Thursday, April 28, 2011

Writing Seed 6: Depth

 [This post was originally an assignment written for a writing workshop, meant to be practiced for a period of two weeks.]

Cathedral Lakes Provincial Park, BC, 2010 - Photo by Jordan Rapley
You are thirsty.  More than anything, you want water – a bucket, a cup, or even just a drop.  You find a shovel and begin to dig, knowing that there is water somewhere in the ground.  You’re digging deeper, you’re up to your waist in your hole, but the work gets harder.  The ground is tougher, and the dirt has to be lifted higher.  Doubts assail you.  Perhaps this isn’t the right spot.  So you climb out, find another spot, and begin to dig there.  Working hard is making you even thirstier, and you feel frenzied to find that water.  Soon you are up to your chest in this new pit, but the doubts come back—what if you are still not in the right spot—and so you climb back out and find another place to dig.  You repeat this dozens of time, digging, giving up, digging somewhere else.  Soon your surroundings are dotted with holes of different sizes.  Once you dig so far that you are entirely submerged, and your feelings oscillate between self-inflation “Look at how nicely I’m digging!” and self-pity “Why isn’t all this digging getting me anywhere?”  Your shovel breaks, and you are forced to toss it away.  You begin to dig with your hands.  You knuckles are bloody and bruised, but your thirst drives you on.  The further you go, the harder it seems to get.  But what else is there to do?

If we want to find water—which is really just a metaphor for that which we most deeply desire—we need to pick a spot, start digging, and stick with it.  This is much more effective than running around digging one shallow hole here and another one there.  This assignment, I hope, will carry us deeper into ourselves, our lives, and into our writing.



In living as well as in writing we have choices: we can remain comfortable with what we can do and remain at the surface of our ability, or we can begin to dig, to penetrate, to get to a place more profound.  Creativity (as I keep saying) comes from who we are, and the deeper we are in touch with ourselves, the more deeply we can get in touch with our creativity.  Simultaneously, the deeper you go into writing or any other pursuit, the deeper you will go into yourself.

Dante Alighieri wrong his epic poem the Divine Comedy in the thirteen years leading up to his death in 1321.  For thirteen years he laboured at the work that showed a journey through hell, purgatory and paradise, an allegorical tale mapping the soul’s journey towards God. For Dante, God was water, and he was willing to dig for thirteen years, to go through ‘Inferno’ (which in Italian means ‘hell’) to complete his work.  I find it interesting that upon completion of the Divine Comedy, he died.  Did he find God?

For our purposes here, how do we know that we’re penetrating deep? The answer is simple:  whatever we’re doing will become challenging.  Our shovel might break. Our hands get cut. Our knuckles are bloody and bruised.  Little demons appear, saying “You’re not good enough, don’t even try to go any further” or, “What are people going to think of this?” or even, “What lies beyond here is dangerous, better to around.”  When this happens, you know you are on the right track.  And strangely enough, we can begin to see the demons as our friends: they are actually trying to protect us from failure and disappointment, not realizing that by doing so they are also keeping us from success.  And if they don’t come, we can take it as encouragement that we can go much, much further, that there is so much more to tap into!  Indeed, anything worthwhile in life will bring us face to face with challenges – whether it be entering into a meaningful relationship, living in a foreign country or deepening our creative works.  These challenges further deepen our connection with ourselves, for through them we learn how we react and deal with complications.  Without challenges, we might never learn what we are capable of accomplishing!


One Last Sentence

Sol Stein, an editor that has worked with many best-selling authors, has devised an exercise that helps us get in touch with our own individual originality.  He calls it a “high-risk” and “high-gain” experiment.  It doesn’t take much time, and yet a lot of resistance can emerge in attempting it.  It is worth reproducing here at length:

I ask you to imagine yourself on a rooftop, the townspeople assembled below.  You are allowed to shout down one last sentence.  It is the sentence that the world will remember you by forever.  If you say it loud enough, everyone in the world will hear you, no matter where they are.  Think of shouting the sentence, even if you seldom shout.  What one ting are you going to say?  If you’d like to try that exercise now, write down the sentence.

