Tag Archives: creative practice

Perennials are the plants that come back every year. Unless they don’t.

This (in)famous explanation of perennial versus annual plants is one that I stumbled across about ten years ago, when I was gung-ho for gardening. It’s accurate: several perennials I carefully placed in the ground at fall planting time have showed nary a slender stem of themselves aboveground the following spring. Maybe the groundhogs ate the bulbs, maybe there was too much rain and the roots rotted in the damp soil. A more-experienced, faithful gardener could probably posit a few other reasons and make an educated guess about which was the most likely culprit.

But I’ve discovered that focusing on writing is not compatible with gung-ho gardening: each demands attention to detail at a level that precludes the other. So the rhubarb flowered before I harvested it, and the black-eyed Susans are running amok over the thinly-mulched paths, and the foxglove is begging to be divided.  My only gardening indulgence thus far was on Mother’s Day, when I requested a gift of labor from my sons and Engineer Hubby. We cleared a grassy bed and put in tomatoes, basil, and tomatillos. That’s gonna be it for the year. I swear. I will not procrastinate by weeding. I will not avoid the blank page by deadheading any flowers. I will not wander in the garden humming a song of despair about my lack of productivity.

Yeah, I don’t believe me either.

Purple petunias, in need of deadheading.

Purple petunias, in need of deadheading.

Besides, as Dr. Noa Kageyama notes in his blog post “Pride Yourself on Your Work Ethic? Why You Might be More of a Slacker than You Think,” forcing ourselves to sit down and “practice” when we really really really wanna take a nap or a walk or drink a cappuccino may be counterproductive — we’re not working efficiently or effectively when we’re tired, or dispirited, or hungry. That said, today I really really really didn’t wanna sit down and write. I wanted to, well, weed the garden and deadhead the purple petunias.

Discerning whether or not my resistance is grounded in a real need for rest, or not, is the tricky part. The most effective tool for discernment, for me, is writing. The type of writing I intend to burn before I die. Whiney, self-indulgent, wallow-in-my-first-world-problems writing. But here’s the thing. It works. When I put my whiney self into words, on paper, then they become just words. Words that I can re-read after the second cup of tea, words that I can then consider and compare to my now-cleared heart and head.

Today, I smiled at my words of angst — they were eerily similar to my angst as a younger woman, when I was parenting younger children, when 45 minutes to write was the highlight of the week. I hadn’t noticed, before I whined into my journal, that although I still feel I don’t have *quite* enough hours in the day, I have many, many more hours than I once did — and that I am doing much, much more writing than I did then. That the sense of “not enough” was based in my own choices to add (writing) work to my plate. How fascinating that I nonetheless was telling myself I didn’t have enough. Is that inherent to me as a human being: whatever we get we want more? Or is that unique to just me, the individual? Or a subset of humans, all of us sharing a delusion about time, energy and capacity?

I decided I don’t need to answer those particular questions today. Today, it is enough to notice that the stories I’m telling myself are perennials – they come back year after year. And to know that today, I can plant a different story. A big bushy annual that will shade out the perennial. Or I could dig up that tiresome perennial and relegate it to the compost bin.

Ah, the joy and power of words and overused metaphors. Onward to the blank page!

Fear and salvation

Unknown-1I am heading to a week’s training in the Amherst Writers and Artists writing workshop method. Aka the Pat Schneider workshop method.  We’ll be working with Schneider’s book Writing Alone and with Others. I cannot recommend this highly enough! Buy it today if you can! The “Five Essential Affirmations” she articulates in this text resonate deeply with me:

1. Everyone has a strong, unique voice.

2. Everyone is born with creative genius.

3. Writing as an art form belongs to all people, regardless of economic class or educational level.

4. The teaching of craft can be done without damage to a writers original voice or artistic self-esteem.

5. A writer is someone who writes.

Ah. That last one. A writer is someone who writes.

I am afraid I have not been writing. I have been fussing with stuff in my house, liberating books and tchotchkes to create a clear writing space.

I have not been writing.  I have been telling myself everything else is more important than my writing: the college visits for the older son, the dog walks, the volunteer work for my faith community, the exercise to whittle the extra five pounds from my belly.

I have not been writing for a couple of months, since I gave a very rough (as in, splintery!) draft of a story to a writers group without a clear request for the type of feedback that would be most supportive for my writing.

Unsurprisingly, the feedback was uneven; there were positive and negative responses. Somewhat surprisingly, the less-than-positive responses really got under my skin. I ranted and raged and cried and whimpered my way through Julia Cameron‘s recommended three longhand “Morning Pages” for a couple of weeks. Then for another couple of weeks I donned the TaskMasterLesley hat in my Morning Pages: you know full well how to handle this! Buck up! But I can’t, I whined, scrawling my heart’s distress across the pages. I just can’t write anymore. I’m dried up. I’m barren. I’m a wasteland.

You can imagine the gaping abyss of terror that my squirrel brain has come up with. In fact, if you’ve read any of my previous posts, you are probably overly familiar with my squirrel brain.

But this morning, seven weeks since that critique, my Morning Pages delivered me to a new place. My squirrel brain … bored me. When it started its high-pitched chatter, today I simply noted: h’mm, there’s that squirrel, desperate for nuts. And I strode forward past the tree it perched in. I did not engage in a loud chattery chirrupy shouting match while flicking my tail in wild anxiety and circling the tree trunk like a maniac.

Creative Commons




I wound up in a clearing wherein I laid out a plan for how to find the sandpaper to begin to smooth my story’s splinters. And furthermore, the Morning Pages said, look at how much you’ve written! You’ve written your Morning Pages every day. It’s whiney writing, non-brilliant writing, repetitive writing, prosaic writing.

But it’s writing.

Saved again.






That pile in the basement …

Longed-for warmer temperatures have graced us this past week, eliciting the usual assortment of cliched remarks about the flora and fauna (crocus, daffodil, spring beauty, snowdrops, forsythia, redbud, chipmunks, baby rabbits, robins, wrens).

I undertake my version of spring cleaning: open the windows and let the breeze amass the swirling dog fur and dust bunnies into one massive fluff ball in a corner; hook up vacuum and suck up mass. I tidy and I rearrange; I sort my books and I file my papers. I stop and drink coffee and browse thru’ the Sunday paper.

In the March 20th New York Times “Museums” section, I stumbled upon Golden Age of Discovery … Down in the Basements by David Wallis. Who knew?, but some of our capital-C, Capital-I Cultural Institutions share my lowercase-d, lowercase-g domestic goddesses struggle of staying on top of STUFF.

Of course, what they discover when they go to their basement archives includes Picasso sculptures, rare war helmets of indigenous peoples, and notes from Famous People of History. I find adolescent journals, my grandmother’s account books and timesheets tracking my hours on a federally-funded redevelopment project.

ledger enlargedI’ve tossed the timesheets, but my Grandmother’s account books, with their tidy columns and itemized rows of expenses: they tell me a lot more than she ever chose to share, or I ever know to ask, about her daily life. She, too, struggled with the tension inherent in running a household and creative work. There are entries for groceries, laundry, coal, magazines, stamps. Charmingly, under “miscellaneous” there is, twice-monthly, 35 cents for roses; every three weeks or so is one dollar for “H’s candy” — her husband must have harbored a sweet tooth. There are no entries for weaving supplies though the outstanding feature of her house, when I was a child, was two huge looms. She traveled with a smaller table-top loom. She wove placemats, table runners, samplers, towels, decorative coasters, scrabble tile bags, chair coverings, bookmarks, napkins. You name it, she wove it.

I still use, daily, one of her woven bookmarks. I have always enjoyed it, and find it elegant. No polyester junk, but for-real, finely-patterened silk and linen threads. Having seen her careful accounting for the very real expenses of her daily life on this spring day, and the lack of any such entry for her artistic life, the bookmark becomes dearer.

Some of Gram's weaving

Some of Gram’s weaving

The work we do for love, the work we are privileged to do above and beyond the grunt work of daily necessity: that beauty lasts, to be held and felt and loved. On a breezy spring day, in a basement crowded with life’s leavings.

Let’s look for the treasures in our archives basements. Find whatever we’ve forgotten, whatever scraps of paper and memory may unexpectedly reconnect us, remind us, restore us, return us: to ourselves.

Fifty things …

… I’m proud of. Listing these out is an exercise Julia Cameron recommends in her book The Right to Write. My writing group tackled it last week. As my fellow writer and blogger Andrea Badgley was reading Cameron’s instructions aloud, I thought: no problem! This will be easy! And fun! Things I’m proud of will certainly make me feel good about myself. Whee!

