Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Wondrous Ignorance

Henri Matisse
I was struck the other day by a critic's review of Henri Matisse after an exhibition in 1911.

It seems a perceptive statement about the creative process, of the differences between a process- and a product-emphasis--and how which one an artist selects can make all the difference.

Jacques Rivière opens with a blanket statement about types of painters (easily applicable to writers): "The pure torment of seeing too deeply. A fine painter, knowing and sensitive, is paralyzed by his prophetic gift. He sees in a flash exactly what he is going to do and how he will do it: it is as if the work stands complete before his eyes. That is why he never actually paints it: his initial conception is so clear that when he picks up the brush, he feels that he is going to repeat himself, and the picture he is painting tries to diverge from what he imagined.Great artists confront their own work as if it were a stranger; they do not foresee every step from the beginning; covertly they watch it develop; they discover it passionately, little by little."

Rivière then criticizes Matisse, saying that Matisse "seeks to imitate this wondrous ignorance" but as a result loses his spontaneity. This inane criticism of Matisse aside...

What Rivière is offering is a complicated view of invention and the process.

Probably all writers have had that experience of the flashing idea--the vision of a project which appears before them often in unexpected moments. The unconscious takes advantage of such moments to catch the writer off-guard.

I once saw my entire dissertation flash before my eyes; it had a floor plan, like a labyrinth done in red-brown ink. It was accompanied by a bolt of energy. I felt secure (even smug) that I had captured the project--only to have it vanish by the time I reached my desk. I then spent a year trying to retrace what I had seen in those moments--which was okay by me because I have a pretty good sense of the nature of the process.

The "wondrous ignorance" posited by Rivière speaks to the idea of staying open, without preconceptions, to the moment of writing. Even when one moment is filled to its ceiling with a grand design, a verbal machine of perfection, a greatest hit, the writer asks, "What next?" "How will that vision change in the next moment?"

This type of writer places more emphasis on the process, on the experience of creating, than a display of product. It's riskier, this facing of the unknown, this placing oneself in a position of ignorance, but it is more rewarding than doing what one already knows is aesthetically "right" or publishable.

In "The Invisible Avant-Garde," John Ashbery says: "In both art and life today we are in danger of substituting one conformity for another."

What concerns me, however, about a willful separation of initial conception and the work process is the phrase from Rivière's review: "that is why he never actually paints it."

Some people "have a great idea" for a book/novel/screenplay. They're carrying around this massive picture frame of an idea like an ancestor, bringing it to the cocktail party or on the subway platform where you encounter them and they confide in you.

They are burdened with the self-frustration of knowing they will never start the project. That they'll be carrying around this longing, really an immense portrait of a stillborn concept, maybe even for the rest of their lives.

They are in awe of their idea. In their mind, it's already framed, hung up, already Perfect. But they are frankly a bit afraid that their idea actually exceeds their capabilities.

What these people most need is a spoonful of wonder and ignorance, of stepping forward and making a mess of their perfect idea.

It's probably a good thing that most of us most of the time don't see prophetically and that it takes playful work to finish a piece of writing. The inaction between Concept and Construction can cause far more anxiety than the lack of certainty of each writing moment. Inaction is a breeding ground for self-loathing. The writing moment is full of possibility, of wonder.

-- Jacques Riviere, review of Henri Matisse, "An Exhibition of Henri-Matisse," 1911

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Limits and Timers on Writing

I find a real need for limits on writing. Limits, lids, timers, alarms are planks dropped across the potentially bottomless amount of time I would otherwise like to spend on my writing.

The paradox is that on the rare occasions during a year in which I actually have an entire day for writing, I slow down, way down.

Then I spend much more time contemplating the act of writing, sipping my coffee, staring at the trees, getting ready. Nothing wrong with that--it's very relaxing & reflective--but it usually results in the same amount of completed writing as a much shorter session.

In terms of mindfulness practice, these limits increase my flexibility to deal with changes that arise in the moment (including domestic interruptions like a child who suddenly appears out of nowhere at my elbow in the early hours of the morning). This is something I touched upon in my guest post for Mother Writer Mentor: http://www.motherwritermentor.com/2012/05/07/water-breaks-writers-block/.

