Tag: Creativity

20Feb

Fossilized

[Part 1 of this story is here.]

By Tuesday evening last week, I’d spent the first 30 hours of my long-desired writing retreat in a headlock with myself, and I was “cotta” as we say in Italian. Cooked. Burned out, beaten, and too exhausted to keep hurling myself at the wall of senseless panic standing between myself and my blank document.

I suspect that this is frustrating for some of you to read. After all, I was in Tuscany—Tuscany!—with three glorious days all to myself. I’ve watched friends go on similar retreats and thought, If onlyMy assumption was always that prolonged peace and quiet would act as creative steroids. If only I found myself in a similar setting, then I too could produce something out of this world. But now I was there, tucked up on an Italian hillside with a project idea I loved and an awareness of my own privilege cloying the air, and I couldn’t write a damn paragraph. You’ve heard the saying, “Wherever you go, there you are”? It would seem that I had gone to Tuscany and run smack dab into myself.

One thing depression taught me about myself years ago is that I will fight to defend my personal collection of shoulds until sheer rock-bottom exhaustion loosens my grip on them. I don’t surrender the expectations I have for myself any other way. And why should I? In the thick of depression, it only seemed right to keep trying harder and harder to act sane, to pacify God and be an uncomplicated wife and smother desperation on sight. If it wasn’t working, I just needed to double my efforts, yes? Not until much later, after the rock bottom and the rebuilding, did I see what a chokehold those expectations had had on my soul.

Now, I’m not saying that going on a writing retreat is anything like going through depression, but I’d certainly arrived at my hotel last week clutching a stack of notions about how the time should go, about how I should be. Privilege-guilt factored enormously into them, as did something else… something I couldn’t put my finger on with all of my thoughts bolting away the instant I got close. I didn’t know what to do with these expectations other than cling more and more tightly to them though. If I let go, the trip would instantly be rendered pointless and earlier versions of my jealous writing self would show up to punch me in the throat to the tune of “Loser.”

Thank God for exhaustion.

If I hadn’t surrendered my weary, 96% certifiable self to the idea of a writingless retreat and clicked over to Facebook for some distraction therapy that evening, I wouldn’t have seen this:

Curiosity not fear
(Liz Gilbert’s Facebook page is a gem. Get thee there, stat!)

And if I hadn’t seen this, who knows how long it would have taken me to recognize the “something else” that had been giving my brain a 30-hour swirlie as fear?

Working with words can feel like trying to choreograph dust motes. Until sentences land on the page, they’re nothing more than airborne particulates, figments of psychology and instinct that tend to dissolve on eye contact. Being afraid of writing is essentially getting worked up over nothing. That was my first thought when I read Liz’s quote. What do I possibly have to be afraid of? I’m here to transcribe thoughts, not diffuse bombs. This is a zero threat situation. WTF, brain?

When I took stock of how I’d been approaching my project, however, curiosity was nowhere to be found. Stephen King refers to stories as fossils that we excavate through the writing process, and ideally, I would have been on my knees with a trowel and an old toothbrush, intrigued to see what I’d unearth. Instead, I was paralyzed at the side of the dig. Because what if I uncovered a fossil so hideous that it made folks clutch their pearls and call their congressmen in protest? Or what if the fossil turned out to be so boring that museum viewers would ask for their money back? Worst of all, what if I had the wrong tools and botched the whole operation? What if I failed?

Fear, meet Bethany. Bethany, Fear.

Getting myself in a staring match with fear was no more helpful to me than beating myself over the head with reminders of my own privilege had been. This wasn’t something I could power my way through. (Depression 101.) When I latched onto the word “curiosity” though, it pulled me right off my petrified feet and through the murk to a new perspective on what I was doing. I closed Facebook and opened Google. Research time.

