Wednesday Words 2.3.16

scooter on lolo pass

When I love a man, I will climb on the back of his scooter on a balmy summer night wearing only a t-shirt and a thin cotton skirt.

There are things I won’t say:
Where are we going? Or, It might get cold, or, Maybe I should stay home and work.

Because he loves me, he will stop before the road turns up the mountain, rub a palm across my knee, and he will say, Are you OK?

What he means is, Are you warm enough? Are you sure you want to go further?

When I love a man, I will rest my hands loosely on the bones of his hips, hooking my thumbs through his belt loops. I will lean forward and tell him,
It’s going to be a beautiful evening.

He will know that what I mean is,
Let’s wring as much wonderful as we can out of the twilight of our lives.

*********

Last February, I began making a Valentine, which I talked about here and here. Because February 2015 was a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad month, I didn’t finish it. When I came across it in July  or so, I tossed it. It hurt too much to think of finishing it. But I thought of it the other day and went looking for the poem fragment, which I knew was different from the last version recorded here. I think I will not try to revive this card for February 2016. I need something all new. But I wanted to get this version into my notebook.

Wednesday Words 1.20.16: A creative recipe

Scan 98
Take bits and pieces of one poem (“For You, Friend,”) from a favorite book:

Ted Kooser's Valentine

Add a favorite photo:

fairhaven photos_0012

And a stir with a set of thrift-store letter stamps:

2016-01-16 12.40.05

The photo is of my grandmother.  Of course, I never knew her when she looked like this–and yet, this image is as iconic to me as any I’ve seen of Bowie or Rickman in the past week. Something to remember, I think, as we collectively mourn:  That we are surrounded by those who stroll along on the outside of time. They don’t have to be famous for us to bask in their light.

Wednesday Words 11.18: Storybird Play

Last week I went to a seminar on instructional technology, and for part of the session we were presented with a list of online tools and told to use 30 minutes to explore and have fun with one of them.

There were others on the list with far more practical application to my work than the one I chose, Storybird. I thought that there might be some way to connect it to what I do in my job, but within minutes I realized it wouldn’t provide much (if any) clear value to the work I do in schools. (If I were still a language arts teacher or worked much on curriculum with ELA teachers, yes. But I don’t.)

The directions, however, were to “have fun,” and I decided that that’s what I’d do.

I made poems by selecting a Storybird image, and then playing with a palette of words provided by the tool. It’s like having a big digital box of word magnets.

At first I chafed against the limitations; it was when I surrendered to them that I began having fun. Limitations always lead to new kinds of creativity we wouldn’t otherwise discover.

If you need permission to play with words, consider it granted. Go have some fun.

A creative Catch-22

depression lilacIf you are an online friend, you may have noticed that you haven’t heard much from me in quite a while, either here or in your own online space. As is so often the case when a relationship quiets, it’s not about you. It’s me.

It’s about something I’ve rarely spoken about and never publicly written about, here or anywhere else: depression.

Depression is not a constant companion of mine, but it has been a recurring visitor throughout my life. It’s the kind of guest who occasionally stays longer than is reasonable. Once she fully unpacks her bags and moves in, it’s hard to get rid of her. She wears me down to the point that I feel unable to do anything to send her on her way. That’s the trouble with depression, right there:  The main symptom, I think, is knowing that you need to be doing some things to feel better but feeling incapable of doing any of them.

It’s such a sneaky, insidious thing for me. It comes on slowly, making it hard for me to even realize what’s happening. It looks like the problems are external–and real, outside situations are the precipitating cause for me–but at some point something crosses over and the actual source of trouble lies within.

Now that I’ve had it named for me, again, I can see that depression knocked on the door well over a year ago, and the first real symptom was my loss of interest in doing much of anything creative–despite the real joy I once felt in the large creative project of making a house/home with Cane and writing about it in our blog.

When I began writing this new blog, I thought perhaps the problem was about the kind of creative work I’d been attempting. In the past two months, though, it has become increasingly clear that my struggles aren’t about reasons for creativity, or creative mediums, or time, or any of the other things I’d considered. Regardless of how I’ve tweaked any of those things, most of the time I just haven’t been able to feel much more than listless about creating or interacting with other creative people.

Until a weekend or two back, when the clouds parted for an hour or so on Saturday morning.

