Opening to the Creative Process
This page is part of the creativity series, based on my book Grain of Truth. Each of these pages explores one aspect of the creative process: opening, grounding, inspiration, stillness, difficulty, joy, illumination, and the journey. View the introductory page for some context, or access any of the pages via the main Creativity category listing. Additionally, related pages are shown at the bottom of every page in the series.
I step off the gravel path, here where the shimmering summer air gives way to a darker quiet in the forest. A woodpecker perches on a nearby cedar, its rhythmic tock echoing clearly through the trees. Beyond the threshold where ragged path meets forest floor, the shaded ground is littered with dry branches of birch, fir, and alder. Some are bright white, the bark still lustrous and pristine. Others have lain here since spring and are now mottled and dark, the wood beneath the skin graying as it reaches toward the soil.
This is a dangerous place. Each year a few of these birches rot away, fall toward the ground, and are hung up by companion trees. They lean precariously onto slim branches, easily dislodged by wind and rain and simple decay. I have recently removed such a deadfall, nudging it from its delicate position above the cabin and guiding it to where it fell within inches of the garden swing. Its shattered trunk still lies across the front lawn.
In this grove, tucked alongside the winding path and unhindered by human concerns, the trees grow recklessly, large and small tight together, the high canopy a mix of massive cottonwoods and tough, scrubby fir. The forest floor is knee-deep with sharp sticks, dry leaves, and hidden holes shaped by the unseen forces of this place. I move slowly in my bare feet, scanning the ground for branches about as thick as my index finger, newly fallen wood that I can use for handles on the cabinet I’ve built. They must be just right: long enough to offer six or eight inches of clear grain, neither too thick nor too straight. I wade farther out, back toward the rear fence that I can just make out, its posts blending into the surrounding landscape after thirty years of confident neglect. I gradually gather a collection of contenders as I go, meandering through the landscape, eyes softly focused. I want the forest to offer up the pieces, to point them out to me as gifts. I don’t want to be a thief here.
After a quiet half hour I have twenty pieces tucked under my arm. I’m about ready to turn back when I come across a long, graceful branch of uniform thickness, larger than I can use yet beautifully curved and elegant. Its white bark is flecked with amber streaks, the signs of initial decay layering the surface with a variety of color and texture it had never known on the limb. The long fall from the body of the tree, the separation from unity, has given this branch, as it does so many things, a glow of intensity. Loss brings out its depth.
The shape of the branch, the way it sweeps smoothly along its length, suggests a myriad of uses in furniture building. I could simply cut it to length for one of my projects, leaving the bark intact as an unusual decorative element. In woodworking there’s so much emphasis on refining the wood, making it clear and straight, hiding its diversity with finishes, that such a piece, unaltered and innocent, would be highly effective. I imagine a Windsor chair with a set of traditional spindles flanking a central rear column of unworked birch, its white and russet tones a fluid pillar.
I pick up the longer piece and bundle it with the rest, my small collection growing more unwieldy. As I move back toward the cabin in a wide arc across the forest floor, I see other shapes, other forms in the fallen wood: the curve of a table rail, a knothole shaped like a whimsical recessed drawer pull, the twisted finials of imaginal bedposts. This is where creative work starts for me – with openness, a sense of possibility, an invitation earned through quiet rambling, and a willingness to start with nothing. It doesn’t often stay this way, but the beginning is always a kind of wonder.
I return to the rough lawn above the beach and lay the pieces out, looking for the best match for my cabinet handles. It’s now late in the afternoon, and clouds above the distant western hills glow as the sun descends behind them. A band of deeper orange almost the color of ripe peaches spreads in a fringe across the lower reaches. The forest fire of two weeks ago has left a wake of ash in the air, drawing deep hues of rich, lambent color from the sky.
My two-year-old son, Avery, waddles up from his collection of sand toys and picks up one of the sticks I’ve collected, thwarting my efforts at neat organization. I want a row, a clean row of twenty pieces arranged by length and by character that I can winnow down to two or three finalists. Avery inspects the stick, looks for something in it to hold his attention, becomes indifferent almost immediately and tosses it behind him. I retrieve the discarded piece and reposition it, only to find he’s dislodged another. We go around in this way for a few frustrating minutes. Eventually I convince him that holding on to one piece and sitting beside me on the lawn is a better alternative than banishment to the cabin.
