Rilke, the Christmas concert, and creativity

                                           for here there is no placegarden 1

that does not see you. You must change your life.

A few evenings ago, I attended a concert that was so uplifting it inspired me to think of the spiritual aspect of things, which led me further to the question: what is creativity?

Timing has something to do with my turn of thought, I suppose. Not only was I directed  to the concert by the season but if, as the song says, there’s a time to be born, a time to die, a time to sow, reap, and so on, Christmas is certainly the time of birth with implications of rebirth.

The concert audience led by the Corpus Christi Male Chorale was invited to share in the singing which they did with obvious gusto and pleasure causing me to think that they or many of them had tapped into something inside themselves, that they had embraced their own inner light.  For a few moments I was surrounded by a hotbed of creativity.

Which brings me to Rilke’s poem  Archaic Torso of Apollo which, it goes without saying, is a religious poem but also an exploration or study of creativity.

Although we never knew his lyric head

from which the eyes looked out so piercing clear,

his torso glows still like a chandelier

in which his gaze, only turned down, not dead,


persists and burns. If not, how could the surge

of the breast blind you,

 . . . .

 If not, this stone would stand all incompact

beneath the shoulders’ shining cataract

and would not glisten with that wild beast grace . . .

 The nature of creativity, it seems, is to render the inanimate animate. To make life where there was no life. The head may be absent but the torso must have had a head and eyes, and a gaze. What we have here, quite simply, is the transformation of stone into a work of art by the gaze of eyes we cannot see, i.e., a creator.

Easy for god – a gaze, a wave of the hand, a flick of the wrist, and so on – but how about the rest of us? This question has interesting implications for those in the business of creativity.  Is there a recipe for it?

If there is, seeing or awareness must be a major ingredient.

We are told in scripture that there was no room at the inn. That means that the inn was full of patrons who were unaware that a major historical event, some say a divine event, was taking place out in the barn, metres away. What a thing to miss! What a thing to not see!

What a crises of awareness!

And yet that describes most of us most of the time as we go blundering about in our blind  way.

If we could see like god, or if you don’t like that word, if we could partake of an energy greater than ours that is all around us and of which we are unaware, it would help us in our quest to breathe life into the lifeless.

Awareness is just another way of saying open your eyes.

The poem also makes a powerful statement about the value of art, the effect of a work of art on an observer, a reader if you like, for here the creation has led the poet into awareness. Although he cannot see the head he becomes aware of it and of its gaze. The sculpture is proof of god’s existence and he is transformed. He must change his life.

This year make yourself a present of you.

Good luck and merry Christmas.



Misery as Muse: Stephen King

Stephen King’s missile, On Writing, is one of the best I’ve read on the subject, but having just finished Misery I’d say that this novel is equally helpful as a guide to writing, the major thesis seeming to be, stay away from it unless you are prepared to deal with a lot of misery and pain in the form of a very grim muse.

Misery is about the relationship between writer and muse and, particularly, the role of the muse in that connection. The role of the misery5writer seems to be one of endurance. The responsibility of the muse is to force the writer to get the job done no matter how much pain, in this case ‘she’, has to inflict on her charge. She is, indeed, the caregiver from hell. Even if sometimes she appears to be maternal and loving, at her core is total solid blackness.

Paul Sheldon is a writer who has lost his direction and commitment, who cannot write if he is out of cigarettes or has a migraine. Annie Wilkes, his number-one fan, is an insane murderer, who helps him refind and redefine himself by subjecting him to unbelievable suffering. While doling out the punishment, she tells him that he needs to be protected from himself. That would be his self-indulgent, noncommitted self. But some people, it appears, are so stubbornly set in their wrong ways it takes a heap of persuasion to get them to change direction into the right way. She persuades him in spades, or should I say axes and chainsaws?

The novel is a wrestling match, a bloody one, both mental and physical, between writer and muse. Only one can come out alive.

What are we to make of all the torture, the blood and gore? For one thing, it seems you can’t escape your muse. Paul tries to outsmart and outmanoeuvre Annie at every turn. He tries to manipulate her. He cries, whines, begs for mercy. She, on the other hand, has no patience with his whining. When she chops off his foot and his thumb, it’s his fault. He has brought this misery on himself by not following her instructions. At times he thinks he’s winning only to find that she is always a step ahead of him. She punishes accordingly. She hobbles him so that he has to stay in place and write. She confines him in his wheelchair.

