Poetic Creativity

Introduction to Poetic Creativity
A Writing Blog
Friday, April 22, 2016

I began this Creative Writing Blog in 2012 while taking the Humber School for Writing Creative Writing Course. The Blog contents, some of which were written in answer to questions or debates that arose on the school open comments page, date from then and I have copied them below.

I would very much like to continue this blog and will therefore add to this page a little bit at a time as ideas occur to me. If you have questions about writing, ask them. I will comment on them, if I am able to do so.

Eating and Drinking
Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Paella: what a fascinating topic! Where paella is concerned everyone is right and nobody is wrong.

The traditional, true, and original paella is said to come from the rice fields of Valencia. All the products were local: olive oil, onions, tomatoes, rice, saffron, snails, and eels.

The dish, said to be based on the Arabic rice dishes became a standard in Spain and sea food paella is traditional on the coast, where sea food is plentiful. Beach paella in the Basque country has a rice base (often prepared the night before) but uses whatever sea food can be scavenged that day along the sea shore.

In the mountainous regions, where sea food is not so plentiful, meat paellas can be found: ham, chicken, chorizo, even lamb.

There are often regional blends and many cooks produce their own particular recipes. Something that I discovered in Montreal, one year, was a Spanish Restaurant serving Quebec paella with snails and frogs legs!

The only paella I have ever avoided was the paella turística, made in a certain city (whose name I do not wish to remember — “de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme” —  seemingly from yesterday’s leftovers. Waste not want no, as the proverbs say, but I didn’t go back to that restaurant, nor did I finish my meal there.

NB This comment refers to one restaurant on one occasion that I would rather forget. Spanish cuisine is usually excellent and amongst the best in the world.

And Drink
Writers need refreshments. You could always try Tinto de Verano, also known as TV, a speciality from a small bar in Avila (El Rincón in the Plaza de Zurraquín, just by the Mercado Chico).

Dampen rim of glass with a slice of lemon.
Dip glass rim in sugar.
2 ice cubes.
2 ozs of red Vermouth.
4 ozs of red wine (Ribera de Duero).
Twist of lemon.
1 teaspoon of sugar.
4 ozs of soda water.
Stirred, not shaken.

That’s the basic recipe. But you can adjust ingredients to taste and you can add a shot of brandy if you are really stressed out and need fortification.

Don’t drink too many though: you may lose the plot.

Creating and Revising
Saturday, January 14, 2012

1. As I read this morning’s posts, I realize that there are two very different processes involved in creative writing: creation and revision.

In terms of creation, I follow Graham Green and Steven King: write 500 words a day, regularly, about two pages. Then, next day, re-read them and revise them. Then continue with the next two pages. This allows a steady accumulation that is usually somewhat under the writer’s control. It also allows the writer to go back and revise while creating: an important step for both King and Green.

In terms of revision, once the book or story or manuscript is complete, different processes emerge. One is to leave some time for the manuscript to settle: this also works chapter by chapter during the writing process. The other is to start again and apply the revision process as outlined in the First Five pages.

Each one of us will be on a different stage of what is, I hope, an enjoyable creative experience. Part of the fun is also finding out what works for us; and by us, I mean each one of us. And yes, we all need those words of encouragement … so hang in there… have confidence … and be creative …

As for revision, I started by reading The First Five pages and found that this made the revision of my own manuscript much easier. The First 5 deals with items one by one and in order of priority; it also allows you, as a writer / reader / adviser to have a clear idea of where you are going with the revisions, what you are doing, and why you are doing it. I also perused the links that Richard put up and found them useful, too, especially those that referred to the revision process. I recommend those links, in particular, the one that tells us never to give up.

Burroway for me is an adventure. I find that when I am reading the theory, I have a tendency to get confused and lost. In addition, I do not always agree with her analyses of the chosen snippets of text. I understand what she is saying, but I do not always agree with what she has said.

The stories themselves are something different. Reading them allows me to gain a perspective on what I am doing and how I am doing it. Thus I can say: I can do that; or I’ve done that; or I wouldn’t want to do that. The stories then come over as a reflecting mirror in which I can see aspects of my own writing, however beautified or distorted. The theory, on its own, leaves me cold and often confused. Other people’s creativity is inspiring.