Writing retreat - research

The rest of my retreat looked very different from the productive type-o-fest I’d expected. I went on long walks in the cold, ordered espressos, and adopted various park benches near my hotel for the purpose of daydreaming. I scribbled sideways and upside down in my pocket journal following looping threads of whimsy. I clipped about a hundred of the most bizarre search results to Evernote (out of curiosity, how likely is the FBI to investigate writers?) and then filled another page with follow-up questions. I still had to beat back the granddaddy of all F-words, Failure, which was all too happy to inform me that I was squandering my retreat and that research was basically procrastination in a pair of pince-nez, but curiosity kept me on a joyful forward momentum that no collection of shoulds has ever prompted in me.

I returned home last Thursday about as tired as I’ve ever been. Winning a battle doesn’t mean you’re unscathed by it, especially when you weren’t expecting the fight in the first place. I’m still feeling tender and bruisable, and I can’t pretend not to be disappointed that I didn’t return from my retreat with a manuscript of any length. I’ll be wrestling with the hows and whys of that for a long time, I suspect. However, I did bring back one significant treasure: the outline of a fossil, as clear and intriguing as a headline. And I’m not afraid of it.

Writing retreat - Bench

18Feb

My Own Personal Tuscan Blitzkrieg

For Valentine’s this year, Dan gave me something I’ve hinted (except without the subtlety part) about wanting for ages: a few days away from home by myself with absolutely no responsibilities other than taking dictation from my muse. No one except myself to feed or clothe or deodorize. No interruptions. No need to operate on a normal or even a sane schedule. My own personal Tuscan writer’s retreat.

I couldn’t have arranged it any better than Dan did. He booked me a room in a tiny hillside town that I’ve visited before (i.e. – no pressure for me to sightsee) and loaded up a grocery bag with tea and chocolate and sandwich fixings and ramen “nudolini.” I asked him about a thousand times if he was sure he and the girls would be fine, and he assured me a thousand times that not only were they going to be fine but that they were going to party it up and have company every day. (While the introvert is away…) The man has often outdone himself in the gift department, but this one left me particularly wobbly-kneed.

We kissed goodbye, and I drove off into the Monday morning sunshine last week dreaming of my return trip in three days’ time, at which point I would have twenty or thirty—or hell, why not two hundred?—brand new single-spaced pages saved to my hard drive. The prospect of focusing and digging into my current writing projects felt like a giddy secret. I was so going to win at this thing.

If you have any experience reading stories, you’ll know that that last sentence portends doom.

The champagne bubbles trailing across my imagination lasted until the moment I had finished unpacking my suitcase. I looked around my hotel room, realized with an awful kind of clarity that I would now be spending 84 hours in my own company, and began losing my mind. Truly, that’s the best way I can describe what happened. My brainwaves began to scatter like so many spooked chipmunks. Thoughts dropped out of my head the minute I reached for them and began running up walls, scrabbling under doors, whirling themselves down drains, and tucking themselves into the impenetrable sheet folds at the foot of my bed.

I went to bed at 8:00 that night with exactly three sentences written, each one of which had required an unmedicated wisdom tooth extraction of the soul. My plan was to bid this day good riddance and get up at 4 the next morning with all of my brain cells back in their proper places and waves of inspiration lapping my fingers. I couldn’t explain what had gone wrong so far, but I was sure it was nothing that a good night’s sleep couldn’t cure.

This may actually have been true.

I wouldn’t know though. That night, I managed about two hours of total sleep, snatched in fifteen-minute increments while insomnia was on coffee break. I can only remember two other nights of my life dragging by so agonizingly, and both of them involved childbirth. This time, it wasn’t my uterus taking me hostage but a mind that had turned as spastic as a volcano full of Pop Rocks. My 4 a.m. wakeup call came and went in a fog of despair that pleated itself as firmly as hotel sheets around the corners of my room.

By lunchtime the next day, I’d realized that this retreat wasn’t going to be a “retreat” at all. Not if I stayed, that is. Every minute of that morning, I’d had to consciously beat back the impulse to give up, and not just to give up on the projects I was[n’t] currently working on but to give up on writing altogether, on the idea of ever again sitting down in a quiet space with the intention of creating. Fears that I had never seen before came scuttling out of shadowed cortexes. Writing, the creative outlet I took up out of pure joie de vivre when I was five, was suddenly the most terrifying construct in the whole world, and I wanted nothing more than to drive home and pretend this getaway had never happened.

