What legitimates us as writers?
One of my students recently submitted an essay on this question, or the variation: when can I call myself a writer? He took four approaches: the professional, the published, the trained, the psychological. Is it when you’re earning money, simply published, having taken a course such as a Creative Writing MA or PhD, or is it a matter of intrinsic estimation; something you know about yourself?
It is when we feel legitimate as a writer that we call ourselves writers. Sometimes that certificate, or publishing deal, or acceptance for a magazine, are the little stones we step along while we’re crossing the river of self-doubt. What is clear from research is that those who call themselves writers (or the artists who call themselves artists) are the ones that thrive. As Sylvia Plath said, ‘your worst enemy is self doubt.’ For Natalie Goldberg: ‘doubt is torture.’
Sometimes the feeling comes as a calling. Continue reading
I’m working on a fun idea for my 40th year. A few months ago, while engaged in conversation with a student, we spoke about time-limited-oriented blogs, such as ‘400 Days until 40’, which is one that my student used to read. It freaked me out a little that he mentioned this on the exact day that I had 400 days until I was 40. Anyway, after a few weeks of pure fear of aging and dying, I then went on a friend’s 40th birthday, we spoke about it, and I got over it.
And now I’m starting to see other friends, acquaintances, bloggers, all with their excellent ’40 before 40′ lists (going up in balloons, singing in public etc). Other people have lists or acts that are more closely linked to their everyday. A poet I know is learning 40 poems off-by-heart before she’s 40. (She’s a wonderful performance poet.) I liked that idea. In fact, I liked both the wild and the everyday.
So I started with one idea–a blog about transitioning to veganism before I was 40. I am already a vegan and have been for a year, but there are a few moments, and a few belongings, that still need to change/go, such as a reliance on chocolate when tired, my old leather satchel, not checking labels of all new foods.
And I began it in the spirit of one of the most important books I read last year, Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run. In that book the mantra is ‘just do things. always.’ It’s a mantra Scott learnt from his father. In the book he talks about his ultra-marathon career. It was very much stimulated by his parents. His mother’s unconditional love and support (‘you can do anything’) and his father’s conditional love and encouragement based on effort (‘get on and do things. always’). And it helped Scott become one of, if not the, greatest endurance runner known. Continue reading
Tuesday 26th November, 803am, Café Nero
‘Why can’t you write?’
‘I just can’t!’ (Said with real failure, falling back, fainting.)
‘Because I’m worthless! Everything I write is worthless! It doesn’t contribute to anything. It doesn’t feel connected in any way, a career, a book, a life.’
‘What would it take to feel connected? Is that in your writing or in yourself?’ said the wise owl.
He wanted to reply in the manner and tone of his friend who is always dramatically cynical, but he found that would be an evasion.
‘Yes. I see this. That the feeling of worthlessness is core, below the writing, underpinning it and most things I do. And say.’
‘But not all?’
‘No, not all.’
(It’s good having this immediate feedback, he thinks. The wise owl is welcome, now.)
‘So when do you feel that you are worth something?’
‘When working for others, in fact. When writing for others.’
The owl pondered this for a moment.
‘Is that enough, though? You know you need to do it for yourself, too. Doing things for others is fine, and good, and worthy, in fact. But as you have learnt, I think, from Marion Milner and from Ann Cvetkovich, and from many others, writers too, that the thing itself is the important thing. I’m here to tell you, as you will tell others, how important and worthy you are, as yourself, not for doing anything, but for having a life that is worthy on its own, for its own sake. It’s what you say about the animals such as me, isn’t it?’ Continue reading
One of the exercises that I’ve practiced over the past few years is from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, which is to write out a list of your obessions. They are, after all, the things one comes back to over and again, to write about, to obsess about. The obsessions are those, if one can give yourself to them, also the things that will bring you greatest joy. (The healthy ones, at least!). I’ve combined this with something taken from Marion Milner’s book On Not Being Able to Paint: that is, to actually divide these into what one loves and what one hates. Hate is a hard, painful word and sensation. But I think there is no doubt that within us there are mixed senses of things we love, are drawn to, and those which we are also drawn to that cause immense pain, to us, or to others in the world, and things we perhaps do hate, and would like to see the end of. Both in the general (injustice, alcoholism, biodiversity loss, cruelty to animals) and also in the particular (Michael Gove’s attacks on educators, my father’s alcoholism, ash die back disease, bear bile farming).
I’ll leave the development of thoughts around love and that other word, hate, for another post (stuff around accepting one’s destructive urges). But for now what I wanted to do was dive deeper into the generalities I’ve put on my list of things I love. It is detail that makes the artist, the writer. Observation of detail, uniquely told or made. So I’ve practiced some free writing (another of Natalie Goldberg’s, or Julia Cameron’s, practices) on the topics from my list. So I’ve not tried to define or lead where the writing goes. Sometimes it feels creative, other times more essayist. I’ve just gone with the feeling.
