This post is a re-print from my monthly column on creative practice at NicoleDieker.com.
My word for this year is Listen.
Almost the moment I settled on this word, it began to resonate in ways I did not expect. It turns out that if you are focused on listening, just about anything will come to you with a message. Including things that are traditionally classified in my language as inanimate — for example, creative projects.
I choose a word every year, somewhere in the long new year season that begins at October’s end. In fact I don’t choose my word; I let it come to me. How does this work? I don’t know. Intuition. Listening. (That’s right: my present word is deeply meta.) If you pay attention — and you get a bit of a bonus when you have experience to apply to that attention — you’ll know when you’ve got the right word.
The element you don’t have to know is why. Part of the magic — part of the utility — of having a year-word is letting is surprise you as the year unfolds.
Which is what happened to me when my new writing project refused midstream to become aproject at all.
I think of creative projects like this: “self-directed, long-term generative exercise[s] with a unifying theme or goal. Installments are done at regular, pre-determined intervals. They’re published as I go, creating accountability for myself, and allowing for outside participation.” This definition derives from experience, and attention to that experience. But maybe in this case I’ve been letting Experience pull ahead of Attention, when really they function best as equal partners.
Per Experience, I had outlined themes, goals, intervals, accountability, and outside participation for what I was calling The SW Portland Pilgrimage Project. Themes and goals went swimmingly in practice: there were long walks across places I’d never met. My mental map of my own city filled in appreciably. I savored the parks, the views, the wayfinding, the jaywalking, the iffy interstices and the ugly edges. Every day I got to spend on the trail was a great day.
The writing part, though: the writing was hard. This should have been my first clue. But I wasn’t listening.
The pre-writing involved taking notes as I walked — not an unusual practice for me. But this time, it was a slog. Even as I cataloged thoughts, I got impatient. I felt rushed. Those feelings kept surfacing, because I kept ignoring them.
The drafting involved — again, per Experience — sitting down as soon as possible to turn my notes into prose. I got anxious and annoyed when I found that this, too, was a slog. Technically, the write-ups I produced are fine: they’re well-written, they’re on-theme, they’re interesting. But they lack the spark that animates all good writing. I tried and failed to strike that spark six times.
The presentation involved figuring out a way to model (specifically, to map, in the sense of mind-mapping) my pilgrimage. I spent whole days on this, hitting conceptual and then technical barriers that became — instead of puzzles to solve — monsters to slay. I was angry. I was staying up way past my bedtime. I was bursting into tears over bad search functionality in support forums. The message, at this point, was coming in loud and clear, and I finally listened. This is not a project.
Projects are a lens. Or a model, if you like, or a tool. A particular way of engaging curiously with the world. Using this tool has helped me accomplish goals, inhabit new ideas, meet people, play more, and become more myself. You can see why I love it — and why, perhaps, I’m liable to approach every problem or interest or idea with a project designed to explore and illuminate it. Suddenly I’m remembering that old saying about hammers and nails.
The SW Portland pilgrimage continues. The moment I struck that word project, the pilgrimage part took its rightful place at the heart. The walking — a practice, not an analysis, of attention, locality, & fidelity — became, as it was meant to be, the purpose of the undertaking.
I love writing. I love creating an interaction point for my online community. Those are both things projects love too. They are not what this pilgrimage wanted to be about. I was trying to analyze before the experience had time to even happen, let alone to settle. I was trying to communicate it out without absorbing it myself. I was intellectualizing something fundamentally mysterious, materializing something fundamentally spiritual, and publicizing something fundamentally private.
Sometimes you come up with a good idea, and you’re wrong about it.
Listen to the idea along the way, because it’s telling you how it wants to be shaped. It’s telling you if you’re bending it a direction that will only break. This is not the end of the idea, even if you do break it. You get a choice now: adjust, have faith, and accept the opportunity to cultivate patience. Or, lament the time and the effort “wasted,” and keeping trying to hammer that thing that’s not a nail.
Fiction writers talk about this with character and plot: how they can’t make a character do anything, or the story will stall; how characters, once given life, expect a say in it. When Elizabeth Gilbert was interviewed for On Being, she talked about how ideas have lives of their own, how they actively partner with us to become incarnate.
All of this sounds a little magical and fuzzy for our technically-advanced, bottom-line society. For me, to be awkwardly honest. But I don’t have to — I don’t get to — believe in it. It’s there to be experienced, and I just have, again. The mystical-sounding thing we call intuition is really just those two partners I was talking about earlier: Experience and Attention, pulling in tandem.
So here I am, paying attention, applying my experience. Listening.