I couldn’t have been more bewildered by how my writing retreat was going than if I’d gone to Disney World and promptly been bludgeoned comatose by Winnie the Pooh.

[For the sake of your sanity and mine, this is gonna be a two-parter. Stay tuned! Oh, and if you’ve ever experienced similar terror over something you love to do, feel free to share. Misery loves company, even in retrospect.]

[Ed: Part 2 here.]

15Jan

Book Stories: The Original

On the recommendation of about half my social media feed, I finally checked out the novel Lila a few weeks ago. (A digital library account is an expat girl’s best friend.) In case you haven’t heard of it, the book centers on a woman who grew up as a family-less migrant worker during the Dust Bowl years, and at first, I was sure the story was going to end as gritty and bleak as its historical setting. In fact, I put it down about a third of the way through and had to talk myself into picking it back up a week later. I was so wary of letting myself be dragged into a fictional despair.

By the end of the book though, I understood how Marilynne Robinson had won a Pulitzer for Lila’s prequel. Her writing transported me simultaneously out of my life and into a deeper plane of it. The final chapters were so stunning, so honest and tender and hope-spun, that I just sat with the finished book for a while keeping company with my own experience of it.

And these were my first two thoughts, in order of appearance:

  1. That book was so inspiring. I can’t wait to crack open my laptop tomorrow morning and work on fleshing out some storylines of my own.
  2. That book was so intimidating. How can I possibly write another word of my own knowing that artists like Marilynne Robinson exist?

This is the black hole into which creative types have been tripping since that first cave man thought to contrast his stick-mastodon with that of his neighbor. Comparison is a void from which not even light can escape. I know that. We all know that. And yet…

It’s so easy to let someone else’s work mean something about my own, especially when that work induces some kind of emotional reaction in me. “I love that book” turns almost automatically into “I could never hope to write something like that;” “I hate that book” blurs immediately into “I could do so much better.” And all the while, my creative, original soul shrinks further into the background, forgotten. You know exactly what I’m talking about, yes? If it’s not about art, it’s about fashion sense or professional accomplishment or interior design choices or parenting styles. We compare as if those artificial pedestals were the ground holding us up.

I’ve been in the process of figuring out where to allot my time and energy this year, and there’s a phrase I keep returning to. It’s from the Bible, actually, though you wouldn’t think it. (That’s why I love the Message version; it always surprises me.) At some point, I’m going to frame these six words in some clever Pinteresty way and paste them above my desk so that I can’t help seeing them each time I glance up:

“Each of us is an original.”

This is the bedrock under the pedestals, the antidote to the endless game of measurements. And it’s what I’ve been returning to each time I’ve lingered on the genius of Lila. It allows the book to be beautiful without it reflecting a single blessed thing on me. The relief of that cannot be overstated. It’s like unstrapping a pair of ten-pound ankle weights, or like plucking a capacity for inspiration out of thin air. The freedom to be original is Lila’s gift to me at the outset of this year. Or more accurately, it’s the gift I’m giving myself through her.

Book Stories - Lila

In this series, I’m foregoing traditional book reviews and instead sharing Book Stories—why certain books have impacted me, how they’ve entwined themselves through my life, and what the long-term effects are. After all, what better way to talk about stories than through the medium of story?

(If you have your own close encounter of the literary kind you’d like to share here, just send it on over to hello{at}bethanybassett{dot}com.) 

10Sep

Book Stories: The Meme

No doubt you’ve seen it making the rounds through Facebook:

“List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t think too hard or try to give ‘right’ answers, just write down 10 that have affected you/moved you/caused you to neglect your family, job, and basic hygiene for 36 hours straight/invaded your dreams/ prompted you to abandon dignity in favor of cosplay* or fan fiction/necessitated the author’s taking out a restraining order against you.”

