Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Lessons Learned from Potty-Training.

I was thinking this morning about how/why we have dis-integrated ourselves, separated our heads from our bodies.

It occurred to me that potty-training is the last time in our lives when we're taught to observe what our bodies are telling us. We ask toddlers to let us know, or head for the bathroom, when they need to pee or poop. We praise them when they do.

But do we ask toddlers to tell us when they've had enough food? We're more inclined to try to spoon in "just one more." Perhaps reprimand them if they spit out that spoonful. One of my grandsons wanted one blueberry for breakfast. One. When his "Music for Toddlers" teacher asked each child what they'd had for breakfast, he said, "A blueberry." The teacher told him that was impossible, and persisted until his mother stepped in and confirmed that was his breakfast of choice, gathering "bad mother" looks as she did so. Twelve years later he was on both the wrestling and football teams and something of a gourmand, able to produce a tasty wine sauce should the mood strike him.

The subject of pooping having been raised,  the word "control" came next. I never use that word with my voice students. I want them to find their healthy, natural voices. But in the beginning they all want to control the quality of the sounds they hear, and invariably use a subconscious sphincter-like action somewhere - throat, abdomen, chest - to do so. I've come to believe that they associate control with potty-training. They've been praised for that muscle closure, so by gosh, that must be the right way to use all their muscles.

I once asked a friend what control meant to her. She extended a clenched fist that could have meant she was holding on to what was hers or that she was ready to punch someone. That's not control.

Control of one's body and one's life is being able to consider a number of options and choosing the one that seems best at the time.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Positive Role of Despair

I had just finished writing a letter yesterday to a friend who wasn't sure whether her new idea was born of desperation or inspiration, when I received an email from another friend in despair, sure that he'd never get his novel published.

When clients walk into a session declaring "I can't do it," "I'll never understand," and other variations of frustration, I've learned that will be the session in which they will have a breakthrough. A workshop participant spent half an hour last month telling me all the reasons why he couldn't possibly share his writing with anyone else. Two sessions later he did read his work and thanked the other participants for what he recognized as a transformation.

Despair may be a necessary step in creation. Any new idea, any new piece of writing, any new song, is based on past experience, old assumptions, old techniques. Partway through the process we find ourselves somewhere else, somewhere we had not intended to go. Instead of the landscape we saw ahead of us when we began the project, we find ourselves in a swamp, not knowing which tuft of grass will support us, where we should take the next step.

Arriving at the "I can't" or "I don't know" place is a signal that we're going in the right direction. We have already created something new. And we ourselves are not the same writers or singers or entrepreneurs who began the project. Despair arises when we try to force the project - and ourselves - into the old parameters with which we began.  

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Indecent Sentimentality

It is no longer the sexual which is indecent, it is the sentimental.”

That’s the Roland Barthes statement that Zoe Heller and Leslie Jamison were asked to comment on in The New York Times Book Review of September 28.

The word sentiment was originally rooted in the senses. We had a sensory experience to which our body responded with an appropriate emotion and action. We labeled that sensation a sentiment.

All well and good. That’s how the human body operates. But we seem to have wanted to separate our identity as humans from our bodies for centuries. Since Plato, for sure, and by the time Descartes declared “I think, therefore I am,” the separation was complete. The first philosophical wanderings in that direction were probably to answer the question, How do humans differ from other species? But as we began to identify ourselves as human because of our thought processes, rather than our physiological processes, to be rational became the ideal state. Other tribes, other peoples who did not think the way we did were barbarians who should be ruled by us, their lands taken away, their bodies enslaved. Colonialism, nationalism, caste and class systems all arose from differences in thinking, differences in what it meant to be rational.

Rationality became the province of educated men in Western cultures. Sentimentality became the province of women, who were not considered educable. As so often happens with words that become associated with the feminine, “sentimental” acquired a  derogatory definition - a superficial manipulation of the emotions. Unfortunately, “emotional” still carries some of the stigma associated with sentimental.

But by elevating the rational, the mind, above the sensory experiences of the body, we’re completely disregarding all the scientific evidence about how the mind works. Sensory information initiates an emotional response first, then physical, then mental.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Truth in Fiction

