Writing, Mindfulness, and Two Ways of Seeing
March 20, 2019 § 15 Comments
By Elaine van der Geld
I have always been terrible at drawing. I’d planned to drop art after the mandatory 9th grade course, but then, in our last year of high school, my best friend talked me into signing up for 12th Grade Art. She was talented— effortlessly drawing portraits while I mucked around with stick figures, but I was interested enough in theory and history that I figured I’d scrape by.
We landed an amazing teacher who wore black leggings and Doc Marten’s everyday. She was fresh off of a three-year job teaching art to juvenile offenders and did not expect us to possess any particular talents or skill, but neither did she stoop to assigning dumb activities, as previous art teachers had. Instead, she invested time in teaching us to be artists, which, for her, meant teaching us how to see.
On the first day she held up a landscape painting and asked us to sit quietly and observe the colours. After a couple of minutes she asked us the colour of the trees. We said, “green.”
“And what else?”
One person ventured, “forest green.”
“And what else?” our teacher said, a keen smile on her face.
“And?” She looked so hopeful we had to keep going, but, frankly, the whole thing seemed silly. The trees were green. Lots and lots of shades of green.
Finally, somebody said, “blue.”
“Show us,” the teacher said.
The girl hesitantly pointed to a couple of spots where, as if by magic, navy blue suddenly popped off the canvas. How had I not seen that?
The teacher proceeded to show us a painting of an apple, a sparrow, a lake. Each time, the pieces started out looking simple—the apple was red, the sparrow brown, the lake blue. Then, slowly, we’d come to see straw yellow, maroon, jade.
The world cracked open. Prior to that, I’d gone through life seeing only the straightforward colours of a crayon drawing. Now I could see as Rembrandt had, or, if not Rembrandt, then Bob Ross.
When we finally got to the actual art-making, we started with figure drawing, using live models. We were not to draw the model per se. In fact, if we did that, we were doing it wrong. This was a relief—it bought some time before anyone discovered the fact that I could not draw. We started with timed gesture and line drawings. Volunteers climbed up on a wooden platform and struck various poses. Sometimes they’d hold for 30 seconds before moving into the next one, other times they’d hold for a few minutes. We were to look at the model, rather than the page, keep our hand moving, and, most importantly, we were to look— really look. At first we were told to notice the shades and light. Then we were to notice line. Then we could put it together. We would do 10, 20, 30 drawings a class. They were quick, partially finished things with only abstract resemblance to the model. We were to keep our hands and bodies loose, move quickly, making true marks on the page.
I’ve since called that class, “the one year I was good at art.” No longer reaching for what I expected to see, but instead, putting down what I actually saw, the drawings improved. I no longer automatically kept the whites of the eyes white, but noticed the way light hit on the sclera, iris, pupil. Amazingly, after a couple of months I could draw reasonable portraits simply by focusing on lines and the light and dark planes of a face.
At the time, I was also taking creative writing, and immediately put my new sight to work in stories, boring down into specific surface details. When characters or settings fell into cliché, I’d use pictures to get down accurate, yet surprising, details. There, too, it was a revelation.
Twenty years later, when starting mindfulness practice, I remembered that art class. It occurred to me that while the artist’s eye allows us to see the external world, the mindful eye allows us to see the internal world.
In mindfulness, practitioners are invited to observe the way the mind works, without judgment or resistance; how thoughts leap from one to the next to the next in tangents, but also how emotion lives and moves in the body. The simple act of sitting with what is, the observation of granular detail, the separation of what one expects from what exists were all familiar. Mindfulness requires us to attend to the world of external detail, but also invites us into the rich world of internal detail by noticing the workings of our own minds and bodies.
The body scan, a cornerstone of mindfulness, revealed my internal world, just as Grade 12 Art revealed the external world. In a body scan, you start at one end of your body, noticing how it feels, spending time with whatever is there— hot, cold, numb, sore, itchy, whatever, just noticing. Not resisting, not wishing it were any other way, but simply feeling it. Then move on to the next body part, going through bit by bit until you’ve felt your whole body.
The body scan helps me find fresh descriptions for interior states. Instead of writing clichés about how my heart pounded or breath caught, it reveals the other, more surprising, ways emotion moves in the body. How vulnerability tingles in the shoulders, or how fear bolts down the hips.
When writing, small, mindful pauses help when I need to access some interior state. I close my eyes, get quiet, and breathe. It takes less than a minute, but in that time I often find a step forward. The mindful pause helps me to sustain attention and maintain access to wilder, unconscious, creative states when I’m getting tired or lazy and want to settle into easy, automatic clichés. When editing, it helps me to cut through to small details, to a moment’s essence. I simply close my eyes and sit with the scene. With memoir, I try to re-experience how it felt in the body.
The artist’s eye and the mindful eye grant authors clear-eyed vision of both inside and outside, revealing, in the quiet, the places where the two meet.
Elaine van der Geld’s fiction has recently been published in Kenyon Review online. Her nonfiction writing has been shortlisted for the EVENT Creative nonfiction award and has been published in Off Our Backs. She works on the editorial board of PRISM International, and is currently pursuing an MFA at the University of British Columbia. Find her on Twitter: @elainevan.