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?

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Feed the Beast

Whenever I have a lull in my writing production (and let me tell you, this happens a lot), I start reading a TON of books on writing, on the creative process, on living the life of an artist, and what have you. And these books, though they may give me the aura of the Artist Hard At Work – it is nothing short of poseurism. Because these books – for me – have been nothing short of useless.

And that’s okay. Sometimes we need to do useless things to fill the time between bouts of mad utility and unabashed production.

Still, with my head full of slogans like “filling the well” and whatever else they’ve told me to do over the years, I’ve discovered that my creative life bears no semblance to the secret groves or babbling brooks or tender thoughts alight on gossamer wings that I’ve read about in other people’s descriptions of their various creative journeys.

My creative life is not a journey. Nor is it a well. Nor is it a river. Nor is it a garden that I must love and tend and fuss over.

My creative life is animal.

It has teeth, and claws and sinew and bone. It has a wet nose and sensitive ears and breath reeking of old meat.  It is heavy-muscled, long-legged and agile. It is crafty, frightened, randy and fierce. It lopes, and stalks and pounces. It sniffs at the ground, howls at the moon, urinates on trees, scratches after it shits, and follows its prey for miles.

My creative life has mangy fur and yellow eyes and a gamey scent that can knock you out. It nuzzles my face in the morning, grabs me by the nape of my neck and tosses me out of bed. I can see its ribs. I can see its ligaments under its tight skin. It’s hungry. And it doesn’t want to wait.

So I feed the beast.

I don’t write every day – I’m not that kind of writer. I write when the beast is hungry. I write when the beast paces next to my desk. As I write, I sweat, I shiver, I weep. I write from my skin, my muscle, my empty stomach, my restless feet. I write as if I’m running. And maybe I am.

And when I write – when I write a lot – the beast begins to be satisfied. I read too, though not craft books. It hates those. I read fiction and nonfiction and poetry and memoir. I read across genre and time period. My brain is a smorgasbord for my hungry beast. I gather things from the natural world – artifacts from the book I’m working on. Right now, on my desk, there are three oval stones, a bit of bark with pale green lichen clinging to its grooves, five scraps of paper with five Nordic runes written crudely with my left hand. There is a crown made from wintered grass, tied with a ribbon.

I write to feed the beast. I write to make it happy. I write to put it to sleep. I write to feel its head on my lap, its dark breath on my skin, its ragged howl ringing in my own, open mouth. I write, so that one day, it will be sleek, fat and fine. I write to send it – howling, snarling, singing its name – into the wide, wide world.

And then I wait until the next time I’m woken in the night by a pair of yellow eyes, a hungry, hollow panting somewhere in the darkness of my house. And a new book begins.