April 14, 2020

Writing in suspended time: Approaches to creativity and creative thinking

Novelist, essayist, cultural commentator and UCalgary English prof Aritha van Herk on sparking a creative practice during extraordinary times

Whether we practise distancing or isolation, the days stretch long now, and like the light, time is offering us a chance to exercise that long-postponed creativity that we all know we harbour, somewhere in our elbows or toes or earlobes. 

Many people keep a journal, a record of their feelings and their daily interactions.  That form of writing is a way to explore private matters. But it is not the same as a creative practice.  So now is a good time to think about approaches to creativity and creative thinking. 

Regardless of intentions, someone who hasn’t been writing regularly isn’t going to sit down and write a novel in the next six weeks or six months. Without the training and the intensive creative practice (yes, writing is like ballet and playing the cello, it requires daily and immersive work), a project like that is daunting and unfulfilling. Besides, in a year there will be so many pandemic novels that the chorus will be deafening.

Aritha van Herk

English prof Aritha van Herk.

Trudie Lee Photography

Instead, here are some suggestions for that creative impulse.

Read first. Read a book that inspired you in the past or that mattered deeply to you. Reading, said Virginia Woolf, is writing.  We are reading in electronic bites, and the time to settle down with a real book and to turn real pages is NOW. They provide the best of inspiration.

Move past your narrow personal feelings.  We’ve all experienced joy and grief, but those lacerations might not be the best place to begin. Misery memoirs get boring very quickly. And the worst question that journalists resort to is: “How do you feel?” because the answer is evident: “Terrible.”

Do write about the world you encounter every day. The slippery texture of your child’s snowsuit. The way that carrots lie ominously in wait in the bottom of the vegetable drawer. The sound of the furnace sighing when it clicks off. The secret satisfaction of balancing your chequebook or your online statements. The thin skin of ice over the water in the sidewalk gutter.

Stay concrete. “Truth” and “Beauty” and “Success” and “Despair” and “Society” have no sensory value. Write about what you can smell, taste, hear, touch, and see, and make those qualities actionable. On the page, “reality” is not real.

Go to unexpected sources to prompt sensory memories.  Do you have your grandmother or grandfather’s cookbook? That wobbly volume, with the splotches on the pages, will evoke far more than the food that resulted. Get out your old jewelry and look at items that were gifts or mementos or impulse moments. Write each one’s story (you can amuse yourself by discarding gifts from old love affairs).

Write about a specific part of Calgary that is present or past and that exemplifies your experience of this city: the history of where you live (who lived here, what was this building or this land before?); the first time you went to the top of the Calgary Tower (and what did you see?); the striped awnings that used to stretch out from store fronts (more photogenic than reflective glass); the ironwork on the balcony of the first apartment you lived in (decoratively twisted and painted green); the colour of appliances in the 60s (avocado?); where you learned to drive and what vehicle you learned to drive on (in my case, a rusty Massey Ferguson tractor); the first time you took public transit alone; the smell of your fifth-grade teacher (cloves and snuff); your worst haircut (self-administered or not); the sound of a lawnmower on a hot summer night (just before sleep); what it’s like to faint or to kiss your dog or to reach for that tray on the impossible-to-reach top shelf; the shuddering release of boots when you pull them off after a long hike. Our lives are rich, but, caught up in grand ideas, we don’t honour our experiences sufficiently.

No guns, no knives, no death. Violence is used as resolution and action in so much of what we consume that it has no meaning anymore. Even if death is real and inevitable.

Resist the temptation to succumb to contemporary clichés, like “masks are a thing,” “we can get through this together,” “I love children.” They measure banality.

Learn to treasure words. Pocket a new word every day. It doesn’t have to be polysyllabic or obscure. “Bungee” will do.  “Zealous” is satisfying. “Caesurae” if you want to be poetic.

Respect the page. Computers have made us complacent. Get out an easy-writing pen and a piece of paper.  You’ll surprise yourself.