A Creative Essay
“See this piece of clay,” Mrs. Aarden said to the children on the Monday of Kindergarten art class, holding up a fist-sized mound of oily brown modeling clay. “Hiding inside is a dinosaur waiting to come out. You don’t even know what kind of dinosaur it is, but the clay knows.”
“Or it’s a snake,” said Indira, who had rolled her clay into three long curvy slices on the art table. She picked up one piece and waved it in the air, pretending to frighten Jake, who had pushed other boys away to sit next to her.
“Or a dragon,” said Jake, who wanted to show he was better at ideas than Indira.
“Or nothing,” said Lamar, who was angry because Jake took the seat next to Indira, and he did not see himself as ever good at art projects, and he was afraid to fail, and be embarrassed in front of others.
This is exactly how I feel every time I face a blank page. I think I’ll never be able to discover another story. But I kept these thoughts to myself. This was Mrs. Aarden’s class, and my job was volunteer aid.
Mrs. Aarden nodded, agreeing with the children. “When you start to excavate, uncover, chip away at it, mold it, sculpt it,” she said, her eyes dreamy, unfocused, as if she had turned inward, remembering her own dinosaurs, “you have some idea, but you never know what you will find, because it goes its own way, it meanders here or there, unexpectedly, or a piece falls off revealing a wing instead of a tail, or the top half refuses to be a mermaid, or the way it warmed in your hand determined from the beginning it was never going to be a stegosaurus, it was going to be an angel.”
My subconscious is like that piece of clay, a fist-sized mound in my gut, waiting to be exposed, wanting out, wanting excavation, but holding its secrets. I become a child, looking at it, facing its complexities. And how I feel on that day, at that moment, might prevent the dig, like a sudden storm interferes with the uncovering of the ancient treasures at the archaeological site.
There’s a perfect example. That metaphor—it meandered, from molding clay to searching for dinosaur bones in the ground. First it was an art project, now it’s a dig. I try to stay open to inconsistencies, synergies, connections. I go on with the digging.
Morning is the best time for me to excavate. Every morning my body re-sets, after it sleeps and heals, like the sun, every morning, rises. With the colors of pink, red, flame orange, and with her clouds dipping their edges into the palette of blue-green sky- paint, the blinding bright sliver of round light slides up from the horizon behind the shape of trees. As the sun star holds me in her “great hands of light,” I hear the poet Mary Oliver singing.
On waking I am the new person I have become. I turn to the empty page, looking inside me, waiting for it to reveal.
Warning. Like staring directly at the sun hurts the eyes, it can hurt to look directly at the subconscious. Or another way of saying it, if I’m not slightly uncomfortable about it, or embarrassed to show the neighbors, or find myself not being honest, not telling the whole story, or not saying what I really got out of it, or what I really stole, or harmed, or meant to harm, or not saying who I loved and why, or not facing that I too once slapped my child, if I’m not being brutally honest, well, it’s bound to be a morning of a bowl-gray sky, with no sunrise, with no variety, ultimately, blank. Eyes down. Pen still.
The dig finds no artifacts at the expected location.
On good mornings, the best mornings, the words land on the page running. Sounds leap off their consonants in song. Vowels kiss each other with expectation, like first lovers. Fresh images release their emotional juice slowly, like each sweet ripe red Cara Cara in the breakfast juicer releases its complex flavors of raspberry, cherry, rose. The story comes alive so strongly, I can smell the flavor of it coming off the page.
But, alas, it’s half-baked. Or half-dug. Or not even half.
On thinking about it, all day, as I go about my business, filing out the tax form, or calling the plumber, or walking in the park, I realize I only have the first layer. These people on the page, they need names. My main character—is she a Mary, or Jasmine, or Rosa, or Leah, or Dolores, or LaDonna? Her name speaks of her ethnicity, her religion, her features, her hair, her eyes, her breasts, even the pink bottoms of her black feet, if her white lover likes to caress them.
What about her work? Is she trapped in a meaningless job answering phones on a complaint line? Does she deliver for the post office? Does she research coral reefs? What about her history? Is she an immigrant? Was her great-great grandmother a slave? Is she adopted? What does she carry when she leaves the house; does she have a huge bag full of makeup, Kleenex, hand sanitizer, lip gloss, aspirin, a flashlight, a quirky old fondu pot she found at the antique store? Or does she leave with only her house key and phone tucked into her yoga pant pocket? Does she suffer micro-aggressions against women in silence or does she speak up every time? What is it about her that cries out to be told?
