For anyone who does creative or artistic work of any kind, take the time if you haven’t already to watch Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk on nurturing creativity.
Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, shares her views on why we should consider ourselves to be conduits rather than the embodiments of genius. Particularly if you feel stuck or uninspired, if you wonder whether you will ever again live up to a past success or creative effort, or if you are ready to give up on having anything worthwhile to share with the world, Gilbert’s moving plea to have “the sheer human will and stubbornness to keep showing up” may be what you need to start creating and working once more:
“[D]on’t be afraid. Don’t be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some kind of wonderment be glimpsed, just for one moment through your efforts, then ‘Ole!’ And if not, then do your dance anyhow.” ~ Elizabeth Gilbert
I found myself re-potting my tomatoes the other day, and chuckling as I realized that every time I have gotten a rejection letter, I find myself up to my elbows in dirt. Tomato therapy. For some reason, I need to balance the life-killing rejection letters by nurturing and giving life to my plants. Another interesting correlation perhaps, is that this year marks the first I have had a garden (which is surviving my decidedly NON ‘green-thumb’!), and also the first in which I have taken something I’ve written, and sent it on, in hopes of being considered for publishing.
She goes on to say that cooking is a similar ritual/therapy for her, and that reminded me of another post I want to move from my Everyday Intensity blog to this one:
Stirring Up Some Words
“I dedicate this book to every wannabe cook who will dare criticism by getting into the kitchen and stirring up some groceries. ~ ”Maya Angelou’s Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes (Random House, 2004)
Maya Angelou, whose writing accomplishments include children’s books, poetry, essays and autobiography—most notably I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970)—could have just as easily been referring to writing in her dedication above. “Stirring up some groceries” is much like “stirring up some words.” In each case, we delve into the unknown and emerge with something new, something that did not exist just minutes before, something that is a part of us that we give to others, and something that dares, almost invites, criticism.
I stumbled upon Hallelujah! The Welcome Table at just the right time a few years ago. My own writing was a bit stuck. The problem wasn’t writer’s block as much as it was a lack of inspiration, a feeling that when I sat down, intending to write, my experience was more work than play, more job than joy.
Of course, writing—like all creative work—is both work and play, job and joy, but when one overwhelms the other, we risk becoming either too mundane and mechanical on the one side, or too insubstantial and flimsy on the other.
Angelou’s book is a wonderful combination of short essays about the place of food in her life and recipes for everything from Pickled Pig’s Feet to Puffed Pastry, Moroccan Stew to Meringue. One of my favorite sections recounts a foray she took into the kitchen one night when her “writing was going badly,” when, in her words, she couldn’t write her “way out of a brown paper sack”:
“I decided to cook a complicated dish, one that would take my mind off the exacting task of writing. I chose to make chocolate éclairs with whipped cream and custard filling. From the moment I decided to cook, I forgot about writing. Gone was my concern with nouns, pronouns, verbs, and dangling participles.” (pp. 179-80)
She bakes éclair after éclair, serves them to her husband morning, noon, and night, who eats éclairs happily until he can eat no more, and then she gives away the rest, but keeps one, “as proof that cooking helps me to write.” She then returns to her manuscripts, rejuvenated and re-inspired.
When I’m writing well, I also usually cook every day. When I cook less, I write less. The precise reason for this remains a mystery to me, but one difference between writing and cooking is that writing provides little instant gratification, save for the intrinsic pleasure of the writing itself. Cooking, however, gives us immediate “criticism” as well as sustenance as we watch those we love enjoy what we’ve made. Even when a dish does not turn out perfectly, we have a tangible creation to consider, to revise, and to revisit. This process is crucial to writers, but harder to practice when the “product” exists as mere words in an unfinished work.
Of course, cooking is not the magic answer. For other writers, the answer may not be cooking. It might be photography or scrapbooking, gardening or yoga. Karen Schrock, author of “Imaginary Worlds Are Early Sign of Highly Creative Kids,” writes that “most highly creative people are polymaths—they enjoy and excel at a range of challenging activities. For instance,…nearly all Nobel Prize winners in science have at least one other creative activity that they pursue seriously.”
Are you stuck in your writing? The answer may not be to try to force words that won’t come, but instead to find a different way to stir them up.
One of my current projects that is giving me greater joy and satisfaction than I ever could have imagined is transcribing my great aunt’s diaries, which she kept daily from January 1, 1920 through the middle of 1957, the year before she died. For this holiday weekend, I thought you might enjoy these posts from July 4 from various years. All of them were written from her farm and ranch in Hidden Timber, South Dakota, on the Rosebud Indian Reservation.
Harriet “Hattie” Whitcher was a writer, although I’m not sure she thought of herself as one. Many of her entries are written in the kind of shorthand one uses when writing only for oneself, but she never failed to notice and record details that most people miss. One of the touching aspects of the following entries is that they show how the active and wide community that she loved in the first years of her marriage slowly changed as she and her husband, Will, aged (they did not raise any children of their own), so that, by the end of Hattie’s life, she often missed the companionship of traveling with neighbors to races and ball games, horse shows and picnics.
