Kill The Butterfly

July 2016. I’m at the Creekstone Inn in Idyllwild, California. A bed and breakfast place with a lodge feel to it: old lady furniture, the smell of wood and jacuzzi tubs in every room. In the lobby three French women are drinking and playing pool and I want to be one of them but I’m trying to write instead.

I’ve spent the last six days at Idyllwild Arts Writers Week in a bunk with three other fellowship recipients. All women. Two poets and a nonfiction writer. We travelled in a pack all week and probably seemed clique-y but the truth is we just had no privacy so summer camp inevitabilities took hold.

Idyllwild Arts is actually a residential high school during the year. Everywhere you walk on campus you hear horn players warming up, you see paintings plastered on walls, sculptures tucked between buildings, kids with cameras studying how light falls, girls in ballet tights moving through the cafeteria with perfect posture.

img_0292

Yep.

My workshop leader was Samantha Dunn who is also my editor at Coast (I write a book round-up called Shelf-Awareness). On the second day of class, after several ice breakers and writing exercises and fun, I finally asked her about the real shit.

I loved playing with the prompts, I said but wanted to know how she approaches her work when she’s got a full draft and is doing major surgery, that part of writing that is endless decision-making and analysis. The ruthless part.

“How do you do it?” I asked.

“I get weird,” she said.

The class laughed a little.

“I do. I get weird,” she said. “I get up, I move around the room, I listen to Tom Waits. I do whatever it takes.”

Something clicked when she said this. It felt like she was giving us permission to make a mess.

img_0285

An eye I drew from a plaster model during Jane Bauman’s class at Coastline Community College in Newport Beach

Writing does not seem messy the way painting can seem messy, the way working on a student film can feel messy, the way my left hand is smeared with graphite when I draw. Writing is the opposite of tactile at times. You’re a million miles away on another planet while you work.

In 2015 I got so depressed I didn’t write for several months so I took a drawing class to trick my brain into a hard reset. Each class my instructor Jane Bauman would plop a model in front of us and force us to confront the figure. The expectations were simple: we were supposed to make a mark and deal with it’s inevitable imperfection.

David Ulin addresses this failure in one of my favorite essays on writing from the Paris Review:

“…writing…remains an unsteady process, a balancing act between expectation and an almost willful lack of expectation, between my aspiration and my failure, between what I want and what I cannot do….I’m familiar with this now…but then, it used to drive me crazy, the imperfection that sets in with the first written word.”

During his talk on structure at Idyllwild, Ulin talked about the need to transmit narrative without getting in its way. He quoted Burrows who said all that writers need to do is “function as the recording entity” and made me think of that brief foray into life drawing.

img_0274

“The only difference between fiction and non-fiction is ‘What if’… “-Samantha Dunn

Ulin said that as a kid when he set out to write a novel the first thing he would do is number the pages of a notebook.

“Okay, I will now write a 170 page novel.” He would say to himself.

It sounds funny but he explained that in some ways it made sense because he was defining a structure, even if only for himself and even if it was bound to be broken; it was a mark to be dealt with.

I am incredibly embarrassed about how long it has taken me to finish the book I’ve been working on and I haven’t been comfortable naming the actual cause of my delay until now, which is, quite simply: fear.

img_0278

Notes from Ben Loory’s lecture where I finally learned how a midpoint should operate

“Perfectionism has a marvelous way of tricking people into thinking that it’s there greatest trait,” -Elizabeth Gilbert

If you’re looking to kick start your creative juices in 2017, Gilbert has a great course on Udemy and it’s super cheap. In it she discusses perfectionism at length explaining how it is pretty much just fear in high-heeled shoes and a mink coat pretending to be really fancy.

I don’t openly love Elizabeth Gilbert but I definitely read “Big Magic” with simultaneous thoughts, which were:

Man I hate everything about this.

And: Man this exactly what I need to hear.

Though I am now beginning to realize it’s probably more like: man I hate everything about this because it’s exactly what I need to hear.

In this lecture Gilbert also quotes Rebecca Solnit in the New Yorker:

“…the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible and the fun.”

img_0279

Portland-based poet Ed Skoog quotes Burrows and drops knowledge in his lecture about unfinishedness…

But the most compelling part of Gilberts lecture is her retelling of Ann Pachett’s analogy of “killing the butterfly.” Here’s Pachett’s original quote from her essay collection “The Story Of A Happy Marriage”:

“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…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…I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air… 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… 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.”

img_0276

Ms. Brandi Neal the girl in the black hat…

The perfectionist vision can either live on forever in your head or you can actually make something.

In our workshop in Idyllwild there was only one man in our class. He was in his 60’s, a veteran who’d travelled the world and said he was there to begin writing the book that he’d had in his head for over 30 years. On the first day we all went around the room and said what was blocking us. The guy listed his wife as one of the chief reasons why he wasn’t able to start writing, she just demanded so much of his attention you see? The rest of us all made eyes at each other. (I jokingly called him out on it later because I am an asshole like that.)

A couple days later that man did an amazing thing, when you think about it: he wrote 10 pages of that book that he’d had in his head for 30 years and then he shared those pages with the rest of us. The story’s potential was off the charts, the concept had Hollywood film written all over it but ultimately it read like it was written by someone who hadn’t written much.

He was in the first group to get workshopped and then never came to class again.

img_0271

Speaking of imperfection…here’s a horrible drawing of Bruce Bauman author of Broken Sleep. Sorry Bruce.

img_0287

An attempted portrait of my boyfriend in which I make him look very fat.

fullsizeoutput_10

Model from my life drawing class.

AWP (Another Writer Pretending)

So AWP was a few weeks ago and I promised my Lit Camp pal Janey Skinner that I would doodle during the panels and then share them here. So here you go.

