Tag Archives: Art

This wasn’t what I was going to write about . . .

I was going to write about beauty. I had lofty plans, including references to neuroscience.

But yesterday this quote caught my eye:

On a day when the wind is perfect,

the sail just needs to open

and the world is full of beauty.

Today is such a day.

–Rumi

And today Sara Dobie Bauer’s blog holds a terrific video of Benedict Cumberbatch reading a letter from Sol LeWitt to Eva Hesse about the practice of art.

Sharing these says enough about beauty and the art of practice, for now. Neuroscience-y post will come next week.

May you and your writing open your sails and abide by LeWitt’s advice to DO.

Words fail …

During one of my annual treks to Taos, I visited a friend who taught fifth grade in the school for the Cochiti Pueblo outside Albuquerque, NM. My visit coincided with feast day, and although she’s Anglo like me, she was invited to many of her students’ and former students’ homes, as well as to the traditional, day-long dances. I got to tag along.

On the approach the Pueblo, and in the Pueblo itself, there were signs delineating those parts of the community that are private, including the church and kivas. These signs state very clearly “no pictures.”

There are nuanced layers around photography of indigenous peoples; photographs can and have been used to create distance between, and domination over, picture-taker and pictured. And, my friend pointed out, participation in a ceremony is an experience to be had; it can’t be captured for later. It has to be lived.

But just watch, she added. Someone will try to take a picture and the elders will confiscate their camera. Sure enough, twenty minutes after the drums began and the dancers circled into the square, a tourist with a telephoto lens had made his way onto the church balcony (yes, the church that had “no public access” signs at each door). He raised his big ole camera and began clicking away. And it felt wrong. It was more than disrespect. It was robbery.

My notebook: closed because I am experiencing rather than noting!

My notebook: closed because I am experiencing rather than noting!

Fast forward to this past week, when I spent five days at the Brave New Story workshop with Jeffrey Davis, Laraine Herring and Cathy Shap, all members of the Tracking Wonder team. Instead of taking “pictures” (aka notes) about their facilitation techniques and observing my reactions through my intellectual lens,  I accepted their invitation to step fully into my body and my story. I let them guide the workshop sessions and I participated wholly: I listened to my colleagues in the workshops rather than stereotyping them; I howled and danced and cried; I wrote and read brand-new words about my story’s protagonist. I emerged from the week with clarity, a renewed dedication to my story, and a new-to-me reluctance to talk about the experience. My friends and family all want to know, What happened? What have you learned? What was it like?

Rainbow on morning mindfulness walk at Mohonk House.

Rainbow on morning mindfulness walk at Mohonk House.

I have some pictures of the place we stayed, and of my new-found friends, but those doesn’t begin to capture my transformative experience.

For once, I haven’t figured out the words to tell the story of what happened. I lived it. It was magical. It was deeply personal even though I shared it with 17 other women and the Tracking Wonder team.

And I’m honoring my heart’s instinct to hold the experience close for now. To allow it to live inside me instead of tossing it hither and yon in anecdotes and intellectually satisfying summaries.

In this part of my story, the point isn’t the words. The point is the being and doing, with passion and integrity.

May it be so for you as well.

Rome is burning.

Warning: a bit of a rant follows.

Do you have a Big Kroger Store in your neighborhood yet? These massive 100K+ square foot stores boast about the hundreds of thousands of items they contain. They post their mission statements, which invariably refer to “providing a pleasant shopping experience.” They forget they are a grocery store. People come for food. If customers need an alphabetized index to find eggs and milk, the store is too big.  But wait! On aforementioned index in the last Big Kroger’s I visited (in Lexington, KY), milk and eggs aren’t listed. There’s “dairy” and that area of the store has both milk and eggs. Yet last I checked an egg is essentially an unfertilized embryo and not, uh, dairy. These stores are like a Work of Art that requires an interpretative talk. Does it touch my heart? Yes? Then it’s Art. No? Then it’s an academic pursuit. Can I find what I need for supper in 5 minutes or less? Yes? Then it’s a grocery store. No? Then it’s another reason to re-up my membership at the human-scale co-op. I don’t want to study an index when I go grocery shopping. I want to load my cart with the necessities* and get the hell out of there as fast as possible.