But it’s not good enough just to suffer, it’s the memory of the suffering that produces the work of art. The writer engages his muse through memory. ‘Art consists of the persistence of memory.’ The only way Paul can defeat his muse is to write the book and the only way he can do that is to engage his muse through memory of misery.

As he puts it, ‘Misery, the thread that runs through everything.’

There it is folks. Stephen King, probably the most successful writer of this or any other generation, on the basic premise of writing. If you can’t take misery, get out before you encounter your muse.

The muse will force you to confront the ‘Can You’ which leads to the ‘Gotta’. Can you  do it? write the scene, write the character. Can you make the unbelievable believable? If the answer is ‘yes’ you will arrive at the ‘gotta’ find out how it ends, and then you can’t quit.

And this journey needs to be desperate. Paul is forced to write on a decrepit typewriter, the keys start falling off. He writes by hand on foolscap, runs out of foolscap, is down to steno notepads, but still he keeps on. The worse things get, the more pain he is in, the more desperate he is, the better and faster he writes. He has an overwhelming desire to finish his book. Only by doing so, can he destroy the muse and save himself.

She chops off his foot and his thumb, destroys his manuscript, puts him in a dungeon with rats. She destroys his subjective reality. Still, he can’t die because he has to find out how his novel ends. But what is even more amazing, as King points out, is that the reader, too (and Annie who doubles as his number-one fan), wants, needs, to know what happens. King cites examples: people who mobbed the Baltimore docks each month when the latest installment of  Little Dorrit or Oliver Twist was due from across the pond; a woman of one hundred and five who declared she would not die until The Forsyte Saga was finished, and who died less than an hour after having the final page of the final volume read to her. And the most astounding thing of all, people become engaged this strongly with  fictional characters in a fictional world. The power of story, the power of the word. God bless it. An optimistic message for us writers, don’t you think?

Writing Prairie Gothic

There was a reason early settlers on the prairie called it god-forsaken, why they  became cynical and very very watchful. Anything can leap at you at any time from any direction. Coming out of their heritage, I can’t help perceiving the landscape as inhospitable with threatening undercurrents, abandoned by God. As a prairie writer, I try to deal with this perception by giving the landscape structure, that is, by describing it. Such descriptions are often of a dark and gloomy nature, you might say gothic.

A definition of gothic as it pertains to literature is in order. I think of it as writing that employs desolate scenery, lonely places, Ephraim Frey Homesteader Shack 1911isolated characters, dark themes, and an overall atmosphere of apprehension, fear, or dread. And secrets. There is always a secret, something about a house, something about the people who live there. If your mind attaches such descriptives to the land, I’d say you have a gothic bent, and if you have one, likely you’re stuck with it.

I call it Prairie Gothic, the form some of us employ to express the human condition when faced with this landscape. As is other forms, i.e., the American Western, Prairie Gothic is a myth. How and to what extent a poet/writer can incorporate his myth and make it his own is the mark of his genius. For an obvious example in film, think George Lucas and Star Wars, how the director incorporated the myth so completely into himself and made it his own and thus created his other world. Examples in literature – Emily Bronte was the moor and Heathcliffe; Faulkner was his particular American south. If we move things to Canada,  Sinclair Ross totally assimilated a prairie gothic myth in As For Me and My House, in which we have the full slate of threatening prairie town, brooding husband, caged wife.

Or, as John Newlove puts it in Driving:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .You become the country.

You are by yourself in that channel of snow

and pines and pines, …

The function of a myth is to explain or express a truth about our existence. That’s why we have myths, that’s why we’ve always had them, from man’s earliest writings on cave walls, the myth of the hunt. To continue with Newlove, because he’s such a good example, here is the way he expresses our existence here on the prairie:

it is not unfortunately

quite enough to be innocent,

it is not enough merely

not to offend–


at times to be born

is enough, to be

in the way is too much–

(Ride Off Any Horizon)

Writers know that darkness is in the eye of the beholder. We know that the landscape is not evil in itself, that it is, in fact, nothing. It is simply there. The landscape and the isolated house do not care one way or another. We writers with a gothic bent perceive the prairie to be gloom and doom as a way to  get our heads around the place that engendered us, i.e., as a way to tell our stories.

Why can’t we write a pastoral: I wandered lonely as a cloud, etc.? Why can’t we produce friendly pastels of Peggy’s Cove as so many watercolour enthusiasts do? Anyone who has been out on the prairie at dusk on an isolated road with a storm coming on knows the answer.

