I am excited about our project of letter writing, of sharing our thoughts about this creative process that is so much a part of our lives. With our letters, we join a long history of other writers and artists who have used personal correspondence as a way to inspire and support one another.
I’m writing this letter early in the morning, in that fresh and open space right after waking up before the demands of daily living hijack my thoughts. This is what I want to tell you today.
Recently I had coffee with a friend – not a writing friend, but one who has always had kind things to say about my work. We talked of our lives, our families, our past experiences, some plans for the future. As we were finishing the last sips of coffee and wrapping winter scarves around our necks, she asked me this:
“What are you writing about now?”
I sighed heavily before I answered. “I’m not really writing at all,” I admitted. “I can’t seem to get anything on paper these days.”
She looked at me thoughtfully for a moment, before saying: “Well then, what do you think you might write about if you were writing?”
Such a good question.
If I were writing, I told her, I would write about how suddenly my world has become consumed with caring, of thinking about ways to physically and emotionally support the people in my life who are struggling with their health and well being. If I were writing, I might describe the ways my life has narrowed in the past 10 years, how much less I have and how much less I do, and how I am so very fine with all that. If I were writing, I would write about the ways technology has become a pervasive and disruptive presence in the world, how the noise from it hurts my ears, steals my attention, and fractures my time. If I were writing, I would relate my fears for this nation of ours, this America with its bold dreams and promises, and how this election year has revealed a dark underbelly to the place I’ve always been proud to call home.
But I am not writing. I am wondering – what do YOU do when suddenly the words don’t come? Do you feel as I do now – washed up, useless, spent?
Here’s the truth I know about myself: When the world is too much with me, it’s hard to find a way into the words, even if the words are the very thing that can save me.
I read something today, and found it helpful and insightful. It’s from a small book called Art & Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Maybe this idea will speak to you as well.
“The hardest part of art-making is living your life in such a way that your work gets done, over and over – and that means finding a host of practices that are just plain useful. The details of art-making we recognize tend to be hard-won practical working habits and recurrent bits of form we can repeatedly hang work on.”
Like Frederic Chopin and J.S. Bach, composers who wrote piece after piece in certain formulaic patterns – Chopin with his Mazurka’s and Waltzes, Bach with his Preludes and Fugues in each of the 24 keys – there are artists who know the value of having a familiar and successful place to start.
So maybe this is what I need. Instead of looking for a new thing to inspire or motivate me, instead I should be looking back at those “recurrent bits of form” that provided reliable gateways in the past.
Maybe “what’s next?” is really “what used to be” – the writing I made part of my daily routine in the past, but have abandoned lately in the midst of many upheavals in regular life: writing morning pages, religiously every day; writing blog posts, once or twice a week at least; putting good sentences in my ears with inspirational books. These are my Mazurka’s, my Preludes and Fugues. They bring me to the page, prime the creative pump, and start the well of words flowing.
And who knows? It may turn out that these very letters I’m writing to you will be something new to “hang work on” in the future.
“Over time, the life of a productive artist becomes filled with useful conventions and practical methods so that a string of finished pieces continues to appear at the surface. And in truly happy moments those artistic gestures move beyond simple procedure, and acquire an inherent aesthetic all their own. They are your artistic hearth and home…”
I like the idea of an “artistic hearth and home,” work I can return to time and again and where I feel comfortable and safe. I think we need those kinds of havens for work and for life, in order to muster the courage to go forward and try those things that feel risky and dangerous.
“The discovery of useful forms is precious,” write Bayles and Orland, “and once found they should never be abandoned for trivial reasons.” So here’s what I want to ask you, dear friend. What are your practical habits, your Mazurka’s and Preludes, your artistic hearth and home? Are you returning to them regularly, and letting them nourish you on your creative journey? I hope so.
Until next time,
About the Author: Becca Rowan
Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her husband and their two dogs. She is the author of Life in General, a book of personal and inspirational essays about the ways women navigate the passage into midlife. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. If she’s not writing or playing music you’ll likely find her out walking with the dogs or curled up on the couch reading with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) close at hand. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.