A cubby waits outside a room.
Each cube holds tennis shoes
or emptiness. My hands untie
the stringed bow to let my feet slip out.
A shoe deposit for the cube,
feet pad into an empty room.
If we were honest, emptiness scares us. We want to be full of whatever it is that we are chasing. Sometimes we need to find something “other” that can help deepen our artistic discipline. Looking too long at an empty screen with restless agitation and expectation can throw off the writing process.
I’m not sure I would agree that “practice makes perfect” but practice helps tighten and strengthen skills to get the job done better. I’ve written before that we expect doing what we love to come easily. Yet, the more I write, the more pre-writes I realize Iam creating- not masterpieces in the making.
That could seem discouraging to results-oriented thinking which goes something like this: I am going to sit down for an hour and just write. At the end of that hour, I will have something wonderful to share with the world that is fully baked. This is sometimes where I have a bone to pick with blogging.
But that is a topic for another day. Today, we delve into creative practice. Recently, I unfurled the flag of my yoga mat onto a wooden floor, marking my small dominion of space. As others arrived and got situated, my eyes closed. I lay flat on the mat, listening to street sounds invade the tranquil room.
We began our practice as the teacher instructed each of us to focus on our breath and the motion of the inhalation / exhalation. He called us to soften our eyes, giving permission against alert eyes- no tigers would assail us here. In so doing, the practice linked breath with motion and thought.
Something remarkable happened in class. As I craned my torso forward onto my palms, lower body inching back into a downward dog, I was struck with an insight that brought exuberance to my whole body. It surprised me to reckon with something so foreign to my current preoccupations.
Another insight greeted me the next week. I found myself newly aware of how I have been compensating ever since a very bad thing happened to me. This insight did not come as I settled into downward dog like last time. In fact, I’m fairly certain it came as I set up for a different yoga pose.
To deepen a yoga practice is not so very different from deepening a creative practice. The first step requires showing up. With it comes the acknowledgement of having set aside this time and choosing to be right here. There might be a downward dog or a few sun salutation poses to cycle through. Beyond
this, I don’t know what to expect in class. Herein lies the rub. If I showed up to yoga expecting to leave with insight like the two recent epiphanies, they wouldn’t come. Why? My focus and desire for them would eradicate them from revealing themselves. Instead, showing up, ready to iterate
familiar movements and make them better (shoulders engaged, fingers splayed evenly), my practice will deepen. And pearls of truth might just reveal themselves to me. I don’t practice yoga for those insights. I find myself going deeper into yoga because without it, I am found wanting.
Writing is not so very different is it? Do you set strict parameters on your writing space? Try breaking the parameters. Just as you might hold a yoga pose longer to challenge your body and mind to not break the form, this too can sharpen your writing. It might introduce new stimuli you wouldn’t
perceive in the everyday rhythm. Does your writing experience involve ensconcing yourself in a different coffee shop each day for the variety? Try sticking with one location for a week as your challenge. Whatever your obstacle to get into the writing, find and set a challenge to overcome.
The role of pre-writing cannot be underscored enough. If we only value the words we write that are publishable, would it not make sense to value all the writings that got us to that place? I think of a conversation I had with Andrew about how many shots he takes to achieve the hero shot.
If you get a chance to view the photo card of a pro, you might see ever so slight variations of the same captured image. Why would they take 300 or more photos of almost the same shot – to get closer to the final image. This might require setting up the shot and then changing the original stance.
A friend who published a cookbook last year mentioned something interesting along the same lines. During the cookbook photoshoot, they couldn’t quite get the cover image right. They kept trying to nail down that hero shot of hero shots and it eluded them. Eventually, they moved on and ventured
out for an offsite lunch break. A benign comment made at lunch gave new direction for the shot… they nabbed it that afternoon. Part of deepening a creative practice is learning to listen. You never know when a comment made on the bus inspires a character for a poem. It’s in not seeking for the “it”
that “it” sometimes finds you. Another part of deepening creative practice is to pursue something completely unrelated. This gives the mind a break of concentrating so fixedly on one thing that can get it stuck in a rut. Research and investigate a topic that intrigues you. Take a language class. Explore.
Writer friends are among the most curious people I know. They want to figure out how something works and then let it inform their work. I think of Rebecca‘s pursuit of photographing her beloved Kentucky’s holocaust survivors or more recently, translating an Iraqi poet’s verse memoir of the war.
One role of art is to provide commentary on the world around us or the world within – to try to make sense of it or re-envision it. As artists, if we keep our eyes open and reflect on what bothers us, the answer will sometimes lead to the crux of the work itself. Be open, be bothered, be ready.
Many poems have been written by my hand where the entire work is scrapped and perhaps one line or phrase remains. As a poetry mentor used to exhort me, “Find the poem within the poem.” With three big projects on my plate right now, when I sit to write, I never know which one will be the focus
of that particular writing session. I may go in with an idea of what I want to write about or be pestered enough by an idea that is finally ready to get realized on paper. In staying open, while writing, the departure from the original idea might be exactly where the work needed to go.
Cheryl wrote a small diatribe against well-meaning posts of “how to become a better writer” recently. As someone who craves seeing other writers’ processes, it spoke to that part of my sensibility, but she also charged readers to just dive in and just write. Like anything, you only become better by doing.
Again. And again.
So in a new year where resolutions still smell fresh and resolve has not dissipated into a bath of good intentions, make this the year to deepen your creative practice. And let me know what departures you are making in your work, how you are challenging yourself and what insights you glean as you create.