*Not a sex act, sorry. “Cosplay” is short for costume play, which is short for dressing up like something else, which is admittedly delightful and fun but almost certainly not dignified.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve bounced up and down in your computer chair willing someone to tag you so you too can compile your list. Such is the power of the meme that one is not psychologically able to start thinking about her 10 books until she has been granted permission to do so by social media. (Please tell me I’m not the only one with a compulsive respect for pointless or nonexistent boundaries.) To the relief of my list-loving heart, I have now been tagged (thanks, Rachael!), and rather than listing my ten books as a Facebook status, I wanted to introduce them here, Book Stories style.


(Eggplant nails at Erika’s request)

1. Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery

When I first read the Anne of Green Gables series as a girl, I only really liked the first book about Anne’s childhood and then the three final books about her children’s escapades. The middle books about Anne’s career hopes, love interests, and coming-of-age heartaches bored me… until one day, they didn’t. I was in between college semesters and boyfriends of my own when I picked Anne of Avonlea off my dusty bookshelf and cried right through the final page. L.M. Montgomery is magic, folks. (But you already knew that.) 

2. Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

I was still a newlywed, pre-babies and only about two inches into my recovery from fundamentalism when a friend recommended Blue Like Jazz. I read it aloud to Dan, a chapter each night before bed, and it was like discovering my right to breathe. It very well may have been the first time that I’d heard God spoken about conversationally, without religious jargon, as if he actually had a place in everyday life. This book is spiritual stress relief.

3. On Writing by Stephen King

I can’t remember exactly when I snagged this off the shelf at Barnes & Noble, but I do know that it’s scarcely left my writing desk since. I only pick it up to read when I’m working on fiction because a page or two is all it takes for story inspiration to rush at me like a telepathic kid out of a haunted hotel. I should point out that my preferred genre is not that of the good Mr. King, but damned if he doesn’t make my mind itch to create something new.

4. The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss

I know, I know, everything about this book screams GIMMICKY! It was a crash course in entrepreneurship for Dan and I though. We got it a couple of years ago during our transition into self-employment, and while it did not catapult us into the ranks of “the new rich” or reduce our workweek to four hours, it did give us the gift of perspective. We now use terms like “batching” and “80/20” in everyday life (most often when trying to get out of housework, but still), and whenever I’m feeling discouraged about our rolling job situation, I let the FHWW remind me that we’re normal… ish. Not alone, at any rate.

5. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

I’m not sure what it says about me that the book I read most frequently for the pure joy if it was a high school reading assignment. To be fair to myself, though, it’s not like I go around toting Oedipus Rex on beach vacations or cracking open The Complete Works of Shakespeare on flights. Have you ever watched the darling film Il Postino where Pablo Neruda teaches an uneducated Italian postman about metaphor? This book is what taught me.

6. Hope Beyond Hell by Gerry Beauchemin

Over the year and a half following our move to Italy and Sophie’s birth, depression effectively broke down all my internal religious etiquette. I called up a friend from the States who I knew wouldn’t disown me when she heard that I could no longer believe in a God who made eternal torture the default destiny for humankind. She knew exactly what I was talking about and suggested that I read Hope Beyond Hell. I don’t think I’m putting it too dramatically when I say that this book saved my faith.

7. Field Guide to Now by Christina Rosalie

Christina’s blog is largely responsible for getting me writing again back in 2007. Her way of noticing the undercurrents of art in daily life and making poetry of their prose stirs up answering instincts in me. Hers is a creativity founded on intention and delight, and this book is one of my favorite things to read in the pre-dawn hours with a notepad and pen in hand. It makes me want to live and create and then live some more.

8. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

1130. That’s how many pages of small text my unabridged copy contains. And I loved every one of them. Often after work, the summer I was 18, I’d drive to an uptown Starbucks where I’d order a venti coconut frappuccino and sit in the sunshine to read… and read… and read. Dantès’s revenge is so complicated and satisfying to read that I didn’t know whether to celebrate or to cry when I reached the end. I’ll be reading this one again… next time I have an entire summer of afternoons at my disposal (ha!).

9. The Shack by Wm. Paul Young

I almost don’t even want to talk about this book because it’s meant so much to me. Hope Beyond Hell is what saved my faith, but The Shack is what saved my heart. I first read it on a Sunday morning while Dan and the girls were at church. It was a day when all the weight of my fundamentalist upbringing was suffocating me, and I felt so wounded by Christianity that all I could do was lie on the sofa and reach for this book that a friend had lent me. And I met a God of love in it.

10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7) by J.K. Rowling

Roughly estimating, I’d say… oh, 99.81273% of the 10 Books lists that I’ve seen circulating on Facebook have included the Harry Potter series. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how deeply the story of The Boy Who Lived gets to us? The final book of the series came out right as we were moving to Italy, and I saved it to read in the hospital before and after Sophie’s birth. That was a frightening and larger-than-life time for me—having a baby three months after moving to another country whose language I did not yet speak—and Harry Potter & Gang’s story helped give me both an escape and the courage to stay.

All right, then. I tag YOU to share 10 books that have stayed with you in some way (even just here in the comments if you don’t want to go all Facebook-official on it). No right or wrong answers, remember, and if you have forsaken hygiene or dignity for the sake of those books, then know you’re in good company.

26Mar

My Muse, the Diva

Hi, my name is Bethany, and I’m a high-maintenance writer.

In Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals, a charming peek into the habits of creative geniuses over the centuries, I read about Frances Trollope, an English novelist who started writing in her fifties to provide for her family. She would get up in the middle of the night so she could finish the day’s writing in time to make breakfast for her six kids and infirm husband, and in this way, she produced over 100 books. Forget the ability to deflect bullets or to use one’s tiara as a boomerang of destruction; this lady was Wonder Woman.

I, however, identify much more closely with Frances’s son, also a novelist, who paid an old servant to wake him up early each morning with hot coffee and “no mercy.” In his autobiography, Anthony Trollope attributed his success to that arrangement. Now, I don’t have a servant, but I do have a husband with mad cappuccino skills and a kind heart whom I can directly credit for my state of not-in-bedness this morning (…aaaand just about every other morning of the past year). This isn’t really a matter of my being lazy; in fact, I spend my weekends looking forward to Monday’s arrival and that first blank document of the day. I love writing. It keeps me whole and sane and humanoid. However, my ability to write comes with an impressive list of conditions.

When I write, I venture into a different realm of consciousness. My focus intensifies on the elements of story behind the patterns of daily life, coaxing them forward like holograms in a Magic Eye image. Just as with those Magic Eye images, writing requires a delicate balance between concentration and relaxation; some muscles need to go slack in order to see the picture while others must tremble taut to hold it in place.

This is why I have trouble writing when someone else is in the room… or when I’m up against time constraints, or when some other matter has just been brought to my attention, or when I’m tired, or when our family routine is off, or when I’m frustrated about something, or when a head cold’s coming on, or when a favorite TV character has died, or when I haven’t started my day with that sandy-eyed sip of caffeine, or, or, or. I know. My muse wins for most ridiculous diva of the creative universe.

In her defense, however, she doesn’t require me to chain smoke or slip Jack Daniels into my tea or sell my soul to Chernabog in order to write. She lets me broadcast on my own brainwaves and heartbeats, and for that, I am grateful. Not all artists are granted that luxury. In context of all the mental illnesses and addictions that have traditionally plagued creative types, my reliance on quiet, unhurried hours hardly counts as a quirk, much less a neurosis. Still, though, I dream of one day being able to plop down on the bed where my chickenpoxy six-year-old is practicing her reading (to use a totally hypothetical example that has no grounding whatsoever in the realities of our home right now*) and crank out a work of art in between phonics tutorials and applications of calamine. If Mrs. Trollope could write novels before breakfast, surely I can learn to be a little more flexible in my writing habits. Not needing all nearby life forms to cease and desist while I’m working, for instance.

* on Opposite Day

I just have to get my muse on board first. She’s currently locked in her dressing room pouting about the fact that she and I can’t run off together to 1920s Paris and wear feathers in our hair and never have to think about anything other than being fabulous. The coffee is clearly wearing off. I don’t know; maybe it’s my lot in life to be a high-maintenance writer, ever at the mercy of loud footsteps and motherly concerns. I can’t tell you how much I’d like to move past that though—to be able to tap into my creative center no matter my circumstances. Even convincing my muse to pause her pity party for the next hour would be a step in the right direction. Maybe threatening to have four more children would do the trick…?