The secret, in my opinion, is to relax, to be yourself, and to continue writing as you want to write while paying attention to the small details of which I am becoming more and more aware of every day. We are all creative — or we wouldn’t be here, reading this, doing this course. The secret is to develop and polish our own creativity. We must also learn to develop our own voices and to have confidence in those creative sparks that dwell within us.

2. Writing the introduction last is a standard procedure in academia. This is partly because it isn’t until the end of the research / study that the writer really understands the substance and the intent of what s/he has been studying. Also, it is only when the work is finalized that the appropriate conclusions can be drawn and the route that one has taken can be established.

As for the order in which revisions are made, there are many rules and circumstances can change. Even when there doesn’t appear to be a plot, as such, there is a chronology and chronology can be used as a substitute for plot. There is probably some form of evolution throughout the chronology, and that should be kept in mind, too. In addition, I would assume that as the learning process “bites” so we will be better able to make our own judgement calls. The art of good teaching is to eliminate the need for a teacher.

3. Changing the perspective: letters work: they can be found, sent, received, or discovered. The identity of the writer / receiver is also interesting.

In the 13th Story, the novel which I am currently reading, the principal narrator investigates / researches her subject in local libraries, the Who’s Who, a graveyard (reading the tombstones), and many different places. She also visits the local newspaper archives and interviews other characters in the novel, much as a nespaper reporter might.

Truth and Lies
Wednesday, January 25, 2012

1. Miguel de Cervantes comes at this from a slightly different angle in Don Quixote. He always writes of verisimiltude, which he defines in this way: “Tanto la mentira es mejor cuanto más parece verdadera” — The lie is so much better when it appears to be true.

This is extended into a perspectivism by means of which an object, the shaving bowl which turns into Mambrino’s helmet, for example, is seen from different angles to represent different things.

Thus from Sancho’s perspective, it is a barber’s bowl while from DQ’s, it is Mambrino’s helmet. When both aspects can be held to be true, we are no longer dealing with a direct opposition, truth versus fiction, and the compromise, in Spanish, is to invent a new word, a new world, that of the baciyelmo, the first half of which is the basin and the second half of which is the helmet. This blends two appearances together to form a new fictional reality upon which the protagonists can agree.

I like to think that this is what we are all doing, forming a new fictional reality to create a new world. We do this when we combine our memories and our imaginations to create new truths. Perhaps it is the fuzziness around the edges that allows us to penetrate the mist of meaning and come up with the new worlds.

2. Some men like facial hair; some men don’t.

I was invited to play an acting role in the local film coo-op and the art director asked me to grow a specific type of moustache, something I had never ever done previously. I didn’t want to do it and was faced by “do it or you don’t get the role”. The AD was a good friend, so I did it.

It was the worst moustache you have (n)ever seen and trust me you can be glad you didn’t see it (but you can see it on the film, except I’m not telling you the name of the film). Anyway, when the fatal words “It’s a wrap” were finally called, my beloved wife was waiting on the doorstep with a razor and a shaving brush and I’ve never grown another whisker since.

True memoir or a colouring of the facts? You’ll never know. What is true is that the art director was amazed at the refusal of many males to grow facial hair.

Spanish proverb: “Both man and bear: more beautiful with more hair / ¡El hombre y el oso: más peludo, más hermoso!”

3. The film was a New Brunswick short (15 minutes). It’s called Misdirection (and is available from the NB Film Co-op). It’s a totally amateur production and was enormous fun to make.

The moustache actually doesn’t look too bad … but there’s a very evil glint in my eyes in a couple of scenes. The DoP was using a shoulder held camera and did some great close-ups. I was trying to avoid looking at the camera, but he was so close that I was staring down the lens a couple of times.

4. More on body hair: I was coaching at the Canada Games one year (once upon a time, a long time ago, in another life) and was moved to investigate the howls of merriment that were emerging late at night from one of the bathrooms in the residence we we all sharing.

I did so to discover, after hammering at the door, that five or so girls were devoting their attention and their razor blades to removing all the body hair of one of our male swimmers so that he could slip through the water with less friction.