Not on this board: Eggs. Milk. Flour.

Not listed on this grocery-store index: Eggs. Milk.

If the store is so large as to require a PhD in index-reading, the employees need to be paid Top Dollar so they can provide topnotch directions to the confused shoppers. Do not confuse topnotch direction-giving employees with topnotch costumed employees: putting an employee in a rabbit outfit and having them drive around the store in a golf cart decorated as an Easter basket, the day before Easter, saying hullo to the confused shoppers, is not topnotch customer service.  It’s an attempt to distract shoppers from their mounting frustration at having to walk a mile for bread and milk (located at opposite ends of the store). I put this type of distraction alongside the gorgeously designed book covers that hide their texts’ sloppy writing, worse editing, and sagging plots.

Really?

Really?

However, thousands of badly-written, badly-edited gorgeous-cover books are published every year, and huge Kroger’s are popping up in cities across the mid-south region, so somebody’s buying. (“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”) Depending on my mood on a given day, I experience our apparent willingness to be distracted by rabbit-dressed employees and glossy covers as symbolic, as ironic, as disheartening, as hilarious. On my worst days, I believe we are burning like Rome burned, and fiddling around on our screens like Nero fiddled on his violin.

Silver lining: there is a novel or twenty to be had by observing the fuel of our flames.

And so my wish for you, dear writer friend, is that the sublimely ridiculous may inspire you today.

* condoms used to be a necessity for me, but (thankfully) Engineer Hubby and I have eliminated the possibility of more kids. That said, part of the reason, IMO, that we are burning is that there are, simply, too many of us. We suffer from our species’ reproductive success. And *that* said, wouldn’t it make sense for us to support, nay, encourage!, those among us who don’t want kids?

Making it difficult to not contribute to the problem of overpopulation. Again, really?

Making it difficult to avoid contributing to the problem of overpopulation. Again, really?

But at this Kroger’s the condoms are LOCKED UP like they’re ammunition or prescription drugs. Again, really? If I were running the store, I would not only leave these unlocked, I’d place them beside the door. Perhaps with a little sign: “Donations accepted but not required.” Really. Because by the time shoppers get home from hiking through this store, they’re gonna need a foot rub from their partners, and that can lead to, y’know, mashing the potatoes … ah! If only tubers were included on the index.

The Origami Penis

Disclaimer: there will be hardly any origami, and no male genitalia available for viewing or download in this post.

Origami fun

The “origami penis” phrase arose in a meeting of the New River Writers Project, when one of our members mentioned that his life is “too boring to blog about.”

No, some of us countered, your life is  not boring. Tell us about your eccentric clients! (I shall only reveal that he is a handsome fella of a certain age whose living demands he have extensive public contact. Not literal contact. Get your mind out of the gutter!)

The blog would have to be anonymous of course, someone added. You couldn’t reveal where you actually live. That’s true, he nodded. He paused. “I could call it the Handyman of Love,” he said.

Vulnerable

Vulnerable (Photo credit: S.H.CHOW)

We howled and moved on to the critiques, one of which was for a writer who’s hesitant about starting a blog without having at least a dozen posts ready to go. Another member joked that she didn’t really want to know what anyone else thought and would she have to receive comments on her blog? It was at this point that I slipped into writerly observation mode.

Ten of us were circled around a table; we all have stories in various stages of “polish” and professionalism; we write for a variety of reasons; we range in age from under-thirty to over-sixty.

But the humor within which we conceal-revealed our concerns led me to guess that we all share a worry that maybe we’re not unique enough, not literary enough, not funny enough, not interesting enough. Is this because we’re not in NYC? Because we don’t have MFAs from prestigious writing programs? Why do we think our lives don’t meet the “interesting-enough” criteria?

