Creativity is Messy

We’re in the process of gutting and rebuilding an area of our garden. We have a vision of how we want it to look when it’s done, we know the steps needed to get us to the finish line –we’ve done multiple garden overhauls before—yet we’ve been surprised at how much chaos our efforts have created.

Creativity is messy. All of it is. Whether you’re sculpting, painting a picture, cooking a meal, rebuilding a garden or writing a book, there are sloppy and disordered times, and depending on the complexity of what you’re trying to create, there can also be times of feeling muddled and overwhelmed.

American novelist Ellen Klages wrote: My process is messy and non-linear, full of false starts, fidgets, and errands that I suddenly need to run now; it is a battle to get something – anything – down on paper. I doodle in sketchbooks: bits of ideas, fragments of sentences, character names, single lines of dialogue with no context.

Messy. Non-linear. Fidgets and doodles. All that’s true for me too, whether I’m working in the garden or writing a novel.

Creativity is also unpredictable. We can’t be sure how things will turn out. We can plot and plan and sketch things out, literally on paper or figuratively in our heads, but even with our best efforts, weather happens or plants refuse to thrive. Story characters act out in ways we don’t expect, taking our stories in directions we hadn’t anticipated. Editorial input or our own fresh insights results in revisions and a completely new take. When it comes to creative projects, there’s always something to tweak, adjust or reframe.

In the end, though, if the final result doesn’t quite match the vision we hold in our heads, there will always be another opportunity. Another project, another mess to create. Because as Michael J. Fox says, a creative mess is better than idle tidiness.

Embracing the Stillness

Last week, after nine months of working at home, Mr. Petrol Head went back to the office. There, the door is locked; everyone is physically distanced and separated by plexiglass; there are masks, sanitizer, and he must fill out a daily form stating that he’s well and without Covid symptoms.

Other than Team Sheltie who like to herd me on the treadmill desk when I start writing, or bark at the courier when the bell rings, the house is quiet and still. It is empty. Or at least it’s emptier than it was a few weeks ago. And I think my muse has noticed.

Mr. Petrol Head isn’t especially loud. When he was home during the week, he would be at his desk and I would be at mine. We’d always connect at lunch, but the rest of the time we were both silently engrossed in our respective jobs. Yet I always knew he was there. I don’t know why. Maybe there’s a different quality to the air when you know someone is close by. Or maybe the nurturer in me is automatically attuned to another body in the house.  

After a few days of him being back at the office, my productivity seemed to increase. I also seemed to be thinking more deeply and in new ways about my work in progress. I thought perhaps I was imagining things. I also felt vaguely guilty. It’s not like I want him out of the house. I like his company.

Around the same time, I received my latest hold from the library, a book I’d requested many months ago. Simple Living:100 Daily Practices from a Japanese Zen Monk for a Lifetime of Calm and Joy by Shunmyo Masuno. It’s a short volume of single page entries designed to make you think. And think I did when I opened it to the first entry.

Make time for emptiness.

The words struck a chord because I’d been thinking about how empty the house is without Mr. Petrol Head in it.

Masuno goes on to ask if we have time to think about nothing in our everyday lives. It’s important, he believes, to make time for emptiness, even ten minutes of emptiness, every day. He writes: “when you are not distracted by other things, your pure and honest self can be revealed. And that’s the first step towards creating a simple life.”

I know he’s speaking about meditation, or something close to it. But the same concept applies to the creative life. In the same way that we need to empty a vase before we can fill it with water and add flowers, we sometimes need to empty ourselves before we can fill back up with our muse. We sometimes need stillness, complete stillness and an empty house, to create.

The house isn’t completely empty – I do have my ever-present canine pals – but there is a stillness in the air these days. And that makes it easier to hear my muse.

Steady On . . .

I’m working on a manuscript I started several years ago, and I’m second-guessing myself with just about every paragraph. The story in question is a departure for me; it’s a contemporary middle-grade novel but with a suspenseful, paranormal element. The only thing I’ve written that comes even close is Exit Point, a short novel for reluctant teen readers, and I use the word close loosely. There are some similarities but not many.