Is your sentence one that could have been said by any person you know? If so, revise it until you are convinced no one else could have said that sentence.

When you’ve reworked your original sentence, consider these additional questions:  Is your sentence outrageous?  Could it be? Is your sentence a question? Would it be stronger as a question?

Make whatever changes you like. I have still more questions:  Would the crowd below cheer your sentence? Can you revise it to give them something they’d want to cheer?

As you can see, I am asking question after question to help you strengthen and individualize your sentence.  I continue:  Suppose the person you most love in all the world were to strongly disagree with your sentence.  Can you answer his or her disagreement in a second sentence?  Please add it.

Some writers will try to get out of further work by saying that their loved one would agree with the sentence.  People have different scripts.  If your sentence is original, the chances of another person – even your closest loved one – agreeing with it without the slightest exception is extremely unlikely.

When you’ve done that, you now have the option of choosing one or the other sentence.  There may be value in combing and condensing them

Finished? Now imagine that you look down and see that the crowd below you is gone.  You see only one person, your greatest enemy, who says, “I didn’t hear you. Would you repeat that?”

It is a fact that given one last sentence, addressing one’s enemy can light up the imagination more than an anonymous crowd can.  You don’t want to give your enemy the last word or let him respond in a way that would demolish what you’ve said. Can you alter your sentence so that you statement will be enemy proof?

This, of course, continues the exercise with one of its most difficult phases, creating an original sentence that is strong and to the best of the writer’s ability, seemingly incontrovertible.

Suppose you found out that the only way to get your message across would be if you whispered your sentence. How would you revise it so that it would be suitable for whispering?

It isn’t always easy to change a shouted sentence to one that can be whispered and heard, but it sometimes produces intriguing results and shows how the intent to whisper can produce words that are stronger than shouted words.

Try to compare your sentences now, and see how far they have come from that very first statement.  For myself, it took me an entire year after first encountering exercise to actually try it, but when I did, the results were really interesting.  Stein writes, “My experience has been that often the first run of this exercise will direct you to a theme or expression of a theme that is uniquely yours.”  This is exactly what it did for me.  It brought me to the place that drives my desires, my actions, and the things I want to do with my life.  It is necessary for us to find this uniqueness, because from this source springs our world of originality, and if we want to produce something original, we must dive into this place and write from there. 


Towards the end of the two-week period, try to complete one of the following:
  1. Write something—a word—at the top of a page, and write everything you know about this word.  Then write everything you don’t know about this word.  For those things you don’t know, fabricate, use your imagination to fill whatever object, person or concept you may have chosen.  The point is not to do research, but look within your own creative imagination to fill this object with as much creative colour as you can muster.  An entire story can be written in this way, simply by contemplating one word consistently and patiently.  [For anyone who has read “Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins, recall the pack of Camel cigarettes, which grows to such profound mystery and meaning in a very short time span!]
  2. Consider that objects have a history, and a point of view.  A shoe has been assembled from materials that come from all over the world, has been manufactured in a factory in one country, shipping to be sold in another, worn by someone, perhaps thrown out, found by somebody else, perhaps recycled into something else.  Every object in life has this kind of history.  A tree, despite its rootedness, has seen hundreds of people pass, has watched the change in the landscape, has weathered all the storms and breathed in all the sunshine.  Nothing is without depth, if we are willing to see into this.  Begin to see the objects in your writing with this kind of depth.  A story can be told from the point of view of a person, but here I ask you to try instead to tell a story from the point of view of an object. 
  3. Feel free that write anything that this assignment has inspired.
500 - 1000 words, as a guideline.  Have fun digging!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Writing Seed 5: A Sense of Mystery

 [This post was originally an assignment written for a writing workshop, meant to be practiced for a period of two weeks.]

Spotted Lake, British Columbia, 2010

In the winter of 2010 I sang in a Gregorian choir in Montreal.  The community of people who participated in this choir were mostly francophone and at the time my French was poor, which meant I was fairly isolated.  Despite this, I really connected with one German woman, Sylvia, although we spoke few words to one another.  But as life moved on, I moved on from the choir, and Sylvia and I lost touch.  One day, walking down the street I said to a friend of mine, “Remember Sylvia?  I’d like to see her again.”  Not two minutes later Sylvia tapped me on the shoulder.  Quel surprise! Stunned, I asked her to go for lunch, but this plan never materialized.  I forgot the whole matter, and soon six months had gone by.  Then one February day, she popped back into my mind, and that same day I visited my favourite herbal tea store.  As I was leaving the store, I noticed a brochure, with Sylvia’s photograph on it. What? Did this really just happen? I called her, and this time around we made our lunch date happen!

I’m sure that everyone has these experiences, small or large, of striking coincidences that leave us a little amazed and wondering.  They usually leave us smiling, and come with a flavour of the mysterious.  Is it really just chance, or has life conspired to show us something?


At its very core life is a mystery, no matter how much we try to convince ourselves that we know most of what there is to know.  Indeed, it seems to me that whenever we come close to “knowing everything” the world gives us a good shake and shows us that what we’ve seen is a small fraction of what there is.  In just this way, towards the end of the 19th century, it was a common belief that all the major discoveries in physics had already been made, that there were only a few loose ends to be tied up, and as a result young university students were discouraged to study physics, since there was no promising career to be had.  Suddenly Einstein comes along with his theory of relativity and turns the world on its head.  In the same way, when as individuals we think we know how life works more often than not something happens to turn our world upside down, and we are forced to reconsider.  Indeed, there are so many small mysteries that happen every day, if we are open to watch for them.  The point of this assignment is to recover our awe for the mystery that surrounds us!

The Feeling Of Mystery

Encountering mystery is exciting –  it’s what gets our creative selves churning, what makes our imagination work to come up with hundreds of possible explanations.  There’s nothing that fascinates and delights the human mind as much as does mystery.  Why else would scientists and philosophers spend decades of their lives searching for answers?

The world abounds with mysterious questions:  Why did 2000 red-winged blackbirds fall from the sky in an Arkansas town on New Years Day of 2011, all of them dead?  How does a single cell know how to develop into a human being?  How do our eyes and brain translate senseless sensory bits into meaningful images?  How is it that a lake develops a spotted pattern?

Instead of looking in books for answers that other people have hypothesized, why don’t we ask our imagination?

Emptying the Cup

“A Zen story tells of Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era who received a university professor.  The professor came to inquire about Zen.  Nan-in served tea.  He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.  The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself.

“It’s overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations.  How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Our cup usually is filled to the brim with “the obvious,” “common sense,” and “the self-evident.”

Excerpt from The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Sukav

Being able to see mystery requires that we empty our cups and be open to life again, to let go of the obvious and the common sense to let new perceptions in.  Many a sceptic will say, “I’ll see it when I believe it,” when many a wise man has said, “When you let go of your beliefs, you will begin to see the world.”  This too is a mystery, an interesting question to ask ourselves:  how do seeing and believing relate to one another?

The Right Question

“I want the poem to ask something and, at its best moments, I want the question to remain unanswered.  I want it to be clear that answering the question is the reader’s part...”
Mary Oliver

One of my favourite authors is the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, and for any of you who have read his books, you know that they are bewildering.  When I finish one of his novels, more often than not, I am left wondering what I’ve really understood.  He knows how to spin a great tale, and he also knows how do leave his reader with a mind full of questions.  Orthodox writing advice tells us not to do this; instead we are told all the threads must be tied up in a neat conclusion.  There is some truth in this, there must certainly be a conclusion to a piece, but that does not mean that one or two mysteries cannot be left dangling in the reader’s mind.  In my opinion, this can enrich a piece, it leaves the reader in a state of wonder, and this state will make a larger impact than any neatly tied up conclusion.  The questions remain, and it is up to the reader to find some personal conclusion.  This is also closer to reality, since life often leaves us wondering, without explanations, without neat conclusions.  In fact, to live in the face of this mystery is the only choice we really have, although we too often try to explain it away.

Finally, in the words of Socrates,

“The answer is the in the right questions.”

Towards the end of this two-week period, try to complete one of the following:
  • Pick anything that is mysterious or fascinating to you.  It may be something like Spotted Lake, or the birds that fell dead from the sky, or even something very ordinary like a glass of water viewed from a completely different angle.  Describe the mystery inherent in whatever you pick, and imagine the kinds of explanations you might come up with to explain it.  Try to play at this like a child would, let your creativity carry you along for a ride!
  • Spin a small tale around a mystery that is ultimately unanswered, leaving a question mark in the reader’s mind.  You do not necessarily need to state a question within the text, and instead can let a question emerge from the images you show.  Sometimes the best questions are implied, left to hover in the mind of the reader.
  • Creating a story is as mysterious as anything else.  From nothing, we create something.  I would like you to take five random sources:  take a book near you and read one paragraph,  press ‘shuffle’ on your Ipod and listen to the song that is selected, eavesdrop on a conversation two people are having on a bus, click ‘I’m feeling lucky” on Google, select a random TED talk to listen to, etc.  With whatever sources you choose, note down an image or concept that catches you, in a word or two.  No details are necessary.  Let these sit for a day or two.  When you are ready to write, create a small piece that weaves these five random concepts together in one solid piece, and watch how easily chaos can be transformed into something coherent and orderly!
  • Write anything you like that has been inspired by this concept of mystery!
500 – 1000 words, as a guideline.

Have fun with this, and look at your world anew with emptied cups!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Writing Seed 4: People & Choices

 [This post was originally an assignment written for a writing workshop, meant to be practiced for a period of two weeks.]
Yunnan, China, 2007
Now that we have grounded ourselves in our senses and sunk into our bodies, it’s time to tackle a complex subject:  choice.  Take five minutes now, before reading the rest of the text, and through some stream-of-consciousness writing, tackle this question:  Where do our choices come from?


In February, I went to see an animated film directed by Sylvain Chomet called The Illusionist.  The main character is an illusionist who travels from city to city, searching for concert halls and theatres where he can show his magic act.  Work is scarce and he travels further and further, until he ends up on a remote island where he meets a young woman who is enchanted by his magic tricks.  When he leaves the island, she follows him, and they remain together.  This story isn’t really a romance, and instead it resembles a relationship between a father and his daughter.  The young woman’s innocence and enthusiasm lead the illusionist to begin spending all of his money on lavish gifts he cannot really afford.  Bit by bit, he loses everything he has, and in the end all of the tools he uses for his magic shows are pawned off.  When he has nothing left to give, he suddenly finds the girl walking down the street with a young man, at which point he decides to leave her behind as well, leaving nothing but a note that says, “There are no magicians.”

The truly special thing about this film is that even though the ending is sad, it is at the same time very beautiful.  It had an equanimous quality, one that seemed to say that yes, sometimes life is sad, but there’s also something very beautiful about this, and it’s not something that we need to judge.  How easy it would be to pity the illusionist for his foolishness, or to judge the young woman for always wanting more.  But the strongest sentiment the film portrayed for me was that life simply is, and we can see beauty in that.  Finally, the characters just are who they are, and they couldn’t really act any other way than they did.  What sense is there to judge them?  In this way the director produced a film that simply depicted life as it is, lacking all judgments that so often accompany us, therefore creating a really enchanting piece of work.


The Importance of Secrets

The Illusionist reminded me that our choices come basically from who we are.  That may sound a bit simplistic or obvious, but I don’t think it is.  Ninety percent of our minds are said to be subconscious, and many of our decisions are driven from this place of which we are not even aware.   I’d like to call this place the “secret realm” – it sounds more enchanting, and puts me into the mood for an adventure!  What kind of dragons and treasures are to be found there?  And indeed, according to those who have explored and written about this realm, all our nightmares and all our treasures really do live in the subconscious mind.  Shall we go there together?

To begin, I would like you to spend some time observing yourself and the choices that you make.  I would argue that our choices tend two have one of two flavours:  either there is something that we feel we really need or there is something that we’d really like to give.  Basically, needing stems from fear, and the desire for giving from love, the former leads to pain and the latter to joy.  And to be sure, since the world isn’t black-and-white but painted in all sorts of shades, many of our choices are a complex mixture of the two.  This is something we rarely let ourselves think about, perhaps because we are afraid that our self-image doesn’t match actual reality.  By becoming aware of the realms that host our deepest motivations, we become more in touch with ourselves, and since (as I have written previously) creativity also comes from who we are, by getting more in touch with ourselves, we also get more in touch with our creativity.