First up: feeling healthy and full of energy. Continue reading
It was nice to receive some feedback from friends on my list of stories and the process of finding voice. It was also nice to be reminded of going back to the intentions of why I began cataloging some of these thoughts on writing as I come to the end of the PhD process and think about moving forward. One of the most useful comments was from a friend who reminded me that you find a writing voice by writing, whether dissatisfied with the pieces or not, and keep developing. So I am going to work my through these stories and pieces, aiming to complete one a week, and keep developing.
Something else I learnt from beginning to write these stories, many of which were inspired by my reading of Marion Milner as her words fluttered through that open-window in my story mind. At first, as with all pieces, the minute you begin on something the ideal in your mind, which is often in pictures, is then put to the test of your craft and talent to translate those story-images into something in the real world that can be shared. For some, the medium best to do this is a film – and this is why film must be such an enticing medium to work in, because it most closely resembles the story images in the inner reality. For some it is painting, for some sculpting, etc. For me, writing. And immediately, from the very first word, from the very first opening up of this story’s voice, you have recognized and admitted the gap between the images in your inner reality and the ability to make them into something real to be shared in the outer, external reality of the world.
This is where, says Milner, many people stop. They cannot bear that gap, they cannot bear to be disillusioned of their fantasy, their inner image and idea. Her anger and frustration was turned, from the 1920s through to the end of her life in 1998, against the education system (and we see returns to this in Michael Gove’s soulless public exams) which privileges the rational mind’s methods over the creative, intuitive, inner reality. Education, Milner argued all her life, as an educational psychologist and as a rather difficult-to-place psychoanalyst, should help ensure individuals can build strong, resourceful bridges between the two realities, to live creatively. (And just as an aside towards a comment made by Eric Young, to remind us that we need a creative and soulful investment in narrative to help us remember that the idea that we live inside an economy, and our lives depend on that, is not the only story. h/t Sharon Blackie for this story). Or, as Milner said back in the 1940s, but which is relevant today:
how far does a general teaching method which gives marks for knowing and penalizes ‘not knowing’ objective facts, hinder the process of coming to know the psychic reality? How far does it help the child to realize the inner reality as process, if this realization does, in fact, require the ability to tolerate doubt and the willingness to wait in uncertainty? […] What are the results of the psychic reality knowing itself, not about itself, as something to discuss, but an act of perceiving in the living moment of ‘now’? We are only beginning to know a little, but there seems to be a continual enlarging of the horizons of experience.
I would take that further, and say the anger and frustration needs to be directed towards Western civilization (which is where Milner’s thought was leading her, and has led me) for the types of education it imposes on us as children. But not only in education.
My theory, I suppose, one I’m working towards in my PhD about the relationship between theories of mind, writing, senses of self, and creativity, is where also thinkers such as Lauren Berlant are working with their emphasis on fantasy and illusion in culture. The fantasies of ‘the good life’ that we cannot give up, even as those fantasies crumble around us and ruin our life systems, are dependent on the dominant Western civilization prioritizing rational thinking (e.g. scientific, positivist methods) over the artistic and creative (look at the cuts in funding for the Arts and Humanities). But also subtly and, in Foucault’s terms, productively (it ends up being pleasurable and productive for us to accept these social narrative constraints) Western civilization also manipulates our inner realities and our creative ability to think in illusory terms—that is, to dream to wish, to imagine—and channels all of these wonderful human abilities into practices that benefit not us, but those in power, those who own the means of production, those who have political strength, media ownership and capital wealth.
That is, our ability to wish and imagine and create illusions and fantasies in our inner realities (which could, if allowed and empowered, be used to live creatively for ourselves—to create art, to communicate compassionately, to build our own homes, to envision our gardens, to relate imaginatively) are instead channeled into ‘creating identities’ through extortionate and debilitating labour, through leisure pursuits (in the small amount of time we are given for it) and, most of all, through consumerism and its fantasies of the good life. Rather than create our own art, we purchase prints from Ikea, unaware of the resources we are using up. Rather than grow our own food, we purchase ‘Tesco’s finest’ for a £1 more than Tesco ‘basic’ potatoes, with the snazzy plastic packaging, even though they come from the same field. Rather than build a bridge from our own inner reality to the outside world, we accept what the outside world suggests is reflective of the inner reality it says we should have, fed to us by media, advertising, education, social norms. It is metallic-painted, alloyed, or plaid covered, or white-sanded, or in some other way pure, but just for us.
This is how I see Western civilization using people’s creative powers against themselves. By ONE: demeaning them as less important than rational, logical (male, white, western) thinking. And then by TWO: manipulating the weakened intuitive, creative unconscious into accepting what is given to the soul, rather than that individual creating their world through creative labour.
