A Writer’s Most Creative Act

Bird in hand

Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

I’ve said it before and I still believe it, so I might as well say it again.

Letting go can be a writer’s most creative act.

And the most difficult, too.

I’ve offered this piece of advice to my students many times, but each time I do I’ve been reminding myself as well, hoping when the time comes that knowing it will help.

I’ve just finished a project, a picture book, would you believe, that has occupied me wholly for months.  For hours nearly every day, I have researched and written and written and rewritten.  And then researched some more and started over from the beginning.  Many times.

The text has finally coalesced, so I find myself stepping off into that place I arrive at every time I encounter the vacuum of no-work-waiting.  Each morning I rise and say . . . “So?”  After confronting that “So?” for a week or two, I began rummaging in an abandoned young-adult novel that has been waiting in the wings.  I wrote about the beginnings of that encounter two weeks ago.

The novel was called Blue-Eyed Wolf.  Whatever else changed about it from one iteration to the next—and much did—it was always called Blue-Eyed Wolf.  It opens with a stolen glimpse of a litter of wolf pups.

But almost without my consent, as I tiptoe back inside my story, my setting insists upon changing.

It is changing because I used that northern Minnesota wilderness setting where an encounter with a litter of wolf pups is possible for another novel.  That one, called Sunshine, will be out in the spring of 2021.

Of course, many, many stories can occur in northern Minnesota.  I even had the good sense to avoid an encounter with wolves in Sunshine in order to leave that territory untouched in case I decided to return to this novelBut when I began to regather Blue-Eyed Wolf I discovered, to my dismay, that, even without using the wolves, I seem to have used up much of the emotional juice that land of woods and lakes holds for me. In story form anyway.

So this novel has to find another setting, one that still calls to me.

Where else to turn except to the cement-milling community in north central Illinois where I grew up?  The place where I lived out my childhood seems to be endlessly juicy.

This change feels both necessary and good.  I know it is good because it is energizing.  I can feel the noisy, dusty cement mill; the small Midwestern town; the muddy river that runs through the woods, can feel all of it pulling new ideas into my story the way a magnet draws iron filings.

But still . . . everyone knows there are no wolves with eyes of any color at all in Illinois.

And oh, how I miss those wolves!

They were, as my agent pointed out gently when I complained to him of their loss, “always mostly metaphoric, yes?”  And he is right.  Of course.  Surely I can find another metaphor to carry my story.

To carry my heart, I started to say, because that is what those wolves were doing.

But how do I move forward after discarding my story’s heart?

This is where I take a deep breath and pause to consider that lecture about “letting go.”  I remember even the gesture I used to make, the way I held my hand out in front of me, palm up, fingers folded, then opened it slowly.  As though I were releasing a small bird into flight.

And that is pretty much the way it feels.  A bird taking flight, leaving me standing here with an empty hand.

Which is why I return to that lecture, repeat it again, to myself this time.

“Letting go can be a writer’s most creative act.”

Now for the hard part . . . waiting for another bird to find my open hand!

Observations and Curiosity

sycamore tree

Photo by Ivan Matveev on Unsplash

Had I gone looking for some particular place rather than any place, I’d have never found this spring under the sycamores. Since leaving home, I felt for the first time at rest. Sitting full in the moment, I practiced on the god-awful difficulty of just paying attention. It’s a contention of my father’s—believing as he does that anyone who misses the journey misses about all he’s going to get—that people become what they pay attention to. Our observations and curiosity, they make and remake us.

William Least Heat Moon

The Walking Solution

walking in the snow

Photo by Genessa Panainte on Unsplash

I have long known that if all the keyboards were to disappear off the face of the Earth my career would be over.  I don’t know why, but the act of pushing words through a pencil onto a piece of paper has always been painfully difficult for me.  Until I learned to type, my stories existed only inside my head.

But there is another physical ability I have been granted that helps with my writing almost as much as keyboards.

I can walk.

Yes, I know.  That’s a bit like saying I can sing opera because I know how to fish.

But not quite.

Let me take today, for example.  I have had a young-adult novel rummaging around in my head for several years now.  More than just in my head.  At one point I had almost 200 pages of it down.

And then I lost faith in what I was doing, put it aside, went on to something else.

A couple of years ago during a long car ride, my agent, Rubin Pfeffer, brought up that novel I had laid aside.  He hoped I would return to it.  (To my astonishment, he could remember those almost-200 pages in more detail than I could.)  I raised various objections.  He raised various solutions.  And then I nodded . . . and went on to work on other things.

But when someone you believe in believes in you, their belief becomes part of your own psyche.  So that novel, the possibility of that novel has never gone away.  Even though, when I moved to my new house, I gave away all my research books, the books I had read and highlighted and tabbed with sticky notes, it still didn’t go away.  (“I’m never going back to that novel,” I told myself sternly as I filled grocery bags with “unnecessary” stuff.)

So guess where I am now, where I’m thinking about being anyway.  Of course, back to that long-ago novel.

I’ve sorted through a number of solutions for the problems I was having.  Experimented with a new form, found a new voice.  But one question remained, and it kept flummoxing me.

The novel is set in 1968, a time that the story seems to need.  But in the previous draft, for all my copious research I couldn’t quite get hold of the feel of that time.

Yes, I know I lived through that disastrous year.  In 1968 I was 30, in fact, and should have been very much present.  But I was a mommy, my life completely absorbed by babies.  The world happened someplace else.  Someplace I paid little attention to.  What I did experience that year occurred at such a distance—partly because of those babies, partly because of my own capacity to turn inward and let the world fly by—that little registered.

Which leaves me dependent on research to reinvent what so many know in their bones!

Not an enviable task.

And it leaves me using an old brain to try to hold the myriad events of 1968 against my characters’ personal struggles.

Just thinking about repeating all that discarded research, about trying to coordinate the complexity of that time with my story, leaves me feeling cross-eyed.

So I came back to it all again today.  I let it bang around in my head for a while and got nowhere.  “Dump it again!” I told myself.  “Go on to something else,” I said.  Though I have nothing else in my mind to go on to at the moment.

Finally I gave myself an order, the one I usually deliver at such moments.


And I did.

I don’t know what it is about walking.  The snow lay deep and untouched across the frozen lake I circled.  The air was crisp and fresh.  The rhythm of my steps brought every cell of my body alive.

And every cell of my brain.

By the end of the walk, by the time I emerged from the trees and could see the cheerful red of my car waiting for me in the parking lot, I had a solution.  It’s a bit odd, this solution my feet beat out of the asphalt path, but it might work.

And when I sit down tomorrow, if it doesn’t?

Well, I’ll go for a walk again.  There is nothing like it for getting my writing under control.

I am enormously grateful for my keyboard.  Always have been, always will be.

But, oh, I am even more grateful for my feet!


Look at the View

ocean view

Photo by Linda Xu on Unsplash

I found one of my best teachers on the boardwalk at Coney Island many years ago. It was December, and I was doing a story about how the homeless suffer in the winter months. He and I sat on the edge of the wooden supports, dangling our feet over the side, and he told me about his schedule, panhandling the Boulevard when the summer crowds were gone, sleeping in a church when the temperature went below freezing, hiding from the police amid the Tilt-A-Whirl and the Cyclone and some of the other seasonal rides. But he told me that most of the time he stayed on the boardwalk, facing the water, just the way we were sitting now, even when it got cold and he had to wear his newspapers after he read them. And I asked him why. Why didn’t he go to one of the shelters? Why didn’t he check himself into the hospital for detox? And he stared out at ocean and said “Look at the view, young lady. Look at the view.” And every day, in some little way, I tried to do what he said. I tried to look at the view. That’s all. Words of wisdom from man with not a dime in his pocket, no place to go, nowhere to be. Look at the view. When I do what he said, I’m never disappointed.

Anna Quindlen

Both Science and Story


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“The border is porous.  Myths nourish science, and science nourishes myth.  But the value of knowledge remains.”

That statement is part of a passage I returned to again and again in my multiple readings of a fascinating book called Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli.

Rovelli, in that passage, talks first about “the free and fantastic stories that humans have told nightly around campfires for hundreds of thousands of years.”  Then he moves on to speak of “the gaze of those same men in the first light of day looking at tracks left by antelope in the dust of the savannah—scrutinizing and deducting from the details of reality in order to pursue something that we can’t see directly but can follow traces of.”

“The confusion,” he adds, “between these two diverse human activities—inventing stories and following traces in order to find something—is the origin of the incomprehension and distrust of science shown by a significant part of our contemporary culture.  The separation is a subtle one:  the antelope hunted at dawn is not far removed from the antelope deity in the night’s storytelling.”

We need both, he says, but he concludes with, “If we find the antelope, we can eat.”

That statement stuck in my head.  “If we find the antelope, we can eat.”

And that is the power of science.  It is what science accomplishes that storytelling cannot.  It can fill our bellies with real antelope meat.

My father was a chemist, a brilliant man, but so much a concrete thinker that, when I embarked on an English literature major in college, he asked, “What is there to learn?”

For him story was merely plot.

That story and science can co-exist—must co-exist if we are to survive in this bewildering world—never occurred to him.  Thus, I have spent much of my life proving the story side of the equation, leaving science for others to attend to.

(I have been glad enough, though, to feast on the conspicuous rewards science has brought into the world over the eight decades of my life.)

But story and science are coming together for me these days.  I am intrigued by the insights I can glean—meager as they are, because my understanding is so limited—from quantum physics.  Science is telling us what mystics have told us for centuries, that we are part of everything and everything is part of us.

An insight that moves me profoundly, one that inhabits my soul and changes me in deep, invisible ways.

And that’s the way story works, too.  We don’t just read stories or listen to them.  We live them.  And in the living, we are, inevitably, transformed.

Yes, “If we find the antelope, we can eat.”  And eating is not just necessary to our survival.  It is profoundly good.

How grateful I am to the minds that have fed me in so many ways, like bringing me the computer that is capturing and disseminating my words today.

As I am grateful to those who have made my life larger through story.

The two co-exist, informing one another, supporting one another, and that is one of the greatest blessings of being alive in the second decade of the twenty-first century, that we can honor both science and story.