My friend Cat told me that she hadn’t seen me smile in a while. We were at a restaurant – and after a few drinks I was definitely smiling and laughing.
But I realized she was correct. I haven’t been smiling much. And I’ve been more irritable with Tanya than I (or she) would like.
The problem is I’m not exercising. I hurt my leg in mid-December although I’m not sure how. I researched shin splints on the Web and as a result I tried icing my leg, taping up my leg, stretching, massaging my shin, walking on my heels, using a foam roller, and riding my bicycle.
Riding was okay but the next day my leg would hurt more. Walking on my heels seemed like a good way to strength my shin muscles, but now my other leg hurts just as much. Now I have sore shins on both legs.
I had great plans for this spring and summer. Among other things I was hoping to cycle with friends in Death Valley, climb volcanoes in Bali, and walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Now I’ve canceled all these plans and our travel plans for the year are in flux. Perhaps I’ll focus on eating and drinking instead of exercise. Which unfortunately presents a problem because without exercise I need to eat less rather than more if I’m to avoid becoming round.
But perhaps I’ve been given a chance to learn what else can fill my days with joy – or at least contentment. After all, one day I won’t be able to do hard exercise, regardless of any injuries.
I’ve started doing art again. Over the winter months Tanya and I did three art classes (drawing, pastel, watercolor). What I most learned was that I don’t have the patience to develop the skills to do art that looks remotely realistic.
So I’m going back to my old style of stylized art. Hopefully art will be one way to fill my time with an activity that brings me satisfaction, if not joy.
I also started writing another novel but very quickly ran out of inspiration. No, that’s not correct. I’m a firm believer in what Chuck Close said: “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.” It’s more that I fear I don’t have the skills or imagination to write the book. That what I’m writing is crap. If you’ve read Ann Patchett’s wonderful description of writing a novel, I don’t even have the dry husk and broken chipped body to start with, let alone a butterfly of indescribable beauty.
I understand that part of the problem is that I’m focusing on the result rather than the process. I need to focus on simply enjoying the act of imagination even if it goes nowhere, even if I have to backtrack, even if I end up throwing it away. This is difficult because one of the key motivators for most people (including me) is progress.
But a good life progresses in baby steps and shitty first drafts. So I’ve bought a book called 300 Writing Prompts to help me on my journey 🙂 And we’ve accepted that our travel plans will be very fluid and subject to change, even as we embark on them.
What do you do when you are unable to do the things that give you the most satisfaction in life?
The Progress Principle, by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer
This pattern is what we call the progress principle: of all the positive events that influence inner work life, the single most powerful is progress in meaningful work; of all the negative events, the single most powerful is the opposite of progress—setbacks in the work.
The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to do an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction.
The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling. During the months (or years) it takes me to put my ideas together, I don’t take notes or make outlines; I’m figuring things out, and all the while the book makes a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame. This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its colour, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see. And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page… Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing – all the colour, the light and movement – is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.
Bird by Bird, by Annie LaMott
Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea of shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.) Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow. One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, “It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do — you can either type, or kill yourself.” We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. The right words and sentences just do not come pouring out like ticker tape most of the time. Now, Muriel Spark is said to have felt that she was taking dictation from God every morning — sitting there, one supposes, plugged into a Dictaphone, typing away, humming. But this is a very hostile and aggressive position. One might hope for bad things to rain down on a person like this.
Links and Other Clicks
300 Writing Prompts
The novel I did manage to write.