Friday, December 24, 2010
What are your impediments to expression? Do you come from a culture of stiff-upper lip and stoicism? Have you been sick, or worse, lobotomized? Do you lack access to clean water or nutritious food? Do you work 4 jobs to support 6 children? Are you lacking formal education? Do you just lack time? What are the impediments?
Every one of us has a reason, or quite a few reasons for not expressing ourselves. Personally, I like the coziness of conversation with the voices in my head. In contrast, they are quite difficult to commit to paper. Also, I have utter meltdowns when my body betrays me in some specific ways - say if I bleed a little too long or feel fatigue or find I cannot get my jeans up past my thighs. I stop thinking creatively and begin wondering if there is enough money for a funeral.
Sir Ken Robinson makes an excellent point in his TED talk about creativity and the value public education places on the arts. His asserts that public education places no value on creativity or the arts. Robinson’s driving point is that children are educated in a way that separates the head from the body, and the body is reduced to a carrying case for the head, which isn’t hot. At least 90% of the body’s bass is below the neckline, it doesn’t make sense to act as though the head is all that matters.
Contrast that mode of education with this quote from legendary boxer Joe Frazier, “Kill the body and the head will die.”
The tongue is a muscle. The brain is a nerve-rich area with muscles. The jaw, the skull - they are just bones like the bone in your pinkie toe. So, as a collection of muscle and bone we can take heart in training ourselves beyond impediments. Some people cannot think without moving. I am one of those people. My day’s thinking is usually accomplished in a 30-45 minute block while I swim laps in a pool. That’s all the thinking I do in a day, the rest is just expression of thought on paper, verbally, or through music. Any new physical activity depends on my ability to add length and speed over a period of time - the same with writing.
Every day since starting my Real World MFA I have written a half a page of a story. One-half page. It isn’t a full page, it isn’t Stephen King or James Patterson-worthy 8 hours of hammering out story. It’s a half page a day and I find myself satisfied at the end. I get it in between swimming and work and I go through my day feeling pretty good abut myself because my story either progressed halfway through a new sheet of paper or it progressed enough to finish a page. It’s very cool.
In many disciplines you must start small and take things as they come. Writing isn’t so different, it’s a physical exercise of expression and relies on the hands and brain. It can be taxing (as all those who just wrapped up National Novel Writing Month can attest), and it must be refined over time. The youngest writer, out of sheer persistence, can produce a work of formidable length. Imagine!
No matter where you are in your life you can get somewhere else by slow, steady work. It adds up, it builds upon itself. And while it may feel contrary to all you’ve been educated to understand - that’s the way all things happen, it’s how all things work.
Friday, December 3, 2010
“To change one’s life: Start immediately. Do it flamboyantly. No exceptions.” - William James
“There is an essence of grit to fight through something like that. You have got to get own and dirty and battle with yourself. My work can be great but I’m nothing special.” - Sam Sheridan
I can’t write when I’m unhappy. There are years when my journals are truncated trash until I exorcise whatever demon is futzing with my ch’i at the moment. The cause can be as small as a memory I can’t put to bed or as large as PTSD. Whatever it is, it stops me in my tracks.
I remember reading Rita Mae Brown’s “Getting Started” and her talking about a writer’s need for peace. That’s been a hard one for me. When I read the book the first time I was pretty peaceful (read: alone and drugged sufficiently to stop the noise in my own head) but I was actively seeking out people to hurt my feelings and make me feel bad. It was a habit I still find difficult to quit. I didn’t know conciously what I was seeking. I’d been dumped by all of my usual mean girls. I was in “recruitment” mode. I was also hobbled by botched-surgery complications, which meant crazy had to come to me because I could not go to it. It was a very productive period. I was with myself a lot.
I remember my less-dramatically-inclined friends (really, just one existed) asking why I put myself out there for the type of people who didn’t mean me any good at all. I still had Rita Mae Brown’s words bouncing around my brain but I couldn’t codify the concepts. A peaceful existence was something I may have yearned for, but how would I have I known what it was if I’d never seen it?
