Tapping the Sap [repost]
I tried something new this past Friday [in December 2020]. I dedicated a day off work to writing. To my relief, I did so successfully.
Examining my paystub recently, I observed an unintentional accumulation of personal days, as it turns out that I hadn’t taken one in three years. The times being what they are, a day off seemed in order, so when my lessons could aligned so classes could reasonably run without me and my principal indicated the substitute situation was manageable, I put in for my day. I’ve been making an effort to take my writing seriously, and this day constituted something of a test.
Dedicating a calendar block to writing had never worked for me. I’ve often felt at my most creative when there’s some menial task to which I should attend: dishwashing, cleaning, grading papers… My spirit chafes at the work and flies away from it toward creativity. But when I have declared that the writing is the work, my perverse little spirit has flown from it, too.
I think my difficulty has had something to do with the nature of literature. Writing, I think, requires an extraordinary degree of self-presence. Our lyric poems, our vignettes, and our characters all feed on little pieces of us and our impressions; they can feed on nothing else. If I feel divorced from my own being and experience, if I am blocked from feeling wholly present, then I am blocked from writing creatively.
Zanlexus wrote a piece for this challenge suggesting that writer’s block might be the psychic or emotional equivalent of the injury that prevents a construction worker from building, which led me to follow this thread of writing and the self. The comparison of Zanlexus holds true, I think. I do not lose my skills as a writer when experiencing blockage. I can still crank out a sample analysis of a text for my class or edit a letter for a colleague: what I think of as “yeoman writing,” which I’ve trained for extensively and do not need to draw from my own experiences to do. Creative writing, though, is a different animal. It feeds not only on my technical skills or logical analysis, but on my capability to express to someone else how I think and feel, with the center squarely on the “I.”
When I understand writing creativity as an output of the core, internal self, it does make sense for it to come more easily when I should be doing something else. The tension between what I must do and what I want to do fuels my imaginative fancy. Stuck in a cage of sorts, I dream about life beyond the bars. This drifting from task is my self trying to exert its authority. There is, obviously, a limitation to the utility of external demands: if there’s not only a cage but an electrified one, or if the walls are closing in, anxiety can overwhelm any sense of creativity. Awful and draining experiences have inspired many a work of literature, but I think for the most part Wordsworth pegged it in his intro to Lyrical Ballads: “All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion, recollected in tranquility.” I write not when I feel the powerful emotions, but once they’ve become part of me and my life experiences, when I can recollect them and access them.
That introspection is necessary to writing creatively, if the work is to resonate emotionally, and introspection tends to result from stimuli more than appointment. One does not frequently say, “At 3:00 PM on Wednesday, I will reflect on my life and my psycho-emotional state.” And down-time often passes in a series of actions intended to bring relaxation through distraction; someone exhausted and looking to forget about life for a while will probably not do much soul-searching. Introspection might happen in response to someone’s questions, though, or in response to a place or a song or a poem.
I nearly let my day of writing slip away on Friday. I was tired. I had devoted a lot of energy to teaching and parenting and household chores, and with those demands temporarily at bay, I automatically leaned toward pleasant distractions to “unwind.” I had been awake at 6:30 (though I caught another nap), and by 10:30, I had still written nothing.
So I pulled up recent Prose posts. Reading the writing of others is the surest way for me to feel inspired. Experiencing the creations of others, also striving to self-express, fills me with the desire to offer my own efforts to the world. On this particular morning, I read pieces by deathbyaudio, KMCassidy, and paintingskies, but if you’re reading this post, then chances are at some point I’ve turned to your work, too. I value this community, and I want to remain connected to it. I’ve promised myself to post something at least once per week, even if other projects consume most of my time, and to continue actively reading. Prose can keep me going.
I also found the right music. Music equals mindset, and the right song at the right time can unlock a profusion of feeling. I needed Patty Smith’s Horses on Friday (particularly “Gloria”), and later a Brahms symphony. Other frequent writing music includes Lana del Rey, Beethoven’s symphonies, Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, and Wilco’s Being There (playing presently). Nearly everything I write has a soundtrack, and once I find what it is, I get the mood I need for the mode I need.
At some point you’ve felt “on” if you’re a writer; otherwise, you probably wouldn’t want to write. There’s a direct conduit from the mind through the fingers onto the page. There’s a flow. Creativity has many times been likened to a well or a spring, but that seems inaccurate to me because the water, the self, isn’t just sitting there to be drawn up and used. Maple syrup is a more apt metaphor. There’s sap flowing inside the wood. It must be tapped, drawn, and boiled, and if you harvest fifty gallons of rawness, you can finish with one gallon of sweet, finished syrup. You live a lot, and you lock it away, and if you can get at enough of it and distill it enough, you can yield something beautiful.
Whether syrup or water, it’s no accident that our metaphors for literary inspiration are liquid. Solids cause blocks. It’s the flow we seek.
Insisting on the perfection of that flow held me back for a long time. A piece felt so good to write, but the morning light revealed all the flaws and doubts. Without realizing it, I was subscribing to that water model, as though I needed only to pour and realize perfection. But writing needs to be worked at, and I let myself do it, now. I have an outline of my novel: I know where the characters are going and what moments carry them there. A chapter represents my effort to fill in the humanity of it all, making the journey authentic and felt, but on a first try, I will get it wrong. I have learned not to stop when I doubt that it holds together because I know, with certainty, that it doesn’t. It will not read with smoothness, clarity and verisimilitude until I return a day or a week later and fix it. I am following the advice I have given high school students for years: get something down and then revise, because revision is easier and blank pages are terrifying. I am trusting my ability to find the missing pieces. Each chapter and each draft is a problem to be solved.
Having a skilled and trusted editor doesn’t hurt, either.
I should say, clearly, that I’ve never actually finished a novel, and that I abandoned my only prior attempt after thirteen chapters when I concluded it was bad. (Trust me, it was… though I did later post a rejiggered chapter to Prose under the title “Mass.”) EDIT: I finished! I’m proud; it’s not published; I’m at work on the next. But I’m trying, and I’m confident this time. I wrote about 1300 unpolished words that Friday. I was curious, so I looked it up, and Stephen King goes for 2,000 a day, so in that sense I fell short. But Hemingway and Graham Green only tried for 500 words a day. That didn’t seem so bad, and I’ve read more of their stuff than King’s, anyway.
All told, my experiment was a success: I did write. I got 1300 words, and I finished the last 400 of the chapter the next day, and I’m working on the editing. It would have been easier on my day off to lull myself into relaxation with something readily on demand, like John Mulaney on Netflix, or a half hour of beating on cartoon characters in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. But I passed my test. I applied what I had learned about my process and inspiration and I wrote, and it was better than relaxing. I felt rejuvenated. I was myself, intensely.