Earlier this week, in need of inspiration, I grabbed my copy of The Mindful Writer by Dinty W. Moore from my shelf. And I opened it to this quote by John Irving:

If you don’t feel that you are possibly on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then probably what you are doing isn’t very vital. If you don’t feel like you are writing somewhat over your head, why do it? If you don’t have some doubt of your authority to tell this story, then you are not trying to tell enough.’  John Irving

The passage goes on to talk about how the work of the writer is the true work of all artists: to take risks, to lean far out over the edge of the accepted truth. If you are trying to tackle a project that is beyond your existing capacity as a writer or an artist, if you’re just a little bit afraid of the direction in which you are heading, then you are likely heading in the right direction.

Onward. And steady on.

Hear the Mouse Roar

Sixty-eight years ago today, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap opened at the Ambassadors Theatre in London’s West End. It played every day for all those years, only going dark this March when Covid-19 made live theatre unsafe.

That makes The Mousetrap the longest-running show of its kind in the world. Agatha Christie herself is the best-selling novelist of all time, with estimated sales of around two billion. And yet, when people are asked to name her best-known work, The Mousetrap is rarely mentioned. Instead, people point to Murder on the Orient Express, or The Murder of Roger Akroyd, or And Then There Were None.

That lack of recognition wouldn’t have surprised Christie. The Mousetrap was originally written at the request of the BBC as a radio play for Queen Mary, and when it moved onto the stage, Christie didn’t expect it to last more than six or eight months.

But it outlived her. Since its opening in 1952, it’s been presented in 27 languages in more than 50 countries. Over 460 actors and actresses have appeared in it, and some have made records doing it. David Raven is in the Guinness Book of Records for 4575 performances as Major Metcalf and the late Nancy Seabrooke made it there for her 15 years as an understudy.

As creators, we can never gauge the impact of our work. We might think we’ve written or created a masterpiece – a work of art – only to find the rest of the world disagrees. Or we might create something rather quickly, with joy and skill and attention to our craft, but not expect it to amount to much. And yet, that something might grow legs and end up impacting people in ways we never imagined.  

It’s a bit like the butterfly effect: the idea that small things can have non-linear impacts in a big way. Only in Agatha Christie’s case, it was a little mouse. A mouse that roared for 68 years.

Rituals and Writing

This is the season of pumpkins, black cats, and superstitions, and that has me thinking about writers and their rituals. Not all of us have rituals, but many of us do, and we’re in good company. 

Apparently, Charles Dickens had to arrange the ornaments on his desk in a certain way before he started writing. May Sarton cued up 18th-century music. Maya Angelou used the same writing ritual for years: she got up around five am, drove to a hotel, and was writing by 6:30. Longhand. On yellow pads. And she asked the staff to take everything off the walls so there was just her, the Bible, Roget’s Thesaurus, and some sherry. Isabelle Allende begins writing every new book on January 8th, a tradition that started in 1981 with a letter she wrote to her dying grandfather, a letter that sparked The House of Spirits. 

Many writing rituals are more mundane. One author friend writes her first draft in longhand using a particular type of pen (she orders them in bulk). Another can’t write with shoes on her feet, only slippers. My ritual is an early morning walk, a check of email while I drink my first cup of coffee, and a glance at my ‘to do’ list. Then I’m ready to write. But I do like to have a sweater hanging on the back of my chair to pull around my shoulders when a chill (or insecurity) hits. The latter ritual goes back years to a hand-knit sweater my aunt gave me. Having it close was a reminder that someone had my back. It was a good feeling. 

You might think I’m fussy or just plain weird, but there’s nothing weird or merely superstitious about rituals. Neuroscience tells us that rituals can increase confidence, reduce worry, and make it easier to get things done.   

When we repeat behaviors, the neurons in our brains communicate together, wire together, and activate each other. If we do things fairly often in a similar sequence, our brains get used to that order and become more efficient at the task. 

“It’s like developing friendships,” says Dr. Brian Christie, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. “At first, the conversation is awkward and stilted, but as you become more comfortable and better friends, those conversations flow more easily. It’s the same with neurons. The neurons that fire together, wire together.” 

That means if the neurons for writing are activated at the same time as you follow a specific routine – whether that’s pouring your first coffee of the day, pulling on a familiar sweater, or rearranging the things on your desk as Dickens did – they’re primed and ready to go. And the more regularly they fire together, the bigger, stronger, and more powerful they become. 

I don’t know about you, but I can use all the help I can get. So, I’m off to check my email, glance at my ‘to do’ list, and get to work.  

And So It Goes

Last week brought to mind the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

Be still, sad heart! And cease repining;

Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;

Thy fate is the common fate of all,

Into each life some rain must fall . . .

Here on the west coast, the ‘rain’ we experienced was the ash fallout from the horrendous wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington. We’re still living with smoky skies and poor air quality as I write these words, but we’re far luckier than those who are living in the line of fire.  Fires on the west coast, hurricanes out east and a worldwide pandemic. No wonder the world seems on edge.

I was on edge this week too. I lost a full day of writing because of a massive Windows update. Yes, I’d saved, or at least I thought my computer had, but it turns out the computer save function goes to a temporary file. In the past, I’d always been able to recover temporary files but not anymore. Not with Windows 10.  A little rain must fall . . .

As Longfellow said, however, behind the clouds the sun is still shining. And in my case that sun came in the form of an interview by the editor of Second Opinion QB. It was lovely to chat with Lois Sampson. If you’re interested in our conversation, you’ll find it here: https://secondopinionqb.ca/qb-author-taps-into-young-adult-scene/

Since I opened with a somewhat bleak Longfellow quote, here’s something to remember when life seems especially dark:

Watch For It

What are you doing next Tuesday, May 19th? Can you spare an hour? If so, plan to catch this Facebook live event (find it under events on your Facebook page) at 4 pm, Pacific time. That’s when a group of us will be talking about writing and illustrating and all things children’s books. I’ll be answering questions about my latest YA, No Right Thing. Thanks to Crwth Press for setting everything up. We’re looking forward to it, and we hope you can join us!

Divine Timing

The garden sent me a lesson the other day. It’s a lesson I’ve witnessed repeatedly in writing and gardening. But it’s a lesson I’ve yet to master. Everything happens when it’s meant to happen. The unfolding of life has its own rhythm. And as much as I’d like to think I’m in charge, I am not.

I’d seeded tomatoes and peppers and broccoli and basil. Sweet peas and eggplant and cilantro too. The broccoli popped up first, quickly followed by basil, tomato and sweet pea seedlings. The eggplant was slower, but it eventually germinated. The pepper and the cilantro seeds languished under the starting soil. I hovered and fretted and hovered some more.

Cocooned in their dark bed, the pepper and cilantro seeds paid no attention.

Meanwhile, the effects of the Covid-19 slowdown continued. I learned of more work cancellations and delays. I heard of more writer friends having their book releases postponed. Or having their books come out without the expected fanfare of a launch (if you’re a writer with a book releasing during the Time of Covid, email me and I’ll plug it on this blog).

Nothing was going according to plan, one friend wailed after she’d been hit with a particularly bad piece of cancellation news.  Indeed.

In the big picture, she and I both know what matters is life and health and slaying the Covid dragon. We know it’s shallow to worry about book releases or cancelled tours when people are dying. We’re wearing our grown-up pants (yoga pants) these days. We have our priorities straight. But at the same time, we wish things were different. We wonder why things are the way they are. We worry that maybe if we’d made different choices or worked a little harder or taken a different route, things would be going according to plan. According to our plan.

But they aren’t.

Maybe they will eventually.

And maybe they won’t.

The peppers finally germinated. In spite of my very best hand-wringing, the cilantro never did.

Life has its own rhythm, my seedlings whispered. Maybe someday I’ll learn the lesson and won’t need the reminder.   

