Carin Perron: Poems & Prose

"If only I had a..."
ONCE UPON A TIME, I wrote stories thirty to sixty pages long, personal letters averaging over thirty pages each, as well as numbers of poems, good and bad. I did this all without a second thought. It didn't occur to me, in my innocence, that this was in any way extraordinary, doing so much writing with only pen and paper.

I can't remember when I took that first bite of the apple that told me that, naked as I was, bereft of typing skill or typewriter, file cabinets, writing desk, word processor, or computer, that I was really unequipped to write. I don't remember anyone suggesting it; suddenly, in a whirl of angelic drapery, thundering voices, fig leaves, and the flash of flaming swords, I landed outside the garden for good. My eyes were opened: I knew it was impossible for me to write. Paradise winked at me, but the way was barred.

Handwriting now seemed excruciatingly slow, and hunt-and-peck typing (on strange typewriters I had to hunt down before I could even peck) was even slower. It was inconvenient, frustrating, and often impossible. Discouraged, I continued to write a little poetry, but I stopped writing stories altogether. Part of my life had ended, and though my poetry continued to grow with me, my prose was left behind in an adolescent awkwardness.

One day, I complained to a friend, also a writer, how I hadn't written a page in months, and he reminded me I'd just written three letters that week. "That's over a hundred pages of writing," he said simply. My mind reeled. All of it was handwritten, of course, and enjoyable -- not in the least irritating or upsetting as I had come to expect writing to be. I wish I could say I saw the light, repented, and began using that time to get back into writing fiction, but it wasn't so easy. It just shocked me into not writing letters anymore.

I was too deeply into this "If only I had a..." frame of mind, to be able to change so easily. I had begun to wait for things. I thought, "If only I could type properly, I could write prose"; this became, "When I can afford to pay for a typing course, I can start writing again"; which turned into "Once I have my own typewriter, I'll be able to write." Once I had learned to type, and had my own typewriter, its noisiness put me off, so my idea then became, "If only I could afford an electronic typewriter with a memory, one that was silent, handy, and light, I'd write..." (this was a few years back).

Well, it hasn't exactly happened. Oh, I have the equipment, and granted, it is so darn convenient now, it's hard to come up with an excuse to write, but I've done my best. "With only a one-page memory (on the electronic typewriter) what I really need is a word processor," I began to think, and then a flood of images of myself waiting for time to hunt down a typewriter, pecking away slowly at the keys, saving up to pay for a typing course, waiting for my tax refund to buy my own typewriter, getting a cheap computer desk that was destroyed by the movers on my next move, waiting to write until I could nail or screw the desk back together, waiting for another tax refund for the silent typewriter, waiting for another desk...and suddenly, the thought of waiting for thousands of dollars to buy a computer, or waiting to borrow someone else's, just seemed unbearable.

I finally decided I didn't want to spend the rest of my life waiting to write. After all, the electronic typewriter, in its lightness, convenience, portability, and silence, only approximates the convenience of pen and paper, which is cheap, available anywhere, and doesn't require electricity or batteries. The electronic memory only approximates notes or human memory, and is chiefly helpful in avoiding retyping. However, retyping is quicker than waiting for equipment you can't afford.

I have made this mistake all my adult life, in one form or another. I spent so much time writing partly because it was easier than setting things up to draw or paint, and waiting for the ideal painting medium. When I thought I'd found the ideal, egg tempera, it still took years of stalling and fiddling to try to prepare to paint with the stuff, since it all must be made from scratch, like some nightmarish fruitcake. Of course, I excused myself for lacking space, insisting I needed a studio. Then, when I had a studio, I didn't have time to use it, or perhaps this was just another stall. Clearly, there is a deep flaw in this entire way of going about doing things, or, actually, going about not doing things.

I am gradually and painfully learning that the only way to operate at all is to find or make or steal as much time as I can, and use the space or tools or materials at hand to do whatever it is I want to do. Without this attitude, I will never do anything, regardless of the space or equipment I have at my disposal -- and the time I've wasted over the years! [When I first wrote this article, I said next, "When, now, with an eighteen-month-old, I have so little time, I look back on my casual waste of time as nearly criminal" -- the sentiment still holds, though the eighteen-month-old just turned eleven this fall.] Certainly, I am learning that all time is not equal. A moment of freedom exists like a small window in the fabric of the universe, and you must grab that fated opportunity, or lose it forever. This is still hard to remember.

But the lesson is this: the perfect setup will never exist, and if it does, it will pass; I must either use what I have, under less-than-ideal conditions, or not work at all. And there's been far too much "not at all."

Then I remember that it was not always like this. I look back at that Edenic time of blissful self-absorbed work for inspiration for the present. I recall enjoying what I did, because I did not allow false limitations or annoying technology to intrude into my consciousness. I just naturally followed what was possible under the circumstances, and did not think about what I didn't have. I hope, one day, to re-enter that paradisal state of mind where the impulse to work was pleasure, not guilt, and it was harder to tear myself away than to drag myself to it. Already I feel, with some relief, the old ease and naturalness returning, so I know this is the right path.

Look back yourself, and you will no doubt find the same memories, if you have ever lost touch with this way. My memories are of making two (count 'em, two) three-minute animated films, one in grade 9, the other in grade 12, working on a homemade light table in front of the TV. (My dad made me the light table after the plans in the Walter T. Foster book "Animation," by Preston Blair, because he often worked night shifts at the Canadian Pacific Railway, and he was tired of not being able to get into the house until I moved my chair from the door and let him in, my light table being the porch light shining through the window of the kitchen door.)

I remember writing poems on envelopes at bus stops; muttering lines to myself, walking uphill to a party; scribbling on lined paper while on a long greyhound bus trip; or, when I was teaching, writing on paper borrowed from a kid at school; certainly, I remember writing on my lap, a book, a kitchen table, or a staff room coffee table. I have drawn things balancing paper on school desks, kitchen or restaurant tables, floors, or on my lap when scrunched in a chair.

I remember seeing a photo of Pierre Bonnard's "studio," a small cheap hotel room with incredibly busy paisley wallpaper: he just tacked his paper on the wall and painted. At least Magritte's one-room flat had white walls, and he possessed an easel!

These people are not heroes: they just did what everyone ultimately does -- what they chose to do. When you don't work at what you care about, it is because you have chosen not to bother. As a sop to conscience, we can all say, "I would have, if I had only had a..." -- this is not discounting those times when life is temporarily overwhelming, but even then, one can learn to work. I think of the World War II artist (whose name escapes me now), who painting in the trenches, using powdered egg for his egg tempera; then, of course, there is Henry Moore sketching away in the air raid shelters: these are the exemplars to imitate.

But how, you ask, is this possible, when there is no time, and the walls are closing in on me, and I am chronically short of money and have no peace of mind to use to even think of doing creative work? This is no trivial excuse: it is the crux of the problem, and no, there is no easy answer to this. One realization, some time back, though, did give me pause: being short of time, rushed, and broke, is, for many of us, the normal state of things. Having time or money to make things easy is often an aberration -- take advantage of it when you have it, but don't wait for it.

The simple answer to the problem, work anyway, no matter what, is anything but easy. It can, however, be done, given enough wisdom and determination. The determination comes for everyone at their own time, and is a personal thing, a grim vow to stop letting things rob you of what you want to do with your life; the wisdom is this: you love what you want to do, and it can give you the peace of mind you need to continue. Rather than expecting working and shopping and child care and rush hour traffic and banking and budgeting and grappling with co-workers and bills and housework and relatives and car repairs and illness to give you peace of mind for your creative work -- which obviously will not happen -- do whatever is necessary to get that tranquillity.

The best way to do this is to economize on time by getting in the mood while you work on other things. Do some of the more basic preliminary things, like preparing paints, retyping or revising things, or any other routine task that can turn your mind towards the project without itself requiring a great deal of inspiration initially. Better yet, learn to do boring, repetitive tasks in a new spirit: instead of letting dishes or shaving or driving grind you down, use them to enter a calm, meditative state, which boredom and repetition are a preliminary to (it tires the totalitarian, linear right brain into relaxing its grip, allowing the more holistic, creative left brain a chance). I once knew a writer, a single guy rooming with other bachelors, who would volunteer to tackle a several-days' worth mountain of dishes, as he found this got him in the mood for writing. I have also seen a number of poems containing meditations when shaving.

By the time you are ready for your own work, you will be already in the right state of mind. Some ways of making this work are: have music playing; avoid saying anything to anyone (speech shifts you back to the right brain); volunteer for any job, no matter how awful, that will enable you to get away from verbalizing. Seek out repetition: one foot in front of the other, one dish after another, one stitch after another, rhythmic physical motions, music, no words, no rush, no jerky breaks, flowing with whatever comes up.

Do as much work in your head as possible: draw with your eyes, memorize objects and ideas, write in your head and make notes whenever you can. Do as much preliminary work as possible outside whatever precious work time you can scrounge up for yourself. Remember times things have worked for you, and try to repeat the circumstances; imitate people who are able to work under adverse conditions; be around people and things that inspire you, and try to de-emphasize whatever draining influences you cannot avoid outright.

Regardless of anything else, impossible or not, make some token effort to begin work again. No doubt there is no time or money available, but if you move ahead first, time will move back to give you room, and the money will slowly appear. People see you doing without, and give you useful things they no longer want, or offer to commission something from you. Your family will see you are serious, and will no longer be so suspicious that if they extend themselves to let time or money flow your way that you will just waste it. Opportunities will present themselves in the environment; people will come out of the woodwork to offer encouragement and support; you yourself will begin to see windows in the structure of your life where before there seemed to be only brick walls.

Christians are used to calling this process "stepping out in faith," though I've also heard it referred to as "setting things in motion," or "getting the ball rolling" -- though I prefer the idea of stepping out in faith, myself, because it implies that one has that "substance of things hoped for, [that] assurance of things not seen" that you don't find in the other expressions. I believe it expresses a human, psychological truth.

That inner, intuitive sense of movement towards your goal often, at first, flies in the face of an unchanged exterior world. At times, when that inner sense is missing, and everything appears to fall into a dead stop, it helps just to do something towards your goal anyway. Just believe your actions will bring results, regardless of the way things seem at the outset. See it as a simple challenge to your nerves, and don't be surprised or discouraged. There is a phenomenon I have also noticed, that often, at first, when you are determined, and make the first steps, or reach a crucial place in your task, the universe will turn against you, and throw everything at you, trying to stop you. Relatives fall ill, you lose your job, equipment breaks down -- but look at it this way: if everything is trying so hard to stop you, you must be on the right track. Push on.

Ultimately, you must restructure your life now in small (and some not-so-small) ways, so it is not always an uphill battle. When you have begun to work again, the most obvious obstacles will become apparent: the next task is to figure out how to eliminate them or diminish their effect. If time is a problem, you can review your other activities, make better use of "waiting time," lunch hours, time on public transit, and TV time, or get help from someone else to get yourself some time off.

If the problem is money, another "solution" often presents itself: try to do a commercial version of your craft, which will provide a rationale for making your work a priority. This is a tricky maneuver, in practice, since the paid work is often so far away from the work you want to do that it can itself take up the time you want for your own creative work, while everyone refuses to help you, since they think you're lucky for being able to do it at all. Those I have known who have succeeded this way have used the commercial work an exercise of skill, constantly learning new tricks and techniques, flexing their muscles, and amassing a portfolio of impressive work. In other words, they make the paid work as creative and personal as they can, even if it means going the extra mile. Ultimately, though, they have to refuse commercial work when they are in the thick of a project of their own: most people, realistically, just don't have the juice to do both.

In an earlier version of this article, I said there is no Muse like hunger; however, after having tried it, I have come to the conclusion that, for me at least, Hunger is a rough taskmaster: it is certainly no Muse. Some people can actually sweat out a book or a painting when the rent is due and the cupboard is bare; others stare ahead at impending disaster like a deer on the highway, watching the headlights draw near. I am one of the latter.

There are many things you can do to get back into working, other than wait until you have that mysteriously ideal setup you may never see. Myself, I have written this to remind myself once again of the deadliness of not working, in the hope that it will keep the possibilities before my mind, and encourage me to keep on.

Though I first wrote this article ten years ago, I have since found a couple of books with good advice on this topic: an old one, "Wake Up and Live!" by Dorothea Brande (Simon and Schuster, 1936, Pocket Books, 1939), and a new one, "It's About Time! The 6 Styles of Procrastination and How to Overcome them," by Dr. Linda Sapadin with Jack Maguire (Viking Press, 1996). One caution, however: reading about procrastination can sometimes be another way to avoid doing something. If this article is enough of a kick in the pants, spend the time you would have spent reading the books in doing your own work. If you need a more powerful jump start, by all means, read them, then get on with it. Whatever you do, don't wallow. This is where it helps to know productive people: they'll smarten you up if you drift back into your old ways (and I am really talking to myself here!).

The key is yourself. If you are waiting for anything, stop. Do what is possible now, regardless. If what you want comes along, you can take advantage of it, knowing you've kept on going in the meantime. Essentially, the best time is right now. "If only I had a..." -- what? A desire to work under any adversity, remembering that creative work for an artist in any field is as essential as food or sleep. Happiness, mental health itself, depends on your continuing to work. You need it like a diabetic needs insulin, and you have a right to it.

If I can practice this long enough for it to become second nature, I hope to graduate from the ranks of the dilettante or amateur (one who "takes delight" or "loves," with the implication of working only when it is easy and fun), to that of a professional, one who simply -- without explanation or excuse -- works.

© 1987, Carin Perron
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