(I was invited to write this essay for publication in Imagination in Action: Thoughts on Creativity by Painters, Sculptors, Musicians, Poets, Novelists, Teachers, Actors…, ed. Carol Malyon. Toronto: The Mercury Press, 2007)

Writing

Why do I create? Creativity is a natural process for my ever-active mind. I create for pleasure. When I am creating, I feel most alive and unique. I create to identify with my own kind, other creators. To emulate creators I admire. To purify, beautify, complicate, and make humorous whatever bores me. Creativity is ultimate control: if not for my arts, my energy would take another form, such as meddling, and nothing would be safe.

As soon as I focused on the subject of creating, ideas for this essay came quickly. Then the hard work began. Some ideas were discarded and later reclaimed. Some were reworded in the hit-or-miss process of trying different possibilities until one felt right. The above paragraph was restructured several times. If it now seems light and effortless, my work has been successful.

These ideas might have just floated around in my mind and found their way into conversation. But there was the strong external motivation for actually writing this essay: pleasure at being asked, the opportunity to be published, a launch party. These considerations aside, my primary source for any creative project is what comes from the well of internal motivation, the pure, direct, innocent and spontaneous creativity from which all art comes, the aspects of childhood that stay with us.

My earliest literary experience would be the rhymes and songs I learned as a child. As I skipped down the sidewalk, I’d repeat them to myself for the pleasure of the sounds and rhythm. If I couldn’t remember all the words, I’d make up some that fit. In the late 1950s at St. John’s High School in Winnipeg, I was influenced by English teachers who loved their work. They taught me how to read in depth by providing historical background for the work being studied. They read parts of it aloud and pointed out the ironic, the complex, the morally uplifting. Literature was the world I wanted. My career choice at the time would have been King Lear’s fool.

During some classes my mind would drift and I would coax out poems of my own. Writing soon consumed me. At the University of Manitoba I majored in English and wrote poems in response to my concerns at the time, falling in love (“Song of a Thin Lover”), my surroundings (“New Snow in March”) and my studies:

 Poor Milton, canst thou ever see
Thyself beneath this summer tree?
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
And I will suntan past the knee
And I’ll be young long after thee,
And I’ll be young long after thee.

Encouraged by my professors, I submitted work to literary journals and lo, my poems appeared in The Fiddlehead Review and The Canadian Forum, among others. What a boon for a socially awkward girl who tended to rant! With suitcase and green portable typewriter, I left home to seek my fortune.

Beginning

How does a piece of writing begin? First, I focus deeply on the inkling of an idea. I quickly get into a meditative state, and my breathing slows down of its own accord. Then a poem might start with a few spontaneous phrases, a line or two, a twist of logic. Whether initiated by playfulness or darker emotion this process is the same, and I chuckle to myself as the poem builds in my mind with irony, with harmony of sound. A story starts similarly, though the idea more often comes out of a character or situation. During the writing process I am open to whatever is around me: a neighbour in the elevator mentions the wet weather and my character builds his home in the clouds. Or a poem starts: climbing the rain. And then there are the everyday objects at hand, a pencil sharpener appearing in several of my recent poems.

Quickly, for they are fleeting, I capture these early ideas on bits of paper which I keep within easy reach. I type the ideas in the order they will likely occur in the final piece and call it Draft One. Then I work from a printout, adding and massaging. When there are so many pencilled changes on the printout that I can’t read it clearly, I retype the piece and call it Draft Two. Early drafts are the opportunity for incorporating more ideas. Eventually there’s a turning point at which I know, with relief and exhilaration, yes, this is the general shape of the piece and it will not significantly change direction. And I know it’s going to be completed. Subsequent drafts are then a matter of more detailed shaping and editing. A piece of writing, for me, can go through as few as two or three drafts or as many as forty.

Writing after a long break is usually motivated by strong emotion. At first I have to push myself to get back into the habit of creative thinking, but soon momentum builds and then any trifle can start a new work. When I came to Toronto in the early 1960s, I experienced such momentum. In a rented room of my own, in a city of my own, I was writing a short story and twenty poems a month.

At that time I had a day job at a company that produced catalogues. After work I often refused social invitations because I couldn’t wait to get back to my writing. Forty years later it’s a different matter. I find that procrastination and its attendant anxiety often set in. What is procrastination? Fear? Doubt? Perversity? Laziness? Part of the creative process? Creating is scary. Perhaps I want to hang on to the excitement of an idea rather than risk spoiling it by working on it. Perhaps it’s a lack of external motivation, since publication is never a sure thing.

Timing

Creativity can strike at any time. When ideas come as I’m falling asleep, unless they are complex and require the computer immediately, I write them down in the dark. I hold a tablet of paper with my left thumb at the top and, by feel, start the first line there. I move my thumb down for each new line so that there is no overlap. I write large, only four or five lines to a page, to ensure legibility in the morning. When ideas come at an awkward time, such as during a haircut or physiotherapy, I just let them go. They, or other equally good ideas, may or may not come again later.

What moves me to create? Often the art form itself, whichever one I am immersed in at the time. And my circumstances: my books of poetry are very different. The first was a product of young exuberance and was a collection of ten years of writing. The second, following soon after, was a product of being in love and the eventual decline of that relationship. The third, published ten years later, came out of the deaths of my parents. There are fallow periods between my books. When I start writing again I enjoy seeing how I have changed reflected in my writing. Years after the publication of these books I became active in the Toronto storytelling community. And so, steeped in folktales, my next writing came out as narrative, rather than poetry.

The seed for this new writing emerged on public transit. It was rush hour, and I heard estimates that the bus would take ten minutes to get around the corner. As I half-dozed in my window seat, a story, fuelled by the pain of lost love, betrayal, and injustice, formed in my mind. I could visualize it complete on one page, short enough to remember until I could get home and write it down. In the succeeding days a related three-page story emerged, and then a five-pager. With the eight-page story that followed I realized I was writing a book of short fiction. That realization what was made me—in the mid-’80s—buy my first computer. I used it to complete the writing of what became The Emperor’s Body.

Even in fiction I use poetry technique: minute attention to the meaning, sound, and implication of every word, and to the rhythm of every sentence. The Emperor’s Body is a dense book, tightly packed with innuendo and allusion. Here is an excerpt from the title story:

The Emperor of the High Peak. Emperor of the Sharp Peak, Emperor of Blood in the Snow. These were the fur-clad Emperors high on the mountain, surveying the distant east, who planned defenses of the territories they held and those they intended to hold. Over time, responsibility for outlying territories became burdensome and peace was seen in a favourable light. The Emperor of Clinging in the Wind moved the palace down the milder, west slope of the mountain, releasing the territories he could no longer see. In the time of the Emperor of the Cozy Crevice, the first to replace boots with slippers, the beginnings of a town gathered around the palace. Gradually the palace and  its surrounding town moved right down the mountain to the edge of the sea. The citizens enjoyed the beach and there flourished a long, uneventful dynasty characterized by reflection: The Emperor of One Toe in the Water, Emperor of Two Toes in the Water, Emperor of Three Toes in the Water, and so on, to the twin Emperors, Their Majesties of Infinity and Grain of Sand.

Writing has its sensuous aspects. Rhythm, rhyme, and the feeling of the words in my mouth whether or not I’m saying them aloud—these are all part of my writing experience. The visual-tactile arts are sensuous in a different way. There is the experience of colours and shapes, the smells of the materials, the physical freedom of spreading out and moving things around. Needles, scissors, brushes, and pencils all get handled in their own way, just as drafting tables, sewing machines, and computers each require a specific posture.

Visual-Tactile Arts

The visual-tactile arts (and crafts—I see a continuum rather than a strict division) have always been with me. As the first child in an extended family household, I was included in sewing sessions with my mother and aunts. I loved to handle fabric even if we were only hemming dish towels. At other times when I would complain I had nothing to do, my mother would say, Why don’t you make something? I eagerly learned crafts at school and from children’s magazines. I would follow directions, then invent other projects using the same techniques in other ways. Original, intricate paper doilies and crepe-paper flowers found their way into greetings cards and party decorations. I sewed whenever I could. In my teens I was allowed to make clothes for myself, then for my younger sister, then for my aunt, and finally for my mother.

I found that making things provided a welcome balance to my employment as a teacher of English as a second language, an extremely verbal and involving experience. There was a meditative pleasure in choosing patterns and fabrics for sewing my own clothes, including swimsuits and a winter coat. In the early 1970s at Sheridan College I studied fibre arts, including weaving, fabric printing, and soft sculpture.

Decades later at the Toronto School of Art, I studied watermedia, a combination of watercolour, transparent acrylic media, watercolour pencils, and charcoal. In 2002, I had a show of watermedia pieces at the Annex Art Centre. Today, in 2007, I exhibit regularly in members’ group shows at the Arts & Letters Club of Toronto.

For the Club’s self-portrait show in 2005, I tried drawing myself in the mirror but couldn’t get beyond the severe, concentrated expression of someone who is drawing. Instead I attempted a painting based on photographs of me but found it tedious and my heart wasn’t in it. Then I thought of using the photographs themselves and immediately felt relieved to be constructing something, still easier for me than painting. I photocopied them in black and white, greatly enlarged, and cropped them into sections, which I planned to paste onto dark coloured paper. This idea came up in the middle of the night, and I couldn’t wait for the stores to open. I removed a set of poems from a dark green hanging folder and used it, with its metal hooks sticking out the ends, as the background for what turned out to be an assemblage. The folder was not intended to be a permanent background, but I realized how apt it was.

The piece became “Self-Portrait: Writer,” and initiated my Office Series, which combines watercolour with envelopes, elastic bands and staples. Now when I’m in a stationery store, as well as getting excited about writing, I get excited about visual-tactile materials, as I do with materials in a fabric or art supply store.