The other affordance of time limits is how they place black marks around each present moment, defining what otherwise might stay invisible.

I am more aware of each moment because it is finite, because of these black margins on my time.

It's a sensation not unlike the little buzz I feel right before a piece (especially a poem) is about to be finished. I might be carrying around a draft for months (or even years) and then this subterranean alarm starts buzzing, rising rapidly to the surface.

Immediately, I start to panic, my adrenalin pumping, because I am afraid of being interrupted at this moment, one which is particularly vulnerable, or so it feels, to losing material. (The unconscious loves nothing more than yanking back such a discovery.)

Knowing I have only 30 or 45 minutes to write gives the same sensation but with less tension. It suggests that an end to my engagement with intrapersonal voice is imminent and that I'd better get going. So all writing is like a minor mid-life crisis in that regard.

Of course, such limits can be simulated. One doesn't need a child with a request for glass of water or a stack of reports from work. You can force yourself to write in 20-minute bursts or for only 30 minutes a day. You can also turn to writing as a form of meditation. Every present moment comes packed with its own timer.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Repost of Another Day, Another Fail

This concept is crucial to mindful writing practice, so I've decided to repost it.

Taped to the lid of my laptop is a Post-It which says “Another Day, Another Fail.” I imagine that someone seeing this Post-It, someone who knows I am a writer, might find this overly pessimistic. Why point to failure? Shouldn’t you be warding it off?
Instead of pessimistic, “Another Day, Another Fail”feels joyous to me—a real celebration of the potential of any given moment. It’s an acknowledgement of groundlessness or the constant change of experience and that nothing is permanent—including success or failure at writing.
States of success and failure are not long-term--are not expansive--are not vast parking lots covered over by universal asphalt. Instead, they're fleeting: they flit from moment to moment. Inside a patch of success are elements which are non-successful, and vice versa. The trick is to mindfully notice this fluctuation and to accept it knowing that the constant change brings possibility.
During a lunch break in my scholarly rewriting on the back porch last summer, I overheard a scientist on National Public Radio talking about how for many, many days he would go to his lab, run the experiment, only to have it fail. “Another day, another fail,” he evenly stated. Of course, he kept going, and eventually he did obtain interesting results and something did develop, but it wasn’t guaranteed.
“Another Day, Another Fail” is an equalizer. It puts the same weight on “day” as it does on “fail.” Each moment arises fresh, anew. A moment passes: it contains failure. So what? Another moment arrives. It’s the avoidance of predetermined thought. I try to avoid predicting or evaluating the outcome of a writing session before it begins. If I don’t write a single word, so be it. If I write a ton, so be it.

In “Toward a Phenomenology of Freewriting,” Peter Elbow points to this need to let go of outcome: “In our culture, mastery and control are deeply built into our model of writing. From freewriting I learn how writing can, in contrast, involve passivity, an experience of nonstriving, unclenching, letting go, or opening myself up.”
To work without expectation, that is the discipline of mindful writing. Or more precisely, to work without any expectation concerning outcome or product (here is an obvious alignment between mindfulness and process pedagogy for all you writing theorists out there).
Actually, one expectation does stand fast: that one keeps trying—that one has a writing discipline. Along the same lines, Mike Rose, in his wonderful early article, “Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans, and the Stifling of Language,” describes how “unstuck” students were the ones who maintained fluid rules for writing—except for the rule that they would keep trying.

This mindset of openness to the experience prevents suffering in the Buddhist sense of clinging to what is pleasant (a good writing session, an acceptance notification, praise). For me, staying open to the moment is its own reward, is a source of energy, causes a good day for writing. To stay open to the moment is a form of acceptance that can be just as gratifying (well, almost…I admit it, I admit it) as an acceptance note from an editor.

What sort of invention strategy based on groundlessness and acceptance could you imagine for your own writing? What would that writing session look like?

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Summoning and Banishing Your Audience Ghosts

I was searching for a way to make the impact of those invisible audiences-in-our-head tangible to first-year writing students, and the other day I found a strategy that I think might have worked.