Which is why, then, I think (believe, yet?) that expressing and affirming one’s creative powers, when one’s creativity has a dual consciousness, as Steve Thorp says of Mary Oliver’s poetry, a consciousness that expresses connection to land and place, animals, care and compassion for the non-human, and to the creativity inherent in other humans, genuinely IS a response, and a radical, affirmative, humanly responsible reaction, to the ways in which dominant modes of Western living are deracinating the world.
A month ago a writer friend posted about a challenge that she and other friends were taking: to develop at least one story idea a day for 30 days. Some great and all good ideas, and more than that, the perspective of seeing the exercise as one of ‘opening up a window’ in the mind to the possibility and potential of ideas all around you. (That age old question: where do stories come from?)
Her list was inspiring, as was the process. So I decided to give it a go as well. Some of my ideas came in spurts, however. Rather than do one a day, I sometimes had four or five in one day, and then none for a few days. That in itself was a learning point. The days when ideas did not ‘come’ were not days of blankness, but rather days when, as Marion Milner might put it in her book on creativity, On Not Being Able to Paint, my attention was ‘narrow and focused’, rather than ‘wide and waiting’. Her writing, in 1950 (and her books before in the thirties) pre-empted the psychological and neuroscience research we now have regarding ‘flow states’ of creativity as well as the benefits of daydreaming and absent-mindedness to creativity and ideas. (Freud got their first, of course. Or, as the now discredited Jonah Lehrer once put it rather beautifully if not totally correctly, Proust was a Neuroscientist).
My writer friend and her group tweeted each day on the hashtag #30days30stories. The discipline of getting the story kernel into 140 characters was also, clearly, very helpful, although that wasn’t a thing I took up on, as I was doing this for myself and my practice of bridging the connection between inner and outer worlds, the dream.
Rather, I took the opportunity to flesh out the ideas as I was going along, but what I did do, as much as possible, was stick to the formula that is at the heart of John Yorke’s Into the Woods and is known, if not understood, by writers everywhere, and is summarized by Cheryl Moskowitz as ‘every story has three components: a setting, a conflict and a resolution’. My friend’s list was really strong on this: simple pitches for stories that held not necessarily a beginning, middle and end, but certainly a setting, a conflict and the suggestion that it need a resolution.
And so I worked on the process of keeping my mind open to stories as I saw people in the street, read books and articles, overheard conversations (“So what if God has OCD?”) and listened to my own internal chatter but not to get caught in fantasy and rumination but to let those thoughts channel themselves into stories. It was a process of being story-minded, I guess.
And then, something happened. Continue reading
It is a still morning. I’ve seen a pair of female blackbirds meet on the top of the telephone pole, and fly off together into the still moonlit, blue morning. A neighbour is up – I can hear the runoff water from their shower. The last of the Monoprix decaf is brewing in the cafetiere. I’ve slept fitfully after a few too many glasses of wine (Montepulciano and then Sauvignon, both vegan). My friend Chris is up early too, and we’re playing chess online. The window has been open all night and the air is clear and fresh and welcome, after the thunder-pressure. Misha, my cat, is sitting in the front room on the window sill, peacefully looking out through the smallest, cat’s-eye slit in the curtain, the neighbourhood snoopy that she is. I brush her. She pushes back at me. I leave her to get the coffee and open my laptop, only five hours after going to bed and committing myself to ten days without turning it on. But this is not work, today, and I have no fear of obligations. There is still doubt about if I am doing the right thing or not. But there is more love, and love wins out.
My mouth feels itchy and blotchy on the teeth, as I didn’t brush last night—the electric toothbrush K gave me is still in the wicker drawer in the bathroom. All night I have been thinking, sometimes dreaming, of the things that I cried about last night. My father, missing, and what I am still missing, that person to encourage, care for, teach me about life and growing up. And what he is missing: a son to help him continue to find a way to live into old age, a son to be proud of. And the other thing I was weeping about: the pigs in the trucks on their way to the meat-packers, boiling over in the 45 degree heatwave because pigs have no way to sweat to cool them down, so they are dying in agony in the heat; and the love and grace of the people from Toronto Pig Save and the other city Pig Saves who meet them at the traffic lights on the way to feed them water and watermelon to relieve them in their agony.
As it says on the Free from Harm website, the first and last act of mercy and kindness they will ever receive. The mercy and kindness I’ve been unable to show my father. The image of that cow in Farm Sanctuary’s video, newly born, literally seconds born, being dragged by the leg by a farmer away from its mother, the mother cow who ran after it, her young, her newborn, but who could not stop the farmer taking that cow and putting her into servitude, chained into a narrow milking cell for the rest of its life. The image of my father, homeless, bring dragged out of the shop doorway, a gutter. Continue reading