P.S. more on the creative spirit

91LlW46QU-LMichelle’s story about meeting her creative spirit was so funny and specific that I forgot until this morning that the first time I ran across this exercise it was in a book by Julia Cameron called The Artist’s Way. In all three of her artist’s way books Cameron stresses the importance of the ‘artist’s date’ – in which you take your inner artist (or creative child) out on a date, pay attention to them (her, him, or it), and do something they’d like to do. Because the date is for your inner artist/child/muse (or in Michelle’s case, for Bobo), you go ‘alone’, to make sure you’re paying attention and listening to your creative spirit instead of to a human companion. (Cameron writes that one of her favorite artist dates was a clock store in NYC.)

UnknownLynda Barry, in her book of exercises and thoughts on creativity What It Is, also talks about writing and making visual art, what can stop you, or mess with you, and what can help you get to that place where you’re in touch with … I want to call it primal creativity – which, in Barry’s book of words and pictures sometimes appears as a monkey (the medieval symbol for the artist) and sometimes as a childlike-looking octopus…a wide-eyed blob with legs, swimming in the deep.

Imagining hope, the creative spirit

From my friend Michelle Lewis Kim, about a suggestion from her writing teacher that put her in touch with a hope-restorer:


the blue stellar blob of Omega Centauri, the largest globular star cluster in the Milky Way

One day when I was talking with my writing teacher about how hard it can be for me to write, she said, “Maybe you need to talk to your creative spirit, find out what it wants to do.” As she was saying this, I felt like someone was floating in the air behind me. I knew right away that he was a blue blob and his name was Bobo. As my writing teacher was saying, “…. you know, see if it wants to go on an outing or something,” Bobo started bobbing up and down, and then zooming in circles around me.

The next morning Bobo picked out my outfit (an orange poofy skirt with sparkly tights, two items I have never put together before), and directed me on how to apply makeup (no eye makeup, and VERY BRIGHT lipstick). Then off we went, to take the bus on an adventure. We ended up in Fremont at a cake shop – yum.

In the bus on the way home I thought about our day, and how much fun I’d had with Bobo, and the way I tend to put my Creative Spirit aside in the name of accomplishment and organization. This train of thought gave me an idea for a children’s book. I wrote it as soon as I got home, with Bobo at my shoulder. (And I’ve roped my fourteen year-old nephew into illustrating it with me, giving me a chance to know him better, too.)

Imagining hope, the writing exercise

Been telling friends about this writing exercise from Tristine Rainer’s book, Your Life as Story: Writing the New Autobiography, but the exercise was actually put together by another author and memoir-writing teacher, Deena Metzger, along with a student in one of her classes. In DownloadedFileWriting for Your Life, Metzger recounts how this student had had such a barren upbringing (father dead, mother an alcoholic), that she felt she had no history, nothing to write about. Metzger suggested she write about an aunt of hers, an artist who lived in Manhattan, imagining whatever she didn’t know (which was nearly everything). Instead of simply making a portrait of her aunt, the student ended up writing an entire imaginary history, in which the aunt became her friend and mentor, and took her to live with her in NYC. According to Metzger, the student writer was transformed; she had changed how she felt in the present by creating a new past for herself.

Ursula Le Guin at the National Book Awards

imagesI was thinking about tricksters and detectives when a friend of mine sent me this link to Ursula Le Guin’s acceptance speech at the National Book Awards. In about six minutes, she politely (well, she speaks softly and she is a little old lady — and she can make a shrug and a half-smile go the distance) lambasts the publishing industry, and points to where their bums are hanging out. She begins by accepting her award in the name of her family and agents, but then goes on to accept in the name of all those “writers of the imagination” who, for the past 50 years, watched the big awards go to “the so-called realists“.

Le Guin (aka Grandmother Coyote) goes on to say that she thinks hard times are upon us, when we need writers “who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being…and even imagine grounds for hope. We will need the writers who remember freedom, the poets and visionaries…the realists of a larger reality.” (italics mine)

Political correctness and the shadow, a link

Becky Tuch’s piece on political correctness, from a group literary blog called Beyond the Margins, looks at shadow in character from another angle — that of the writer’s reaction to disturbing qualities in her characters. In “Pushing Past Political Correctness”, Becky Tuch discusses how the need for political correctness can inhibit the writer, falsify her characters, and constrict the story. In the comments section a heartful response from Mary Jo Hetzel (a writer who has been an activist since childhood) opens up the topic of PC from her own experiences.

Quote from Paul Auster’s Moon Palace

Here’s another quote about writing that seems to be about something else, from Paul Auster’s novel, Moon PalaceThe main character is talking about the difficulty of describing what he sees to his employer, Thomas Effing, who is in a wheelchair, as they take their daily walks through New York:

“The important thing to remember was that Effing was blind. My job was not to exhaust him with lengthy catalogues, but to help him see things for himself. In the end, the words didn’t matter. Their task was to enable him to apprehend the objects as quickly as possible, and in order to do that, I had to make them disappear the moment they were pronounced. . . .I discovered that the more air I left around a thing, the happier the results, for that allowed Effing to do the crucial work on his own: to construct an image on the basis of a few hints, to feel his own mind traveling toward the thing I was describing for him.”



More from Diana Wynne Jones: writing about ‘baddies’

Still reading Reflections on the Magic of Writing, by Diana Wynne Jones, and came across this advice to young writers, the vice versa to protagonists having a shadow side:

“You have to remember that villains are real people too. They have reasons for what they do . . . and they do not, as a rule, regard themselves as evil. They are acting for a cause, or out of deeply held convictions which have led them the wrong way. A lot of writers forget this. They make the baddie give evil laughs and rejoice in his/her wickedness — or worse, they wriggle out by making the villain mad. . . .The majority of bad people are not like this.

“And here is a tip, something I often do. Make your baddie someone you know and dislike. Use a real live person. Then there will be no trouble in making him/her convincing. You know them anyway. People are often shocked when I say this. But, since no bad person ever thinks of themselves as bad, these live people will always fail to recognize themselves and there is no harm done. Besides, they deserve it.”

Quote from Robert Fate on intuition

DownloadedFile“…in our line of work if we don’t trust our hunches, we’re just shovelin’ regrets to make compost.”

From Jugglers at the Border, by Robert Fate, third in his series about Kristin van Dijk, aka Baby Shark, a young woman who is a pool hustler and private investigator in 1950s Texas. Her partner and mentor Otis Millett delivers this line about being a detective, but it works just as well for writing.

One of the (many) great things about this series is that Fate knows what Texas was like in the pre-feminist ’50s. Kristin, Otis, and their friend Henry, who is Chinese, are all marginal people — like all good detectives they live out on the edge. Unlike Sam Spade, though, who seems to trust no one, they make their own community.

Quote from Diana Wynne Jones on happy endings

DownloadedFile“It is no accident that the majority of folktales . . . have a happy ending. Most of them are very deep-level blueprints of how to aim for the moon. The happy ending does not only give you gratification as you read it, but it also gives you hope that, just maybe, a fortunate outcome could be possible. Your brain likes that. It is built to want a solution.”

From Reflections: On the Magic of Writing, by Diana Wynne Jones, a collection of speeches, essays, and autobiography compiled before she died in 2011. She wrote forty-something books of fantasy, including Howl’s Moving Castle, Fire and Hemlock, the Chrestomanci series (about a magician with nine lives), The Dalemark Quartet, Dark Lord of Derkholm, The Game, etc., etc., and even a Tough Guide to FantasyLand, that asks the question: Why do the people in fantasies always eat stew?

Books on writing

DownloadedFile-1Since I can’t remember all the places where I may have read about how character flaws contribute to the movement of the story, I’ll give random credit by listing some of my favorite writing books.

Making a Literary Life, by Carolyn See. A wonderful book, ferocious and funny. Like this: “…plots are like wooden hangers in a closet. You don’t refuse to hang up your shirt because that hanger’s already been used a few times.” See offers plenty of writing advice, but a subtext makes the book ring like a gong and feel more like a story than a writing manual.

On Writing, by Stephen King. This one is more memoir than writing manual, harrowing and hilarious (he had the worst babysitter ever), and (like the See book) a great read at 4:00 a.m. King does include writing advice, like: “The adverb is not your friend.” And he takes a few pages to rant about the passive voice: “…everyone is entitled to his/her opinion, but I don’t believe With a hammer Frank was killed will ever replace He killed Frank with a hammer.”

Storyteller, by Kate Wilhelm. With her husband Damon Knight, Wilhelm was one of the guiding lights behind Clarion West, an ongoing writing workshop for science fiction and fantasy writers. Much of this book is the story of Clarion West, with writing exercises throughout that she compiles at the end of the book for easy reference. Wilhelm is one of the few people to give specific exercises on how to write fiction from an image in your head as opposed to an idea — from a picture and a feeling instead of a thought.

Steering the Craft, by Ursula Le Guin. This is a straightforward writing manual, set up like one of her writing workshops, with the benefit of asides. Le Guin covers point of view, sentence length, how the writing sounds, punctuation, etc., and gives lots of detailed exercises to “consciousness raise” the writer; the book is all about stretching. She includes plenty of examples from literature, but it’s the commentary around the exercises that gets her points across.

The New Diary and Your Life as Story, by Tristine Rainer. These two books are specific to writing diary and/or memoir, but they are full of writing prompts that could work for fiction as well. Rainer includes writing from her students and from published authors that inspire on multiple levels, and both books are full of eye-openers. Her brief history of autobiography, for instance, says that the first memoirs were of the pharaohs; their stories were carved in stone and written in the first person, after their ‘authors’ were dead. How’s that for a literary device?

Okay, these are the writing books I enjoy most, and I don’t remember anything in them about story arc, although the Rainer one, Your Life as Story, does talk about structuring a story. So a theory about character flaw and story arc may well be there. But even if it isn’t, what the hey, these are all good books.