Some years ago, during a graduate-level writing workshop on a cold November night, a student asked me at the break if she could talk with me after class. “Of course,” I said. After the second half of the workshop, which I felt it went pretty well, the others melted away into the rain and she sat down to face me.
“I have been watching you trying to teach,” she said, “and I have to say, you are really not very good at what you do. People come to a class like this to make structured progress on their writing, and all you really have to offer is exercises to make new beginnings. I thought someone should tell you this, in case you have other options for a career.”
As she spoke, I felt my heart rattle, heard my mind fill with the sounds of clank and clunk as her words shifted the gears of despair. Yes, said a voice within me, you are probably right. My teaching is bad, and I am bad. Far from being a surprise, your assessment finds companion thoughts buried deep in my own mind. I have long known what you are saying.
Several weeks later, this student asked me to write a letter of recommendation for her. I got out a crisp sheet of bond with my college’s letterhead, and produced a glowing assessment of her skills and prospects. She got into the MFA program of her choice and now seems to have a thriving career. My failure and her success are both by-products of what is truly at work in each of our life episodes: survival, learning, forgiveness, and change.
Kim makes a list of his respectable accomplishments and then describes how they’re also failures. I do this, too, and I don’t have nearly as many accomplishments.
Isn’t that like your worst fear as a teacher? It would be mine. But in general, it’s like a constant general fear that someone is just going to call you out as not very good at anything.
In the winter of 2009, a pond in Portland froze over and I spent three days down there skating around and playing pick up games. On one of those days I kept my phone in my pocket with RunKeeper tracking my movement through the GPS. This is the result:
It didn’t give me any new or usable data, but I thought the idea of it was cool. I imagined what this kind of data could do if sensors were on all 40 hockey players during a game. But what if it didn’t just measure your speed, but your heart rate, pulse, recovery time, etc.?
They can be a precise, individualized indicator of the wearer’s health–monitoring sleep, exercise, calorie burning, degrees of hydration, mood, productivity, and social interaction.
What if technology could help identify how to best organize my daily routine to achieve flow in my creative and work life?
Or what if we put all these sensors on a bunch of hockey players? What could we learn amount movement, speed, location, vision, and position by using this data when it relates to sports and athletics?
For myself, I imagine this sort of data telling me things about myself that I might not realize. Patterns or habits, bad and good, that might help me to improve areas of weakness.
MIT researcher Alex “Sandy” Pentland, a pioneer and proponent of behavioral biosensing and what he calls reality mining, says that “data mining is about finding patterns in digital stuff. I’m more interested specifically in finding patterns in humans.” It’s these patterns that are being used to evaluate and change individual and organizational behavior. (viaIEEE)
I’m interested when I hear rumors about Apple designing a watch. A watch is so old-school. And for Apple, just a glorified nano. But what if it could do more than play music and tell time on my wrist?
What if it could help me be a better writer by using the data it records to help me re-organize my life as to best achieve peak creative output:
Nearly everyone experiences flow at some point or another, including knowledge workers such as engineers and scientists, whose jobs require a great deal of focused creativity and problem solving. As it turns out, technology can help identify this cherished state of mind. (via IEEE)
It’s fun thinking about the possibilities, at least.
I began to wonder: why is peace so hard to think about? Or conversely, why is violence so easy?
Margaret Paxson, an anthropologist, wrote a sort of prelude to her future book about peace, specifically peace within the French town of Le Cambin sur Lignon, whose residents saved Jews from Nazis at great risk and peril to their own lives.
Paxon attempts to give peace shape. She argues that war and violence have a quantifiable reality that peace often lacks. She wants to be able to study and analyze peace, in all its gritty details on the ground and face to face so that others can see what peace looks like in the flesh.
What if it can be seen not as timeless, but as dynamic; not located in the beginning or in the end but in the unfolding; something not of the ether but of lived soils and grounds? What if peace is, actually, something flawed and rough-grained?
Well then, social science can handle that. It can do dynamics. It can look towards the longue durée, settling happily into the study of actual, imperfect behaviour. That kind of research doesn’t require calls to the angels or to Elysium.
