I’ve been making a series of short videos geared to my creativity coaching work. One of them was to be around the topic, “when projects shift, morph, and change.”
It’s gotten very meta around here.
While drafting the script for this video, my writing started to, uh, shift, morph, and change.
I came up with scenarios that face creative people. But these scenarios were all set in the Before Times. After writing several of these, I had a d’oh moment. I noticed that everybody is now faced with exactly this challenge. Why? One word. Pandemic.
From February of 2020 on, it sank in gradually how massive the changes were going to be, and for how indefinitely long they were going to last.
I, for one, was not happy about moving my office home to my apartment on 12 March. I liked my office. I loved the meetings I’d had there for years, all the a-ha moments shared with clients, all the fruitful collaborations with colleagues and friends.
Seven months in, however, I had given up my office lease. New tenants arrived, satisfying my landlord, and letting me off the hook.
Adapting to these changes is taking the time required. We’re all at various stages of denial, frustration, resignation, bargaining, and so on. (Watch out, Kübler-Ross.)
Everyone I know has become a marvel of resilience, sometimes in multiple ways. In the past eleven months since the mid-March 2020 stoppages, who among us has not changed their life drastically? Whose work has not been altered or eliminated and re-shaped? Whose family life operates in the same way? Whose typical week looks the same?
For writers, the forced isolation has sometimes been welcome. (See introvert stereotype, etc.) However, even for people who are comfortable spending most of their time alone, the reduced social contact of the past eleven months has also challenged people’s confidence, which can lead to a loss of creative momentum.
For those directly harmed by the pandemic, through loss of employment, compromised health, and even loss of life, the idea of having projects shift, morph, and change does not bear considering. More vital questions demand full attention.
For the rest of us who are able to continue to tolerate the danger and uncertainty, hoping that things will get better eventually, we draw on inner resources and sustain ourselves. In my circle, those tactics include cultivating old friendships, and availing ourselves of distanced culture, video calls, home cooking, nature walks, favorite books, contact-free library pick-ups and drop-offs, puzzles, knitting, closet reorganization projects, gardening, time with companion animals, and, of course, bread baking.
So, as everything remains in flux, and as the US examines itself – or insists on not looking – and as the world struggles with this massive public health crisis, we continue to muddle through.
What changes that you’re making will remain permanent in your life when we’re free to go about again and travel, meet, etc.? Do you feel you’re making progress in new directions, or are you just responding to the external pressures and changing as needed? What will the pandemic have taught you, when you look back on this time? What will have changed for you?
— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, provides creative coaching and full-service editing to authors and other creative people. Decks of 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, at the Chenille Books website, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase at Central Virginia booksellers and on Amazon. A new workbook, The Becoming Unstuck Journal is forthcoming.
Priori Incantatem, also known as the Reverse Spell, is a magical spell in the Harry Potter universe that reveals the most recent activity of a wizard’s wand. In the duel between Harry Potter and evil Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, the Reverse Spell forces out of Lord Voldemort’s wand the ghostly images of the last half-dozen or so people he’d murdered, starting with the last person first and going in reverse order.
In the first printing of J. K. Rowling’s massive 734 novel (published in 2000), the last person murdered is the young and handsome Cedric Diggory, the champion of Hufflepuff House. The ghost of Cedric squeezes out of Lord Voldemort’s wand like smoke from an exhaust pipe (my description, not Rowling’s). “Hold on, Harry,” the ghost of Cedric says.
The next to the last person murdered is an elderly caretaker. His ghost, just like Cedric’s before him, encourages Harry to not give up. “You fight him, boy…” Then comes the ghost of Bertha Jorkins. “Don’t let go, now!” she cries. “Don’t let him get you, Harry…” Bertha, Cedric and the caretaker pace around Harry keeping the evil Death Eaters at bay. Next comes the heart stopping scene of watching Harry’s parents – the parents Harry never knew – appear as ghosts.
The smoky shadow of a tall man with untidy hair fell to the ground…looked at him… and Harry, his arms shaking madly now, looked back into the ghostly face of his father.
“Your mother’s coming…” he said quietly. “She wants to see you… it will be all right…hold on…”
And she came… first her head, then her body… a young woman with long hair, the smoky, shadowy form of Lily Potter…
The problem, as every Harry Potter reader knows, is that the order was wrong. Lily Potter (Harry’s mother) should have come out of the wand before James Potter (Harry’s father). JK Rowling messed up and messed up in a very large, very public way.
Rowling attributed the error to “late night writer’s fatigue” and it was fixed in later editions.
So this brings me to the question, how should authors handle mistakes AFTER publication. One of my writer friends says she never reads her work after it is published. It drives her crazy that she can no longer edit her work. She can no longer make any changes. She can no longer fix any errors. Any “fixing” is up to her publisher.
Which is one of the advantages of self-publishing. Self-publishing with Amazon, for instance, allows authors to edit their work as soon as they see an error. This won’t fix errors in the copies already sold but does allow the author to make changes to future copies. And maybe allows authors to rest a bit easier.
In June, 2019, a side door in the House of Change opened a crack. Joy Harjo, a member of the Mvskoke (Muscogee Creek) Nation, was named the 23rd poet laureate of the United States. She is the first indigenous poet and the seventh woman to hold that post. Chosen by the Library of Congress, the poet laureate’s role is to raise consciousness and enhance appreciation for poetry. In her first and second terms, Joy Harjo has chosen to represent not only marginalized female and Mvskoke voices, but to make space for a wide range of indigenous writers—through the production of an anthology, When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through(2020), which she describes as “a doorway,” and her special project, Living Nations, Living Words, a digital story map introducing the country to Native poets, past and present.
I’ve been celebrating the good news by revisiting her work. I first immersed myself in Harjo’s poetry in college, where I fell in love with the collections She Had Some Horses (1983) and In Mad Love and War (1990). I felt drawn to the rhythm and power of these poems, the mix of dark and light, and I relished their keen revelation of female experience. Harjo visited my college twice during that time. In tongue-tied awe, I sat a few seats away from her when she attended my poetry writing workshop. Listening to her, I experienced for the first time the vast difference between poems on a page and poems read out loud by the poet that made them.
In light of the many challenges that 2020 has delivered, Harjo’s appointment might seem like a trivial thing to emphasize. Poetry itself might seem trivial, even irrelevant. An inert remnant of the past. A form dismantled in the last century, its shards left scattered around the waste land. Nevertheless, poetry isn’t dead. Poets persist. They continue their alchemical work, boiling language down, transforming mundane experience, offering up insight and epiphany.
Joy Harjo suggests that poets do even more. In 1994, she wrote “I believe that the word poet is synonymous with the word truth teller.” Throughout her work, Harjo reveals the truth of her experience—the harsh and the exhilarating. Published in 1979, the poem “I am A Dangerous Woman,” is so real and relevant it could have been written five minutes ago. Harjo reads it here.
Harjo’s poems are built not just to say something, but to do something. As an active extension of an ancient oral tradition, they are meant to serve as rituals and ceremonies—for change, for remembrance, for celebration—as the creeds and invocations and prayers of church are meant to do. Harjo’s poems are constructed to open doors. Because Harjo insists that words have power, her poems are made to alter and to move us and to possibly change the world. Here, a poem to release fear.
The second time I heard Joy Harjo read, she brought her saxophone and a band with her. The audience experienced, firsthand, the power of the oral tradition, witnessing the creation of live, unrepeatable versions of her poems with music in a space and time. Not fixed on a page, but fully vital. When I left that event and went back to my dorm room, I felt restless and wrong indoors, somehow. I remember wandering back outside, stirred up. I only felt right under the night sky. Her words had worked on me, opened something up.
In the current socio-political era, the truth we encounter is something to be questioned and inspected and is often found to be as insubstantial and unreliable as wet cotton candy. In such a time, we might start to believe that we can’t make a difference. All around us, words are used to obscure rather than illuminate, so it seems even more significant that someone committed to telling the truth has been given a prominent space to speak and be heard. I think we’ve received the teacher that we needed—someone to remind us that words have meaning and power, someone to remind us that “All acts of kindness are lights in the war for justice.” (The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, 1994)
Last month (November, 2020), the Library of Congress announced that Joy Harjo has been reappointed and will serve a third term as poet laureate—a rare occurrence. (She is only the second poet in seventy-seven years to do so). We might have more to learn; I know she has more to teach us.
Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group
“[T]he habit of writing … for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. … What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. —Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary
How I Started
One winter night when I was young, I sat looking out my bedroom window at the dark street in front of my parents’ house. My parents and I were on a long-distance phone call – they in the kitchen, I on the long-lobbied-for extension recently installed in my room – catching up with a family friend. The friend had called cross-country to give us the good news that a recently married couple we all knew and loved were expecting a child in May, and wasn’t it great?
As I listened, my parents’ unseen reactions seemed tinged with something. Hmmm. I’d gone to the November wedding. I counted on my fingers: one for December, two for January, three for February, and so on. When I got to six for May, I started over again, to find my error.
I knew about a mostly unspoken rule that said babies are supposed to be born more than nine months after the wedding. I also concluded this couple had broken the rule. I had questions. Lots of questions. It would not be smart, however, for me to ask my parents. While Bohemian in many ways, they each had a strong Puritanical streak that manifested from time to time, and this had all the earmarks of such an occasion. I didn’t want to be in the room when they hashed it out between them.
I didn’t have any friends to talk to about something like this. I grabbed a green spiral-bound notebook from my schoolbag and wrote out the months, to be extra sure. Wow. The mother-to-be must have been pregnant already when I helped her get dressed on her wedding day. I had no idea.
I turned to my green notebook. I needed to sort out my feelings about this good news that turned sideways when it revealed a transgression. I found a steadfast companion that night.
After that night, I kept pulling out the green notebook before I slept. It soon became a habit. I appreciated the safety of having a place to try out my thoughts before I spoke them or acted on them. I had a place where I could confide in complete privacy. As a thirteen-year-old girl I had many questions and puzzlements and uncertainties. The best place to express them, it often turned out, was in my green spiral notebook.
Many years have passed. I still maintain a blank notebook. After the green wirebound notebook filled up, I experimented with form. For a few years I made entries in a miniature bound journal my choirmaster gave all the choristers every December. This may have been to foil my eyeglass-wearing parents in the event they got nosy. I can now barely decipher my tiny handwriting – full of abbreviations and codes – in those volumes. Once I was out of my parents’ house I settled on the sewn and taped binding of a “composition book” with a marble-pattern cardboard cover. The main thing didn’t change: now as then, my journal is a welcoming open creative space. I seek a coherent narrative for this life, and the pages of my journal are where I conduct that search.
Why I Treasure My Silent Companion
Following are one big and three small gifts I have received from cultivating a journaling practice.
Unprescribed, unsupervised, unlimited, the regular putting of pen to page gives back so much. And it doesn’t just happen while you’re writing. I find that an ongoing journaling practice takes place in three timeframes – during, after, and before.
While I’m writing in my journal, I’m in the moment, and can let the words pour out, often unexamined. The passage of time is unimportant. I remain uncritical, open to what the pen in my hand puts onto the page. This process becomes a deeply ingrained habit. It helps keep me going, sustains me when I’m feeling under pressure, rewards me with insights revealed through the act of writing them, and gives me the place to puzzle out answers so I can gain understanding and take action on incomplete pieces of my life.
From time to time, I flip back and review pages already covered with my handwriting. Here, I can examine everything. Retrospectives of prior years’ entries can be useful and enlightening. Some patterns permit detection only in hindsight. From a longer view, I can appreciate genuine progress, and also note ongoing themes that recur in cycles of a year, or a decade, or longer – like the rings in a tree trunk or geologic strata. As Virginia Woolf discovered when she returned to old volumes of her diary, “I found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time.”
Once the journaling habit became embedded, I began to notice, as they cropped up during the day, ideas and observations that felt like they belonged in my journal, even when it wasn’t at hand. One approach is to just carry the book around with you wherever you go so it’s always at hand. When I did that, I asked myself the clever question, If I’m carrying a bag big enough to hold my journal, why not toss in a few more things? Some unpleasant neck and shoulder issues ensued. Instead, I now can opt to carry small, lightweight methods for making temporary jots that I can add to the journal later. Smartphones make this easier (although sometimes, I find, things really want to be written, not typed). These ‘before’ contributions to an ongoing journaling practice are worthwhile contributions to the contents, and are also reassuring and self-reinforcing evidence of the centrality of this relationship between my journal and me.
Journals are wonderful antidotes to perfectionism. Uncritical and impossible to shock, patient and unfazed, my journal can handle whatever I introduce. Its quality just does not matter.
