Sunday, February 26, 2017

If It Doesn't Hurt You're Doing it Wrong/Right

Sometimes making art is painful. It takes a while to understand that it's not always fun. In biographies of most writers you will read that they have to force themselves to do the work, that to get to the exhilarating part, they have to have a routine. Stephen King wrote about this in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. In Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, we find that Shirley Jackson did, too. You may create a routine, but what do you do with it? Susan Sontag describes the process (of writing, but it applies to all art making), as "a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall" (Darnton 225). While you are focused on your project, you are also opening yourself up. You are taking a risk and with this risk, you are vulnerable. And being vulnerable can hurt.

It's a dance with yourself. You begin. "This is great!" you say to yourself. You look at it again, "This is terrible!" You keep going. "This is great!" and then again, "This is terrible!" Push and pull, loves me/ loves me not, happy face/sad face. You hope, after pushing it as far as it needs to go, you will land on "This is great!" Sometimes you push too far. Then you start over. In John Darnton's collection Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times, Richard Ford hints at that back and forth of creative work, "writing can be complicated, exhausting, isolating, abstracting, boring, dulling, briefly exhilarating. And occasionally it can produce results" (68). Creative work is exciting and fun, but it is also a commitment, and that commitment comes with various conflicting emotions.

The United States Marine Corps uses the phrase, "Pain is weakness leaving the body." It sounds both funny and horrible, but only by pushing through that pain do you actually learn. I think the pain we are talking about here is the pain of self-discipline. A form of self-discipline is part of the creative process. How much or how little we want to use it is up to us. Weakness is giving up without trying. Weakness is saying "I can't" too early. 
Robert Frost's well-quoted line from his poem, "A Servant to Servants" (line 56) "the best way out is always through," echoes the self-discipline aspect, and is applicable when making any kind of art. 

Walter Mosley recognizes a different version of the creative process in Writers on Writing, "Nothing we create is art at first." He talks about how writing a novel is like "gathering smoke…You have to brush [your ideas], reshape them, breathe into them and gather more" (Darnton 163-164). Mosley doesn't focus on the pushing through, but on the stretching and reaching out, sometimes a little further than what is within your grasp. You might find yourself a little off balance, vulnerable, as you reach. The discipline is in the continued focus as you reshape, edit, revise, reconfigure.

The flip side can also be true: if it doesn't hurt you're doing it right. This is more likely to happen after you've put in the time, put in the practice, like Malcolm Gladwell's proverbial "10,000 hours" in Outliers: The Story of Success. In my favorite children's book by Remy Charlip, Arm in Arm: A Collection of Connections, Endless Tales, Reiterations, and Other Echolalia, there is a story about a man going to an artist, asking and paying for a painting of a fish, but not receiving it. It seems the artist is procrastinating. When the patron finally goes to the artist's studio, the artist quickly paints the fish. The patron, now even angrier, demands an explanation for the delay. The artist opens a door and "thousands of paintings of fish fell out." By the end of the story, the artist is able to do it right, and it doesn't hurt to paint the fish anymore. The gesture, the motion, is already in the artist's body after years of training it. That's what makes it feel and look easy. The practice has been absorbed and incorporated.

If you are pushing yourself, it is going to feel uncomfortable. Determination and self-discipline can strengthen you. But only if you want them to! No one is making you do this but you! Maureen Howard compares this process to a marriage, that this is "not about first love…It's about passion and endurance, a combination of desire and grunt work often at odds with each other" (Darnton 99). 
Ask yourself: what do you want to gain? 

After you have been working on your project, gone through the pain, been vulnerable, become ecstatic, and perhaps even satisfied, how do you know if the work is finished? Here are some questions that you might ask yourself. You can find a pdf for your personal use here.

The longest project I've ever worked on, the one most painful, and the most satisfying, has come to a close. We took risks. We were vulnerable. We worked hard. After two-and-a-half years of negotiations, CCA administration and the CCA Non-ranked faculty union came to an agreement around 11pm last Thursday evening. Adjunct professors and lecturers at our school are finally going to be able to ratify a union contract that provides us decent raises and protections, joining the nationwide movement toward recognizing and compensating teachers fairly as skilled, educated, and committed workers. Through this process I've met dozens of my colleagues who are talented and wonderful people, people I would not have met otherwise as we only previously passed each other in the faculty parking lot. We've built a community as well: a gift indeed.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Outside the Box: Door or Trap?

By chance, out of the flurry of news and information, a phrase that delighted me, by artist Grace Hwang: "Which of these leads to a door and which of these leads to a trap?" Underneath, a list of words. As a young student, I was the person who saw an assignment as a trap, and I worked hard to subvert it. I resisted, not understanding that an assignment can be a door to a new way of looking at something. I wish one of my teachers had asked me that question back then. I started this semester using the phrase in my classroom, and I refer to it as needed. I also applied it to my new practice of writing inside the box.

I've written about assignments previously in this post from 2011. Because I tended to balk at assignments, I'm reluctant to give them. The ones I do give are fairly open; this is for them, not for me. They should be able to spend time and focus on something that is meaningful to them, not what I think should be meaningful. Occasionally, this is too open-ended. They want closer boundaries. For some people, constraints are freeing, because choices take energy. Choosing from five things instead of one hundred can be liberating. In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King writes that he works better with constraints and better with the door closed. Not everyone does.

These posters were taped on walls and benches throughout CCA Oakland campus last fall. Is the box a door or trap? You can see the resistance. The accepted challenge. And how some students accepted and claimed it for themselves.

Door or trap? It's a good question, applicable to life in general.
Thanks, Grace!
You can buy her flip book Movement Scores for a place, for a body with the question mentioned and thought-provoking quotes inside here.
Grace Hwang's work will be included in the next issue of Star 82 Review, Issue 5.1,
due mid-March, 2017.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Inside the Box: A Creative Practice

Every now and then I set up a challenge for myself to draw every day in a datebook (like in this 2013 post) or to write the story of the day for a month, or some such thing, and I almost always fail. I like the anticipation of the challenge; so much potential! But I seem to create more when I'm not watching myself do it. Kind of like dieting. Not always sustainable. Even the limited forward motion can lead to other successes, though and as a way to work out new habits. The key is in the actual practice itself.

The only successful practice challenge I gave myself was a during a college summer when my friends were away, and I decided to typewrite a full sheet of paper every day with whatever came into my head. No pauses, no editing. I did this for a month, and the result was thirty sheets of a so-called manuscript I believe I titled, Burn this Book, which is no longer an original title, if it ever was. I haven't looked at it since I typed it. I'm tempted now to see if there is anything in it I can use, but I tend to prefer looking forward rather than to the past for inspiration. Rather, I am compelled to keep going, as if my muse were a few lengths ahead of me on a moving sidewalk. Hey, wait up!

What is my practice now, today? After six months of new opportunities, I'm back to my familiar semester of teaching one Bookworks class, and completely out of a creative rhythm. The only challenge I've sustained over time has been my magazine (the latest issue: Star 82 Review 4.4), maybe this blog, and a (mostly) daily walk.

Recently, I was inspired by two practices. As I noted in a recent blog post, Amos Paul Kennedy, when asked what he's going to make, draws a rectangle and says, "I'm going to put ink there." This suggests a commitment so deep it's like asking what someone is going to eat. It almost doesn't matter because you know it will be food. It's just what he does every day. Built in.

The second inspiration is the current practice of my colleague Hugh Behm-Steinberg. Every day he is writing a poem. For a year. He does this every decade. He showed me his screen, how he creates a document with wide margins side to side and head to tail. "I fill up the box," he said. "I type until it's full."

Since I prefer doing my creative practice on the physical page, pen to paper, I wondered what a box-based practice would look like for me. Postcard size seemed about right. So I drew around a four-by-six-inch postcard in my journal. Then I took a breath and began to write. I filled up the box, trying not to think too hard. Just let it flow, I told myself.

Something interesting happened as I got closer to the bottom border: my ideas crystalized. I could see the end, the wrap up, conclusion, the point of the piece. Like when you are swimming, enjoying the water, the buoyancy, maybe getting tired, but knowing you are getting closer to the edge of the pool. You are prepared to get out, but also a little disoriented, not sure exactly at which side of the pool you will end up.

It could work with visual art: fill the box. Or make a postcard every day.

I am not deluding myself into thinking I will be able to continue this practice for a year. I know myself better than that. I tend to create in sprinter's spurts, which is possibly the reason I make small books and write short works. But I like the exercise for now, and I'm curious how long it will interest me, writing inside the box.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Writing, Teaching, and Organizing

Union organizing and negotiating have similar goals to writing and teaching. In writing we ask: who is the character and what do they want? We look at how challenges bring out the character's true nature. What does the character do when angry? How does the character behave when flustered? Do they have a habitual tic when worried or afraid? Every challenge to the character opens up a new possibility for depth and understanding.

As I have watched members of two bargaining teams and how our SEIU lead negotiator operated, I also became aware of each individual's character: what happened when they were pushed; what they did when they were holding back; how the language they used represented a philosophy. In essence, to read them.

In working with our members, I learned how to phrase something to appeal to someone else's sensibility and viewpoint, to be inclusive, to question status quo, and offer hope. By empathizing with and understanding both sides, by listening and by compromising, you may eventually achieve a collective, unified goal.

Our SEIU lead organizer used to be an adjunct professor. It makes sense that a good organizer and advocate would also be a good teacher. The best teachers can figure out where a person is, what is important to them, what they believe in, and help them find the right path for them, to make their vision even stronger. As a guide. 

Some books I've found helpful in understanding organizing, negotiating, teaching and writing and today's world in general.

Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals by Saul Alinsky (1971). Start from where the world is. Learn how to move people and make change.

The Haggler's Handbook: One Hour to Negotiating Power by Leonard Koren and Peter Goodman (1991, 1992). Know what are the most important things to you and when you are willing to fight. Recognize the style of the other side.

Poor Workers' Unions: Rebuilding Labor from Below by Vanessa Tait (2005, 2016). A movement with a compelling vision can become a force for social, economic, and political transformation.

Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin compiled by Philip Cushway and Michael Warr (2015). "As long as the oppressed tell their true story it will carry the edge of protest" (23). Amiri Baraka.

The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic by George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling (2012). "Use your own language. Only use ideas you believe in" (43). And do it in a positive way. How the two political parties use the same terms and mean different things.

If you are curious about my journey, please see my guest post on union organizer and friend Jessica Lawless's blog