Unselfing, Grief, Birds

I came to Helen Macdonald’s work late—long after H is for Hawk had graced bestseller lists and garnered awards and been subject to breathless recommendations from friends. Somehow these trappings make me less likely to pick something up in the moment, until I get to it years later via my own circuitous means and become a breathless proponent myself.

In this case, those means involved stumbling across a gorgeous edition in the gift shop of the V&A during a trip to London in 2016.

I mean, look at it. It’s perfect.

Vintage Classics edition cover of H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, illustrated with an elegant goshawk on a blue background.

It was also the right size. It fit my palm like a secret, and I carted it out of the museum in triumph.

The next few days were a blur. I downed the book like the titular goshawk, fierce and ravenous. It danced through so many threads of literature and loss and nature, cataloguing the strange places we go when we can’t cope with our own grief and must instead contextualize it within older networks of meaning. I absolutely fell in love with it. It mapped a landscape of parental loss I’d been dreading my whole life and, in doing so, humbled me with gratitude.

I’m probably due a re-read.

Macdonald has a new essay collection out this year called Vesper Flights. I’d tuned into a chat about it between her and Robin Wall Kimmerer (of Braiding Sweetgrass fame) earlier in Quarantine, but hadn’t been able to give it my full attention. The gist I left with, though, was that in addition to being a magnificent writer, Macdonald is also one of those people who feel deeply human when placed in front of an audience—funny and self-effacing and smart and real. It’s something I put a lot of stock in, that little waggle of the antennae that says “Here. Pay attention. These are your people.”

Imagine my delight on Monday when I found I’d forgotten about buying tickets to hear her in conversation with Jeff VanderMeer! Smart move, Past Lucy.

The conversation was wonderful. Macdonald endeared herself to me forever by revealing that while all her childhood friends were pasting rock stars on their bedroom walls, she venerated pictures of kestrels. As someone who scrawled lines from Dryden on her wall as a youth and never understood the appeal of Jonathan Taylor Thomas, I relate.

Early in the conversation VanderMeer asked “Do your enthusiasms find you? Or do you find them?” This kind of emergent question feels loud right now. It’s not so much that I’m on the warpath, hunting down a particular line of inquiry, rather that every book I open seems to suddenly be in conversation with everything else I’ve read in a given week. The threads start talking to each other. This is always The Sign.

Macdonald and VanderMeer also explored the dangers of projecting human emotion onto animals, leading Macdonald to refer to the “strange unselfing that happens when you see a wild creature.” What was the last thing that unselfed me? The great horned owls calling to each other in the meadow preserve. The western fence lizards skittering across the drive. The moon, unexpected and sharp, hanging low in the sky.

When an audience member asked if she’d be returning to writing poetry, she paused. Her poetry, she said, had been a sort of lovechild of cryptic crosswords and abstract expressionism (HI WOW HELLO). But she went on to explain that “things are really urgent now” and that essays were where she wanted to focus her energy because they allowed her to speak to the current moment most directly. “Essays,” she said, “are about being puzzled by something and needing to work it out.”

Of course the mediums we chose reflect the times we live in—I feel it in my frustration with the glacial pace of making comics—but it was refreshing to hear someone say it outright. It feels adjacent to how I’ve been approaching Rambles on Patreon. Crafting written updates was taking too long. Talking is swift and personal and correct for what I’m trying to do in that space. But it’s been two years and now I’m beginning to wonder what comes next.

Toward the end of the discussion, someone asked a question about how we can balance a sense of wonder at the natural world with the immense losses of climate change. Macdonald was blunt in her response: sometimes wonder simply isn’t accessible. Sometimes we are flattened by grief.

“The banked grief at the back,” she called it, and something cracked open in my chest. This was the backbone of H is for Hawk: “You grieve things because they should be there and they’re not.”

A stand of eucalyptus trees silhouetted against the sky at dusk. There an owl perched on a high branch. A crescent moon above.

Your Book Tour

Here’s what happens when you tell people you’re going on book tour:

Their eyes widen like they’re picturing private jets and limousines, booksellers laying stock to be signed at your feet, adoring fans queued up out the door. They congratulate you—assuming you have “made it.” You try not to let the lunatic edge invade your laughter as you thank them, unable to explain that they are wrong.

The truth is, you’re about to spend two months sleeping on couches and washing your underwear in the sink. You’re three months past the date any “real” author would’ve had their tour stops booked by a publisher, but you’re emailing venues anyway because you got yourself into this glorious mess, and you love it, and it’s time to go big or go home.

