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How We Work

Richard Long, "Summer Circle." Stone installation.
Just as appetite comes by eating, so work brings inspiration, if inspiration is not discernible at the beginning.
- Igor Stravinsky

It was Emile Zola who kept a motto in his workroom: Null dies sine linea. "No day without line.' He wrote one thousand to fifteen hundred words a day, until in thirty-one years he finished with businesslike dispatch something like twenty-five novels and twenty-three other books. When you have nothing to say, you write anyway, if only to keep in practice.
- Sophy Burnham

Are you working?

Perhaps, like me you've been bouncing back and forth between intense spurts of work and fallow dips not quite procrastination, not quite inspiration. Creating anything is tough. Being your own boss is tough. Combining the two is a little like stalking a bird that comes only unbidden. There are good and not so good work patterns, and ways to break in and out of those patterns. This post adds to my earlier posts on this topic.

There are unlimited and divergent arguments for how and when to write, and methods to write your best. There are "sit down and do it" disciplinarians who manage to scratch out something on the page even in the grip of a creative block to make their word counts. And those, Sophy Burnham points out, who find putting pen on paper (fingers on keyboard) plain good practice. Stravinsky believed that simply beginning was the best catalyst: inspiration often arrives in the midst of aimlessness on the page.

Dream the idea and write only when the spark ignites. Is this you? This approach was famously championed by Truman Capote, who confessed, "I am a completely horizontal author. I can't think unless I'm lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee in hand." Many writers, Walt Whitman and Stephen King to name just two, are staunch advocates of active dreaming: long walks or periods of exercise to spur the creative. Others prepare and wait. Agatha Christie cleared a space on a kitchen table - any flat stable surface would do. Some need a blank wall, a closed door, and zero distraction; others, like Harriet Doerr, begin with visual stimulation - "I have everything I need. A square of sky, a piece of stone, a page, a pen, and memory raining down on me in sleeves."

The key to a successful creative work life begins with the acknowledgment that creative effort is exactly that: creativity plus effort. For a writer, it may feel as though the cart fell before the horse to sit down and pound out 500 words without a clue as to what we are going to say. Yet halfway through that paragraph, our theme may announce itself. Musicians find composition riffs frequently follow routine practices, fingers and mind warmed to the task. Painters uncover a fresh color palette or a stroke that inspires. Dancers choreograph in the process of working out better moves. There is some essential element of art that occurs in execution...sparked or partnered by an equally important guiding concept. An idea without an effort remains a fancy, as effort without direction remains aimless. It's a team game.

But back to Capote on his couch and Zola scribbling out his pages... Both writers are maximizing their capabilities. Both men understand how they work their best. Look within to understand the method to get work done. Desperate for inspiration, do we encourage creative flow conceptually, or anchor work to a defined theme or idea? Is "dead time" mental gestation, or procrastination - a question of sitting down and doing the work? The creative individual has to be self-aware, utterly honest, and willing to own the solution to the problem.

What are your musts? Your preferences? How do you ease into your most creative pattern, or do you just drop in and begin?

It took time to realize I work best balanced between two types of writing: PRACTICE writing (journaling, idea sketches, bits of essays, drafts of book reviews) and PURPOSEFUL writing (putting a theme into structure and on the page.) These distinct tasks engage different skills and wells of creative thinking, and somehow cross-fertilize one another. I shrivel faced with a wall without a window or a bit of nature to gaze on. I do need utter quiet, unless I am editing, in which case easy jazz is best. And on days I just don't want to sit down and do any of it, I often don't. That's the day for a hike, for reading, for lying on Capote's couch.

The big lesson has been to TRUST THE FALLOW time. Days of zero output are days of mental work. Ideas gel. The mess in Chapter 20 untangles in the back of our brain even as we step away and dutifully prune the apple tree. The muse hangs out in the moments before sleep, appears mile 5 of our morning run.

Creativity + Effort. It truly doesn't matter which side of the equation we solve for first.
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Ancient Greek Temple, Sicily
by Robert Lowell

Now the midwinter grind
is on me, New York
drills through my nerves,
as I walk
the chewed-up streets.

At forty-five,
what next, what next?
At every corner,
I meet my Father,
my age, still alive.

Father, forgive me
my injuries,
as I forgive
those I
have injured!

You never climbed
Mount Sion, yet left
death-steps on the crust,
where I must walk.

My birthday was a few days past. This poem came to mind because as Lowell writes, there is that thing that happens when we are grown and we arrive at the age of someone important in our lives. Particularly at times of significance in their lives and in our memories of them. I remember turning 23, thinking "This is the age my parents had me and they became a family." Here am I, just out of grad school, wrangling debt and a bicoastal relocation, and barely mature enough to buy a new car, let alone be responsible for a small human. And then at forty-five, the age my father died, thinking, "But I've only begun to live honestly, to figure it all out." What tragedy, I thought, to exit life before reaching completeness. Whole. Defined somehow. And now I've reached another milestone, the age at which someone close to me was diagnosed with cancer and in that year lost that battle.

