To fuel creativity, write from a place of curiosity

photo by gayle mavor, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand

I went to this wonderful animated feature last night called Window Horses by Canadian filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming. The creativity of imagination through storytelling and drawing, poetry and music flowed across the screen in unique and refreshing ways. Perhaps, because of the degree of collaboration that went into the film, the end result was that much richer. It sounded as if the film had been percolating for a long time.

Ann Marie Fleming had drawn the character, Stick Girl, about 20 years ago and at the preview at VanCity Theatre on Mar. 2, her connections from Emily Carr (Veda Hille), a meeting from the past, a poem, all lay in wait, mingling and transitioning in a quiet process of the subconscious to come together for a wonderful project.  

And doesn’t that just describe creativity in general?

We see something. It reminds us of something else. We meet someone whose work is leading us to follow a different path in our own or to raise an awareness about a way of being that isn’t working. We bring two things together, dismiss one of them, a third comes into consciousness. Creativity is taking a journey in  real time and then leaving us with gifts of conversation, mind pictures that stay with us being dredged up to fill in a scene we never imagined would stay with us. The way the light falls on the wall in a moment that has never left us or a memory of a person from the look on their face when they said goodbye. The sounds of a kitchen while lying in bed one floor above. What was going on with us emotionally at that time and how that emotion, like a thin veil, a transparency, was a contributor to interpretation. It’s endless.

Maybe that’s why I like writing to an image. It’s the smallest way we have to examine what is not possible to know about the depth and breadth of what’s really there in the muck of our minds and our hearts in any given moment. 

Writing to an image for a short time isn’t really about writing at all, actually. That’s the least important thing about it for me. It’s about introspection and the surprise of what’s there.

Having said that, I am going to post a photo tomorrow at 8 am (PST) and I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and give it a shot. Write for 5 Don’t focus on the writing.  It’s about the amazing things that will come to you, when you stare at an image.

What do you focus on first? What next thought does that bring you to? Even if it doesn’t happen immediately, stay calm. It will. You will begin to make connections from whatever image you look at. Your mind can’t help itself.  What’s the most pleasing thing to you about the image? What questions immediately come to mind?  Do you think of people? Who might inhabit the space? What about this person in the image, if there is a person? Do they remind you of anyone?  How would you feel in that space? Would you like being there? Would you be there alone or who else would be with you? 

A demand for curiosity.

I really want you to see what comes up for you if you’re brave enough to give it a try on Saturday. Let’s have some fun.  And, this time, I’ll give a prize like last week except this time I’ll just choose someone who participates because something about their response touches me. I’ll choose it for you from books I already own and I’ll mail it to you with a note.

Have a happy Friday.

Memoir: Nobody wants to hear your half truths

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Photo by Duncan Hull off Creative Commons

In order to write a memoir, I’ve sat still inside the swirling vortex of my own complicated history like a piece of old driftwood, battered by the sea. I’ve waited — sometimes patiently, sometimes in despair–for the story under pressure of concealment to reveal itself to me.Dani Shapiro

I often think about how much writing a memoir is like therapy.

Nobody wants to hear your half truths. That’s the polite word. Now I’ll say it the way I would offline: Your therapist doesn’t want to hear your bullshit. Your readers don’t either.

But more often than not, we don’t even know we’re fooling ourselves, do we? And that’s always where the work begins.

I think that’s the most interesting part about trying to write our own stories and trying to figure out what it is exactly about the story we want to tell that might hold any relevance, hold the kind of universal truths that great writing often unearths, in a show AND tell kind of way. How can we truly get to the truth, the ugly, vulnerable, messy truth that’s at the core of what can make writing so challenging and inevitably sets it apart.

It is the exploration and the analyzing that reaches into the pithiness of your most sublime or challenging moments. It’s the wrestling with what it all might mean through an introspective process that becomes explicit on a page.

You’re aiming to translate those times when you’re (ironically) rendered speechless, forced to stop what you’re doing because the ache of wistfulness mixes with glory and rises up like a crescendo of awareness into a hyper awareness.  At that moment, you realize that one fleeting moment will never come again, not quite like it did that first time and you feel overwhelmed in a happy/sad way. This is the stuff and the understanding, I think, of the kind of memoirs that we’re all wishing we could write (and read), if we have any inclination to write (or read) a memoir at all.

