A Writer’s Sensibility: Bearing Witness to Your Creativity

“Don’t scorn your life just because it’s not dramatic, or it’s impoverished, or it looks dull, or it’s workaday. Don’t scorn it. It is where poetry is taking place if you’ve got the sensitivity to see it, if your eyes are open.”
–Philip Levine, describing what he learned from William Carlos Williams

A shelf in my classroom with Monet reproductions.

Mrs. Sherby was my art teacher in both elementary and secondary school and I will never forget the lessons she taught at the Forest Park Schools. I still dream about her classroom – the way the clay smelled, the wide-narrow drawers where we stored our work-in-progress, and the baby food jars where we mixed custom colors of acrylic paint and dipped our paintbrushes.

Mrs. Sherby taught us about the Impressionism Movement and I was moved by Monet. I vividly remember learning about his haystack series and the way he patiently painted during different times of the day to observe and transcribe natural light. What an impact it made on me to realize that a single landscape scene could take on different appearances based on the time of the day and the quality of light. It is a lesson that has never left me.

My boyfriend Matt, freshman year in college at Marquette University, took me to see a Monet exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute and it was a transformative experience. Looking back I realize how painfully naïve I was from my rural upbringing. I gapped, wide-eyed and astonished at how large the canvases were. The layer-upon-layer of paint were exactly as Mrs. Sherby had described them in one of her slide show presentations. I was moved so deeply that I wanted to touch the canvas in front of me. Without thinking, my hand stretched out to one of the paintings to feel the texture of Monet’s brush strokes and I was chided by one of the docents. Though nothing could interrupt the experience for me. I was transfixed. It may seem dramatic, but my world was forever changed. I had come face-to-face with a masterpiece and I felt the spirit of Monet with every step that I took. As a teacher, I hope that something discussed in one of my classes sticks with a student so permanently that they add it to their bucket list.

As a writer, and a teacher of writing, I believe that we must experience the world with the sensibility that other artist’s do. For our craft we also study light as attentively as Monet did. Writing is an image rich process and it also must engage all of our senses.

My students are used to hearing me lecture that as writer’s we notice things that other people do not. We listen to conversations with our ears finely tuned to accents and word choice and experience color and sound in a way that approaches their essence. We constantly ask ourselves, how would we describe the way a high school  hallway swaggers with students after the bell rings? Or more accurately, how would I show my reader?

I often have my teenage writers take abstract terms such freedom, love, and happiness and describe them in terms of our senses to make them concrete. What does freedom smell like? What does happiness taste like? What color is love? The true test for a writer is turning the abstract into something concrete so the reader has a sensory experience.

In my last post, Writer’s Block? Mine the Richness In Your Own Backyard, I shared how I have spent my winter snowshoeing around our homestead. Ironically, while I am a native of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I have never been fond of winter. That was until I started snowshoeing. While my primary goal is exercise and stress relief, I cannot help feeling that I am “Filling the Well” to borrow a phrase from Julia Cameron’s, The Artist’s Way.

When I strap my snowshoes on to burn hundreds of calories, I am also tuning in, memorizing, and categorizing colors, sounds, shapes, fragrances, and textures. It’s true, I even snowshoe with the sensibility of a writer. While I am trudging through the snow I am keeping a deft eye on the landscape, and even though I usually stick to the same path, every day the scenery is different. The snow is never the same shade of white and even the snowbanks are malleable and are shaped by the elements. One day they are choppy from plowing and the next day the peaks are smoothed by the wind like a piece of Lake Superior beach glass tossed by the waves. One day the snow is a flawless, glistening sheet and the next day the  surface of the snow wears sparkling grooves and flowing ripples.

Ripples in the surface of the snow caused by the driving force of a wind storm.

The snowbanks were both chiseled and worn smooth by the wind.

The shadows cast from a sun storm accentuate the fluid curves.

The same stretch of banks may look completely different tomorrow.

As a writer I have what I call my, “Monet Moments”.  When I want to experience the world with a new lens. Mid-February I was watching the blues set in at night (on many levels). I wanted to snowshoe at dusk to experience the optical effects of light up close and personal and not just from the mudroom window. I have a trail carved around our pasture and approximately three and a half times around is a mile.