Would I be ready to face mortality? Right now? To understand life might end, here and now, as complete or incomplete as it may be? Would I be ready to look at all that I love and those I love...and yield? It's a strange and unsettling emotion, living on; walking in the footsteps of time past the last step of someone loved. Lowell writes, "dinosaur death-steps." The hulking enormity of legacy.

I imagine it's not a bad thing to realize we can't take time for granted. Nor is it a terrible thing to assess where we stand in that rainbow reach of dreams and ambitions. Certain things fall away, other things fall in. In truth, it is more important to me now to seek deep certainty about the world. To grasp this thing - life - and the precious people I share living with. I feel responsible, more so now than ever, for the ones I have brought into this world, and the ones I have buried. Did I get it right? Learn what I needed to learn to make the most of this gift?

It is critical now to excise the redundant, the superficial, the waste, the stupidity, the shallow, the ignorance. Yes, it is possible to live life at the level of a so-called reality television show. Lights, camera, drama. But after this scene, or the next, after the entertainment value is extracted, does the beating heart have anything to add to the wisdom carried forward into the next day? The day after that? Each year I am more fully sure that life - whether we live months or decades or a century - stands as witness to the present. Everything about life is in today. This day. Everything that will fulfill us, sustain us, define us - exists in today. Alongside all that is meaningless space garbage adrift in that galaxy between our ears.

On this birthday, the footsteps I walk sing this to me:
Live, live, live, live, live.

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Meadow thistle below the Bridge of Primasole, Sicily

by Richard Siken

I looked at all the trees and didn’t know what to do.

A box made out of leaves.
What else was in the woods? A heart, closing. Nevertheless.

Everyone needs a place. It shouldn’t be inside of someone else.
I kept my mind on the moon. Cold Moon. Long Nights Moon.

From the landscape: a sense of scale.
From the dead: a sense of scale.

I turned my back on the story. A sense of superiority.
Everything casts a shadow.

Your body told me in a dream it’s never been afraid of anything.

Fall, with its passion-drunk, scorching ignitions of color that burn across the landscape, slows, as the cold deepens, into mysteries of poetry. Perhaps a yearly melancholy. Acceptance of the inward-looking self. In the quiet hours, poems, themselves fog-like tendrils of smudged meaning and obliterations of shape and form, mirror the mists threaded among the cattails along Latah Creek. What is there, and what is unseen. A landscape recognized; another of illusion and shift.

"War of the Foxes" (Copper River Press), Siken's long-awaited follow-up to "Crush," winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, states on its book jacket, "Filled with truths and fabrications, the poems in War of the Foxes investigate the fallacies and epiphanies inherent in any search for perfect order or truth. Violently romantic, Silken’s poetry takes the self and turns it, over and over, in an unsettling conflagration of thought, dream, and speech."

Forking over the compost of the self. The hunger for a philosophy of truth.

Detail of the Woods. This opaque, aching poem speaks of lost love to me, and to the singularity of our physical existence in the world. The body, the solitude, the death. And yet the heart. Timeless, nested, connected. How can we be of one truth while only home within the other? Siken writes,"Everyone needs a place." We exist in finite dimensional space, yet we live, we find solace, "inside of someone else." This is true and bleak beauty. A juxtaposition of limitations and boundarylessness. A hypothesis that what we are is both less and more than we know.

The imagery of this poem haunts me. A box made out of leaves. Both suggestive of a coffin in the earth and the closing in of a vast unfamiliar forest around our narrator, defining his solitude, his existential isolation. I turned my back on the story. Haven’t we all, at one point or another in our relationships, done the same? Accept the fact, discard the myth. Abandon the intangible and dwell on what is real. A sense of scale.

Lastly there is our awareness of the loss imprinted within the loss. The decision to let go, to forget. To excise our attachment. Cold Moon. Long Nights Moon.

A heart, closing.

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Summer's Last Song, McDuff

On roadsides,
in fall fields,
in rumpy bunches,
saffron and orange and pale gold...

- from "Goldenrod," Mary Oliver, Blue Iris, 2004

I hiked the bluff trails early this morning breathing in the crisping of the air that in the mountains the coming fall brings to the lingering summer. The trails were absent of a certain joy - absent my dog, McDuff, that sturdy little wheaten Scottie. McDuff passed in December of 2012; the years since marked by the absence of his beautiful presence at my side. Perhaps it's silly to mourn a dog. Perhaps. But today I dedicate my blog post to McDuff, and revisit a post from late summer 2010, when all our trails were still before us.

September 3, 2010:
Yesterday afternoon McDuff and I headed out to the bluff, lulled outdoors by a late afternoon warmth and the pools of mellow light that fell through the trees. As we walked through the wild oat and dried thistle, the hillside around us caught an angle of light in a palette of caramel, dusty tan, and white yellow: the sweetness of summer at its fullest. Fall hovers at the edge of the valley in the crisp mornings and cool nights, but here on the bluff summer holds court.

