Word Medicine

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

Keep Moving:Thoughts on Journaling and Process February 6, 2013

They say there is nothing worse than a Sunday painter.  I stand accused.

matisee

I’m a rank amateur, and that would be OK if I knew nothing about good art.  But the problem is, I do, so I can see how wanting my efforts are.  I want to be Matisse and just skip over all the hours it takes to get there. In Malcolm Gladwell book, Outliers,  he talks about the importance of practice in any art form.  I know I will never be Matisse, but I also know that I need to keep at it, that my failures are as important as my successes.  In this last painting, for example, I can see that it isn’t resolved, that there is something lacking, and I have an inkling of what it might be, a way to go forward.  So I’m determined to make a move, to keep going with it, even if I ruin it.  I’m interested in the problem the painting represents, and in seeing where it might go.

Make a move.  This might be my mantra.  All my life I’ve been plagued by timidity.  I default to freezing when confronted with something I want or need to do.  Often, when I make a start, I am so overcome with fear that it is not good enough that I abandon the project, whatever it might be.

One way I overcome this with writing is to keep a journal, or morning pages or a seed book, what ever you might want to call it.  People talk a lot about journaling, but it seems to me that there is no one thing that is journaling.  There is no entry for it in most dictionaries.  At its most basic it might be simply writing in a notebook on a consistent basis.  For some, it may be to record dreams, and for others, daily impressions. Some may pour out their hearts and others keep ideas for stories and poems gleaned from the news.  I use my journal for all of these, trying to fill three pages every morning, as suggested in The Artist’s Way.  I give myself complete freedom to be dumb, inarticulate, maudlin or silly.  I give vent to my most immature, neurotic thoughts.  I rant.  I remember. Sometimes I stumble upon a whole trove of memories that seem to have been just waiting for this particular moment to flag me down.  But because I have no expectations, I feel free.  I have no ambition to be like anyone else. That freedom from expectation often leads to surprising things.

For many years, I didn’t look back at my journals.  I put them in a closet and shut the door, often with relief, as if I had corralled a host of ungainly monsters and put them out of sight.  Had I dared think that?  Was that really how I felt?  What if my family found out?  No, better to just leave those monsters be.

But lately, I’ve started reading my journals, and using them as seedbeds for other writings.  Folks have been doing this for years, but I think it is worth mentioning how different reading the journals and writing them are.  When we journal, it is much like dreaming.  We have to let ourselves go into the dream state, which is often irrational.  Journal entries can be disjointed, as are dreams.  Entries don’t stick to one subject, developing it, but free associate.  When we write in our journals, our feelings are often raw, unedited.  We are not judging what we are writing, nor looking for patterns.  But what I’ve found is that in rereading my journals, there are usually patterns of preoccupation, of themes, that stand out.  There are also those quickly dashed off impressions, often visual descriptions, that capture the immediacy of a moment that would have otherwise been lost.  There are both observations of the world, and observations of my inner world, all thrown in there together.  Often these become the basis of a story or poem.

While the story or poem is crafted with conscious intention, the impetus comes from a place that is less conscious, and often provides the energy needed to make the piece live.  Yet I need all the consciously practiced skills in my craft box to honor the initial spark, and to develop it into a piece that will be complex and satisfying.  And so to that end, I practice particular skills, the way a musician might practice scales.  At the moment, I am working through Poetry as Spiritual Practice, by Robert McDowell.  I just came across this:  “No writer of poetry escapes feeling discouragement many times….in any pursuit, it’s natural to feel, at times, a personal futility….Anyone who has ever played baseball marvels at the effortlessness in the performance of even the most marginal major leaguer, but that grace is a product of commitment and endless repetition, endless learning….”   And here is another quote, along the same lines: “The splashing of the ink around the brush comes by instinct, while the manipulation of the ink by the brush depends on spiritual energy.  Without cultivation, the ink-splashing will not be instinctive, and without experiencing life, the brush cannot possess spiritual energy.”  The Wilderness Colors of Tao-chi, quoted by Marilyn Fu and Wen Fong. From Tao-chi’s treatise.  Cited in Beat Not the Poor Desk.

I look at my painting.  I could abandon it here, or I could dip my brush into the yellow paint.

 

My Morning with Matisse December 3, 2012

30MATISSE1-articleLargeLast Friday morning, I was arrested by three images of portraits by Matisse reproduced in the Arts section of the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/30/arts/design/matisse-exhibition-at-the-metropolitan-museum-of-art.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0. ) I love Matisse, and hadn’t remembered seeing these paintings.  There was something elemental about them, with their simple shapes and limited palette.  At first, they almost seem childlike in their freshness and seeming effortlessness.    But as I read further in Roberta Smith’s wonderful review, I learned that “that Matisse’s progress was often grueling and yet….., he worked through his difficulties to a final image that exudes consummate freshness and ease.”  He revisited certain “scenes and subjects and at times also making superficially similar if drastically divergent copies of his paintings.”  According to Ms. Smith, “Always he sought an implicitly modern directness and rawness that created a brave new intimacy among artist, object and viewer. He claimed to work “toward what I feel; toward a kind of ecstasy.””

I sipped my coffee and soaked in the images.  But perhaps what stood out most for me was the phrase, “he worked through his difficulties to a final image that exudes consummate freshness and ease.”  So often when we view art or read a finished poem or story, what we experience is the completeness, the inevitability of the work of art.  Because the work, if it is good, has the energy and spontaneity of the original impulse, we don’t appreciate the many stages of revision, the detours and setbacks that go into making it.  The awe we feel at what was once considered the “divine spark” overshadows the very human process, the often grueling process, that goes into creating a work.

Somehow I felt buoyed up to learn of Matisse’s process.  I know that in my own writing and very amateurish attempts at visual art, I’ve often given up before something was “done.”  Dispirited by the incompleteness, by the raw edges showing through, I haven’t persisted, or worked through a piece.  I’ve wanted to jump over the hard working through to the finished project, not realizing that it is in the working through that one often discovers the truest essence of the piece.

In the movie, A Late Quartet, Christopher Walken plays a cellist and teacher who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.  When one of his students criticizes another student, he tells them his story of meeting Pablo Casals when he was a young student, and playing for him.  What Walken’s character remembers are all the mistakes he made, but when he goes on to play with Casals later and tells him how mortified he was by the mistakes, Casals’ response was to remember what was felicitous about the young man’s playing.  So often as we struggle to create, we see only the mistakes, and too often give up on ourselves.

What does all this have to do with writing and healing?  Not everyone who comes to a healing writing class is interested in creating art.  However, I have found that participants are often very interested in craft, in “getting better.”  Offering our own experiences of process, and gently encouraging participants to persist through frustration, can lead to a sense of mastery, which is in itself healing.  By pointing out the positive, we can support them as they explore ways to deepen their work, and we can model the human enterprise that making art is.

 

 
%d bloggers like this: