When I think of National Indigenous People’s Day, I think of celebration. I think of laughter. I think of family.
Set against a backdrop of spiralling negative news clips, our country was able to draw a collective breath of fresh air yesterday. The celebrations for National Indigenous People’s Day provided a series of teachings about the power of community, family, connections, and above all else joy. In a good way.
Traditional ceremonies to mark summer solstice, through the lighting of fire, smudging, feasting, dancing, storytelling also opened doors across the country for connection with each other. A day to put aside stories about war, inflation, pandemics, violence, and the rampant anger that seems to have a stranglehold on our communities.
A day of remembrance, recognition, respect and hope for reconciliation. Showcasing a vibrant multi-layered culture. Unveiling memorials to commemorate the dark, dark history of residential schools. But above all, a lesson about the spirit of a people who understand deeply what the concept of freedom is about.
A coming together to honour and celebrate the cycles of nature, of community, of family, and each other. And an open invitation to everyone living in this country to share in some way, this journey of healing through understanding, acknowledgment, and love.
A truly special day shared with all of us, teaching us to suspend worry, fear, and our ever present anger, to simply enjoy what we have, where we live, and who we walk with.
Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.
Karl. A. Menninger
It is a rare moment when we are afforded the opportunity to listen deeply to the stories that others have to tell. Most typically, our listening skills become dull and impotent as we age, when the stressors in our lives loom large and bloat. When the incessant news spin that we all seem to gravitate towards, churns on relentlessly spitting out negativity. But when those golden opportunities present themselves to listen to the stories others are telling, it both elevates and transports us.
Last week, I had the privilege to attend the launch event for the reading of my stories published in a literary magazine. Along with more than a dozen other writers. Albeit nervous and out of practice attending public events, I was thrilled to be a part of it. The venue chosen had a serene and sacred atmosphere, quietly understated and elegant. A perfect space for the telling of stories created deep within so many hearts.
Sitting, masked in an audience of peers, fellow creatives and aficionados of the writing arts, sent shivers of excitement up my spine. But I quickly found myself drawn to the readings of every writer that night in a manner that I can only describe as magnetic. Each story, spoken through the voice of the creator, seemed so vibrant it was as if the words shimmered and then planted themselves deep within me.
Listening is a skill that I realize I often take for granted. Hearing these stories live not only moved me in unexpected ways but brought home the fact that listening deeply to what others have to share doesn’t happen often. There are times when a life lesson taps you on the shoulder when you least expect it and you know you must pay heed to it.
Perhaps as I move more bravely out into the world, it is time to seek out more opportunities to hear the readings of creative work. So I can again, listen with intent and heart to hear the stories shared by those around me.
It is now five years later and there are more than 15,000 people from all over the world signed up for the annual 1000 Words of Summer project, with even more than that likely participating. Every year more wonderful authors contribute their thoughts on creativity, productivity, and inspiration.
If you have ever needed a large dose of motivation to kickstart a project, you probably know that the most positive way to keep going is with the support of other people. In particular, members of your tribe. The people who know how difficult the writing journey can be and are able to offer heartfelt affirming words of encouragement and ideas.
When I find my energy for writing starting to become limp, I turn to the members of my writing group for support and inspiration. So when I happen upon other writing resources I tend to gravitate to them.
Last year, I read an essay on the #1000 words of summer annual project led by Jami Attenberg but filed the idea somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind thinking it probably would be worth a try. Not ready for taking this project on last June, I did however, sign up to receive her newsletter, Craft Talk.
As the date for beginning the #1000 words of summer 2022 writing event drew closer, I started paying more attention to the explainer that was sent out and some of the testimonials. As the June 4th kick off date drew closer, I thought more and more about this and decided to sign up to participate.
Belonging to this burgeoning writing community came with no cost other than the need for a commitment to write every day for two weeks.
Certainly sounded doable so I signed in to join the slack and prepared to become a part of this large writing community. Inspiring words have also been shared from amazing luminaries, Roxanne Gay, Sara Novic, and Min Jin Lee with more to come each day. Their personal experiences with the writer’s life have also helped nudge my motivation and I have written more than the minimum for the past four days.
Writers share thoughts about their writing, or lack thereof, roadblocks, and energy levels on the slack platform. It is both validating and affirming to learn that my experience is not unique. Simply part of the writing process.
And it feels serendipitous to have discovered a large group of writers from around the globe who want to share resources, encouragement and motivational tips and techniques. What a wonderful place to be!
I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good at it.
Have you ever finally gotten up enough nerve to send out pieces of your creative writing to literary magazines only to receive a declined notice in Submittable so fast it gives you whiplash?