E.L. Konigsburg wrote in her book The View from Saturday, “How do you know excellence if you’ve never seen it?” I can not speak for anyone else, but I know my life up to a certain point only had peace as a byproduct as loneliness - the “does anyone remember I’m here” and “we’ve just moved again and no one wants to know me” varieties of loneliness. It’s take a lot to separate peace and loneliness as qualities, then to focus on the the one, peace, without lapsing into the the other, loneliness.
There have, thus far, been three distinct movements in my quest for peace. The first, as with so many firsts, was inadvertent. I lost all my party friends after getting sidelined by surgery. It may amaze you to learn this, dear reader, but healthy people don’t think much about the sick. I know, it shocked me too! No visitors, no calls, everyone had to help their cat expunge a fur ball or something. The phone and my doorbell were silent. I did try to stir up some drama but the steady intake of codeine slowed that effort considerably. I spent a year mulling over what happened and discovering the renewed joys of (l)on(e)ly childhood.
The second movement had more purpose, focus, and direction. I evaluated my needs - primarily financial and health-related - and decided I should be best friends with a doctor. Yes, I think like this, exactly this calculating if amorphous. A doctor promptly made himself available and I went with it, farther than I even intended: across the country, into a foreign land (the American South), for a very long time. I actually wanted my family, but they weren’t taking prodigals at the time, so I had to start anew. Not so peaceful on the surface, not so peaceful at all actually. But I did get the healthcare help, so there is that.
The third movement has been the hardest, I’m still stroking through the sometimes frigid waters of creating peace for myself. And it may be a little late for this, but let me share my definition of peace - it’s largely cribbed from Harriet Rubin’s book “The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women.” “Peace is: tranquility, fearlessness, and freedom, all three together.”
I seek what Rubin calls “a wild peace,” the moments between battles that is defined by them. It was such that in 2007 when I lost almost all of my friends, a vital nerve cluster in my pelvis, and that I felt so alive and so glad of it that it took over a year for the anguish to begin.
The difficulties cannot be exaggerated. The benefits of being turned inside out and scrubbed by scalpel, amnesia and isolation cannot be counted. There was eventually some measure of peace, but I remained vulnerable to trouble and troublesome people. Still I yearned for approval of the impossible variety until all the doors closed - physically closed - and I found myself on a cross-country flight reading about the necessity of a strong mind for survival in mixed martial arts. I asked myself, what is life if not a fight to the very end? I asked myself, why are you content to be weak-minded because bad shit has happened? I asked myself, “can you do better?” I asked myself, “will you do better?”
Then, I asked myself, “when?” Because tomorrow is hardly guaranteed, and in the words of a venerable old gentleman in Menlo Park, CA “they will never love you the way you need them to, so are you going to destroy yourself trying to prove you’re worthy of love they cannot give?”
He’d looked right through me and called my number. At least he fed me first.
Rita Mae Brown makes a comparison in her book between surgeons and writers. I’ve observed surgeons up close and in person for for going on 8 years now. Know what I’ve noticed? The world can fall apart around the best of them and they remain committed to the outcome of their patient.
Surgeons seek stability in their personal lives, but the work comes before almost all else. It isn’t always admirable. There are difficult decisions made to preserve professional roles that damage personal relationships, but there is a commitment to stability.
In an operating room there is a zone, a refuge between life and death where a surgeon’s heart soars and merges with all that is or ever was. There is that place for every craft, most especially for artists. But how protective are we of ourselves? How often do we fixate on the quixotic and kaleidoscopic, imagining our lives should be works of art more than what we produce? Certainly I have been a victim of that fallacy, and I watch those I love struggle to mold their voices while battling lovers, parents, and false friends. I am extracting myself slowly from these distractions. I have larger wars to wage. I prefer wild peace. And winning.
“In everyone's life, there's a need to be happy. Let the sun shine, a smile your way.” Devotion by Earth, Wind and Fire