It wasn’t exactly a Brazilian Wax, but it was a gazillion laughs: death by a thousand cuts. I am sure the scars slowed the swimmer down. This was a long time ago, incidentally, when the world was young.

Finding the Story
Friday, January 27, 2012

What is your story about?

Miguel de Cervantes faced this question when he was writing the first part of Don Quixote (published 1605) and, according to some authorities, he possibly answered it in the second part (published 1615).

Don Quixote, according to the architectonic theory elaborated by Prof. G. L. Stagg, at the University of Toronto), began as a short story, using borrowed material, based on someone else’s interlude (the Entremés de los Romances).

With the introduction of Sancho Panza, it continued as a series of adventures interspersed with dialogue between two contrasting characters. The dialogue contained a series of 6 intercalated novels or short stories (Part I, 1605) that interweave with the central themes of Don Quixote (Stagg: hinge theory). As Cervantes’s recounting of the DQ / SP dialogue develops, so the central story changes and the short adventures at the beginning of the novel turn into the longer adventure (Dorotea and Fernando) that ends the first part.

In the second part (1615) a new concept of novel writing emerges, that of the self-referencing novel, in which characters and adventures from Part One are interwoven into the new adventures of part Two. Please forgive the enormous gaps: this is, obviously, a potted literary history of DQ.

What is important, I believe, for our group, is that Don Quixote did not leap fully formed from Cervantes’s head. The author evolved a series of different story telling techniques as he wrote. I believe we all do this. Our stories change as we write them; our techniques develop as we progress; the final end product is rarely the same as the one we contemplated when we started. The means we use to get to that end change, as do the characters and situations that we create or that our characters create for us.

If we use this course as an example, I am not the same writer as I was when I started the course. Neither are you who read this. Reading the set texts has changed me; reading your posts is altering me; receiving comments from the tutor is modifying my text; as I revise my novel, my characters are talking back to me and my novel is changing as I listen to them. We are all in a process of change and evolution. I believe that this is normal and that it is good.

This leads to the importance of the revision process: making changes, pulling it all together, recognizing ourselves and our characters, recognizing their expanding possibilities, making it all work, developing the integrated text. As far as my own novel goes, I have already added a character who wasn’t in the first draft and I have transformed a few who were. I also intend to write a new ending: my characters are not going to have it all their own way.

In fact, one of them telephoned me last night and told me she was not happy with the new changes I had made for her. I asked her how she had got my telephone number and she said she had looked it up. I said she couldn’t look it up because it was unlisted. Anyway, I told her to get off the phone and to leave me alone. When she swore at me and told me she was going to do what she wanted and not what I wanted her to, I put the phone down. Now she is on my blocked list and I won’t speak to her again.

If this sounds like a lecture, it probably is a lecture or it is taken from a lecture I once heard. Old habits die hard; but in reality, if I am lecturing, I am lecturing myself. I will end with the words of Cervantes: “Paciencia y barajar: patience and shuffle the cards!”

Now back to my novel and the Tinto de Verano.

The Characters’ Tea Party
Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Characters’ Tea Party

I would like to introduce you to Loro.

Loro is a green and yellow Mexican parrot from the Pacific coast at Huatulco. He was born in captivity and has lived in a cage or chained to a perch for as long as he can remember.

My friend Marcos tells me that Loro was bought from the breeder about twenty years ago and was carried in a country bus up from the coast into the mountains. For a long time, he lived with an old lady called Anita; but when she passed on, he was given away to her neighbor, a man called Carlos who worked on a building site as a day laborer.

Carlos used to take Loro to work with him. Loro would sit in his cage in the sunshine and admire the laborers as they laid the foundations for the buildings that would one day become the new campus of the University of Oaxaca.

Loro didn’t say much: “¡Loro! ¡Loro! I’m a parrot!” was his main conversation piece but the workers never tired of feeding him nuts and fruit and he delighted in their company. When the men were working, Loro used to get lonely. But when it rained, then it was another world.

“¡Chingada lluvia!” the workmen would say as they put away their tools and took shelter from the rain. They only received their wages when they were busy at their jobs and time lost was money lost. “¡Qué lluvia más chingada!” the workmen would mutter and the parrot would repeat the words, climbing the bars of his cage and squawking ferociously at the dark grey skies. “¡Qué lluvia más chingada!”

