MFA@CIIS graduate Heidi Kraay describes the creative process that has supported her for years.

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Playwright, writer, and theater-maker Heidi Kraay. Photo by Chaz Gentry

The creative process I can count on listens to the underbelly of my mind, taking myself apart and putting me back together. Later I pick up the pieces and type what resonates, but more important is holding a pen, tracing each blue line: the physical act of writing. I inspect my insides, relearning how my brain is connected to my body, my body to the world around me and what I see, dream, imagine, sense, fear, remember, desire, and how these thoughts, feelings and images link me with all sentient beings across the universe.

I pursued daily writing before starting the MFA program at CIIS in 2014, but kept at it blindly, ravaging everything I saw. Through mentorship from faculty, I learned to let go of what I didn’t need, reflect on what works and continue on that course with curiosity. When I traveled between Boise and San Francisco six times a semester for classes, daily practice kept me grounded. If I got stuck on an assignment one night, I knew in the morning I’d run my hand across the page. My second year, twice a day I knew I’d lie on the floor in Alexander Technique — the art of not doing, as professor Anne Bluethenthal called it.

Ink stains Heidi’s fingers as she flips to a new page. Photo by Chaz Gentry

My practice writing started eleven years ago, rereading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind. I lived in what I later named The Gulag House, a musty three-room shack in Eagle, Idaho with grey slab walls, pungent fly spray odor and thin carpeting on concrete floors. My partner filled the rooms with smoke. We had nothing but his pipe dreams, erratic behavior and violent tantrums. My parents helped keep me alive, wishing I’d wake up and leave him, but it was me writing everyday — ten minutes here and there before he took me to help with a house painting job or convinced me to return groceries for cash — that allowed me to smell the surrounding garbage. Until I read through my previous fall and winter in those notebooks, I was blind to the ugliness. Since then I’ve continued pouring out my life, reckoning with a past seeped in abuse, self-harm, and trouble with reality. I work on a play or this article in the same way, keeping my hand moving, going for the jugular — then circling back to find what has heat. I see with fascination what my world was then. A form of time travel.

Before The Gulag House, my writing was more like editing, agonizing over every word, tiny phrases progressing into five line poems I could stand enough to leave on the page. I wrote scripts like that too, school essays, an occasional short story. All the time frustrated with end results, I trudged along the same painful avenue, censoring sentences before they landed. Now I realize it’s the time I spend setting one word in front of the other in order to find my soul that matters, trampling my monkey mind before her paws squash my fingers. This is how I want to make everything, like leaping out of skin.

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Some of Heidi’s notebooks. Photo by John Webster

I spend anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours a day this way. Scrawling them doesn’t feel like work but like playing, stretching, or taking my temperature. Each day also includes body movement and meditation to get out of my brain. This is a way of building a life. When I’m despairing or spinning to oblivion, one page still accumulates after another. It takes time to go back and comb through underlined chunks that radiate fire. Stacks of notebooks wait for me to type fragments. They might become poems, essays or fiction pieces, I might post them on my blog or save them for submission, might be the backbone of a play.

Whether I’m juggling five projects at once or in a sea of cancellations, I rely on this path. When I started teaching at Boise State University, finding a spare corner to create something new seemed my ultimate challenge. I knew I’d at least have this practice. During the pandemic, with months stretching to a year of theater closings, motivation to start a new script gets challenging to cultivate. So I explode on the page and remember patience, endurance, resilience. I move through sun salutations, lie on my back, follow air flowing through nostrils. When I wonder if these exercises are wasted investments, I remember they formed my persistence, creativity, spaciousness. The nature of my process may change but I know I need this dailiness.

Whatever this practice produces, it steadies me, helping me live through the ordinary, extraordinary, heavy, light, terrifying, wondrous, and everywhere between. Whatever happens, I’m here for the ink.

Playwright, writer, and theater-maker Heidi Kraay examines the connections between brain and body, seeking empathy with fractured characters. Her plays have been presented where she lives in Boise, Idaho, regionally, in NYC and internationally. She holds an MFA from California Institute of Integral Studies and is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America. To learn more about Heidi Kraay, visit www.heidikraay.com.

To see more work from MFA@CIIS candidates and alumni, follow MFA@CIIS on instagram and continue reading this blog!

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Blog of the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts and Writing program at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA, U.S.A.

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