In 2015 I said to my husband that I wanted to become a writer. “What do you mean?” he replied. “You are a writer.”
This was true. I had written (bad) poetry and (worse) fiction through childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. By 2015, I had essayed (“attempted”) for several years, and I had published one of the eventual results, paid. I had written copy as a volunteer at the public library, and in my full-time role as a winery tasting room manager. I had a long-term, deeply fulfilling and faithful relationship with my journal. What my husband was pointing out was that, in the important sense Georgia Heath has identified right here on this website, I was a writer because I was already writing. But I couldn’t shake the doubt: I saw myself as someone who might be a writer someday.
The problem lay in that lazy statement of ambition. When I scrapped it for parts, I realized what I really meant was much more specific:
- To put my work in front of an audience.
- To learn whether I could produce work I respected, regularly, on schedule.
The first is a test I have been afraid all my life I will fail,* the second a critical skill I didn’t yet know if I had.
I still had the fear, but I was finally tired of its weight. Let it carry me for a change. I drafted a plan, bought a domain, and started my first writing project.
I called it Trail-A-Week: August to August, once a week, I’d hike a new or known trail, and then I’d sit down to think through some aspect of the experience “out loud.”
My weekly installments started as lyrical trail guides, and evolved into something more like personal essays. I learned, by writing them, all kinds of very basic things: what, for example, is a personal essay? I learned my preferred style, started paying attention to my strengths and weaknesses as a writer, started refining them. I re-learned the joy of the challenge—following a line of thought, revising for a better sentence—and the conversation: speaking back to the work of others. I remembered the joy of the flow-state, and understood for the first time that entering that state was as much a matter of practice as of luck. I found out how much work goes into a finished piece, compared to how many people like it on Twitter (three), and how many comments readers leave (one, maybe). I learned I could, indeed, produce good work on a deadline, and share it publicly. I learned to believe I was a writer.
Believing this has allowed me to open the kinds of doors that lead exactly where I want to be. Submitting to magazines and literary journals, for example: writers are entitled to do that. And writing workshops, which do not occur as something you could legitimately attend, if you do not already think of yourself as a writer. After Trail-A-Week, and after a small string of acceptances to various publications, I applied to one such workshop, run by my favorite magazine. I figured it was a long-shot. Maybe—they didn’t comment on that, but they did let me come. And of course they never would have done so if I hadn’t asked.
At workshops, I have learned about writing prompts. “Go away,” said the first person from whom I formally learned poetry,** “and write a poem to introduce yourself to the rest of us.” My God, I thought, I can’t write a poem on command. And then read it out loud! I wandered outside—the only place I ever understand myself—settled on a footbridge over a river I’d never before met, and did exactly that. It was not, in fact, hard. It was a small constraint that released my creativity, and once I put pen to paper, it felt natural.
There have been lots of prompts since: slow-paced wanders focused on observation; exercises in mimicry; timed stream-of-consciousness sessions where I wasn’t allowed to lift my pen from the page. I’m learning to love them, partially for the way they constantly show me how much more I can do than I think I can. But they have—for me, and your mileage may vary—significant limits in the longer term.
Outside the context of community, for example, they don’t have the same unmitigated positive effect. I still sometimes use a prompt I find, say, online, tweeted out by a poet I follow, or in a book like this tiny one I got from Kim Stafford, my state’s current Poet Laureate. But without the intensity and excitement of the workshop, where we immediately read our creations to each other, give feedback, and bounce ideas, pushing myself out of my routine in this way can feel like an interruption instead of a gift. Great, some random words on a notebook page. Now what? Work on those, or get back to the book I’m creating? Which highlights another problem: unless I’m at a workshop, there’s only so much time in a day that I can block (or flat-out steal) for writing. I have a long-term zone, and I don’t want to jar myself out of it.
So how to combine the creative push of a writing prompt and the joyful flow of the zone? My solution has been to go back to the model from which I learned so much in Trail-A-Week.
A writing project, as I define it, is a self-directed, long-term generative exercise with a unifying theme or goal. Installments are done at regular, pre-determined intervals. They’re published as I go, creating accountability for myself, and allowing for outside participation.
It’s a second long-term zone, but one that takes up far less time in a day or a week than my ongoing manuscript revision—or, for that matter, random writing prompts. It lets me explore something I’m curious about, without any kind of pressure to make it great or squeeze some income from it, or do anything at all with it beyond the parameters of the project.
My current exploration is called The Florilegia Project. It blends photography, reading as a sacred practice, and poetry. I do it every day, and—with the exception of the eight cross-quarters***—it takes about five minutes of my time. They’re five intent, focused minutes, though, during which I meet a small challenge and make a new thing. I do them in the early morning, and I love how they bring strength and shape to my day. Even if I’m sick, even when I’m traveling, even when I’m over-stressed or stuck for inspiration, they’re a guarantee I’ll create some art today.
I have no idea what, if anything, this project will turn into, or what doors in the world or within my own self it may open or close. That’s a benefit too: the conscious invitation of ambiguity, mystery, curiosity into my life. Whether or not I can point to examples or measure the benefits, it’s clear to me that both Trail-A-Week and TFP have enriched my creative output, and my life generally. They do it slantwise, so that I can’t quite get a look at the precise effect. Like a sunbeam, and exactly as impossible to grasp.
Though seen in retrospect, there are a couple of things I can point to. My writing projects so far have laid down a bedrock sense of confidence in my own ability both to create and to learn new things. I wrote in an essay once, startling myself, that “I learn everything slowly, at the pace of a forest’s growth.” My writing projects have allowed me to go beyond that acknowledgement, and live daily into its deep, essential truth. They’ve made me more me.
When this present project wraps up, I’ll probably take some time to let it integrate. Or I might use it to fuel some creative goal I’ve developed along the way. And when it and I are finished accompanying each other, I will begin to imagine another collaboration.
Because that’s what writing projects feel like to me: co-creation, between me and some independent idea, existing without entirely being until it breathed itself into me, and vice versa.
I realize I’m talking about creative endeavor like it’s God. And I don’t want to limit the divine—but absolutely yes. Everyone who does art has encountered its essential Mystery. I like to capitalize that word; it’s shorthand for how vast the distance between Mystery and just mystery, the latter of which is something you can solve, and move on from. Writing projects are a regular portal to that capital-M Mystery. Their only requirements are: remain open; and do the damn work.
I told myself I wouldn’t get too mystical here, but it turns out that’s another deep truth of mine, so belated thanks for buckling up and hanging on for the ride. But you’re already good at that, aren’t you? You’re here because you’re interested in the creative life, which is nothing if not a strange, unpredictable ride.
I’m curious: what long-term projects fuel your creativity? If you haven’t done one, or it’s been a little while, what concept or color or style or weird-idea-totally-unrelated-to-your-art might you want to pursue? And what’s stopping you?
*When I was small, my family would recite narrative poetry around the campfire—Shel Silverstein, Robert Service, bits of Tennyson—and I’m certain they would have welcomed and encouraged my own compositions. I was writing them by age 8—but I was too embarrassed to try them out loud, even for a loving audience.
**That person is Sherwin Bitsui. If you are a poet and you have a chance to take a workshop with him, take it.
***Days that mark the turning of the seasons, such as Midwinter. These are the days I sit down with the more involved parts of the project. You can learn more here.