The important notions that audience is a matter of proximity and that most audience is made-up can easily be lost on students. Too abstract. Students can have a hard time perceiving the fundamental and blessed vacancy of the present moment for the purposes of writing. They need tangible proof of the impact of those imaginary creatures, those self-generated conversations that can slow down writing or cause anxiety. They need that proof in order to start taking steps to avail themselves of the vacant openness of the present (steps like opting to freewrite, switch audience-in-the-head, do messy drafts).

So I asked my students to do 3 separate freewrites in class over the space of 30 minutes.

First Freewrite:  This one was written to a prompt I put on the board. Students were told to freewrite for 5 minutes and that the freewrite would be partially shared: they would be asked to paraphrase an idea or sentence and say it to us afterwards.

Second Freewrite:  This time, students were told that we would write to the same prompt but that after 5 minutes, I would randomly select 2-3 students to read aloud their entire freewrite to the group. So this freewrite fell into the category of shared and focused (given a topic).

Third Freewrite:  This time, I told students they would start their homework in class (I showed them the exercise assignment sheet) in a disposable freewrite. They wouldn't be able to keep the screen or sheet of paper from their freewrite. After 5 minutes, everyone would be required to crumble the freewrite into either a virtual or 3-d recycling bin.

What Happened:  While I freewrote with the students, I also noticed what was going on with them in terms of their posture, body language, and affect. During the Second Freewrite, a call & response of sighs went around the classroom--though the students didn't seem aware that they were sighing. I also noticed with my own disposable freewrite that I leaned much closer to my notebook, that my handwriting became bigger, that I drove the pen down onto the paper with greater emphasis.

When we discussed the experience of the 3 freewrites as a group (I didn't in fact make anyone paraphrase or involuntarily share), students noted differences in the quantity and quality of the content of the freewrites.

They talked about how the Second Freewrite elicited far fewer words: they had tangible proof on the page or screen that an imaginary audience had slowed down their writing. They spoke of being more cautious, of plotting out matters of word choice and organization, of editing while composing.

Students found the highest number of new ideas in the Third Freewrite and said that those ideas were not just more numerous but also of greater interest to them. I felt the same way: the best ideas I'd had all day were definitely lying around on my sheet of paper. Some resented having to dispose of this freewrite (I said they didn't have to).

The Third Freewrite seemed to suggest that ideal circumstances for invention call for this sort of privacy: a low-stakes task environment in which even the self isn't an audience for its writing. That writing is disposable, fleeting, part of the moment. Because the student wouldn't be keeping a copy of the disposable freewrite, even the student's self wasn't a (long-term) audience for the text.

We always have the opportunity to step into a circle of privacy with our writing. It's a privacy in which we kick out considerations of what others may think in the future, kick out any consequence to our words, any judgement. An activity like these three freewrites helps show how often our imaginary, evoked audiences interfere with the possibilities of an open and vacant present moment for writing.

If you find yourself stuck or slowing down on a writing task, consider doing these Three Freewrites. Freewrite about your project knowing you'll paraphrase a passage to a friend or on Facebook or Twitter. Then freewrite thinking you'll be showing the entirety to a reader. Then do a disposable freewrite. See if you don't summon your audience ghosts--and see if you don't send them off to give yourself a break.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Make a Caricature of a Tricky Audience

All of us anticipate future audiences, carrying on imaginary conversations in our heads as we write. Those imaginary conversations are part of intrapersonal or inner dialog. I am anticipating You right now as I type this syllable.

No matter our genre, we are fiction writers, making up this character of the Imaginary Audience (who is not present in the space and time in which we actually write).*

This imaginary conversation will impact our writing experience: the degree or nature of that impact is really up to us. For some people, this imaginary conversation is part of the fun; for others, it is a hindrance because the Imaginary Reader makes them self-doubt, erase, delete, backtrack, or altogether not start.

Here is a technique to deal with a tricky audience. It highlights how much imaginative work we put into our fake conversations. Once you get your Caricature, whenever you find yourself hesitating, pull it out of your mental pocket and take a good look at it. Remind yourself that the Present moment is wonderfully vacant and open--free of such imaginary creatures.

I suggest first taking notes to the prompts and then compiling them into full sentences. The making of a paragraph will help you reflect and gain insights into your relationship with the tricky audience. Ask yourself, what do these details and images possibly symbolize about my relationship to this Reader? For instance, the fact that her nose turns red like a stove burner: could I be worried about my Reader's anger?

1.       Think of an occasion where you had to write something.

2.      You start to visualize someone—maybe a group of people—having a judgment or opinion about this piece of writing you’re about to start.

3.      This person appears in your room.

4.      What does his or her face look like?   Make their head very large, like a caricature.  Then describe their body as very tiny.  Make their clothing absurd—maybe too small.

5.      Exaggerate some ugly feature on their face.

6.      They start to say something to you about your writing.  What’s the first sentence they say?

7.      They have an ulterior motive for what they’re saying.  What is it?

8.      You notice on this person’s right shoulder is a tiny figure of someone who has bothered them about their own writing: the person you’re caricaturing has a tricky audience of their own in the past. Who is it? How has that tiny person impacted your own tricky audience?

9.      Something strange happens to the next sentence they say.  Distort some part of it.  Make it ludicrous, unreasonable.  What is it?

10.  They get frustrated.  What do they do next?

11.  Let another sentence come from their mouth.  Have it also go out of their control.

12.  Add a few details about their face, expressions, as they change as this keeps happening.

13.  Put this person in some sort of container.  What sort?  Describe.

14.  Something disgusting or scary is also at the bottom of the container: what is it?

15.  Now what are you going to do with the container?**


* We evoke or create this Reader, as theorists such as Walter Ong, Lisa Ede, and Andrea Lunsford have pointed out.
** The possible extreme fate of the container is something I picked up from Ann Lamott.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Starting Out is Like a Vertical Treadmill

Invention (or the starting-off phase of writing) can be like a treadmill, a plank at a steep incline.

Today, I have several writing projects in this stage, and I am finding it very amusing.

The work feels like a significant exertion though it's not necessarily an unpleasant situation. I'm aware that this is how it often feels when I am starting a new piece of writing. The incline of starting carries around the cliche in English of "an uphill battle." It also contains the conceptual metaphor of ascent and possible transcendence.

I know myself as a writer pretty well by now, so I understand that it's not usually audience concerns that make starting an exertion but rather contact with the unconscious. That is, I don't usually worry about the impact of my nascent words on an imaginary audience in the future--those worries are not the source of strain. With new ideas there is always the shadow of the unconscious. (This is even the case with the scholarly writing I do--not just creative writing.) Exertion comes from forcing contact with the unconscious: it's the inaccessibility Freud describes in his term "motivated-non-knowing."

I've come to understand that this treadmill is my all-too-human desire for mindlessness.As Elaine J. Langer puts it in her discussion of Freud in Mindfulness, unconscious forces are connected to mindlessness. (That's fine; we all need a healthy dose of mindlessness.) They "continuously affect our conscious lives yet, without extreme effort such as is required in psychoanalysis or various spiritual disciplines, we can not recognize or change their influence.”

Sometimes my treadmill is accompanied by a surreal image: the actual running floor of the machine is transformed into a continuous fingerprint, expanding and fluctuating like some sort of fun house mirror. I understand this image as related to identity and the self in writing.
I also think of the neat packaging of the 5 canons in the Greco-Roman tradition (invention, arrangement, style, memory, delivery). The "exact moment" in which we start a piece of writing is much more fluid than any neat category. Who knows when you actually started? Perhaps in a dream you had last night. Perhaps four notebooks and two years ago (or longer). Perhaps even when you gripped a pencil and formed your first letter as a child.

If a person is intimidated with starting a piece of writing, they are, in the words of Suzuki, "adding something extra" to the experience. Just observe the moment the draft begins to surface. Don't be scared. Every present moment of writing contains shards, marks, and strings of Beginning as well as Ending.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year 2014 Wishes for Your Writing

Ola Wilberg

May each moment of your breathing

Be a field of asterisk-words, word-flowers.

May your writing

Be the cessation of suffering.