For the next month, I’ll be blogging over at No Rules Theatre Company.
As you may already know, I’m assistant directing Medea’s Got Some Issues with them and writing exclusively (well, mostly) about the experience.
If you’re in the DC area, tickets go on sale today! Click to go to a Facebook promotion and (fingers crossed) enter to win a free pair.
If you’re not in the DC area, don’t fret. A good writer always covers far more than the topic at hand. And, if you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I’m ambitious.
A great blog series, like a play that’s worth seeing (hint, hint), aspires to be a keyhole view of the universe. In the end, theatre, like all the arts, is a wonderful metaphor for life.
In last week’s post, I focused on what yoga has taught me as a writer: in short, that my practice doesn’t end when I leave the mat. (Let me also acknowledge the influence of Alexander Technique, a great bridge between yoga and daily life, to which I’ll circle back in a later post.)
Writing this post is the reminder I need to reposition myself at the edge of my seat, so as to place both feet fully on the floor, enabling me to feel my whole body as one unit.
When I feel (or imagine I feel) the energy moving up from the ground through my body and onto the page, it gives me the awareness I need to release unnecessary tension that would otherwise erode my progress or arrest it altogether.
Since I’m a fidgeter, the trick becomes to maintain awareness and release as I travel through my own spontaneous series of would-rather-be-moving-around-than-seated-writing poses.
Of course, that flow is exactly what makes the act of writing a physical practice and not a held posture.
Writing for Yoga Practitioners
In the past I would have thought of myself as needing a reminder to “sit up straight,” the moment-to-moment equivalent of a counter pose to slouching.
Likewise in yoga class, I wished for a mirror so I might more effectively emulate the “correctness” of my instructor’s posture in the pose of the moment and hold for the duration.
No more — the best part of getting older, knowing better!
Perhaps because it’s normally performed in solitude, and because there is no actual performance, it’s easier to recognize the internal aspects of a writing practice.
It still took me more than a decade to take that knowledge to my yoga practice, and to grasp in my teacher’s demonstration of each pose the equivalent of a writing prompt, a jumping-off point.
The most important relationship in any yoga class turns out to be not the one between my teacher and myself but the one between the different parts of the body, a relationship that differs with every pose.
When I practice Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, for instance, a version of which appears in the above picture, it’s essential that I remain focused on the internal reality of my limbs radiating out from a strong center, the strength of which I need to maintain with sufficient flexibility, release, breath, and continually moving energy.
That directive to “turn inward,” which previously seemed vague and esoteric, now seems much more concrete: whether writing or doing yoga, I need to keep practicing in order to hear the subtle messages of my body, to extend further out from even deeper within.
The Writer’s Body
Of course, some will argue that it’s necessary for writers to turn inwards to the degree that we lose all awareness of our bodies, our surroundings, the present moment.
And they’re not wrong. There’s no reason to berate ourselves when we do experience those blissful moments of inspired oblivion — even if we’re “slouching towards Bethlehem,” as the poet said.
But how often does this really happen? (Cue: Collective sigh.)
Most of the time, physical discomfort actively hinders my efforts to access that writing samadhi.
The more I practice writing, the more I think of it as a physical act, not a way of being, but a way of moving through space, seeking to connect with readers in the way an acroyogi connects with a partner.
Yoga has been a part of my life for more than 13 years now, but only in this last year did I begin to see how I might bring my yoga and writing practices into alignment.
Perhaps that’s one reason I’ll finally be taking a yoga teacher training this summer in DC.
In a previous post, I wrote about discovering the way five stages evoking the “classic arc” of a vinyasa yoga class also mirror the five stages presented in The Creative Compass.
The transit we make through a yoga class resembles the one we make as writers (or artists) through a project: as we move away from beginnings, we undertake the pathway to our own peaks, surmounting obstacles along the way, ultimately (read: ideally) coming at once to our journey’s conclusion and the realization that it has transformed us.