This is the day-work. It’s gathering the tools, the shovel, a trowel, the rake, a delicate brush. It’s looking for the soft ground, or the odd mound, the thing that won’t let go, that begs to be discovered, to be let out, to be explained. The day work is also reading, reading for joy, and reading like a writer, to learn craft. On this day I read “Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell. Her voice stays with me. She writes about the unexpected death of a beloved son. “Never for a moment forget they may be gone, snatched from you, in the blink of an eye, borne away from you like thistledown.”
When ready to sleep, I turn my mind once again to the dig, to the story, to the characters, to the Muse. I ask her to help me access the mystery. Then I close my eyes, hearing borne away from you like thistledown, and I let go.
In the dream a scent comes to me. The scent of White Linen, my mother’s perfume. She’s been dead for ten years, but I see her face clearly. I visit her last home, the retirement room with her four-poster bed, a family heirloom, in the corner. She wears her blue velvet opera dress ready to go out. She reaches out for me to hold her hand, as she walks to the door, to steady her, but, oddly, I refuse. I remember the feeling of her warm hand in mine, her middle finger bent from Dupuytren’s syndrome. In the dream I refuse to take her hand and she falls.
They say dreams come in service of health. I recognize a warning from the feeling of shame I have on waking. I have unfinished business with my mother.
I read on the internet: “When digging or excavating in your yard, a potential hazard may exist because your utilities may have underground equipment installed relatively close to the surface.”
There should be a warning. “When digging or excavating in your subconscious, you may discover conflict, pain, suffering, a moment of shame that undoes you for days.”
In the morning, I write. I find my way into the story through the scent. White Linen. As I dig deeper, I uncover the moment, the moment of conflict on which the story turns. The character, Spenser (“dispenser of provisions”), has unfinished business with her mother, Faith (“fully anticipating it to happen”).
Shoveling. Digging into the dark hole. Every day, another layer.
I begin to see pieces of the treasure: the themes, what their story is about, where it wants to go. The treasure is visible, but it is full of dirt, grime, or hard clay from years in the soil. It begs for cleaning, for a power-wash with humility, gratitude, awe.
What happens next? Does Faith die? Is she snatched away from Spenser in the blink of an eye, like Hamnet was borne away from his parents? I am consumed with finding out, in the zone, oblivious to the tax form, forgetting lunch, breathing inside the story.
More shoveling. Returning to work. Showing up. Persevering. Another layer. Excitement builds.
The next day, more is revealed. Faith does die, leaving Spenser broken, full of regrets, unable to forgive herself. I feel tears coming as I write the words, words that seem to come from somewhere else. The sadness overwhelms me. This guilt will haunt Spenser for years. I search for the words that will deliver this daughter’s need for peace in that important last sentence. I write what I think is the end.
But it is not the end.
My drafts, of which there are many, need a huge amount of editing. The story will evolve through this work, the deepening knowledge and respect for each character, the reading aloud of every word, the considering of active verbs, of varied sentence structure, of order of paragraphs, punctuation.
That evening, while listening to a favorite recording of Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma, I cook my mother’s Chili. The aroma of her Chili wraps around me, holding me in my mother’s warm embrace. I hear her voice reminding me not to forget to add a dash of sugar, her secret ingredient.
In the morning, I look at the story again. I find another small treasure, lurking there at the bottom of the whole (interesting that word choice: “hole” or “whole”); it’s ready to be dusted off with the delicate brush. As she cooks dinner, Spenser hears her mother’s voice, reminding her to add the pinch of brown sugar.
In Mrs. Aarden’s art class, on the next day, she asked the children to find a seat next to someone new, someone they did not sit next to yesterday. She suggested that Lamar sit next to Indira, making them a good example of what she meant. She said that moving to a different place, looking at things from a different angle, doing something unexpected, something new, perhaps slightly scary, can help them uncover their dinosaur and let him out.
Lamar sits next to Indira; he wears a big smile.
When the story is the best I can write, I give it to my writing group, or to a writer-friend, to someone who did not sit next to it for ages, to someone who can look at it from a different perspective, to someone I trust who can tell me if I found my dinosaur—or a dragon, or a snake—or an angel in a blue velvet opera dress with my mother’s eyes.
Note to Readers
“The Dig” is an essay on creativity which tells how one writer digs into her subconscious mind to access the muse.
“Sing in me, muse, and through me tell the story…”Homer, The Odyssey
Meet the Author
Stories by Jeanne Althouse have appeared in numerous literary journals including Gravel, The Examined Life, Birdland Journal, Penman Review, Inkwell and The Plentitudes Journal. Her story, “Goran Holds his Breath” was nominated by Shenandoah for the Pushcart Prize. A collection of her flash fiction, “Boys in the Bank,” was published by Red Bird Chapbooks. She writes each morning, watching the sun rise, hoping to capture the light in words.