When the Arts & Letters Club was planning a watercolour exhibition, also in 2005, I wanted to do a straightforward watercolour painting. Out of visual attraction I chose to paint Bosc pears. I have always liked the way the tops of these pears elongate and extend into the stem. I had in mind to duplicate this shape in mirror image, but the samples I sketched felt contrived. I painted samples in which the pears were too realistic and I had no idea what to do with the rest of the space. These paintings were only ten inches square, so when one didn’t work out I didn’t feel I’d wasted much paper. This is also a convenient size for people to hang in their homes, and I feel that a small subject works well in a small size. I liked what I did with colour, fracturing the golden beige of the pears into the brighter colours that would make up that beige. I painted very loosely so that the shapes of the pears were only suggested. I moved the images of the pears around on the page, experimenting with new brushes and emphasizing different colours in the same palate.

I completed a series of ten small “Three Pears” paintings I was happy with. Weeks later I became aware of an unconscious aspect to these paintings. Two from the middle of the series, with their sharper angles and stronger colours, seemed agitated. These had been done just before the arrival of a house guest. I was both excited at expecting company and resentful at having to fold away my main art table to make room for the air mattress.

Commitment

My commitment to my arts has sometimes created difficulties in living in the real world. I was once in a situation in which my partner at the time was very happy to be the subject of love poems. He didn’t seem to mind my being distracted or uncommunicative while I was working on them. But when I was writing poems about my parents, he made his displeasure known. He picked arguments based on trifles. When the arguments escalated he finally left at my request.

Any kind of adversarial relationship or forced emotional entanglement is anathema to my creativity, and I avoid such situations. In response to expressions of hostility, I curb any impulse to repay in kind. Being open, even gullible, rather than calculating, is essential to my ability to create. A large part of what I’ve wanted in life is simply to be left in peace to work on my arts.

Contrary to my expectations in my early twenties, earning my living through writing turned out to be unrealistic. What I choose to write tends not to earn much, and money as a serious external motivation rarely applies to me. Teaching and other activities that involve engaging with people use the same kind of creative energy as writing: feeling my way, responding, using words. I’ve enjoyed teaching and have found that a little teaching can stimulate writing. A lot of teaching, however, exhausts me. Would a job with less mental involvement have been better? I don’t know from experience, but earning a reasonable income was, of course, a consideration. The stress of not being able to pay the rent would seriously have hampered my creativity. Early retirement, which nicely freed up time for my creative work, meant a more modest standard of living, but I haven’t suffered as a consequence.

While I was writing The Emperor’s Body, I was able to take a year’s unpaid leave from teaching. During that time, I was really able to focus on the book, working on it for two daily sessions of three hours each. This sometimes required discipline, but basically I was steeped in the writing and came back to it each time as eagerly as to an intimate companion. I would punctuate the flow of these sessions by getting up and stretching, making tea or, alas, snacking. I would take printouts to restaurants and work on them before my lunch arrived. The minimal interaction with the wait staff would be my only human contact. I soon found I could go for four days like this before becoming anxious and needing company, so I planned social activities in advance and the work proceeded nicely.

The flow of writing is easily disturbed if I’m interrupted. For writing I require solitude and silence. Even a trace of music or television, say, from a neighbouring apartment, would intrude with its imposition of rhythm and emotional content. Knowing that I have an appointment later in the day breaks up the ideal of uninterrupted time, even though much of it might not be spent in actual creating. Before the days of phone-answering systems, if I were creating and the phone rang I became enraged. The rage was even greater if the phone rang just as I was just about to start creating. Having to engage in real talk, having to meet new people and draw them out in conversation, or to be drawn out—these wrench me out of the imaginary world I am bringing to life. Once, while I was immersed in writing, I had to buy a gift for someone close. I would have found it easier to buy a gift for one of my characters, with whom I was more intimately involved at the time.

That being said, friends are an important part of my creative process. When I take a piece of writing as far as I can, I show it to one or two friends for their feedback. Part of this is affirmation: writing, like every art form, is a communicative act; it needs to be experienced by someone else before I feel it is compete. This reading by my friends also serves to check whether the piece is clear and gives the overall impression I intended. In short, it tells me whether I’ve succeeded.

These last few weeks, in addition to working on this essay, I’ve completed a skit for a satirical review and a poem. Now it’s time for a few days of puttering, going for walks, seeing a movie, enjoying social life. Next is an art project for a show to be hung in three weeks. I’ll be combining watermedia with the tiny black paper-clamps I love so much. I will have to make sure there are some black-and-white areas so that the clamps are integrated. I will likely use charcoal, which smudges richly when painted over. I’ll be cutting out shapes so the clamps will have edges to fasten onto. I might use conventional paper clips, as well. At this point I have no idea what it will actually look like and am excited to find out.

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