Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Efficient Creativity. How to write while not writing and other tips...

(Originally published in August or so of 2009 or so...)

I've butchered this Norman Mailer quote many times in my life. But here it is in full:

"Over the years, I’ve found one rule. It is the only one I give on those occasions when I talk about writing. A simple rule. If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write." (The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing, Random House, 2003)

If I had just one rule, I'd say that I believe in the commitment, in doing right by the commitment. In short, I believe in showing up.

With four kids and a university teaching gig, I've had to learn how to be efficient, creatively-speaking. My thoughts on this might apply to ANYONE in the arts or the art of politics, business, science ... anywhere there's the need for reflection, problem-solving ... musing.

When I had my first child, I was only twenty-five, but I'd been publishing stories for a few years. We were living well below the poverty level. No money to pay sitters. And I didn't write for thirteen months. (Eventually I went to two colonies -- VCCA and Ragdale. I'm hugely grateful for those opportunities.)

I realized later that the problem wasn't that I'd lost writing time. I could scrape time up from the dusty corners of the room and make bits here and there ... But when I got there, I felt lost, distracted. I feared starting because I wasn't sure I'd be able to stop. I feared starting because I was terrified of admitting to my desire to write. Instead I denied my wanting because to want and not to then be able to write is torturous.

Eventually, I had to give in. I had to let myself want and then I had to find the time to write.

For me it came to this: If I didn't write, I would resent my children. And if I didn't have children in order to have more time to write, I'd resent my writing.

I had to do both.

Once I allowed my desire to kick in, I realized that what I'd really lost was something more valuable than writing time. I'd lost my muse time.

Instead of thinking about my characters, my mind was churning over all of details of my new job -- nursing, diapers, Cheerios, rashes, language acquisition ... I thought about these things while driving, showering, falling asleep. I had to, really.

But once I'd decided that to survive, I had to write then I had to reclaim my muse time for my art. And so I began to train myself mentally. When I found myself churning on aspects of mothering -- ones that were not essential, but had become a little compulsive tic, a checklist on an endless loop running through my brain -- I stopped myself and pointed my thoughts back to my characters, to a scene, to language. I set my mind to a task -- say, what does this character fear in this scene -- and then let my mind spiral away from the task, associatively. When it wandered down an uninteresting rabbit hole, I'd pull it back in and set it to the task again then untether it and follow.

This became part of my process -- an essential one that has led me to say that IT WAS CRUCIAL FOR ME TO LEARN TO WRITE WHILE NOT WRITING.

Here are a few other simple pensees that I've gathered. Like Mailer, I don't much believe in applying rules to the creative process in a blanketed way. These are things that I've learned work for me.

1. Pay yourself first. What time of day is your most productive? Don't waste those brain cells on anything other than your own art.

2. If you can't (or choose not to) write in the mornings, still run your eyes over your pages so you can keep your characters at the fore of your mind as you walk through your day ...

3. Leave a trail of breadcrumbs. I don't stop before I'm finished so that I can artificially stop in a spot where I know I can easily start up the next day. Some writers do. But I always jot notes as to where I think I'm going to go next.

4. Write the scene that comes to you even if it's out of order. When I've ignored these scenes rising wholly in my mind, no matter how vivid, I've forgotten them when the time comes to write them -- or they've at least faded. I show that I'm thankful for a risen scene by writing it then -- even if in a sloppy shorthand fashion.

5. I never throw stuff out. I keep a junkyard of pieces that aren't working and I use them later in other works ... Again, this seems to add to the texture from my perspective, and it rewards me for being editorially rigorous -- eventually.

6. When a good idea hits, lift your head and take note of your surroundings so that you can recreate the conditions. For me, it's been nursing, driving, showering, peeling fruit, picking seeds out of wilted cosmos ... for my work for younger readers, I work much better on the floor, closer to the ground... Whatever it is ...

7. Collect. I go through my day as myself and as my characters ... I collect pieces of conversation, images, gestures, scowls, clothes, laughs, belches, noses, chins, nervous tics, my own odd assumptions and daydreams ... In this way, I never have to approach the blank page. I have all of my bits, spread them out, quilt from there. (I won't launch into my full process here ... or why this, for me, creates a more textured work etc ... One day ...)

8. Read like a writer. Rosellen Brown has said that the art of reading for her is one of 'oh, so you can write about that' ... I've taken this to mean that in the work of others you find territories that you can then send your own imagination out into ... I have also learned that when I guess at plot and I'm wrong, I shouldn't simply say, "Huh," and move on. I should examine the plot that my own brain has discovered. It might be of interest. I like the exercise of reading the table of contents to a book of poems, imagining the poems, therefore creating my own visions ... and perhaps following some to poems of my own. I did this often when working on my first collection. When you then read the poet's full poem, it's never the one you've imagined.

9. And, of course, tell yourself you're going to write. Let your subconscious begin to prepare the material, and then show up.

10. Keep showing up.