You just look into the faces of real people and the connections they make or don’t make with each other, and the stories they tell or don’t tell, and the ways they decide or don’t decide to treat a stranger as one of their own.
To give you an example of the thing-ness of evil, I point to apiece of art titled “HIM” by artist Maurizio Cattelan. It’s a statue of Hitler as a young boy, as he sits on his knees praying. The statue is usually shown so all you can see is the back of the statue down a long hallway. It’s currently on display in Warsaw. Whether or not it’s supposed to help you reflect on the nature of evil, remind you that evil can start out as a sweet little boy, or insult you, I guarantee it will elicit a reaction.
If evil can appear, at some point, so small and plain and innocent, then so can peace. Not just any peace, I’m thinking of a redemptive peace. Maybe it depends on your perspective, how you look at the world, or the statue, or those around you. We can choose to only see evil or we can choose to seek and find redemption.
That’s what I see or hope to see when I look at “HIM”.
This is an essay I’m currently writing and working on. Decided to share some of it today. The title makes reference to my oldest brother’s inability to talk. That’s not really discussed here. In French (I think) it’s: Mon frère, on parle dans le silence. Because I like to translate my titles into French.
My mother told me once, after my oldest brother’s death, that I might not quite feel the gravity of it all, of death, of losing a brother, of his disability. I understood then that this was probably true, but even now, so many years later, I still do not quite understand it all and I have given my life to understand something of death, of growing up without an able older brother—without two able older brothers—and I continue to come back to the themes of longing for a childhood where I could be the younger brother, where I could be teased by Aaron in words and outrun by KC in the fields.
We sang Amazing Grace at Aaron’s memorial service. When we buried the metal box with his ashes, surrounded by oaks and weeds, pillars of dust rose up from a rusted tractor in the field below. I could also see the high school and the baseball field in the distance. It was there, behind the dugouts, where I imagined the namer of this small town stood, when he pointed up to the sky at a bald eagle circling, it’s wings opened wide. This Native in my mind holds his hand in the direction of the bird, but does not name it, for it is too beautiful and too majestic. He therefore names the land in its shadow after it.
Yoncalla. This is where I grew up. Where I lived when Aaron died and where he is buried now underneath the oak trees on the hill, underneath the shadow of what we cannot name.
I remember Aaron standing in the bathroom, his diaper at his feet, and my mother leaned over, wiping him. The Cubs game played in the living room and hot dogs boiled on the stovetop. It was Saturday. If Aaron had lived with us, my mother wiping him and the stink of it down the hallway would be a common scene, but he only visited.
When Aaron turned three the doctors diagnosed him with tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC). His mental faculties diminished and he stopped talking. He used to say Daddy and Mommy, afterward he hardly looked them in the eye.
TSC is a rare multi-system genetic disease that causes non-malignant tumors to grow in the brain and on other vital organs such as the kidneys, heart, eyes, lungs, and skin. A combination of symptoms may include seizures, developmental delay, behavioral problems, skin abnormalities, lung and kidney disease.
I had to Google search TSC much like my mother did in 1994 when we first connected to the Internet in our house. She spent hours in front of the monitor, waiting through the slow loading process, and coming to the same conclusion as the doctors: Aaron would live a long life.
1979, the same year Aaron was born, Manuel Rodríguez Gómez, head of the Mayo Clinic’s Pediatric Neurology department, edited the only textbook on TSC for the next twenty years. And in a 1991 Mayo Clinic publication, “Causes of death in patients with tuberous sclerosis,” states, “Leading causes of death include…status epilepticus or bronchopneumonia in those with severe mental handicap.” My mother no doubt read that line, “those with severe mental handicap.” With autistic like conditions, severe seizures, and an inability to take care of himself, she understood severe mental handicap. She felt it in her back and bones. She raised five children in all. When Aaron was nine my father made the difficult decision of putting him in a group home. The effort to raise so many children with so many needs, my Father realized, would break my mother physically and emotionally. But moving Aaron out of the house broke her no matter what. In all those hours of studying TSC and the obvious, the inevitability of Aaron’s death so thoroughly disclosed itself from her. She called it an act of grace.
