Word Medicine

Writing and Healing: exploring the art of healing and the healing of art

Reverie and Engagment August 20, 2015

I’ve been thinking about the conditions conducive to writing recently, since I seemed to be experiencing a mild writer’s block.

I was finding myself a little too happy to read my emails—always a bad sign.  I try not to open those until the afternoons, supposedly devoting myself to a “higher calling” in the mornings. But I was finding excuses: worries about a friend, responses from some queries I’d put out.  It was a Monday morning, and I was restless.  The sky flashed with lightening, thunder shook the house, and everything and anything seemed more interesting than what I might put down on paper.

Then the electricity went out. In the yellow-green light that remained, I found myself, out of boredom and lack of gadgetry, scribbling some images on a yellow legal pad, playing around with them. Relieved of the pressure to respond or interact, I suddenly had nothing but time. Time became a medium of space, a fullness, a restfulness.

Yesterday, I heard an “On Being” podcast interview of John O’Donohue talking about time. He said, “In America, you view time as the enemy. So there is not time to cultivate the inner life.” He then compared it to the west of Ireland, where he said, time seems endless, and the landscape is timeless. His comment rang true for me. I know that in order to write, I have to almost slam the door on time, to disregard it. But it is always there, panting heavily on the threshold, whining about all that needs to be done. There is an anxiety that I wake up with, which we all wake up with, that there is so much to be done and I will never be able to do it all. This anxiety is not conducive to works of the imagination.

For the imagination to have a chance, then, we need a sense of time that is unhurried. We need reverie. And for reverie, we need to feel safe. One of my favorite thinkers, Gaston Bachelard, wrote a wonderful book on reverie, The Poetics of Reverie:  Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos. He wrote:

reverie-1919 (1)Reverie illustrates repose for a being… it illustrates well-being. The dreamer and his reverie enter totally into the substance of happiness.

                    Reverie helps us inhabit the world; inhabit the happiness of the world. The soul does not live on the edge of time. It finds its rest in the universe imagined by reverie.

Reverie gives us the world of a soul [and] a poetic image bears witness to a soul which is discovering its world, the world where it would like to live and where it deserves to live… Poetry forms the dreamer and his world at the same time.

So, I believe with Bachelard that reverie is one of the essential conditions for creative work.  However, from my experience, I think that there is another component. That is engagement.

I have found that when I am not engaged with the world, that my work begins to dry up. By engagement, I don’t mean busyness. I mean meaningful contact, purposeful effort, or simply enjoying, being curious about the world of man/woman and nature. I can easily fall prey to neuroticism, and when that happens, I know that I am not as engaged as I should be, that my work, instead of reflecting the world as it is in all its complexity, can become a shadowy world of my projections. That’s when I know I need to get out, walk, talk with people, go someplace.

John O’Donohue also addressed this aspect of the creative life when he said, “Our gifts are given for the community, not for ourselves alone.”  If that is true, we need to be engaged in community. That is something different from ego posturing or status consciousness. It is being interested in the mystery of otherness, in those we live with, in their “infinite variety.”

It might seem that these two conditions are opposed to each other, but I don’t think so.  It is more that they are both necessary, in different degrees. Sometimes we balance them; often, we don’t. When we begin to feel played out, it may be time for reverie. When we begin to feel dull, it may be time for engagement. We live in a culture that is extroverted in the extreme, however, so my bet is that it is harder to find time for reverie.

I’ll leave you with this:

Matins
I arise to day… In the name of Silence / Womb of the Word, / In the name of Stillness / Home of Belonging, / In the name of the Solitude / of the Soul and the Earth

John O’Donohue

 

Leave the Critic at the Door April 30, 2015

Dear Readers,

I am sorry for the long delay between posts, but I am excited to tell you about my new website at www.saratbaker.com. It has been retooled to reflect new workshops my partner, Jan Turner, and I are offering in the Athens area. Please take a look at it!  I’m also happy to report recent publications in The Intima, www.theintima.org, a literary journal which has grown out of the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University,an essay in China Grove Journal, and a short story coming out in May in Confrontation, a literary journal.

