Julie Artz | author, editor, book coach, dragon

[Wyrd Words Weekly] The meandering path of the creative mind

Published about 1 year ago • 3 min read

Hello Reader,

Last week, Dani Shapiro's book, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, finally came from the library. I've been so excited to read it--and it's not new, so I'm not sure why I hadn't read it sooner. But none of the enthusiastic recommendations I'd heard prepared me for the explosion of thoughts and ideas that hit me the moment I started to give it a listen.

Part memoir, part craft book, Still Writing strikes a fine and precarious balance between the reality of how absolutely gutting the writing life can be and the joy that writers can find if they lean into this life. Shapiro starts her introduction with the inspiring lines: "...everything you need to know about life can be learned from a genuine and ongoing attempt to write about it."

So I popped in my earbuds, headed out into the garden (because my favorite thing on the planet to do is think about writing as I dig in the dirt, which is why I have a whole series on gardening-as-a-metaphor-for-writing) and started to listen.

Before I even got my peas planted, I had to sit down and write up some notes. In her essay, "Shimmer," Shapiro writes "Ann Sexton once remarked in an interview when asked why she wrote such dark and painful poems, that pain engraves a deeper memory...Pain carves details into us, yes. I would wager, though, that great joy does as well. Strong emotion, Virginia Woolf said, must leave its traces...These traces that live within us often lead us to our stories. (pg 28)" And she continues to warn up "ignore them at your own peril."

I've been struggling to start a memoir of my own, a memoir about how grief has shaped me. From losing childhood friends to losing my own father, then my brother, then, more existentially, my understanding, formerly so concrete, of what my childhood had been. My life feels a little bit like a path littered with those strong emotions Virginia Woolf described, the joy and the grief of it. I jotted this down, went back to my peas.

I lost myself in the rhythm of pulling endless rosettes of shotweed to the tunes of the robins--chirping loud enough to be heard over Dani Shapiro's voice. But then, in "Being Present," she said, "There are days when I am trapped in what virgina Woolf called cotton wool: dazed, unfocused states in which the hours collapse, one flattening into the next. Days in which I am not entirely alive. Our minds have a tendency to wander. To duck and feint and keep us at a slight remove from the moment at hand. If we're writers or artists, we can't afford to live this way. (pg 60)"

And boom, even though she was talking about staying in the present, I zoomed backwards through time to 1995, to a smoke-filled room and a group of friends on the cusp of adulthood, talking about this subject in a very different way. One friend, who, like me, has gone on to pursue a creative life, talked about the role of artist as observer, watching life pass him by through the glass rather than engaging. It felt like a depressing idea to me at the time--I was convinced, and still am, that living life is the best way to find Story. I'm pretty sure I raged at him during that conversation, all my righteous indignation blazing out in uncontained and likely incoherent fury.

Why had my mind zoomed back to that conversation decades ago? Why could I still taste the air, remember what I was wearing, feel the fury of it all rising in my cheeks all these years later? And then I remembered another person who had been in that room, a person who, at the time, I had loved very much, at least in my imperfect 20-year-old's way. And then I knew why this scene had been simmering there in my subconscious, ready to surface...he'd been on my mind quite of lot recently, ever since I learned he died of cancer in January.

We hadn't been in touch in years--in fact we parted the week I graduated from college in a way that might make its way into a YA novel some had just that level of drama and angst and longing in it--and yet still, I couldn't help the grief that swallowed me at the news. For myself and the bittersweet memories of our tumultous time together, yes, but also for his family, who had lost not a memory or a might-have-been, but an actual concrete father, husband, son.

I've been struggling to find a way to pay tribute to him, beyond the photos I shared with old friends, the stories we've reminisced about since we heard the news. And I saw a shimmer of it there in the garden, even as I understood that his loss would be another grief that changed the shape of things, for me to reckon with as I craft this story of losses that ultimately engrave that deeper meaning not just because of pain, but because of love.

I know this isn't my typical newsletter. But to me it's a meditation on how the mind works to craft Story--pulling in disparate parts across time, space, and experience in an attempt to make meaning of our lives, of our thoughts, of our words. In that way, I hope it had something to offer you.



Julie Artz | author, editor, book coach, dragon

Julie Artz helps writers who dream of a life spent telling stories that matter slay their doubt demons so they can send their work out into the world with confidence. An active member of the writing community, she has volunteered for SCBWI, TeenPit, and Pitch Wars and is a member of EFA, the Authors Guild, and AWP. A social and environmental justice minded story geek, Julie lives in an enchanted forest outside of Seattle, Washington, with her husband, two strong-willed teenagers, and a couple of naughty furry familiars. Check out her weekly newsletter, Wyrd Words Weekly, and subscribe today.

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