Two weeks before Aaron’s death he was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. I was almost 12. A few days before he was hospitalized we drove to Roseburg and picked him up from the group home and went out for ice cream. My mother fed Aaron vanilla ice cream from a dish, but the ice cream hurt Aaron’s teeth so Mom offered it to me. Aaron drooled and his drool grossed me out so I didn’t eat his leftover ice cream. That was the last time I saw him, afraid of his drool in an ice cream shop in Roseburg, 1997.
When Aaron was born my mother and father were juniors at the University of Idaho, she an art education major and he business. Their plan, before Aaron, was to teach at the same high school together. But the only art class she ever taught was when she home-schooled the four of us. Before Aaron passed away she painted with watercolors and sold many of her paintings or gave them away as gifts to friends and donations for auctions. She taught us about the primary colors and how to make green and orange and purple. Once, we mixed all the colors together thinking we’d concoct a super color, but it only made black and from black we could make nothing more.
I begin with the color black. I begin with all the stories poisoned on the palette. I don’t know where the colors come from, but when I tell the story they begin to form. At least I think I see them. To anyone else they could be monochrome pictures. To me they’re apparitions rising in the sky. Stories about my childhood are stories about who I am, but I cannot understand them. They rise too high and too far for me to understand their truths. I can only point at them and watch their shadows streak across the ground.
This is the story of my brother Aaron. Over there is the story of my brother KC. And there, much closer and lower, that’s my story. Sometimes they blend together, other times they’re separate. We live in a liminal space where we think we know something about the world when really something bigger is happening. Isn’t time so strange, how it let’s us be comfortable with the present and then we realize how different our present is, how distant our past, how short our future? It’s so hard to look away from my beginnings. In contemplating my story I gain the growing sense of something beyond the story. A majestic power floating in the sky, but I cannot point to it and I cannot name it. It eludes my grasp. Is this an act of grace?
This is a new series (different than the Creativity Series Part 2 that’s coming). You might be asking what’s up with all these serieses? I don’t know, they’re just fun to do. For this Series I asked some writers about the challenges they face in their daily lives while working a day job and writing. Thanks for taking part.
Today’s post is from Amanda Fanger. She grew up on a farm in Central South Dakota where she was homeschooled. She works for her hometown newspaper, reporting news and doing marketing, and tries to keep all the fictional stories in her head from spilling over into her workspace. On the side, she plays piano, reads, rides horseback and blogs about how she’s applying life lessons to her writing. Visit her at amandafanger.blogspot.com, Twitter, and Facebook.
Journalism. Fiction. Blogging.
I’ve been told that I’m one of the lucky ones who gets to write for a living, but I view these three as flaming torches – each torch representing a branch of my talent – that I must juggle while being careful to avoid burn.
For about as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer; my mindset has almost always been focused on becoming a published fiction author. It’s always been a passion burning deep within me.
The week before I graduated home-schooled high school I landed a writing job at my hometown newspaper. (I can only think God was responsible for getting me into the journalism field because of the specific series of events that happened within a precise timeframe.) It was a dream come true and a weight off the shoulders of a very apprehensive 18-year-old who had no idea what she was going to do with her life. I had prayed and God had answered with a telephone call from the newspaper’s editor.
She heard I liked to write. I heard she needed a reporter. She was borderline desperate for help and I was completely frantic for want of a direction in my life. The two of us struck a deal.
When I came to the newspaper, I had to totally rethink the way I wrote. Up to that point, I wrote fiction for my eyes only and with a deadline of someday. But journalism was a very different beast and I suddenly found myself writing for thousands of eyes with a deadline of Tuesday or else.
It was trial by fire, to be sure, especially because I hadn’t gone to journalism school and all I know of newspapering came from ‘on the job experience.’
During my first few years, I sometimes fumbled and the torch burned me, searing an endearing lesson into my hide. But all of the pain felt worth it when, in 2009, I was named Outstanding Young Journalist by my statewide newspaper association.
Finally, after five years into my career at the very newspaper that gave me my start, I realized I’d lost sight of what had drawn me into writing in the first place; fiction. My dream of becoming a fiction author was still as real to me as ever.
Finding my muse once more, I tried to pick up on my stories where I’d left off and failed. The stories had moved on and I was forced to start from scratch.
As frustrating as it was to realize that part of me had forgotten how to write fiction, I also discovered that I’d gotten better; there were lessons about writing that I’d picked up from the newspaper. I now wrote in a consistent voice; brought characters to life on the page; and my brain was exploded with new ideas for background and settings after being given the opportunity to hear so many real-life stories first-hand while reporting.
Excited by what I’d discovered and the possibilities I knew awaited, I threw myself into the frenzy of the work and started a blog, hoping to share my newfound knowledge with other writers. Looking at my increasing number of blog followers, I take comfort that at least these few readers have found worth in the words I write.
Although I report hometown news, write fiction and blog about it all, when people ask me what I do for a living, I say I’m a writer because I cannot imagine my life without this daily task.
There is simply a fire burning deep within me that won’t let me stop.
I could tell you that writing fiction feels like making some sinuous watercourse. A river. A creak. A stream.
I could describe my ideas—my characters, even—as the traveling water. The outer banks, you see, could be my imagination. With time and movement, with the mysterious back and forth of my work, these banks would change—expand, and widen. Excitement, clarity, compassion, eloquence—those would be words of my widening. And I would write hoping that when (if) a reader came upon my finished ‘river’ someday, they would be widened, too.
Or I could compare starting a story to carving an elaborate design into a stone. This design would be made from a continuous pattern that bends somewhat wildly, but also repeats. So there would be order in it—an inherent sensibleness to its intricate, echoing motif as I chisel it into place, sentence by sentence.
I suppose, in this scenario, I would hope for my final reader to be both comforted and provoked by my creation’s strange symmetry. That its curvatures would mimic their own experiences, and yet also invite them to the unknown—the challenging realities of others.
But I can’t compare beginning a story to making water rush or slowly chiseling stone. In the six or so years I’ve been seriously attempting short fiction, starting out has felt much different.
Most of the time it just feels like…rambling. Like roaming around without my shoes.
Unless I accept this—live it out at the desk—writing fiction scares the… Bereshit Bara out of me. I have the abandoned paragraphs and orphaned pages to prove it—words that never really became real in the beginnings at all.
So to fight stasis, I have to embrace some seriously nonsensical seeming wandering. Some zag and some zig.
Often I start with an image—but not always. There is no always in this process, for me.
Sometimes I start with snatches of dialogue of fragments of setting. Like many writers I know, I have entire documents and notebook sections that don’t contain a single complete sentence—odd testimonies to my nomadic process.
I might begin by mimicking lines (often first lines) I love—sentences that are mysterious and simple in all the right places. My own creations are shoddy in comparison, of course. But, I am writing. And I am writing sentences, and I am starting something, here.
Forget that someday-reader, I tell myself—I am writing, now. I am meandering, but not—as the common definition of the word suggests—moving about from place to place without aim. My aim is to make, and making I am.
The only truly aimless days are the days I dismiss these raw pages. I deny their place in the process, too afraid to see them as the beginning of what could one day be called…literature.
But lately I have come up against this halting fear armed with etymology. I allow myself to think about a single word in whatever I have written—to pause on it, mull over it, and suss it out. Why is this word in my twisted little sapling of a story draft? And where did it come from, anyway?
To give you some idea of how it works, even if just in the process of writing a (this) non-fiction piece–consider the word: meander.
Meander: a turn or bend along the course of moving water.
Meander: an ornamental pattern of winding or intertwining lines used in art and architecture.
Meander: the title of aStanley Plumly poemthat I have read at least five times this month while struggling to get a story started. A poem that unpacks this word with spare eloquence and sensory imagery by speaking of:
endings as beginnings, the egg, the moon, the perfect snow, geometry and physics of completion, symbols of certainty, the formal beauty of arrival.