Spinning Tanoura

Spinning Tanoura (Photo credit: puthoOr photOgraphy)

Robert Boswell noted, in the Taos workshop I reference here, that writers must steal ruthlessly from their own lives. Writing is an ever-spinning dance: between arrogance (sitting down and writing my stories is worth the time and energy and money!), and humility (if I want anyone to read my stories, I need critiques of my drafts). Sometimes the whirl makes me dizzy. I am a Goddess! vs. I am a sh*t-shoveler in the lowest circle of hell. And who am I to tell anyone else what they should or shouldn’t do?

I’m betting this is not a surprise to anyone who undertakes a creative endeavor. And as I write this, I’m thinking sheesh, so WHAT, everyone knows this, shut up already.

connection

But the responses I receive to my words surprise and humble me, and that’s the thing: when we don’t share our creative acts, we don’t know what connections we’ve missed.  The what-ifs are infinite. Every kind word suppressed because I felt self-conscious, every deleted phrase, every un-remarked-upon link between X and Y: each of these might have opened a whole other path to venture down. Not necessarily a better path, or a worse path, but certainly one with more connection.

Why do we shy away from those connections? I have found that people, on the whole, tend toward decency and kindness. Those who don’t are great “testimony” for our writerly selves. Tell your stories!

That fellow-writer with a boring life? He speculated about making origami penises as part of a handyman of love business and sent us all into a borderline-hysterical orbit of giggling. He inspired my words here. Connections galore!

PRACTICE!

A colleague is battling cancer, a neighbor’s mother the same, a friend’s mother passed this last week: we are in the midst of the messy business of life … and I confess to feeling during the nadir of these bleak moments that sustaining writerly momentum is “not worthy.”

Tortoise 04

Slow and steady ... Image via Wikipedia

I have invited these feelings to reside in a pleasant, albeit windowless, room at the top of an imaginary house and locked the door on them. I have plugged my ears to their cries with metaphorical earplugs and returned to my creative kitchen (again, an imaginary space: my family can attest I have pretty well nigh given up any pretense of Real Cooking since the new year). In that cozy space writerly momentum simmers on the stove: I have a short story nearing completion, an essay out for critique, and I’ve honored my resolution to have three submissions out at all times. My search for an agent progresses tortoise-like but the verb weighs more than the metaphor.

And. But. The real and imagined kitchen is a space of continual traffic: hubby, children, dog, cats, friends. The messy, dare I say unhygienic?, cookie-making of writing and parenting continues to be an endeavor that consists of equal part flour dust, spilled sugar, butter underfoot and fragrant, edible product.

Belle Boggs, author of the lovely short story collection Mattaponi Queen, has an essay, “The Art of Waiting” in Orion where she checks out her assumptions about how children change your life by asking her dad, “Do kids really kill all your dreams?” He pauses before replying, “Yup. And they take all your money, too.”

English: Christiaan Tonnis ~ Virginia Woolf / ...

by Christiaan Tonnis, oil on canvas, 1998, Image via Wikipedia

She also cites Virginia Woolf (a child-free woman) as noting, in her journal after a good writing day: “children can’t touch this” – this being the feeling of euphoria, of satisfaction. Today we’d call Woolf’s feeling the state of flow. It arrived for Woolf, and does for me, too, during and after a day spent in the company of words, sentences, paragraphs. If we’re lucky, we all have one or two activities in which time stops for us, and we simply are.

Since Woolf’s journal entry, brain science has demonstrated that the experience of “flow” is based on brain chemicals that give us a natural high. Most relevant to my writing/creative practice is: we’re learning that it’s possible to train ourselves into habits that give us that high AND support creative, functional practices across a range of our lives: exercise, diet, writing …  See this intriguing New York Times Sunday Magazine article by Charles Duhigg about how our shopping habits reveal us to companies.

Deutsch: Blauschimmelkäse,

Smelly cheese ... of course it can also taste fabulous, which is part of the problem when one is wrestling with demons ... Image via Wikipedia

This probably also explains why the DTs arrive with all their relatives and stinky cheese when I don’t put pen to paper.

And. But. Much of my no-time-to-write this past week has been on account of my role as Support System for the 14 y.o.’s preparing for, participating in, and subsequently recovering from, a cello competition at the Tennessee Cello Workshop. This as Engineer Hubby travels for three of the last four weeks, and the 11 y.o. needing, per teacher conference, “additional strategies to focus,” and the male cat peeing in every room, presumably to prevent the other two felines from usurping his sunny spots (this strategy also works on humans: I don’t like to sit near that smell, either).