Now to the post, which is about process. I read recently that Elizabeth Bishop sometimes took years to finish her poems, which gave me great hope. I often start a poem with gusto, but find that I lose the thread, especially if I think too much! Ray Bradbury once said, “Don’t think. It kills creativity.” I think there is truth to this, although I might phrase it,“Wait to think.”  Wait until you are deeply involved in the process before looking at a piece critically.

I try, whether in a story or poem, to get a quick sketch down in one sitting, or at least, in the case of a story, a good nugget. Right now I’m in the middle of story, which was interrupted by a bad cold, family obligations, and life in general. Now I am struggling to finish at least one draft. My rule is not to chuck anything until I get through one draft. But the temptation has been to chuck it, as in the “cooling off” period, I see all its flaws. Furthermore, I’ve been making a study of the writer Gina Berriault, and after reading her incredible story, “The Diary of K.W.,” which is as perfect a story as I’ve ever read. (If you don’t know her work, you should.)  But my rule is to finish one draft, and to do this I have to go back into the dream of the story, and leave my critical faculties behind. I think we read out of the same impetus as children explore abandoned houses. We are looking for something numinous, although we are not sure what. We write for the same reason, and to cut ourselves off from the dream too early, to try to make it conform to this or that criteria, can kill it.

I am proud of my critical faculties, which I’ve worked hard to attain. And it would be  easy at this point in the process to swoop in and destroy this embryonic story because it is so lacking. But there was something that urged me to start it, and I want to honor that. Its problems will, I hope, force me to grow as a writer, even if it fails in the end. That is part of the process. Isak Dinesen said, “I write a little every day, without too much hope or too much despair.”

So I’m working on non-attachment to my work, attempting to approach the work lightly, with curiosity instead of fear.  And waiting until I’m good and ready to invite the critic in.

 

Letting Go January 19, 2015

I am reading Shaun McNiff’s book, Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go, about the creative process, and finding it instructive not only for creative endeavors but also for relationships.

We’ve all heard the phrase. Maybe it conjures up images of Woodstock, of hippies in tie-dyed tees.  Nevertheless, McNiff, an artist and internationally known figure in creative art therapies, brings a nuanced and in-depth perspective to the concept.

McNiff claims that there is an intelligence working in every situation, and if we trust it and follow its natural movements, it will astound us with its ability to find a way through problems—and even make use of our mistakes and failures.

 I am particularly drawn to his assertion that errors are harbingers of original ideas because they introduce new directions for expression.  Sometimes, as well, the spontaneous expression or mistake which is outside our intended design, brings riches from the unconscious.  Those who work with their dreams know that a dream will often strike us as peculiar, that we “don’t know where it comes from,” but the images of that same peculiar but powerful dream may bring us the very healing images that we need, but for which our ego has no room.

McNiff also points out that while the artistic process may bring relief, joy and harmony, the process thrives on tension. Conflict and uncertainty are the forces that carry the artist to new and unfamiliar places.

 I think a similar process can happen in relationships.

I once met an accomplished woman, a writer and therapist, ten years ago at a writing conference. She was a little older than I was at the time, and her children were grown. She was lovely and gracious but there was an air of melancholy about her. We fell to talking about parenting.  She said that our mistakes as parents are as important as our successes.  I was still hoping to be the perfect parent and was puzzled by her statement. Surely not!  Oh, yes, she said, because our lacks are what push them out of the nest, and send them out into the world to do it better.

pathMistaken moves and slips of intention reveal that creation involves more than single-mindedness, McNiff writes. We create together with the world.  If we believe that there is an intelligence moving in the world that we can partake of and trust in, then conflict and uncertainty are no longer so frightening, in our work or in our relationships. We can approach them with curiosity, knowing that, if we stay with the process, we will be moved to a new place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hitting the Target September 16, 2013

