Doris Lessing and wool-gathering

writing 2010

My grandmother and Doris Lessing presiding over my writing desk, 2010.

I found an old post from a different blog (called “Wordscience” – not to be confused with another, more talented Samantha!), written in 2010 as I was reading the second volume of Doris Lessing’s autobiography. This excerpt has always stuck with me, and I thought it worthy to share here too:

Impossible to describe a writer’s life, for the real part of it cannot be written down. How did my day go in those early days in London, in Church Street? I woke at five, when the child did. He came into my bed, and I told or read him stories or rhymes. We got dressed, he ate, and then I took him to the school up the street . . . I shopped a little, and then my real day began. The feverish need to get this or that done . . . had to be subdued to the flat, dull state one needs to write in . . .

And now, on the little table that has been cleared of breakfast things, replaced by scattered sheets of paper, is the typewriter, waiting for me. Work begins. I do not sit down but wander around the room. I think on my feet . . . I find myself in the chair by the machine. I write a sentence . . . will it stand? But never mind, look at it later, just get on with it, get the flow started. And so it goes on. I walk and I prowl, my hands busy with this and that . . . I walk, I write. If the telephone rings I try to answer it without breaking the concentration. And so it goes on, all day, until it is time to fetch the child from school or until he arrives at the door . . .

So that’s the outline of a day. But nowhere in it is there the truth of the process of writing. I fall back on that useful word ‘wool-gathering.’ And this goes on when you are shopping, cooking, anything. You are reading but find the book has lowered itself: you are wool-gathering. The creative dark. Incommunicable.

– Doris Lessing, in Volume Two of her autobiography, Walking in the Shade

I read Big Magic.

I’d been hearing about Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic for a long time, about how wonderful and inspiring it was for creatively-driven people. I’d even heard that it was life-changing. And, I admit, when I hear something is life-changing, I tend to shy away. I have a natural distrust of things that make that claim*.

However, I was talking with an artist and photographer friend of mine, who had recently read the book, and told me the exact ways in which it had helped her. I paid attention then, because my friend and I know each other very well, and she was certain I would enjoy the book and find value in it.

So, I borrowed it from the library. And, well, my friend wasn’t wrong!

Luckily, I’m not currently going through a period of creative strife – in fact, I’m a handful of chapters away from finishing the novel I’m writing. However, Big Magic was full of great passages and thoughts that resonated with me all the same – I definitely would have highlighted had it not been the library’s copy. Here’s one part that I especially enjoyed:

Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human’s efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the realm of the actual.

Therefore, ideas spend eternity swirling around us, searching for available and willing human partners . . . When an idea thinks it has found somebody . . . who might be able to bring it into the world, the idea will pay you a visit. It will try to get your attention . . . You will start to notice all sorts of signs pointing you toward the idea . . . The idea will not leave you alone until it has your fullest attention.

And then, in a quiet moment, it will ask, “Do you want to work with me?”

I’m not really one who thinks that I have to receive a sort of divine inspiration before I can work. Especially lately. I’ve been realizing the value of sitting down to write something, anything, on a very regular basis. However, the idea of collaborating with an idea during the creative process? I love it. Reframing creativity as a partnership brings it slightly closer to my own level, and that’s a good thing. I may not ever be able to fully understand creativity in the way I understand more tangible things, but thinking of it as collaborative makes it somehow more exciting to me. It helps me to understand why working on a project on a regular basis, giving it the attention it deserves, can yield some fantastic results.

So. This book might change your life. It might just tweak it. But if you’re a creative person of any sort, I really think you should read it!


* I should mention that Gilbert herself wasn’t the one calling the book life-changing. In fact, in the book, she writes, “Please don’t make [helping people] your sole creative motive, because we will feel the weight of your heavy intention, and it will put a strain upon our souls.”

As someone weary & wary of self-help tropes, I was won over early – on page 22 – when she wrote:

Now you probably think I’m going to tell you that you must become fearless in order to live a more creative life. But I’m not going to tell you that, because I don’t happen to believe it’s true. Creativity is a path for the brave, yes, but it is not a path for the fearless, and it’s important to recognize the distinction.

Food in writing

As I wrote about last year when I read Ethan Frome, descriptions of meals in books are one of the things that really catch my attention when I’m reading. I like to imagine how all the elements of the meal work together.

I read this description recently in Margaret Drabble’s The Ice Age:

Sadie brought her a tray full of chicken soup and chopped liver and cold chicken and cold salmon and salad and fruit and gherkins and water biscuits…

What I love about this is that it’s so much. Almost too much food, it seems at first. When I first read it I imagined plates groaning under the weight of meat and gherkins. But really it’s probably small amounts of cold meat, leftover from the day before, and just a few gherkins, and then it seems okay. Good. In the book, the character describes the meal as, “infinitely reassuring,” and I tend to agree.

I have a friend who has a knack for assembling delicious, cohesive meals out of varied ingredients, particularly for picnics or otherwise leisurely summer eating. Recently she brought small slices of quiche to a picnic, and I thought, “Of course!” It made so much sense, but I never would have thought of it myself.

In The Ice Age, the character arrives at a friend’s home after a long day of traveling. She isn’t expected, she just shows up, but her friend (well, her friend’s relative), pulls together an “infinitely reassuring” dinner for her, the kind she needs at that moment. I like to imagine my friend is the same way, and that if I got off a plane and went directly to her house, she’d rummage in fridge and cupboards and the result would be infinitely reassuring.

I’d like to strengthen my weak skill for last-minute meal assembly. Mine always seem to lack some vital component, or overdo it on one thing, and the end result is wobbly, unfinished. I suppose this is another reason I’m drawn to food descriptions in books.

Perhaps I should stock up on water biscuits?

The Outward Room

I wondered how it was that I had never heard of this book and its extraordinarily promising young author. I asked around, but no one seemed to know or remember Millen Brand, or his books. It’s somewhat frightening to learn that good books – even books heralded in their time – can disappear so quickly and completely.

[. . .]

All of Brand’s work is modest and sincere, two qualities that are undervalued, if not dismissed, in modern fiction . . . Despite the titillating claims of the paperback reprints, there is nothing sensational about The Outward Room. Its power comes from its tenderness and quiet. As Brand himself observes, near the end of the book, ‘the evidences of winter were small, only to be seen, like the signs of spring, by the heart that feels small changes.’

– Peter Cameron, in the afterword to The Outward Room

When it comes to books, I tend to rely unquestioningly on the recommendations of my friend Amy. It isn’t that I dismiss other recommendations outright or find no value in them. It’s just that, somehow, Amy intuits what kind of book will fire up the electrical connections in my brain like no other. It’s especially impressive to me because people’s taste in books is so personal, so hard to pinpoint. So I have to publicly thank her for recommending The Outward Room to me.

I long ago realized I was terrible at book reviews, so I will let the above quotes from the book’s afterword stand in for my own words.

Tripping over the carpet

Days that feel like older days. Lazy suburban summer drives, windows open, listening to a short story read on the radio. Sitting by the lake for an interminable length of time. Browsing at the bookstore I used to spend so much time in, tripping over the carpet. While my mother looks at religion books, I turn around and consider the wicca books, the angel books, remember my teenage bedroom full of ornate candlesticks I imagined would fit in in an Anne Rice novel. A woman approaches and pulls a tarot book off the shelves. She reads a couple of pages and puts it down. I see her ahead of us in line later, holding an interior design magazine, and I wonder if she was remembering too.

 

No shame in my video game-book-game.

I tried for a week and a half to get through 23 pages of an Ayelet Waldman novel I ended up abandoning, but have spent the past two hours completely engrossed in a book based on the Dragon Age video game series.

Draw from that any conclusions you will.

(I was surprised to find the Dragon Age novel has a higher average rating on Goodreads than the Waldman novel.)

Ethan Frome food

Reading descriptions of food in books is maybe one of my favourite things. I often read the descriptions two or three times, imagining how the combinations work and comparing the food to what I’m already familiar with.

Recently I read a food description in Ethan Frome that was among the most unusual I’ve seen:

She set the lamp on the table, and he saw that it was carefully laid for supper, with fresh doughnuts, stewed blueberries and his favourite pickles in a dish of gay red glass.

I read this on the bus and put the book on my lap and looked out the window, thinking about it. Donuts, blueberries, and pickles. Yes, the donuts were likely plain cake or yeast donuts and not the glazed and sprinkled things we think of now, but it still sounds so odd.

And I kind of want to try it.