There’s wind on the lake now, a squall that kicks up tiny whitecaps. Not the whitecaps of the sea, their ragged momentum driving a head of foam six or ten or twenty feet across a swell deep enough to swallow a dinghy: what we used to call a choppy sea. No, these whitecaps are only a few inches high, a foot at best. Their quick, darting motions fizzle in the flattening wind. A squall like this can come and go in twenty minutes, though I’ve seen it gust strongly enough to bring down large cedars on the shore. Today the wind is only playing. By the time I got out there with the windsurfer, the breeze would be gone and I’d be left balancing on quiet water, waiting for a little gust, tugging the sail toward me in a slow rhythm trying to make my own air. It looks enticing out there, just enough wind, but I can sense that it’s ephemeral, a ghost on the water, something to draw me in and leave me awash in my own enthusiasm.
I return my attention to the wood on the grass and begin to select those pieces that looked promising in the forest but now, under the stronger light of the shore, don’t seem right. Too thin. Beginning to rot on the underside. Too many sharp branch ends. Too straight, like a machined dowel. Eventually I find two that seem ideal. Both are dry enough that the light bark flakes off easily, revealing clear yet varied grain beneath. They have a slight curvature, an undulation that runs through them almost like a wave, twisting them slightly along their length.
I clean off the residue of bark carefully from the surface of the wood. Then, taking one of my carving knives, the one with the pau ferro handle and a blade that reminds me of a raven’s beak, I carefully slice through one of the pieces in two spots, leaving a trimmed length of about six inches. Measuring against the first piece, I select the most promising section of the second and cut it to a matching length. I now have the beginning of two handles: sinuous pulls that will gently arch out from the cabinet face and invite the hand.
I retrieve my portable drill from the cabin, banging the screen door on my way in and out, and drill two small holes about the diameter of a pencil partway through each handle. The holes are an inch or so in from each end and will house the pegs, or tenons, connecting the handles to the cabinet. Next I choose one of the smaller discard pieces, trim off four short sections and carve them to fit snugly into the handle holes, leaving protruding ends to fit matching holes in the cabinet face.
Carving of this kind, where small parts are involved, requires a specific posture and manner of holding the knife. I’m not whittling, slicing the blade away from my body as I used to do when I was a kid with my Swiss army knife before I lost it through a hole in the dock at Jericho Beach. That approach allows the blade to follow the direction of the wood’s grain, digging too deep or skating and rattling off the surface. I’m using a different strategy here. I wrap my fingers gently but snugly around the handle of the knife; the blade extends beyond the edge of my index finger. My thumb is held firmly away from the blade, almost as though I were hitchhiking but with the thumb pointed toward my chest rather than upward. My palm faces down and my wrist is turned slightly outward. This hand position allows the blade to be drawn along the wood toward my body; my thumb and index finger rest on the surface and move together, the distance between them constant. Before I learned to carve in the manner I now prefer, what woodworkers call a chip-carving approach, I would fix my thumb in place on the wood and use it as a lever to draw the blade toward me, trying to stop the cut before it reached my thumb but seduced by the fact that I achieved maximum leverage as the blade approached my skin. I have scars on the thumb of my left hand as souvenirs of that potato-peeling approach. Today I use my arm and shoulder as a lever to pull the blade firmly and exactly through the wood, using my hand as a natural jig to hold the tool. My knife is at least as sharp as a razor and I am able to shave off the wood in clean, precise increments. It takes only a few minutes, paring and then checking the fit of a piece in its intended hole – its mortise – to shape all the pieces so they fit fully together with moderate pressure.
I inspect all the pieces once again, looking for anything I’ve missed. I trim a couple of rough spots where tiny buds had once grown through the pores of the wood. When everything seems ready, I place a dab of glue in the handle holes and gently tap the tenons home. It’s a snug fit. Even without glue the joints would be tight, but this is newly fallen wood I’m working with, green wood, and it will contract slightly as moisture is drawn out of it by the warmer air in the cabin. In six months the tenons will have lost a few thousandths of an inch in diameter, enough for a quick tug to loosen them in their mortises. The glue is necessary to lock them in place, to fill all the spaces inside the joint.
I’m always panicky with glue. I routinely apply too much, and excess oozes out of the joints. I can never quite convince myself that a little goes a long way, even with the expanding super-strength glue I use. I worry, imagining I’ll starve the joint by making insufficient contact with the glue across the surface area of the wood. I suspect my worrying is unnecessary, indulgent, irrational. Yet I spend many familiar hours cleaning up dried glue on most of my projects. Sometimes I apply wax to the sections I don’t want the oozing glue to penetrate. This helps quite a bit, but getting the wax off can be a chore, too; as with the glue, I usually slather it on with excessive enthusiasm.