It’s this type of treatment of a subject that can quell the concerns about why others would have any interest in our little lives. Because you’re not writing about your whole life. You’re crafting the experiences of your life, or an experience, into a story as unique as a work of fiction by examining the realities as you experienced them. It’s a feeling that comes from a keyhole inside your heart that gets unlocked because you are able to access the emotion that was present when you were touched in a way that almost never happens or you “get” something like you’ve never got it before.

Being able to transform the ordinary into wonder is the work of poetry, through words, written as prose that germinates from the muck that is ever evolving self-awareness. And with any luck, that self awareness leads to honest revelation and your unique journey from A to B that happened as a result which you’ve miraculously (and I consider every published memoir a miracle) deposited onto a page.

At least that’s one aspect. A start. My current understanding. For me. Yours is likely different.

Esmeralda Cabral and I, are offering a workshop as part of LitFest New West called Mining Personal Artefacts as the Foundation for Memoir Writing on Saturday, May 14, 3:15 pm at Douglas College, Room 4247.

Porcupine Meatballs and The Artist’s Way

 

A friend of mine has been reading and doing The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Point me in the direction of acting like an artist. Show me the way. That’s not the book’s premise but it kind of sounds like it might be.

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Another artist friend who lived on Salt Spring gave me the book in 2010. At the time, I flipped through it and never looked at it again.  But I did keep it.

A few weeks ago when I learned of my other friend’s diligence (she’s on week 12), something in me was motivated as well.

I was reading Week 3 – Recovering a Sense of Power, and a small part refers to shaming in childhood and how that can affect our expression of creativity, especially when it comes to finishing things, in adulthood.

“Many artists begin a piece of work, get well along in it and then find, as they near completion, that the work seems mysteriously drained of merit. It’s no longer worth the trouble. To therapists, this surge of sudden disinterest (‘It doesn’t matter’) is a routine coping device employed to deny pain and ward off vulnerability.”

“If a child has ever been made to feel foolish for believing himself or herself talented, the act of actually finishing a piece of art (and this means art in the broadest terms) will be fraught with internal shaming.”

There was enough resonance in that statement for me that it got me off the couch in search of a yellow marker.

One of the tasks at the end of Week 3 is to dredge up some childhood memories. Favourite foods for example. For me I thought of Porcupine meatballs and Chocolate birthday cake with pennies wrapped up inside. Not combined. I recalled the joy of having one of those gumballs that come out of those machines where you slot in a quarter and out rolls a shiny pink molar-breaking tasteless piece of perfection. (Indeed, you are correct, it’s not a member of a food group). I also thought about tuna fish casserole with mushrooms and rice with melted cheese and chips on top that my grandmother used to make. (Sounds disgusting now but I loved it then). Baked potatoes with sour cream and bacon bits and grated cheddar cheese. Num. Num.

Favourite games? Snakes and Ladders. Chinese checkers. Checkers.  Candyland. 52 Pick-Up Stix. An imaginary “quicksand” game we played in Darryl McGuffey’s basement, the one that meant you had to leap from one piece of random furniture to the other because the floor was QUICKSAND!

Now I don’t know what it was about favourite foods but when I thought about my mother’s Porcupine Meatballs, my eyes got all teary and I stopped reading. They call them porcupine, I think, because rice gets poked into them and the rice can look a little like the quills on porcupines.  I hadn’t thought of those juicy round morsels of meat for ages and I got all choked up. The feeling came so quickly.

What the heck was  going on?  It’s Sunday morning and thinking about my mother’s homemade Porcupine meatballs led to tears running down my face. Oh god. That can only mean two things. Life has become extremely dull, Weight Watchers is getting to me, and I’m in more emotional danger than I imagine. Okay, that’s three.

I knew to really lean into the feeling, to let it happen. Then I thought about it, came up with two theories that made total sense, and eventually felt better.  No, I’m not going to tell you what it was about the Porcupine meatballs that induced emotion strong enough to make me cry. That’s for me to know and you to laugh about.

The point is…what is the point? The point is that books can be in your surroundings for a long time and then one day, they become the perfect book. You need to read that book. Have you ever noticed that? You can own a book forever and when it’s the right time to read it, you will read it. When it’s not, you will stop reading it. Profound eh? You spent 3 minutes reading this for THAT! Three minutes that will never ever come again. Forgive me.

Think back to your own childhood. Does a favorite food come to mind? I ‘d be curious to know what it is for you.

Oh, and this isn’t my mother’s recipe but it is a recipe for Porcupine Meatballs. I might just have to make it and see how it holds up to the memory.

Juggling Acts of the Creatives

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Lichen on a dock railing (Maybe?)

I revel in my once a month writing group gatherings. We move living room to living room, and I consider my fellow writers the embodiment of possibility; the kind of possibilities that for others – non artistic types – are too often the first casualties of getting through the month, after month, after month.

Writer 1

One of them has just returned, her stories trying to catch up with her telling, from a six-day trip to Wells Gray Park, from a gathering of scientists and Lichen Bums, as she referred to them and as they refer to themselves, joined by major Canadian literary types. They convened for six days in the forest. Robert Bringhurst. Tim Lilburn. Patrick Lane. Lorna Crozier. Name after name recognizable speaking about environment, protection, sustainability and she barely able to believe that she had landed somewhere so aligned with who she is.

Writer 2

Another has been transformed  into a modern day version of Emily Carr on a smaller scale. She’s renting out her second bedroom in a walk up off Commercial Drive that she can’t afford to live in alone. Travellers now traipse in and out as she tries  to figure out how to satisfy the editor of a major New York magazine on a revised version of an article she first got published in The Tyee.

Writer 3

The elder, weary but still committed, in setting up a new type of writer’s working & performance space called Blumin Warehouse. She’s working 16 hour days, recognizing the unhealthiness, and craving time in nature, space to get back to that inner sacredness where creativity blooms. Driving from Jericho, to Iona Spit and outside, quiet, removed, until a chapbook burst forth materializing on the page the way styro-foam washes up on a beach.

Writer  4

Another  proud of her balancing act in the last month between full-time work and writing time and the equation of balancing, space surfacing like the beginning of seeds previously planted; okay, it’s still possible to create, to muse even in between a full time job and fertility treatments.

Writer 5

And me, two months into a job – a job that demands so much writing of a different kind – wondering how to protect that last grip on my own space for creativity that always gets buried by the demands of a five day a week job; juggling my own need for time, time to think, to wander, to be in nature,  and wondering how to make this time different than all the other times that I tried to make work, to balance, and didn’t.

Writer 6

Away in the Ukraine at an artist’s retreat.

Writer 7

The couch surfer, house-sitter on a mission to find a place that’s bunny friendly.

Writer 8

Away in Massachusetts, a place he hasn’t been in 30 years, settling his university-aged daughter into her future.

Them.

Hearing about their possibilities, reading the stories they’ve produced, leads to threads of ways of being that all people involved in an artistic focus must juggle daily. Make the time. For writers its imperative to keep our writing going, and meeting and sharing keeps it real, especially to ourselves.

Share your passions, mukimuk or not

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Yesterday, I gave a talk at the New Westminster Public Library to about 50 people, mainly women, attracted by my subject Georgia Totto O’Keeffe.  More than 30 years after her death the iconic American artist can still draw a crowd.  They came to hear about O’Keeffe and to see my slides of the Ghost Ranch which I took while visiting New Mexico in 2006 and 2007.

I talked about O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, others who had played a significant role in her life (Mabel Dodge Luhan, Juan Hamilton, Anita Pollitzer). I juxtaposed some of her paintings with some of the slides. She visited Taos in 1929 and the ranch she found in August 1934. It became her full-time home during spring and summers as of 1949 until the end of her life.

She spent winters at her second home, a compound in the nearby village of Abiquiu, until the young man who would become her closest confidante in the last 13 years of her life,  ceramicist Juan Hamilton, picked out an appropriate home for her in Santa Fe where she lived until her death at St. Vincent’s hospital on March 6, 1986.

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I was really nervous about this talk. Something about going back to the place where you grew up is nerve wracking. What if someone I knew from high school showed up?