All of the photos are from the July 4th, 1933 celebration at O’Kreek, South Dakota. The film clip is from Road to Morocco.
Happy Fourth of July, everyone. Enjoy.
July 4, 1933: Barbecue, Program, Clowns, Music by Orchestra, Indian dances, ball game, O’Kreek vs. Wood and O’Kreek won, races, Kitten-ball, dance in evening with orchestra (The Four Aces or Bailey’s) and a wonderful crowd. I saw Mrs. Charles Sinclair (Edith Brownfield) and boys of Winner as they were at the Celebration with Carl Anderson’s. We ate only sandwiches from the stand and ice cream and pop in the evening.
July 4, 1939: Bright, hot, and south wind real strong, clouded in S.W. and a regular dust storm for awhile in afternoon. Le Moyne chored and went home horseback on Gold Dust, and came back at 3 p.m., and he said there was a real dust storm here, and Will and I went to Abbotts at 11 a.m. They got ready and filled our car with gas from their barrel, so we all went to White River, via O’Kreek and Mission, and was a real dust storm there, could scarcely see horse racing, calf roping, and no ball game until as we were leaving grounds, Murdo and Wood started to play.
We got home at 6:30 p.m. and all clouds were gone to the east, no rain here, but a beautiful evening. A large crowd of people at White River to a Free Celebration of the 4th of July.
July 4, 1934: This is the Glorious Fourth of July. North wind, dusty but bright until I p.m., was cloudy during Hidden Timber ball-game between part of Longview and Hidden Timber, rest substitutes, and a few sprinkles of rain then clear eve.
After morning work Elmer took Maggie to Armbusters, and she and Rita went in Carl Gehlsen’s Car to Sells, and Elmer, Carl, Mary and Josephine Armbuster went to Valentine Celebration. Harry and Louise and family came and the men made ice-cream. We ate dinner and went to Hidden Timber Celebration, back in evening and Ed, Rena and Yvonne were here butchering an E. R. A. calf gotten at Boarding School. Harry got a quarter, also we did, all went home.
July 4, 1942: I put things, quilts, pillows, a stool, some lunch and dishes and clothes in suitcase. Washed all dishes. We left for O’Kreek, got tire fixed that went flat on Will coming from Valentine, went to Gregory S.D., saw the Ft. Meade, S.D. Soldiers Parade, then left for White Horse Ranch, south and east of Naper, Nebraska, about 6 miles southwest of The Point between the rivers, but first we crossed Niobrara Bridge south of Naper.
Folks were eating lunches or had finished, we came in from the west side of the place, was a large pasture and white horses in it, and an arena built northeast of trees, and large trees around the buildings. After trained white horses, cow and bull and dog performed by 5 girls and 4 boys, ages about 9 to 17 years old. They had a rodeo, but we went to the ranch buildings, then to Point, Butte, Spencer, then our old home, 1 mile down railroad track from Spencer.
July 4, 1943: Sun shone bright and nice in general until evening, then there was a real rain at Mission and east to north of Antelope Creek, for we got stuck in Charles Merchen’s yard, and Bob had to pull us out with their tractor to the highway east 1/2 mile, and Wm Van Epps, Floyd and Margie and Dean Totten, Wm Abbott, Mrs. Cora Ann, Billie, Delores and Mrs. Anderson (Rika), Mrs. Abbott’s mother, were behind us. They went off the road towards the ditch, but got out.
We started to have trouble in mud north of Sazamas. A bunch of young men pushed us up the hill. I think it was Sazamas. Then at Carl Andersons, Van Epps, Totten and Abbott pushed, south of River. Need never bothered. We got home from Boarding School Show, Road to Morocco, starring Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour. Was a good show all in all.
July 4, 1950: Rained and rained this forenoon, and it kind of quit in p.m. Sun was shining brightly when I got up from a nap at 4 p.m. Will lay down also as he has heart pains, so we had to stay home this late p.m. in such a beautiful part of the day, and I had such a lonesome feeling, felt as if we were entirely out of the world.
July 4, 1954: Bright, hot day but cool in Valentine Park. Lunch all fixed and in the car. Got ready, went to Rosebud, no one at Ball Park, so went on to Rosebud and looked around some, on to Valentine to Park to eat dinner, was nice, water from spring so cool. To Rodeo. Had supper at park. Up town to wait for drive-in, first to Fish Hatchery. Never saw anyone we know.
“…a writer works alone, indoors, in a room, on a chair, with the door shut. Any young person who wonders what his or her chances are of becoming a writer ought to assess their ability to deal with solitude and, figuratively speaking, an entire working life thrashing around in inspissated darkness. It has been said that writing is a rat race in which you never get to meet the other rats.”
Roque writes about how “getting away” for writers often means getting out, but in solitude: on walks, in a garden, or, Theroux’s favorite, in a kayak.
Author Jo-Ann Mapson responded to the January 2010 death of J. D. Salinger and his (in)famous solitude: “After reading Salinger, solitude no longer felt like a disorder, but rather a kind of holy necessity to my writing self. It might even be the place stories come from.” She continues:
“Unlike my painter husband who choreographs his life, I need quiet to work. Caller ID was invented just for me. When I do venture out into the quirky city in which I live, to museums, or Farmer’s Market, or dinner out, a funny thing happens. I’ll raise my hands to clap for Coleman Barks or finish the bean soup I ordered, and wham, I am blindsided with insight. My subconscious never leaves the desk. If I can’t hurry home, I write down whatever has come to me and champ at the bit until I can spend time with it. Alone. Such moments are the gold every writer longs to discover.”
There’s something about being willing to dip a toe out of the room of solitude, into murkier waters, that starts a whole series of unpredictable reactions. There’s something about trusting another person—and being trusted back—that’s an element, a kernel of being able to navigate worldly waters. It’s a first step toward thinking of oneself in more financially empowered, independent, and entrepreneurial ways.”
This weekend, be sure to fill yourself with the solitude you need. Or at least find a coffee shop filled with other writer rats.
My husband and I recently saw an episode of Mad Men in which the Sterling Cooper creative team is trying to find a way to advertise Western Union telegrams at a time of widespread telephone use. The episode, “The Color Blue,” contains several references to writing’s value—Paul “loses” an idea because he doesn’t write it down, for example, and the evidence Betty finds in Don’s desk is a jumble of documents and photos with handwritten captions—so it’s no surprise that the “aha” idea to pitch telegrams has to do with the relative permanence of the written word.
“You can’t frame a telephone call,” Don says.
Telegrams were not handwritten; however, they were unique. There was one copy. It was hand-delivered. It was a kind of missing link between an age of frequent handwritten correspondence and today’s emails and texting.
What are we leaving for others to find or to frame? What personal words have you written today, not as an email or text message, but with your own hand or, at least, as a printed document that you intend to keep?
I’ve been asking myself these questions as I work to transcribe diaries kept from my great aunt Hattie. She wrote daily from 1920 through most of 1957. Every day, without exception, she dutifully recorded the weather, the day’s work and travels, her and her husband’s health, and any goings on in the neighborhood to which she was privy. Some of the entries are only three or four lines in length, kept in composition notebooks or hard-bound ledgers. Others are full-page accounts that include such details as waving to her brother and nephews who were cutting wood as she drove by, or the subtle changes in the weather when the wind shifts at noon.
These kinds of entries are what Jennifer Sinor in The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray’s Diarycalls ordinary writing: “Ordinary writing, writing that is typically unseen or ignored, is primarily defined by its status as discardable.” Ordinary writing is divorced from a broader context. It is often repetitious, even tedious. It is writing that “does not tell a story …. does not mark an event or narrate an idea” (pp. 5-6).
Without her diaries, Hattie would be relegated to a line on a family tree, a name only. Yet, as I type Hattie’s life into a Word document day by day, they do slowly shape themselves into a story, a person whom I feel I know, who sits beside me as I work. I was born eight years after she died, so I have no memories to go by, only her own words. It has taken me months to become well enough acquainted with her handwriting to transcribe the entries quickly, and just as long to learn to be not only unfazed by but thankful for her inconsistent and uncommon spellings and her short-cut sentences that sometimes omit articles or verbs (“Louise to school”). I am grateful that these pages were not discarded, that they somehow survived and found their way into my hands, and that I have a chance to know the extraordinariness of an otherwise ordinary woman who was also a writer.
As a recent post on “Once Upon a Blog” puts it, “You never know when those few lines you scribbled a few years ago will inspire something wonderful. I believe ideas need to steep, find other ingredients, and brew a bit before the next bestseller can be written.”
1886 Letter: My dear son Edward, Many thanks for your kind letter. I was very glad to hear from you once more and greatly surprised to hear that you were married and had a family….
For my father’s birthday present two years ago, I framed some of Hattie’s photos and captions she had written for them. Her captions—otherwise ordinary writing—were frame-worthy precisely because of the personal touch of her hand. I think of the letter my family has, sent from my great-great–grandmother in Woodhull, New York, to her son in Dakota Territory in 1886, and how grateful I am that she sent it and that it has survived.
I am no Luddite. I do not take for granted the ease of modern technology, the speed and green advantage of electronic communication, nor the liberating aspects, especially for a working writer, of being able to cut, paste, save as, delete, and revise without rewriting by hand or retyping entire manuscripts.
At the same time, I sometimes ask myself, will anyone want to frame our emails? Would we want to read The Complete Text Messages of John and Abigail Adams?
“I love getting telegrams, but I never send them.” ~ Ken Cosgrove, Mad Men
This year, our family is planning an 80th birthday celebration for my father. Yesterday I sent the invitations, and, while the cards came hot off my printer, I resisted the urge to use address labels for the guests. Handwritten addresses might not be much, but it’s something. As I wrote each name and street, city and zip code, I thought of the person who would receive the invitation in a day or two. So much better than pressing a self-adhesive label on an envelope.
I do not want to return to the past, nor do I have the answers to these questions or a crystal ball. All I know is that these days I’m more aware of my own ordinary writing, and I’m doing just a little more of it with pen and paper.