As we walked, a wordless song played through my thoughts. Duff fell behind, his nose in a rabbit hole. I stopped and stood a moment, looking across the valley. A raven cry drifted up from somewhere near the creek and I was filled with an inexplicable happiness. As if everything truly had its moment, and this moment had now. My thoughts touched on my son and daughter, far away, their lives anchoring down in the new school term at university. I felt the width of time, the slow erasure of geography, the delicate knots and stitches that bind us, one to another.

Here, the final stanzas of Mary Oliver's poem, "Goldenrod" -

I was just minding my own business
when I found myself on their straw hillsides,
citron and butter-colored,

and was happy, and why not?
Are not the difficult labors of our lives
full of dark hours?
And what has consciousness come to anyway, so far,

that is better than these light-filled bodies?
All day
on their airy backbones
they toss in the wind,

they bend as though it was natural and godly to bend,
they rise in a stiff sweetness,
in the pure peace of giving
one's gold away.

May all of you find delight in summer's last song.

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One Common Level

by W. B. Yeats

These are the clouds about the fallen sun,
the majesty that shuts his burning eye:
The weak lay hand on what the strong has done,
Till that be tumbled that was lifted high
And discord follow upon unison,
And all things at one common level lie.
And therefore, friend, if your great race were run
And these things came, so much the more thereby
Have you made greatness your companion,
Although it be for children that you sigh:
These are the clouds about the fallen sun,
The majesty that shuts his burning eye.

I have been greatly affected this week by the dominance of Nature over the circumstances of my small life - the consequences of what we cannot control. We live, in this century, with confidence we are masters of our universe. We build and destroy, take and consume, break apart and redesign nearly everything we can place our hands and minds to. Humans, for better and frequently worse, seem designed by Nature itself to be master manipulators. Free to practice partnered husbandry with the Great Creative over all things biological, physical, and material. If somehow, in the days of Earth, we overstep, waste, or falsify the better outcome, are we to blame?

My answer is yes. If we know the risks even as we commit our transgressions, we are rolling the dice on a complex ecosystem. (And here I am thinking of the recent EPA toxic river spill in Colorado.) What we have taken for granted in our schemes to command the planet have the exact atomic weight and fragility of the diverse elements of life: what takes so long to create, and mature, can be destroyed in an instance by violence, tragedy, or disease. But Nature is renegade. Stand witness, as I have this week, to the perfect storm that is drought, lightning, and wind as it ravages the wilderness with fire...natural disaster strips away the illusion humans are the field marshals of our planet. Nature, too, can destroy as even-handedly as it constructs. The difference between what humans do, and Nature, is the imbalance of response. Man destroys and abandons, Nature destroys but rebuilds.

Last night, in the darkness in the parking lot of a mountain bar, a group of young men began a circular argument fueled by ego, alcohol, and simmering teenage resentments. Their voices rose and their language dissolved into a brute Morse Code of the F word. I felt the sheer destructiveness in their youthful unchanneled energy - human aggression so poorly employed it reached, by theatrics alone, the level of fury – a tornado of pointless and violent engagement. In these forests, some of these raging fires were started with a flung cigarette, a careless campfire. One human animal, aware of the risk yet balefully inviting danger – out of boredom, an abuse of power.

I’m not sure how all these thoughts are connected, but to say that this morning at the beginning of the Priest Lake Triathlon, men and women of all ages and abilities stood shivering on the cold sand at the edge of the lake as the organizers of the race led a benediction to the beautiful wilderness, expressing gratitude for the shift in winds that lessened the smoke for the athletes, expressing their hopes for the fires to end. The race leaders thanked the wilderness for the chance afforded the athletes to test their mettle in harmony with nature. This, the face of the benevolent co-creative.

Lightning, fire.
Cigarette, fire.
Humans, challenging themselves in the arena of the outdoors.
The fragility and the power.
The presumed survivability of the planet.
Until something goes horribly, irreparably wrong. Until we remember what Yeats wrote a hundred years prior - “all things at one common level lie.”

This century - now - we face the challenge to rise above; to identify and engage in better solutions to our weakest tendencies. To lend a hand to the wilderness, to step back from greed, to sheath our axes.

*Note: That afternoon after the triathlon concluded, the winds picked up in the mountains and the fire danger evacuation levels were raised as the fires crept closer to the one exit road and the lake itself. We were evacuated from the mountains and drove south through gusts of dust and fire smoke - arriving home overwhelmed with apprehension and humbleness, stunned by the size of the forests facing annihilation. As of this writing, the Tower Complex fires are continuing to grow in acreage, and the rain, sporadic, has failed to beat down the winds or damp the dry tinder. Over two hundred men and women are battling, in hand to hand combat, the forest fires in Washington. Men and women doing their best under the most dangerous of circumstances. Warriors for survival.

I offer my thanks.

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