A pair of images hangs over my computer. In one, Merlin points to the moon as Arthur curiously searches the sky. Above that is a panoramic photo taken when I was a Writing grad student at CalArts in 1999, the view from the deck outside my apartment where I often stood to gaze out at the horizon.
I just reread Dana Gioia’s wonderful 2007 Stanford commencement address. It’s breathtaking and heroic, a call to “trade easy pleasures for more complex and enjoyable ones” and a strong defense of the arts and reading for pleasure, both in education and in life. He points to studies showing that those who don’t read for pleasure or participate in the arts are – empirically and statistically – more likely to become passive consumers of electronic media and less likely to engage in community activities or discussions than those who do read, do practice art or music. “These cultural activities seem to awaken a heightened sense of individual awareness and social responsibility,” he says.
How do we recondition our culture? How can we reinvigorate creative pursuits and community dialogue? By awakening curiosity and storytelling power. As Gioia says, “Adult life begins in a child’s imagination, and we’ve relinquished that imagination to the marketplace.” Advertisers and the media cater to the insecurities and fears of our perceived selves right now instead of elevating us and giving us a vision to aspire to, as art does. The instant gratification of the flickering screen, of ready-made food and instant communication, doesn’t require much of us. No imagination, no hard work required.
But the rewards that come from pursuing something artistic and literary are so immense compared to those easy satisfactions. I’ve seen pure joy on the faces of my students when they discover their voice and the power in their writing, when they realize they can break out of a pre-written and over-structured life through poetic or literary endeavors!
As teachers, as adults, as writers and artists, as humans, we must strive toward curiosity, toward exploration and creativity. Celebrate intellectual discussion in public places. Spread thoughts and ideas about writing and art, not just among fellow artists, but equally with all people, even – especially – with those you think might oppose your viewpoint. Dialogue is key.
Art education is not just about creating more artists or writers. The imagination of children is at stake. Our imagination is at stake.
I must say, Dana Gioia is one of my heroes, and someone I’m proud to call a neighbor (he lives in Sonoma County part-time). I was privileged to meet him last year at a poetry reading in Sebastopol, although, in typical fashion, I stumbled over my words and acted a fool when I went up to talk to him and have him sign my book.
Such is the power of poetry, to stun and to awe me.
Yesterday I felt most alone when I was in the crowd of whale watchers out on Bodega Head, scanning the impossibly immense gray and silver sparkling blanket of the Pacific for the elusive black dorsal fins like tiny broken obsidian teeth jutting up from the surface, nearly invisible. Without binoculars or a scope, you’d have no way of knowing if you’d seen them or not. The whale occupies a nearly mythic place in the imagination, beautiful and pure, huge and yet so tiny in the greater perspective of the entire ocean.
I came out searching for the immense, graceful beasts, and was rewarded with a rare glimpse of a pod of ten or so orcas, their heads bobbing and fins splashing a few miles offshore. It made me feel so tiny. If the cold wind and the distancing vision of the binoculars weren’t enough to make me feel dissociated from my body, the glimpse of the whales did it. I stumbled and felt like I was floating. These humongous animals were so tiny in my perspective, no bigger than my fingertip in the great expanse of water, and that at twenty times magnification.
After that, I cheerfully returned to watching the slick and shiny seals with their grinning faces, playing in the current near shore. I studied the frozen ice plants clinging to the cliffs, yellow and purple flowers vibrant against the fog as the breakers deposited a spray of foam that turned into a white bed atop a boulder just off the beach. My language provides me a context and understanding of these phenomena. But the whales swimming at a depth and distance I cannot fathom, at the edge of the horizon where waves and wind mix with clouds, strains at my mind, leaving me dizzy.
It’s lonely out there, but I keep searching for them, the whales at the horizon, the experiences beneath the surface. So much exists beyond my ordinary perception, and I want to swim and play at the edges of the possible.
In the morning, I like to immediately jump into my latest work-in-progress. It’s like running to greet old friends, reuniting with loved ones.
But sometimes, other writings burn inside me, rushing to the surface. Sometimes it’s an idea for a class I’m teaching, or it might be simply a snippet of dialogue or character description. I write all this down in my big book, by hand, so I won’t forget it. Often, this becomes inspiration for the rest of the morning’s writing, creative rocket fuel pushing me forward into the day.
It’s better to let it rush out rather than keeping it bottled up inside me. Then I am launched toward my goal. I need to get the morning inspiration written as quickly as possible, so I can finally do that jump into the grand project of the day.
I find that if I’m too relaxed in my chair, slouching or sinking down, I automatically enter a relaxed state of mind, a kind of fuzziness that might aid the flexibility of my thoughts but hinder my focus. I want my words sharp and precise, well-chosen and passionate. Despite the stories of famous writers who did most of their writing in bed, I find that a strong posture stimulates stronger writing.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, attorneys don’t deliver their impassioned arguments sitting down. Dancers focus their attention into creating specific body imagery. Even painters – perhaps the closest artistic analog to writers – work with very conscious movements that foster a brain-body connection.
I’m not saying I want to write standing up, but having my feet firmly on the ground, my head in a relaxed yet alert position, and my attention focused as sharply as possible on my words, without distraction, is essential to my best writing. Sometimes I write by hand, scribbling out my first drafts in a journal, and this creates a better brain-body connection for me than typing. I must focus more on the movement of my fingers, on the visceral feeling of the pen gliding on the paper. Even with the distraction of writing in a cafe or other public place – perhaps even more with this distraction forcing my focus closer to my work while providing visual stimulation when I need a kick – writing in a journal connects my self to my words in an immediate way. I’ve made these words appear on real paper, not as scattered electrons that disappear when the monitor goes off.
I like to set a timer when I write, challenging myself to write for ten minutes without stopping, putting all this focus to a true test. When I feel blocked, I look up to grab a color or movement from around me, putting that into my rough draft. It might even find its way into the final version later.
Try this: Set a timer for ten minutes and just go, let it all your feelings, thoughts, fear, and anxiety go, and write as quickly as possible, not letting your hand off the page. Sometimes you’ll verge into dangerous territory, because when you let it all go your unconscious may explore ideas and memories that make you uncomfortable. It’s okay, write it all down without stopping. You’re training the censor to stay away from your creative process. The more often you practice this, the better you’ll become at generating wonderful surreal juxtapositions of imagery, and at exploring the shadowy underside of subjects, at looking at life completely. As you train yourself to take risks, your mind will begin to just go there by itself.
As long as you have that focus and effort, your writing will flourish. You will know you’re improving as a writer when your mind starts automatically generating more unique and complicated imagery, when you more easily make connections that unify your theme. But this takes practice, good form, and concentration. Consider yourself an athlete. And don’t forget the brain-body connection in terms of health and exercise as well. A good physical exercise routine helps the body grow stronger and stimulates the mind with serotonin and dopamine, so exercising just before a writing session, or as a break in the middle, can really help you focus on creating those sharp words.
For the next three days, try creating variety in your writing routine, and end your writing sessions by journaling about how it felt.
Day One: Exercise just before writing, find a comfortable sitting position with your feet firmly on the floor, and begin and end your writing with a ten-minute freewriting exercise during which you’ll write as much as possible, not worrying about quality, only quantity, using a word of your choice as a prompt. Don’t forget to end by journaling about your experience.
Day Two: Exercise in the middle of your writing routine, preferably taking a break while the writing is really flowing, not when you feel blocked. Your mind will already be full of the imaginary landscapes and characters of your fiction, and the exercise will allow you to see more angles. For posture today, try something new – stand for a while, or sit in a lotus position, write in a journal if you’re used to typing; try something that might help your focus and attention. Again, remember to journal about your writing experience itself.
Day Three: Change your regular writing time (or set a specific time if you don’t have a regular one yet). Now try to do something you enjoyed or found challenging from Day One or Two, but do it longer. Stand for ten minutes while writing, or freewrite for twenty minutes. When you journal about your writing practice at the end of Day Three, settle on a routine that will work for you in the long run, one you can do every day as you focus and develop your craft through mindful practice.
My first published story, “Turtle and the Sky Bowl”
A version of this story was originally published at The-Office.com. Strangely, it has been illegally posted to many other websites, but I am the original author. It even appears on a site that purports it to be original Native American lore. It is loosely based on Native American tales, but that’s it!