(And yes, if your yoga class doesn’t make you feel this way, then you may need to try a different one.)
Basic Writer’s Asana
First the fundamentals: Both yoga and writing ask us to spend long periods in challenging positions.
As anyone who practices yoga will tell you, however, it’s not about freezing in place but dynamic stillness, rooting into the ground and moving deeper into each stretch with every breath, sending that continuous flow of energy into an arm or body balance.
To that end, yoga has something essential to teach us as writers.
Yoga asanas (or postures) can certainly be difficult but they’re designed to protect and promote our health, progressively building strength, stamina, and flexibility as we inhabit them.
Whereas our own primary desk-bound “writer’s asana” can easily and habitually turn into a spine-compressing, shoulder-rounding, leg-entangled crunch — more “oof!” than “Om.”
But all we have to do is sit up straight or use a standing desk, right?
If only it were so easy. Everything you’ve heard about “correct posture”? At the least, it bears a second look.
Come back next week for the concluding post in this two-part series: Practice (Not Posture) Makes Perfect.
Unexpected connections between language study and the arts.
When I began studying Arabic, I only wanted to study with native speakers. I barely knew any words, but I was already worried about my accent.
Actually, it had everything to do with childhood ballet classes. Giddy with the joy of movement, I’d had little patience for the precision that the fundamentals require. Years later, I felt I had only myself to blame for my resulting poor foundation in dance technique.
This time, I thought as I looked around for Arabic classes, I’m not going to make the same mistake.
Yet more years later, I have a good Arabic accent, in part because I studied with a lot of native speakers (whether in person or on CD).
But I spent the most significant year of my language studies under the inspired tutelage of a non-native speaker, David Wilmsen, a professor of Arabic language and linguistics at the American University of Beirut. From David, I also learned a lot about creativity, perspective, and the boundless depths of understanding.
Coming to an Understanding
I only grasped the personal significance of my studies with David (and other non-native speakers) when I heard a fellow student at Middlebury’s summer Arabic college speak.
He told our collective that he wanted to someday teach Arabic because students needed to see that they too could gain the proficiency necessary to do so. At the time, I still thought of myself as the eternal student.
In part because learning another language in a formal, educational setting so little resembles the way we learn our native languages, my classmate’s words formed an important reminder: These studies were something more than exercise or a rehearsal.
The process was the practice. My engagement with Arabic could even be a model for a more alive approach to my own native tongue.
Back in the Classroom
I’ve since taught Arabic to adults. And I’ve enjoyed telling my students that they too only need to do the work in order to make Arabic their own. They don’t have to take my word for it: like David, I live that truth.
The more I teach, the more I believe that the symbolic, and the situation that holds it in place, matter more than anything we say.
In Meditation in Action, the Tibetan master Chögyam Trungpa writes:
One wishes it were possible, by saying only a few words, to enlighten someone, but even great teachers like Christ or Buddha were unable to perform such a miracle. They had always to find the right opportunity and create the right situation.
That’s not to say that language doesn’t have its own place. Perhaps the words are the dance, and the situation is the force that moves the dancer.
One wishes it were possible, by saying only a few words, to enlighten someone, but even great teachers like Christ or Buddha were unable to perform such a miracle. They had always to find the right opportunity and create the right situation.
A Talent for Beginning
My experience studying Arabic forced me to think more deeply about talent. It’s easy to come across someone who speaks three or four languages and call them talented, but language learning itself is clearly a talent we each possess. If the situation requires that we learn a language, even later in life, we will learn it.
In the strictest sense, then, language learning isn’t really a talent at all. It’s an essential skill that manifests itself in response to urgency or necessity.
Achievement in any discipline, however, is rarely so neat. Often we need to simulate that urgency or necessity, at least until that point when it becomes a reality — and that is an inevitability, if we can only push on long enough. Structure helps. So do supporters and allies. I’ve sometimes had to fall back on stubborness.
You might say that there are “native speakers” in every discipline, those “born with talent” in athletics, music, or dance. They’ve arrived, whether through genetics, karma, or chance, without making that conscious, uncertain journey to a peak.
They can still choose to develop their talent, if they’re willing to undergo risk and the possibility of failure. My best “native speaker” teachers have clearly done so, and they have the greater perspective to show for it.
But what about us non-native speakers, those of us who started with something less than the natural reinforcement that comes with attracting the world’s early notice?
No one needed me to learn Arabic (or necessarily believed that I could at 25) until I already spoke it. No one needed my father and I to create a writing guide, until they had it in their hands to read. And if I’m honest with myself, I know that no one, right now, truly needs my current project or my next one. But — apart from this acknowledgement — I’m not going to think about it.
The talent for seeing through the truth of today to the potential truth of tomorrow? That’s the one I need.
Landed here? Go to part one of this two-part series.
In November, 2010, I presented at Pecha Kucha Beirut on the topic “Creativity is Messy.” Pecha Kucha is a global forum for design, structured by a format that permits each speaker 20 seconds of talking time for each of 20 slides: the limitiation keeps presentations enjoyably concise and helps presenters to organize their thoughts.
“Messy,” in this case, both is and isn’t a synonym for disorganized. I proposed the topic because I wanted to address another misconception about creativity, one signified by the ancient Greek myth about Athena’s birth. She’s said to have sprung fully formed from the skull of her father Zeus.
It’s an appealing image: a genius sits down (or stands, as is the fashion) at his desk and writes a master opus from first word to last, buoyed by one long, glorious burst of inspiration. It’s also an image that bears very little resemblance to the labor of most creative work.
I wanted to encourage listeners who felt like giving up when their first attempts weren’t brilliant. When I said that creativity was messy, I meant only that we all fail many times on the way to success and that our failures directly inform our eventual success.
At least, that’s all I meant at the time.
But Here’s What Else I Meant
As my dad and I discovered while writing our book, if you question conventional wisdom on any topic, you’ll confront unexpected obstacles in the form of the words at hand. These everyday building block words are anchored to the very meanings that you’re trying to undermine.
For instance, people commonly associate the word “story” with fiction, even though nonfiction writers have always relied upon anecdotes (read: nonfiction story) and the memoir genre seems to become more popular every day.
When we decided to write a book for “storytellers,” we meant writers of fiction and nonfiction, playwrights and screenwriters, filmmakers, innovators, and anyone who would like to tell better stories in their everyday life. Not everyone, mind you, but a good-sized group.
Few would contest our own broad definition as a legitimate use of the word, and yet it requires an extra second of thought.
We knew we wouldn’t necessarily be able to redefine “storyteller” in a general sense. But if we hoped to plant our particular meaning in the reader’s mind — during that limited period of time in which we had their full attention — we could only turn to one organization-related means: consistency.
Finding the Trajectory
“Messy” and “organized” are two other words that possess multiple, sometimes self-contradictory meanings.
The bridge between my presentation and this letter to you, dear reader, lies in the discovery that while it’s certainly possible to define the two words as clashing opposites, they also represent equally necessary points on a continuum.
As I went on to write in my profile of jeweler Nada Ghazal, published in Creative Lives:
In the disorder of nature, she finds a mirror for the mysteries of creativity, but not the firm foundation of method and discipline that it requires.
In his book The Art of Learning, martial arts (and former chess) champion Josh Waitzkin makes a similar observation:
I’ve never been a neat guy by nature, and I furthered my messiness for years by consciously leaving my living area chaotic so I could practice organizing things mentally and being mellow in the madness.
There’s an essential tension, then, between the mess of the initial material, the idea that cries out for cultivation, and the acts we undertake to work creative transformations, acts that are mundane in their most basic elements: for instance, every painter picks up the paint brush, mixes the paints, and so on.
