Are you longing for a bit of a solitary creative refuge in the middle of this quarantine?
Many of us continue to remain holed up in our homes across the globe. These many weeks of solitude (or sharing space without any breaks) leave us struggling with our sense of peace each day.
One of the ways I work with my writing groups to help ease anxieties and create space right now is through flash fiction using famous artworks as inspo.
My obsession with beauty, passion for museums, and love of storytelling led me to it, and students have adored the combo.
So, in celebration of art, support of museums, and an offering of solitary creative space, I’ll be posting a visual writing prompt each day along with light instructions to help guide you in this sweet process.
To kick things off, let’s go with Thomas Cole’s The Journey of Life: Youth. I love this painting for its ethereal quality and room to create your own interpretation. It hangs in the American National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
So, I sat down fifteen mornings ago with the intent to pen a tome on the reality that I’m about as focused as a light breeze meandering through the desert these days.
My head is spinning.
I’m almost late for everything (on time is late for me).
My patience for crazy is wafer-thin.
I have lists for lists of the lists I haven’t completed because I forgot to make a list.
My mind drifts and lingers in useless places like the social media dark universe and daydreaming.
I re-opened this draft today and realized the “On Being Distracted” headline proved so valid that I couldn’t even get around to finishing a blog post on the topic.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” I ask myself, beginning the misguided self-talk that leads me deeper and deeper down.
On one side, I am remarkably busy. My writing coaching business is booming, and I work with students all around the globe almost every day.
I also work with students all around the Lower Mainland almost every day, which means I’m spending a crazy amount of time on public transit. That level of contact with people, in and of itself, is enough to unsettle even the most chill of souls.
There, boom. The coaching part of my life is mapped out and accomplished with only the normal bumps in the dealing-with-other-humans road.
However, in the rest of my writing life, the lack of forward motion proves startling.
I sit down to edit, query or work on the novels – nothing.
I sit down to read (I haven’t read ANYTHING all summer that wasn’t for work) – nothing.
So goes the flow of being, and I recognize it as just that. Sometimes, you can’t squeeze more juice out when one side of your life is at full-speed and requires all of your attention. I will get back to a balance which gives me the time and energy to focus, probably sooner than I think.
Yet, I can’t help but feel like I am failing myself as a novelist.
Where’s the devotion?
Where’s the getting up every day and writing no matter what?
Where’s the “Do whatever it takes” required to make anything of yourself in this world?
I have beaten myself up without end for these times when I am tapped out, and I genuinely believe that I have to figure out how to honour them rather than let them steal pieces of me away.
Meanwhile, I’m still busy berating myself for choosing to finish three seasons of Outlander rather than write, or talk to friends on social media rather than read or research or focus on the craft in personal ways.
I suspect my head is waiting for the novel research trip, which is less than six weeks away. At least I can guarantee a bit of an endpoint for all of this foolish distraction.
The other morning I flopped down onto the bed, slightly weepy, and declared myself exhausted by the epic level of work I’ve done to get my fiction writing published.
I’ve been querying the novel I just finished—Geist—hard for the last six weeks. This is the rejection phase, one I’ve been through before with another novel that remains on the shelf. It is where I suspect most writers toss themselves on a bed in the midst of a defeatest declaration.
Sticking your writing out there for people to love or hate is glorious and absolutely gut-wrenching. On the one hand, you have birthed a story into the world, and that is a stunning accomplishment. On the other hand, you want other people to love it as much as you do, and you have no control over that portion of the writer’s life.
I liken the level of anxiety at this stage to a moment years ago, when I started out as a journalist. The City Editor at the daily I worked at in Colorado Springs had a wall of shame where he posted all of the worst writing he ever received. It was cruel, utterly heartless, and incredible in its level of instruction.
“Read it all. Memorize what is garbage,” he told me. “Then, make sure you are good enough to never make it onto anyone’s wall of shame.”
So, I worry.