Observation versus Interpretation

Next I would like you to begin to observe other people around you and the choices they are making.  Note how you might have chosen differently, and imagine all the different decisions that might have been made by a variety of people.  Why might a person choose one way over another?  Who are they, to have chosen in this way?

This is where the second lesson that I drew from the film The Illusionist comes in, namely that there is beauty in seeing ourselves and the world as it is, and that judgment only takes away from that beauty.  As people as well as writers, it’s best to stay away from interpretation and to stick with observation.  Absolutely everything a person does will be coloured by the meaning of the observer, and this meaning isn’t necessarily the same as that of the person acting.  When I say something to my lover and he does not answer, I can interpret that he is ignoring me.  In fact, he may simply not have heard me.  Interpretation most often makes us miserable.

Observation-sans-interpretation is also extremely useful to practice as a writer, since it exactly mirrors the all-important show-don’t-tell!  maxim in creative writing.  What else is “showing” except an observation put down on paper, and what else is “telling” except a judgment or interpretation the writer tries to make for the reader?  Let the readers be the judge, if anyone is to judge.


Past Conditioning

Forrest Carter’s beautiful book The Education of Little Tree is a tale about the education of a young native boy who loses his parents at a young age and is raised by his grandparents.   In one chapter, the young boy tells us about love:

“I knew that when I heard [my grandfather] late at night say, “I kin ye, Bonnie Bee,” he was saying, “I love ye,” for the feeling was in the words.  And when they would be talking and Granma would say, “Do ye kin me, Wales?” and he would answer, “I kin ye,” it meant, “I understand ye.” To them, love and understanding was the same thing.  Granma said you couldn’t love something you didn’t understand; nor could you love people, nor God, if you didn’t understand the people and God.”

The boy goes on to tell us about an old distempered and cantankerous Indian named Coon Jack, and how he just couldn’t figure out why his grandpa treated him so nicely when what he really deserved was a slap in the face.  But his grandpa went on to tell him how Coon Jack, when he was still young, was forced to give up his home, forced to fight in a war he knew nothing about, how he lost his land and his family, and how fighting was all he ever knew.  Even if he was cantankerous, it was life that had made him so.   The boy goes on to tells us his grandfather’s sentiments: “He said after that, it didn’t matter what Coon Jack said, or did. . . he loved him, because he understood him.”

What makes us who we are but our past?  To realize that there is a very good reason why people act as they act can help free us from judging them, and understanding them will most often make us feel love for them, no matter what they might do.


How does all of this translate into writing?

  »  First, when you create your character, consider their motivations, conscious and unconscious.
  »  Second, those motivations come from somewhere, namely the past.
  »  Third, show us a picture of what is, and try not to interpret in the reader’s place.


Towards the end of this two-week period, try to complete one of the following:
      1.      Secrets – Dealing with secrets can work on many levels:  there are those motivations that live in the secret realm, hidden even from ourselves, while some motivations are conscious, but we feel fearful that others might discover them.   Write a short piece that portrays a character who makes a number of choices while keeping in mind the secret – conscious or unconscious – that motivates him or her.  In fact, if you write about more than one character, give each of them a secret motivation, but don’t reveal these to us.  Characters receive a kind of depth that exists in real people when the writer keeps in mind this secret place.

      2.      Write a short scene where the character makes an unusual choice, but don’t explain the why of this decision.  Paint us an image in thoughts, words and actions, but don’t tell us where the choice comes from.  Afterwards, create two separate “backdrop” scenes from the character’s past – one where we come to understand that the why of the choice was motivated by love, and another where we realize that the why was based on fear.  This is an incredible exercise that helps us realize that actions can never be judged from the outside, and that exactly the same action can go be sourced to two completely different motivations.

      3.      Write anything that was inspired by the above text!

500 – 1000 words, as a guideline.