A large number of people end up as adults who have little or no sense of themselves as legitimate creators. This blog explores the idea of creativity in its widest sense (painting, dancing, felting, cooking, writing, poetry, film-making etc.) and starts with the question 'how do we inhibit and block our naturally creative response to life?'
I'm losing words for all this at the moment. And losing readers, too, it seems! I was astonished to see that in the week I posted the Paul Oertel interview excerpt I apparently had 90 people come in here. I find that hard to believe.... I wonder who you people are???
Anyway, I'm slowing down towards the holidays, and reassessing the way that this blog makes me do words when perhaps I'd be better off with something else. I probably won't post much now until well until January. Or even February.
I did rather want to post the end of an interview in the Saturday Guardian with Ralph Feinnes, in which the interviewer accuses him of being selfish for not having children. It's an interesting few paragraphs about why being an actor is the opposite. At the end of the interview, as a plane roars overhead above the caravan they're sitting in, he apparently bangs the table and says, 'it's not selfish, it's generous......'.
Perhaps I'll put more of it in here some time when words are working better for me.
I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul's history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.
What is precious is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from endless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.
Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are feted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of the white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire's centre.
Born of the sun they travelled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.
I'm still thinking about some comments made by Rachel Cusk in the Guardian some weeks ago in a review of Joan Didion's recent memoir, Blue Nights (which is about the death of her daughter). I can't sort my thoughts out about this, but they are circling around ideas about particularity and universality/generality.
Assumptions about these ideas were central to my work with complexity theory in the context of educational research. They have come up again for me in recent months in relation to creativity, particularly after the Authentic Artist workshop, when I remember Kath Burlinson continually correcting someone who tended to talk in general terms. '...You know when you see a person and they...' the workshop participant would say, and Kath would respond with, 'No, I don't, and you don't either! You don't know about anything except your own experience. Talk from that!'. The person would then reframe what they were saying, and they immediately sounded more grounded and confident. This came up again with someone else, who said, 'You'll probably think that this only took me ten minutes to write, but actually.....'. 'You have no idea', Kath said, 'What we think, at all! Tell us what you think, or what you did...' (apologies, Kath, for inaccurate paraphrasing!).
Aspects of this focus on the particular, on only what can be known from our own direct experience, came up at different times during the three days. I remember it particularly in relation to thinking about self-consciousness; the critic in our heads who constantly worries about what others will think of us; and how crippling the preoccupation with the judgements of others usually is for creativity (again, Kath, if you read this, please correct anything in a response to this post!).
Kath, and Paul Oertel, at least as I understand what they might be doing, seem to be suggesting the possibility of release into a deeper way of being; a place to operate from within ourselves which can be known only by letting go of the preoccupation with how we appear to others. Paradoxically, once this place is found and known, it turns out to be the opposite of 'self-centredness' or ego. I see it as a place where the smallness of the ego seems to more or less disappear, as it becomes absorbed into a sensation of self which knows itself differently, more intuitively; as a biological being connected inside and out to the larger ecology of which it is a part.
So bearing all this in mind, I'm perplexed about the following ideas in this book review:
Some of the best literary memoirs.... describe the author's survival of extreme or extraordinary circumstances. Others... document the effects on the author of events (in this case, the death of a spouse) which, though difficult to bear, are universal and ordinary. The former might be said to be turning chaos into order, transforming or redeeming chaotic experience with the orderliness of the author's prose and the rational mind from which it issues; the latter begin with the proposition of order and proceed, through the honesty of their writing, to challenge and disrupt it.
This is a delicate and difficult undertaking, for obvious reasons. To personalise common experiences is to assert a version of them with which others might not agree. The memoirist, while placing an unusual degree of trust in the reader, is also exposing herself to their judgement. She hopes to speak for everyone; she risks being ridiculed for speaking only for herself (my italics).
I'm a bit perplexed that the death of a spouse can be described as 'universal and ordinary', but perhaps the reviewer is talking about this when she says that the memoirist can disrupt this idea. What, though, is '... honesty of ...writing' if, when writing, the author is thinking about 'the risk of being ridiculed'? Is it possible to write honestly whilst holding the fear of this risk in your mind? This is new territory for me. I don't know about writing, or the critique of writing. But the thing that really stands out for me in this passage is 'she hopes to speak for everyone'. This seems to be the complete opposite of the Authentic Artist/Martha Graham idea of opening; of 'getting out of one's own way', of detaching from ego and fear, in order to make space for a direct creative response from an unselfconscious place.
