Examining lives and works, seeking to understand the relationship between the writer and the words keeps me busy.
Spending hours with the work of Willam Shakespeare as an English teacher and debating its merits with students, reminded me that all writers are bound by humanity. Beyond the limits of time and culture, we share the experience of being human.
Shakespeare achieved mastery of his craft and mastery of what it means to be human. The universal, timeless nature of his plays are a testament to a man who wrote the truth without specific details about himself.
Shakespeare needed to be astutely aware of himself, those around him, and human nature. A great observer, he effectively translated his insights of humanity into diverse stories, writing what he learned.
The best writers are learners first.
Years ago I read Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way.” The book had such a profound affect on me that I read all her other books too. Creative people know that there is an energy to creativity. Like other forms of energy there are things that will help it to expand and things that will cause it to shrink. We learn over time how to feed the energy, control the flow of energy, and how to maximize the energy while creating.
Cameron recommends going on artist’s dates as a way to boost creative energy. These are scheduled, intentional solo outings designed to spark insight and connection. So this March Break I decided to spend four days in Toronto on the ultimate artist’s date.
On the train from Cobourg to Toronto, rather than listen to my usual coffee house playlists, I listened to jazz. Within two songs I felt my creative soul opening up. It was all I could do not to spring up into the aisles and sing with my whole body. When had I stopped listening to jazz? A year ago? Five years ago? How does a person lose something as big and as wonderful as jazz?
My days and evenings were filled with artist’s dates while I was in the city. A night at the ballet. An afternoon at a musical. A trip to a museum. A gallery. Time with people who inspire me. Each date stirred stories that long to be written and songs that cry out to be sung.
And now I’m at home bursting with ideas and possibilities and projects. I feel awake again.
So I greet my laptop like a beloved old friend, snuggle in my favourite chair ready to begin. And that’s when the doubt creeps in…the worries…the fears. What if I get distracted again? What if I’m too tired to create when I’m back at work? What if I’ve forgotten how to do this?
When we’ve fed our creative force well it has the strength to overcome our dragons. And so my questions start to pass by like moving clouds. The story is stronger than the doubts. The song is louder than the worries.
It is so nice to begin again…Thank-you Julia Cameron.
- Our creativity and writing processes are unique, just like our fingerprints.
- Children are naturally creative. We can connect to our inner child to remember. Play.
- Metaphors can be gateways to creative exploration and expression.
- When we consider the act of writing practice and the development of the craft of writing as separate processes, we can nurture them both. We set learning goals.
- We encourage our writing to develop by engaging in writing practice, reflecting on our work, referring to elements of style and craft, consulting with writing mentors, and by using our learning to write something new.
It’s the late 1970s in our downstairs Family Room. I’m a toddler standing in my playpen holding the rail with both hands. Using my head as a guide, my upper body moves up and down with the beat of a honky-tonk banjo tune. I’m watching my favourite show: Hee Haw.
It’s 1986 at the arena. My brother is at hockey practice. My red Sony Walkman is clipped to my hip so I can perform full dance routines in the downstairs change room area hallway. My moves are as large as my voice is loud. Now it’s all about Madonna. And Bon Jovi. Or Cyndi Lauper.
When I was young it was easy to embody music, to let the notes and lyrics into my body until they burst through dancing and singing. Children say yes to music. Children say yes to movement. Children say yes to looking and sounding ridiculous because it’s fun, because it’s worth it.
As a child it’s easy to dance like no one’s watching because it feels right to let the music in, to become the music. It feels right to say yes.
Now, I want my ideas to dance across the page. I want to write like no one is reading, to write just for the heck of it—not because it will lead somewhere, not to impress somebody. I want to write with my whole body, connecting intellect and emotion.
And I want to live like this too, spend more time giggling with joy, saying yes to play, and saying yes to fully being in the moment. How do you say yes to life? Yes to health? Yes to relationships? Yes to work? Yes to following your heart’s calling? When I look at these pictures of myself as a child, saying yes seems so simple.
Yes, Let’s is an improvisation game we often played when I taught Drama. The rule is simple. You must say yes. So if your partner says, “Let’s run around the room.”
You say, “Yes, let’s.”
The purpose is to take turns giving and receiving ideas—and to always say yes.
How would my writing change if I said “yes” more often to elements of my process?
Let’s write a blog. Yes, let’s.
Let’s show it another way. Yes, let’s.
Let’s listen to jazz. Yes, let’s.
Let’s change to blues. Yes, let’s.
Let’s dance Yes, let’s.
Let’s sing too. “Yes, let’s.”
It’s my first year of undergrad.
I’m resisting writing a paper for Psychology 101, easily distracted by the warmth of spring, craving to get outside to feel the sun on my face. The last thing I want to do is sit in my dorm room and write about psychology. When I run out of diet soda and chocolate and friends who will support me in avoiding my paper, I close the door, sit in my chair, and stare at my computer screen.
I go to the closet, putting on my most electric outfit: an orange striped hat, red plaid pants, a royal blue long-sleeved t-shirt. My hips swish side to side to imaginary music before I sit down at the desk with a flourish (and sound effects, like crowds cheering and hoots and whistles.) I rest my fingers on the keys and type the dreaded (now nearly late) essay, with an accent—playful, professorial, and a little bit pretentious. Imaginary sound effects continue to punctuate the experience as I write. Drama students know how to get things done.
To complete the writing, to make the writing bearable, to create something, I played. Play shifted my thinking about the process and the work. I changed my thoughts about process to change my writing.
Once the words are on the page, I can shape them into something better; but without words on the page, I have nothing to work with but air. Writing processes can be as unique as fingerprints.
And it goes beyond what writers can do to what anyone can do. “Fake it till you make it” works, but “play it till you make it” works even better. Even now when I’m faced with something challenging I look for ways to play, entering into the process in a fun way. Every time I do it always works out.
At work when faced with a difficult situation one of our go to responses is to call for “back-up.” Our staff works as an amazing team. We know that when we collaboratively work through a complex issue we get better results.
Last year after seeing the Northumberland Players production of “Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat,” I started thinking of back-up dancers every time we called to each other for support. Imagine a whole kick line and jazz hands coming at you down the hall, singing and smiling! The wisdom of Broadway as a resiliency strategy. The musical theatre genre is all about happy endings and togetherness. When we can imagine ourselves and our coworkers as back-up dancers during a time of stress, well then anything is possible, isn’t it?
Is writing every day the best thing to do?
When I studied English Literature at Trent University I told my Irish Drama professor that I wrote in a journal.
“I want to be a writer,” I said. “So I’m writing a lot. Every day.”
He had a gorgeous Irish accent and a brash tell-it-like-it-is approach.
He replied, “Jess-i-ca, my dear. It doesn’t much matter if it’s all bad writing.”
Every time we put a word on the page, whether it’s genius or garbage, our brain to page connections are exercised. The act of writing is happening. It’s like muscle memory, training the mind to connect to the pen or keyboard, practicing the movement of transposing something from inside to outside, developing expertise in changing the abstract into the concrete.
When I write every day, my writing is better. I’m more connected to the work. My learning goals evolve more rapidly. The work’s voice is stronger. After a long break from writing (a couple of months or more), I find it helpful to write a lot, to write often to recharge the connections.
During a big project, I write every day to ride the momentum, the upward spiral of energy swirling the work into being. Daily writing keeps the words and story focused, alive. Any time I’ve taken a break from a project, it’s died. The energy had moved onto something else.
In Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear Elizabeth Gilbert writes “Ideas of every kind are constantly galloping toward us, constantly pass through us, constantly trying to get our attention.” She also explains how when we don’t give the ideas attention, they move on.
The place to improve the writing is during the revision process. The first step is just getting it on the page, giving ideas a place to grow.
How is writing practice like guitar practice? What I learned from my brother!
My brother Colin learned how to play guitar when he was in high school. Every time I walked by his room, he lounged on his bed with his acoustic guitar, playing the same songs over and over—“Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin and “More Than Words” by Extreme. At first it was hard to distinguish between the songs. It took regular practice for the chords to become music I could recognize. Colin played the same songs for hours a day. By the time he graduated from high school he could play a number of songs skillfully, effortlessly.
After a summer trip with my mom to Nashville, Tennessee, I decided to learn how to play guitar. The idea of being a singer-song writer appealed to me. I love to sing. I love to write. I just needed to learn about how to play guitar.
The day after we get home from Nashville I go to the local music store and buy an acoustic guitar, tuner, picks, and a case. I’m ready to learn.
At home, I sit on the couch with the guitar, placing my fingers to make a G-chord and gently strumming. A couple of times a week I sit and strum a G-chord for fifteen minutes.
Ten years pass. Now I can’t remember how to even play a G-chord.
When my brother learned to play guitar he practiced for hours. Colin had specific goals and looked for support from guitar experts. To develop mastery he needed to practice daily, to get to a place of automaticity, a place where his hands could automatically play the songs with limited thinking or focus.
Over twenty years have passed since high school…
We sit on the porch at the cottage in a circle. Feet tap. Heads bob. The family singsong slips out the open windows, across the silent bay. After fifteen minutes of practice, Colin plays “More than Words” and “Stairway to Heaven” on his guitar with the skill he had as a teenager. To play new songs he will need to return to regular practice again.
This connects to writing practice too. Sometimes we show up to the page and write for writing’s sake. Yet, the guitar shows me that focus and intention can make a big difference in both productivity and the final product.
So this morning I reflect on why I write. What are my goals? How can setting an intention support my process for better focus and more impact?
I’m going to start with reading this interview with Natalie Goldberg about the writing life.
For many years I went away for a week each summer on a writing retreat with friends. Those were special days filled with writing, naps, and in-depth discussions about plot, character, and story. Each day we aimed to write twelve pages before lunch. At first it was hard. Sometimes I’d cheat and start writing a day or two early so I could keep up with the pace. By mid-week I was fully immersed in writing, in expression, in freefalling into a story and seeing where it lead. In the summertime I crave intense arts experiences.
It’s the middle of July and I’m still dreaming of school every night. The last four mornings I’ve sprung out of bed to escape a dream about being unprepared, about being disrespected, about being wrong. I still haven’t unpacked the complexities of the school year and released them. Last May and June were the most intense for me so far in my career. Is the work getting more difficult? Or am I getting more easily overwhelmed?
A week ago I made a list of everything I wanted to learn before the end of August. I want to enter the 2016/17 with solutions to all the unsolved problems from 2015/16. I want to show up on my first day of work a new person, a refreshed person, a smarter, more capable leader. It’s not that I made a big mess last year. It’s not that I was bad at my work. It’s more that I lost my innocence as a new principal. I saw the scope of responsibility of caring for staff, students, and parents in its entirety. I felt the desperation of those I was trying to support and my own desperation in trying one thing after another to help. School leadership is hard work.
At the writing retreats we often engaged in a type of writing called freefall. It’s a lot like it sounds, you figuratively lean into the page, and let the words appear as they must without criticism or censor. It feels like unleashing the wild animals within. It feels like bellowing from the top of a mountain. It feels like purging all the bits and pieces that are clogging up the path to inner peace.
I am freefalling now. I am using this blog as a way to reconnect with my voice, to reflect on the year, to move me into my artist-mind. Balance. When I think about balance I think about a couple I saw on America’s Got Talent who took their audition outside. The woman walked along a tightrope, high above the crowds, while her husband climbed onto her shoulders. She balanced them both on the thin wire as she walked across the area. When they were finished one of the judges commented about how precise they must need to be to ensure they don’t fall. Each step is made with intention. Carefully planned. I wonder if balance is about planning.
If I were to lean in to where my energy is right now I would end up back on Twitter reading about GAFEs or making notes on self-regulation or listening to the end of the latest Sir Ken Robinson book I downloaded. My energy is still at work. My mind is still all twisted around the issues there, seeking answers, reaching for ideas, knitting together possibilities. I could easily spend my whole summer ‘playing’ school. Working.
But I know that I need to cut school loose for a while. Let it drift into the background. When work is engaging it can be hard to detach. But I must. We all need to step away from the work. Writers know it creates clarity, shifts perspective, and changes realities. For example, we’ve all finished a draft feeling proud of its brilliance, only to return to it after a break to see gaps, areas for growth. Principals can learn from writers by putting school work in the bottom drawer for a little while.
I need some time to be a writer, a creator, a thinker. Some time to reclaim my voice and mind and compass. Some time to be free. Whenever I went on a writing retreat there was a profound sense of freedom. I gave myself permission to walk and dream and above all lean into solitude. And even now that’s where I’d like to end up at the end of this writing session…in a place of quiet and stillness and clarity and peace. I want to reclaim my voice and value whatever it has to say.
My list of summer activities is ambitious. There are so many things I want from this time. My time. It’s bigger than thinking of this time as a vacation. It’s a time of reconnection, reflection, rejuvenation, and redefinition.
I give myself permission to fully embrace my inner artist, to write a lot, and to check back in with work in a month from now…
This book offers a theory about how writers learn. Using the contributions from thirty emerging and experienced writers, The Writing Spiral demonstrates the way learning about creativity, courage, solitude, community, ambition, perseverance, curiosity, and love develop mastery—to make an expressive, inspired writer.
- How do you balance writing with your job and family?
- When is the best time to write alone?
- What do you use to combat writer’s block?
- When is it time to take risks?
- How do you publish?
- Why is vulnerability a blessing?
- How do you learn best?
- What is your relationship between what you learn and what you write?
A comprehensive learning program designed to call writers to action, this book utilizes research-based learning strategies, humour, metaphor, and interactive exercises to awaken the learner in you. To become a better writer, you need to become a better learner.
A diverse collection of poems, stories, memoirs, and essays The Writing Spiral promises to take you on a journey around layers of experience, knowledge, and inquiry to awaken your writing core.
The Writing Spiral offers a new vision that encourages us to define our writing spirals: to embrace reflection and analysis, to love learning, and to courageously write our truths and share our stories.
Jessica Outram, M.A., is a principal in Northumberland, Ontario. A writing teacher and former high school English teacher, Outram is also a playwright and a publisher.
Thirty writers share poems, stories, memoirs, and essays as demonstrations of the themes. The contributors include: Lynda Allison, Kelly Babcock, Erika Bailey, Mona Blaker, Ken Bond, Helen Chenier, Heidi Croot, Phyllis Diller Stewart, Sacha Farrell, Catherine Graham, Barbara E. Hunt, Shane Joseph, Ruth Latta, Andree Levie-Warrilow, Nancy Melcher, Dee Miles, M.J. Moores, Lori Pearson, Gwynn Scheltema, David Sheffield, Felicity Sidnell Reid, Pat Skene, Lesley Strutt, Erin Thomas, Lori Twining, Christina Vasilevski, Lynn Vieira, Ruth Walker, Brenda J. Wood, and Collette Yvonne.
Cover art by Livia Tsang
Book design by Janet Boccone
Video About The Writing Spiral: