Creative Work Evolves

August 28, 2015

 

 

A lot has changed in my life in the last year, and I find that those changes are leading me in a creative direction somewhat different from that I initially conceived with the main book of the three book set, Journal Meditations of a Nature Artist. My life now revolves around the beauty, and the sense of peace I find living in the woods. I've been somewhat resistant to the idea of writing about that. In part, it lacks drama and a compelling narrative – the story line that all successful novels, movies and storytelling in general depends upon – a protagonist walks some edge, goes on a journey, internal or external, takes risks and fails, but in the end both transforms (himself or herself) and triumphs.
 
It’s not that I haven’t gone on such a journey. It started at the age of fifteen hitchhiking tens of thousands of miles into northern Canada looking for Indians living in the bush, and in my mid-twenties took a side route to the investment business on Wall Street and ended with the publication, for twenty years, of Heron Dance. Heron Dance ultimately demanded more of me than I could find within myself. As I look back now, I see that journey as one that was ill conceived, and doomed to failure. In the process, much drama and upheaval ensued.
 




The purpose of Heron Dance, as originally conceived, was not to make money but rather to contribute to the discussion on the future direction of our culture. That was fine as a one-person little newsletter, but quite early on I realized that the financial equilibrium of the project depended on economies of scale – it doesn’t cost much more to print 10,000 copies of a newsletter than it does to print 1,000. As Heron Dance grew the revenue fluctuated much more than the expenses. In some months, it would earn $50,000, in some months lose $50,000. That was on a very narrow capital base -- I started the publication with $12,000 which quickly was eaten up by losses. As time went on, the fact that Heron Dance wasn’t designed to make money became more and more problematic. I can remember at roughly age five of the publication watching the movie Das Boot with my young sons about German submariners in World War II, and how their field of operation became more and more limited and problematic. As the prospect of death in the icy cold North Atlantic that enveloped them became more likely, their mental stability deteriorated. The movie deeply disturbed me because it reminded me so much of my own work life at that time, and how daily I confronted the prospect of failure. I got through it by telling myself each day that I could do it one more day. At least.
 
Now I work alone again, and my overhead has declined from $87,000 a month to about $2,000. More importantly, I live deep in the mountains, surrounded by natural beauty, and birdsong. I’ve found peace. So what do I write about? What contribution can I make to the lives of readers? I’ve thought a lot about that in the last few months, and meditated deeply on the question. What keeps coming to mind is writing about the gratitude I feel for the natural beauty that now surrounds me and dominates my life. That line of creative work lacks the dramatic edge that most compelling creative work explores. Nevertheless, this is where I’ve settled, and the direction this work has taken.
 
I wonder if despite the fact that the creative output of this culture overwhelmingly explores some kind of turmoil, violence, flawed protagonist on a journey, or other edge traversed with risk and drama, might there not be some small role for an artist with low overhead to do creative work that has evolved out of the deep sense of gratitude, joy and love he finds living in a nature preserve in the mountains? I think I’m about to find out.  

For more on the three journal boxed set Journal Meditations of a Nature Artist, visit here.
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Creative Work Evolves

July 19, 2015

 

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:

 

Frédéric Back

 

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?)

 

Watercolor, Dream From Somewhere

June 22, 2015

 

Concern:   I'm increasingly feeling that the work is too stiff and dry and theoretical.

 

All theory is gray, my friend. But forever green is the tree of life.
- Goethe from Faust, First Part


Should the work be about the journaling and meditation techniques I've used to create my work, my life, or as a result of those techniques?

 

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)

 

  Middleton: I love that James Baldwin quote you cited during your talk: “You don’t get the book you want. You get the book you get.” You spoke about finding the passionate author of a piece.

 Verdelle: Yes. Where’s the juice? What’s happening here? What’s good? What is my favorite thing? Having looked this over again and knowing that this is now some sort of story, in whatever shape it’s in, what part of it would I not relinquish in any way? This is why my story kept changing, I think.
            So I wrote the whole thing about Margarete, and it was not good. It was not what I wanted. And I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had wasted, in my mind, a lot of time. So that was tough. But I kept going. This is another thing that I try to talk to people about: understanding that line of observation. Just because you observe something doesn’t make it deep. Just because I knew it was wrong doesn’t make that the deep thing. The deep thing is the story that is still waiting for my attention. So until I figured out what to do, I had to keep working....
             We want to look for where the passion is in the work, because that is going to be the anchor, that is going to be the basis of the mountain that is built....
               The novel is tied to the mental process, not solely to activity. There is the real-time story and the not-real-time story. When you’re writing, you have to write as if you’re God. John Oliver Killens said that. It’s a technical point, really; write as if you know everything: when, where, what happened in the past, what will happen in the future. Write without tentativeness; write with certainty.

 

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.

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