My husband knows the routine. Twice a year or so I break down, sure I have wasted my life after I abandoned the newsroom pursuing a foolish dream that judgy family members and people who don’t believe in dreaming told me years ago to leave in the land of artists.
There was a point in our relationship where he might have laid there and rubbed my head, let me cry, possibly placated me with something trite about how my time will come. That day he was done with this version of me.
“What are you going to do?” he said. “Cut off your arm?”
I considered developing an irritation to his curt response, choosing silence in order to avoid my semi-annual self-pity being interrupted by a rationalist.
“Being a writer is who you are,” he continued. “Get up and go do what you have to do.”
“But, what if I’m not good enough?”
“Then go get better.”
He really is annoying, and correct. Despite any other way of being I’ve tried, the only thing that wakes me up in the morning and keeps me up at night is storytelling. I could get a thousand rejections and write a thousand novels and still want to send one more query or write one more story.
I’m humbled by those further along the writing journey than I, honored to guide the young authors who are just beginning theirs. I see the spark of story in people who didn’t think they had it in them. I know it in myself when a moment, a scene, a realization that comes through birthing tales into the world brings me to tears.
Last night, I opened up my e-mail at 11 p.m. to find a note from an agent requesting a partial for Geist. It may not end up resonating with her, but I made it through a giant pile of queries and sparked enough interest for her to ask for it over the long weekend.
Yet, I still asked myself am I good enough?
It’s the question I’m going to stop manipulating myself with any more—not because I’ve grown arrogant or consider myself a superstar. I’m going to stop making that inquiry of myself because it doesn’t matter.
I will write today.
I will write tomorrow.
I will revise and edit and fret and go back three more times to do the same thing.
I will miss the mark, or nail a scene.
I will teach Grade 4 writers a technique to craft their stories and then forget to use it when crafting my own.
I will fall in love with characters. I will scrap novels. I will build amazing worlds.
I will stick my work out in the public eye for some to love, some to hate—all guaranteed to make me ache.
I will flop down on the bed at least once more this year and wonder how I will ever make it.
Productive days are the best kind. The total absorption into material and storytelling becomes meditative. The devotion to ideas and evolution of that story sparks a magic. When it was all over, I couldn’t even remember which Writer’s Studio day it was.
In the midst of it all, my brother and I even managed to fit in an Insta chat on living magical lives.
Both seekers, we’ve dabbled—or even more than dabbled—in a wide range of ideas, practices, and philosophical perspectives. He just relocated to the remote island of Wrangell, Alaska, and the world is on fire for him right now. The conversation took on its own personality, moving through fishing, friends, lost civilizations, myth, the spirit of the land, and our own sense of self.
I realized that days in which articles are read, poetry is shared, a friend leaves you a sweet voice message, your brother answers the call when you have something bizarro to share with him, are true source magic.
From that, the construct of time drops away and all that lives in that space is a direct channel to the imagination.
Words hold the greatest of power.
Here’s a quick wrap-up from my crazy-productive day:
Day 21 in the writer’s studio – writing isn’t all about the actual act of writing.
Cultivation of creativity comes in lots of forms. For me, daily yoga practice means those hours sitting won’t collapse my spine, those hours thinking won’t send me off into unproductive feedback loops, and those hours imagining come constantly from the visions rising up inside my head when I’m quiet and still.
Bonus is I am less of a bitch too. ✊🏼✊🏼✊🏼
I actually get more out of yoga than I ever thought possible in terms of creative goodness. The whole meditation thing, which I have been practicing off and on for something like twenty years, is one of the best generators of ideas, ways to push past writing blocks, and to walk characters through scenes.
In fact, I was on the Sky Train this afternoon zoning out in a bit of a state listening to some crazy chanting music when the final scene of Woman On The Wall just appeared in front of me. Don’t laugh. That’s how writers roll. I swear, one day you will read the last scene in that novel and think, “that was from her subway ride. Must have been one hella ride.”