nap. Research.
Last week I was feeling down on myself, you know, all those little critical voices in your head, saying, you should be further along, and why don’t you have moredone? And then I took a deep breath, and I tried to remember that I was doing my best. And then I remembered that every morning I’ve been working through poetry exercises, trying poems in the style of other poets, writing tercets with alternating four and five stresses per line, writing quatrains with alternative eight and ten syllables per line with no adjectives nor adverbs and including the word “lime.” Hah!
Pull out the root
grasp the sturdy stem and tug.
Whoosh! up comes the stalk
leaving behind the fine-hair roots
like pin bones of a fish.
But you’ve got the plant now
you toss it on the compost heap
That sorrow gone
That grief cast aside.
But what sticks with you is
the feel of stripped-away root from earth, stem from soil
how easy to uproot the moment
of his death, cast it far far away
to the back of the garden where it lies
shriveling, wilted, neglected, but not dead
the right way is to resist an urge to tear at it, shredding leaves, stem, roots in the process
the right way, they tell me
is to study it.
Examine its green-bright leaves, the white cap of fairy wing seeds
the hollow sap-stem of its body.
dispel the sorrow
see it for what it is.
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!
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?
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.
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!):
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…!