‘Words As’ is our regular guest posting. We invite creatives of all ilks to respond to the prompt ‘words as’. This month we welcome author Lois Spangler to the page to share her thoughts.
Words as. . . .
Words as what? Fundamentally, words are the bits of language that mean a discrete thing. Go any smaller, and now you have sounds, which are important, but don’t convey a concept themselves. Even prefixes and suffixes don’t quite do it — they rely on the trunk word to have any relative meaning.
Like atoms, you string them together into molecules and you get sentences. A word is potential; it’s informed by other words in a cluster of themselves, and each one contributes to a communicative quality. So, words as chemistry?
Maybe. The word as an atom, the sentence as a molecule. The paragraph as a matrix, and the chapter as a recognisable component of a larger and relatively homogeneous whole. Can a book be a slab of limestone? Or better, can it be a near limitless combination of things — wood and plastic, a carburettor and a smartwatch, separate but near enough to each other to build some meaning? Stephen King has described writing as an act of personal archaeology, revealing things in one’s own mind in the building of a story.
But this approach is limited. Why? We’re talking about stories, which is a separate subject, but stories aren’t the only things words can convey. In this metaphor, where does poetry fit in? Words in poetry convey story sometimes, but often they convey a feeling, a deep inchoate sense of a moment or a state. And they often do it while flouting the rules of prose language. These things aren’t story, but they are just as important.
Poetry aside, we haven’t even considered the quotidian roles for words, like contracts and technical manuals. How do they fit in? In a sense, the chemistry metaphor still stands. A contract tells a story in the imperative, in a way, and so does a manual. The former sets up expectations, and the latter offers guidance.
Maybe we’re still too narrow, or maybe we’re still too broad. Let’s try again.
Words as. . . .
…Words as currency? This implies that words have value, which isn’t entirely incorrect. But it also implies that they can be offered in exchange for non-word things, and this isn’t incorrect either. But can you hoard words? Shore up words like you would in a bank, giving you clout in society in the same way money would? Can you invest words and expect a return?
In a sense, yes. And this is where we’re beginning to narrow in on the metaphorical heart of words. Words as wisdom. Even the emptiest phrases stand to teach us something, defining meaning through the negative space of their own intentions. And the things words teach can be very small in scope, or very large; and that scope doesn’t need to be directly related to stakes.
But even though words contain wisdom, can be hoarded and exchanged, they don’t come into being on their own. They need authors. And for words to function at all, they need an audience. They need us.
Words as us.
Words are some of the closest things to magic we have in this world. I want to share something that is in my mind, a thing that is separate from other living beings. Words let me do that, however imperfectly. They let me offer a little bit of me to you. They’re not proxies, they’re not representatives; they are an imperfect mosaic of myself that I send out into the world, and that you interpret under your own contexts and experiences.
While words can divide, they can unite. While they can alienate, they can also welcome. So with these final words, I welcome you to this shared space, with words as us, and invite you to continue the conversation.
Lois Spangler is a writer, editor, and translator who’s been making stuff up since 1976. When not knee-deep in words, she’s hanging out with friends or stabbing other friends in an historically Spanish style. She maintains a very infrequently updated blog at storytrade.net, and sometimes says things on Twitter as @Incognitiously. Learn more about that historical Spanish style at bsis.club.
Spark is a monthly collaborative post written from a spark of inspiration that organically finds its way to us. This month we were inspired by the idea of how we progress in our creative journeys.
There’s a creek at the bottom of the street where I grew up and is traversed through the Australian bush and my brother and I would spend many hours down there with our dog. We would follow the path alongside the creek, sticks in hand to sweep away spiders’ webs and keep away the snakes (not that we ever saw a snake – I did see an eel in the creek once).
Australian summer can be hot and in the cleft of the valley the heat would sink in, offset by the coolness of the water when you passed under the shadow of the trees. I knew each bend in the path. I recognised the same fallen trees, the growth of ferns and grasses.
It was also a place I liked to walk alone.
I cherished my solitary explorations, even if I trod the same path frequently. It was about the wonder and the exhilaration of walking and watching, listening and observing.
The external is often a metaphor for the internal and in the last few years of working with Rus and Jodi on various projects, discussing our own works and visions, we have a shared, and very varied, perspective on the creative path we walk, how we approach it, how we work through the cycles of our own creativity.
But perhaps in walking this creative path we are not so much forging new ground as making a map of where we are and where we have been in order that we can expand the boundaries of our understanding. And in the unknown sections we can write, “Here Be Dragons” until we decide whether we need to confront them or domesticate them.
For me, the path of the creative seeker is a journey of discovery that is internal.
It seeks to map out a sense of purpose: What do I want to say?
An understanding of form: How do I want to say this?
An awareness of audience: Who am I creating for?
A perspective of the heart and mind: What is it that drives me?
I am mapping my progress, tilling the soil of creative projects, watering the plants and taking long walks down the toilet paper aisle of the supermarket. If I can mix my metaphors for a moment, maybe I am not following a path established by others but wandering through a library of creatives’ work so that I may ponder and consider in order that I can make my own library for others to come and browse.
Drop in. I’ll have the kettle on.
I love telling others about my days in youth when I would take long walks in the woods, many under the light of the moon. The meandering along the oft-neglected paths allowed me to open my mind and heart to my surroundings. I found myself, time and time again, immersed in the unknown, alert to accept any sound, or sight, or experience around me. I made it a priority to put myself on that path, to expose myself to the what-ifs and the unknowns that always existed.
How easy it was for me to choose to be there and witness, experience, capture a world that existed beyond my prior knowledge.
As I got older, and as the world of domesticity crept in around me, my days on trails diminished, and I found myself recalling those sounds and sights more from the ramblings in my journals than from new experiences.
The Creative Seeker’s path is no different, is it?
Again- when I was younger and free time tipped the scales in its favor more easily than now, my creative journeys and jaunts were more frequently taken, though probably also more frequently taken for granted. While I allowed myself to go deeper in my creative explorations, I didn’t always appreciate the gold that I found in those hours.
What I have learned in my later years is that my time on the trails in the woods and immersed in creative excursions is more important that it ever was. Each journey holds a deeper meaning, but I must also force myself to be present in both worlds more ferociously. I cannot succumb to the temptations of putting either on the to-do list, the if-I-have-time backburners. Instead, I remind myself every day of the importance – absolute and essential – in opening the journal, of stepping on to the path, and of showing up to immerse myself in to the unknown, where I can learn of new scenes, characters, and conflicts that need to be seen and heard – first by me, and then for all of you.
The path of the creative seeker exists for each of us, right now; what makes the difference is your desire and effort to step on to it, with open mind and heart, and to accept all it has to share with you, no matter how old, or how complicated, your life might be.
The path awaits. Seek it out.
Truth and Understanding
While I haven’t quite taken the usual path (ie. international travel or higher education) of a sun-sign Sagittarian, the quest to know and understand drives so many things in my life, like a heartbeat that’s always there, though general aware isn’t always. Writing is a unique place to explore the higher expressions of my Sagittarian nature—mostly because it gives me a chance to ‘leave’ while staying at home. Because a lot of what I write is channelled, I get to see the world intimately through very different eyes; it’s walk a mile in someone else’s shoes on amphetamines often. It has given me an appreciation for the uniqueness of the individual but also the ways in which humanity’s common needs and desires collectively bind us. It engenders a deep empathy for even the most crooked, broken or evil individual. To understand how someone came to be as they are today and what that possibly means for the future.
Through writing I am able to seek and connect with people in ways I might not otherwise be able to—at least not at the moment, bound to my current home and life.