Or maybe you have a secret list of favoured publications that you dream will one day accept a piece of your best work. So you finally get enough nerve to take the plunge, hit submit but then wait for weeks and weeks. When you are just about to give up, you decide to send a query about the status of your submission. And receive a warp speed response that is a combination apology/rejection note.
Perhaps you have worked hard to complete your edits, have carefully reviewed the submission guidelines, and crossed your fingers (arms and legs) as you hit submit. Then a few days later you take a peak in your Submittable account and discover your work is “In progress”. And you have read somewhere that the longer it takes to be reviewed the better the odds are that you are going to have your work accepted. So having your prized piece of work linger in that state must mean something is going to happen. Right?
You just know that this is it. This has to be your moment.
And then, it happens, the rejection that reads like a form letter. Or worse yet, a hastily written personal email that actually has a typo in it!
So you decide then and there, that you are writing only for yourself, to learn the craft, to honour and express what resides deep in your heart and soul. You will learn to become content to leave the publication racket for those who have more gumption than you have. You know you should have gratitude that you were published some time ago so resign yourself to this uneasy state of acceptance.
And you carry on, writing often but at the same time growing uncertain about what you will do with all of the work that now languishes in draft Word folders.
As time passes by, you forget the sting of rejection and the emotional roller coaster that accompanies the submission process. You have read that all writers go through this and that it should be considered part and parcel of becoming a published writer. A real writer would face the risk of rejection head on, leaning into the idea that this is growth oriented and actually a positive.
So you submit three pieces of flash fiction to a magazine that you respect but you aren’t convinced will result in publication success. But it is part of learning so you treat this as an educational opportunity. You have read that collecting rejections can be an important aspect of the writing process.
Some time passes and then, suddenly in your list of new emails, you receive a notice of acceptance. Unbelievable! Your work will be published in a print literary magazine and you may agree to read your work at the launch. A launch, what!
So you go through a new process, working with an editor to prepare and ready your work to shine in the best possible light in a print publication. Along with the work of so many amazing writers.
And then the day comes, you open the mail and find two complimentary copies of the literary magazine, spring, Volume 13 which contains two of your flash fiction stories. You sit down to flip through the magazine, admiring the beauty of the cover art and the layout, breathing in that new print smell. You close your eyes in order to fully capture this moment. Then you quickly scan through the table of contents and find your name. Twice.
You do that smiling and crying thing at the same time. And a single thought occurs to you – this risk/reward publication thing in the field of writing – it is really worth the journey!
Surround yourself with people who add value to your life. Who challenge you to be greater than you were yesterday. Who sprinkle magic into your existence, just like you do to theirs. Life isn’t to be done alone.
Visits to my dentist are typically low on my list of fun things to do but yesterday I had a bit of an epiphany while I was there. During the past two years, each visit to that office has seemed surreal and somewhat disturbing. Walking into a giant waiting room with only three individuals spaced more than six feet apart, masked, sitting in chairs under signs that declare we will be pre-screened for safety was not just daunting but truly weird. Then a masked health professional would come ask a series of questions, take your temperature, and have you sign a consent that advised your level of risk to develop Covid was higher during dental procedures because of aerosols.
But yesterday all of that had disappeared. The waiting room was full, some people had masks on and some didn’t; the pre-screening event was off the table and an innocuous question about how I was feeling seemed to be the extent of worry about the ever present virus. The dental technician was chatty and full of life and every detail of the visit seemed what I would have expected pre-pandemic.
So it got me reflecting about how I have been living my life during the pandemic, especially for the past six months. And re-examining my understanding of what personal assessment of risk really means. Caring for an ill family member has meant trying to isolate and avoid illness at all costs. But really what are those costs and what is that level of risk?
Research has shown for a number of decades that social connection increases life longevity and as you grow older your risk of death increases even more if you are isolated, see few friends or family members, and spend long periods of time alone.
Prior to the pandemic, I was certainly aware that taking those closest to us for granted is something that is insidious and happens often. Many of us spend our working lives striving for appreciation and recognition. As we age, friendships become more like commodities, time seems to be spend chasing, rushing, working, rather than enjoying those that we love the most.
Having goals and wanting to succeed in life is admirable but at the end of it all what is most important are those closest to us. Friends and family backstop having purpose, focus, and feeling like you matter. The pandemic has highlighted how much value should be placed upon our emotional and social connections. Relying on technology to facilitate interactions with those important in our lives, leaves an understandable void that may introduce negative health consequences that should not be ignored.