The unselfconscious place surely transcends the smallness of ego-preoccupation, and as I understand this at the moment, I can't see that it would concern itself with trying to 'speak for everyone'. Whether or not someone in the audience finds a place to connect with the creative response seems to me to be quite beyond the control, or intention, of the person who is offering up their response. I would imagine that the last thing on their mind would be whether or not they're speaking for others, or indeed whether or not the critics will like them or ridicule them.
I've struggled to write this post. Not sure that I've got my thoughts clear at all. But there's something here that seems interesting...
As king fishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; As tumbled over rim in roundy wells Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; Selves -- goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, Crying What I do is me: for that I came...
David Whyte quotes this section of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem in the talk recorded on Thresholds. He's talking about being in South Africa, looking at a kingfisher, in the context of the idea that human beings are 'the one corner of creation that can refuse to be itself'. 'It is,' he says, 'an absolute triumph for a human being just to be themselves'.
...when you're trying to arrange the world according to your own machinations and in accordance with the rules you have learnt so assiduously, you're constantly disappointed. Whereas when you base your life on revelation, on the fact that everything in fact has its own essence and is attempting to speak with you in its own voice, there's an astonishing beauty in the world, which is a revelation and a healing force, in and of itself.
One of the diagnostic features of stress is that you lose your taste, you lose your savour, you lose your ability to see the minute miracles of creation... (paraphrased).
He talks about poets trying to shake themselves out of themselves, 'to arrange to get tired of themselves so that they can see the world again... to get fed up of everything they've been saying about themselves, and about the world...'.
Listening to him talk, to his reading a stunning poem about salt (!), I wonder why I can't write words like those he is reading. I compare my simple ideas about making marks on paper (last post) and/but see that it is at least partly not what we might think from the outside, ie. 'that 'I am just not talented enough' etc'. I am certainly not able to write such arresting words, but it might be worth thinking about the idea that those elegant, dense, rich, unexpected words may not come from 'talent', but from a stronger connection with a deep current which flows strongly within everyone, but which for most us is almost completely (and habitually) out of reach.
I have been a stranger to that current in myself for over 30 years. It's not surprising that my words are baby steps, nothing unexpected. Instead of judging them, criticising them, I could marvel that words have appeared at all. Surely this is a beginning. How else to reach down towards that current, other than blindly, by instinct, with hope and clumsiness?
Then he quotes some lines from Patrick Kavanagh, which made me think of what I was trying to saying in that post about the mark.
Me I will throw away Me sufficient for the day The sticky self that clings Adhesions on the wings To love and adventure, To go on the grand tour A man must be free From self necessity....
An Interview with Paul Oertel in All Rites Reversed
By Antero Alli
This meeting with the internationally-acclaimed voice artist, Paul Oertel, took place September 5th, 1986 in his studio in Boulder, Colorado. Onstage since he was ten years old, Paul's extensive theatrical/dance/voice background also incorporates the study of human anatomy. Since 1970, he has co-created with his wife, Nancy Spanier, in a series of Inter-Media Performance pieces featured throughout the U.S.A. and Europe.
ANTERO ALLI: Speak about the value of relating to silence and how this relationship influences the quality of sound.
PAUL OERTEL: The foundations of my initial work came from Kristin Linklater, an acting/voice teacher at the NYU School of the Arts in NYC. The bottom line to establishing vocal technique was finding that point of no effort. We started with lying on our backs and observing breath until the breath was not being motivated by any noise whatsoever. Even if the mind continued creating noise, the actual breath was silent. This created one open channel, so that no matter how tense I am...this channel would not be interfered by my neurotic habits...physical, emotional and psychic tension. The breath itself will produce communication in silence without effort.
AA: When you work one-to-one with someone, what do you look for first to find out the most about them?
PO: What usually happens first is that there's some sense of the individual's gift and their need. That usually glimmers forth when they walk in the room. Then, after that it's mostly a puzzle. What are the overlays, misconceptions, pretensions, and blocks that made it difficult for the person to access their gift? Then come the exercises to create the experiences for breaking up the blocks and confusions...to make it certain to the person that those things are not necessary.
AA: Touch upon the conversion point between sound into movement and dance.
PO: You can sometimes use sound to unblock the issues and sometimes movement and you can play back and forth depending on where the person is most open. If the person is blocked in the physical body and they have a fairly open vocal channel, you can hook in that way. What we usually find most difficult in voice class is the value judgment about the resistance...
AA: ...the resistance of the resistance...
PO: Absolutely. So, if the person says they feel like an ugly, stubborn, stupid donkey, then if we begin to dance out this ugly, stubborn, stupid donkey we discover that the individual without value judgment has a wonderful time.
AA: How can one vocalize intense feeling without blowing people away? And is there a way to contain expression without diluting its power?