If we resist an establishment mentality and approach the act of organization as flexible and fluid, then it becomes a vital creative tool — how you “pick up your paint brushes” and “mix your paints” counts to the extent that you find your way to a variation that works for you.
Ultimately, organization is all we do when we create, because that’s what separates us from the gods, so to speak: we can combine and edit, but we cannot create anything wholly new.
Let me be clear: I’m not trying to present myself as a better model for the “creative type.”
Josh Waitzkin and I, for instance, have admittedly different temperaments. Yet we’ve arrived at a similar conclusion by different routes. Though it sometimes seems otherwise — there’s nothing illicit about that.
At the end of this month, my dad and I will co-teach one more workshop together.
WHERE: OMEGA CAMPUS, Rhinebeck, NY (90-minute train ride north from NY Penn Station)
WHEN: May 30 – June 1 (Friday evening, Saturday, Sunday morning)
Over three days, we’ll explore writing as a craft and a path to personal development. You’ll also learn how you can apply insights gained to other creative arts and to the work-in-progress that is your life.
We don’t just teach you our way — we help you find your own best approach to craft, process, and self.
For information or to register:
Comments from past workshop students:
The relaxing environment made it safe to share … very good practical advice … really liked the ‘roadmap’ presented. — Soshana Helman
Learning to ‘dream in dialogue’ was a game-changer for me … you have given me hope that I can finish a book! — Michael Schlichte
The delivery of this clear five-stage process and examples helped to integrate the learning … great tools. — Jessalyn Nash
I liked the easy give and take between Sierra and Dan. The pace and information were just right. The ‘What If’ exercise was both challenging and stimulating, practical and powerful … a good balance between lecture, dialogue, partner exercises and writing. — Marguerite LaDue
Your simple process provided the motivation … I’ve been wanting to start writing for over a year and this course was exactly what I needed. — Mike Muscari
What an amazing experience! I got much more than I expected … Your relaxed, open-hearted style of communication paved the way for sincere discussions. I found the partner exercises comfortable and worthwhile … ‘dreaming in dialogue’ opened doorways previously closed. The group continued to write and share even after you both excused yourself at the end of class. Everyone seemed inspired and charged. — Karen McMahon
Hope you can join us! As always, contact me with any questions.
Soon after I first became aware that others were aware of me, that people would form opinions about me — whether I liked it or not — I wanted them to perceive me as creative.
That’s not why I’ve always loved to create, but I sensed that the approval of others would lend some legitimacy to my creating and enable me to do more of it. And that’s the foundation for the entire critical establishment, no?
My own status as “creative,” however — not to mention the idea that I needed such status — sometimes seemed less reliant on what I actually created and more on my style of thinking and working: I’m neat and organized by temperament, traits that the so-called “creative type” apparently scorned.
This realization created a kind of dissonance in my life — the very qualities that consistently helped me to succeed in school, including school plays, also made me anxious, even a little ashamed. I dreaded the possibility that, at any moment, I might be exposed as an impostor on the creative stage, betrayed by my (gasp!) well-ordered binder and tidy bedroom.
But What Does Organized Mean?
Looking back, I can make an educated guess as to why we tend to see creativity and organization as opposing forces. Society routinely punishes the disorganized as disobedient, willfully noncompliant. No incentive there to trumpet the virtues of organization.
History and literature both often (seem to) teach us to confuse organization with conformity and central control, whether the subject is the German military circa World War II or the planet Camazotz in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.
The personal development movement, which began in the 1970s and continues today, emerged as a backlash against the relentless conformity of the ’50s and early ’60s. In her otherwise wonderfully insightful book Awakening the Spine, the Italian yoga “luminary” Vanda Scaravelli writes in a chapter titled “About Organization”:
Be careful, very careful about organizations. Yoga cannot be organized, must not be organized. Organizations kill work.”
The book’s next page shows a picture of the Statue of Liberty enclosed by scaffolding — the caption seems to suggest that the scaffolding represents a “cage,” and it certainly looks like one here.
