Earlier this month, I met with the fabulous Frances McCue who, among many things, is a writer, co-founder of Seattle’s Richard Hugo House and a self-described arts instigator. The most impactful facilitator of my Artist Trust EDGE experience in 2012, Frances inspired me to think more expansively about my creative life by describing the interlocking layers of her own. What I learned in EDGE has proved seminal to the development of my writing practice, which has, in turn, caused me to consider the world differently.
As we sat down, she drew a large sheet of white butcher paper over the café table and used it to visually map the notes of our conversation. Listening to her assess my writing practice, I was surprised and relieved when she summed up what I’ve been struggling to describe for months – namely that my work is about making writing and the creative process visible. She wrote it down and circled it, and it has been on my mind ever since.
In the meantime, I’ve been working on an essay about A Novel Performance, an experience that revealed and turned many things inside-out in ways I couldn’t anticipate. After spending a month on the third floor, I look at the role of the public library differently, as well as its architecture; I approach my creative process with fresh intentions and, I hope, those who saw the installation are thinking about writers and the value of their work in new ways, too. I’ll be sending that essay around this month, and hope to be able to share news of its publication.
Looking back at my proposal to 4Culture, I see a determined naiveté, which is how all proposed art projects appear upon later review. (Or, maybe it’s just me.) You can never truly conceive of the mountain you’ve set before yourself when you’re dreaming up an idea, or the ways in which you will change during and after the climb. Maybe this is a good thing, for we probably wouldn’t undertake these projects if we knew what would they call on us to do, or how they would irrevocably change us.
Even when we invite change, we still want to direct our own self-development. Yet, in order to evolve in any situation, we must face things outside of our control, learn to adapt goals and expectations, and innovate when what we desire or depend on –the so-called constant– does not materialize as we’ve dreamed. We put ourselves into creative risk again and again because we know we cannot relinquish control any other way. Last year, if someone told me to spend a month in a public building that I didn’t like where strangers could watch me write on a big screen with nothing more between us than three feet of air and a stanchion rope, I would have said they were nuts.
Thinking about the openness and quality of light in the Central Library’s Living Room, my own living room for the month of November, gives me a sensory metaphor for the way I’m approaching the new year. For all of my literary achievements in 2014, including (finally!) publication of a short story, my focus remained heavily on building infrastructure and understanding process – a lot of inward-facing stuff. In certain sense, A Novel Performance was a coming-out party, as if my writing practice was an origami cootie catcher and I was able, at last, to unfold and unfold and unfold, and lay the whole thing open.
Many things feel this way to me now: my home life and friendships, travel, the topics I’m planning to write about and, in a way, the world. I came out of NaNoWriMo with several new ideas that I can’t wait to begin, and one older piece to tie up; as always, finding time outside of work is the greatest challenge. Still, every time I begin to grouse, I consider what I achieved only a month ago. If I could write 70,000 words in 27 days, how might I leverage those lessons into a more grounded regular practice? One of my new year’s goals is to finish one piece a month, whether flash fiction, essay or short fiction. (Last year, I completed five.)
Part of what I learned was how to filter the less important stuff. Obviously, NaNoWriMo is an extreme experience intended to be transitory, but it taught me how to identify the attention-gobbling minutiae. Day to day, I press myself to choose: what’s more important, writing or ____? A bike ride or an evening with friends often wins because health and relationships are deeply important to me, and part of the greater joy of living.
That’s how I look at opportunities now: will ____ feed my understanding or love of being alive? Will it make someone else’s life better? Will this activity give me exercise or rest? Does it feed me in some way – mentally, physically, spiritually? When it’s done, will I feel happy or satisfied in some way, or will I wish that I would have better spent those precious hours, which I’ll never get back? It’s easy to go on auto-pilot when we’re tired, so I find myself constantly remembering to stay present enough to ask: which things are part of my overall master plan? The ones that pass the test usually do two things: enhance inner joy and provide some sort of creative inspiration.
The last bit is the biggest learning I think I’ll do in my lifetime (still working on it) – namely that, when you’re in creative flow, almost any experience can be an opportunity for growth. The ones that aren’t –mindless video games, for instance– must go. (Except Scrabble. That’s kind of educational, right?)
Another plan for the new year is to let go of fear as a driving force. How many of our decisions are based on apprehension of a negative outcome? We despise it, but fear is very familiar to us and humans do nothing so well as cling to the pain we know. We stay in jobs we dislike because they provide financial security or we maintain ill-fitting relationships for fear of loneliness or loss of a future boon. For its cloak of supposed benefits, fear is crushing to the artistic spirit. It’s almost impossible to create something when you’re focused on mitigating potential disaster, loss or disappointment. It’s hard to break free of this mentality, but I will continue to ask myself each day: how does being afraid of ____ really serve me?
With that, I’ve decided that my theme for 2015 is breaking boundaries. This spring, I will attend BinderCon in Los Angeles, an inspirational symposium for women writers. (If you’re curious about the name, it’s a response to Mitt Romney’s phrase, “I went to a number of women’s groups and said: ‘Can you help us find folks?’ And they brought us whole binders full of women.”) I’ll also be creating content for a multi-media installation called Ugly Me, which opens at the Jack Straw New Media Gallery in July. Its ultimate expression will likely surprise me, but for now, I’m planning to explore identity and self-worth through the medium of the selfie. Stay tuned.
The writing projects I have planned are starting to make a strange kind of sense, too. I realized that I have enough material for the foundation of a short story collection about women who don’t play by the rules. These characters don’t misbehave for the sake of misbehaving, but instead show us something about ourselves – what we struggle with as we age, how our relationships become complex and how, in order to win (if there is such a thing as winning) we are asked to trade unthinkable things. These ladies are primed to break out of the binder, too.
At the dawn of 2014, I felt non-plussed for some reason; I didn’t even make resolutions. Me, the list-maker. Good things happened, but it was a hard year. Perhaps it’s the week of crystal clear bluebird skies that we’re having in Seattle now, but I feel genuinely excited about 2015. Brave and saucy, even. Not just about fun things like traveling to Australia for the first time or riding my new bike around Lake Washington (I’ll make it some day), but about good things blossoming for all my friends and loved ones. We’re in this together, and it’s going to be amazing.
Back in 2010 when I got serious about writing, my aim was about creating something good; underneath, I was afraid of failing. Today, thanks to EDGE, Frances and a collective of mentors, my practice is about exploring and creating things that I can’t yet conceive of, and letting them become what they will. Welcome, 2015.