I Feel, Therefore I Am

pastel drawing 'Summer Sandals' by Cat Fink

I am changing the well-known saying by Rene Descartes, “I think, therefore I am.” 

I’ve decided writers require their own version.  “I feel, therefore I am.”

The writing for my book’s third draft is all about emotional context and connection.  The book is nonfiction, but it still requires the feeling connection with the reader.  Without it, my words have no depth, and trusting them is questionable.

It’s no surprise to me that the first two drafts lacked emotional context.  I am a master at masking my own feelings from myself.  Thing is, this lack is a definite problem when writing a memoir that tells of healing through learning to open my heart.

We are all masters at sensing other people’s feelings.  Often we call it intuition, but it’s really an emotional connection that runs below thought.  From experience, I am aware how I trust the feeling of someone’s words more than I trust the words themselves.  I can’t expect a reader to trust and connect to my story without also sharing with them the emotions that accompany it.

Sharing my emotions leaves me feeling shaky, naked, and vulnerable.  Sharing them publicly is terrifying, but I am walking myself through the terror, and writing anyways.

I am not doing this alone.

I have my precious group of friends and allies who read my draft, allowing their truest selves to be vulnerable enough to offer me their honest critiques.

I have an editor, and we are forging a heart connection between ourselves and the story to create it true.

I have writers and artists who are mentors via their books and images.  One and all, they walked a path of emotional vulnerability, and now they are showing me how to do the same.  When I get too scared, I pull one of their books from my shelves and borrow their courage.

Walking willingly into vulnerability is terrifying.  What surprises me is how grounded, open, and strong I feel after each writing session.  Allowing myself to see, feel, and express my truest heart is strength, not weakness.

Allowing my vulnerability is strength.  Opening the emotional connection is strength.  Sharing the words that come of this is strength.

I feel, therefore I am.

__________________

In this post:

In case you were wondering, a few of my mentors include Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron, Dee Wallace, Tom Hart, and Brene Brown.

Tending To What Is Already Here

I love gardens, but I’m not a gardener.

My home is set in a half acre of trees, flowers, and grasses.  I love its mix of wild and cultured growth.  A thousand shades of green (maybe more), dotted with roses and wild flowers, populated by five kinds of bees (I counted) and two kinds of hummingbirds.  Paradise.

This Eden came with our home.  Someone who was very much a gardener loved this land and created this beauty.  I am the grateful recipient of their creative soul.

You will see me outside watering, clearing pathways, pruning back the abundant wild blackberries lest they completely take over.  They would.  Their joyful growth would cover all in a rush for the sun.  They have the area along the fence at the bottom of the garden, and will have to be content with that.

Today I realized being the writer of a book is like my shifting not-gardener status.

I love books, but I always claimed I’d never have the patience to write one.  All that time on a single project—not me.

Look at me now.  Here I am, determined to see this book into full, abundant growth.

What changed?

The secret is the same as with my garden.  I loved what was already present, and out of that love, I began tending to it.

I love reading.  I love words and what they do for my heart.  I love playing with word puzzles.  I’d started writing a book when I was eight, and again when I was eleven.  I loved writing stories in school and university, and I let myself forget that during my love affair with drawing.

Writing was within me.  For years, words showed up as background and foreground in my drawings, as poems that burst forth in the midst of my sketchbooks, as morning pages, as essays accompanying my art shows.

Like the wild blackberries, writing showed up all around me, asking for a place of its own to grow and flourish.

Unlike the wild blackberries, I chose to let writing sprout up everywhere in my life.  The more I wrote, the richer my writing time became.

And now here I am.  I am an artist who writes.  I am an artist creating a book.

I’ve surprised myself.  I do have enough patience to take the time to grow a single project.

I may be wrong about being a not-gardener, too.

______________________

In this post:

The image is from a sketchbook I created for the Brooklyn Art Library’s Sketchbook Project 2018. I titled my sketchbook The Secret Garden. It’s the garden of my heart. You can view the entire artwork here https://www.walkingowlstudio.ca/gallery/the_sketchbook_project_the_secre/

My Cheat Sheet For Writing

There’s no other way to say it.  Writing a book is complicated.  The further into the process I go, the more complex it becomes.  My saving grace is I love word puzzles, and this is a word puzzle in the extreme.

I’ve discovered there are parts of the writing which don’t come naturally to me, probably because this is my first book.  Until I worked my way through Lisa Cron’s Story Genius process, I didn’t consciously know these bits existed.