The 14 y.o. prepared well (with his teacher’s help and some parental nagging), and then: he performed well (with himself and the fabulous pianist Erica Sipes). Last year at this same competition he Flubbed Big Time: forgot the music, had to come to full stop. And find his place again, in front of an audience. So this is a Major Victory.

He sought and won this victory on his own; I avoid all high-pressure situations requiring live performance on a stringed instrument. He continues to leave behind the child that was “my” little boy: he is too tall, his voice too deep and his feet too smelly for that. He possesses himself. And as I watched him perform in the final round of the competition, in front of a goodly-sized audience of strangers, peers, parents and judges, I was struck by his resemblance to my brother and my mother. Because of his dark hair, I think, and his (temporarily) serious face.

As those who have read my earlier blog know, my mother’s side of the family was dysfunctional in ways I’ll certainly exploit in a memoir when everyone has died off.* And what struck me as I watched him was: this happens when energy is well-directed. When it has a place to go, and be, besides drinkinggunsfighting.

English: Medford Square, Medford Massachusetts...

Medford Square, Medford Mass.
Image via Wikipedia

My mom, despite being raised around drinkinggunsfighting got me off that path (with my father’s steadfast presence), tho’ not without collateral damage. I lamented to Engineer Hubby, during a bus ride on a rainy night in Medford Massachusetts, about my challenge of integrating critique comments, not realizing at the time that my struggles were connected to that collateral damage. He said, well, maybe your son will be a better writer than you because you’re doing all this work now and can share it with him from the time he’s little.

First I had to correct him: I was the eldest daughter of an eldest daughter of an eldest daughter. MY first child would be a girl. (My first lesson in how everything you think you know about children is wrong: I have no daughters.)

Second, I was miffed. Why would my CHILD get to be a better writer than me? Wasn’t I working hard enough? Didn’t I care enough? Wasn’t I good enough?

But the fact of the matter is, whether or not my children will be better writers, they are already reaping the benefit of our understanding of habits, of practice, of motivation – and all the information our civilization has gained, and is gaining daily, about our brains, our Selves, how we work, how we are put together and why some things work in manner X and others Y, etcetera.

And even as I am, most days, grateful to know why it’s worth fighting the battle of regular music practice with my sons, I am also oh-so-hopeful that this old dog can learn some of those new tricks. Here’s a quick run-down of some I’m trying with varying levels of success:

>> Specify the next day’s intention at the end of the current work day. Not, “rewrite short story” but “rewrite first paragraph of short story to convey protagonist’s emotional state.”
>> Work hard with full intention for 45 minutes, then take a break for 10-15 (my thanks to Ellen Sussman for articulating this so helpfully in a Poets & Writers essay).
>> Meditate, even if for only 15 minutes.
>> Put on your walking shoes (or running shoes or basketball shoes) at least five times a week … and then get outside to walk run or shoot hoops. Or sit on the porch and stare at the weeds I mean flowers.
>> Drink plenty of water and nourish your body with good food.
>> Read, read, read.
>> Keep a journal or log of how your practice actually went. Review this bi-weekly and tweak your intention-setting based on how the writing is really going.
>> Take one day a week off of “hands-on” practice – read a new journal, do the crossword, listen to an interview with a writer.
>> Attend a master class-type event at least twice a year.

When I’m able to implement a few of these strategies, I find my real and imaginary kitchens are much more cheerful places for all involved. Even the peeing cat seems a tad less inclined to micturate on the furniture.

Baking my famous chocolate chip cookies. Can y...

Cookies-in-process Image via Wikipedia

And those feelings of unworthiness? Becalmed by the state of flow wafting up the stairs, they have made their prison a playroom, and are ready for some cookies.

* I know, I know, all the memoirist/creative nonfiction writers out there admonish us to write our truth, anyway, and let the familial chips fall where they may. I have begun jottings for a memoir, but I’ll wrestle the Extended Family only if (and when) I feel called to share those stories.