Guest Author Heather Demetrios: Carving Angels — Process and Practice
This quote has become my mantra as of late and one that I share with my creative writing students. I first heard it in Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You The Sun and thought YES. This is what it’s like crafting a story, painting a picture, creating art — any art. Sometimes the distance between a piece of rock and an exquisite sculpture, a blank page and a finished book, can seem so incredibly, impossibly vast. How to do it? How to survive the process and not ruin that kernel of the universe that resides in your heart and wants to be set free? There’s no one way, but you must have a way to chip at that rock to get to the beauty hiding inside it.
That’s where process comes in.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my process lately. I’m about to finish a trilogy and am embarking on new projects that are challenging and exciting. I’m pushing past my safe boundaries, seeking new territory. It’s thrilling and not a little scary. What if I fail? What if I can never set that angel free? One thing I’ve started — in part to recover from the insanity that is the debut year — is to work through Julia Cameron’s Vein of Gold, a companion to her world-famous The Artist’s Way. It’s creative self-help, but more than that, it’s finding and tapping into your artist self so that you can take ownership of your life and work. Does this sound like some NorCal hippie stuff to you? Maybe it is. But it works. If standing on my head while eating a pickle worked, I’d do that, too. Artist’s Way changed my life years ago and I can’t recommend it enough. Vein of Gold is asking me to go outside my comfort zone and it’s forcing me — in a good way — to take a step back and look at how I do what I do. Not just how I sit down and make a book but how I live my life so that when I do carve, I get closer to that hope inside my heart for the project.
I’ve talked before in various blog posts about how I have corkboards all over my office with images and quotes that go with each book I work on, or how I use scent to inspire my jinn trilogy. I collage the internal lives of my characters, I journal as them, I read poetry to get in the mood, I make playlists, I use Scrivener. I make desperate bargains with the universe and brainstorm out loud with my husband. In the last nine months or so, something was missing from this process. I was doing all these things that had worked in the past, but I realized I was becoming product-oriented, not process-oriented. I had a phone call with my editor after yet another failed attempt at a new book, wailing that I can’t possibly write something that means as much to me as I’ll Meet You There ever again oh god oh god oh god.
She said to take a break, rest. Rest?! Impossible. So I pushed and pushed and my beta readers were saying: I can’t connect to these characters, I don’t care about this story. Oh god oh god oh god.
I felt like an amateur, like I was starting all over again. I felt like Kurt Vonnegut did when he said: “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” Then I started wondering if, like Cougar, the fighter pilot who freaks out in the beginning of Top Gun, “I’m holding on too tight. I’ve lost the edge.” (If you’ve read I’ll Meet You There, then you’re well acquainted with my Top Gun obsession).
I realized that my “process” wasn’t just what I did when I sat down to write or work on a story. My mental landscape, my spiritual and emotional wellbeing — these things were supposed to be part of my process, too. My whole life, really. It was time to take stock, to have a come to Jesus meeting with myself. Not for the first time, I took a long, hard look at the ways in which social media drain me. All that noise — what was it doing to my spirit? I thought about how checking my email and feeling the need to respond right away, even if I was in the middle of something else, had become a compulsion. I considered all the times I didn’t go to a yoga class or even outside because I was trying to force the work. And I thought about how I wasn’t giving myself time to enjoy or celebrate all the good things in life, like the accomplishment of getting my MFA and having two books come out, all in my debut year. This imbalance needed to change — for me, for the work and, let’s be honest, for my poor husband, too. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be carving angels — I wouldn’t even see them in that hunk of rock.
I think one of the biggest challenges of being a writer is finding a balance between immersing yourself in your work and taking time for yourself. It’s a full circle experience: if you take time for yourself and take care of your body, you’re feeding your soul — your creative well — and this is what gives you that zing! you need in order to make good art.
So what are you waiting for? Get carving.