Yesterday, I decided I needed a cheat sheet to help me along.

My book is a memoir of healing, and I am the protagonist.  Under my cheat sheet header, the first note talks of the two things driving me all through the story—what I most desire, and the core misbelief that shapes my world view.

I most desire love.  Being loved, giving love, having and doing what I love—all the things my illness makes difficult, if not impossible. I have a core misbelief, formed in childhood, which says love can’t keep me safe from the bad things in life. Every day I am ill, and my misbelief is made stronger.  My desire and misbelief are in constant opposition.  My emotions fly between love and fear, with fear in the ascendant. 

The second note is something Lisa repeats throughout Story Genius—the answer to why always lies in the past.  I spent much of last year writing backstory.  The time spent was worth it.  I found the answers to most of my why’s, and the story is so much richer as a result.

Two questions make up my third note.  As the protagonist, what am I most worried about?  How will it affect my judgment and reaction throughout the story?

The fourth note is another set of questions, under a heading “as I write ask why of everything”.  For every scene I ask:

  • Why does the plot need this to happen?
  • Can it happen?  Is it logistically possible?
  • Given my inner struggle (desire vs. misbelief), why would it happen?  (Here is the scene’s true meaning.)
  • Ask “and so . . . .” Why does my reader need to know this?  How does this move the story forward?  What will happen as a result?  Aka what is the point of including this in the story?

Asking ‘why’ is so crazily key to everything.  I feel like a toddler who has discovered her new favourite word. Sometimes I feel like the mom who is really tired of answering.

Finally, the fifth note is all about building the emotional connection with my reader.  The connection exists because I make both thought and emotion visible in the writing.  I do three things:

  • The protagonist (me, in the story) draws a conclusion from all she notices.  Think ‘survival’.
  • Emotion shows on every page, and it is complicated, layered, nuanced, and conflicted.  For example, grief is a constantly shifting mix of anger, pain, guilt, regret, confusion, numbness, denial, and more.
  • I stay in the protagonist’s (me, in the story) subjective mind set, and filter everything I write through it.  This means I consider how my world view, core desire, and core misbelief are running me, and I need to track how these things shift as my healing experiences change me.

Yes, just a little complicated.

At the very top of my cheat sheet is the header.  From page 267, I copied the third to last sentence of Lisa’s book.  “…the only way to change how someone thinks about something, is to first change how they feel about it.”

This quote captures the essence of the book I am writing, and it shows me, in a few words, how to tell the story. 

In truth, it is what I experienced as I healed a chronic illness.  My feelings changed, and as they changed, my thoughts changed.  As my feelings and thoughts changed, my body healed.  It was a long miracle.

I love my new cheat sheet.  It’s helping me write the best book I can.

I’ve said this before.  Thank you, Lisa Cron, for creating Story Genius.

_________________

In this post:

Lisa Cron, Story Genius, Ten Speed Press, 2016.  http://wiredforstory.com/story-genius-1

The page references are:  first note from chapter 5; second note from page 210; third note from page 265; fourth note from pages 210 through 215, plus page 266; fifth note from pages 256 through 266; header from page 267.

The Woods And The Path

Something is happening as I write my book.  There is a discard pile developing, the writing I am sure won’t fit into the final draft. 

These discards aren’t bad or wrong.  What they are is a different path through the same tale.  

It feels like there are a million ways of telling my tale.  For my book to be the best telling, I need to find the path that fits both the story and the kind of writer I am.

Philip Pullman, in his book Daemon Voices: On Stories And Storytelling, talks about the woods and the path.  The woods are the biggest picture, everything about and around this tale, whether strongly or vaguely linked.  The woods are vast, shadowed in places, bright and open in others, both chaos and order.  Somehow I write a path through these woods, and the path becomes my book.

I am a writer who blogs about living a creative life with an open heart.  Knowing this about myself helps me choose the path I take through the woods of my book.  The woods are the illness and healing I experienced.  The path follows my heart’s tale, telling what happened when my heart was besieged by the illness of my body.  Telling what happened when my heart declared “no more”, and found a way to break my body free, a way most everyone else told me did not exist.  (It does so exist.)

Yes, here is the path I write through the woods.  My heart showed me how to heal my body, and how to choose love instead of fear.  The path tells how I learned to listen and trust what my heart told me. The path tells how I learned love. 

I know there are a million other paths through these woods.  For now, for this book, I have found mine.

___________________

In this post:

Philip Pullman, Daemon Voices: On Stories And Storytelling, Knopf Doubleday, 2018, page 139:  “There are the events, and what you tell about the events.  There is the wood and the path.”  https://www.philip-pullman.com/

About my discard pile:  I always keep the pieces that don’t fit, no matter what writing project I am into.  It’s something I learned as an artist, not to toss away what isn’t working.  Put it aside, and let time show me if it fits somewhere else.

Dump Truck And Treasure Map aka Creating My Book Outline

Here’s the truth. I completed two drafts of my book without an outline. The result is pretty much what you’d expect.

Picture a dump truck, loaded with words. Now picture said dump truck emptying its load in my studio. See that messy mountain. That’s my book.

Oof.

And that’s why I am in organization mode.

I separated out the writing, backstory, research, etcetera into nine piles of files. Wrote about it too, right here
https://catfinkknowtrustchoosecreate.com/2019/04/25/nine-piles-of-files-and-one-book/

The nine-pile process directed me to work out the sections of my book, and this is where I am now. I am writing a list of phrases under each section heading, and at the end of this step I will have seven lists, each a full description of that particular section. I will have identified the themes, big and small, of my book.

I already know my next step. My awesome friend, Synchronicity, showed me an online image of a page from J. K. Rowling’s writing notes for Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix.

Her notes inspired me to see a grid for my book. Across the top is the themes. Down the side is the essay titles. A check mark or note in the intersecting box tells me, for example, this essay contains themes of love and fear, this essay is all about choice, and so on. What I am doing is sorting the essays into the sections.

What I am creating is a treasure map. At one glance, I will be able to see a snapshot of my next draft. The map will help me organize the order and flow of the essays. Gaps will show up. Themes that require trimming will show up. I have a feeling it will aid me in other ways I have not yet considered.

This is a perfect tool for me. I need to see both the big picture and the details when I am creating, and my treasure map does exactly this. I may be creating more grids as I continue the outlining process, more treasure maps that show me the big picture of my book.

Thank you, J. K. Rowling, for sharing some of your writing process and inspiring me.

______________________

In this post:

J. K. Rowling https://www.jkrowling.com/

Receiving Everything Most Loved

April was a writing month for me. I pushed myself. Pushing was the right thing to do, because now I am exactly where I wish to be, deep into my book draft.

Today I am changing my creative routine, receiving rather than giving. It’s a reward for all the creative work, and it’s one of the things I love most. I’m having a reading weekend, beginning today.

Julia Cameron would say I am replenishing my creative well. Yes, I am and with great pleasure.

My book list contains one mystery novel and three non-fiction. The non-fiction include one on energy work, one on creativity, and one a melding of memoir and creative writing. Here is my list:

Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear. This is a murder mystery set in 1930’s London, and the detective is Maisie Dobbs. She searches and solves with both heart and head.

The Answer Is Energy by Jarrad Hewett. Everything is energy, including thought, belief, and emotion. Jarrad’s work helped me to heal fibromyalgia.

Keep Going by Austin Kleon. This is Austin’s new book. Yayyyyyyy!

Tomorrow I’m adding one more book to the weekend reading pile. The staff are saving it for me at the local bookstore–Where The Past Begins: Memory And Imagination by Amy Tan. I read her previous book on writing, The Opposite Of Fate: Memories Of A Writing Life, and completely enjoyed it. There is fourteen years between these books, so I am curious to see what Amy has to say now.

I haven’t decided if I will read through one book before moving on to the next, or if I will hop back and forth. The choice is mine, whatever I feel like in the moment.

A stack of books. Hot milky coffee. Background music by George Winston and Joe Hisaishi. My comfy studio couch. Four days of receiving something I love most–good writing.

_____________________

In this post:

Jacqueline Winspear http://jacquelinewinspear.com/

Jarrad Hewett https://jarradhewett.com/

Austin Kleon https://austinkleon.com/

Amy Tan http://www.amytan.net/

Nine Piles Of Files And One Book

It’s sunny and warm outside.  There’s a breeze and birdsong.  The cherry, pear, and apple trees are in full bloom, and I can smell the cottonwood trees.  Life is sweet today, and I am feeling contented and lazy.  Sitting outside and doing nothing feels terribly appealing.

However, I have a blog post to create, so coffee is brewing in the kitchen—bribing myself with lattes—while I begin writing.

I am back to seriously playing with my book draft.  Yesterday I set up a card table next to my studio work table, and laid out the various files of writing into three rows of three stacks each.  This is everything so far, my whole book where I can see it.