These are but a few of the meanings and histories to spill out from this one word. They remind me that I am not language’s Creator, but created to re-create.
When I write fiction, I might not be making a river, but I can be the bend in it. I can be a curved line in a design already completed, even if I cannot see the end from where I am. There is pleasure in scrabbling around, through the cadence of just-made prose or details of character.
There is early joy, even if its raw source makes me uneasy. I can’t test my writing unless I trust it as writing—at every stage.
Novelist Michael Ondaatje believes: “The first sentence of every novel should be: Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human. Meander if you want to get to town.”
He is speaking here of assurance offered by an author to his reader. But the assurance I seek as I write sounds nearly the same. In them I hear God’s urging—first to get going, and then, once the tracks are there, to go with them for as long as I can. To be a triumphant meanderer, praying as my stories moves.
And as I go about my making, I will try to remember the winding watercourses I have seen from airplane windows. How their twisted, even snake-like bodies had an order very faint, very earthly. They were not quite holy—not yet. But they were beautiful as they flowed, and flowed, and followed.
When I began this journey back in May, it started out as a selfish quest for an answer. I’d started writing my novel and kept running into the same roadblocks of fear: fear of failure, fear of wasting my time, fear of not being good enough, fear of being made fun of. So I went to some friends and some people I’ve never met and asked them the questions that resulted in this Series.
From you I learned that creativity takes courage.
I feel like Meister Eckhart is speaking to me when he asks, “Why is it that some people do not bear fruit? It is because they are busy clinging to their egotistical attachments and so afraid of letting go and letting be that they have no trust either in God or in themselves.”
This Creativity Series has shown me I need to trust, not only in myself and in the process, but also in God, that he his faithful and he will do it. Do what exactly? Move when I move, jump when I leap, walk when I take that first step, and be present when I write that first word.
I was very afraid to do this, but I went ahead and…
It is available for the Kindle, the iPhone and iPad, on your computer, or other devices like the Nook.
It is 99 cents and any profits will go to the charity I work for: worldschildren.org. It might be silly to charge a dollar for a book you can read for free, but you can at least feel really good about the purchase and know you’re making a difference in a poor child’s life. I haven’t told the charity I’m doing this. I want it to be a surprise. Hopefully a big surprise. If you feel so called I’d really appreciate it.
Adele Konyndyk’s post tomorrow will bring to a close the Bereshit Bara Creativity Series, but the Creativity Series will continue with Part 2 and I’ll have more information on that next week.
I begin. Fingers moving over the keyboard, because this is my time. I do not have a lot of time. I have to sit down with what is available. I do not have time to walk, and stew, smoke (I don’t) or drink, ponder or worry. I will ponder and worry between words, between phrases sometimes, after I write, always, but first I have to start.
The inspiration? Ideas, experiences, things I haven’t yet made sense of yet but know there is something there. I know there is something there because I haven’t made sense of it. Or because I have, but I’m starting to doubt it. “You live in the midst of mystery,” says Richard Rodriguez, “and you say you don’t know what to write?” Amy Tan says you start from a place of moral ambiguity. Sometimes it takes me a while to weed through the ambiguity of things to the moral ambiguity; that’s the good stuff. That’s where it has to end up.
It is about a mountain. It is about climbing the mountain. I have to describe this. I’m generalizing, not telling the story. It is about feet. I should describe the boots, the socks, the thin socks inside vapor barrier socks inside heavy wool socks inside neoprene lined plastic hiking boots. But I started with the mountain. This part will have to go, yield to the boots. There is time there for a quick worry, a quick ponder. The mountain must still be there. Where will it fit? Around the boots, even if it is so much bigger. It is not the focus. It is only the scene. Now the boots are the scene. The essay is about vulnerability. Vulnerability is the focus. Bigger than, smaller than the mountain, the boots. How do I write that?
