Tag Archives: motivation

Creative Energy

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It’s a topic I come back to many times, because it represents a core truth for me.

I can write only what feeds me, what gives me energy.

I watched many eager writers through a strenuous, two-year MFA program, and I was reminded again and again that one of the most important doors our students could learn to open was the one to their own best writing energy.

Sometimes what waits to be discovered is form, the particular form that speaks to each writer.  Not that any of us should be limited to one genre if our interest reaches wider, but there is usually a right place to start, novel or picture book or easy reader, nonfiction or verse.

Often what waits to be discovered, too, is a particular topic.  Many first novels are autobiographical because we all have issues rising out of childhood aching for resolution.  And what better way to resolve them than to create a person more capable of sorting them out than we ever were?

But after that start, after the first manuscript or two or three that mines the big stuff, how do we keep going?  For my part, I have learned to watch for anything that sizzles.  I don’t pick up an idea because it’s cute.  (That goes without saying.  Anyone who has read my work knows I have little interest in or skill for “cute.”)  I don’t take on a topic merely because I think it’s something I can sell.  I don’t even try out an idea because I believe it is important.

I immerse myself in a new project because it comes knocking on my brain with a certain electricity attached.

I am currently in a period of waiting for editorial notes on my latest novel.  While I wait I keep my hands—and my eyes—off the novel I’ve just sold so as to be able to approach it fresh when those notes come.  And so as not to go off in directions the editor won’t be expecting.

But I’m not just waiting.  I am slipping every day deeper and deeper into a pool of ideas.  Trying out my next project.

Some of the ideas I’ve tried out have let me know that they aren’t ready.  One, an early reader I started and abandoned years ago, came tumbling out of my computer and clicked this time.

But then I was back to the pool, searching for electricity.

One thing I found floating around was a young-adult novel I worked on a few years ago.  I had nearly 200 pages of a first draft and months and months of meticulous research when I ran out of energy and put it aside.

Very firmly aside.  When my agent, who had read those first pages, wondered why I didn’t return to it I had a half-a-dozen very solid reasons.

Recently, though, I found myself reading a YA novel in verse with an electric current running down my spine.  “What if?” I said to myself for the first time. “What if I tackled that abandoned novel again in verse?  Would that make a difference?  Would working in small pieces and different voices give the story more energy?  Would the different approach demanded by verse enable me to drop out some of the detail that overwhelmed me in my first draft?

And suddenly, character after character, verse after verse began to bloom in my mind.

Because that’s the way it works.  At least it’s the way it works for me.  When an idea is right it acts like a magnet gathering iron filings.  Everything . . . everything flies to the idea, enlarges it, energizes it.

The notes on the novel I’ve just sold will come, and I’ll find my way back inside that other energy that inspired a very different story and bring it to fulfillment.

In the meantime, though, in the meantime, I wake with my brain sizzling!

This . . . this is what I most need to say, to do, to be!

What greater privilege is there than being able to live and work where my deepest energy compels me?

The Quiz

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I have a cousin who stands firmly on the other side of the political divide from the one I occupy.  Recently she sent me a quiz she had designed to demonstrate the facts about climate, facts that were drawn from reputable sources but that were clearly chosen to demonstrate that our concern about human-caused climate change is misplaced.

What interested me weren’t the facts she offered, but the power of my emotional response to her quiz.

The conversation that followed prompted me to search out an interview I remembered Krista Tippett doing with Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist/economist who won a Nobel Prize for his work demonstrating that we are not always logical and rational in our economic lives.

Here is one of the things he said in the interview:

When I ask you about something that you believe in — whether you believe or don’t believe in climate change or whether you believe in some political position or other — as soon as I raise the question why, you have answers. Reasons come to your mind. But the reasons may have very little to do with the real causes of your beliefs. And we take the reasons that people give for their actions and beliefs and our own reasons for our actions and beliefs much too seriously.

And that’s the topic that I find compelling, not what do I or my cousin believe, about politics, about religion, about the state of our world, about anything at all, but why each of us chooses to believe what we do.  What is the emotional foundation for my gut-clench in response to my cousin’s quiz?

When I saw what she had sent, I wanted to turn away.  I know my cousin, I knew where the facts she intended to reveal meant to take me, and I knew I wasn’t going to go there.  I also know how easily facts—I have a hard time not putting quotes around the word—can be shaped to prove opposing points.

It’s an interesting dilemma because I love my cousin, and the different ground we stand on doesn’t diminish that love in the smallest way.  But I definitely did not want to engage in measuring her reality against mine.

She has explained to me how she came to be a conservative, that as a young social worker in Chicago she saw the government tear down tenements that had been vital communities and build concrete sewers to house people instead.  Communities of color were destroyed because of the “superior” knowledge of white bureaucrats.

And while I didn’t witness that destruction as closely as she did, I was aware of it, too, and saw it as a serious mistake, however well intentioned.  Knowing it was a mistake, though, did not prompt me to rethink my view of government as it did her.

Why am I willing to witness such governmental blunders and still continue to vote for people I hope will provide government-driven solutions for complex societal needs?

Partly, of course, on a rational level, because I can also point to the great successes of government programs from GI loans to Medicare to Social Security.  But there is another reason that is even more powerful.  And more basic.

My father emerged from the Great Depression of the 1930’s seriously wounded, as so many did, and surviving that terrible time only convinced him of the responsibility of government toward its citizens.  It was a topic he brought up often at the kitchen table.

I resisted my dad in many ways, but still I listened.  His political views came to be part of my very bones.

On the other hand, my brother, who grew up listening to the same lectures at the same table, is a conservative.  I can only assume his views grew from his need to stand apart from that complex and often infuriating man, something that, as a daughter, I could do more easily in other ways.

If emotions do rule—and I’m convinced they do—do we have any hope of reaching across the chasm that divides our country and our world?

I wonder if the answer doesn’t lie less in trading facts than in listening deeply to the feelings of those who see the world differently, asking why they believe what they do, asking what lies beneath that choice.  Asking the question of ourselves, too.

And at the beginning of any conversation, setting aside the assumption that we, alone, are in possession of the truth.

I so wish we could embrace both sides, not so much that we could compromise as that we could recognize that our different views may each hold a fundamental truth.  At the very least, a truth of the heart.

Another Lesson

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Another lesson I’ve learned along the way is that there are no truly original ideas. There are no truly original plots. As the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes said three thousand or so years ago: “There is no new thing under the sun.” Except you. Except me. Every individual is new and unique, so we may be stuck with the same old plots, but because a new person is telling the story, bringing his or her singular life to bear on the story, it is fresh and new. So the only excuse I have for daring to write is that no one else in the world would be able to tell the stories that only I can tell. And an aside to those of you wishing to write — that is your excuse as well. The raw material for our unique stories is our unique lives and perspective on life.

 

Katherine Paterson

So Reckless and Opulent a Thing

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What we seek we do not find—that would be too trim and tidy for so reckless and opulent a thing as life.  It is something else we find.

Susan Glaspell

“So reckless and opulent thing as life”!

That phrase when I read it caught my heart . . . and held it.

Reckless and opulent, both.

How many hundreds of my mother’s eggs were cast away to make one me?  How many millions of my father’s sperm?

And yet here I am, alive, breathing.  I’ve been alive and breathing for eighty years.  A true miracle.  A reckless and opulent miracle.

But that’s the way life is.  Both reckless and opulent.

It works both ways, of course.  My son died at the tender age forty-two because nature’s opulent recklessness imbued him with a hidden flaw that played out in a neurological disease.

How often have I said it to myself?

“Nature is careful of the species, careless of the individual.”  “In any pod of peas, there will be an imperfect pea.”

Peter was my imperfect pea.

My oldest grandson, Peter’s oldest son, carries the same dark gift.

And yet my son’s three sons exist, each in his own way making a difference in the world.

Life, reckless and opulent.

Some mornings I am so filled with life’s opulence, its magnificent excess, that I rise into wonder.  Some evenings I crawl into bed weighed down with that same excess, overwhelmed by the day’s recklessness in all its light and dark manifestations.

But even when the weight is heaviest, looking out my study window at the superfluous abundance of the maple in my neighbor’s yard lightens me.   Sharing a home with someone I love beyond any telling of it comforts me.  Living, day after day, into the reckless gift of a brain programmed to do so much more than just keep me alive delights me.

What possible use does nature have, after all, for words shaped into meaning, into music?  And yet here I am!  How can I be anything but grateful?

Then there is the rest of the quote.

“What we seek we do not find . . . it is something else we find.”

What have I sought?  Safety, I suppose.  Above all else, safety.  I learned at my father’s knee that life is unfair, unreliable, even cruel, and my first instinct is always to move toward safety.

What have I found?

A world that makes no promises yet bestows the most profound gifts.

The gift of a son who dies.  The gift of a daughter who lives into the most graceful womanhood.

The gift of a career incapable of guaranteeing even food on my table.  And yet that career delivers . . . everything.  Purpose.  Belonging.  Satisfaction.  Joy.  Especially joy!

And food on my table, too.

I did not know enough even to search for what I have found . . . but here it is.

A world filled with reckless opulence!

Writing is …

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Writing is incarnational.

Flannery O’Connor