The Beautiful and the Strange

"Reading Chaucer" by Phillip Jackson

I may not be posting much this week. We’ll see. I’ve encountered a bit of a dark place in my work. Not dark insomuch as the subject matter is concerned (though, truth be told, I am prone to darkness) (Wasn’t it Kate DiCamillo who told us that “the world is light and dark and precious”?) (Kate DiCamillo is my hero). It is not my work that is dark. My work, right now, is nonexistant. My work eludes me.

I am in darkness. I cannot see the path.

So I need to unplug for a bit. Get back to working longhand (why do I ever think that I can switch to typewritten first drafts? It is always a mistake!). I also need to fill my brain with art.

Right now, I have two novels that have ground to a heartbreaking halt, each about four chapters shy of finishing. I cannot move forward. The way forward is blocked, obscured, washed away. I have another novel that is done, but is so broken that I don’t think I can repair it. And a fourth that is itching to go, but I’m afraid to work on it before the two stuck novels get unstuck, lest it suffer the same fate. I’m not sure what my problem is. I’ve been ignoring the problem for months, pretending to write.

(I am terribly good at pretending to write. Indeed, if pretending to write was a paying job, I’d keep my family fed for decades.)

"Flying Bottle", by Sergey Tyukanov

I’m intending to spend this week working at the Minnesota Arts Institute and the Walker Arts Center. Wandering. Sketching. Scribbling. I don’t think I’ll work on the books – I think they need to sit for a bit. I think I need to spend some time touching paper, smelling woodshavings and graphite, listening to the scritch of word against the page. I think I need to feed myself.

I’m sure I’m not the first writer who has found themselves halted in the process, staring – mouth open and eyes unblinking – into the glare of social media and market places and the alligator pit of buying and selling in which our little books are tossed, torn and devoured. And then they are gone.

I have spent so much time staring after a book that has left me, that I have allowed the books still here to drift from my fingertips, dry on the vine, and float away. And I am quite alone.

I am not a visual artist – indeed, if you were to see my drawings, you might laugh at me as small children can likely do better. But I like drawing all the same. And I like looking at art. Phillip Jackson (the guy who made the sculpture above) has been haunting my dreams as of late. And Sergey Tyukanov. And I’ve been collecting 15th and 16th century woodcuts and sticking them on the background of my computer, or cutting them out and taping them in my notebook, or tracing them on vellum paper and folding them into paper airplanes and launching them into the sky. Like this one, for example:

And this: 

I’m not sure why, but since the inclination is there, and since the inclination refuses to subside, I think my subconscious is trying to tell me something.

So that’s how I will be feeding my creative self this week. I will be seeking out the beautiful and the strange; I will be devouring bits of fantasy and surrealism, and licking the juices off of my fingertips. I will be ink smudged and paper sliced and leaving dusty graphite footprints wherever I go. I shall fill the room with my sawdust smell.

And how about the rest of you. What do you do to unblock the things that block your work? How do you restore the flow? What is it, for each of you, that feeds your sweet, sweet souls?

13 thoughts on “The Beautiful and the Strange

  1. Ugh, Kelly. I wish I knew. I’ve got two unfixable first drafts in a virtual drawer, and a novel that refuses to write itself.

    Oddly, I know what’s worked in the past. I purposely wrote the shittiest crap I could, as long as it brought the story where it needed to go. It was starting the job of ripping off wallpaper by smashing at the wall with a sledgehammer. I’d fix the hole later, and I could get a better grip on the wallpaper that way.

    • In a lot of ways, despite my great love of social media (oh, my pixellated cocktail hour that never ever ends!) and despite how very very nice it is to have our work noticed by the people paid to notice things…..I wonder if, ultimately, it hurts us. I like the idea of giving ourselves permission to write a steaming pile of crap. I think that can be useful. I also wonder if maybe I should just, from now on, write every next book under an assumed name – and different every time. Because right now, I don’t know how to get back to that place in which the Self disappears and the Work takes over, you know? And I kinda need to be there. My damn computer is constantly reminding me that I exist. I think I need to not exist in order to work.

      Does that make any sense at all? Have I totally lost it? (Probably)

      • Makes total sense, and I agree about social media, and even the internet as a whole. I should clarify that I think it’s always a good idea to let yourself write a pile of crap and trust that yes, the work will take over. That knack will just kick in. Like rolling an old stick-shift car down a hill to start it. It WILL turn over halfway down. It always does. And I think if you can remember the times that the work did take over (and obv you can, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation), it means it will happen again. I’m mostly talking to myself here. Thank you, Kelly’s Blog the Therapist!

  2. I can’t speak for writer’s block as I don’t have enough writing time to develop it. That being said, I suspect you are just having too many thoughts, and all of them about anything other than what you are trying to write. Doing art (or more accurately, doing another type of art, as writing is an art) often helps one to focus. Perhaps this is its sole purpose.

    If you have more than one computer in the house, you might consider using one specifically for writing, and the other for email/internet/etc. The beautiful distraction is not all that helpful when you’re struggling with focus. And you have a LOT of beautiful distractions in your home even without computers.

    My sketching skills are not particularly good. One might go so far as to refer to them as “crude” or even “sucky”. This is not all that meaningful in an of itself since I happen to make a very good living as an artist, and illustrate all the time, albeit only in Photoshop. All art is the creative impulse filtered though a craft. The level of ability of any particular craft is not a good measure of the creative process or the overall “art”, but better craftsmanship certainly allows for richer creative display.

    When you write, the high ability of your craftsmanship is plainly evident. It doesn’t have to be so when you draw. And sometimes the best way to let the message in your head come out is to do the simplest of crafts with deep deep focus. Priming the subconscious pump, as it were, with the simplest of tools. Sometimes a $20 toilet plunger is as good as a $400 pump.

    Trust in your process. The words will come when they are ready.

  3. Typically, what I do is leap the wall that has me blocked and go onto the next part of the story. Then I’ll come back and fill in later. Another thing I’ll do is write other stories that are trying to get out: And draw, of course. I do lots of that.

    Not sure the internet is the problem. Sounds to me like you are on a tightrope and are looking down. Never look down, only forward.

  4. I think feeding yourself in some way is just the thing! I haven’t published anything yet, but I find that when my creativity dries up and I’m feeling that horrible panicked feeling like it might never come back, it’s time to give my soul a break, bless its heart. So have a wonderful time seeking out the beautiful and the strange. Those books are within you growing, developing, and strengthening. Out they will come, even better than you imagined, once your soul is fed and rested.

  5. I think you’re going about it the right way. Time away from your writing yields all kinds of new inspiration. I’ve noticed how things go in cycles in an organic sort of a way and is healthy both for the writer and the writing. I also believe that whether we are staring off into space, gnashing our teeth, watching bad tv, exploring new places, seeing art, appreciating nature, finding beauty, whatever, it all feeds the same machine that lets us choose the right words and combinations to make our stories. So go forth and drink it all in!

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