Creative Work Evolves
One’s relationship to time, to quiet, has a profound impact on one’s life, and the quality of one’s life. Do you get sucked along by the flow, constantly responding, or does your life evolve based on careful thought?
I’ve redesigned my life so that quiet, and a slow pace, are at the center of it, as are a close relationship with nature, with natural beauty, birdsong and wild rivers. I’ve learned that there are sacrifices to this path too – attractive possibilities that must be forgone, friendships that must be relinquished, social obligations and financial potentials that must be set aside, for instance. So it isn’t that building a life around quiet, meditation, time in nature is the easy path through life, it is just that the sacrifices involved tend to be based on conscious decisions and design. I have some experience with the costs of both ways of going through life.
Frédéric Back, creator of the Oscar-award winning film The Man Who Planted Trees (visit here to see it free on YouTube), and friend and mentor of mine (he died in 2013 at the age of 89), said to me once:
If you want a book to be something that really gives, that is a kind of gift to humanity, you should work on it a long time. Not just write and push it to the publisher. To make a psychic work, you need time to reflect and rework. When you come to the end, you see the beginning differently.
I’ve spent a lot of my creative life working under publishing deadlines, and while there is something to be said for the discipline that imposes on one’s workday, pushing a work to an early conclusion definitely affects its depth and wholeness. Creative work that an artist pours himself or herself into without time constraint has a greater possibility of depth and beauty and deep meaning. And now, working mostly alone, without overhead – at one time, Heron Dance’s expenses totaled over a million dollars a year – I have the luxury of working (and living) at a more contemplative pace.
As work on the boxed set, Journal Meditations of a Nature Artist, has progressed I’ve gotten deeper into life in the woods, and that’s affected my vision of this work. I’m creating a nature artist’s journal. It is a blend of art inspired by the beauty and mystery I find in wild places, and writing that explores what it means to go on a journey, to search, to take risk in pursuit of a full life, and experience both failure and realization. And the dichotomy of finding peace after the journey – peace you should have been able to find without the journey, but couldn’t. I guess to some extent it is a process of surrender – I’m exploring that process.
As far as approach, I’m combining excerpts from fiction, imaginary conversations with real and fictional individuals who have had an impact on my life -- Frédéric Back, Elzeard Bouffier, myself thirty years from now (who I hope to be, to become) and conversations with myself in verse and prose.
I had planned on getting the books to the printer late July for delivery in late September or early October. That’s still possible, but not likely. I’m thinking now in terms of a delivery date late this year, or early next. I’m letting it come together as it comes together, pouring myself into it while giving it lots of room and air to develop as fast or slow as it is inclined to develop.
July 11, 2015
Creating a book out of research is very different, of course, from creating one out of imagination. Readers of A PAUSE FOR BEAUTY are probably aware that I've been working on two books for a few months, and struggling. That's normal, I think.
Karl Ove Knausgaard said in a recent interview that his latest novel took him ten years and eight months -- ten years to figure out what the novel was about, and eight months to write it.
Ultimately a writer has to decide to either ignore or throw himself (or herself) wholly into the questions: Where's the juice? What's deep? What's struggling to come out, to come to life? Perhaps the quality of a book revolves around a writer's willingness or unwillingness to commit to trying to answer those questions. Perhaps the quality of a human life depends, at least to some extent, around a person's willingness or unwillingness to address those questions, or at least questions very much like them.
Creating out of your imagination is different than wearing out shoe leather accumulating facts. Both have their role, both are important. But creating out of your imagination is the most challenging, I think.
I live this life in the woods now. It took me a long time to get here, lots of dead ends and otherwise wrong turns to find a degree of inner peace and happiness. I started off writing about what techniques I used to find my way, and gradually I'm gaining insight into what the work is really about -- not the process but the result. At least mostly. Why? The process, the techniques are dry, theoretical. I can't spin a story out of it, take readers on a journey.