In the blog Steve Mitchell and I write together, I disagreed yesterday with almost everything he had written in his last post. 
He had quoted David Mamet, whose words I distrust for many reasons, not least his book, The Old Religion, about the infamous Leo Frank case. My former husband’s great-uncle was the trial judge in that case. He had hired his nephew, my former husband’s father, as his pistol-packing bodyguard. Many books have been written about that case, many films made. Mamet’s version was so inaccurate (he even got the murder date wrong) that I fantasized for several months about going to Atlanta to do my own research and writing a rebuttal. 
The question that Steve raised, however, is about truth in writing. And, by extension, in all art. 
When we manipulate character and dialogue, plot and structure, aren’t we “conning” (Mamet’s word) the reader?
“Manipulate”originally meant extracting silver by hand. It later came to mean handling anything with skill and dexterity. It’s present connotation is more cynical - the “manipulative” handling of people, for example.
Here’s the problem: No more than 30% of the words we use in everyday conversation convey our full meaning. The standard demonstration of that truism is to ask the disbeliever to say, “I love you,” through gritted teeth. Janet McCann demonstrates it more beautifully in her poem, “Writing a Paper on Silence,” in which she lists many different silences, including “the missed beat before ‘I love you, too’ that says everything.”
If I hear a funny or poignant exchange in the supermarket, I quickly haul out my notebook and write down the exact words before I forget them.. When I read off those words to someone else, I act out what I heard and saw, imitate the voices, wave my arms for the listener. When I try to share that experience with a reader, the exact, “true” words will fall flat without the accompanying body language and inflection. For a reader to laugh or sigh over that incident, I have to change the words, or add material - perhaps something that was not present in the original incident, but nevertheless is as close to the truth as I can manage.
Knowing, as I do so, that my experience in the supermarket was mine alone, poured through the colander of my biography, my truth. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Creativity Block

 "I can't sing on tune." "I don't have a sense of rhythm." "If only I could (paint, sing, write, dance, you name it.)" 

Given the absence of a rare neurological dysfunction, none of those common statements can possibly be true. Singing is an inherent ability. Humans sang before they learned to talk. If our lungs weren't breathing and our hearts not beating rhythmically, we'd be in deep trouble. Sound waves, ocean waves, the entire universe is rhythmic. A child happily paints on walls with his mother's lipstick. Another tells fabulous stories about the monster that lives under her bed. They bang their spoons on the table, dance until they're dizzy.

If we are all born creative, how do some of us become convinced that we're not?  We have to be taught.    By parents who see lipsticked walls as destructive, or "the monster did it" to be a lie. By teachers who find a student's Shakespearean sonnet about a pimple inappropriate for the school magazine. By laws that necessarily require us to obey stop signs.

Some of us are fortunate enough to discover that creativity is a state of being that can be a refuge. We hide it, and ourselves inside it, and continue to grow. But others, who have been punished or ostracized for the new and the daring, lock it inside, forget where we put the key, and wonder why life is so dull.  

The creative spirit may lie dormant, but it never leaves us. It's waiting - maybe knocking once in a while - for that moment when we cast off the "shoulds" and "should nots" and open the door.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Imperfect Art

Murray Bail, in his novel, The Voyage, has a pompous art critic say that the power of art doesn’t come from perfection, but from the effort of creation. That we want imperfection because it’s closer to human understanding.

Even though the rest of the critic’s comment is idiotic, that first clause is true. The power of art does not come from perfection. “Perfect” is a word we can apply to an exam paper or to the threading on a screw. “Perfect” is an end word, the end of effort. We’re done when we hit perfect.

But we never say, standing before a Selma Burke sculpture, “That’s perfect.” Burke wasn’t done with that sculpture. She stopped working on it when it was as close to her truth as she could bring it. That’s what we want when we spend time with it, walk around to see it from every angle. Not perfection. Nor do we want imperfection, so we can understand it. What we want is a truth that we respond to on all levels, mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Nor does the power of art come from the effort of creation. Of course any activity requires effort - learning the craft, practicing it - but we fully respond to art only if it appears to be easy. So easy, so effortless, that we could do it ourselves. If we leave a concert in a state of awe at the technique of the guitarist, we have been listening to a craftsman. If we leave humming and strumming an air guitar, we’ve been listening to an artist.

What we do admire in artists is not effort, but the risks they take in presenting us with imperfect art. When they say, “I’m giving you the very best I can at this moment.” 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Freeing Creativity

Vick's comment led me to think about how some creative projects seem have a life of their own. I've had a dread of anthropomorphism since the 80s, when the fad among academic sociologists was to study animal behavior in order to understand human behavior. The apogee, for me, was a paper about the sexual behavior of wild ducks. The author, whose name I've mercifully forgotten, and his associates had spent untold hours lying in the cold swamps of the northwest watching ducks mate, and had come to the conclusion that rape was involved. An idea so ridiculous that I planned, for a time, to write a novel, "The Rape of the Mallard Duck." Thankfully, that project died as others became more interesting.

However, when I first began to teach voice, one of my students was away for two months on a business trip. Although she had not been able to practice during that time, her voice had grown so much that I was shocked. Shocked and, at first, disheartened. If she had improved so much without me, why was I teaching?

But I have encountered that phenomenon again and again. I have come to believe, although fearfully, because I have no scientific proof and I do have anthropomorphic dread, that the voice has a mind, or a will, of its own. "Oh," it says, "if you're going to free me, then I will fly free."

Humans are creative beings. Any culture that has the means of survival - food and shelter - will sing and dance, decorate their cooking pots and the walls of their caves. What if any creative impulse - the stories we're writing, as well as the songs we're singing - were continuously at work in the subconscious, waiting to be set free?