The Power of Collaboration

I often tell my writing students that we all write alone but we shouldn’t always write alone. What I usually mean by this that nobody can adequately read their own writing much of the time, so we need someone else—or better yet, a few someone elses—to give us feedback.

But recently I got the opportunity to work with a new friend on a new creative endeavor. Although we are both teachers, we are also artists: she, a photographer, and me, a poet. I have frequently caught my breath when seeing her photographs of the city. Sometimes they are simply (“simply”) from an unusual angle—from the ground looking down the trolley tracks, or from the top of a spiraling stairway. Sometimes it’s the filter she uses: a street corner with all the colors but blue drained away, for example. It reminds me of M.C. Escher or Georgia O’Keeffe. And of course, that’s what artists do: find some lens that stops us in our tracks and forces us to look, to actually see what is in front of us.

We were discussing this over sushi and beer on St. Patrick’s Day (because, duh, sushi on St. Patrick’s Day) and decided to set up on Instagram account to present pairs of our work. She would send me a photo and I would write a poem.

So we set it up. (Okay, TBH she set it up and I nodded and gave opinions when she asked me about choices. I did mention that I’m the poet here.) Over the second beer, we came up with the description of the project @vertexekphrases:

“Our project: creating common endpoints of two rays, where lines meet and act as a rhetorical device where one medium of art works to relate to another.”

We liked the image of the vertex, since the two rays are always at the same angle to each other, no matter how far out the rays go, so even when our two art forms are very different, we can still be in conversation with each other, or the art we make can be.

I’ve engage in ekphrasis for years, usually writing poetry about Japanese woodblock art, as I have written about here before, but also writing about the works of artists such as Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper. But now, I get to write into the works of a contemporary artist. Yay me!

From the Ashes, a Fire Shall Rise

Spring has arrived. It took about 123 weeks, but it happened. The snowbells are blooming, the sun is shining, the Democrats took back the House, and I think I may be able to write again.

Until the last presidential election here in the US, I had not clearly seen what an act of hope writing is: we hope we figure out our thinking, we hope someone publishes it, we hope someone reads it, we hope it makes a difference. And when your hopes for a better world, or a good world, or at least a world not currently ablaze and flooding at the same time, at a time, I say, when those hopes are dashed not just in the course of an evening as the map of your nation turns red with what isn’t currently blood but could be, but also over the course of day after day, week after week, month after month—

I think you see where I’m going with this. Circumstances like that make it hard to have enough hope to write.

I’ve tried. I’ve started things, short and long, but they never seem to lead anywhere and I can’t see the way forward. So I stopped.

It reminds me a bit of that moment in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when Harry is up in Dumbledore’s office and he sees his professor’s old, sick bird burst into flames and turn into a pile of ash. “Your bird,” says Harry frantically when Dumbledore returns to his office. “I couldn’t do anything—he just caught fire—”

Dumbledore explains, “Phoenixes burst into flame when it is time for them to die and are reborn from the ashes.”

I was thinking of this because of a project I got starting with a friend and the thought that our conversations these past few days got the ashes sparking again. I will be writing about that soon, and hopefully (feathers crossed) often in the coming days. And weeks. And months.

Image: “Phoenix Rising” by Michael Balchan0316-phoenix-rising

Back toward the Light

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Toward the end of the film, Fried Green Tomatoes, when the main character, who has been going through a mid-life crisis, suddenly starts to settle into a new, saner rhythm, her husband asks, “What changed?” She answers, “The light?”

While that’s not exactly true, I understand the thinking behind the line. Although in the modern first world we can control the light at any time of night or day, natural light still has a lot of power over us. Winter Solstice, two weeks ago, marked the start of increasing light every day, and on days when rain or snow haven’t messed with natural sundown, I have been feeling more hopeful and creative.

I want to dig into my novel again. It occurred to me that, although traditional conflict means making every possible situation and interaction get worse for your main character, the opposite might be just as stressful for some people. Dealing with a rash of unexpected good luck might lead to decisions that could be just as problematic as decisions stemming from bad luck.

The fact that my life has been in small ways imitating art these days surely has absolutely no possible bearing on this experimental idea.

Social Media as a form of Constructive Procrastination

Social media is not the villain everyone claims it to be. Sometimes social media actually helps us get stuff done. I often have a Word doc open on one side of my computer and some social media site open on the other side. When my brain wanders, it has a place to go for a few minutes to rest and recuperate and do other things that also probably start with the letter R. If I am lonely, I can feel connected briefly. If I feel like what I say doesn’t matter, I can hit the little thumbs-up hand and Like all kinds of stuff.

I mean think about it. Facebook has cat videos (and goat, otter, dog and people videos, but we all know what really matters). My Facebook feed also has groups dedicated to my favorite actors, TV shows, movie franchises, writing and social justice, mostly in that order. You would think that such things would be Inspirational, Moving Me To Write Stuff. I mean, after all, putting up motivational posters in Pinterest helps me to get my sorry little butt to the gym, right?

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Of course, the gym is easy. You show up and lift things over and over again. Then you go lift other things over and over again. You don’t need to think, “Yes, sure, but WHY does this 25 lb. weight NEED to be lifted? What is it trying to ACHIEVE? What will be the CONSEQUENCES of my lifting it?”

Is there anybody here, maybe that lady on the elliptical machine or the guy jumping up and down, thinking, “WHY must she lift that? Why can’t she just LEAVE IT ALONE?”

And the chick who takes the laundry basket filled with used towels, she is probably thinking, “I am the PROTAGONIST, dammit, not that 25 lb. weight, which isn’t CHOOSING to be lifted, the way I am CHOOSING to launder the damn towels for the tenth time since Monday!”

And the trainer who is showing some guy the Proper Way to Do Squats, she glances across the gym floor and thinks, “Yes, but HOW WILL IT ALL END?” Or possibly, she is just wishing she had had that second cup of coffee.

I mean, you don’t actually have to PLOT your gym time. The weight might or might not be expecting to get a happy ending, but it’s not telling either way, so you can pretty much tell people, when you get to the end of your workout, that you killed it.

So social media must work, because, no, I haven’t worked on my novel today, but I did just manage to bang out a blogpost.

Plan B

So, after writing about a hundred pages of a novel in the past three months, I am at a standstill. I’ve tried writing little bits, transitions, etc., but that did not get me very far, so I am instead now taking notes on the next story, which has characters and some action but no clear single plot, so it’s not exactly making me feel any better. Is it productive? Yes, potentially. Does it feel productive? Nope.

Not Talking about It Doesn’t Make It Better

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Artists are a superstitious lot. In a recent essay in the National Review, John J. Miller tells how some of the writers he interviewed refused to discuss writer’s block. One even said it was “the way some people won’t talk about cancer.” The implication is that talking about something will magnetize it to you and then you are done for.

Somehow I doubt that is how cancer works, and although I can imagine exceptions, I think that also isn’t how writer’s block works. Not talking about cancer, not getting tested doesn’t make cancer not hit you or not kill you. Generally speaking those strategies only make it worse.

One could argue, I suppose, that since writer’s block is a psychological/intellectual/emotional issue, focusing time and attention on it might foster the self-doubt that could create it, but I think if that’s true, you might already be dealing with it, as if the talk only watered the seeds that were already there. But if somebody is going strong on a piece of work, what are they so afraid of?

Also, just as talking about cancer to just anybody isn’t necessarily going to solve it—unless you are talking to a certified doctor/surgeon, the cure isn’t coming—so talking about your writer’s block to your cat/boyfriend/boss may not help either and depending on how they respond to your concerns, yes, it might well hurt. But there are people out there who can help, people who know what kinds of things can cause blocks, so you can talk about the actual problem rather than the symptom of the problem. (And no, I don’t mean some kind of Freudian b^!!$&!t, which I only mention at all because Miller points out that it was a Freudian who invented the term writer’s block.)

Just a surface level consideration brings up a number of possibilities: crippling anxiety, overwork in other arenas, tackling a problem the writer doesn’t know how to solve (and may not realize it), inadequate sleep or hydration, and of course, the one that Miller highlights, perfectionism.

Perfectionism is one of the most dangerous, because it may actually have been useful to the writer in the past. I see a lot of MIT students who got here by insisting on perfection, but will never graduate until they let go of it. As Miller says, “They may be letting the perfect become the enemy of the good—or even worse, as my old boss Fred Barnes once put it, they’re letting the pretty good become the enemy of the good enough.”

One of the exercises that helps is the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) strategy: give yourself a deadline and some supporters and write an insane number of words per day for a very limited time, focusing on quantity, not quality. Make friends with the good enough. It’s not a whole solution, but it’s a start.

Miller, John J. “Wordsmiths Without Words.” National Review 23 May 2016: 23-24.