PO: That's a very important question. My experience is that it has to do with the relationship between space, flesh and emotional flow. For example, if a person is expressing heightened anger and their flesh is caught in it and they are totally invested in it as if that is their identity, it tears up the body...exhausts and debilitates the person. It may produce a kind of catharsis but it wipes them out and they may have to go home and sleep. It pollutes the space and they don't get much insight from the experience because they have no perspective or point of view. Therefore, what to do?
In the body, we found that if the emotional flow is moving up the front of the spine but the person feels quiet and completely safe behind it then you can let anything fly and it will flow right out through an open channel out the body. The person is sitting there watching it with enough perspective that this other phenomena doesn't happen. Anatomically, we can go into the back ribs, so the person begins to feel: "Oh, there is space back there". And as they separate that space, they begin to experience the emotion in front of the space. Then they can actually sob and not feel frightened because they are behind the emotion and not in it.
AA: Let's go back to the issue of containing expression without diluting its power...
PO: It was put to me very well by an acting teacher named Olympia Dukakis, a Greek woman in New York, and she said there was three things you can do with an emotion. You can stuff it, you can throw it out, or you can experience it in your flesh. Of course, the "stuffing of emotion" produces neurosis and sickness. Throwing it out often leaves somebody devastated...someone who gets the energy. But if you take the energy and actually put it into your flesh...pour it through like a sieve, then instead of having the emotion go to the world, it goes through the muscles. In that process, it becomes refined, filtered and this produces insight which creates understanding. In the audience, this works because it lets them handle the heat.
AA: What is resonance and how does it happen?
PO: Anytime you have a space closed off or muscles that are tight, it's like filling a violin with cotton or a room with pillows. As the muscles are freed, that area then will resonate. Another thing that is interesting is that places in a person's body that will not resonate have no consciousness. Often, awareness is enough. One can point to an area in the body and by becoming more aware of the spot, its resonance will increase. So, it turns out that one can develop a whole vocal technique that is based purely on awareness...where the more aware of your physical being you become, the more your voice opens up. The flesh is really the barometer. If you look at the flesh and it's becoming open, freer, lovelier...you know something is working. If the flesh is getting tighter, tenser, hardened, shortening and space is being lost...you know it's not working. Often times people will sacrifice their intuition for a certain effect that may be more sociologically or politically acceptable. If a person learns to trust their instincts, they arrive at breath, relaxation and intuition...as well as their own personal aesthetic, integrity and individuality. They can arrive at their innate gift and ability to be of service and of use relative to their role on the planet.
AA: How do you help people get beyond their concepts and closer to their own instincts?
PO: It has to be by an experience rather than an argument. An experience has to be created that is so sensuous, so pleasurable...so wonderful and undeniably real that they don't want the other thing anymore. They make the choice. I help the experience happen. If one experience doesn't work, then others are made. I have tried to argue people down and it's futile. The mind is infinitely clever. Who am I to tell anybody what to think anyways? It's none of my business.
AA: How can the voice become more flexible and sensitive to conveying the subtleties of the human heart's song?
PO: It's a question of removing fear. As the fear is removed, the human heart's song appears. As the tensions, preconceptions and notions are removed...it's like a bird in a cage singing with all kinds of locks, cotton, mufflers and stuff around it. The whole time the bird is singing yet the person can't hear it and no one can hear it because it's all buffered. Gradually, the person starts to hear it and asks, "Is that me? Am I that beautiful?".
AA: Talk about singing with the whole body...
PO: If a part of the body is blocked or denied, it won't have awareness. As we spoke earlier, where there's no awareness there's no resonance and expression. Let's say a person feels a vibration in the head and then the emotion moves down to the buttock seeking expression...the voice wants to drop down into there. If this person has a belt of tension through their diaphragm, then the energy drops down and hits the diaphragm and the person suddenly feels nauseous...the expression doesn't happen. So, it's a question of making all the tracks free and all the dams so the water can flow freely everywhere. It's the removing of the blocks so that the whole thing can work. There's nothing to be done or created; the creation is already there. The whole body would work instantly if there was nothing dividing it into fragments.
AA: How do you neutralize and dissipate the charge that often accumulates while performing? What do you do after the show? How do you let it go?
PO: That, of course, is a very important question. A lot of what will dissipate it is being completely open so the energy passes through. I don't lock anywhere. Any block in my body will catch the flow and I'll pick up the whole thing. I continue to express what's going on and then, there is a "process period". This is where I process the whole thing in movement for maybe weeks...months...if the experience is really a shocking one, it may run right up against my issues...then, those issues will be really hot. That's one of the reasons I perform. The performance absolutely devastates me and rocks my very core. After I have gone through that experience and having been shaken to my very soul, then there are hours and hours of improvisation where I put back together what has been destroyed in a new way. I get all the information I need from the experience itself.