When you allow yourself free rein in your journal, you “invite your quieter, more thoughtful voices to come forward and be acknowledged.” A M Carley, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers. Accept the possibility that there are sources of wisdom within you that are not accustomed to being heard. Make them welcome.
My journal is a time-tested method of correcting for negativity bias, our human hardwired focus on what’s wrong at the expense of appreciating what’s working well.
Beyond Study Hall
I use my journal for much more than I did all those years ago in my bedroom at my parents’ house. No longer an adolescent, I am less interested in parsing out who said what in study hall. Crucially, I now have a sturdy community of friends and loved ones with whom to share life’s questions. The value of my journal has only increased over the years. It remains my silent companion. Open to whatever I write, annotate, or doodle, it welcomes me every time. Virginia Woolf’s ideal, a framework “so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind,” is attainable.
— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, provides creative coaching and full-service editing to authors and other creative people. Decks of 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, at the Chenille Books website, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase at Central Virginia booksellers and on Amazon. A new FLOAT Workbook • The Becoming Unstuck Journal is forthcoming.
Ken Follett’s epic novel Pillars of the Earth is set in England in the years historians refer to as The Anarchy (1135 – 1153), a nineteen-year period of anarchic civil war which resulted in chaos and widespread breakdown in even the most basic civility.
This chaos is most clearly embodied in the novel’s primary antagonist, William Hamleigh, the son of a minor but highly ambitious lord. William is a spoiled pampered bully. He beats and belittles and takes advantage. His goal is to become Earl of Shiring.
Standing in William’s way is Prior Philip, a devout and deeply curious man who treats everyone he meets with kindness. Prior Philip wants to build a great cathedral. It is Prior Philip’s everyday generosity that brings him together with visionary craftsman, Tom the Builder, the man who will build his cathedral.
The Anarchy in England was “a succession crisis precipitated by the accidental death by drowning of William Adelin, the only legitimate son of Henry I.” (Wikipedia)
Historians looking back on 2020 may refer to this as America’s Anarchy. Pandemic, unemployment, injustice, crime.
This November, America is facing its own succession crisis. We face a choice between a man who has everything yet still bullies his way into getting more. And another who has served his country for 40 years despite tremendous personal loss, yet still finds a way to help another.
Is inspiration something that comes to you, or is it something you can go after?
For a nonfiction book I’m writing, I’ve been asking that question. My new book offers practices to supercharge your creative flow, ways to harness the creativity tools you already use, and ideas for applying your big-picture vision to everyday tasks. So you can imagine that inspiration is pretty central to the entire book.
I’ve come to see that, for me, there’s more than one kind of inspiration.
Receiving the Cosmic Download
This is the kind we’ve all seen portrayed in movies, fiction, and other popular culture. It comes from outside ourselves. In this scenario, we’re powerless to resist. The upside? Van Gogh’s sunflowers and starry night skies. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Or so we’re led to believe. However, being ravished by inspiration, while certainly dramatic, may not be what I need on a Tuesday afternoon.
For one thing, this kind of inspiration visits now and then – if we’re lucky. It may never visit at all, and, if it drops by, may never return. What then? Are we destined to languish as passive vessels, waiting for another dose? That seems a bit boring. Also ineffective. And immensely frustrating.
Also, this external kind of inspiration is likely to show up more often if we make it welcome. A great way to do that is to seek little bits of inspiration on the regular.
Can we intentionally go after inspiration? Why not? True, the big kind – when a whoosh of ideas, energy, direction, emotion, and inspiration manifests in your awareness unbidden – is powerful, and wonderful to experience. In fact, everything I’m doing with my new book will make the “whoosh” kind of inspiration want to visit. We’re putting out the welcome mat for it.
There’s a powerful argument, though, for a more active version. The kind that, when you make up your mind to seek it out, is often less big, and also can be much more frequent. I believe in cultivating this kind, the kind that doesn’t need to come from outside yourself. We can invite it in by focusing on something in our environment.
If I’m feeling a little lacking in creative get-up-and-go on that Tuesday afternoon, I can take steps – manageable steps – to go after some inspiration. Two perennially powerful go-tos are taking time with nature, and practicing focused breathing. After all, the root of the word ‘inspiration’ is the word for breath. I propose three other small tools here, adaptable even to urban living.