Pushing the boundary
If standard metrics for creative seeking existed, part of me thinks I would fail on all of them. I rarely, actively look for new ways to explore creativity and if something does pique my interest, there is a laziness in me that holds me in my own inertia (which means I’ve never been to a life drawing class, I’ve never searched out a replacement singing group for the one I lucked into a decade ago, I’ve left my guitar sitting abandoned in my room for years and I still wonder what it would be like to learn to paint with water colours/do pottery.) Often a new door of creative inquiry and expression opens serendipitously when someone says: hey, did you know about (flash fiction/cut-up poetry/suminagashi) or a few existing ideas combine in a brand new way (Chinese Whisperings and Literary Mixed tapes anthology/Piper’s Reach/The Jar). Having found my way into that space, I then set about doing everything in my power to push the absolute boundaries of that creative platform—to continually reimagine what is possible in that space, seek the dark spaces and hop-skip-jump merrily out of the margins.
It is why I love collaboration; the possibilities are infinite and there is nothing like going on a quest with your most favourite companions to see what’s over the next ridgeline… and the next… and the next…
By Map and Dice
I have had this desire for almost a decade. It involves a car, a handful of writing friends, a map and a dice. In this perfect scenario of a literary road trip, each morning we take out our map, we mark 250-300km in six different directions and roll a dice to see where we go next. Along the way we stop in small towns. We explore colonial cemeteries, museums and antique stores. We bushwalk to waterfalls and lookouts and other places of interest, guided by the green road signs. We stop and eat lunch in small town cafes, bakeries and dusty milkbars, or from basic picnic-styled sandwiches we’ve thrown together that morning. Eventually mid-afternoon we arrive at our destination, check into accommodation and then sit to write for a few hours, before finding somewhere for dinner and to share ideas and read aloud from what we have written. In the evening, we collaborate on other ideas, read, or quietly hangout under the stars. To wake in the morning and do it all over again.
I yearn to know what would come out of such a road trip—how far we’d get. Of the places we’d go. Of how we’d know each other differently at the end. Of the ideas we’d generate, share, and grow across or a week or ten day. And if we’d choose do it all again the following year.
Every time I publish a piece of writing with a larger audience, one of the most common questions I hear is “What’s next?”
It’s a loaded question, for sure, especially with Fossil Five releasing to the world in a matter of days. Most people don’t really care about the behind-the-scenes writing I am doing on a daily — sometimes hourly — basis. What they really care about is what I plan on releasing to the public in the near future.
Then there’s the new novel idea about a small-town college that shuts down in the late sixties after a series of unsolved murders on campus. The abandoned college receives a financial windfall from an anonymous donor, and when it reopens for artists in 2020, the murders resume. The story follows several students who begin to unearth the secrets of the college’s bloody history, leading them to become the primary targets for the killer’s next victims.
I also have an inspiring series of essays in the works on living a more fulfilling life through authentic journaling.
The truth is, though, that the “next” story is whichever one rises from the myriad ideas, scribbles, and drafts that I have been collecting in my journals for the past 4 decades. In other words, when you sneak a peek behind the writer’s magical veil, there is no official “next story.”
In addition to the three titles that I listed above, I’m working on stories that matter the world to me, but may never see the light of day in my readers’ worlds.
These are just a few of the ideas ripped from my daybook’s pages. Some of them are developed more than others.
Sail Away– a novel about a time portal in the basement of a family’s house that leads to the late 18th century, where some of the individuals of yesteryear have come back to cross-populate the two worlds over a three-century period.
Daily Prompts of Inspiration- I have written and shared many hundreds of writing prompts to lift up, inspire, and encourage others. This would be a journal where each page begins with a new thought, and plenty of blank space to reflect.
Anthology of Ghost and Horror Stories- I have always loved the genre of terror, and over the years I have written enough short stories to put together an anthology of horror. It’s quite antithetical to my inspiring posts and essays; I guess that’s what makes them all the more interesting.
My Poetry- This is something that I have very, very rarely shared with anybody, even my closest writer-friends. I think this would take the most amount of courage. As vulnerable as I feel about my fiction, I keep my poetry very close to the vest. One day, that will change.
The Memoir of Rus- I thought about doing this when I turned 50 (my writer-friend Bernadette did this as a series of reflective pieces, and it resonated deeply with me), but it never happened. I don’t think I need a particular anniversary or milestone birthday to share these; I do think, though, that I need to finish and share these essays comprising a larger picture of me sooner than later.
And then, of course, there are the collaborative works with Jodi and Adam here at the JAR that are always in line to be “next.” The Glass Marionette with Jodi is ready to embark on an adventurous turn as we surrender the continuation of the plot to the universe. The JAR Story with Jodi and Adam is nearly complete and ready for the world to enjoy in 2020. I’m also teaming up with Adam on a new work of fiction that evolves around metaphysical labyrinths.
The “next story” has always been, and will always be, in the works. Writing is not sterile, clean, or tidy when it comes to finishing one project and then beginning another. As Fossil Five makes its debut in this world, it just opens space for the next story to rise, much like a newly discovered patch of light in a forest of competing stories. Which one will reach the light first? Fill the space with outstretched leaves soaking up the sun and the energy to be the next?
We shall see. For now, I give light to all my works, and see each of them as having an equal chance to be “next” for my readers. If anything, I know — as I hope my readers do as well — that I will never stop writing, or sharing, my stories with the world.
There is a part of me that wants to write, A part that wants to theorize, A part that wants to sculpt, A part that wants to teach…. To force myself into a single role, to decide to be just one thing in life, would kill off large parts of me.
Kill off large parts of me? As a young man fresh out of college, I thought: Why in the world would anybody want to do that?
When I first read these words, I felt as if I had just been given license to be myself, and not who everybody else wanted me to be. Not seeing the irony in my ways, I kept that epiphany a secret for a long time. I felt that if I told anyone about all of these different “parts” of me, they would tell me how foolish I was being.
“It’s not the domestic model,” they would say, “so you’d be a fool to stray too far from the plan that you – and we – have had for you all along. Such distractions are unnecessary.”
Sometimes, I feel like those of us who were coming of age in the eighties were the last generation to feel tied to the rules and mores of the past. We were still too eager to honor and please others, and we felt tremendous guilt if we strayed.
But maybe it’s wrong of me to brush such a broad stroke. Perhaps it is just in my character to please, to resist the disappointment that I feared I would feel from others.
And, maybe, still fear.
Yeah. that’s probably all on me.
I remember my friend Ginny telling me about her father, who was quite the artist, and how he had kept that part of him inside all his life because his wife would not allow him to live fully as that artist. Ginny said to me that the artist within him was too strong, and no matter what anybody did or said to suppress that artist, it was going to manifest in some way to leave his body. In this case, it was cancer. And it took his life — and his art — swiftly.
When you stand in your authenticity and truth, you make space for others to do the same. Especially those closest to you. What rebellion are you trying to enact? Inner? Outer? Or that place between?
After I let those words sink in a bit, I realized that, ironically enough, one of the things that stands in the way of our authenticity is social media. I’m reminded of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and how so many of us keep wearing that face that we keep in the jar by the door. The only difference is we’re wearing those masks for the world to see.
Behind them lies the individual desperately seeking authenticity and truth – not to mention validation – in all the wrong places.
On days like this, when I am pondering the balance I strike between the artist and the domestic, I go back to Prather’s words and remember what it was like as that 22-year-old kid feeling liberated, but keeping it all a secret.
I’ve been balancing that irony all my life.
The path less trod for me has been an internal journey, and I know that I am speaking for so many others as well. I’m talking about people who are just like me who have lived a quiet, creative life, suppressing so much of who they really are, for the compromise of a safe, domestic life.
Is it too late to change any of that? Of course not. Do I have the courage to do it? That’s an entirely different story.
So I believe this to be more like the path more trod, because I think that many of the people reading this will identify with that struggle to become a person.
So what do we do? We carry on with the rules we have established for our lives; we don’t wallow in some melancholic waters of what we have not done (but honestly, how soothing is that!). We continue to fuel the parts of us that want to write, to theorize, to sculpt, to teach. We do what we are doing here at The JAR Writers’ Collective. We create portals for our creativity to flow more freely.
And we stand as best we can in authenticity: for ourselves and for others, as we continue along our paths more or less trod, but our paths nonetheless to call our own.