Indeed, when thinking about the risks of social interactions in this world we now live in that includes covid, it seems paramount that we also consider the risks of isolation and reduced face to face contact. It seems entirely possible that by trying to avoid a virus we may inadvertently sacrifice the quality of our relationships at the expense of our overall health. That is definitely food for thought!
Creativity researchers have identified an effective strategy, known as priming, which is a way to jump-start our creative thoughts and feelings.
Your mind is truly a fascinating space. The relationship between neuroscience and creativity seems both intriguing and worthy of further exploration. Indeed, becoming more mindful of the role that my brain plays in the creation of art could allow me to create distance from that harsh critical voice that chastises me for not writing well or even worse, anything at all.
Often I find myself wondering why it is that some days words flow like a steady stream from my fingertips to the computer keyboard and on others, they remain stalled in mid pose. And why is it that random things like washing the dishes or pulling weeds can precipitate ideas that are startling in their intensity and vibrance.
How is it possible that the mundane aspects of daily living can precipitate the creation of a piece of artwork?
Really, have you ever wondered why some art projects flow like snow melt in the spring and at other times the whole thing just becomes mired in mud.
Fortunately, neuroscientists have a term for this process. Priming. Just like priming a pump, seemingly innocuous events and activities can push your creative stalls into the right place by the introduction of new stimuli. Simple sensory activities like creating an image journal, or listening to music, and mindfulness meditation have been found to function as primers that increase the connections that the brain makes.
And strangely enough, the content and focus of your priming activities do not need to have any relationship to whatever creative problem you might be struggling with. In fact, research has found that allowing your mind to wander afar is more beneficial than intensifying your focus on what you are stuck on.
So being more unfocused allows your mind to do what it needs to do, to wander and play with new ideas, images and sensory snippets in order to move through any blockages to your creative path. If we can stop our tendency to self-shame or blame when we our creative drive veers off course, it seems important to learn which priming activities may help us move forward.
So the next time I feel stuck or unable to write, I am going to try and discover how this aspect of research from the field of neuroscience might “prime” my next creative block and free my brain to move forward in its own unique way.
Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.
Strunk & White, The Elements of Style
Have you ever tried to force yourself to write in order to meet an arbitrary word count? It is a ponderous, painful exercise. I have been attempting to follow an oft repeated suggestion that setting a word count is an effective way to establish a daily writing practice. Not only is it purported to be helpful but should be considered an important guideline.
But learning to develop other aspects of craft can fall by the wayside as you grapple with the energy to meet this goal.
And if you are writing flash fiction, it becomes counterintuitive when trying to cultivate aspects of compression in your writing. Learning how to capture the essence of a situation with a brevity of words is a critical micro skill that doesn’t come easily. Especially to someone like me, who trained academically in another field where being wordy was both accepted as well as expected.
Writing is about showing not telling. Which can be hard to learn to do if you have a tendency to ramble. Sometimes it seems that adhering to goals that no longer serve us should be easy to let go of. But somehow that dark shadow of perfectionism creeps into your head reminding you to achieve a daily word count. If we aren’t mindful of this tendency to hang onto goals that no longer serve our purpose, it can haunt our efforts to learn to tell stories well.
Learning how to use very few words to tell a story that generates a complexity of emotions is more difficult than it sounds. Compression techniques are the underpinning of flash fiction. So my writing goals are evolving from trying to achieve a specific number of words to experimenting with other ways to develop and build my “compression” muscles.
Whether I practice writing 50 or 100 word stories or attempt to create a story in the format of a bingo card, I am feeling more confident with the focus of new writing goals. Learning to honour the elusive art of compression rather than the length of story seems a worthy alternative to monitoring word counts.
And writing goals just like any goals we establish in our lives should serve us in our growth and development. Learning when we have outgrown a disciplined habit requires flexibility and patience.
Now if only I could remember to stop myself from clicking the drop down box to reveal my word count before I leave my computer!
Writing is about getting to know more about the world – both the external world around you and the internal world inside you. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.
Robert Lee Brewer
Ever had one of those awkward moments where someone asks you what you have been doing lately and in a moment of excitement you mention that you are writing. Which launches the next question, oh what exactly are you writing? And for many writers who are in mid project, it can be dicey to try and explain succinctly what you are currently working on.
This tough question is often followed by a query about whether or not you are published and if you are, where your work can be found. Small literary journals either online or those still in print, don’t usually lend themselves to brand name recognition. For non-writers at least.
So unless you are discussing aspects of the writing world with a member of your tribe, most well intentioned people politely shift the conversation to something else. Quickly.
Perhaps this type of scenario might cause you to falter for a moment and ponder the question – why am I writing?