The night before, I’d read a post on a writing blog, Bethany Reid’s A Writer’s Alchemy. She shared Jane Hirshfield’s “Woman in a Red Coat” and suggested a writing prompt based upon it (“write a poem that, without ever saying ‘spring’ or ‘April,’ without tulips or daffodils or cherry blossoms, is obviously about spring”), and for the first time in years, I felt the stirring of wanting to write a poem.

The next morning, I sat down at my kitchen table and looked out the window and then the words came. Most of it came out in that first session, but after a week of tinkering, I ended up with this:

Some Mournings
All you see through
the kitchen window are beads
of rainwater dangling from the needles
of your neighbor’s pine, each a clear jewel gleaming
grey against the sky’s dull cheek.
Y
ou know those translucent gems

hang above swells of emerald lawn,
sumptuous velvet clothing
earth fecund with possibility,
but your eye searches only for what is missing:
blooms not loosed from lilac knots,
eggs not hidden for a holiday hunt,
wings not emerging from the chrysalis of your grief.

depression boughAlthough it’s a melancholy poem, there was joy in the writing of it, my mind fingering words as Hirshfield’s speaker might the collection of stones in her pocket, searching by feel for ones just the right size and shape to pull out and arrange within the lines. It felt good to use my brain that way. It felt good to feel good.

Perhaps part of the want’s origin is that the prompt came from Bethany, a writer I first met just about 30 years ago in Nelson Bentley‘s poetry workshop at the University of Washington. Bethany was a little older than I, and far more skilled. The editor/publisher who published her first book also published my only one, and he pointed me to her blog a few months ago. I was happy to see that she is still writing, has never stopped writing, even though it brought to the surface disappointment and regret and sorrow about my own work as a poet.

In the past few weeks I have been thinking of those who exhort would-be writers to find the discipline to write, and all the years I thought I didn’t because I lacked some kind of necessary backbone. I’ve been thinking of Tillie Olsen‘s Silences, that seminal treatise on the barriers women face in finding the conditions necessary for substantial creative work. But it was another work, a blog post by Momastery’s Glennon Doyle Melton on connections between truth-telling and depression, anxiety, and addiction, that has seemed most important to me.

Now, maybe this is just a case of the blind leading the blind, but she put into words something that I’ve long felt. She suggests that, perhaps, the problem really is in the world more than it is in those of us who have such difficulty accepting it on its own terms:

But other times—we turn on the news or watch closely how people treat each other and we silently raise our eyebrows and think: Actually, maybe it’s not me. Maybe it’s you, world. Maybe my inability to adapt to the world is not because I’m crazy but because I’m paying attention. Maybe it’s not insane to reject the world as it is. Maybe the real insanity is surrendering to the world as it is now. Maybe pretending that things around here are just fine is no badge of honor I want to wear.

Yeah. Maybe the logical response to the world and the often-heartbreaking condition of simply being human, with all its difficulties and struggle and loss, is to shut down. Because that is what depression is for me:  It’s not about getting really sad, it’s about getting really numb. It’s about turning away.

Writing that’s worth anything demands that we see and feel. You can’t write when you are numb and turned away, because what truthful writing demands most is that we pay attention, that we care, that we feel hope. Because if we don’t feel hope and write the truth, what’s the point of writing (or painting or singing) anything?

We like to romanticize our mentally ill and addicted poets and artists who create great work. We like to think that their art emerges from whatever it is that makes them fragile, and we acknowledge that, yeah, it sure must be a bitch to have to live with that, but isn’t it sort of wonderful, too? To be such an artist?

Well, I don’t know. I’m not one. But from my own brushes with with both mental difference (thanks for giving me an alternative to “ill,” Glennon) and creative expression, I think not. I’d like to walk through the world without seeing all the cracks in it. I’d like to pass others on the street and not feel how hard and painful and difficult simple existence is for so many of us. I would like to have no more days in which being human feels too difficult to bear and I wish I no longer had to.

Since I know that’s not really possible, for me and for many others who struggle with this kind of sensitivity, what I’ll ask for instead is that we might see some nuancing of the archetype of the mentally ill artist. I’d like us to realize that, most likely, the Virginia Woolfs of the world create in spite of their difference, not because of it. There are a lot of us who never do, and there are so many healthy artists who create great work. Sure, a certain kind of sensitivity is necessary to produce meaningful work, but slipping over into illness is not a requirement for art. It’s not romantic and it’s not productive.

