Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


(Pablo Picasso, "Woman with Fan." Oil on canvas. 1909. The Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow, Russia.)

"Whatever creativity is, it is in part a solution to a problem." - Brian Aldiss

In "This is why I blog every. single. day." the indefatigable Blue Gal posts a great video clip (via 43 Folders) of Ira Glass of This American Life on being creative and refining one's craft. It's great stuff:

Glass really spurs many thoughts. A tiny rhyming dictionary for songwriters I own has a great line in the preface about everyone having one hundred bad songs in them. I used to joke about getting the hundred bad songs out of the way to write the good ones. Whatever the art or craft, practice is essential, and not everything's for public consumption. Similarly, in Russia, the word for a play rehearsal is repeteetsiya, repetition.

There's a reason it's called a play, though — and most serious Russian theater tries to use repetition to become more honest, not more rote. But one of Stanislavski's last observations on theater was that it should be "Higher, lighter, simpler, more joyful." That goes well with actor Michael Chekhov's imperative, Zdyes, ceychas, civodnya, "Here, now, today," or the Zen principles to "Pay Attention" and "Be Here Now."

I had a particular writing teacher who firmly believed you needed to put in the time, which I appreciated, but he subscribed to a very mechanistic model of writing, where the more time you spent on something, the better it got. Inspiration was pretty much a foreign concept to him. I believe it was screenwriter David Koepp who observed that after the fourth major rewrite of a script, it either changes completely or it gets worse. If one's writing for hire, that's one thing, but if it's an extensive piece and more personal, there's nothing wrong with putting it aside for a time and working on something else. Everyone has his or her own best process, and it may involve grinding through a rough patch, especially if one has a deadline, or showing respect for an idea by leaving it alone for a while, or recognizing a piece is done and that one shouldn't meddle with it further.

The character Flan, an art dealer, in John Guare's play Six Degrees of Separation, has a great monologue which includes this passage:

When the kids were little, we went to a parent's meeting at their school and I asked the teacher why all her children were geniuses in the second grade? Look at the first grade. Blotches of green and black. Look at the third grade. Camouflage. But the second grade — your grade. Matisses everyone. You've made my child a Matisse. Let me study with you. Let me into the second grade! What is your secret? And this is what she said: "Secret? I don't have a secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them."

I've always felt that there was something a bit sad, and creepy, about that story. Who the hell takes a drawing away from a kid? Shouldn't the kid decide when a picture is "done"? Still, that's about the teacher. Flan's perspective is about being open to seeing beauty where he wasn't expecting it, how it startles him and stirs something vital inside.

I once heard that, as a writer, if you read something you wrote several years ago and you're completely satisfied, you're in trouble. There are exceptions to this rule, and there's such a thing as being too neurotic or too much of a perfectionist, but there is a sweet spot of healthy dissatisfaction, or at least a zeal for pushing forward and not resting on one's laurels. Ravi Shankar reportedly said "One does learn to play the sitar. One studies it." The most accomplished musicians typically practice several hours every day, partially for joy, partially just to stay sharp, partially to learn something new. It's the same for all the arts. The process never ends, and that is an exciting thing.

It can be very helpful to seek out good teachers, especially for specialized skills, certain disciplines, or when beginning a pursuit. However, being to some degree self-taught, or taking over one's own education or craft or artistry, is also essential. Some of this depends on how serious one is about a pursuit, or to cite Aaron Copeland, which of his three levels of listening to music one is employing. There are disciplines where a basic or detailed knowledge of the history is pretty crucial. But innovation requires the courage not to hide behind tradition when it's a hindrance. Picasso supposedly was asked once by a woman, 'Why, when you can draw so beautifully, do you make such pieces?' to which he supposedly replied, 'That's why.'

When it comes to the studying of history and cultures, or cooking, or some arts and crafts, I find people who are in some significant way self-taught are often the most fascinating. They're typically less afraid of experimenting and less bound by convention. They're more aware of their abilities and deficiencies. They're more excited, and exciting. It goes along with the old educational axiom: I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand. There also comes a point where one must trust one's own basic judgment and instincts.

I remember a class where the book we were assigned on directing actors started by listing things not to do as a director. I really didn't like that negative slant, and had to put it aside. It wasn't that bad a book actually, and had at least one good piece of advice later on, but it was a book designed for people who had never acted, or done theater, or worked with an actor. That wasn't me — not that I thought I'd mastered the craft or anything. But at that point, I'd done enough plays to have full faith in the rehearsal process and the joy of discovery. I knew by then the best move was to plunge into that process, to give myself over to it, similar to what Peter Brook speaks of in The Empty Space (a phenomenal book), and that second-guessing myself, thinking about "not" doing something was precisely the wrong approach — for me, at least.

Still, the thing about creativity that always concerns me the most is how easy it can be for any of us to crush our own spirits or allow others to crush them. There's a short piece that Robert Fulghum ( All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten) wrote back around 1992 or so (I cited it a few times back during my brief teaching stints).

Fulghum speaks of visiting a kindergarten and asking, who can sing? Everyone raises their hands. Who can draw? A forest of hands. Who can dance? Again, everyone. Everyone can do anything and everything.

As Fulghum points out, when he asks the same questions of a college audience, the response is quite different — only a few hands go up, and almost always with qualifications. I can draw, but only stick figures. I can dance, but not very well. I sing — but only in the shower.

Somewhere in between college and kindergarten, many of us lose part or all of our belief in our ability to sing, to have a vision, or possess a dream. We do not always view ourselves as artistic or creative beings.

One of the places I studied, the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Center, adopted a great axiom: Take a risk. Fail. Take another risk. The best educational and artistic communities support exactly that attitude, with excitement and enthusiasm.

I do think many people are creative in small ways they may not even recognize or value. The arts, or more generally creativity, is something vital, and it's one of many reasons, if I had my druthers, I'd give at least a few billion apiece to the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities. I guarantee it would have a very positive effect that would ripple outward.

I could go on to cite Roger von Oech, Annie Dillard, Natalie Goldberg, or any of a number of artists and writers who inspire me, including Orwell, Bulgakov, Brecht, Molière, Dostoyevsky, Kurosawa, Bergman, Peter Shaffer, more comedians and comic writers than I could name, and that Shakespeare fella. But let me end with a passage from The Personal Life Deeply Lived, a lecture by Anaïs Nin:

Tonight I was asked to talk about writing, not writing as literature, but writing as intimately connected with our lives — I would even say as necessary to our lives... And now I want to tell you, from the very beginning, how this writing happened to become for me so linked with life and how it was a necessary part of living. When I as nine years old a doctor made an erroneous diagnosis and said I would never walk again. My first reaction then was to ask for pencil and paper and to start making portraits of the members of my family. Then this continued in the forms of notes which I gathered into a little notebook and even wrote on it "Member of the French Academy." Quite obviously there was then a turning to writing as a way of life because I thought I was going to be deprived of the normal activities of a child or an adolescent. But I'm trying to use this as an example of the importance of writing as a way of learning to live; for when I was able to walk again and there was no question of the impediment, the writing remained a source of contact with myself and with others.

It's also very symbolic that when I was asked once to go to a masquerade in which we had to dress as our madness I put my head in a bird cage. And coming out of the bird cage was a sort of ticker tape of the unconscious, long strips of paper on which I had copied a great deal of writing. This was, of course, a very clear symbol of how I hoped to escape from my cage.

You might say, however, when you are reading the Diary now: "Oh well, it was easy for you, you could write well." But I want you to know that at twenty I wrote very badly, and I purposely gave my first novel to the library of Northwestern University so that students could see the difference between the writing I did at twenty and the writing I do now. The mistake we make when we choose a model is that we choose the point of arrival. We are unaware of the things that have been overcome, like shyness, or not being able to speak in public (I couldn't speak to the people I knew). The final achievements are what we notice and then say: "Well it's no use modeling ourselves after this or that writer because we don't have those particular gifts." I didn't have any particular gift in my twenties. I didn't have any exceptional qualities. It was the persistence and the great love of my craft which finally became a discipline, which finally made me a craftsman and a writer.

The only reason I finally was able to say exactly what I felt was because, like a pianist practising, I wrote every day. There was no more than that. There was no studying of writing, there was no literary discipline, there was only the reading and receiving of experience. And I had to be open because I had to write it in the diary.

So I would like to remove from everyone the feeling that writing is something that is only done by a few gifted people. I want to eliminate this instantly... You shouldn't think that someone who achieves fulfillment in writing and a certain art in writing is necessarily a person with unusual gifts. I always said that it was an unusual stubbornness. Nothing prevented me from doing it every night, after every day's happenings.

It's not only the people with unusual gifts who will write their life in an interesting way. It has nothing to do really with the literary value of the work. What is important is that in the doing of it you begin to penetrate much deeper into the layers of consciousness and the unconscious. I registered everything. I registered intuitions, prophesies; I would be looking into the future or looking back and re-examining the past.

I don't want to make writers of all of you, but I do want you to become very aware of your orientation. First of all, of how much contact you have with yourself. If you remember, in the early diaries I spoke of my feeling that I was playing all the roles demanded of woman, which I had been programmed to play. But I knew also that there was a part of myself that stood apart from that and wanted some other kind of life, some other kind of authenticity. R. D. Laing describes this authenticity as a process of constant peeling off the false selves. You can do this in many ways, but you can begin by looking at it, for there is so much that we don't want to look at. I didn't want to see exactly where I was in Louveciennes before I made friends, before I entered the literary life, before I wrote my first book. I didn't want to see that I was nowhere, but wanting to see is terribly important to our direction. And to find this direction I used every possible means. Not only friendship and psychology and therapy, but also a tremendous amount of reading, exploration, listening to others — all these things contributed to my discovering who I really was. It wasn't as final or definite as it might sound now, because it doesn't happen in one day and it doesn't happen finally. It's a continuum, it's something that goes on all your life. But once I was at least on the track of what I could do, then the obstacles began to move away. It was not something that anybody could give me, it was something that I had to find inside myself.

So I'm speaking now of the diary not as a work of literature but as something necessary to living, as a way of orienting ourselves to our inner lives. It doesn't matter in what form you do it, whether it's meditation, whether it's writing or whether it's just a moment of thoughtfulness about the trend, the current, of your life. It's a moment of stopping life in order to become aware of it. And it's this kind of awareness which is threatened in our world today, with its acceleration and with its mechanization.

(Henri Matisse. "Blue Nude IV." 1952. Gouache on paper cut out. Musée Henri Matisse, Nice, France.)


FranIAm said...

This is a stunning post in many ways. That is really all I can say right now, but this will be in my heart and my head today.

At 49 I began to sing and to write. At 50 I would raise my hand again if asked about them.

Blue Gal said...

So lovely. Thank you.

Brian said...

Fascinating piece. I'm going to have to turn this over in my head a bit to get to where I can really comment on it, but I really liked it a lot.

taylorbad said...

Compelling and inspiring. This tells how to raise your hand.

running dog press said...

Ruskin wrote: "the more beautiful the art the more it is work of people who think themselves wrong-who are striving the fulfilment of a law and the grasp of a loveliness, which they have not yet attained, which they feel even further and further from attaining the more they strive for it."

Tengrain said...

I love, Love, LOVE this post.

You really are a wonderful teacher, you know.



Bill Stankus said...

When asked how he composed his photographs, Lee Friedlander responded, "in 1/125 of a second".