Up there, at the front, on the other side, you have to keep to the one-hour time limit. You must make sure your information is accurate. But, the real challenge is to weave a story that shares the information you have and touches a chord in some way, preferably, emotionally.  That takes real talent and focused creativity.

I know I didn’t succeed in that last part. The audience liked it, apparently, based on feedback but to weave a really memorable story that sings, now that requires a whole other level of presentation and I have another chance to perfect that because I’m giving it again on April 10, 7:30 pm at New West Public Library.

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So, last night, after my own experience, it was great timing for me to then go to see how the pros do it  when I went to Vancouver’s Public Salon.

Public Salon was developed by former Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan and his wife Lynn Zanatta. They used to invite 10 people to dinner, people that normally wouldn’t ever be at the same table, and ask them to share one thing in their lives that that they were passionate about. One of their guests, a friend and older gentleman named Abraham Rogatnick, encouraged Sullivan to bring the wonderful idea to a larger audience. It wasn’t until after Rogatnick passed away that they managed to follow up on his suggestion.

We heard from  writer Timothy Taylor, a cardiologist from St. Paul’s John Webb, a particle physicists who works at Triumf but spends most of her time interfacing on Skype with other physicists all over the world and in Cern, Switzerland, Anadi Canepa; a Shakuhachi flute master Alcvin Ryuzen Ramos, an urban farmer/community activist Ilana Labow, architect (Paul Merrick), a scholar of Native languages David Robertson and well known dog psychologist Stanley Coren.

It was so inspiring. Don’t miss the next one:  June 5th.

Oh, and it was kicked off with a great mini concert by the Hugh Fraser Quartet. Jazzy stuff that really got me jazzed, the music and the talks.

As David Robertson would say in Chinook: Skookumchuk stuff by mukimuks.

 

On the Wings of Creative Pollination

I’ve just finished taking a short course by writer Betsy Warland with the content based on her book Breathing the Page. One of the exercises Betsy gets us to do in class, and that she recommends we do on our own time, is to keep a journal; a dedicated writing companion to track the connections that we make and that can lead us to writing what we end up writing, to see how creative connections get made, and how our ideas form.

Last week, I recognized how my attending a bunch of different arts-related events had led directly to my focus on something that seemed to come out of nowhere. I realized how being immersed in others’ ideas, plays, films, musical compositions, fully-realized creativity, is so instrumental, maybe even  critical at fueling one’s own creativity and that’s why it makes me (and it makes a lot of other people) angry that the arts in Canada are so underfunded.

The week before, I went to see a film called Amour at the Vancouver International Film Festival. It’s about the love between a man and his wife and how he cares for her after she’s had a stroke and then the decision he makes at the end of the film because he loves her. It made me think a lot about loss. And, I thought about each of the people who have been significant whom I’ve lost and I felt like I’ve perhaps, maybe not, experienced quite a bit of loss and I’d never really thought about the cumulative notion of that.

Then, last Saturday night, I want to see a play called Chelsea Hotel at the Firehall Arts Centre that weaves together Leonard Cohen’s songs and I began to imagine the playwright sitting at her desk, listening to Leonard Cohen, and the amazing creativity it took for her to come up with this collage of a play that required accompanying the songs with visuals that would be entertaining to an audience who was watching, not just listening.

The next morning, Sunday, I woke up really early, half awake in that semi-conscious state we’ve all experienced and words were beating against the inside of my head and I realized that the thoughts about loss had stayed with me and were being massaged, percolating new ideas. There were six people I was focused on. Six people whose lives had significantly entwined with my own and who had died, at different times in different ways and whose lives, and deaths, had impacted me. Two suicides. One from cancer. One had a heart attack at a very young. Two in old age.  Then the title, Six Lives, kept getting repeated and the collage of the play the night before impacted how I thought about weaving a story together and now I’ve written 1,500 words, just in the iteration stage, but totally cognizant of how the artistic influences from the two weeks before played a role in this story coming to me.

Have you ever had the experience of being able to directly link an idea that came directly to you as a result of some other art form you’d recently been exposed to and appreciated? It happens all the time. Tracking it makes sense to me.