You fill pads of paper with train times and bus lines—an endless game of Cheap Travel Tetris.
You schedule posts on every social media platform known to man, but still manage to avoid updating your own website.
You learn that the barcode doesn’t scan properly on your entire print run of books. You make a lot of phone calls and hope you can fix everything before the ship date.

You whoop with delight whenever a venue confirms, then falter when you see all the other, more impressive authors on the week’s lineup.

You realize those authors may feel just as fraudulent as you do.

You set up endless Facebook events, cripplingly aware of how often you ignore invites from everyone else.
You find out exactly how many of your friends live in Minneapolis.
You worry nobody will come.
You worry everybody will come.

You throw yourself on the kindness of the Internet—your people, your tribe, your network. They offer rides, couches, venues, connections. You recognize, again and again, that you are nothing without them.

It will feel like a miracle any time you meet a flesh and blood human being who knows your work. These moments of connection will pile up behind your sternum. They will turn your abstract Twitter followers into live heartbeats.

Two months from now you know you’ll come home changed.

The Long, Hard, Elegant, Easy, Stupid, Creative Way

I read something this week that really ticked me off.

I’ve been building my page on Goodreads as I gear up to put 100 Demon Dialogues into the world, which partly means leaving lots of reviews for creators whose work I admire. If you follow me on Patreon you’ll know Deb Norton because I interviewed her for my unofficial podcast, but just in case you don’t she’s got an amazing book called Part Wild: a Writer’s Guide to Harnessing the Creative Power of Resistance. She was also my writing mentor in high school, and I owe her an enormous debt for her impact on my creative development.

Anyway, I realize reading reviews on Goodreads is basically like reading the comments anywhere else on the internet (DANGER, DANGER), but after writing my review for Part Wild, I idly scrolled down the page to see what else people had said about the book. And then I stumbled on the following sentence:

…if you are really finding it that hard to write and need to use all these prompts and tips, then it probably means that writing is not for you – find something else to do.

You know Ghost Rider? He’s that comic book character who’s basically a flaming skeleton on a motorbike. That’s what I turned into directly after reading this sentence: just a skull on fire in road leathers doing 90 down a highway screaming “FUCK OFFFFFFFFFF.”

Whenever I react this violently to something it’s usually because I fear there’s a grain of truth in it.

This attitude digs at the root of something that’s deeply entrenched in our cultural beliefs about what creativity “is” (the answer, of course, is many things—it’s a paradox—but we’ll get into that later). We’re taught to think that, for creative people, making things is easy. You know you’re “Creative” when you’re able to sit down and art flows from your fingertips like water from a mountain spring. The Muse appears, the Art happens, and there you are like some sort of divine lightning rod just channeling your Gift into the world.

I’m as much a fan of being in a flow state as the next guy, but I also think this is a dangerous load of hooey.

Like, what does this mean, really? That experiencing any type of resistance or challenge means you should just give up and go do something else? This is not a growth mindset. It is small and constrained and petty and miserable and OOOH IT MAKES ME SO MAD.

Okay, okay. I’m under control. I can do this.

Do I worry that I’m not cut out to be an artist (or a writer, or a small business owner, or a public speaker, or a…) whenever the work feels like pulling teeth? Of course I do. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this great talk Frank Chimero gave about doing things “the long, hard, stupid way,” and it always makes me feel a lot better.

Frank was struggling writing his first book, and then judging himself for struggling because clearly it meant he was doing something “wrong.” (This is something I’m very guilty of.) But then he shifted his perspective and recognized that this less efficient methodology actually defined his creative process. Accepting the quirks of his personal practice allowed him to relax into it. (Pair this with Chuck Wendig’s excellent advice to “embrace the joy of the forbidden.“)

I am constantly reminding myself that experiencing resistance, strife, doubt, and complexity mean I am on the right track. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the course of my career it’s that these feelings are normal and they do not go away. In fact, if you’re experiencing a total absence of those feelings it probably means you’re not taking any risks at all, which means you’re not growing, which means it’s time to get back in the ring.

Okay, next paradox:

I have complex feelings about Tim Ferriss, a massively successful technology-culture-productivity-type entrepreneur, but I was interested to read about his take on overcoming these mental traps:

What would this look like if it were easy? is such a lovely and deceptively leveraged question. It’s easy to convince yourself that things need to be hard, that if you’re not redlining, you’re not trying hard enough. This leads us to look for paths of most resistance, creating unnecessary hardship in the process.

But what happens if we frame things in terms of elegance instead of strain? In doing so, we sometimes find incredible results with ease instead of stress. Sometimes, we “solve” the problem by simply rewording it.