It’s funny but AWP coincided with a couple other writing-life things. On the first day of the conference my story “Live Action Regret” was on the fiction Podcast No Extra Words. Considering the fact that I haven’t been writing much and that I didn’t have anything published at all in 2015, this was a much needed dose of encouragement. And it finally feels like it’s time to get back to work. Back to my book. Again.

12973132_10209390722069897_5303215671201986836_o

Since my last post (nine months ago) I’ve spent most of my time just learning how to take better care of myself and how to be okay with not writing. I’ve been wanting to talk about this process but it feels all gross and self-helpy every time I do. So I guess I’ll just say this–in case you’ve got faulty brain chemistry like me and are looking to be not so miserable all the time–here are three things that helped: 1) Happify 2) Headspace 3) Going for walks out in the sunshine like it’s my job. (Endorphins and Vitamin D are for real!)

But back to getting back to work. In one of the guided meditations on Happify there was this women who talked that moment in meditation when you realize you’ve become distracted and it really stuck with me. She said: it’s important not to berate yourself for getting lost because it is in that very moment–where we recognize our wandering off–that instance is actually the most exciting part because that’s where we have the opportunity to truly become different.

12973108_10209390720149849_7399073056348038841_o

I think my little story “Live Action Regret” is about experiencing those moments of formation where we try to become something else. Change is uncomfortable and big changes always feel so false. To me trying being positive has always felt false. The fact that I use a website called fucking Happify on a daily basis is absolutely ridiculous to me. In the past whenever I’ve tried to buy into the Elizabeth Gilbert/Oprah Magazine view on life it’s always felt like I was denying some truth about my nature that seemed to spring from my deepest sense of self. I’ve always been fascinated by the dark recesses of human psychology and existential dilemmas are pretty much my jam, so how the hell am I supposed to embrace positivity and still feel authentic?

Uncomfortably. Very uncomfortably.

Still, the bottom line is that everything is a construction, including the very idea of the self, even that convincing whim that says that the depressed version of myself is the “real me.” So why not bend the narrative in a way that’s useful? I guess that’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and that is what I was trying get at in the story: the sheer power of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. I’m a bad mom. I’m a hard worker. I’m an imposter. I’m doing the best I can. These things become who we are. And we can change them. Plasticity isn’t limited to brain function, the stories we tell are also malleable and there are several that we cling to without realizing it.

13002487_10209390721589885_265195721658889187_o

At AWP, “We The Animals” author Justin Torres was on a panel about coming-out narratives and I think he illustrated this dichotomy (of wanting to be positive but authentic) perfectly. He was talking about the “It Gets Better” campaign and how it’s great and all but then he sort of paused and shrugged his shoulders and was like “Does it get better? Really. Does it? Or is it better to say that was hard?”

 

I think the ability to sit with both feelings is essential though and that’s where the Oprah/Elizabeth Gilbert/Martha Beck acolytes drop out.

12977225_10209390722909918_2108408770094874565_o

Right now in our culture of status updates this divide, between people who focus on the positive and those who live in less pleasant mind states, is more pronounced then ever. As a culture I’m sure we’ll get better at status updates eventually, but right now it’s like we’re still trying to figure out the point of it all. One of the best books I read last year was Clive Thompson’s “Smart Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds For The Better,” in it he addresses this perceived lack of value behind the status update. He explains that taken on its own a single status update seems rather benign. But if you take all the updates from one individual into consideration together over a period of time they can paint a picture or at the very least give you a sense of what’s going on with a friend who you might not have thought about otherwise, he calls this sense of perception ambient awareness. He discusses how this ambient awareness can also augment our real life interactions. Like when I met up with my MFA friends at AWP we had all read the same articles and seen the highlights from each others lives so we could cut to chase when it came to conversation.

But Thompson’s whole ambient awareness thing doesn’t work if we’re only broadcasting positive shit all the time and this bias is so prevalent on social media it’s hard to imagine life without it.

13002415_10209390719029821_5241298281698277573_o

I also read Patti Smith’s “Just Kids” recently and have been thinking a lot about becoming. I learned two new literary terms in the process (definitions below are lifted directly from Wiki):

  1. Bildungsroman In literary criticism, a novel of formationnovel of education,[2] or coming-of-age story is a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood (coming of age),[3] in which character change is extremely important.[4][5]
  2.  Künstlerroman, meaning “artist’s novel” in English, is a narrative about an artist’s growth to maturity.[1][2] Such a work, usually a novel, tends to depict the conflicts of a sensitive youth against the values of a middle and upper class society of his or her time.

The week of AWP I got a Facebook memory notification of an update from six years earlier. In a status update I had written: “Cynthia is going to class at UCLA Extension before she get any dumber.” (Typo on purpose I hope).

I was on my way to my first creative writing class downtown when I had posted that and the memory popped up on my phone right as I was headed up to AWP. I’ve never really known what this blog is supposed to be about but I like the idea of it being a place to chart some sort of formation. Becoming a grown-up. Becoming a writer. Each tiny step forward and all the delays.

If the 26-year-old girl driving to her first writing class could have flashed forward and glimpsed at the unpublished 32-year-old on her way to AWP–let’s be real–she probably would have been disappointed. Six years? No book? WTF?

It made me think of that quote from Joan Dideon’s essay “On Keeping A Notebook”:

12976704_10209390715509733_3206570461823149393_o

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.

…We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; …”

It’s hard to imagine what the 38-year old me is going to hate about the 32-year old writing this post but at least she’ll have this notebook to fuel the fire (or perhaps extinguish it).

12973108_10209390716189750_2875441864243921050_o-2