Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Know Who You Are

I'm an avid follower of The Voice. This season the coaches' theme seems to be "Know who you are." Based on the genre the contestants choose, the music they choose within the genre, and the persona they present on stage.

Not easy advice. If we continue to learn and grow, we must continue to adjust our self-images. Like children whose shoes fit fine yesterday, we don't become aware of the need for a new image until the old one begins to constrict us.

Unlike children, who know when they need bigger shoes, adults tend to rationalize their discomfort. We blame ourselves when the towns we live in or the jobs we have become too small. When the people around us no longer understand what we're interested in or what excites us. We try to fit into the outgrown shoes instead of shopping for new ones.

As in any creative process - for we are always creating who we are - frustration and pinching is often what we need to re-assess ourselves. Who have I become? What will feed this new person? Who will make room for me?


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.