Notice Five Things
I can go for a walk around the block and commit to noticing five things I’ve never noticed before. The way a roofline meets a downspout. The contrast of a child’s yellow toy with the bark of a tree. The sounds of traffic combined with the squeak of a loose road sign in the wind. The cloud formation that looks like layers in a parfait. The smell of burgers and coffee from the diner. Just focusing my senses on my direct experience can act as a palate-cleanser and send me back to work with new ideas and a clear head.
Describe to an Alien
Or I can stay home and change my position, from desk to couch, for instance, and sit there. After a quiet moment, I can choose something to look at closely. Then I can find words, the most accurate words possible – crossouts are permitted – to describe my selected object to an alien, without naming the object or its function, as though my visitor has no frame of reference for this thing. By changing my language, I’m playing 52 pick-up with my assumptions and opening up my imagination. A stapler, a coffee table, or a frying pan will look different to you after you do this. Your work is likely to look different, as well.
Tour the Vault
A third way I can get inspired is to take a look at things I have stashed away in Evernote. (Needless to say, it doesn’t have to be Evernote specifically – that just happens to be the place I habitually tuck bits of information, examples of cool ideas, research, inventions, creative expressions, images, sounds, etc. For you it might be notebooks, scrapbooks, vision boards, a Pinterest page, a closet shelf, etc.) I am always pleasantly surprised at something that’s waiting in there. Makes sense, because I use it as a parking lot for things I don’t want to make room for in my awareness. And it does its job! When I visit, it’s like opening a treasure vault. I recently found great links to pertinent articles on topics of interest for a writing project.
Welcome them Both
I believe that both forms of inspiration are important, and that it’s helpful to welcome them both into your creative life. They seem to get along well.
In fact, the best part, I feel, is that the more I seek it out, the more inspiration seems to be willing to come by for the big ‘whoosh’ moments. Somehow, it’s gotten the message that there’s a place for it here.
A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, provides creative coaching and full-service editing to authors and other creative people. Decks of 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, at the Chenille Books website, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase at Central Virginia booksellers and on Amazon.
A few years ago my husband and I renovated our house. What started as a general dissatisfaction with the main floor plan became a months-long project that transformed our home on the outside and inside. Knowing what we didn’t like was easy. Knowing how to fix it took time and lots of good advice.
The writers at BACCA Literary want to renovate the BACCA Literary blog. We have a general dissatisfaction but don’t know how to fix it. That’s where you come in. Please spend a few minutes with these questions and give us your honest answers. Multiple choices are welcome as well as adding your own answers. Space is given below the survey to expand on your answers or add comments.
Please expand your answers below. BACCA Literary welcomes your feedback. What blogs do you currently follow? What are you looking for in a blog post? What do you love to read? We’ want to hear any advice or ideas you have to improve the BACCA Literary website and blog posts.
Thank you very much!
Carolyn O’Neal is an author, an environmentalist and a beekeeper. Her young adult novel KINGSLEY was published in 2015. KINGSLEY is available on Amazon, Audible, and iTunes.
A minor confession: I love form. I thought I’d only write free verse. I thought I’d be one of the bull-in-a-china-shop rule breakers of fiction. I thought I’d start each project with a slate clear of the traditions that came before. But the more I read and the more I write, the more I know that form is beautiful and useful – and it’s my secret tool for innovation.
For a long time, literary forms and their limitations were an imposition. I rebelled against rhyme. I shirked the sonnet, vilified the villanelle. I objected to outlines, too. (Who cares if they made life easier? They reminded me of schedules and routines – those despised limiters of my childhood, interrupting the long, open days of summer.) If I followed the rules, if I used traditional form, I was sure I’d be stuck, locked in some stuffy, dust-bunnied room, with outdated decor. I wanted to be a writer, unrestricted, unbound. Free to go anywhere, like the wind.
After more study and practice, I developed a grudging respect for the forms I’d mocked. I recognized that good forms have a purpose, and a tendency. The sonnet, music box-like with its rhythms and revelations, conjures an intimate experience. The villanelle lulls; lines repeat, pull, seduce. After all, even the wind wants something to blow against: leaves, channels of rock, cattails, and blades of grass. How else can it sing?
Form elevates, too, inviting precision and tautness. When making poems or stories, using form can be like stretching words to fit a frame, pulling ideas across lines until they are strong and resonant, like the skin on a drum. Form pushed my writing further. The unnecessary fell away. Muscly words that did twice and three times the work emerged. Eventually, I found my way to more subtle, yielding forms – syllabics underpinning a line of poetry, a fragment of myth whispering up from the molten core of story – hidden, intricate architectures that could help hold the work up, not hold it back.
Forms restrict, but they also invite us to play. The astonishing gift of form is surprise, our unexpected rise to the occasion as we work within the confines imposed. Inside the lines, we improvise and innovate, fiddling until something fresh arrives. Form, then, becomes a doorway to the new. A welcome paradox.
In the last few months, most of us have traded one set of limitations for another. Under stay at home orders, the days, stripped of appointments and engagements, yawned open, while the scenery stayed the same. We’ve seen (or experienced) suffering and loss, but something beautiful has happened, too. Unforgettable demonstrations of creativity have emerged from the limitations – all the sweet, wacky, clever ways that people have dreamed up to stay connected, to encourage and check on each other from a distance. Invented games. Birthday parades. Unexpected reunions. Teleconferencing-propelled collaborations, between unlikely collaborators, that resulted in brilliant performances and artistry. Stripped of airbrushing, pomp and circumstance, many of these productions have looked a little less shiny than we’re used to, but a little more comfortingly real. Maybe it reminds me of childhood: the silly, wild games, the true play of abandon and recombination built from the tools and materials at hand.
As quarantine restrictions lift, routines of normal life will return, but I hope the spirit of innovation and improvisation will persist. When the power goes out, we remember how much we love candlelit dinners, storytelling, and card games. It’s too easy to forget these simple pleasures when the lights come back on.
Here’s a favorite example of quarantine creativity: The Roots, with Jimmy Fallon and Brendon Urie, performing Queen’s Under Pressure (featuring David Bowie). It’s a great cover of a great song and a bafflingly good use of the video conferencing platform. Note, particularly, the genius use of “found-at-home” instruments by The Roots: a reminder that if we want to make music, we will find a way. Most of all, I love the joyfulness of their performance. Here’s proof that in times of stress, we still want to create things together, to delight and encourage one another. It gives me hope.
Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by the author.
Several ancient schools of thought, originating thousands of years ago in India and in China, tell us that when you give something a name, you cut it off from the great swirling unknowable unknown that we call the universe, the mystery, darkness within darkness, or the nature of reality. Of course, those are all names, so it becomes impossible to write about the underlying nothing, since the moment we use words, we confine the thing that is too big for words.
How do creative artists, including writers, manage that paradox? On the one hand, the writer’s tools are words. On the other, in order to touch the universal, we must abandon words, abandon thinking altogether, in fact.
Leaving Thought Behind
This is why, for example, forms of meditation recommend that we ‘just be,’ focusing on breath, and briefly acknowledging and then dismissing thoughts as soon as they appear. In this context, thoughts are sometimes compared to clouds in the sky, waves on the surface of a deep ocean, or cars passing by on the road. They come and go, and have no meaning.
A teacher recently posed the problem, “Describe to me last week – without using words.” He concluded that the task was impossible, because there is no ‘last week’ without words and symbols. Ideas, relative positions in time, in fact the notion of time itself, are all constructs. All Maya.
Maya, a Sanskrit word sometimes translated as illusion, has multiple, nuanced meanings. In Western popular-culture shorthand, maya has come to mean the shared trance that we unknowingly, collectively agree to, so that we can function in the modern world. Buying into the trance of maya, we pay our bills, go to our jobs, drive in traffic, give birthday gifts, vote for politicians, accept the names of things, and in countless other ways entertain the culturally accepted method of viewing the world. Underneath maya, though, is that limitless unknowable everything. Is being free from maya the goal of those seeking enlightenment?
My first response to the teacher’s question about communicating ‘last week’ without words, was to imagine a kind of interpretive dance, or a quickly drawn image that somehow elicited in the viewer an intuitive grasp – somehow – of the notion of ‘last week.’
Maya for Writers
Assuming for the moment that a dancer or artist might be able to do that, what does the writer do, faced with this challenge? Even the most artful, obscure poem uses words, does it not? And words, unavoidably, conjure up in each one of us our previous uses, memories, knowledge, and responses to them. In fact, words have richness and power because of all our associations with them. This is true for the writer and for the reader.