. . . . . . . . . .  Fear at night

on the level plains, with no horizon

and the stars too bright, wind bitter …

(The Double-Headed Snake, John Newlove)

We are not an idyllic pastoral or a cozy Peggy’s Cove. We are a vast unstructured, dark (think winter coming on), threatening place. Our art reflects this place. Prairie Gothic, an attempt to cope with all of the above plus silence and cold – claustrophobic paralyzing cold.

…how lovely and lonely that driving is,

how deadly. …

…All I can see is the silent cold car gliding,

walled in, your face smooth, your mind empty,

cold foot on the pedal, cold hands on the wheel.

(Driving, John Newlove)

September raises such thoughts…

…along with the scent of damp leaves.

September defies writer’s block. You simply can’t have it. There isn’t time. There isn’t time to be coy or to hold back your heart. leaf sceneIn September you want to give your heart to everyone you meet. You want to run down the street with it. Instead, you write it down.

In September your mill overflows. In September you haven’t time for the waiting game. You are a writer running out of time.

September is about time. Time for the hunt. Check the trap line. Back to school. Back to the office. Piano lessons. Soccer in the cool evening. Excuses and self-pity do not belong in time.

Someone said, a writer has to have a sense of history. Another way of looking at it: how time doesn’t exist in the usual way we think about it. Yesterday is the same as today is the same as tomorrow. All time exists in this moment. All time exists in every moment.

Take hide and seek, for instance. The children in the squash vines after supper. Dusk falling early like a sparrow. That’s you out there in the trailing squash, behind the shed.

Echoes of a fugitive life. You waited for someone to find you. You wait for someone to find you. You will wait for someone to find you. September echoes.

A woman moves through her shadowy rooms at dusk, picking up and laying down things for tomorrow. She is the woman who straightened the cave for the night, who banked the fire, who checked on her sleeping children. The same woman who set the porridge to soak, who put out the cat. My grandmother, myself, my granddaughter. I follow the footsteps. We go out onto the balcony to look at the night and the stars. The moon. A full moon. The migrating moon. The same moon that shone down on my grandmother shines down on me, will shine down on my granddaughter.

leaves               My mother with her flashlight

tiptoes through green

voluptuous vines. Steps lightly

to protect the wide-hipped leaves

that provide her fruit, glowing amber

to warm us through winter.

The smell of rot and worm powder, the herbal scent of leaves. Once I hid between layers out of line. Storms stacked against the house. Windows for winter. Glass on glass, frames within frames. Just in the way the light fell from the window above, reflecting several visions of me in the glass, a parallel universe opened before my eyes. I understood the way it works: how several versions of me can exist at the same time. And if several, why not more, why not an infinite number of versions in an infinite number of universes all at the same time. How I am here yet there. And there. How any given moment contains all moments past and future.

Face and dress white

haloed in her own brilliant light

she stands perfectly still

and then a humming sound

and then she disappears

leaving only the afterglow

of her earthly visit.

the getaway

“But how… do you prepare yourself, all alone, to enter an extraordinary state on an ordinary morning?” (Annie Dillard)

Once, in order to start a book, I had to move into a small room. A house was too large. My book and I could not find each other in a house. In a house I could not prepare a space inside myself for my book to enter. Too many distractions were available, distractions which led to the belief that I would rather live than write. I was too full of life. I had to get rid of life.

I had to get to a place where, when I heard my husband in the kitchen, I could not say to myself, ‘I think I’ll go to the kitchen and talk with John.’

The room was near a lake. I took only one suitcase and left no forwarding address. In the room was one bed, one chair. Lake in WinterI bought an electric kettle and a jar of instant, with caffeine. There was one window, before which I sat at a table to write. The window looked out on an inner courtyard that was covered with snow. It was January. In such a place, under such conditions, my book and I would have to make friends with each other in order to survive. We were all we had. At the very least we could not help but bump into each other. So I thought.

Most of the time it crouched in a corner and sulked. When we met by accident at the electric kettle it averted its eyes.

The woman at the front desk was elderly and spoke little. To her I said, ‘looks like more snow.’ ‘Yep,’ she said. I spoke to no one else except the woman in the bakery. To her I said, ‘I’ll take one of those please.’ She placed a bagel in a plain brown wrapper.

Once, a shadowy presence passed my door. Like a cool breeze it wafted down the corridor. Once, sighs and whispers drifted through my wall. Once, there was only a sigh and the creak of bedsprings.