For me, the whole thing is a Catch-22. Writing fuels depression. Not writing does, too. Makes me feel like a ping-pong ball, flying back and forth between paddles of competing need, or like a tightrope walker, constantly keeping my balance while walking a narrow, tottering line from birth to death, holding my core taut to keep from swaying too far one way or the other.

depression pine tree

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a puzzle

Putting a puzzle together is about the only creative work I’ve done in the last month.

Robot puzzle

Perhaps that doesn’t seem very creative. Maybe it isn’t. After all, I haven’t generated anything new, which I’d probably argue is the essence of creativity.

And yet, I’m going to claim my puzzling as creative work–because I think the exercise builds cognitive muscles we need when we sit down to make things.

When I begin a puzzle, there’s a clear end-vision. It’s not mine, but there is one, on the cover of the puzzle box. I know where I’m going. But all the pieces are just so many random, scattered bits.

Robot puzzle

At first, all I can do is build the frame that will contain them. I look for the ones that have a straight edge. I separate them from the rest, start to look for patterns of color. I compare them to the vision, start to piece them together.

Next, I go for the low-hanging fruit of the puzzle. What in that end-image is visually distinctive? What pieces can I easily separate from the others and start to join?

Robot puzzle

In the early stages, it can feel as if some parts of the puzzle will be impossible to finish. When I realize that there are just so many blue (or red or purple or…whatever color) pieces, and that there are blue parts all over the image. I wonder how I’ll begin to figure out which part of the picture each blue piece belongs to.

But so far, none has ever been impossible. The more of the puzzle I complete, the more the choices narrow. As the other colors find their way into the pieced-together part, I am able to see all those blue pieces more clearly. I begin to notice their different shades of blue. I am able to see things in the blue bits I wasn’t able to see when they were surrounded by so much else:  a shadow, a line, a tiny slice of some other color on the edge of the blue.

Robot puzzle

As large parts of the puzzle take shape, I see places where a piece with some bit of blue connects–and before I know it, some big blue section is coming together.

And so it goes, until the whole thing is complete, as long as I keep at it. Some pieces I have to turn 3 different ways before I can see how they fit. Sometimes I’ll have a big chunk of puzzle hanging out where I think it goes, and then I’ll suddenly see the place where it will anchor to the frame and it’s much higher or lower than I thought. Sometimes I’ll have a piece that I try over and over and over and begin to think I’ll never find the place for, and suddenly it is so obvious where it belongs.

It’s the same for any creative project. We often start with a vision, and we begin with broad strokes, the things we can grasp most easily. The deeper into it we go, the more challenging it can feel, but if we just keep at it, keep trying, things begin to come clear. We have to trust in the process.

I’ve done enough puzzles now to know that I can trust the process. My last one was a leap up: 1,000 pieces! It was hard. At times I got a bit bored with it. I wondered why I was mucking around with making a thing that has no real value in itself:  When I am done, I leave it out for about a day and then I sweep all the pieces back into the box. The only purpose is the doing of it. And if that’s not true of much creative work, well…then I don’t know much about creative work.

Robot puzzle

Here’s the other thing I know about puzzles and creativity: Sometimes, the only thing you can do is an exercise. Sometimes, life so uses up all the things needed to create–energy, purpose, hope, security–that you have no ability to do anything more. If you find yourself in one of those times, and the best you can do is muck around with a puzzle (or do crosswords, or sing karaoke, or read fluffy novels, or take photos on AUTO), then do it without apology or hand-wringing. As long as you’re keeping your head in the game (and out of an oven), you’re doing all you need to do.

I don’t live in the tough love camp of creative endeavor. I’m not one to think that those who lament the lack of conditions needed for creativity just need to develop some backbone and discipline and get their asses in the chair or go home. (Like this guy. Who, to be fair, also believes this. And whose writing about writing I really enjoy.) Yes, I do believe that the only way to create is to create, and that if all you ever do is dream, well, that’s all you’re ever going to do.

But if you’re in a place where what feels like your true creative work can’t happen–or where you just don’t give a fluck if it does or doesn’t–then just do what you can and be OK with it. Even if all you can do is piece together a puzzle of someone else’s creative vision. Allow yourself to do what you can do and see if you can reframe it. See if you can find the connection to your creativity in it. Because that, I think, is the only way you have any real hope of coming back to it. (It being life.)

Puzzle on, dudes.

Robot puzzle

 

Make a world the Ed Emberley way

You ever buy something not really knowing why or when you will use it, but you buy it just because it’s too great to leave behind?

That would explain this purchase:

Ed Emberley's "Make a World"

I found this a few years back at the Multnomah County Library’s annual used book sale.  I suppose I loved it because it reminded me of my childhood. Ed Emberley’s books were hot in the 70s when I was a kid.

But it was more than that. I’ve always longed to be able to draw things, and I’ve never known how. The promise of this book is that if you can draw simple lines and shapes, you can draw the whole world.

Really, I'm not making that up.

Really, I’m not making that up.

But like so many things that speak to some long-buried creative longing, I bought this book and put it on the shelf and forgot about it. In fact, it wasn’t until I was purging my books right after the new year that I rediscovered it. This weekend, thinking about how to create this year’s Valentine card for Cane, I brought it out again.

Wouldn’t you know it, Emberley had just what I needed:  A scooter. And mountains and trees. Which is how I was able to create this:

Emberley exercise #1

I began with the idea that whatever I created, it was all just an exercise. I ended up with a page full of exercises, some taken directly from Emberely, and others that I came up with as I gave myself permission to branch off from his:

emberley exercise

To draw the scooter I needed to look at a photo. I did a Google image search for “scooter back view” and found several that helped me. The Emberley exercises helped me see the scooter as a set of shapes; now I’m seeing everything I look at that way.

Will I use any of this directly in my Valentine? I don’t know. What I do know is that I learned some lessons from this exercise that I will carry into whatever the Valentine becomes–and into other creative projects:

1. Most complex things can be broken down into simple component parts.

2. Hard things can become easy when we’re able to break them down into small, simple parts.

3. It helps to think in layers–to ask, What needs to come first?

4. Small tasks (drawing only a scooter) are good for learning brand-new skills. You get to start over (and over and over) right away.

5. Working on only one small part at a time is good for developing a design. You get to start over (and over and over) right away.

6. Starting over (and over and over) frequently allows you to see progress quickly, so that you don’t get discouraged.

7. A total fail needs to be kept in proper perspective. I had only one total fail in 8 exercises. That’s an 88% success rate!

Just as important as learning some things about creative process, I also had a ton of fun. There’s just something about a handful of colorful markers that makes me feel good.

Sharpies

No better way to spend a sunny Sunday twilight than sitting at the kitchen table with some paper, some markers, a cup of tea, and my favorite guy.

Kitchen workspace

(Didn’t want to take time away from the moment to get out the real camera.)

 

How about you?

Any other Emberley fans out there? Any other good resources for learning how to draw? Great ideas for how I can turn this into my Valentine?  Just want to chat a bit, share an exercise/experience of your own? I always love hearing from others.

Writing Exercise: Love Poem

In my Valentine’s Day card inspiration post, I linked to a selection of love poems that can be found on the Academy of American Poets site.

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Valentine from a few years ago, with a little help from e.e. cummings.

There I found a poem by David Lehman that begins like this:

Screen Shot 2015-01-21 at 8.47.53 PM

(Clicking on this image will take you to the full text of the poem.)

And I was reminded that almost any poem can become a springboard to another work.

I will be honest:  I’m not in love with this particular poem. However, I love the idea of playing with the notion that we can describe how we know that a woman is in love with a man (or a man with a woman) through a collection of particular moments that tell us so. I like the idea of exploring what we say and what our words really mean.

I like the idea of pulling those moments from our own lives, thinking about what actions, words, moments told us that we were in love with another, or another with us. So I gave myself an assignment:

Do a free-write about the moments that tell me I love Cane.

Here’s my first shot at the exercise:

 

 

 

 

Yeah, I got nothing from my prompt. So I went looking for photos that might take me back to a moment. Often, something tangible and concrete will give me a way into a piece of writing. I found this, from a summer evening several years ago:

scooter on lolo passThat yielded this:

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 5.45.36 PMI got stuck again. So I put it away and went to work and thought about the memory, and when I came home this afternoon I came up with this:

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 5.51.06 PMSomehow, giving myself permission to change the syntax from the springboard poem freed me up. Instead of “When she says…” I wrote, “I will say…” I preferred first-person to third.

This still isn’t a finished poem, and I don’t know if I will finish it. I don’t know if it will make it onto the Valentine card. But I had fun remembering the evening and trying to put it to some words.

IMGP5385Comments and questions are always welcome.