So I'm in the process of mental transition from how to what -- from how I got here to what it resulted in. I'm struggling. Which is part of the process.
So as of now, there are two books underway, one about the techniques, one about the story. The techniques book just requires focus and discipline. The story book, imagination. I envision the story book as being about the two worlds of the protagonist, back and forth between reflections on the journeys of people on a quest and quiet reflections of life in nature, largely inspired by the ancient poetry of Taoist monks, an austere beauty that has long captured my imagination.
In the words of writer Tess Gallagher,
You can’t go deep until you slow down.
. . . . .
Journal entries on the evolving work, Journal Meditations of a Nature Artist (formerly What Is The Private Meaning of Your Life, To You?)
June 22, 2015
Concern: I'm increasingly feeling that the work is too stiff and dry and theoretical.
I imagine the work as a person. What feedback does it have to offer on how the work is going, where it is going? Where's the juice here? What's deep and relevant to the lives of others who what to experience a BIG life, a life of growth and a life that manifests the beauty within.
What is the deepest, most interesting, compelling, beautiful work you are capable of? Fiction or non-fiction? Poetry or prose?
Annie Dillard, in her book entitled The Writing Life says that a creative work must be allowed to evolve as if it has its own life force. Work that may have taken weeks or months to do must sometimes be discarded.
The line of words is a hammer. You hammer against the walls of your house. You tap the walls, lightly, everywhere. After giving many years’ attention to these things, you know what to listen for. Some of the walls are bearing walls; they have to stay, or everything will fall down. Other walls can go with impunity; you can hear the difference. Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go. It cannot be helped. There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it out. Duck.
Courage utterly opposes the bold hope that this is such fine stuff the work needs it, or the world. Courage, exhausted, stands on bare reality: this writing weakens the work. You must demolish the work and start over. You can save some of the sentences, like bricks. It will be a miracle if you can save some of the paragraphs, no matter how excellent in themselves or hard-won. You can waste a year worrying about it, or you can get it over with now. (Are you a woman, or a mouse?)
The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly, that part which was to have been the very point. It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang, and from which you yourself drew the courage to begin.
A.J. Verdelle (author of The Good Negress) offered somewhat similar thoughts to interviewer Nancy Middleton in Glimmer Train (Fall 1998)
I want to produce art that is a result of a life fully lived, of journeys and failures, of success and lessons learned, and that is inspired by the natural beauty that surrounds me as my life has been created out of dreams. Instead of the main book being about journaling techniques when combined with meditation, should I instead offer my own journal meditations, art, poetry and notes in the main book. Or both, in two books. Should the main book be fiction in order to allow maximum creative leeway?
Either way, the written material will drawn from and be inspired by ancient Taoist poetry, excerpts from fiction and non-fiction books, particularly biographies, and the journals of writers such as Thoreau and Emerson. And most of all my own life experience as someone on a quest.
Book One: Journal Meditations of a Nature Artist
So now, the first book, the main book of the set, is entitled Journal Meditations of a Nature Artist. It will be 128 pages, including four, two-panel, 16 inch foldouts). In addition to full color art throughout, it will contain poetry, including that of ancient Taoist monks, my own journal notes, poetry and art, excerpts from books, both fiction and non-fiction and will explore perspectives on life lived in harmony with one's inner world.
Book Two: What Is The Private Meaning Of Your Life, To You?
The second book will explore in depth journaling techniques combined with meditation interspersed with pages for your own journal notes. It will be 96 pages, one color (dark blue) and bound much like Moleskine journals -- a somewhat flexible cover, sewn binding.
Book Three: Blank Journal of Handmade Paper from Nepal
In part because this paper is so beautiful, and in part to make a small contribution to Nepal’s efforts to rebuild after the recent devastating earthquake this totally blank journal (no lines) will make up the third book of the set. It is bound in a synthetic leather that is very similar to actual leather. 192 pages.