I went out and walked around a pond. I went back to my room and stared at the blank page. I went out and stared at the lake. I listened to the cry of gulls. I watched the boats come in.

The lake was wintry grey, the sky was low, everything was colourless. I was like a mental patient who for her own good has to be deprived of sensory stimulation. The conditions were perfect to create a space inside myself for my book to enter.

After a week or a year, the lake appeared in my dreams. When I sat at my table and closed my eyes I could see it on the screen of my mind. That was when I knew that the lake had moved inside me. It had found a place there where it settled into a comfortable position. ‘I want to express myself,’ it said to me. So I let it.

When it was safe to do so I called up a friend. He said, ‘come for the weekend,’ so I did.

He lived on a hill and my car wouldn’t make it up because, of course, it was winter in Canada. My friend came out in his woolly jacket and toque and threw a spoonful of gravel under each front tire. I revved the motor. I moved an inch. He threw two more spoonfuls of gravel. I moved two inches. In this manner I made it to the top of the hill and his house. Once inside the house, he poured me a stiff drink. That’s what I call a true friend.

He gave me the subject for my book. Writing a novel is throwing a spoonful of gravel under your front wheels an inch at a time. I made a few notes.

When I returned to my room, for a few days my book pouted at my leaving it alone. ‘It was only overnight for god’s sake,’ I said. It didn’t answer, but when we bumped into each other at the kettle and instant coffee it did not avoid me. When I dared to turn on the television one evening, it sat on the bed beside me. We watched Seinfeld. I had never before watched Seinfeld. I found myself laughing and turned guiltily to my book. It didn’t seem to mind. It crawled into bed beside me. We slept curled into each other.

I thought maybe I could go home. I would have to be careful that nothing jostled the space inside me where my book had taken up residence. I would have to be constantly on guard to defend it but, truth to tell, I was longing for a good cup of coffee.

Death and the Writer

I’m trying to write about death when my sister phones and then Nancy drops in for coffee and I’m sitting here trying to write about death when another neighbour drops in with a theatre subscription form and then someone else phones and then stops by to chat and I’m trying to write about death.


I must go with my mother to the edge, I write. I must take a journey to a dark place. I must return to tell the story. This is my responsibility so the story will not be lost. It is a frightening jour… The doorbell rings.


Two gap-toothed little people with round faces in Girl Guide uniforms stare up at me. Do you want to buy our cookies, the one who wears glasses says. Well, no, not really, not since they’ve replaced those old-fashioned oatmeal cookies with slabs of baked paste sandwiched with white sweet goo. But I’m looking into two faces, so bright, expectant, full of belief. I buy three boxes and return to writing about death.


How can something so world shattering be voiced so simply? How can a person just open her mouth and change the world forever with a few words. My mother’s cancer slipped between ‘do you want some broccoli’ and ‘Kimmy sit up and behave’.


I am dancing at the edge of a precipice, I write, when Danica dances into my mind. Danica, age three, comes to visit, is super-excited about her toes, ten little pink pearls all in a perfect row. We go to McDonald’s where she chomps down a kid pack burger and fries with such obvious pleasure, totally focussed on the act of eating that burger. Then the playground slide, first on her bottom, then tummy, then feet first, then standing up. Walking home, she is so busy looking at things she walks into a lamp post.


Hey, I remind myself. You’re supposed to be writing about death.


Death erases magic. Death reminds us that we are caught in sequential time. We cannot travel backward or forward in time. We cannot dream life into death. Yet I held her in my arms. The dream was real.


I’m really getting into it now. Death is always with us, at the periphery of life. Death is simply another dimension which we enter, like a dream we slip into. Maybe we can travel back and forth across the dimensions. I raise my head. Maybe dreams, in fact, are the reality. Maybe life is a dream in which we do not feel at home…


I phone my sister with the news. Get real, she says. Lighten up. Why do you want to write about that stuff for anyways? Leave all that bullshit suffering behind. You just want to suffer. I have my own heart, I think. Nobody can take that away from me.


I go back to writing about death and my mind fills with mold. Tomato sauce covered with furry little  pockets, french fries with fuzzy grey patches. How can french fries get moldy? They’re not even real food. I have to clean out the fridge. I know this with certainty. I have to clean the fridge RIGHT NOW. I calm myself down. You can do that later. Your task at the moment is to write about death.


We sat together hand in hand. I had made a list of things I wanted to say, questions I wanted to ask, then couldn’t say or ask them. They were too far removed from what she was thinking. We were already in two different worlds each with her own thoughts.


The helplessness of us all in the grip of death. Death simply happens whether we like it or not, whether we’re ready for it or not.


I am suddenly ravenously hungry, obsessed with thoughts of food. The smell of newly baked  buttery crusted bread, the taste of freshly churned butter, the taste of cream so thick you had to eat it with it a spoon. The summer it hailed and we made ice cream in the hand cranked churn using hailstones for ice…


I get the urge to phone my cousin Elna. Her mother baked the best bread. Maybe I can get some ideas from my cousin on writing about death. We talk about her mother, her baking, her cooking, the farm, the things we did together when I visited her on the farm. After an hour of such pleasant chat, I have to get back to my writing, I say.


Life is a race against time. Time is always the winner, I write, but my words are getting smaller. I am getting smaller. Diminishing. I am disappearing…


I think I’ll go to the kitchen and start a batch of bread.

I think I’ll go to the kitchen and start a batch of bread.

the story of two dolls

The Christmas I was a child of three, so the family chronicle goes, by some strange occurrence, two dolls awaited under the tree. “But Santa, I can’t hold two dolls,” I said, so I am told. Thus, was my fate delivered and balance To carry two obsessions. Poetry and prose.  To be accountable to two, to always feel the wrench of each disjointing me, to be a worried child who became a worried adult feeling the obligation of nurturing both forms.

Currently engaged in the task of launching a new book of poetry while, at the same time, trying to make progress in writing my current novel, I think of the two and how they operate in me for better and for worse.

After the bureaucratic tyranny of the novel, its demands of structure, coherency, syntax (not merely a sentence but a perfect sentence and a series of perfect sentences for 300 pages), after exhausting myself in responding to the needs and dictates of my pitiful wretched characters, caught as they are in their own foolish devising, their sadness, gladness, and despair as they attempt their destinies, after being embroiled in the pit of passion that is inevitably the result of human interaction, I feel the need to get back to poetry. The purity, the sheer coolness of it.

Writing novels is a prison sentence, solitary confinement, the long, lonely hours alone in your room, of course, but there’s another kind of loneliness, too – the loneliness of responsibility, to your characters, to your story, to the commitment of your vocation. An Antarctic explorer lost  on top a glacier, a space traveler zipping through an uninhabited galaxy, those comparisons come close, I suppose.

Poetry is the return to life, to freedom from the chains of prose. Poetry is to stretch into the word, into the self, the word of the self, such a joyous return.

Why then do I go back to prose? Why imprison myself again? What kind of craziness is that? But I cannot resist the calling of the second party: the demand of story to be born. And so it begins again, the cycle away from the self and the return. Once more into the breech, always with a great deal of excitement, to begin the long journey into unfamiliar territory where I will meet with what adventures and characters I do not know at the moment of starting. What I do know is that I am going to explore another country where they do things differently. I am going to be introduced to characters who will be interesting companions along the way. I will fall in love with some of them, I always do. Then at the end of the adventure to find a way back. That is where poetry enters. Poetry helps me chart a way back, retrace my steps to myself, to origin. My hope is that I have left enough crumbs along the way and that they have not all been eaten by hungry birds or washed away by the rain.

The return: I think of a return flight from the U.K. After a slow start, sleeping the night in Gatwick and then a failed engine, finally air borne and then no way out, no stopping until we get there, and where is there? I’m not sure. Trussed in place on the people’s airline, plumped like a Christmas goose, craw bulging, stomach seething, among seven hundred other digesting machines, drugged and somnolent, I am powerless. There is no escape. I eye the fat man sleeping in the aisle seat. Will it be worth it after all, to heave myself across my fellow passengers, to stand in the galley surrounded by a snowstorm of styrofoam, to enclose myself in that airless space? My anxiety escalates.

At some point, elevation 30,000 feet, I feel myself give up. I abandon myself to a greater power, and poetry kicks in: Sound your waves off my skin, find me and scoop me to your chest, carry me up against the night sky, curve your flight around me, mold your umbrella bat wings to my shape, I think. And I hate bats.

I’m not sure I have another book of poetry in me. North may be my last. And then I find Neruda’s: Sadness, scarab/with seven crippled feet,/spiderweb egg,/scramble-brained rat,/bitch’s skeleton:/No entry here./Don’t come in./Go away./Go back/south with your umbrella,/go back/north with your serpent’s teeth./A poet lives here./No sadness may/cross this threshold. …

and I think, maybe…