Except that we all know the true purpose of scaffolding. And in this same image, we find a fairly good metaphor for the relationship between organization and creativity.
Organization as a Creative Act
While living in Lebanon, I had the opportunity to interview many wonderful artists, including Nada Ghazal, a jewelry designer, and Zena el Khalil, who works in mixed media and is the author of the book, Beirut, I Love You.
Nada lifted a burden I hadn’t even realized I still carried when she told me the following:
I cannot concentrate if things are in a mess, and what I mean by a mess — I’m not just talking about a messy room, I’m talking about a messy mind.
Wait . . . so I could embrace my own need to straighten up as a prelude to creativity?
Zena’s words and work — in that instance, five large-scale collages — further suggested that organization can itself be a creative act and that creativity has an inherent organizational component.
In the following excerpt from our 2010 interview, she describes her process:
It starts off as a painting and then I transfer the painting onto a special canvas where I can pin things in . . .
It’s all pinned, and the reason for that is it goes back to our history in Lebanon. Nothing is set in stone, and everything is being recreated and reinterpreted every day, so . . . technically you could take down this painting and reassemble it in a totally different way if you wanted to . . . but it’s really part of the process of the work, because even sometimes I’ll put something on and then something insane will happen in the news, and it will really affect me, and then I’ll go back and maybe, like, change the painting around a little.
I think it’s important to keep that flexibility. Like I’m not dealing with paint, I’m dealing with fabrics, so . . . I can shift the fabrics around.
In speaking about the history of Lebanon, Zena’s also speaking, of course, about the history of the world. In focusing on her own process, she’s also shedding light on creativity at large.
What is organization if it isn’t pattern formation? And what is creativity if it isn’t the genesis of patterns by whatever means and, progressively, the choosing of some patterns over others because they achieve the specific, desired purpose?
Except that it’s not quite that easy. Language, after all, represents our best attempts to organize meaning, and it routinely falls short; words like “organized” and “messy” pose special challenges.
In next week’s entry of this two-part series, I’ll confront these challenges head on as I sort out how a self-confessed organization freak could give a presentation titled . . . “Creativity is Messy”.
The cycle of five stages presented in The Creative Compass organizes my dad’s and my ideas and stories — not to mention those of dozens of other writers and thinkers — but this cycle doesn’t itself offer a formula or a blueprint for your words on the page. Instead, it captures the act of creation, the journey that a powerful idea takes from one mind out into the world.
Whether you write stories or not, you’re the protagonist of this story, the one who starts a new project, continues with it (or not), and eventually finds your way to a conclusion, often again and again, as you reread and reconceive what you’ve written, as necessary. You do the hard, creative work — even if it’s not always recognized as such.
Nonfiction writers may “drive better cars,” as the saying goes, but they’re often treated like grunts in an army that boasts an elite class of creative storytellers. And those who talk about “creative nonfiction” almost always mean memoir.
This month, I’ll be teaching my own creative nonfiction class. What do you think: Will my prospective students all be aspiring memoirists? I’ll report back.
Creativity Means Seeing More
In our book, my dad and I set out to explore the process we undertake no matter what we’re writing: fiction, nonfiction, story, non-story, long or short. The book alternates between instructional chapters and personal narratives. Both demanded immense creativity from us.
Our experience points to an unmet need for a broader definition of creativity. That definition would acknowledge the key roles played by organization and analysis, talents we may be more inclined to associate with expository and persuasive writers but that also serve storytellers. I’ll take a closer look at the role played by organization next week.
In the meantime, nonfiction writers often need reminders that their work is and must be creative — and that they too need to take time to dream, even when on deadline.
On this blog, my dad and I presented one model of the nonfiction writer’s progress through the five stages. What’s your experience? Please share your thoughts via Facebook, twitter or email.
On May 10 and 11, I’ll offer the first of my summer workshops at The Writer’s Center, this one in Bethesda, MD.
Here are a few reasons why you should sign up: