17 July 2015
Two: Respect your Art [Spaces of Artful Living]
The feeling of exhilaration was all-encompassing once the decision to take an unpaid leave was made. It was a breath I didn’t know I was holding for so long being released. No more deadlines, no more work-related stress of whether I’ll be able to raise all the funds we need to cover salaries, program activities, and overhead for the year. No more “urgent” requests from donors to fill out this or that document or revise some parts of a proposal or a narrative report. The circle has been broken and I have slipped out.
The first reaction was that of the mind. It immediately freed up millions – no, billions – of thinking cells. Within one week, I wrote some 25 single-spaced pages of the “Taboos in Arabic” manuscript. Which, for me, is a tremendous amount. And all 25 pages were real good writing. I was on a writing spree. And when I wasn’t writing, I was constantly being bombarded with new ideas for writing: complete outlines for short stories were formed in my mind. I wasn’t even making any effort. It just poured into my mind and out on the paper. I was doing all kinds of writing, journaling, writing about writing, writing up outlines for short stories, and making huge progress with Taboos in Arabic. I felt like all the brain cells that were tied up, busy being fully committed to my job, all of a sudden and with no prior notice, finding themselves unemployed, went berserk. They jumped on the creative writing project immediately in full force.
Two weeks later, utterly exhausted, the flow abruptly stopped. Just like that. The brain cells burned out. It’s like with running. If you plan to run a long distance, you can’t sprint into it and then expect to get to the finish line alive. You have to start by warming up, and building up slowly until you reach that speed that will get you through without getting out of breath. But these are not mistakes. No. These are processes that you might (or might not) go through, and learn from them. Take them as they come.
Become aware of the process, and listen to your characters or narrative as a runner must learn to listen to her body. So if you’re on a sprint-writing, keep going. My creativity flow stopped after two weeks. Abruptly and with no prior notice. Just like it burst like a dam, it dried up. It was telling me I should slow down, maybe even take a few steps back – let the creation breathe on its own for a while. Let it settle down like. Step away.
But instead of accepting this as part of the process, I resented it. I was furious with myself. More than that, I was furious with the characters, who refused to budge. Not only that, they even started to protest and resist the path I was leading them down. How dare they! How dare they interrupt my – MY – flow of writing? Who do they think they are? I am the writer, and they are just fictious, made up characters. I can kill them if I want to. I can bury them. Or better yet, I can just press the delete button on my computer. One press of a button, and poof, you’re gone.
But in fact, this is not the case. At one point, that being page 80 for this novel for me, the characters stop obeying. They actually come to life, demanding their right to freedom of choice. I am no longer their puppet-master. And that’s the point where the initial idea of the story all collapses, followed by the caving in of the whole narrative. And I go – within moments of realizing this fact – from intellectual ecstasy all the way down. Sometimes the fall would be to frustration, other times to anger, humility, mourning the loss of the initial idea. It’s a long process that may take up to weeks, ultimately ending with acceptance. For me, this time, the road to acceptance took about a month, and was strewn with some seemingly unconnected incidents which, at the end, when looked at from a wider perspective and from a distance, all make sense and lead to acceptance.
What followed after this initial fall was two weeks of couch-potatoing, literally. I opened the sofa in the living room, and moved my whole life onto it. At first, I thought I’d give myself a couple of days off from writing. And when I don’t write, I read. And I read. Ferociously. I think I went through more than ten books in those two weeks. I had contradictory feelings about it at the time: I’m not wasting my time, as I’m reading, and reading is productive. As a writer, I must read. Reading is just hiding from facing the collapsed manuscript. Running away, finding refuge in other writers’ worlds. So let me just finish this one novel and I’ll get back to work. Ok, maybe one more novel, please? I don’t have to go for a run. I’m on vacation! I should go running tonight. At least keep up my body in shape. Nah, this couch is too comfortable, I deserved this! I’ll go running tomorrow. I’m a good-for-nothing writer. I’m not even a writer, who am I kidding? When a friend calls to ask how I’m doing, I say “I had a great two weeks writing, I’ve got 80 pages written! Now I’m just taking a few days off to read. You know, that’s how it works.” At the end of the first week, I finally gave up struggling and gave in to the couch-potatoing (Word keeps indicating this isn’t a word, underlining it with red, but I insist). I knew it was worthless to keep up this internal struggle, so might as well give in and enjoy it. And I did. At the end of week two, I was exhausted – mentally and physically. My eyes were watering from reading so much, my body felt tired, and my legs ached for a run. So I listened to my body, folded back the sofa, cleaned up the living room, and went for a run. If you think the next day I sat at my computer to deal with the manuscript and the disobeying characters, well, it didn’t happen. It would take another month, as this was a major process. More about this in the next post.
Back to the present: I had a productive day of writing today. It’s a Friday and I woke at 10:00, eager to start my day, with renewed energies for writing, as I feel now committed to this documentation process. I decided that today was a good day to go down to the garden with my laptop. For the first time. I never bring any technological devices to the garden. For me, this garden is a sacred place for meditation, reading, and writing in my notebook. But rules, even those one sets for herself, are meant to be broken. And since I decided last night to move most of my writing from the notebook to typed Word documents, I didn’t really have a choice. Beethoven accompanies me with his music. I’m not much into classical music, but for writing, it’s perfect. This garden has its own story that longs to be written, but you’ll need to be patient, because that’s for another day. Meanwhile, you can enjoy reading the poem I wrote on the spot on my first writing day in this garden, Hidden Garden behind a Row of Haifa City Blocks.
I spent four hours down in this garden today, reading, writing, and meditating. I decided today that no decision was the best course in regards to what to tackle: the “Taboos in Arabic” manuscript, which has grown into a monster of 80 single spaces pages divided into 17 separate files, or the short story, tentatively titled “The Lynch,” or the short story titled “Meanwhile, on the train.” For the past several weeks I’ve changed my mind so often between choosing the novel or the collection of short stories, that I have become disabled. Today I decided it’s not an either-or choice. I settled down in the garden, took a few deep breaths, meditated, and then read for about fifteen minutes before starting up the computer. Put on Beethoven. My finger guided the mouse spontaneously, without much thought, to the file titled “Short Stories.” I opened “The Lynch” file, and wrote. I wasn’t visited by any Muse. I just wrote, knowing that even if the writing isn’t great, I can come back to it at a later stage to edit, tighten up, or delete.
I had written the first three pages of the story back in September 2012 (almost 3 years ago), and filed it in the “short stories in-progress” file. About a month ago, I went back to this story, and wrote two more pages of it. I have the whole story in my mind, had it in my mind since September 2012, all the way up to the end. All I need to do is write it. Sounds simple, yes? Not so in reality. Even with a short story, where you know exactly what’s supposed to happen and how the narrative ends, when you actually sit down and write, sometimes the narrative takes a detour on its own, and you need to submit and follow the lead of the characters. Trust me, they always know, so it’s no use to resist them.
And so I submitted to this detour from the original storyline today, and ended up writing three single-spaced pages (some 1,500 words), and the day isn’t over yet, so I might get some more writing done. I don’t need to reread what I wrote to know it’s not the great writing I aspire to. I know most of it will have to be edited. Tightened up. But that’s ok. That’s good. I have a draft, I made progress, and I have a place from where to pick it up the next time I sit down to write. I’m happy with the writing of the first part of the story, which was written back in 2012, and this is good news. That first part is final and doesn’t need any editing. You’re welcome to read that part, which I posted on my blog a while back. The parts I wrote today are hardly in shape for reading, so you’ll have to be patient to read the rest of the story. This documenting project is proving to be good so far. 1,500 words in a day and still going is a lot of writing for me for one day, and add to it this piece, which is just over 1,800 words.