I numbered from one to fifty in my notebook.

x4001And freaked out. The following is a Whitman sampler of my thoughts in the nanoseconds before I forced myself to start writing: I have done nothing. Getting married and having children was a mistake, I’ll leave nothing behind when I die. Wait, I’ll leave my children. So perhaps they were a good idea. Unless bad luck strikes and one or, god forbid, both of them die before me. Could happen. 16 y.o. is on track to get his license. Sweet holy mother of everything. That would be terrible. What have I done, what have I done, what have I done? I’ve  not written a book. I can barely keep up with my blog! I am getting old, it’s getting too late. ALL IS LOST: I can see the burning lifeboat analogy of my life surrounding me and [spoiler alert] that hand at the end is a dying man’s fantasy.

At which point I managed to come up with a few tangible bits and pressed on; remembering Cameron’s admonition that these can be small or large things, I included my five-layer orange mandarin cake and the soft spot I hold for animals.

This exercise took us about 15 minutes. Then it was time to share. I’d not planned on sharing, and said so very quickly. But when my fellow scribblers shared their fifty things, I was both humbled and inspired.

What various paths we’ve taken, and how many of our footsteps have left behind a wee violet or sprig of evergreen. I shared my list last, and my voice was shakier than I’d have liked and I did not make eye contact with anyone while I read, but I managed to say all my fifty things out loud. Even the ones that I was embarrassed about (I am, narcissistically, proud of my sense of style in the wardrobe area. I experience what my “pure” self tells me is, essentially, sinful pleasure out of choosing my outfits).

Why was that exercise so hard? The feminists might say women have been taught not to take credit. Enh. Maybe that’s part of it. I think it has more to do with the inherent challenge of being the “active witness” to our lives and the world around us, as Cameron says this exercise forces us to do. It was scary to think that marriage and kids might have been a mistake. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t, but regardless: this is my situation. It’s a situation of privilege and luxury, relative to the rest of the planet’s population and I am grateful, every day. But acknowledging my privilege doesn’t absolve me of my responsibilities, nor does it erase my own human neuroses, or brokenness or whatever-word-works-for-you.

I think it was hard because looking closely and without judgment at what’s in front of us isn’t easy. Starting this process by passing judgment on what we are proud of — and being real about even those aspects of ourselves that might be less-than-selfless (I mean, clothes, really? C’mon!) but that gives us a recognizable flush of pride — that takes a bit of guts. Guts are a necessary part of being the type of writer I aspire to.

James-JoyceWrite down your particulars. No one else has to see them or hear them or know about them. But we must be able to at least see and acknowledge our own  particulars if we are to have a hope of connecting with each other.  Or, as James Joyce said (and not surprisingly, said better): In the particular is the universal.

My individual life may be small, and yes, it is hilarious and perhaps petty that I am proud of my ability to match colors, but I am aiming for the Universal. Far as I have seen, it’s what makes the merry-go-round ride worth it.

Sustenance for writerly souls … aka, references galore


I have been re-reading Hortense Calisher‘s first novel, False Entry. Some Big Critic whose name eludes me noted that while some authors  are “writer’s writers” Calisher is a writer’s writer’s writer. I think the critic was trying to say, “she’s not easy to read.” Humph. I’m finding beautiful sentences everywhere — after two hundred pages the book is a-flutter with stickies. My current favorite: “It was the shabby-sweet odor of the South that already I was smelling, the air of a people who had to put too much sugar on their lives.”

I am juiced up with good writing, good ideas, and good ideas about writing — I have the happy tickle in my belly of having found a *perfect* gift for a dear friend.

Open the cedar chest, or the under-bed storage box from Target, shake the mustiness from your favorite afghan, warm some apple cider, snuggle up and nibble on these ideas. These come via my writer friend Gigi Vernon (whose short story “Show Stopper” has been chosen for inclusion in the Mystery Writers of America anthology!):


hot apple cider  (Photo credit: digiyesica)

1. On the daily rituals of creative minds, from The Guardian
2. By Sarah Gerard, on keeping a notebook  from The Paris Review

The Best Pooper Scooper Ever


Three cats ...

We have three cats and a corresponding number of litter boxes. We do our best to keep our cats indoors, for the usual range of reasons (wildlife, poop in neighbors’ garden beds, cat safety, plus there is nothing ickier than ticks), and hence we (mostly me) scoop the litter boxes twice a day. Yuck, I know.