Passion Play

Not long ago, a friend recommended we watch “Somebody Feed Phil.” The Netflix documentary series follows Phil Rosenthal, the creator of “Everyone Loves Raymond,” as he travels and eats his way through various countries around the world. The show is a wholesome, family-friendly version of Anthony Bourdain, only unlike the sometimes cynical approach Bourdain took, Rosenthal is unabashedly positive and overwhelmingly enthusiastic. We liked the first episode so much we quickly watched two more. Now, “Somebody Feed Phil” is a show we turn to when we’re ready for a TV break.

Around the same time as we discovered “Somebody Feed Phil,” I was asked to write an article about a local artist, Sheila Warren (if you haven’t discovered her art, go here https://www.sheilawarren.com/.)  During our interview, Sheila talked at length about the passion she has for her art, adding that if she doesn’t have a strong emotional connection to her subject, it will show in her paintings.  

As I watched Phil eat his way around the world and then later visited Sheila at her gallery, I realized that their passion was infectious. I felt happy and uplifted after only a few minutes in their presence. I also realized something else. Passion is fuel.

It’s hard work writing and producing a TV series, even though we don’t see the hard work when we watch a one-hour episode. It’s hard work painting a canvas, though we don’t think of that when we enjoy the results of that labor hanging on our wall. It’s hard work writing a book, which I know from personal experience, yet when I’m engrossed in reading a novel, that thought never occurs to me.

For creators, when passion is our fuel, work becomes like play. Hours are lost to the joy of the moment, to the creative process.  Passion and play become intertwined and the process is often magical, transformative. Not only for the artist or the writer or the TV personality, but also for those people who enjoy whatever we produce.

Passion as play yields powerful results.

Everything in its Place

                               

I’ve been reading about Feng Shui again lately. Probably because we moved last year and I’ve been spending more time thinking about my surroundings. Feng Shui is the ancient Chinese art of creating harmony in living spaces. Its literal translation means wind and water. It’s based on the principle that, like wind and water, you and your environment are two forces of nature, constantly interacting and influencing each other.  When they’re in balance, chi or positive energy can flow and that, in turn, affects our health, wealth and happiness.

As simple as it sounds, the art of Feng Shui is surprisingly complex and doesn’t lend itself to a superficial approach. Feng Shui masters spend their entire lives studying the principles and helping others apply them. That said, there are some basic go-to rules we can utilize to bring harmony to our living spaces, and to our offices as well.

Here are some of the Feng Shui principles I introduced into my writing space years ago, ones I continue to utilize today.

* Simplify and declutter. Active chaos or temporary clutter (reference books or the visuals that pile up as we write) is the result of creativity in motion.  But passive chaos or stagnant clutter – outdated papers or books not being used, old magazines and journals – needs to be eliminated.

* Your desk should be in your office’s commanding position. Ideally it should face the room’s entrance, but angled to the left or the right and not directly in line with the door. If that’s impossible, use a mirror to reflect the entrance door or, at the very least, hang a bell on your doorknob so you’ll hear someone approaching. 

*Put the materials you use regularly within arm’s reach of your desk. If that’s impossible, gather whatever you need at the beginning of your writing session and have everything close.

* Avoid having an abstract painting on the wall in an area where you want to focus.

* Watch out for doors that stick. Feng Shui believes they can create sticky situations.

* Make sure your work area engages all five senses. This is critical for us as writers too.  When you look up from your desk you should see something you love on the wall.  Create a soundtrack for the book you’re writing. Add a scented oil diffuser to the shelf.  Toss a throw rug with a beautiful texture onto the floor.

* Hang a crystal over your desk to stimulate the thinking chi and improve your work habits.

* Surround yourself with colors that personally resonate. The color blue activates the fifth chakra, or throat chakra, and can inspire creative writing. If that color appeals, put a few blue touches in your office. I’ve added red in my office to kick start my thinking. In fact, one of my favorite pictures is a painting from my aunt featuring red poppies against a deep blue background. I have half a dozen vibrant, creative images in my new office and they’re all framed in black. Black is grounding and helps with persistence.   

* Keep a plant in your office and make sure it’s healthy.

* And finally, if you want things to change, relocate (or get rid of) 27 things in your working area. This is a powerful Feng Shui tool that can be used to sweep out the old and bring in the new.