The wonderful Oliver Burkeman wrote a column in the Guardian two weeks ago about a new book on creativity called Do The Work (his column was originally entitled 'Do we need a kick up the ass'? but has changed online to 'Macho Creativity Advice').
The author of the book, Steven Pressfield, is apparently a former US Marine (he wrote an earlier book called The War Of Art) and his advice is that we need a kick up the ass: "get to the end as if the devil himself were breathing down your neck and poking you in the butt with a pitchfork". 'The inner critic?', asks Burkeman, "His ass is not permitted in the building".
Burkeman goes on to discuss how Pressfield suggests that resistance can be proof that you're on the right track, which Burkeman basically agrees with, in the sense that ' (surely...) work that matters is always going to feel difficult'. But he questions whether it's useful to view creative work as a battle.
The one obvious truth about resistance that Pressfield seems to have missed is that if you go searching for it, armed to the teeth and looking for a fight, you'll certainly find it. Or, to drop the military imagery: convince yourself that your work is extremely important, that your life depends on it, is a way to generate fear, not conquer it.
He then argues convincingly that it may be easier to outwit resistance by simple and dullish approaches such as making yourself stick to a writing schedule. This, he suggests, 'makes creativity non-intimidating, and thus makes creativity actually happen.'
It seems to me that both of these approaches might work. When you're through a block of some kind, you can look back and say to yourself, look, I only needed to get on and do it, it was so simple, really.... Retrospectively, kicking resistance's ass seems like a doable thing. Equally, setting yourself a simple schedule and sticking to it, once you're doing it, might also seem like a relatively straightforward answer (to the problem of not working).
The success of the first, though, might depend on how you respond to being harsh with yourself. Do you obey yourself, or find some way to sidestep your own bullying? Perhaps you're sick of disciplining yourself, making yourself 'get on', or at least telling yourself that you should. Maybe there's enough compromising and carrying out of duties already, and your creativity is in fact wearily resisting your attempts to push it into the mould made by your moralising and 'should'ing. Given that it's probably trying to break you out of the box you've spent years creating for yourself, it makes sense that it isn't going to respond to your usual haranguing.
The second approach, being simple and systematic, doing a bit of something in a relatively structured way every day, can work very well. For a while. But I'm beginning to think that if you don't get into some of the deeper layers of your resistance, it's always going to resurface again soon enough. Take what happened to me this summer. My painting seemed to have broken through, to have gained momentum and to be beginning to take shape without me fussing and worrying and not doing. Then I lost my workspace for a month. And by the end of that month, everything had dried up again. No matter how much I told myself that I could just go with the flow, that not everything could be controlled, that I could work as well in other spaces and on a smaller scale....the loss of that carefully constructed environment, within which something fragile had started to emerge, stopped that subtle emergence dead in its tracks.
The problem with both bullying and scheduling seems to me to be that both are dealing with a kind of surface behaviour or attitude. 'Get on, twitface!'. 'Sit down now, do as you planned!'. However much my mind says to my being as a whole that it really is quite simple, deeper parts of myself often don't seem to agree. By definition, those deeper parts (as Meg Rosoff was discussing) are things that my mind cannot see, and they are well used to sidestepping my will and intentions.
Let's take the idea of 'the critic' as an oversimplified shorthand for some of these deeper/hidden aspects. I knew all about my critic, in principle, before I did the Authentic Artist workshop. But I was quite unable to see how pervasive she was, or to recognise her subtleties. I'm so used to myself that her blocking actions are as comfortable as old shoes. And whether I shout at myself or try to impose rigid structures onto my time, until I learn how to see what is hidden from me, for every one time I think I've caught her in action, there will be twenty that I was quite unaware of.
This is one of the reasons that the workshop was so transformational. As long as I'm only talking to myself, I can't see a damn thing. When I tried to do my work in front of others, though, well... A thousand hidden children came tumbling out onto the floor, some crying, some laughing, some whooping, some covered in shame. Then I started to see some of what was stopping me from working. How I had been treating myself, and all those children, for so many years.
In this context, the simple idea of 'respond to whatever comes into my channel without pause or comment' emerged within me as a guiding idea which could begin to move me forward. It's not important because, as an idea, it's any more profound than 'kick yourself up the ass' or 'sit down to write now'. It's important because it surfaced within me from layers and layers and layers that I had been unable to see on my own. It means something to me, and means nothing outside of that.
Perhaps that's the problem with all these books and attempts to make general comments about creativity and blocks. There's no way out except by finding your own inner worm, and feeling and watching as that worm begins to chomp its way through things you had no idea were living down there...