11Mar

Newton’s First Law Of Writing

I never know what to do with the wordless days—the days that dawn far off the map I’d charted for them the night before, the days that start with too-heavy eyelids and swampwater focus and maybe a child throwing up in the other room. Just show up is the right answer to every artistic indecision; I know this. But on the wordless days, showing up feels like wishful thinking and irresponsibility rolled into one—me, sitting blank-eyed in front of my computer while the minutes slip by unharnessed. I could be putting lunch together, paying the bills, writing emails, scrubbing winter grime off the windows. Wouldn’t it be better to spend this time attending to other responsibilities so that I’ll be unencumbered whenever inspiration does decide to hit?

I know the answer to this one too. It’s the law of inertia: an object at rest staying at rest and an object in motion staying in motion. In the long run, it is far easier to continue the forward motion of writing (or working out, or communicating with my spouse, or keeping an open house) than to have to restart it once the friction of daily life has been allowed to grind it to a halt. If I don’t show up today because I feel disconnected from my work, I will only be perpetuating that disconnect. Tomorrow will be harder, and the day after that even more so, and eventually I will need to exert tremendous effort to jumpstart what was once a flawed but fulfilling rhythm. (I should know this well by now; I’ve repeated the cycle no less than several hundred frustrating times over the years.)

Objects in motion stay in motion, and so I’m doing my best to show up even on these uncharted days when staring down a blank page seems like the least logical use of my time. Just half an hour. Just two or three unremarkable paragraphs. Just enough for forward momentum to win out over the slow drag of gravity and its pull toward the equal and devastatingly opposite inertia of wordlessness.

30Sep

One Week Forward, Two Days Back

This morning dawned as damp and unappealing as a washcloth left in a puddle overnight. Hazy attempts at blue stain the cloud cover outside my window, but the effect just depresses me; even the gloom is halfhearted today. Morning air hangs sodden over my nose and mouth, and I file through my collection of coping mechanisms for something that won’t A) leave me feeling like I squandered this gift of time or B) result in me having to explain to the rest of my family why all the chocolate chip cookies have disappeared.

I settle on a butter-yellow candle and Sigur Rós in the headphones. Immediately, I remember a comment I recently saw on a photo of Sigur Rós in concert: “Too bad they’re endorsing in homosexual & promiscuous live styles, violent environment protection & Neo-paganism – Nordic worship.” Oh, Internet Comment Sections. You win again with your unique interpretation of grammar and utter incomprehension of The Point.

The Point of my candle and my gay puffin-worshiping music, of course, is to reinfuse my senses with beauty. Weekends can be so depleting in that regard—my hours unstrung from their usual weekday progression and looped around the laundry basket, the dinner guests, the pages of curlicued a’s that Sophie needs to finish for homework—and as much as I love the concept of diving headfirst into Monday morning, I inevitably start the week with an aching need to backtrack and collect myself from where it was dropped on Friday.

This has long frustrated me. The comic book version of myself that my imagination keeps on file is steadier than this. She doesn’t lose her sense of footing or the rhythm of her creative pulse after a mere two days of busy distraction. Her laser vision catches the sparkle of life beyond the weekend, and she can relax into the happy confusion of game nights and home improvement projects knowing that her super self will be waiting, suited up and ready to go, on the other side.

The real me, the one sporting reading glasses and unwashed hair (true to form, our building’s hot water went out again for the weekend and is now sleeping off its hangover on a friend’s ratty couch somewhere), the me who is equally unhinged by runaway schedules and the color gray, the un-heroic, un-super, un-steady me has yet to make peace with weekends. It is how it is. But not how I want it to be. If I am allowed so much want in a life already characterized by abundance, I would add this: that I want to make peace with time’s anomalies, find joy in them even, and retain such a vibrant sense of presence throughout that Monday mornings of the future will find me already in forward motion.

~~~

Do you experience weekends as disruptions or rewards… or something entirely different? What is your routine for transitioning back to the Monday morning world? 

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