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Yoga for Writers

Utkatasana-Pose

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.

Eka_Pada_koundinyasana

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.

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What Talent Has to Teach Us

Unexpected connections between language study and the arts.

MICHIGAN BAND

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.

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.

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Illicit Creative Acts, Part II

Landed here? Go to part one of this two-part series.

Mess-is-more

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.

Athena-birth

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.

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Illicit Creative Acts, Part I

dalimuseum_01

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.”

statuescaffolding

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”.

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