Saturday, September 21, 2013

What Totally Untrained Artists Might Have to Show Us About Writing Blocks



Henry Darger
"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." --- Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, 1999


 
The unschooled sometimes seem like the lucky ones. So-called "naive artists" like Henry Darger, Henri Rousseau, Howard Finster, and Grandma Moses, just to name a few in the visual arts category, have the chutzpah to create without degree granted, grant awarded, or sanction.
 
Their work seems the epitome of Writing Without Teachers. It is like one long and glorious private writing--creativity done for and by the self with Interested Parties looking on after the fact, uninvited. People might flock to museum shows of naive art, dig out credit cards for expensive purchases, or write scholarly treatises on a naive artist, but that was never the intention of the naive artist.
 
In terms of taking control of the proximity of audience (pushing the audience far away in one's head if it's a bothersome audience, bringing the audience closer if intimacy is needed), unschooled artists seem to be the real masters of taking charge. They've kicked out the teacher entirely by never entering the proximity of a classroom (whether because they're too young--are still a child; because they opted out of formal training; or because they lacked access to that training).

I remember the disdain on a painter friend's face when she saw a naive painting I'd purchased, hanging in my living room. It was a scene painted on a bureau drawer of a family going on a hike inside some mountains, a grinning airplane bumping into a greenish sun-- looked like a child had drawn it.
 
The unschooled frustrate the schooled. The unschooled seem to think they can create outside the immense framework of Art and Writing, the ones created by specialists. The unschooled do not drag around Tradition. Instead, they go straight to the source: to the unbridled joy of creating that many others only long to be able to experience again (since it withdrew from life with the end of childhood).

In Brenda Ueland's classic 1938 treatise, If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence, and Spirit, children figure prominently as artists.

Ueland sets up a contrast between the unfettered abilities of children and the limited imagination of those who have experienced school instruction. As Rob Pope has suggested, much twentieth-century research on creativity has attempted to discern whether creativity is an ordinary or unique capacity, and this research has often selected young children for its subject. Young children are deemed suitable test cases for creativity research because of children’s motivation to create, “more therapeutic rather than assessment-driven,” and because of children’s level of exposure to teachers’criticism.

In one instance, Ueland agrees to pose for a portrait for three days for children who had no training. Ueland finds the children’s creative process and the results of their work to be “remarkable—all different, astonishing in their own way because the creative impulse was working innocently, not egotistically or to please someone, an instructor, say, who three in the anxious questions: is it art? has it balance? design?" The children operated out of intrinsic, non-school motivations: “If they had worked that hard for school it probably would have killed them. They were working for nothing but fun, for that glorious inner excitement. It was the creative power working in them." Ueland asks us to think about the children’s play we have witnessed, suggesting that creativity is really an ordinary rather than specialized event.

Hughes Mearns in his 1929 Creative Power cast the situation in a more startling light: "Blessed are the poor in English for they shall see with their own eyes." 

As a writing teacher, I certainly believe teaching can lead to great benefits and creativity. I do also think, however, that sometimes we need to step away from our training. For me what is most striking about the unschooled is the way in which their intrapersonal dialog is cleaner, like mountain air.

Unlike most people when creating, these individuals don't have artistic standards or the language of formal study floating around in their inner talk. Their work can be in much greater contact with the instinctual, and their motive and purpose are different than someone who is part of the system. The teacher also will not figure as an imaginary audience in the intrapersonal dialog of the unschooled. Perhaps Donald Bartholomae is a bit right in "Inventing the University": once we're schooled, we're always schooled, always in part writing for a teacher.

No matter the stack of degrees behind our name, sometimes we need to find a place where we can remain a perpetual beginner.

We can pick up the habits of the unschooled by practicing in a genre that we have had no formal training in. We can use materials (crayons, markers) associated with children to do a draft. We can fill the pages of our writing notebook, no matter the genre of our work, with drawings--with childlike renditions of our ideas, including drawings of academic thesis statements and scholarly book proposals.

I once met a law professor who mentioned as an aside to me at a meeting that he spent his weekends working on spy novels--one book-length manuscript after the next. (When someone learns of my profession, I usually get comments about how much people hate writing or are "bad" at grammar--so this was a relief.)

When he talked about his writing life, his body language was filled with much joy. It was like watching a kid talking about playing with his new birthday toys. Not a trace of anxiety or worry. Here was someone deeply trained in one profession (law) but who found joy in something he'd never taken official classes in (creative writing). When I asked him if he ever intended to publish these manuscripts, he said that he had no intention of showing anyone the work. And I think that was the secret of his joy, the center of his training.


3 comments:

  1. I am also a big fan of Ueland, and I like what you say about the importance of beginner's mind. It felt to me, though, that you were setting up an opposition or dichotomy that I see as a tension or paradox. The Buddhist monks meditate and study and practice applying a lifetime of discipline to achieve their spontaneity; you teach people how to be "untaught." As people who are trained, is the goal to untrain ourselves--which would be a denial of our actual experiential selves? I have no answer to this dilemma, but I do think it goes beyond envying the untaught as that runs the risk of setting up another "perfection" (the perfect innocent) that we can no longer achieve. I don't mean to disagree with you, only to complicate the opposition.

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  2. The work and the approach of the naive artist are not perfect--not even perfectly innocent. Many of us have a bit of "unschooling" inside us, a desire to resist instruction and teacherly judgement. (Here I think of Robert Brooke's marvelous work with underlife.) I think instead that there is real value in exploring some of the strategies of the unschooled: chiefly, gaining distance from the teacher-in-the-head.

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  3. Yes. I see what you're saying now. I did not read carefully enough your "Unlike most people when creating..." paragraph. I absolutely agree.

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