The first word has to come from whatever is in my mind. It will not be the first word at the end. But it will set the scene, set the stage, start to move my mind, open up the passages through which course thoughts and ideas, like water, like blood…and occasionally grace. This is what I’m waiting for. Grace. It will only come from moving my fingers, moving my mind and letting my fingers follow, going back and correcting, letting them go forward again. There is something in this lubrication of thought that smoothes the way for grace, on occasion, just sometimes. If it comes, it will come silently– not a flash, not a bang—just a rush of thought like water, sometimes a word, always a feeling of abundance, of beauty. It might be just a glimpse, a mountain through a cloud, and it might linger, like a sunrise.
Elizabeth Gilbert recalls that the ancient Greeks and Romans believed creatives had a genius; they were not geniuses in their own right, but they had an external source of inspiration to be credited (or blamed) with their creations. She suggests the humanist move to consider a person a genius is at the root of creative angst. I like that. The real inspiration comes only sometimes, only if I sit down and start to work. It is not me, but it may come through me. Sometimes it does not. Then I close my eyes, and say: please. I have to also remember when it comes to close my eyes and say: thank you.
The mountain becomes boots, a tent. Then the words move on—the same piece– a woman I met in a hospital… Maunday Thursday Services. It is vulnerability, nakedness. It is boots. Foot washing. Exposure. Cold. Frozen water. Liquid water. Faith. Light.
I worry that what I write will not be good, and sometimes I don’t want to start. I make excuses for the day, and sometimes the next day. I worry that I wont get it right. I worry that I’m deluding myself, thinking I can do this, which can turn to fear, and even terror like…like…like a flash flood in a slot canyon (where did that come from?). It can slump to depression. It has done all of these things. The only way out is to sit down and keep writing, keep waiting.
The only way for grace to come is to sit down and write. It might not come today, tomorrow, or this month. My job is to sit down. To begin. To remember to say thank you, as well as please, no matter what happens. To question what I see and remember, to think of the scene, to think of the story, to think of what is important, and to try to write it as best I can. This is not sexy, or interesting to say, but it is everything. Maybe it is this that is grace itself.
Shannon Huffman Polson is a writer living with her family in Seattle and getting outdoors as much as she can, which is far too little. Her first book, North of Hope, a memoir including mountains, fear and grace, is due out Spring of 2013 from Zondervan. Visit her at aborderlife.com.
The Bereshit Bara Creativity Series is drawing to a close this week. Our last two posts will be featured Monday and Wednesday.
At the heart of all creativity there lies praise, there lies a hidden “thank you,” a yearning to return blessing for blessing. This is how the great psychologist Otto Rank defines the artist: “one who wants to leave behind a gift.” Why would one be intent on leaving a gift behind if one had not intuited that life, for all of its woe and troubles, is essentially praiseworthy and deserving of our gratitude? — Matthew Fox
I want to say thank you for all who participated in sharing their posts, in wrestling with these questions, in reading, in commenting and sharing, in participating, in extending the conversation, and in inspiring others.
It’s funny how one word can have so many connotations and mean a thousand different things to different people. Like the word blogging, or writing, or creativity, or baseball.
When I think of baseball I automatically think about the feeling of a hitting a double in the gap, the surge of a near-perfect swing.
Others might think about that boring sport on TV or the pain of a bruise on their ribs.
The cool thing about the internet is that it opens up so many possibilities. It’s like the pitches are the size of watermelons and the outfielders look away to watch the butterflies float across the grass.
Then why does it feel like I’m always striking out?
Why do I think the Internet is something to conquer, something to serve my needs for affirmation and validation?
I’m running a race I can’t win. What I think about when I think about writing and blogging is failure.
I am thankful for this ability to write and create stuff and put it all out here. And I’m grateful for all the people I know and don’t know who read and comment and think and share. That all takes time and effort.
I just keep reminding myself about all I’m grateful for (like you) and I lose the desire to pursue the world (and the internet) like a foolish conquistador. That’s when writing and blogging come back into perspective for me. It’s not that it’s not about me (to use a Christianese cliché), but that it’s all about something so much bigger than me, so much more pressing, so much more worthwhile.
I thank God for that.
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