Practice & Muse

For people active in the arts, “creators,” the concept of the Muse is familiar–we read or hear about her often, sometimes in laments bemoaning her abandonment of the artist. May Sarton mentions needing a Muse to write poetry; in Sarton’s case, the Muse had to be an actual person, someone intellectually and sensually stimulating. For other creative types, the Muse is metaphorical, or acts as an aspect of a ritual to invoke inspiration, or as a method of removing writer’s block.

I rather like the idea of the Muse, as myth and metaphor; sorry to report, though, that I cannot recall a time when I felt I actually had a Muse. For writer’s block, I might have turned to Lord Ganesha, Remover of All Obstacles–but as I age into confidence as a writer, I find more patience with myself when the words don’t flow as rapidly.

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Dancing Ganesha. [wikimedia/creative commons: 123rf.com]

I seldom think of myself as “blocked” anymore. During the times I compose less poetry, I can revise and rework older poems. I can gather completed poems together and puzzle over making the next manuscript. Or I might be busy writing various genres of prose, such as this blog or work-related articles and proposals.

Writing, for me, requires constant practice. It has little foundation in inspired revelation or appearances of the Muse. I do like prompts and challenges, though, for motivation and to pique my curiosity. My latest challenge-to-self is to write a screenplay. It’s a new form for me and I have to learn how to write dialogue and setting and to think in scenes. The only past experience at all similar has been my work on opera libretti, fascinating and, for this particular writer, extremely hard to do at all–let alone to do well.

Colin Pope writes, in a recent essay on Nimrod‘s blog, that he believes “poets are the types of people who feel most comfortable examining themselves on paper, tallying up inner thoughts and realizations…”

In my case, muse is a verb:

muse (v.)

“to reflect, ponder, meditate; to be absorbed in thought,” mid-14c., from Old French muser (12c.) “to ponder, dream, wonder; loiter, waste time,” which is of uncertain origin; the explanation in Diez and Skeat is literally “to stand with one’s nose in the air” (or, possibly, “to sniff about” like a dog who has lost the scent), from muse “muzzle,” from Gallo-Roman *musa “snout,” itself a word of unknown origin.

 

Thanks again, Online Etymology Dictionary!

~

Worth reading for the consideration of grief as a kind of inspiration: Colin Pope on Nimrod’s blog– “Every Poem Is a Poem about Loss.”

 

Journals

While re-reading May Sarton’s At Seventy: A Journal, I recalled reading this essay about the book, by Jeffrey Levine, in June. I first read At Seventy when I was, I think, 40 years old…I recommended it to my mother-in-law, who–like Sarton–lived alone and loved to garden. I now recognize in Sarton’s journal aspects of life and aging and creativity that I had not thought much of when I was younger–at 40, I felt envious of her freedom as a single woman. I was raising young teens, managing a busy household, working on a master’s degree, feeling I had no time to myself.

One thing that interests me about Sarton is her decision to keep journals intended for publication, beginning I think with her journal about recovering from cancer, though she had written at least one memoir before that journal.

Another poet who wrote journals intended for publication was the Japanese writer Masaoka Shiki. Perhaps his most famous diary (in the West, at least) is “The Verse Record of My Peonies,” thanks to a translation by Earl Miner. Shiki kept writing haiku and haibun, as well as reviews, for the newspaper even as he was slowly dying of tuberculosis. His journal entries (there are others) were intended for readers.

My journals (and I have kept one ever since I was ten and read Harriet the Spy), however, would not make good reading; I would be embarrassed if they were published, especially unedited and unrevised, and no one would feel inspired, delighted, or edified by them. The concept of writing a daily journal intended to be read seems either brave or a bit dishonest, like a persona. Then again–many early weblogs were exactly that: daily public journals read by whatever online audience stumbled upon them. And perhaps this blog acts as my public journal, mostly about what I read, what’s in the garden, and what I’m teaching. Those pursuits, made public, do not mask who I am. They are the things I choose to reveal.

I don’t know if that’s different from a social media persona. But here’s a sleeping cat to look at while I ponder.

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Comfort zones redux

What do we mean by “comfort zone”? People use it frequently, especially in self-improvement and creativity-related writing. Has it become an empty phrase? It’s so subjective–which is entirely the point, I suppose. If we can manage to agree on what the idea means, we still must confront the continuum of such a zone. I reflect on my tolerance for aesthetic discomfort often, especially when I am reading or observing creative work. For example, I like listening to jazz; some jazz soothes, some excites, and some takes effort to hear–I have to be in the mood for confrontational experiments with sound such as performances by The Art Ensemble of Chicago.imagesAEC

Similarly, while I love art, I cannot imagine living with “Guernica” on the wall…or Goya’s “The Third of May.” Or anything by Francis Bacon. Some creative works are meant to push viewers out of their comfort zones; some are no doubt as uncomfortable to create as they are to view. A work of art that takes emotional and craft risks puts the artist not only at risk of critical rage or misinterpretation of intentions, but also at the very personal risk of failure.

And that effort is important, that willingness to fail. Without it, nothing invented or imagined can be achieved.

I am not a good painter, and trying to paint clouds or winter trees or landscapes means I am going to paint bad pictures. I have better gardening skills than painting skills, but I love trying a new seed or plant or cultivation method, even though the results often don’t succeed. Pushing the comfort zone has mixed but invaluable rewards.

Poems practically cry out to enter such territory. Often I find that even poems that contain in their lines and imagery moments of hope or great love and comfort simultaneously discomfit me. It fascinates me; how does the poet first compose, then revisit and revise, the poem that must surely be even more uncomfortable to write–to confront? (Search for any anthology on a difficult topic and therein will be many such poems.) Most of us prefer to avoid pain zones, so we stay within our comfort zones.

~

In Zechariah 12:2, the Lord promises terrible punishments for the enemies of Judah. Elaine Scarry approaches the conundrum of pain’s subjectivity (among other things) in The Body in Pain. I find wonder and ideas in the continuum of pain zones, in the concept of pain as punishment versus the concept that life is dukkha and inevitably contains suffering, and many other perspectives that people take concerning anything from mild emotional stress to mental illness, age-related physical problems, various forms of “disability,” and the Wong-Baker FACES pain rating scale.

Here, from WORDPEACE online, a poem of my own that I found uncomfortable to write, and which some readers have told me is uncomfortable to read. Taking the risk:

A Cup of Reeling [for the sufferers]

“Pain is…language-destroying.” Elaine Scarry

It is I am told all in my head but the body how the body loves the head
where language resides in the soft and voluble brain
and hurt undoes every synapse until sweat and stress the bullet
between clenched teeth [as if to aid?] good god deliver me
groan swear-word ululation weep and reeling, eloquence undone.
The crucible my own right leg: fire pulley strain does not allow
gravity or, god, motion, my evidence convincing to me only to me
unavailable to others [no one privy to, spare me, my—agony—
no object but destruction of objects no intention but self-obliteration]
Pain’s constructed in waiting rooms, waiting for morphine
or anything anything; I am animal in pain and sentient in my pain.
Good god who dares believe in me now that I believe in nothing?

~

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Ways of reading

Conversing about books with a colleague recently, I began to reflect on how readers of literature read. The topic had come up earlier in the day when several students came in for tutoring on literary-analysis papers. In addition, a student in the Education program was devising a curriculum for third-graders; the lesson focus was about “different ways of reading.” I have always loved to read, and I never spent much time considering how I go about it. It just seemed natural to me…and then I encountered academia’s approach to reading and had to reconsider the way I devoured fiction.

My coworker consumes novels the way a literature professor does. He savors passages, re-reads earlier chapters in a novel to find connections with later parts of the book, and looks up references and allusions to be sure he understands the deep context of a literary text. He asks himself questions about what he’s reading. The questions keep him reading and engaged with the words on the page.

That method is how I read poetry. But it is not how I read novels or non-fiction books; those I read at a clip, almost inhaling them, seldom stopping. I read them for pleasure, for fun–I even absorb sad novels and memoirs this way, in a mad whirl of reading enjoyment, caught up in the events and characters and setting of the book in my hands. This is not to say I never look up words, places, references, but generally I do so after I have finished the book. I guess I examine such things in retrospect.

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The downside of reading fiction using my own “natural” method is that I tend to come away from a book with a strong sense of whether it was wonderfully-written or moving or amazing, but I cannot explain why it has that effect–how the author managed to get me to  believe in the characters or the world she created with her words alone. When I am reading for fun or information, however, there isn’t any need for analytical levels of cognition. If I forget a detail, I can go back and look for it later. Or forget about it. No great loss.

There are other methods of reading–certainly more than two ways to “get into” a book! The conversation about reading strategies (what feels natural to a literature-consumer, how readers savor a good book, questioning not just the text but also the self reading the words) piques my interest. I suspect some connection with consciousness and cognition, aspects of human-ness I have mulled about in previous posts.

Well, enough for now. I am signing off–to read a good book!

Storms

This week, I’m reflecting on Kyna Leski‘s marvelous little book The Storm of Creativity. How to describe this text? It’s written by someone who teaches architecture as well as designs spaces, and who reads across disciplines and thinks both deeply and widely. It is not a how-to book; more of a how-it-works book. I learned of this book through Deborah Barlow (in 2015!) and finally have gotten around to reading it.

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Leski uses the analogy of a storm system, from moisture in the ground or bodies of water through the gathering of the storm organizing itself into, say, a hurricane, and takes the process all the way through to dissipation (a kind of “death”) and restarting the cycle, when what we have is new again–and will not be exactly the same next time.

Rob Harle, reviewing the book, says:

“Leski’s approach is far better and much more practical than those found in books that delve deeply into neurophysiology, neuro-transmitters in the brain and so on when trying to understand what happens when creative people work. The neurological approach may be useful as far as it goes, and for specialized reasons. However, knowing that a certain neurotransmitter fires up a certain part of the brain doesn’t help us understand, or more importantly, deal with, for example, writer’s block. Leski’s storm metaphor and analysis does!”

Her vimeo video offers an animated visual of the storm process.

Here’s the thing: she captures the process as I myself experience it. I keep re-reading sections of this book and nodding in recognition. I am not the sort of person who spends much time analyzing creativity; I prefer to read how other people analyze the process and decide whether their reflections or analyses dovetail with my own. In this case, yes. For me, anyway, the creative process organizes like a storm.

The gathering part of the work coincides with that aspect of writing that I call observing. Gathering is a good word for it (Leski uses denotations and etymology as she defines her process, so that appeals to me, too). There’s a phrase my relatives used referring to someone daydreaming or loafing reflectively: “woolgathering.” Despite this interesting inquiry into the appropriateness of the phrase to mean loafing or daydreaming, in our family it meant daydreaming. I used to think the phrase referred to watching clouds–one of my favorite activities as a child–because clouds often look like wool. At any rate, woolgathering’s essential to my writing practice.

And sometimes, those clouds collect together, and create a storm.

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Two reams

As regards my recent long weekend assessing and organizing my work, the most startling revelation has been its sheer volume. I keep my printed poem drafts in an old-fashioned cardboard letterhead/correspondence box which holds two reams of paper–1,000 pages–and the box was full. Among poets who experience writer’s block this abundance may seem a problem worth having, but keep in mind two things:

1) This output represents over 15 years of uncompleted, unrevised drafts and

2) Most of the poems are crappy, or mediocre at best.

Apparently I have taken to heart William Stafford‘s advice that if one has trouble with writing, “perhaps you should lower your standards.” *

Abundance is a fine thing, but anyone who has ever cleaned a barn stall or an attic knows that sheer volume does not count for much. And one cannot spin bad drafts into gold without considerable help from supernatural guides or wily trolls, neither of which accompanied me to the cabin.

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Thus, I had to toil on my own, critique my poems, evaluate which ones have most “promise,” and try to keep myself from throwing absolutely everything into the woodstove. The work required solitude, discernment, frequent breaks for walks, tea, exercise, reading work other than my own, and (eventually) wine.

Also the occasional nap. My brain gets sleepy after awhile.

The outcome? I winnowed, though possibly not enough.  I have begun the disciplined, for now, revision process of the “active” stack of work. It is entirely possible that there’s a collection or two in there, though I will not know that for some time.

It will not be gold, but it will be a vast improvement over the accumulated dross..


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Part of the process…

*In an interview with Bill Moyers, and widely quoted elsewhere

(Dis)order & (dis)comfort

The university takes a long weekend in October; I thought it a propitious time to snare some solitude for writing and revising and thus betook myself and a mountain of my work to a semi-secluded cabin. Designed and largely built by Jack Fisher, the place offers light, comfort, memories, art, nature and spaciousness of environment. While I had no particular plan in mind–in retrospect, possibly a mistake–I imagined these days would act as a mini-writing retreat.

I love the cabin, the memories, the aesthetics of the house and generally I love solitude as long as it does not extend for too many days. The circumstance I discovered once I opened up my pile of poetry drafts, however, led me to one conclusion: I was going to have to organize, read, evaluate, consider, and cull before even getting to the “fun” part of revising. This level of work tends to discomfit me, feels tedious and draining and sometimes fruitless–which is why I have pretty much put it off since…oh…graduate school. Almost two decades.

But I made myself time to be alone and undisturbed, so let my work disturb me as it must. If a writer never allows herself to experience discomfort, she is unlikely to move her work forward in any meaningful or craft-related way.

I do not mind a little disorder in life, but the state of my drafts long ago sailed past disorder and into chaos and redundancy. It helps me to make an analogy to the garden: time to weed, time to save seeds (and label them!) and make notes on what thrived under which conditions and to note where the voles and rabbits are breaching the fence. A realtor might substitute the analogy of “deferred maintenance.” [Yikes!]

If this long weekend turned out to be less full of new work, or of fruitful revisiting of poems to make them stronger–if it has tested my comfort level with my own writing and forced me to face the mediocrity of most of it–that’s fine. The edges are where the interest lies, at the tension between the expected and the challenging. Sometimes we need a little less comfort and order to test the mettle of our creative acts and of ourselves. The days at the cabin were peaceful and full of solitude. I believe they will have yielded, for me, a clearer view of where my work–and I–are headed.

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