SETTLING INTO ORBIT
SOMEWHERE BETWEEN DEVOTION & DISTANCE LIES CREATIVE BLISS
Candace Krebs, Contributing Editor
Out on the fringes of the publishing universe are the dark planets of amateur inspiration. How often do you meet the unlikely candidate who has either written a book, is writing a book, or will write one some day, no doubt a bestseller? Fantasy seems frivolous compared to honing written language on the daily grindstone, continually weaving entertaining but relevant material from the loom of life.
Written expression, of course, is no more proprietary to a certain type of practitioner than love is proprietary to a particular personality or expression. Sometimes amateurs make the best writers purely on the basis of being unpretentious. Lack of pretense is a good foundation for originality. That’s why editors should welcome amateurs to their pages with more emphasis on passion and less on suave sophistication.
ROMANCING THE MUSE
We professionals, however, must stay closer to the sun. Tending the muse requires a diligence that goes beyond inspiration to devotion.
Often, invigorating creativity and writing workshops give way to structured, harried work environments where the seeds of genius are scattered to the wind. Workshops, by nature, are limiting. We largely learn writing (like community) from osmosis and pedantry practice. But creativity - like everything else these days - has become a commodity, its sacredness cheapened by shameless packaging and seemingly wanton availability.
My turning point came several years ago at a large journalism workshop, sponsored by the Pointer Institute, where I found myself far less interested in the various techniques and methodologies and far more fascinated by the journalists themselves, their stories and their expression. Their offerings awakened me to my own highs and lows, the awesomeness and responsibility of my unique access as a writer, and the value of the calling. Those insights helped shift my emphasis from "doing" to "being," seeing, considering and reflecting.
Regardless of their situation, creative professionals must allow the space for openness, listening and play. Reading for pure pleasure and brainstorming re-ignites suppressed desires and opens the door to the unexpectedly delicious detail or the broader, richer viewpoint. Then, in silence, solitude and single-mindedness, the product manifests.
Quiet confidence and patient devotion blooms when we change focus from ourselves as creators to the source and purpose of our creativity, from self-importance to disregard. No wonder so many of the best writers are unobtrusive in person but larger than life on the written page.
In "The Cloister Walk" author Kathleen Norris, a Lemmon, S.D., poet and writer of spiritual nonfiction, contends that artists are both romanticized and ridiculed, exalted and deplored, while their communal role as interpreters of honest experience is often misconstrued as self-aggrandizement - a view that fails to take into account how demanding, lonely and humbling the calling.
Artistry involves conveying a detached and impersonal regard of experience rather than confirming intellectual or scholarly facts, she suggests. That is why lyric poetry is the purest form of writing and rhetoric the most adulterated, while journalism occurs where scholarship and creativity collide. In our age, the media emphasizes the creative side of the scale due to the modern appetite for entertainment.
Thoughtful creativity, however, bolsters the value of factual research. By necessity, art is less about raw construction and more about carefully deliberate revelation. The challenge of good writing (and perhaps of good human relating) is not imposing your own limited notions but evoking -perhaps slightly provoking - a captivating subject wholly separate of your own biases.
GETTING THE RHYTHM
There is no substitute for time, in life or in the creative process. This runs counter to modern culture, which seems increasingly removed from the slow, steady rhythms of nature and Earth. Practice not being in a hurry, and discover how confoundingly out of place it is, yet how wonderfully regenerative.
Honest perspective requires incubation in order to surface. Satisfying periods of nonproductiveness - free of self-inflicted anxiety - are a natural, rather than artificial, wellspring of productivity. Loosening our death-grip on control is also helpful. In exchange for intent, who knows what might appear to take its place? Serious play and reckless imagination lead to places we would otherwise never go, to our own misfortune.
A writer speaking at a conference once said that it was only after three visits with his source that he found the real story. Ann Wylie, a communications consultant, offers a strategy called "W.B.H.A.: Writing By Hanging Around." Few of us have that kind of time on our hands, but we can still enter into an interview open-minded and ready for unexpected insight.
Never jump at your first idea, freelance magazine writer Donna Boetig advised during one workshop. How easy it is to fall in love with a unique take on a topic, or a creative lead, only to discover other writers have tread the same path. Going back to your story repeatedly with a deepening perspective adds to its relevance and freshness. Juggling several projects at once accomplishes that. Planning ahead, and being willing to ditch those plans, helps.
It seems these days we value true creativity about as much as we value craftsmanship of any kind, which is to say we grossly undervalue it. And yet it is the nature of industry in almost any age to surrender sensitivity and depth in preference for the quick, easy, crude and predictable. Creativity involves risk. Writers are afraid of what the editors will think. Editors are afraid of what the readers will think. And creativity requires boldness, which invites boldness in turn, possibly in the form of offended advertisers, pulled subscriptions and angry letters to the editor. That might be for the best in the long run anyway. After all, attention is the sincerest form of flattery and beats apathy every time.
An antidote to the trite way that creativity gets commercialized is the definitive and delightful "Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace" by Gordon MacKenzie. MacKenzie, who spoke to the American Agricultural Editors Association several years ago, died of cancer last year but not before touching many lives with what a mutual friend described as his "healing presence."
MacKenzie was a Canadian cartoonist and writer who joined Hallmark and rose through the ranks to the position of "creative paradox," something of a shaman or guru, with no job description and no real power within corporate hierarchy. The gist of his book is that being creative in a corporate environment involves loyally orbiting an institutional core, comprised of rule, policy and tradition, without getting sucked into it. That approach is an instructive blueprint on everything from religion to relationships to happiness, the universal principle of intimate and fulfilling attachment made possible only through a delicate and deliberate detachment.
Creators must find a way to defy the continual drive to the security of conformity and outward recognition without careening off into outer space. Easier said than done, it’s a process accomplished only by a willingness to cultivate courage and accept limits. Within this gravitational tension lies creativity’s full flowering.
German writer Goethe described it well: "Like a star, without haste, but without rest, let man revolve around his work." AM (sidebar below)
WRITTEN IN THE STARS
Practical Magic for Creative Writing
Write a headline, subhead and witty story description first. A catchy head will get you excited, which is a likely prerequisite to exciting the reader. The destination might change, but at least you have an idea of where you’d like to go and why you are embarking.
Play with words. Make a list of terms and phrases related to your overall topic and use them as creative transitions, modifiers, etc. Develop a theme that goes with your subject and turn it into a thread that holds the piece together like ribbon and bow.
Describe sources - their mannerisms, how they speak, what kind of first impression they make, how they move, how they relate with others - before and while you relate their ideas and expertise. Put news and information in the context of a great human drama.
Create suspense. If at all possible, tease the reader early on with a question or tickle their curiosity, but save the resolution until the end. Shape your story as a circle and give them the satisfaction of having walked the labyrinth.
Look for and offer surprises. Irony is particularly wonderful - how delicious, the perfectly delightful but unexpected! A burst of humor, awe or tenderness will leave your reader with a lingering sense of fulfillment. AM
Candace Krebs is a freelance journalist based in Enid, Okla.