Saturday, December 28, 2013

Bullsheet: A Type of Deep Revision

Over the past few years of teaching, I have handed out a sheet similar to the image to the left to initiate a discussion of what I call "deep revision." (The handout was given to me many xeroxed years ago by a fellow MFA student, Herman Fong.)

I tell students with prior Western art history knowledge to sit still for a moment while those students who have no idea that the artist is Picasso bat back & forth the questions: "Which is the first draft bull? Which the final version? What would be possible equivalencies for a writing process?"

I tell my writing students that I'm less interested in the reality (i.e.: the final bull is at the bottom of the middle column) and more interested in their perceptions about what it takes to revise, to reach such a radical change in an artist's perceptions. This work, I say, was from a point in this painter's career in which he had reached notoriety, but he was not satisfied with remaining in place.

Re-vision. The importance to get down on one's knees as an artist and rethink one's entire approach. What I call my "Martha Graham" moments--thinking of how the legendarily hardworking dancer spent years crouched on a hard wooden floor trying to work through her aesthetic. It's the willingness to put everything on the table, to be able to relinquish any component of a piece, no matter how hard it was achieved or what others have already said of it. Perhaps even your "signature" gesture as an artist.

What does it take to do a type of deep revision? It can entail identifying a structural question in one's text and meditating on it fiercely, with perhaps fewer or no provisions for self-expression or personal emotion. To identify a structural element and take it much deeper, yards deeper than one would normally go. It means taking on deep issues such as:

* one's subjectivity (are you willing, for instance, to change your whole outlook--indeed, your personality? the way you proceed with life? the way you look at the world?)

* one's relation to truth and fact

* one's writerly "crutches," habits, and support systems

* a single formal element (figurative language or even the use of prepositions) and making it the dominant organizing feature

* the logical progression of one's meaning: deductive? inductive?

* the moral framework of one's meaning: a different sort of implication

Change like this is right around the corner. It's in the frame of the next moment. But it's certainly not easily achieved. It takes a radical groundlessness, a freedom from preconceived notions about one's work, about oneself.

It is easy to fool oneself or others. For instance, this Bull seems like it could be done. It seems like a sufficient amount of revision face time has been put in:


No one else would probably know what you know: that your work is not yet done. I've sent out
Bulls like this one to literary journals or to writer friends under the guise of a finished product, knowing full well that my work remained before me.

To end up with the last Bull, the get-it-right Bull, the one the writer knows is the final product, that is one of the biggest rewards of this writing life:

Friday, December 20, 2013

Repost of Stop Dualistic Thinking, Become Prolific

[I'm reposting this piece because it feels important to mindful writing.]

Simply stop thinking dualistically about writing and sit back and observe what happens.

Contrary to usual belief, wanting to write is not good, beneficial, or commendable. Wanting to write does not hold a positive or negative impact on others or on oneself. Furthermore, writing everyday with terrific discipline, is neither positive nor negative, and finishing or publishing a text is also neither a positive or negative experience.

Much energy is expended in trying to coerce ourselves or others to write because we perceive the W word as an accomplishment. We grasp the goal of writing.

It is often presumed that wanting to write is a positive quality in a person. We tend to think that it’s good when students, for instance, want to write their assignments or, seemingly better still, want to write on their own, independent of any homework. We say, “good, this student likes writing,” if we are a teacher or their parent. It’s considered good when we ourselves feel willing to complete a piece of writing within a deadline. It’s perceived as positive when others embark upon a project of any genre.

We tend to admire or envy that willingness to write in another person as though that willingness all by itself were valiant.

When we praise another person’s writing ability, in general, we are actually chasing after one of two qualities, either self-expression or self-discipline. In the case of self-expression, we operate as though there exists inside each person’s life an experience or emotion that can only be released through writing. For ourselves, we may feel deeply frustrated while trying to release that uniqueness because we believe that writing about our experience is our sole chance. This scenario sets most of us up for the false belief that the ability to self-express is only possible for a few either extremely hard-working or talented individuals. Not us.

It would be cruel if only a select few individuals were capable of the satisfaction of self-expression. This notion is both limiting and false, since all of us born with healthy bodies do possess as a common denominator the ability to use language on an everyday basis.

On an everyday basis, most of us speak and write, and we are all fluent—not jammed—users of words. In some Buddhist traditions, everything and everyone has a Buddha-nature, or the opportunity for enlightenment. Revered Zen monks used to call each other derogatory names such as “old rice bag” to remind themselves that enlightenment is this universal ability, not just something in high-ranking religious officials. Likewise, each of us is completely capable of creating “verbal gold”—phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and whole texts—which make us feel proud and assured.