But years of experience with the reality of the job’s daily tedium have honed my a appreciation for a well-designed litter box, litter that truly “clumps” and control odor, and a scooper that holds up to the very real physical stress of frequent use.

LOTS of litter, litter boxes, and scoopers are shoddily made crap* that breaks and must be unceremoniously deposited in the trash can in shockingly short order. No wonder parts of the ocean are full of tiny bits of plastic. I recently found a metal scoop with a comfortable handle and a large “sifting” basket and it is a JOY to use. Seriously, a joy. And yes, this all connects to creative practice.

Creative practice, for me, requires a regular scooping of the poop in my mind: the debris that’s built up due to the grocery list, kid-related problem/injury/emotional drama, or latest political scandal (no one in my family may utter the name of a certain politician because it throws me off my game for half a day, easy). I do this through Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” – though I wind up writing these pages sometimes in the afternoon, or sometimes not writing them at all but muttering them while walking the dog. Walking the dog even without a muttered litany often serves as my poop-scoop.

But before the morning pages I floundered. On those days that I rated as “good writing days” I wasn’t sure what was different from the “wretched writing days.”  I didn’t know why I couldn’t write on the wretched days, I just … couldn’t. Didn’t wanna. Wasn’t in the mood. Didn’t think I had anything to say. Felt snarled up in an angsty ball of twine. Everything I wrote seemed autobiographical claptrap.


Pay attention to the little things in life ...

Part of figuring out how to scoop-my-poop was, of course!, the Artist’s Way. But the other big part of it was finding the right paper, the right pen, the right place: my muse is shy and demands certain elements be in place before she starts singing audibly. [Interesting side note: an interviewer asked whether it was true that when van Halen toured their contract had a “rider” stipulating they be provided a bowl of M&Ms withOUT any brown ones. Short answer, yes. Long answer: if the coordinators in charge of the venue didn’t read the contract requirements in detail –the details were extensive, expensive and important, safety-wise – they also wouldn’t come across this apparently whimsical request. So if the band arrived in the dressing room and there weren’t any M&Ms at all, or a bowl that had brown ones, it served as a heads-up that there would likely be other issues with the venue. My muse doesn’t require ANYone to remove ANY chocolate at ANY time from ANY location, but the point is: pay attention to your requirements. Heeding the little needs is part of practicing attention to the big things. Like the muse’s happiness.]

And. But. George Clark tells me one of his songwriting instructors writes in cheapie notebooks because the nice ones freeze her up. While I don’t disagree that any sort of paper suffices for capturing ideas, I unashamedly ADORE the fancy-pants paper and it makes me feel special every time I use it. There’s summat to be said for things that are comfortable and functional and lovely and dare I say it, make one feel “pretty” – whatever pretty looks like for you.

Image via Wikipedia

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

Virginia Woolf addressed this in A Room of One’s Own almost a century ago; blogger Julie Reiser addresses the same issue in her “The Care and Feeding of a Writer” post.

Don’t shortchange the physical aspect of your writing/creative practice. However you undertake to work – via pencil, pen, and paper, oil paints, yarn, recycled newspaper, pebbles, laptop, or audio recorder – do it in the way that feels funnest, loveliest, prettiest and most productive for you. If the nice paper freezes your creative soul, get rid of it! It’s simultaneously irrelevant and foundationally important.

It took me a while to feel like I “deserved” to write my morning pages in a notebook that cost more than two bucks. But I’m at a point in my life where I can afford the $2.01 notebook, and frankly, the quality of the paper vis-a-vis how quickly I can “scoop my poop” in my longhand scrawl is important to my productivity. Plus I love things that are pretty. [A fact the Engineer Husband was unaware of when he married me. It’s evened out, as his sports-fanaticism also hid out until we’d tied the knot. I spend money on original oil paintings; he shells out the big bucks for season football tickets.]


Pretty! Image by Sarah Parrott via Flickr

I encourage you to indulge in that pretty something that’s called to you more than once. Play with what works for you. Play a few times, with different things. You may have to admit the yellow notebook lined in silky threads was a mistake, but if you poke around patiently and with an open mind, you will eventually find a tool that makes your heart sing. You can share what didn’t work for you at a creative-stuff-that-didn’t-work-for-me swap party.

And if the pretty stuff you find is useful for the daily poop scoop, all the better. It’s a crappy job*, cleaning up sh*t. You might as well make it as pleasurable as possible.

* All puns and scatological references are intentional.