Because we all write for different reasons. We might write in order to be published. We might write because we have a need for recognition. We might write to touch the hearts and souls of people. We might be someone who writes for a living. We might write because we have an inner need to express ourselves using this creative vehicle.
But whatever the reason(s) our writing practice is often deeply personal. So to share this path you are on with someone who is not travelling on this journey with you, can leave you in a space where you feel misunderstood or dismissed simply because you know in your heart of hearts that you are a writer.
Writing is about taking risks. It is about having courage to learn to express what resides deep within. It is about having faith in your powers of observation and about being willing to fail when the words don’t line up quite right. Writing is about riding the wave of creative inspiration without knowing where you will end up. It is about a deep and enduring human desire to tell stories.
I am learning as I continue to write stories that this is how I make sense of my life, the world, and the people within it. I recognize that while many of the reasons why I write are fluid over time there is something deeply necessary about expressing myself this way. So for me writing is about growth and discovery and above all else, it is about having hope. Hope that my world will make sense and has meaning.
Creatives often lose focus when they tackle a particular creative project or intellectual problem. They start with great enthusiasm , certain in their bones that they know what it is all about. Then, even after just a few days, it becomes less clear to them what they’re doing.
During a writing class this past weekend, the instructor spent some time discussing how to leave a project you are working on to attend to the myriad aspects of daily life that require we do something other than write. But the challenge is, how do you get back to that magical place where your writing energy was high? That place where the why of what you are doing creatively seems crystal clear and words are rushing out of you. Up until something we are pressed to do elsewhere interrupts that flow.
Finding our way back to that creative focus can be one of the biggest stumbling blocks for a writer.
And for some unknown reason I have been labouring under the misconception that this particular problem was unique to me. Gazing at the number of notebooks with unfinished stories, abandoned ideas for books, first lines of poetry on my book shelf causes unbidden feelings of frustration, shame, annoyance to surface. And once those feelings emerge they threaten to overwhelm the thinking part of my brain that understands this is all part of the writing process.
In Eric Maisel’s latest book for creatives, titled, Redesign Your Mind, he notes that “the ways in which creative projects can dim, lose their lustre, and shift out of focus are legion”. So learning more about this aspect of the creative writing process seems paramount if one wants to become a writer who “finishes” their projects.
It seems that this is a typical problem that like most aspects of creative work if understood then it can be solved. I was glad to know that it is not just a “me” problem but one that impacts other writers and creative souls.
One of the suggestions that resonated for me was to develop a habit where prior to leaving your desk or computer or your notebook, that you write out where you think you want to go next, to frame questions that you want to consider or reflect on when you return to the page. Sort of a quasi developed pathway in point form about where you need to go next.
And what if you still can’t figure out where you were going with a piece of writing when you are finally able to get back to it? Then it seems best to simply write and keep writing. The magic seems to be in discovering what you are writing by actually doing it. Sometimes where you finish seems far removed from where you began. And really, what is wrong with that!
If uncertainty is unacceptable to you, it turns into fear. If it is perfectly acceptable, it turns into increased aliveness, alertness, and creativity.
Uncertainty often manifests itself in our lives as a primary stressor. The longer we experience it, the more challenging it is to learn to embrace it, accept it, or to thrive in spite of it. And the more frequently it pops up in our lives, the more it becomes subject to our innate negativity bias and fills our emotional spaces with worry and anxiety.
The pandemic has fit this bill like a glove. But any situation that is unknown to us especially one that may bring hardship and chaos into our lives quickly shifts into something we wish to avoid. But summoning inner resources and resolve to face tough situations builds muscles of resilience that can help us become stronger over the long term.
So how do you go about finding a way forward and what kinds of tools do you need to develop?
Having a support network of family and friends to backstop you as you navigate the harder things in life has always been a top priority. Learning to use mindfulness techniques to stay in the moment and avoid ruminating about the past or projecting wishful thinking onto the future is often helpful. And at times easier said than done.
But cultivating a state of being curious about what you are facing can help you stay focused on where you need to be.
And curiosity often creates a sensation of playfulness or lightness, helping you stay out of judgment, and clinging to our unhelpful attachments to things. Using statements like “what other ways can I look at this” or “what if” can be useful when you are teetering on the brink and need balance to face what life is bringing your way.
Research shows that curiosity may help build tolerance for anxiety producing situations and encourages unconventional ideas to solve problems.
Being okay with uncertainty, letting things pass, trying to think about how you have both feet on the ground while you walk helps lighten the load when you are facing difficult circumstances. Reminding myself to be curious, to slow down and observe what I am facing, lets me tap into creative responses to life’s challenges.
And right now, I am going to remain curious about whether I can maintain this mindset when I need it most.