I keep returning to Anna Kamienska’s  notebooks.  They are so companionable.  Even though she was a mid-century Polish poet,  there is nothing dated or unfamiliar about her observations. Recently, I stumbled upon this:

In Pedro Arrupe’s book on Japan I find useful comments on shooting with a bow. A Japanese man instructs a missionary:

Holy Father, you must not think about the target, the target has no meaning here. And you must not worry about hitting it. Above all you must strive to become one with the target, and only then do you calmly release the arrow. The arrow will fly straight to the target. But if you tighten your nerves instead of the string, you may be sure that it will never reach the goal.

Doesn’t this sum up the whole struggle of the creative process?  We want so much to make a bulls-eye, and yet so much of our effort misses the target entirely, arrows shot wildly in the general direction because of tightened nerves.  Or at least that is my experience.  What does it mean to become one with the target, for example, for a writer?  How do I maintain calm?

Nadine Gordimer once said that writing a novel is like walking on a tight-rope over an abyss.  Do not look down, she says, or you will lose your footing.  I know that sometimes I’ve looked down only to be gripped by icy terror.  That’s just asking for your worst internal critic to paralyze you on the spot.  Work has flowed, for me, when I can be self-forgetful.  It is when I am not asking myself, “how am I doing?,” but rather contemplating my subject so deeply that I am living it.  That is one of the secret joys of writing fiction, especially long fiction.  The excitement comes in unexpected discoveries,  in witnessing beauty that doesn’t come from you but through you.

I think we can recognize a work of art in which the artist has become one with his subject.  This weekend I went to Greenville, SC to see the unveiling of a sculpture honoring Peg Leg Bates, the amazing one-legged tap dancer from Greenville.  Never heard of him?  Neither had I until this weekend. From Wikipedia:

Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates (October 11 1907 – December 8, 1998) was an Afro-American entertainer from Fountain Inn, South Carolina. Bates lost a leg at the age of 12 in a cotton gin accident. He subsequently taught himself to tap dance with a wooden peg leg. His uncle, Wit, made his crude first “peg leg” after returning home from World War I and finding his nephew handicapped. Bates was a well-known dancer in his day. He performed on The Ed Sullivan Show approximately 58 times, and had two command performances before the King & Queen of England in 1936 and then again in 1938] He retired from the dancing business in 1996.

At the unveiling ceremony, much was made of the fact that Peg Leg never let his disability stop him.  Watching the You Tube videos would inspire even the most cynical.  Peg Leg danced like a dream, incorporating his wooden leg into his routine in heart-stopping displays of balance and grace.  I loved that he didn’t have a leg-like prosthesis, but a humble wooden peg.  He wasn’t hiding, he was what he was, but he wasn’t defined by it either. He was totally in the flow of his dance, and so is the viewer.

The sculpture here, by Joe Thompson, is an example of a work of art created by being one with the target.  Crafted from nuts and bolts, this abstract metal sculpture nevertheless powerfully conveys a sense of arrested motion and the graceful form of the spirited living human body .  Ron Barnett in GreenvilleOnline, quotes a Bates relative at the unveiling:

Bates relative, Veldon Bates, said he thought the statue captured the essence of Bates’ perseverance and determination in turning his handicap into a blessing. “I guess you could say the hardness of the nuts and bolts is basically the way he came up — hard in life,” he said. “I think it’s nice.”

Sculptor Joe Thompson said he tried to convey Peg Leg’s indomitable spirit with each piece of metal he welded together. “Reflecting on this remarkable man, I realized that he organized his life around a very straightforward and clear idea: He decided that he wanted to dance no matter what,” Thompson said. “In every photograph of him, he is smiling. If you watch his clips from the Ed Sullivan show, you see a man filled with happiness, determination and vitality,” he said. “And so it was through this very simple idea of doing what he loved that he transformed himself and transformed the world around him. Dance is what he did, and dance is what I hope to convey in this work of art.”