And that was his life on the building site: silence and loneliness in the sunny hours mingled with his cries of “¡Loro! ¡Loro! I’m a parrot.” But when it rained, he became very angry and would burst out with the most explicit language.

When Carlos left the building site, he gave the parrot to Mario who is the handy man in our apartment complex. Now the parrot sits in the yard calling out “¡Loro! ¡Loro!” as the sunshine warms him. At the first sign of rain, Mario runs out with the parrot’s cover to make sure that the parrot goes back to sleep and doesn’t disturb the neighbor’s with his noise.

Unfortunately, Loro cannot tell the difference between rainwater and the water that the neighbors on the second floor pour onto their flowers. When this water speckles onto Loro’s fathers, he climbs the bars and “¡Chinga tu madre! ¡Chingada lluvia!” he cries.

Mario has noticed this. If he takes a dislike to one of the occupants of an apartment, he will wait until they have guests in for morning coffee or afternoon tea and he will then place the parrot outside their apartment. At a propitious moment, he will dip his hands in water and sprinkle it on the parrot’s cage.  This sends the parrot into paroxysms of rage and “Fricking rain! Frick your mother! Fricking! rain!” runs through the compound to the consternation of the occupants of the targeted apartment.

I have noticed that Mario can be very slow in covering the parrot’s cage. But if Mario has really taken a dislike to you, then neither Mario nor the parrot’s cover can be found.

In Media Res
Sunday, January 29, 2012

In media res is a bit like the arrival of a pizza from a new pizza home delivery service.

You are hungry, you make the phone call, you order the pizza, and then you sit and you wait.

The door bell rings and the dog comes rushing out of nowhere and barks at the delivery man who stands there with his delivery bag in which the pizza nestles comforting and warm. You tell the dog to sit, you hand over the money, with a tip, of course, and the delivery man takes the pizza from the bag and pops it into your hands.

You close the door, walk back into the kitchen, and everyone is there, salivating waiting to see what you’ve bought. You know what kind of pizza it is, because you ordered it. But this is the secret of in media res: the pizza is there but it’s still a mystery. You don’t really know what the pizza’s like. It looks nice; it smells great; but what’s in it, or rather on it; and how does it taste? These are the unknowables, the forward looking teeth that give in media res its bite.

“Seek and you will find.” But what are you looking for?

You recognize the onions,; then there’s a meatball; ooh, look, some slices of salami and bacon; then there’s red peppers and green peppers; no anchovies (remember that song?); it’s a high rise pastry and there’s a cream cheese filling in the crust: delicious; oh yes, that subtle sweetness comes from the pieces of pineapple that decorate the pizza. Cheese: there’s plenty of that, three different types by the look of it and the tomato sauce is spicy and delicious.

When you take that first bite, the whole blend explodes in your mouth and the full delights of pizza burst upon you.

And that’s in media res: no planning, washing and cutting the ingredients, no cooking, no placing in the oven, no wait as the house fills up with the smell of cooking pizza.

There’s just the pizza itself and the journey backwards to discover how it was made and what conjures up the magic of that first bite.

Beneath the surface of my writing, lie many mysterious ingredients. Sometimes, I can draw a few of them out and examine them as they flourish in the daylight. Often, they remain as mysteries, unconscious moments that float like lilies upon the surface of the story.

As I write, the sun is shining and the storm that visited us on Friday has all cleared away. There are deer prints by the bird feeder where the deer came last night and nuzzled for bird food.

The red spark of a squirrel sits by the feeders and four mourning doves crowd together on the snow. I do not know where they came from and, like the deer, I do not know where they are going, although the deer tracks point to a probable destination.

In media res: we all live there; we understand it; we are intrigued by it; and it often lies at the centre of our fascinating world.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Until the novel is actually finished, the characters are always characters-in-waiting.

What are they waiting for? I cannot answer that question and perhaps only they and their creators know or sense, however vaguely, the patterns for which they are looking. The question that arises for me is this: as authors, do we discuss our characters while they are still in formation, so to speak, or do we keep them closely under wraps, not sharing them even with our nearest and dearest?