The tallest pile is Scenes In Development.  Here is the core of my book, and hooray to it being the tallest pile because it tells me I am making progress.

Next to it is Random Scenes, writing that sort of fits the story but the connection is tenuous.  With some rewriting, these scenes may fall in and be included, or they may not. If not, I’ll put them aside for use in something else.

Idea Lists/Maybes come next.  Here live the undeveloped thoughts, waiting to be played with and nurtured to see what grows.

In the middle row is Why This Story.  This is the what-if’s and why-I-care’s, the what’s-the-point’s and what’s-my-point’s.  Reasons, needs, and wants that push me to write.  A list of themes.  A one paragraph synopsis written crazy-dramatic, as though this story of healing is a suspense thriller.

Characters is next.  Bios and backstories, parallel story scenes, what drives each character and what trips them up (sometimes the same thing), and the rules of their worlds (how they see life).

Appendices are last in the middle row.  This is a story of healing, and as I wrote the first draft, I realized it needed a place for information beyond the story.  References, suggestions, examples, and how-to’s that don’t fit in the story-telling space, yet are a necessary second level for the reader.

The third row of files begins with Readers.  Here are my notes about who I am writing for (imaginary bios), who I see wanting and needing this book, who picks it up and reads it, what I want this story to do for those who read it.

Processes comes after Readers.  This is my collection of prompts and methods that help me imagine the pieces of my story and book, and guide me into seeing what I need to see in my mind’s eye.  This collection unsticks me when I get stuck.

The final pile on my card table is General Info.  Information on writing memoir, lists of memory triggers, timeline construction when interweaving past and present, tips on layering complex emotions, and more.  References that teach me and enrich my writing.

It’s all here, what I’ve collected and written into story so far. 

Seeing the work laid out makes the book real to me. 

Writing this story was never just a whim or something to pass the time.  It was always serious play, but now I truly see I am creating something tangible.  My nine piles of writing make me proud of what I’ve accomplished, and they show me where I go next in my creation.

__________________

Related to this post:

Tom Hart said of all the material he gathered, wrote, and drew for Rosalie Lightning: a Graphic Memoir, only about 10 percent showed up in the finished book. He needed all 100 percent in order to find the story thread he wanted to tell. Tom’s book The Art of the Graphic Memoir came out in 2018, and it has become one of my essential references as I write my book.
http://www.tomhart.net/

The Shape Of The Story

I love the phrase ‘the arc of the story’.  I see an arrow in true flight, rising high and piercing the target.  A single, loud note sounds (middle C) as arrow and target become one.

Sorting out my story’s arc is not so direct.

I begin with the form I learned in high school, the arc of arrow to target.  For three years and two drafts, I attempt to fit my story into this shape.  It’s a struggle, and I think the problem is me.  A first attempt at writing a book—what do I know?

More than I think I do.  I know it isn’t working.

And less.  I don’t know there are other shapes for a story, and I don’t know I am free to invent a shape.

The name of a book falls into my lap.  Austin Kleon, in his weekly Friday eletter, talks of reading Draft No. 4 by John McPhee.  He talks of how John diagrams the shapes of his stories.

I am a visual thinker. I need this book.

Here is a revelation.  John’s stories are shaped like algebra equations, like maps, like an uncooperative graph line.  Whatever shape fits the story is what he imagines, and then writes to.

Here is freedom.

I go back to my draft.  I picture the story in my mind’s eye.  All the pieces.  All the experiences.  I see how my writing keeps circling a set of themes.  With each circle, I learn something, and carry that knowledge into the next question and the next circle.  A bird rising on the thermals of a summer day.

My story is not the arc of an arrow.  It’s the circling rise of a spiral.

This I understand.  I know the feel of a spiral.  My life moves in exactly this shape, and has always done so.  Of course the story I am writing does the same.

I see how my story builds upon itself, how it begins, moves, and completes.

Again I see the bird rising on the warm summer air.

The view from here is exactly right.

______________________

In this post:

Austin Kleon’s new book is out!Keep Going, Workman Publishing, NY, 2019.  https://austinkleon.com/

John McPhee, bookDraft No. 4: On the Writing Process, Farrar Straus and Giroux, NY, 2017. 

Yesterday I discovered ‘Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide’, by Tim Bascom, on the Creative Nonfiction website.  https://www.creativenonfiction.org/online-reading/picturing-personal-essay-visual-guide