Sculptors, dancers, musicians and writers who stay with us, whose works powerfully affect us, affect us precisely because they are able to convey something beyond themselves.  They may or may not practice archery, but they know how to hit a target.

Sculpture Peg Leg Bates 1255172_290453047762733_1388485100_n

 

 

Made Things May 11, 2013

Filed under: Craft,creativity,Process — saratbaker @ 7:41 pm
Tags: , , ,

I was wandering today in the J & J Flea Market, “The Biggest in Georgia,” with a young friend.  I love flea markets, because you can get a sense of other people’s lives, both past and present.  We passed an old man with a wizened face and a patchy faded blonde beard playing guitar with a young girl sporting a nose ring.  She set to those strings with flying fingers singing an old country song I wish I knew.  We saw little Hispanic boys clutching a small fuzzy dog, and passed through a market that smelled like Mexico.  We saw chickens and game cocks and a duck in a cage.  We passed a table with cast iron pans and I told my friend how you can’t beat cast iron for cooking.  There were white country folk selling plants, and a large black man covered in tattoos and gold chains and cowboy boots with a sweet expression on his face.  There were cheap Chinese designer bags, and tons of books.  We found a great booth with ridiculously inexpensive rings and pendants made with Botswana agate, amethysts, garnets and chalcedony sourced from all over the world. My friend was talking about making art and how it will be so cool when you won’t even need anything, you’ll just imagine it and the computer in your brain will make it.  Hmm, I said, I don’t know how cool that will be.  Why not, she asked?  Well, I said, one of the things about art is that the medium, the material, often resists you, and that is why the image in your mind is often different than what comes out on canvas or paper.  You have that momentary inspiration, and then in attempting to make the thing—poem or painting, garden—you have to deal with the medium, which is balky and not always easy to work with.  Take watercolors, for instance.  How many great results happen by accident?  You just have to go with it sometimes.  Or a plant volunteers in your garden that you didn’t intend, but you find that it works for you.  Or you plant something and it just doesn’t want to be there.  Or language—part of the fun of writing is that it is a discovery, you don’t always know where a poem will take you. Still, she said, I think it will be cool.  Well, there you have it, I thought. Kids today—they’ve grown up with computers, and it is all so natural to them.  Then I wondered if our next stage of evolution will be human/robots.  Which no doubt she would think is cool. We walked by a booth and I spied a piece of quilt.  When I opened it, I saw a beautiful pattern of golds, olives and purples.  It was distinctive—the maker had a fine aesthetic sensibility. It was small, a lap robe. I asked the man where he had gotten it.  An estate sale, he said, an old black woman in Alabama had made it and he had once had hundreds.  I asked him how much, and he said 5 whole dollars.  I bought it.  Maybe some of her spirit is in the quilt, I said to him; it needs to be appreciated.  I looked at it more closely.  The stitches were all by hand and as fine as anything I’d ever seen.  The cloth was wool.  I know that in the Depression old coats were cut up to make quilts; I have an Amish quilt made almost entirely of dark coat fabric.  The fabrics were in fine shape, but clearly old. I imagined the woman putting together the quilt from things she had on hand, making do.  I imagine her on her hands and knees, laying out the pattern.  I imagine her taking the time to make those tiny stitches, maybe after a day of picking cotton.  I imagine her satisfaction at the results, after the patience and effort. I looked around the booths, at junky plastic toys and jewelry made in sweatshops and hand carved walking sticks.  Most of it wasn’t art, or even craft, but I had a pang of nostalgia for all the humble made things.  I am not anxious for a future where we think things into being.  I want a world where serendipity can happen, where the medium has to be wrestled into form. I put my quilt in my study, over the back of the futon. I think it is very happy there.

 

 
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