Personally,  while this may be different for other writers, I think it is essential to keep the creative urge bottled up inside myself.  I refuse to discuss a work (poem, article, short story, novel) until it is finished. That way, I retain the urgent drive to create inside me instead of diluting it and spreading it around the curious who always seem to want to know what I am writing about and what I am doing. Some of my friends, I must admit, are annoyed by this reticence. “But you can tell me …” they say, rolling their eyes and looking hurt. But that’s just it: I can’t; for once the secret is out the character diminishes, loses intimacy and urgency, and vanishes into a distance from which it is difficult to call him or her back.

Others have written about this necessity of hiding the character and the story until it is fully fledged and ready to fly. Stephen King (in On Writing) writes about talking his work over with his wife but I find even this difficult. Clare and I  work together on the revisions: a reading voice, a second eye, an outside judgement, but never on the original creation.

Unfortunately, the rush of creation, the necessity of getting it down on the page, often leads to minor errors of grammar, speech, action and so on. But these are minute problems when compared to stopping the creative flow when it is upon the writer. Anyway, I find that these minor errors are almost always caught in the second day revision process. I think I said earlier that, with regard to novel writing, in the creation process I strive for 500 words a day (two pages). I then begin the next day by reading and revising these pages and then I move forward to the next two pages of creation. this is the method (give or take a little) used by Stephen King and Graham Greene. It’s purpose is to keep the tale moving forward while retaining specific links with the immediate past.

Funnily enough, if the study of the chronology and dating that occurs in Part II of the Quixote (1615) is examined in detail, Miguel de Cervantes seems to have followed a similar creative method. Part I, with the intercalated novels, follows a different creative pattern that includes the insertion and integration of previously worked material. But in Part II there is a definite link between writing chronology, day, and date. The urgency apparent in the latter stages of DQ II comes across to even the casual reader and the sense of unstoppable, onrushing time is one that draws the novel to its inevitable conclusion.

Mistakes 1
Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Mistakes 1

Once upon a time, a long time ago, Clare and I were living in Spain. It was time to renew our visas and we went to the visa office to request an extension to our residence status.  We had filled out all the appropriate documents and purchased all the necessary stamps and were relieved when our applications were accepted and we were told to return in a week to pick up our new permits.

We returned five working days later and you can imagine our horror when we discovered that our files were bound in bright red tape and we were issued with a demand to leave the country within 48 hours.

“But, but, but” we stammered, “there must be some mistake!” To which the official, one of Generalissimo Franco’s finest, replied: “There can be no buts: we never make mistakes!”

The official was kind enough to listen to our story. It seems that an anonymous someone somewhere in a back room had confused the Spanish system of naming families with the English system of naming families. Clare and I had our names in the non-Spanish order, and therefore we were not married, and therefore we had lied to the authorities ….

I remember that as we explained the situation the official’s face slowly turned from being flushed to a sort of puce colour. He backed out of the room with the folders and their crimson scars of tape and muttered as he exited, in a voice that was scarcely audible: “I think …  there has been …  a little …” but he escaped through the door marked Officials Only before he could utter that final, damning word.

Half an hour later, we had our permits and we had permission to remain in Spain for the next two years.

“We never make mistakes.” I like to think of writers as belonging in the category of those who never make mistakes.  As a writer, I think rather in terms of experiences that teach us something, blind alleys, cul-de-sacs, roads that have no immediate exit, false beginnings, trails that lead nowhere and have to be abandoned … but are these mistakes? Were the dinosaurs a mistake? The dodos? The Horace Rumpole who nearly fell off his twig, was he a mistake?

For me, all writing is an adventure. It is like exploring an ancient city. There are streets and squares, alleys and parks, shopping centres and plazas. As we find our way around the city we are visiting, we wander, we take wrong turnings, we find ourselves lost, we discover places to which we want to return and situations that we want to avoid … but I do not think of these as mistakes. I think of them as experiments, alternate choices, material to be laid aside for another adventure on another day…

Sometimes, the city is laid out carefully before us and we have maps and streets plans; sometimes we create the city for ourselves step by step as we explore. For me, writing is an adventure something akin to a half empty glass of wine: as a pessimistic writer, my glass is half empty; I have never managed to do anything quite right and everything could have been improved; as an optimistic writer, my glass is half full; everything is for the best in the best of all worlds.

I am still struggling for a perfection that I am sure I will never find. As I continue that struggle I realize that I have wasted a great deal of time and that I have taken many wrong turnings, but in spite of these imperfections, I refuse to admit that I have ever made any mistakes.

One of my friends from the Philosophy Department used to stroke his beard, look me in the eye and say: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Stroking my hairless lip, I would keep a straight face, look right back at him, and say: “On the contrary, the un-lived life is not worth examining.”

Could one of us have been making a mistake?

Mistakes 2
Tuesday,  January 31 2012.

    2.1 Writer’s Block

Twenty-three years ago, when my father passed away, I was unable to write. I would sit in front of an empty page for hour after hour, night after night, looking into space.

One evening, I found my daughter’s abandoned drawing book and coloured crayons. On a whim, I started to draw and colour.  As I did so, I found that I no longer needed words for there was a certain satisfaction in the choice of shape and hue. My unspeakable emotions were flowing in lines, shapes and colours, not in words.

This was a revelation. It let me understand that some things could not be expressed verbally, especially under the strain of high tension. When I learned this lesson, I was able to distinguish between things that could be expressed in words and things that couldn’t. The result was a lessening of the burden of writing and an increase in the joy of discovery.

In other words, the journey became more important than the destination. And this is where I am at now: I love the journey, the flow of words, the play of light and dark across the page, the jumble of thoughts that turn into long lines of letters that march their little foot soldiers, like ants on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, across a white plain of snow.

2.2 Napoleon Bonaparte

Mistakes? Napoleon should not have invaded Russia. All those foot soldiers should never have perished at the hands of Russia’s greatest ally, Marshall Winter. To travel to Moscow, on foot, so close to winter, with extended supply lines and an army of foot soldiers, that was a mistake.

To experiment with words on a page, to give them orders, to march them up to the top of the hill and to march them down again, to send them scurrying here and there, some to achieve victory, some to perish in the scrap heap of the garbage can, now that is not a mistake: it is one of life’s great mysteries and pleasures.

And remember: even in defeat, when you play with an army of words, there are no terrible mistakes; there are no dead bodies, neither of horses nor of men, abandoned to suffer and die in the endless frost and snow.

2.3 Christopher Levenson and Fred Cogswell

My friend Christopher Levenson visited Fredericton a long time ago when he was editor of ARC, the magazine he co-founded in Ottawa.  In the cut and thrust of a post-reading discussion, he made two points. The first was that “Your best friends are your carbon paper and your garbage can.” The second point was that “you need to write the equivalent of 100 pages in order to produce one that is worthwhile.”

The carbon paper fascinates me:  in the pre-computer days we kept carbon copies of everything that we laboriously typed with two fingers on the typewriter.

And yes, I recall all too well filling my garbage can with those 99 pages, one after another.

Were those wasted pages? I am going to argue that they were not wasted. They were a learning experience, training in the craft, so to speak, as Fred Cogswell, my mentor and first publisher, suggested in his book A Long Apprenticeship.

They were never mistakes.

Dream Time
Wednesday, February 1, 2012

   I find that when I am really engrossed in a writing project, my daily routine goes to pieces. I wake up at 3 or 4 or 5 am in that dream time (Australian Aboriginal Dream Time and Walkabout, but so relevant) and I wander downstairs in the dark with a torch, trying not to step on the cat, trying not to wake the parrot.
I put the kettle on, make tea, write in my notebook, go to the computer, sketch out ideas and frameworks … then, when I have finished, I go back to bed and snuggle into the warmth (I love that return to the warmth, to the womb, to creativity, to the dream world) and I dream again … when I wake up, much of what I sketched out earlier has reformed and the revisions I make give me not a perfect picture, but the steps I need towards making one.
I know that I have time on my hands and that I am truly privileged. I appreciate this gift and try to make the most out of it. I would like to share it with other people.
Do you know the story of Rodin and his sculpture of Balzac? Well, Rodin cast Balzac as a normal man, sat at a desk, writing. Rodin didn’t like his creation. He sculpted Balzac on his feet, walking and thinking. He didn’t like that either. So he threw a dressing gown around the bulky, upright figure he had just designed and cast the famous author dressed in a dressing gown.
When the sculpture was unveiled one of the critics wrote: “This is a fat figure in a bath robe: it is impossible to imagine a real man beneath the cloak.”
Since abandoning teaching, when I no longer have to face the world in professional clothing, I often keep my dream clothes on and stay in my dressing gown until 1 or 2 in the afternoon. Clare has always supported me and encourages me to “do what I have to do.”
Today’s message to you is that you must be what you are. You work within your limits and you stretch those limits whenever and wherever you can. Above all, you are yourself; you create room for yourself; and your people support you when they see you are being yourself.

Meanwhile, keep writing!

Journals and More
Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages, was the first book from our creative writing course bibliography that I read. I found it very helpful and it answered several questions that had been troubling me for some time. Ultimately, we are our own editors, but we need lots of help when starting out. We also need help at those vital moments when we know we have a great idea but we are bogged down and are not quite sure how to proceed. There is no substitute for reading and for writing. Eventually we must all knuckle down and do the hard work, or the donkey work as we call it in Wales.

We cannot be writers unless we write. Yet I know several young (and not so young) “writers” who are always planning to do something tomorrow, yet who are never able to put en to paper today. We can all find good reasons not to write. However, we must all develop the discipline to write every day, no matter what, come hell or high water. I find the journal so useful for this.

I started to journal in 1985. I was standing one evening in front of the Oratoire St. Joseph in Montreal. My father had just had the first of the three strokes that would eventually kill him. I was watching the lights of the city below me and admiring the planes as they came in to land. I knew I had to do something to slow the world down and understand what was happening to me. So, I bought a 360 page notebook on the Cote des Neiges and I started writing. I think I’m up to about volume 70 right now.

Even when I was teaching full time, I made an effort to get up early and put in an hour a day. Some days it was a real slog, but the discipline of putting pen to paper and watching that spider crawl its way across the page was remarkably good for me. I recommend it to all of you. Quite simply, it takes away the pressure of having to write something serious all the time. We can’t always be serious and play time is a necessity. I draw in my journal and doodle and put stars and stickers and lions and things in and I always (usually!) buy journals with pouches in the back so that I can save things in them. It’s fascinating to go back and see what I was doing “back then” whenever then is.

So, if in doubt, pull your journals out and start writing. Journals will help free you up. They can be monologues or dialogues with yourself, as you please. Eventually, they become quarries (and sometimes gold mines) for stories, poems, characters, cartoons, jokes, and everything else you put in there. I argue all my big decisions out in my journal (like, should I really take a Creative Writing Course at my age?) and it’s great fun to go back and re-read all the pros and cons of why I nearly didn’t sign up. Having met all of the course members, I know now why I did sign up. Now I can go back and tick all the positives with a coloured pencil and be doubly glad (a) that I signed up and (b) that I preserved a record of my reasoning.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

At many stages in the creative process, revision seems to create more problems than the worth of it. Some of my friends even say that it sucks. My reasons for wanting to examine this statement are simple. In the fury of creation when the muse visits me and tears my entrails apart, I, the author, am convinced that I have put something worthwhile upon the page. It is my creation and it isn’t to be touched. Early on, I reject other people’s opinions about my work and I refuse to allow anyone to criticize it. In fact, I defend it with all my might. Never underestimate the power of the misunderstood author: if readers don’t understand what I am writing, then that’s their problem, not mine. My genius is mine is mine: keep your hands off!

The next stage (always for me, though it will, I am sure, be applicable to others) was to wonder why my work was being rejected with such frequency. Occasionally there were comments (which weren’t very helpful, the editors who did comment were inexperienced fools and obviously didn’t understand what I was trying to do). Often there was just the rejection slip. After a while, I decided to attend some writing workshops (poetry mainly).

In one of these workshops, there was a rule of silence. You circulated your work and you sat and listened in total silence to what other people had to say about it. You weren’t allowed to explain. You weren’t allowed to defend yourself. Sometimes the other participants would make suggestions on how to improve the work. Occasionally someone found something to say that actually improved the original piece. I must admit that I recognized the improvements in other people’s pieces more rapidly than I saw any improvements to my own. That said, the initial steps of the revision process were set out before me and I began to understand how vital it was.

Plateau and peak: it is a training concept. You train (write) and you plateau (your development flattens out and nothing much happens). Then, suddenly, you peak. In athletics, you improve your times. In writing, you raise your writing, and your understanding of writing, to another level.

When my manuscript first went to my mentor, I was totally shocked. She told me that I needed to revise my manuscript, but I couldn’t see what revisions were necessary. Sure she told me what they were; she even pointed them out in great detail. But I couldn’t SEE, I couldn’t UNDERSTAND why she was saying what she was saying.

“Light breaks where no light shines” (Dylan Thomas). After struggling with the manuscript, after sending it back, after receiving the same advice again and again, I realized one morning, somewhere in the dozy hours between 3 and 4 am, that my mentor was actually right on one small detail in one small scene. That was a peak. I revised the whole chapter according to that one insight. That was the plateau that followed the peak.

Each time I have returned my revised manuscript to my mentor, I have received detailed instructions on what to revise and how to proceed. The result has been a series of peaks (the thrill of discovery) and plateaus (the toil of misunderstanding or lack of development).

My first real breakthrough in understanding the revision process came after reading The First Five Pages (a book which I recommend to everyone taking a creative writing course).  As a result of this, I was able to eliminate many of the beginner’s errors that littered my manuscript. Yes: when I started to recognize them, I saw they were there on every page. I took out the adverbs, I reduced the adjectives, I corrected the grammar, I checked the punctuation, I eliminated the wasted verbiage.

The next real breakthrough came when I started asking the questions that my mentor had originally set me: what does this chapter REALLY do for my story? How does it advance the story? Is it necessary? Why? What should I keep? What should I remove? What should I eliminate? What should I expand?

I started applying this technique to each scene. Was it a vignette (action not carried forward)? Or was it a vital scene (action carried forward)? If it was vital, which elements were most necessary? What carried the story forward? What should be abandoned?

From each scene I moved upwards to each chapter and downwards to each paragraph; from each paragraph to each sentence; from each sentence to each word.

The revision process has now become a game. Can I revise in such a way that my mentor will not have to revise for me? Can I trick my mentor into accepting my writing? Can I move my writing forward, a chapter at a time, scene after scene, paragraph after paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word? I love this game. It has become delightful and I enjoy it so much now that I am BEGINNING to understand it.

Beginning? Yes: for I know even now that when I revise at the beginning, each revision must be carried forward in the text; yet when I revise late, each past moment must be checked and double checked. I know too that my characters still often have my voice versus their own voices. This will change. I know that they force themselves to do what I want them to do instead of me listening to them (and my mentor, who sees them more clearly than I do). I know that I must look for and maintain tension and intrigue. I am slowly learning how to do that. I must link imagery (will do, eventually): I must … Indeed I must … and I must … and there are so many things I must do … Nobody ever said it would be easy.

Each of us is walking a similar path and each of us is somewhere along a route that is similar to mine but that is not exactly like mine for we are all different and we all walk different paths.

Whatever point you are at: learn to recognize your plateaus and your peaks. Enjoy your journals and your free writing: for here you can take a breather, try a fresh approach, and have a smaller piece with which you are not so involved. If it is short, you can play with it, write it and rewrite it, try different narrators and different points of view. This will also allow you the distance you need to examine your writing as a craft, instead of a small part of your soul.

If we keep writing and learn to accept criticism, we will all improve. We can probably see it in our journals, in our more frequent publications, and in the comments we receive. Have faith. Believe. We will all progress at different rates. Some of us may drop by the wayside I hope not and I encourage all of you strongly to begin a creative writing course and to continue with that course until it be thoroughly finished. In the end, most of us will achieve our goal: which is to become better writers.

Remember the words of Cervantes: Paciencia y barajar. Patience, my friends, and shuffle the cards. And while you’re shuffling (revising) learn how to mark the cards and how to stack the deck. That way, each hand will be a winning hand and we will eventually get the deal we want.