If writers cannot possibly escape maya in our work, can we use our shared unreality for good? Do we use language – our creative tools – in ways that can shift that shared maya, for a moment, into a slightly new light? Do we apply metaphors and similes? Do we arrange words in unexpected sequences to permit the reader a brief glimpse of something beyond the words, into the unknowable?
— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, provides creative coaching and full-service editing to authors and other creative people. Decks of 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, at the Chenille Books website, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase at Central Virginia booksellers and on Amazon.
More than once I’ve shared my writing philosophy with friends who have hit a hard bump in the road. Whether an illness, a job loss, or relationship troubles, for a writer, there’s no such thing as a bad experience. All experiences are material, the good ones and the bad ones. Especially the bad ones. The first few months of 2020 have tested this saying almost to the breaking point. This has been a year for the history books. Before I heard a word about coronavirus or quarantine or government shutdowns, I had health issues and bee hive failures.
“Two bears in one cave will not end well.” – Mongolian
Three of my four hives failed in January and February. One hive died. The second hive absconded (the bees flew away and never returned). The third hive abandoned their home for some reason and joined up with the stronger fourth hive. Losing three hives was very disheartening. I had anticipated a heavy honey season so this seemed like a personal failure. I left the empty hives where they were for the time being. It was cold, there weren’t any pests flying around to bother them, and I had bigger issues to deal with.
“Kings and Bears often worry their Keepers.” – Scot
In early March I spent a night at the hospital to repair a brain aneurysm. I was a nervous going in but the surgery was quick and I was up and walking the halls of the ICU by that evening. I took it slow and easy, more afraid of tripping over the thick socks they gave me than anything else. I walked past a couple of rooms with signs on the door saying masks were required to enter because of “respiratory particles.”
No more than a week after getting home, my apiary had an unwelcome visitor. A bear had found my three abandoned hives and decided to check them out.
Bears enter our vernacular in many ways.
Freedom to bear arms
Grin and bear it
Goldilocks and the Three Bears
I cleaned up my apiary, removing all the damaged hives. I strapped down my strong hive and surrounded it with cinder blocks and tin cans dangling from string to scare away the marauding bear. My beehive had at least 50,000 bees in it. You’d think that many bees would keep any creature at bay, even a bear. You can see for yourself, my efforts were a waste of time.
What should I do? My last hive was destroyed. Should I quit beekeeping? Should I shrug off all the time and money I had put into it? Should I say this just isn’t for me and abandon my few remaining bees to their fate? So many signs told me to quit. I was healing from surgery. I was dealing with the growing threat of this coronavirus. The government shut down businesses all over my city. My beekeeping classes were cancelled. The state beekeeping convention was cancelled. My local beekeeping club meetings were cancelled.
Writers know what it feels like to get knocked down. No matter how much time you’ve spent on a story. No matter how much money you’ve spent on writing classes and seminars. Agents don’t want to represent you, publishers don’t print your story, readers write a scathing review of your work for the world to see. Writers face relentless rejection. Signs everywhere tell them to quit. Life gets in the way of writing routines, inserting personal tragedies and national pandemics into everyday life.
“The bear is in the forest, but the pelt is sold.” – Unknown
I decided try again. I saved as many of my bees as I could and placed them and what I could salvage from their hive in a shed. I locked the shed at night to protect them from the bear. It was a temporary solution, at best. Moreover, there was a good chance the queen was dead and the bees would abandon the hive. By this time, it was late March and needed to be vigilant about the coronavirus. Washing hands. Social distancing. Wearing a face mask. My husband worked at the local hospital so I had daily updates when he came home. I talked via email and phone to beekeeping mentors and asked for advice. Before I set up a new apiary, they said, I needed to make sure it was safe from bears. That meant an electric fence with a solar panel charger. Of course, I couldn’t shop around for fence and solar panel charger materials. Everything had to be researched and purchased online.
The equipment finally arrived and my husband put up the electric fence all by himself. Talk about social distancing. With his help, we moved the beehive from the shed to their new home. I repaired and repainted the hives damaged by the bear. I purchase two new packages of bees. My new apiary was all set just in time for the April blossoms. It was a tremendous about of work and might not yield any honey but all I can do is keep trying. Unlike writing, in beekeeping there IS such a thing as a bad experience. But I learned a lot and hope I’m a better beekeeper for this experience. And maybe a better writer too.