Last night was the first meeting of "Sources of Creativity: Theory and Practice," a course that I'm teaching this quarter in the BA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. The students come from a wide variety of backgrounds and with a broad array of creative experience, from poetry to visual art to acting, photography, coding, skateboarding, and scriptwriting. About midway through the three-hour class, as we reviewed the syllabus, a colorfully designed nine-pages with its outline of the quarter's assignments and midterm and final projects, dotted with drawings from my 13-year-old artist-stepdaughter, I sensed an unspoken concern in the room. How, I almost felt the students' thoughts, would this instructor evaluate our papers and projects - our creative work and our personal reflections on our process.
Ah, yes. This is where we need to start, every time, but especially in a setting like this one: a college classroom strewn with desks and chairs and whiteboards, all bright and muggy under the florescent lights. Especially when the students are all-too cognizant of the evaluations they will receive from me, their evaluator, at the end of the quarter.
I looked up from the schedule of academic rigor, scholarly essays, and details of how I will assess their work, to get back to the essence of what it is I hope will happen in this class over the next ten weeks: I hope they will create. I hope they will dig through whatever resists that desire, and come out the other side. I hope that by doing this together as a class, interviewing artists in their world, reading scholarly theories by Csikszentmihalyi, anecdotes from Anne Lamott, and spiritual inquiry by Nachmanovitch, they will find themselves among creative spirit comrades, and feel inspired.
Art is a process. Creative thinking is a process. Self-inquiry is a process. Exploration of the outside world is a process. Looking at the ordinary from a different angle... process process process.
So is the development of a class syllabus. I'll write more on the process by which this one came to be, but for now I'll leave it at this: When the students saw this syllabus, colorful and chunked and so unlike the common-looking black and white 12-pt Times New Roman font Word doc, they smiled. SMILED at a syllabus. I keep smiling at it, too.
Today I am full of doubt.
Now, in the black and white font of this site you might take pity on me, or feel bored with this typical and on-going issue, or not care either way. The latter I cannot help, but regarding the pity, don't give my mind-chatter any moment of compassion. I'd rather it not be fueled by any attention whatsoever. The moment you engage, it's off to the races.
I've heard mind-chatter described like a television channel or radio station, but I don't agree. Those boxes can be changed or turned off at will. You can turn down the volume. Walk out of the room.
Mind-chatter is more like an eight-year old kid. Do you happen to have one around? If not, I'll tell you - they are on constant chatter. They bounce from topic to topic. They talk like drunks. The moment you open a book to read, they lay on top of it. They climb on the back of the couch, let Cheerios lay where they fall, and leave the box of crayons spilled across the couch even though they've moved on to choreographing a dance. They ask questions, and then shift gears the moment you try to answer. They are hungry, starving, and hate the casserole you've made. And did they tell you about the game they played at school? Yes? Okay, let them tell you again. There is no inner dialog for an eight-year-old that does not, without filter, become the outer dialog.
Like the eight-year-old, the mind will chatter. Like the heart will beat, the lungs will breathe, the inner psyche will run on and on with an endless stream of story-line. The main difference between the heart and the mind is that while the heart beats regardless of the attention you bestow upon its actions, the mind wants attention and will try any and every way to gain it.
"I am beautiful" is, apparently, not interesting dialog. There's no inner turmoil in that, no engagement, no drama. It turns out that simple love stories won't do. A thought like "I am beautiful" is tossed out as soon as it arises. But give me soap operas and I'll be hooked all afternoon.
When I sit down to write, as I have done today, all I think is "I am boring", "I cannot do this thing", and "why bother trying - someone else can do it better". In light of my recent readings of Herman Melville and Virginia Woolf, it is so easy to go there. Their books are extraordinary, and so that's where my mind-chatter goes. Like the eight-year-old, the mind wants attention. It will use every trick in the book to get it.
I texted Darby a few minutes ago:
Me: "afraid to write. afraid of being boring or having poor judgment or telling a pointless story."
him: "i totally understand. what you write might be all of those things... or not. you just gotta write. it's not your last piece. nothing rides on it. some hits some misses. and brooke just brought over some yummy donut creation. if you write, you can have some..."
I'm not above coercion, or anything doughnut related, but what I would give for useful mind-chatter. How about something helpful like "ah, this is how we will develop the structure". I mean, shouldn't my mind and I be on the same team? A good-natured chat like, "hey, Arielle, there's a cool simile - come on, try it out" would be very welcome.
So I've been thinking - practice makes perfect, right? Well, it seems I've perfected saying to myself things I would never think to say to someone else. Sure, I make mind-quieting meditation a regular practice in my life. That has helped me calm down, be present, let go. But today I'm starting a new practice. This one is not a practice of quieting the mind - it's a practice of writing my own script. I'm going to start small - just as I did with the mind-quieting meditation six years ago. Two minutes. Two minutes by the clock of meditating on a new mantra, in plain, simple English.
I am talented.
I am extraordinary.
I have a talent for storytelling.
I have a way with words that the world wants to hear - through stories, through songs, through teaching.
I need more stories like these chattering away in my mind, so I am going to start practicing them today. After all, I am a writer, aren't I?
I had a moment on Saturday evening, sitting at the dining room table while the kidlets watched season 2 of The Muppet Show in the adjoining living room. I had spent the entire day alternating between working on a new song that had suddenly emerged from some noodling on my guitar that morning, and trying to read the entirety of Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse in time for Sunday's MFA reading conference on the book.
Somewhere in Woolf's incredible 28-page dinner party scene (28 pages! 14 pages on just the soup course!), Elton John broke into "Bennie and the Jets". The muppets echoed him every time he said "Bennie". "Bennie" he sang in perfect falsetto. "Bennie" "Bennie" "Bennie" they sang in muppetly ragtag fashion. My attention shifted from the book to the show - how could it not? - and then the scene changed. The Swedish Chef chased a chicken across the stage. Scooter, in that ridiculous and joyous unrestrained Muppet way, introduced the guest star's next act, "The greatest talent in the history of the universe - Elton John WAHHHHHHHH!". The curtains opened and the Electric Mayhem band accompanied Elton on his ballad "Good-bye Yellow Brick Road". Animal on drums, Dr. Teeth on keys, Janis on guitar, Zoot on sax, and Sgt. Floyd Pepper on bass. Elton had a new pair of glasses for this song, but more noticeably he was just so young. He was thirty years old in this performance. And so mind-blowingly talented.
What is the point, I wonder sometimes, and again wondered just then in the glow of the television. The muppets flopped, chickens scattered, and Elton crooned. And me? I spent an entire Saturday working on a song that seemed at once divinely inspired and now, in the company of a long celebrated classic, entirely unnecessary. Infantile, even.
And meanwhile Woolf was laid open on the dining room table. This 1981 Harcourt, Inc. edition with Eudora Welty's forward is the second copy I've bought in the past month. The pages are yellowed and underlined and scribbled by a former reader, but as long as I can distinguish my scribbles from hers, I prefer this to the shiny-paged, no-paragraph-first-line-indentation, solid-text-block version I bought in December. Yes, I am getting picky about my publishers, but formatting is a necessary consideration. I awakened on countless mid-nights throughout the month of January with the book in my hands, unsure if it was the writing or the printing that brought on my irresistible sleepiness.
Since twelfth grade I've half-read Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando, have seen the Tilda Swinton film based on the latter novel several times, and been thoroughly amused by the Edward Albee stage-play and joke "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Me, I have often thought, I am. Too many words, too little plot. Too fluid, not enough grounding. I didn't get it, didn't get her. I simply couldn't get through a Woolf book, despite my deep love for the writer Jeanette Winterson who claims Woolf as one of her biggest influences. If not for this particular piece of required reading, I would not be wading through To the Lighthouse now. And for this reason, thank goodness for required reading.
After three days with my new Harcourt edition, I admit I am still afraid of Virginia Woolf, but now it is for different reasons. Her genius has finally revealed itself to me. Her fluidity is incredible - like water undulating through cavernous rock at high tide, Woolf moves between external events and characters' internal experience with amazing deft. How does any writer step up to that? She captures the constant mind chatter and mood fluctuations of her cast, then passes the thread of experience around from character to character, each tumbling through thoughts like sea glass churning through waves, each shift of judgment and emotion in pristine and exact language. I have never read anything that catches so well subjective perspectives and the interplay of relationships. Granted, there is not much of a plot. However, the grand gestures and broad paint strokes of plot are not the point here. To the Lighthouse is painted with the delicate minutiae of Rembrandt, not the impressionistic swatches of Cezanne. The precision is immaculate.
It is intimidating, actually.
And so I found myself wallowing in that same question again -- What is the point? -- , this time from my reading. And that is when Woolf entirely endeared herself to me. A few pages after my pity party, Woolf shifted from being my tormentor to my savior. Her dexterity, her insight blow me away, but when she used her craft to comfort my aching inner-artist, I melted. Here, it is as if she says, just for you I will put in Lily, the painter, the artist. And so that you know that I know what it is like to be an artist, I will let Lily have doubt, because don't we all? And I will show you how she overcomes it.
For this I must show you with her own words:
...before [Lily] exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt. Why then did she do it? (Yes! Isn't this the same question I wonder always??) She looked at the canvas, lightly scored with running lines. It would be hung in the servants' bedrooms. It would be rolled up and stuffed under a sofa. (Yes! The doubt of unworthiness!) What was the good of doing it then, and she heard some voice saying she couldn't paint, saying she couldn't create (Ah! Those inner voices that enter innocuously and then fester!), as if she were caught up in one of those habitual currents in which after a certain time experience forms in the mind, so that one repeats words without being aware any longer who originally spoke them.
Can't paint, can't write, she murmured monotonously, anxiously considering what her plan of attack should be. For the mass loomed before her; it protruded; she felt it pressing on her eyeballs. Then, (Ah! this "Then" is the glimmer of the new moon, the faith, the passage out of doubt and into doing) as if some juice necessary for the lubrication of her faculties were spontaneously squirted, she began precariously dipping among the blues and umbers, but it was now heavier and went slower, as if it had fallen in with some rhythm which was dictated to her... by what she saw, so that while her hand quivered with life, this rhythm was strong enough to bear her along with it on its current.
So, at the encouragement of Woolf, despite the doubt, I've continued.
On Sunday morning I went running - my first 11 miles since last May's marathon - and spent the nearly two hours of asphalt and trails working out Saturday's new song. I fell "in with some rhythm which was dictated to her...". The rhythm of the subconscious. The rhythm of the artist doing what she loves without ego-doubts intercepting every creative turn.
Sometimes people joke with me after a run. What are you running away from? they ask, and we laugh together. But really, if they wanted to actually hear an answer, I would say this: Doubt. Stories I've been told. Words I repeat "without being aware any longer who originally spoke them."
As it turns out, I don't run faster than doubt, but I do have more stamina. Eventually, every time, the mind chatter loses interest in me. I keep running, singing, writing... and doubt sits down on the side of the road and waits for some other artist who is willing to give it some attention. I feel a little badly about it - leaving the doubt out there for someone else - so perhaps that's why I write this blog. I can't do away with the "can't write, can't paint" words that float around maliciously, but I can keep doing my art despite the doubt, and write about the interplay between art and doubt here. After all, not everyone has the time to get to Woolf.
(But if you do, don't worry - there's nothing to be afraid of.)
I write a lot about doubts because I have so many. I spent the first half of my life -- actually, perhaps the first two-thirds -- accidentally incorporating other peoples' fear-based beliefs into my own psyche. Metaphorically, in a right-handed world I was a lefty who was taught, and later bought, the story that right-handedness was the way I should be. An artist must struggle, according to the lore I was handed, and can either starve or give up the art. I tried both of those options for years before I became suspect about the credibility of my source.
