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The Opposite of Digging
Yesterday I was texting with a writer friend about the struggle to fill the creative well. I said, “I feel like I’m at the bottom and now I’m just digging in the dirt with both hands.” I don’t know why I can’t stop digging. It doesn’t feel frantic, necessarily, this action, but it’s all I know how to do. If you’re like me — and I suspect this newsletter is for the diggers — you don’t always know how to just stop, dust yourself off, and take a break from it. Even though you absolutely have to stop at some point if you ever want to refill that goddamn well.
This morning I went for a walk with intention of figuring out a few things to say on this topic. I am not an expert by any means, but I know where to look for help. One of the things I wanted to direct you to was my friend Rob Walker’s newsletter, The Art of Noticing, and the companion book, both of which are chock full of ideas to stimulate creativity and inspiration, and are absolutely incredible resources. Much of what Rob does is suggest ways for people to notice things, how to keep an eye out, how to access your regular world in new and unusual ways. This line of thinking is particularly relevant these days, as we walk the same streets again and again.
And then lo and behold I ran into Rob on my walk!
The two of us were both out there in the early morning, in the beautiful New Orleans fall, trying to get our blood flowing, our minds loose and easy. We talked about a wonderful ferry ride he had taken the weekend before. He gave my dog a pat on the head. And I told him I had been thinking about how to fill the well, how to write about it anyway. He nodded, added a few ideas of his own, told me a story about old cookbooks, nudging me in a direction.
It reminded me of some things I’ve found on the street these past few months, including several abandoned notebooks, and also some photos, snapshots, some posed studio pics. The notebooks are all written by seemingly young people, nameless to me, and in equal parts they express anxiety about relationships and work. (This is where I’m supposed to say, “It gets better,” but I cannot guarantee it.) I found a handwritten resume, too, full of service industry jobs across America.
At some point I recognized they were all showing up for a reason and I started to put them together in a small pile. I suppose I get some sort of energy from this collection, and it makes me feel excited that it exists, and that I can keep adding to it, even if I don’t plan on actually doing anything with it. I think more than anything it is about looking for patterns in things, even it’s just me assigning the coincidences meaning. (This is all we do as artists anyway: assign meaning to things.) There’s something about keeping your eye out, choosing to keep your eye out anyway, that feels empowering and energizing. “Today I will see the world in a different way,” is a thing I have said to myself.
Rob and I talked a little bit about books given away on stoops or on street corners. He suggested people pick up books that aren’t in their wheelhouse and take them home. “Yes! I do this all the time,” I said. It’s worth it to stop and just flip through the pages of a book even if it’s not something you would necessarily want to read, I added. I feel like we were both thinking of the idea of “weird old books” which is sort of vague, but I bet you know exactly what I mean.
And then it was time for him to continue on his journey, and he was off, down toward the levee, across the bridge, to his home. My mind was a little sharper because of it. A five minute chat on a street corner. Rob has a remarkable ability to take a conversation, just some casual street chat, and help shape it into specific and unexpected ideas.
All of this happened before 9 am. Out in the world.
The other suggestion I was formulating this morning, before I ran into Rob, had something to do with writing a supportive or admiring letter to a peer about their work. I had written one just yesterday to a friend, had sat down and thought about what I enjoyed about their work, and just the formulation of the note, picking out things I liked about what he was doing, forced my brain in a different direction. And it wasn’t about my well; it was about theirs. Perhaps it was the only way to stop the digging for a second.
And now I’ve done it again. Do check out Rob’s work.
Good luck, diggers.
You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans.