This article is my submission to the July edition of The BeZine. For the table of contents with links to my colleague’s work, click here.
“THE CRITIC AS ARTIST: WITH SOME REMARKS UPON THE IMPORTANCE OF DOING NOTHING” — Oscar Wilde wrote this essay in the form of a dialogue between two characters, Gilbert and Ernest, in the library of a house in Piccadilly. Here are some key quotes from that piece:
“The one duty we owe to history is to re-write it. That is not the least of the tasks in store for the critical spirit.”
“When man acts he is a puppet. When he describes he is a poet.”
I confess I have not read The Critic As Artist in its entirety and so have not discovered Wilde’s “remarks upon the importance of doing nothing”. However, I do have some understanding of our critical mind, the ways we apply it, and the results of being dominated by it.
First of all, what is ‘the critical spirit’? I think what the author is getting at is the individual thought process that creates meaning. What we ‘know’ of the world might be broken into 3 categories: Fact, Experience and Story. Fact is the measured detail of life — how old it is, how big it is, how it reacts chemically, that kind of thing. We learn some things from it, but it has no emotional arch, no meaning.
Experience is the raw sensation of the moment: emotions, smells, sounds, tastes, sights, awareness, feeling. It is how we know we are alive.
And then there’s Story, and this is how we are all poets: we take in data, we see events transpire, we feel emotion and sensation, and then, we put that together into a narrative that makes ‘sense’ to us. We have created a story, a meaning, and attached it to history. That work is largely supervised by our Ego as our thought processes select and omit and weigh the data according to our own preferences and values. We imagine and imitate what we like, we suppress what we don’t; we spin what comes out. These stories become part of the body of data that we use to create further meaning as well. It is essential to realize that we are constantly making up stories. Civilization is a story. Religion is a story. Philosophy and Art and Psychology and Anthropology and so many other pursuits are simply ways that we have manufactured meaning by creating stories. There is wonderful wisdom in recognizing “the danger of a single story”, and so it is a fortunate thing to have so many different ones. (a Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, fleshes this out in her profound TED talk, HERE) Stories are ubiquitous. There is no ‘right’ story. Good stories point at Truth, but there are lots of ways to construct them.
This awareness of the creation of story by your own Ego is the key to “the importance of doing nothing” as well. The plethora of stories and the facility of story-telling in our culture tends to dominate our reactions and expectations, creating drama, manipulation and anxiety along with meaning. In some ways, we want that. We find it exciting. But it’s also exhausting and can be exploitative. To be able to leave the story-telling aside and simply BE is important for my well-being and my personal peace. Meditation is helpful in the practice of stilling the ego and refraining from making up meaning. When I concentrate on the present moment and return to the simple activity of breathing, I allow the world to be what it is instead of conscripting it into the service of my creative ego. Then I am free to relax my mind and let go of my anxieties about how the story will turn out. My energy is renewed, and I am at peace. (This is a practice that I am only just beginning to employ. Awareness is the first step!)
“The imagination imitates; it is the critical spirit that creates.” We are invited to engage with the world on many different levels, all of which can be useful and appropriate at certain times. Wisdom is the art of choosing how to engage in a way that is edifying for yourself and others. For everything, there is a season: a time to imitate, a time to create, and a time to refrain from creative ego activity. May each of us find joy in the exploration of this Wisdom and delight where we recognize this exploration in others!
My New Year’s resolutions have been made and clearly stated. First, “Stop shaming myself”. (read my post “A Cup of Kindness” for more) Second, “Stop spending so much time playing Solitaire”. I realize that organizing cards and Mahjong tiles is not a bad thing necessarily. I get a certain satisfaction out of putting them all to rights or trying again until I do. But it’s kind of an OCD thing, too, so I don’t want to get sucked into doing it when I could do something else. Like bring chaos to order. I’ve been researching right brain/left brain behavior a bit (I recommend Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk “My stroke of insight”), and I’ve decided that I need to exercise my right brain more. My creativity — expansiveness, inclusion and collage-thinking. Here’s an exercise I came up with: take a familiar, well-known and memorized quote and mix it up. Use the same words in a different order, add new punctuation. Voila! Chaos out of order poetry. Here are a few:
“What twilight’s proudly gleaming light,
Early hailed by the dawn’s last ‘Oh’
We can see, so say at you.”
“The forefathers, four score and seven, conceived new, created and brought forth years ago,
dedicated in proposition to all men on this continent that a nation are equal – our Liberty.”
“No other shalt have me, before thou gods.”
“The beginning: the word, the word, the word.
God was God. And was. And was with.”
My daughter Emily tells me that Facebook provides a random generator to make something new of words you’ve posted, too. Hers are quite poetic. So maybe it’s not an entirely original exercise, but it’s a start. A beginning. A way to set off on a new adventure, to shed habit and convention and embrace the unpredictable nature of life unfolding. Stepping off into 2014 — we can create and uncreate a new beginning. What will chaos bring to you this year?
National Poetry Writing Month
Fun for the whole family! My sister intends to match me, poem for poem, in the comments section of each of my posts. Mind you, this is NOT a competition. I have to be very clear about that and remind myself that this is about playing with words, creative collaboration, cleaning my windshield of mud and fear and stuff that gets in the way of my recognition of the wonderful ideas that I, even I, have shining on the horizon. I remind myself of this several times a day because my older sister is brilliant and has always been better than me at everything. Of course, that’s entirely my own hangup. I admit it, and I’m old enough now to face it head on. Right? Right!
I am using a very inclusive definition of “poetry” here. In other words, I’ve never been a student of poetry, I don’t know form and rules, but as a singer, I like words and rhythm. As a visual person, I like icons and imagery. Any formation of symbols that produce an experience can be called poetry in my definition. Also, it’s understood that any poetry posted here is copyrighted. If it’s not original, I will site the source.
I am tickled that this event is starting on a Sunday. Such creative connotations! And on April Fool’s Day, just so that we don’t take our creativity too seriously. I self-published a book of Poems and Parables back in 1997. This was the first one:
God is a poem
Infinite in meaning
Economical in expression
Clothed in symbol and harmony
A breathing Word
Engaging all perception
Today’s prompt is “Carpe Diem”, with a reference to Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress. I have to admit that my brain first translated that Latin phrase as something like “Fish Gods”. You know, Carp Deities. ‘Fish gods’ sounds like ‘fish guts’. I was going down that path for a while. But then, I remembered a conversation I had at breakfast with Steve about childhood development. We have often referred to ourselves as 3 and 4 year olds. He’s 3, and I’m 4. I got a chart of early childhood characteristics at my last teacher training session, and we talked about how the descriptions fit us. I often feel like we’re trying to get back to those authentic ideas of ourselves and that maybe, eventually, we’ll become infants again and live as though we were not separate at all from the environment.
So all that musing is background. I began composing my first lines in the bathtub. Here’s what I penciled in my notebook when I dried off:
My three-year-old comes out to play
With ne’er a thought about the day,
For what is ‘think’ or ‘time’ or ‘how’?
The only thing is ‘this right now’.
My three-year-old, with eye and ear
Stays open’d wide to what is here.
Experience is all, you see.
That three-year-old’s inside of me.
As we were walking off in the rain to meet his mom for breakfast, Steve made this sound of spring….boinnng! I thought that would make a good title for a post. I admit that I am a sound effects gal. It comes with being an actor of sorts and a singer. Ever notice how most guys do use sound effects at least occasionally in their conversation, but women do less often? Maybe it’s not really ladylike, but I get more animated as I get more comfortable with the people around me. I enjoy hamming it up. I’ve been posting some pretty serious stuff because I have a lot of that in me, too, but lately, I’ve been itching to burst out with something creative and lively. I am ready to engage in some collaboration, but I’ve been frustrated in my recent attempts with voice students and job interviews (still waiting to hear from Old World Wisconsin). I’ve found something to try, though….a poetry challenge!
That’s right, folks, the NaPoWriMo challenge is about to begin on April 1! This is the National Poetry Writing Month challenge: a poem a day for 30 days. I once self-published a booklet of poems and sold 50 copies at my church’s gift shop, all proceeds going to charity. One of my poems got published in The Living Church magazine, though I got no payment for it. My religious poetry tried to be very serious. Nowadays I write rhyming greeting card poetry for Steve’s aunt, just because she lights up so generously when I do. I’m curious to see how I might respond to the prompts offered by the challenge organizers. It’ll be another way to discover who I am, and possibly there will be a collaborative element as I post and receive comments. My father used to write very amusing little rhymes in Valentines and birthday cards for me and my kids. I loved getting those in the mail! I miss that. Perhaps some of that joy will spring up with this endeavor in April. Also, it’ll be fun to try to illustrate my posts with photographs to match.
What do you do when you hunger for creative collaboration? (…besides what the birds & bees are doing 😉 , which is very satisfying as well!)
We watched another installment of Simon Schama’s “Power of Art”; this one was on Van Gogh. I didn’t know that he attempted a career as a missionary and was released for his “over-zealousness”. That zeal, that fervor exploded in color and paint a few years later. Perhaps the misfiring of his neurological circuits added to the visions he experienced, but that doesn’t make them any less real, does it? For the film, an actor portrays him eating an entire tube of chrome yellow. It is an intensely sensuous clip. It makes me want to feel the passion myself, love and zeal and lust in an explosion of warm color and bright hope. I wish I had art sliding around like finger paint beneath my skin.
I feel the need to make something. It’s going to end up being a pot of chili and some yeasty corn bread from scratch. I wish I had some clay or acrylics lying around to play with, but I suppose it’s just as well I don’t. I’d feel bad about wasting expensive materials just for the tactile exploration. Still, I feel a tension within me longing for creative release. Perhaps that’s because I haven’t been singing regularly for a while, or playing the piano. I miss getting caught up in the joy of expression. Do you suppose that our society suffers from creative repression on a massive scale? With all the technology we have to take creativity out of our hands, are we fueling a psychotic collapse? What if we staged a revolutionary return to physical creativity, set up mud pie and garden therapy stations, bread dough and needlework, improvisational dance and percussion…would we see a decline in depression, suicide and domestic violence?
My fingertips get a mild work out typing every day, but it doesn’t feel like enough. I used to do 8 hours of typing, telephoning, and staring at a screen in a cubicle every day. It got very old. I’m lucky to be done with that. I hope that we don’t press people into that kind of thing more exclusively as our society “progresses”. It seems pretty soul-killing. I’d like to set them all free in a wheat field with a box of squishy colors and a canvas and let them stay out all day until the sun sets. Then invite them to share a bottle of wine with me, some good crusty bread, and listen to them describe their experiences while they show me their work. I want to hear their zeal and watch it float free into the world…with mine.
Do animals have imagination? Do they think in concepts or toss ideas around? Or is that strictly a human thing?
Animals have some pretty incredible artistic skills. I think of weaver birds or bower birds, birds that display their expertise in foiling predators and attracting mates. Does that indicate imagination? Cats, chimps, elephants and others have created art with paintbrushes or paws dipped in colors. Is that imagination? Maybe.
What good is imagination? Why is it a useful skill or a precious gift?
It keeps us from getting bored. It motivates us to engage in possibility. It fuels hope. But I suppose it could also be said that it fuels depression or despair. So, it’s a tool that we have in our skull-shaped kit box. We can use it however we want. We get to be creators. And it’s free. You don’t need electricity to run it; you don’t have to have an account or a password. This is one of the greatest gadgets ever! Do we celebrate it? Encourage it? Teach it? Or do we try to corral it, censor it, mold it, sterilize it? Well, historically we have done all of these, to be truthful. What have you done with yours lately? Do you have a secret place where you put the workings of your imagination? A journal, a sketchbook, a doodle pad, a workbench, a tape recorder, a music staff, a photo album? Do you unwrap these presents for yourself sometimes?
When I was in college, I worked summers at a Christian camp. I was in charge of the arts & crafts area. It was called “Imagination”. Over the doorway in blue paint and gold glitter, the name hung like a talisman. Each day, I wondered which kid was going to come in and blow my mind with something s/he created. I remember one tall, skinny, shy kid with a speech disorder, named Devin. He was 14. He would come in and look bored. I gave him some clay and googly eyes. He joked around, embarrassed, and then made a pretty good likeness of E.T. from that summer’s most popular movie. The next day, five campers came into the shop asking if they could make an E.T. head. Not that the art was original, it was completely derivative. But the idea to create something started a fad, like the kids were just waiting for someone to allow them to explore their own imaginations.
Steve came up with a book from his bookstore collection called Artful Jesters by Nicholas Roukes. “Innovators of Visual Wit and Humor” it says. Here’s the cover:
The artwork is by Willie Cole; it’s called “Burning Hot I – Sunbeam iron with yellow and red feathers”. I would love to raid all the recycling containers on my block, set up a workshop in my garage, and make “Imagination” come to life again. I’d invite all those shy, awkward kids and the ones who pay too much for entertainment, and see if they’d engage in this wonderful ability we humans seem to have inherited from somewhere. We are co-creators in this world. It’s a pretty nifty gig. I appreciate all my blogging friends, my musician friends, artists, knitters, chefs, actors, gardeners, sculptors, photographers, architects, designers…thanks for opening up your shops and showing us it can be done.