So now we fight, right? The Long, Hard, Stupid Way vs. The Elegant, Easy, Simple Way.

But I don’t actually think these attitudes are opposites. There’s the inherent challenge of making creative work, but then there’s the self-judgement of that challenge—and that’s what Ferriss’s question can help us get around.

Rather than getting mad at ourselves for being a skull on fire, maybe we just accept that being on fire is sometimes a normal part of the creative process. That way whenever we burst into flames and/or have a case of the brain weasels we don’t have to worry that there’s something wrong with us. We can accept the weasels as part of the process and get on with doing normal things, like riding other wheeled contraptions, coming up with new ideas, and continuing to move forward with the work.

I think I’m gonna leave it at that.

***

(A note on credit: the Ghost Riders—or should that be Ghosts Rider?—in this post were illustrated by: Marc Silvestri, John Cassaday, and Mike Bear. Thanks, fellas.)

Inner Critic Investigation Week, Day 7

This is it, everyone! It’s Day Seven of Inner Critic Investigation Week, the writing prompt series I’ve been collaborating on with writing coach Deb Norton.

The rules are as follows:

  1. Get a pen and a sheet of paper.
  2. Set a timer for six minutes.
  3. WRITE. Ask your Inner Critic the question and find out what they have to say. Keep your pen moving, even if you’re writing lies or “Blah blah blah” over and over.

Our seventh and final prompt is:

By now you’ve probably got a pretty good idea of what your Inner Critic doesn’t like. What happens if you deliberately try to push their buttons? Make a list of everything you can think of that will make your Critic hoppin’ mad. Maybe it’s doing a deliberately horrible drawing. Maybe it’s singing loudly in the shower when that voice inside is screaming at you to be quiet because the neighbors will judge you. Maybe it’s eating a whole pizza in one sitting. There are no wrong answers, just list as many things as you can think of.

 

I’d love to do a round-up post next week with some anonymous entries from various people’s writing exercises. If you’d be willing to share, email me some excerpts at lucypcbellwood@gmail.com, or leave ’em in the comments below.

Thank you so much for following along with this experiment! If you’d like to learn more about Deb’s work, check out her website or buy a copy of Part Wild: a Writer’s Guide to Harnessing the Creative Power of Resistance. You can also listen to the podcast we recorded about Inner Critics and the creative process. The little character you see featured in all these prompts is my Inner Critic, who I got to know over the course of drawing 100 comics in 100 days. You can read those right here.

Inner Critic Investigation Week, Day 6

It’s Day Six of the Inner Critic Investigation series I’m collaborating on with writing coach Deb Norton! Our goal is to help you develop a dialogue with your Inner Critic as if it were a separate, living character. I’ve found this massively helpful for understanding what’s in my way when I sit down to make work.

The rules are as follows:

  1. Get a pen and a sheet of paper.
  2. Set a timer for six minutes.
  3. WRITE. Ask your Inner Critic the question and find out what they have to say. Keep your pen moving, even if you’re writing lies or “Blah blah blah” over and over.

Today’s prompt is:

Your Inner Critic is probably all too keen to tell you about the things you’re doing wrong, but about the times they’ve royally screwed up? Take confession in six minutes of free-writing.

If you’re feeling brave and want to share any of your responses to these prompts, you can leave excerpts in the comments below, or email them to me (lucypcbellwood@gmail.com) to be included in an anonymous roundup at the end of the project. The last prompt goes up tomorrow!

If you haven’t done so already, you can listen to a whole conversation about this Creative Resistance stuff in this talk I just recorded with Deb.

NOW GET WRITING!

Inner Critic Investigation Week, Day 5

It’s Day Five of the Inner Critic Investigation series I’m collaborating on with writing coach Deb Norton! Our goal is to help you develop a dialogue with your inner monologue and better understand why your brain keeps trying to stop you from making work.

The rules are as follows:

  1. Get a pen and a sheet of paper.
  2. Set a timer for six minutes.
  3. WRITE. Ask your inner critic the question and find out what they have to say. Keep your pen moving, even if you’re writing lies or “Blah blah blah” over and over.

Here’s today’s prompt:

Often our Inner Critics are busy being, well, critical. What makes them truly happy? The knowledge that they’ve successfully protected you from failure. A heaping plate of junk food. Convincing you to do what they want. Shiny pebbles. Getting to see a movie. You can also try moving from the prompt “I’m happiest when you…”

If you’re feeling brave, share your results from these exercises in the comments below, or email them to me (lucypcbellwood@gmail.com) and I can post them anonymously. I would love to have a collection of Critic Quotes at the end of this experiment.

If you want to listen in to a whole conversation about this Creative Resistance stuff, check out this talk I just recorded with Deb.

NOW GET WRITING!

Inner Critic Investigation Week, Day 4

It’s Day Four of the Inner Critic Investigation series I’m collaborating on with writing coach Deb Norton! We’re hoping these prompts can give you all some insight into what your little jerks are thinking and feeling as they go about trying to stop you from making creative work.

The rules are as follows:

  1. Get a pen and a sheet of paper.
  2. Set a timer for six minutes.
  3. WRITE. Ask your inner critic the question and find out what they have to say. Keep your pen moving, even if you’re writing lies or “Blah blah blah” over and over.

Here’s today’s prompt:

The Inner Critic loves to tell us about all the other things in the world that it believes are more important than working on our creative projects, from taking naps to volunteering at the local food bank. Whether it’s trying to tempt you or shame you, write it all out in a list. What does it think you should be doing instead?

There will be a new prompt once per day for the rest of the week. This is a great exercise to do as a warmup before you sit down to tackle your daily NaNoWriMo goal, or just launch into creative work of any nature. There are no wrong answers. Go wild.

If you want to listen in to a whole conversation about this Creative Resistance stuff, check out this talk I just recorded with Deb.

NOW GET WRITING!

Inner Critic Investigation Week, Day 3

It’s Day Three of the Inner Critic Investigation series I’m collaborating on with writing coach Deb Norton! We’re hoping these prompts can give you all some insight into what your little jerks are thinking and feeling as they go about trying to stop you from making creative work.

The rules are as follows:

  1. Get a pen and a sheet of paper.
  2. Set a timer for six minutes.
  3. WRITE. Ask your inner critic the question and find out what they have to say. Keep your pen moving, even if you’re writing lies or “Blah blah blah” over and over.

Here’s the prompt:

What is precious to your Inner Critic? What do they value above all else? Fame? Security? The knowledge that they’ve successfully prevented you from making a mistake?

There will be a new prompt once per day for the rest of the week. This is a great exercise to do as a warmup before you sit down to tackle your daily NaNoWriMo goal, or just launch into creative work of any nature. There are no wrong answers. Go wild.

If you want to listen in to a whole conversation about this Creative Resistance stuff, check out this talk I just recorded with Deb.

NOW GET WRITING!

Inner Critic Investigation Week, Day 2

It’s Day Two of the Inner Critic Investigation series I’m collaborating on with writing coach Deb Norton! We’re hoping these prompts can give you all some insight into what your little jerks are thinking and feeling as they go about trying to stop you from making creative work.

The rules are as follows:

  1. Get a pen and a sheet of paper.
  2. Set a timer for six minutes.
  3. WRITE. Ask your inner critic the question and find out what they have to say. Keep your pen moving, even if you’re writing lies or “Blah blah blah” over and over.

Here’s the prompt:

Often our Inner Critics harp on us because they’re scared of what will happen if we try something new. Ask your Inner Critic what’s out there. What could go wrong? What would the consequences be?

There will be a new prompt once per day for the rest of the week. This is a great exercise to do as a warmup before you sit down to tackle your daily NaNoWriMo goal, or just launch into creative work of any nature. There are no wrong answers. Go wild.

If you want to listen in to a whole conversation about this Creative Resistance stuff, check out this talk I just recorded with Deb.

NOW GET WRITING!

Inner Critic Investigation Week

This week I’m thrilled to announce the release of my latest podcast episode with writing coach Deb Norton, a long-time friend and extraordinary creative resource.

I’ve known Deb since I was 13. She brought me into my first writer’s group and taught me so much about working with my inner critic in the company of other dedicated creators. She was a huge inspiration for the 100 Demon Dialogues project, so I’ve been itching to talk with her for a while. We ended up recording an hour-long conversation about creative resistance, grit, risk-tolerance, accountability, limitations, shame, self-knowledge, protection, NaNoWriMo, recovery, process, and so much more. You can listen to the audio through SoundCloud, or watch the video if you’d rather see us wave our arms while we put everything to rights.

As a fun bonus exercise, we decided to collaborate on a series of seven prompts that will help you get to know your own Inner Critic a little better. The rules are simple: set a timer for 6 minutes and let your demon do the talking. It always wants your attention anyway, so give it the floor and see what happens.You can write lies, you can write truths. Just make a mess.

A new prompt will go up at 9am PST every day this week. You can find them on Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Patreon, Facebook or via this blog. (Gracious, that’s a lot of social media. Something for everyone, I guess!)

Thanks for reading, and good luck with the prompt! I look forward to hearing what comes up for you all.