These options -- to either starve or give up -- are not the only possibilities. That emperor has no clothes. There is actually nothing to support that narrative except the perpetuation of that story.
When I moved to Los Angeles seven years ago, the city itself cracked open the false front of that narrative. It is a fear-based and limited story, and Los Angeles reveals the ridiculousness of it every day. This city is built on and by creative artists of all types. L.A. is a testament to the power of vision. You can talk about the smog or the traffic jams or the sky high real estate prices, but if you really want to talk about the essence of L.A., you've got to talk about dreams, and that dreams come true.
In sixth grade I participated in my class's lip sync contest, bouncing around the gym in colorful '80s leg warmers, mouthing the words to the Starship hit song that year: We built this city on rock and roll. I've rarely thought about that song since. Were they singing about Los Angeles?
The other day in the Breath and Writing workshop, we focused on the physical act of breathing, and also the way that breath comes across in writing. Then, after two minutes of matched inhales and exhales, we put pen to page and were asked to write about the thing that resides in the deep, hidden folds of our breath. I found myself bored with fear and doubt. I've written enough about those things. Instead, I flipped the coin over and explored a new story. My pen tested out another line of thought, one about possibility, limitless and authentic expression, accepted and applauded vision.
There's a story I sometimes talk about in my yoga classes about a man walking down the street and falling into a pothole. Perhaps you've heard it before. A man walks down the street, and everyday stumbles into the same pothole. One day the man walks down the street, and while he stumbles into the pothole, he sees it first. This is his awakening. He still falls, but he is aware for the first time that the pothole is his pattern. Later, the man walks down the street, and sees the pothole before he stumbles. That day he instead has the consciousness to walk around the pothole. In the final piece of the story, he eventually takes a different road entirely.
I am not yet on a different road. I've been writing about the pothole, still often stumbling in, sometimes able to walk around it. Sometimes I end up circling it for days on end, peering into its depths. In the Breath workshop this week I took a test stroll down another street. It was sloppy and I felt the pull back to my old familiar territory.
Doubt and faith are bedfellows that cannot occupy the same space. I've been sleeping with doubt for too long, but faith is still a new companion. Seven years in Los Angeles, and every year I find a little more faith. Who would have thought that this city of heathens would teach me this, but it is, and as time unfolds I learn more.
Here is a David Whyte poem that I always remember, nearly every day when I am gripped with self-doubt. I am thinking of it again today.
I want to write about faith,
about the way the moon rises
over cold snow, night after night,
faithful even as it fades from fullness,
slowly becoming that last curving and impossible
sliver of light before the final darkness.
But I have no faith myself
I refuse it even the smallest entry.
Let this then, my small poem,
like a new moon, slender and barely open,
be the first prayer that opens me to faith.
-- David Whyte
Naturally, after years of northeast city living, I walk fast. Last night, soaked from head to foot after a spin class, I slowed my pace. My car (utilitarian, dirty) was in a lot (street level, gated, manned), same place I parked for Monday's class. I noticed the unusually warm November air, and the pitch black sky (no stars, no moon), and the lights ablaze on the backside of a three-story concrete apartment building at the far side of the lot. It's common knowledge that to be a writer one needs to slow down and notice things.
My new book bag arrived in the mail yesterday. Last night after spin, not exactly at their request, I gave Darby and the girls individualized tours of the (let's count together) sixteen (or did we miss one?) pockets. There are pockets within pockets and it gets very confusing, but the most important thing is that there's space for my (printed out, three-hole-punched, three-ring-bindered) reading materials and (new) laptop. In addition to the bag and the laptop, a few weeks ago I went to the eye doctor for the first time in six years and am now wearing new glasses (Prada like the devil). Also, I have more student loan debt. Apparently I am going back to school.
Do I look smarter?
Am I more organized?
Will my new bag and laptop and everything make me focused, disciplined, witty, and desirable in smart, creative, insightful ways?
Dammit, will these new specs and my sixteen (or seventeen) pocket book bag help me achieve all my professional, creative, and life desires, which include a charming, perfectly-sized house in a small town with agreeable weather (some rain, plenty of sun, cool enough for layers, warm enough for bare feet), beloved students and colleagues, published books and essays, and plenty of time with Darby to explore exotic and familiar places where we can be both adventurous and lazy?
Ah, welcome, mind-chatter. Of course. Have a seat, set up shop. Like my new book bag, there are pockets within pockets, and there's always room for more worried inner-dialog. One thing my mind chatter does not refute is that I am an attentive listener.
One of my past writing teachers always insisted on grounding details right from the start. Let the reader know who, what, where, when, and how, she would urge, but look at me here. Even with the MFA acceptance letter, new glasses, and book bag, I cannot hide from the fact that I will fail. I have already forgotten the grounding details.
Who: Yours truly, the timid and fierce dreamer in residence.
What: MFA in Creative Writing with a focus on Creative Non-Fiction (but explorations and possible semester in Fiction). Low Residency program.
Where: Antioch University Los Angeles.
When: Beginning in a few weeks on Thursday December 5 at 6:00 p.m.
How: With a good amount of anguish, I suppose.
The low residency format of this MFA means I will be on campus for ten days each semester, for four or five semesters. Ten days on campus attending workshops and seminars, followed by five months of 'project period' in which I will write and submit, among other things, twenty pages monthly to my mentor. In preparation for one of the upcoming December residency seminars, I re-read a passage in Anne Lamott's book Bird By Bird. In her chapter titled The Moral Point of View she writes,"The core, ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe... telling these truths is your job."
Sorry about the profanity, but Dammit, Jim. What are the core, ethical concepts in which I most passionately believe? Lamott is not asking for a superficial answer about what I like, or to what I am agreeable, but that which I most passionately believe. She writes later, "Reality is unforgivingly complex." Hell right it is. Is there a closet to hide in, because this stuff is pretty intense. How do you unravel your passions enough to get at Truth, with a capital T? Can I not just live in keeping with my values, hopefully bring that to my yoga students and my kidlets? Doesn't she know that the Prada glasses are just a ruse?
Apparently not. Lamott is saying Arielle, dear timid and fierce dreamer in residence, you can quietly live whatever life you want, but if you are going to write about it, you need to step up to the plate. And, by the way, you're the one who put the application in the mail to Antioch, with an excerpt from the book you are writing about the time you toured the country for five months with your band. You went to one of the top music schools in the country despite unholy cries from your nuclear family about how you cannot and should not pursue the life of an artist. YOU HAVE DISMANTLED YOUR LIFE EVERY TIME YOU FOUND IT WAS INAUTHENTIC AND REBUILT THE FOUNDATION FROM SCRATCH.
Yeah, Ms. Lamott. I guess stepping up to plate is kinda my modus operandi anyway. I just wish I could do it with a little less commentary from the inner critic peanut gallery.
In the shower this morning, I held the bar of lavender soap and closed my eyes, trying to find the words to describe the sensation in my hands. No words came, so I simply washed my face. I pressed my fingers against my closed eyelids till sparks of color and geometric lines lit up against the darkness. How would I describe this? I thought, and wondered if it looks the same to everyone. Again, no words.
It's one thing to slow down and notice. It's entirely another thing to have the skills of phrase. Language art. And then, beyond that, to actually say something of substance. Express that which I most passionately believe. Perhaps this MFA is just an expensive way to confirm that you are not gifted in this realm, says my inner voice.
Given this lifetime of dialog between us, I'm thinking I should consider giving my inner voice a name. Like Syd or Pup or Marcia. Yes, Syd, perhaps this MFA is just an expensive foray into failure. Meanwhile, Syd, it's still morning. I've got my coffee to drink, and if you don't mind sitting over there quietly for a while, I will journal for a page or two to clear my mind, and then I intend to sit here at my new laptop for a bit. After all, if you're done talking, I'm in for another day of writing.