One night when I set out, the sky was blushing a sheer rose with a hint of lavender. Within minutes every snow covered surface was cast with an ethereal blue tint. It was the same trail that I frequented daily. However, on most nights I snowshoe after dinner and since it gets dark early I  wear my headlamp. On this particular evening, I wanted to live with intention and experience a moment in tune with nature. While the purple and blue quickly faded, I could not help marveling in what a beautiful world we live in.

Our pasture becomes a canvas of ice blue.

Moonlit Blues

When sky, snow, and February meet.

Snow dunes.

Chicken Coop


The blues of February set in dark and deep. Winter’s heart. Blue veined shadows throb across snowbanks. An ancient voice glistens like gaudy sapphire jewels to stare me down. A deep and sacred silence. Bare branches shiver with faceted sparks hinting at spring’s promise. Ushers of hope. Indelible moment. Winter’s bruised paradox. 

When my students roll their eyes when I assign a new piece of writing, it is my job to try to convince them that they will rewarded for their efforts and that what they gain goes far beyond a grade that I assign.  I acknowledge that I understand writing is work – it takes patience and diligence. Not everyone in my classroom will publish poems or novels and aspire to become a teacher, professor, professional writer or a blogger. Yet, viewing the world – as a writer – trains us to experience the world differently. It forces us to pay attention. Once our senses are opened as a writer – they can never be closed again and that makes us more astute, sensitive, and engaged human beings. Becoming a writer means looking at the ordinary and everyday things in our life through a magnifying glass. As human beings we are immersed in communication and writing helps make our thoughts tangible. This act of creation becomes as individual as our fingerprint.

I think in the age of digital technology, where much of our lives are dominated by screen time, that engagement is more important than every before. We are so focused on instant gratification that we have forgotten to step back and appreciate. To watch and wait. We neglect to see the nuances that the world offers up. I am thankful that I saw myself as a writer at a young age because it has helped me to find my balance and focus on the positive even during challenges and struggles. It has helped me become a seeker of beauty and wisdom and has taught me to look for patterns and see that everything in the world is connected.

My writing challenge to you over the next few days is to participate in a commonplace activity with the sensibility of a writer and artist. Whether you are baking bread or taking your dog for a walk – open up your senses. Leave your cell phone behind so you can have an uninterrupted experience or use it as a writing tool to capture images (sometimes taking a photo gives us an excuse to stop and focus). When you are out in public eavesdrop and listen to conversations. Listen to an individual’s diction and the melody of laughter. Watch the sun cast shadows and the play of branches on a snowbank, building, or sidewalk. Wake up early on the weekend and watch the sun rise blister the sky with color. Pay attention to how nimbly the horizon washes into new hues as it dissolves into pale morning light. Take a walk at dusk or at twilight. Fill your creative well and make discoveries about both humble and pretentious spaces and things. When you are a writer your practice is portable and your writer’s sensibility goes wherever you go.

Who knows, like me, you may make the revelation (after forty-seven years) that there is beauty where you least expected it — such as in the mid-winter blues of February. The writer in me is thankful for the experiences that I had as a teenager that shaped me. Such as art teachers like Mrs. Sherby and the paintings of Monet.

I would love to hear from you as you bear witness to your creative spark. What has inspired you recently? What fuels your inner artist? What is a lesson that you have learned about writing? Please share your insight and wisdom.

Do not forget to check out my sister blog where I share healthy lifestyle tips and recipes: Produce with Amy

 

Writer’s Block? Mine the Richness In Your Own Backyard

“Anyone can take an adventure even if it’s only in your own backyard. Let your imagination be your adventure and see where it takes you.” 
-Carmela Dutra

Waldo Homestead

I often tell my high school writing students that when I was their age, I was not well traveled. My dad was an Iron Worker, and due to the seasonal nature of construction, he either seemed to be working around the clock logging massive amounts of overtime or he would experience periods of being laid off.  Looking back, since my father is the most financially responsible person I know, we probably could have gone on elaborate family vacations. Yet, my dad is not one to be around hoards of people. He loves the quiet and peaceful beauty of home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Instead of Disney (though I did visit my aunt and uncle in California at the age of 10 where they took me to Disneyland) our getaways were often spent on the Way Dam backwaters. Since my childhood  was spent growing up in the wilds of Upper Michigan’s Crystal Falls, I hauled in lunker Walleye on the Paint River, I  learned how to identify the different varieties of pine trees by their cluster of needles, I got goosebumps whenever I heard the lonesome trill of the whippoorwill, I picked blueberries along the driveway on my way back from checking the mail, and I spent many July nights under a peppering of crystal stars and a crackling campfire.

As a grown woman I realize now how lucky I was for my rural upbringing. Yet, as a teenager reading Hemingway, Charles Dickins, Jane Austen, and William Shakespeare — I often felt isolated and thought that I had to travel extensively to experience life and have important things to write about. How could I write about Paris if I had never strolled along the Champs-Elysees? How could I draw in a reader’s interest with stories about having the first day of white tail deer season off of school, swimming across Fortune Lake, or the winter we received close to three-hundred inches of snow?

Thankfully, as a writing teacher, I know better. While my students may see ice fishing on Big Shag Lake as common place and too dull to write about, I always explain that to people living in snowless climates the thought of drilling a hole in the ice and waiting in freezing weather for a fish to bite would be an exotic, thrilling, and unusual activity. I remind my students that while we may see the things we grew up doing and the places we were raised as boring or bland (because we are so close to them) it is what we know best and it is our job as writers to bring out the richness of these experiences. It is for these reasons that Place Conscious Writing has a strong command in my classroom practice and curriculum.

In adulthood I have been fortunate to travel quite extensively. I have walked the cobblestoned streets of Jerusalem, watched one of my students read her poetry at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., and panned for gold on an active claim in the quirky settlement of Chicken, Alaska. Yet, to be honest, most of my creative impulses are still inspired from my own backyard.

This winter I have felt of rush of expressiveness channeling through my snowshoe adventures around our homestead. Last night was no exception. The Super Snow Moon was so brilliant  that I did not need my headlamp to snowshoe. It was bitter cold but worth every moment of beauty. I snapped photos as late as 9:00 pm (no flash – just the bright moonlight and my iPhone).

While I wish I could figure out how to use my fancy camera at night, a phone is much less cumbersome for snowshoeing. Besides, I think I enjoy the grainy roughness of these photos. It turns our pasture into a landscape that is moonlike itself.

Snowshoe Trail Bathed in Moon Glow

Shadowland

Moonshine

As writers, our work begins when we tap into what we know best. We are experts in our own memories and the smells, flavors, sounds, and textures of the places that we frequent. If you are looking for something to write about — mine your heart and work outward. Compile a list of places in your journal. Draw maps, list flora and fauna, name the trees and rivers, and even document the sky.

Let your readers smell the bruised  purple lilacs on the bushes that you played in as a child and show them the day you begged your mom if you could wash your hair in a rainstorm. Detail the way the iron rich soil ran red and how the sky ached a glowing green moments after the drops dissipated.

Describe an India ink dark sky, yet, at the same time so luminous with stars that it made you shiver and feel so small. That on humid summer nights you would spread out a homemade patchwork quilt on the lawn and lie inert for a couple of  hours to watch the constellations spread across the lush dome. A sky so magical that it became the fabric that you stitched your dreams.

Being a writer means being able to look in the face of every day experiences and record it in your unique way. When we chart the varied paths we have traveled, we deny the presence of Writer’s Block. It becomes an illusion.

Now tell me, what are you going to write about? Leave me a list, a poem, a description, or the snippet of a scenerio from your own backyard. Reach into your depository of memory and share. Let others find the universal in your musings. Comment here, on my Facebook page, or on Instagram. I will be waiting to hear from you!

Don’t forget to check out my sister blog where I share healthy recipes and lifestyle tips: Produce with Amy

 

Hoophouse Slumber – Where Gardens Dream

The Other Side of the Garden

Branching Out

Neon Glow of Sauna

Back to the Beginning