I manage to be confident about the fit of these joints and resist the temptation to apply more glue than necessary. After a few minutes, when the glue has begun to expand inside the pieces, I notice with gratitude that none is spilling out. At least I won’t have to clean up glue today.
The distant clouds shine with indigo and light the landscape with an amethyst hue. I can see clearly my favorite patch of open green near the summit of a far-off hill. I gaze up there quite a bit on summer days, wondering what’s on that hill. It could be a clear-cut, a farm, a pasture. But I’ve always imagined it to be a secret field of possibility, a pristine and inviting territory where I might find all the vanished creatures of the earth. It seems so distant, an emerald glistening far up the slope of a verdant landscape. Yet at times I can almost make out shapes moving up there: peacocks and monkeys and Bengal tigers, white owls and speckled deer and something else I can’t quite see. A chimera, a dancing fire, light playing in the darkness. Perhaps it’s a dragon. The wind often blows from that direction.
I pick up Avery, my drill, and the two completed handles and head inside. The cabinet that waits to receive the handles is actually a large, floor-mounted cupboard. Elizabeth has been calling it a broom closet. I object to this on the principle that it offends my sensibilities as a craftsman. I am not a handyman, I tell her. I am not interested in the fact that the cabinet is in the shape of a small closet and has been designed to hold brooms. I’d rather be stubborn and preserve my imagined dignity than give in to the obvious.
The cabinet stands in the kitchen where the refrigerator used to be, filling the gap left when renovations required we move the refrigerator across the room. It has been painted the same loden green as the rest of the kitchen cabinets, some of which I made. Others were built thirty years ago by friends of Elizabeth’s family, craftsmen who came out here from Kamloops on weekends, in the spirit of friendly reciprocity, and using only hand tools constructed the entire building. It’s not an ambitious building, just a few hundred square feet of cinder block, tongue-and-groove fir paneling, and a roof buttressed by modest beams. Yet the collaborative endeavor of those many friends in this quiet place reflects a community sentiment and family connection that one rarely sees anymore.
Elizabeth and I joke that a true friend is someone you’d ask to help you move. Those craftsmen, first-generation immigrants from Italy, spent countless hours out here working, laughing, taking the time to build a welcoming cabin with a central, massive, magnificent brick fireplace. In that fireplace we can build bonfires the size of those we see other people making on the beach. Who among us in the city has such friends?
I never knew most of the people who populate the first stories of this place. Yet I feel intimately connected to them when I come across faded pencil marks on top of a beam or feel my way through the wiring system, sensing why a junction box is here, not farther along where it seems it should be but right here, above where the space heater was supposed to go but was never installed. There are stories about the windows, how difficult they were to install, and about how Elizabeth’s grandfather worked with the cinder blocks. I find small clues to these stories as I work, stumbling upon oddities or faint signs of another’s hand.
A familiar mood of belonging, of place, sweeps forward from what has gone before and moves through me, holding me within its wide grasp. I continue the work of connection and community that was started before me, guided by the invisible hands of those who first made this place a haven of lasting beauty and solace. I have been drawn gently but irrevocably into their circle, and by continuing the modest vision laid down with the first shale walkway tiles I acknowledge them as among my truest ancestors.
I carefully drill two sets of holes in the cabinet doors to hold the handles. I do this by eye, without measuring to see if they’re exactly aligned. I tell myself my skills are so refined that I have no use for levels and tape measures, but the truth is that I’m excited to see the handles in place and my toolbox is inconveniently across the room. After applying just a little bit of glue to the holes – it seems like too little – I push the handles into their mortises, locking them into place. I pause, relaxing with the satisfaction of a completed job, even a small job like this, which keeps me tensely alert until I’m done.
I step back for a final look. No gaps or twists are visible in any of the joints. Now Elizabeth comes over for her ritual inspection. This always worries me; her inspections are a true test of a project. She often sees things I’ve missed, and it’s no surprise when she comments that one handle is slightly lower than the other. Looking closely, I can see the imbalance as well, but the gentle curve and irregularity of the handles makes the misalignment subtle; it could have been intentional. I offer my traditional response to my oversights and blunders: “It’s a design element.” “Yes,” she says, “I was sure that’s what it was.”
I began coming to this place fourteen years ago, when I first met Elizabeth. We spent a week in late August playing backgammon on the beach and watching hawks in the nearby trees. In those days the cabin had fallen into neglect: ants had burrowed holes through the roof and the smell of damp pervaded the rooms. The mesh on the screen door failed to keep the mosquitoes out. There were still plums in the garden, and even though the stream that once ran along the edge of the property had long since dried up and moose no longer followed it down to the shore in the early mornings, their great antlers dipping in the cool waters as they drank, the place retained its wonder.
During those first few years we cleaned things up, organizing and tidying and trying to find which of the air mattresses was still serviceable. As time went on we began to tackle more ambitious projects: painting, new floor coverings, a kitchen renovation. Each year we’d spend the bulk of our two-or-three-week holiday fixing, modifying, repairing. We’ve done quite a bit by now, and as the next generation of children begins to find resonance with this place, its renewal seems like a fine endeavor indeed. The work has been an initiation for me, a sustained immersion in the life of a family that I slowly grew to know, an awakening into lasting relationship and an invocation of my desire for a richer life, an invocation that at times I was utterly unaware I was making. My work here, my faithful absorption in the tasks of rebuilding a place of respite, has led me into the heart of Elizabeth’s family and has ushered me, not always gently, toward a larger sense of what it means to be awake, to be alive.
From where I’m standing beside the newly finished cabinet I can see out the front window, the one that still has masking tape around the sill where Elizabeth’s sister began, but didn’t complete, a new coat of paint. The tape is stuck firmly now, its adhesive cured by months of exposure to the warm air. Someone will have to get in there with a razor knife – that task and countless others are on the long list we keep on the fireplace mantel. The whitecaps are still out there, their dark bellies and white foam heads like small dragons undulating across the water. I think of Ogopogo, the great serpent that is said to haunt the deep waters of the lake over the hills from where we are. Towels on the clothesline strung between two trees out front are beginning to loosen as the wind whips them, their designs like emblematic prayer flags repeatedly curled and then flattened, the wind speaking its own sign language.
This property lies just over an hour’s drive east and north of Kamloops, British Columbia. It’s situated near the end of the paved road, in the crescent of a wide bay where Canada geese pause each autumn to collect themselves for the long journey south. Ten minutes down the road the pavement gives way to oiled gravel that wends forty miles farther into territory rising in a series of steppes toward the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The air here possesses a clear ring, as though a distant bell has been struck and now trembles softly, just beyond the threshold of hearing.
We often ride our bikes up the road past green fields to where a shallow stream washes over stones caressed smooth by time, their surfaces diverse with the music of color. Black stones, jet black, collect in pools along the shore. Azure and emerald veins run like sinew through boulders on the streambed. Countless glittering eyes of granite stare out from dark niches with implacable clarity. Sometimes we find tiny pink stones, as though a nomadic coral has accompanied the salmon who come to spawn, and has preserved the death hue of that indomitable fish in its own deathless heart.
I’ve always wondered where the stream leads as it wanders back into the country of the unseen. I imagine the colors we find in the stones merging together at a source deep in the mountain, the waters reaching toward the formless where wind also begins. Toward what the ancient Taoist sages called Wu Chi, the primordial creative genesis of all things. Those sages lived in places like this, doing simple physical work, dedicating themselves to the elemental creative force of Tao, whose message they heard on the wind. Taoist philosophy is imbued with countless tales of them: holy men and prophets and healers of the most profound and simple character. The breadth of their wisdom is astounding, from medicine and geomancy to poetry and cosmology. Their tradition still shapes, after 5,000 years, much of Asian culture. The archetypal trigrams, images that represent the timeless shapes of life energy, are their creation.
Those ancestral teachers, shrouded in mystery and separated from us by an abyss of time, frequented specific sites of sacred contemplation – mountain abodes or valley shrines – where they anchored their esoteric pursuits in the rituals of daily life. It was always from a secure foundation that they leapt into the unknown. Thus, in a discourse on working with the initiatory energy of wind, the Taoist I Ching confirms “it is beneficial to have somewhere to go.” A place of solace and refuge. A ground that nurtures, that offers a larger purpose, the way the forest offered the cabinet handles.
The wind moves upon the water, leading me outside to where the ropes of the hammock have started to loosen from the bole of a broad cedar. The swish of twisted strands in the wind shows me where to tie the new knot. The warmth of evening drifts toward the cabin as the breeze meanders through cottonwoods on the shore. The day slows. By nightfall stillness will take possession of this place. Even so, a trunk will creak, wavelets will ripple onto the shore, leaves shimmering in the dark will hum a melody just beyond catching. In the grove out back, the slanting sun shoots dark, amber rays across the white trunks of birch trees. A leaf skitters briefly across the slate tiles of the patio, comes to rest, slides scratchily again, pauses, then resumes its slow dance toward the beach.