When we praise the self-discipline of a successful writer, we are causing as much harm to ourselves as creative spirits as when praising self-expression. To admire discipline in the abstract is to remove writing from the present moment and—by extension—to further eliminate any chance that one will be writing at any time soon.

You may have encountered a stranger at a dinner party who says, “Oh, I have tons of great ideas for books I could write, but I just lack the self-discipline.” Individuals who admire self-discipline in another are less likely to be really driven by a desire to write than the person who admires self-expression. These I-wish individuals are likely hoping that discipline could be grafted onto other areas of their lives, such as dieting or paying off debt

When writing is liberated from our systems of judgment and the binary thought pattern of good/bad, we are also liberated. We are free to either write or not write, thereby opening ourselves to the countless possibilities for human activity.

It’s okay to clean that floor instead of writing. It’s okay to go play with your son and then do the work you’ve brought home from the office. Writing is just one activity of hundreds.

Poet William Stafford said that lowering one’s standards will help a writer do the text. Take that advice a step in a new direction and cut back on your notion that even trying to write is a good attempt. Lower your standards that far. What’s funny is how achieving this non-dualistic thinking often allows people to start writing and keep at a project.

Simply stop the dualistic thinking about writing, and sit back and observe what happens. See that these binary categories about writing are absolutely meaningless. Not only are they meaningless, but in the end they will prevent you from writing as often as you want.

You need to trust that it ultimately does not matter whether you finish that novel, memoir, poetry collection, volume of literary theory, historical documentary [insert your genre here] because writing is neither positive nor negative. If you feel anxious at the idea in the previous sentence, inwardly you still cling to the dualistic notion that writing is a positive occurrence and that not writing is a negative occurrence in your life.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

On Not Being in Charge

Asking how much longer on this writing project, when will it be done, how many more lines, how many more stanzas, how many more paragraphs or pages, how many more sources, is a fundamentally inappropriate or ungracious question. It's one I found myself asking the other day about a poem like a child pestering, "Are we there yet?" And as of this morning, I'm still being reprimanded for asking it.

In "The Essential Delay" and "Write Before Writing" Don Murray identified five reasons why someone might delay writing (waiting for information, insight, order, voice, and need). Murray's diagnosis about delay is extremely useful for helping people not conflate these rich forms of waiting with writing block.

What strikes me about Murray's waiting, however, is that once a writer becomes aware of the helpful nature of waiting--and stops resisting or mislabeling it--the problem evaporates. In other words, once a writer becomes mindful of the nature of that waiting, the writer appreciates it as an organic stage in composing. Murray's delay is oriented toward the writer: you notice what's actually going on and you're automatically reward with some relief. But I'm talking about yet another type of required patience: you notice what's happening with your writing and you still have to wait, perhaps wordlessly.

It's one more lesson I have to learn about writing. One more thing writing has to teach me about mindfulness. Not only do I not control outcome, I do not control duration around that piece of writing. "You've got to be kidding. You mean there's more?" reveals how I am secretly slanted toward final product, the gloss of completion, the external reward side of writing.

My Other Half, the part of my internal dialog that causes my writing to happen, well, it may go off a long way and for a long time into the unconscious to fetch an answer, the next passage, an image, and resurface only after what seems like an interminably long time.

It's particularly funny when you are the person who decided to write the piece: it isn't a work- or school-provided task. No one asked you or perhaps even expects you to finish this piece. In fact, you were the one who came up with the concept, set up the perimeters, who decided the hour and day to embark and return to the project. You seem to be in charge--but that's far from the case.

Speaking of schooling, of this dimension of composition, I am once again struck by the fact that this patience, this not-being-in-charge is not something regularly (ever?) taught in schools. It's not really school-compatible. How could it be? Perhaps it is a lesson only professional writers or self-willed writers know. I know for sure it is a lesson I need to be periodically retaught. No worries: writing will make sure I'm taught.

Of course, it is only natural to desire for a break, for release from the uncomfortably intense intimacy of writing a piece. What it asks of me is that I stay patient, that I wait for it to be done. That I not try to control outcome or duration, that I embrace groundlessness.

Everything changes, and one factor in writing ability that will change and that will remain beyond our control is the duration of a writing project. How Long can not be predetermined.