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.
September 20, 2016 § 12 Comments
A guest post from Kelly Kautz:
Every copywriter has an unfinished manuscript tucked in a desk drawer, goes an old advertising cliche. The manuscript represents an identity crisis, a fraught relationship between commerce and art.
“You know the popular conception,” a 1960 New York Herald Tribune article summarized. “He’s writing about Frabjous Krispies for his pocketbook but here are tears in his beard.”
I, too, am a copywriter with a manuscript. And until a few months ago, I too had an identity crisis. But mine wasn’t a struggle between art and commerce. I just couldn’t find my voice.
The Story I Almost Couldn’t Tell
My book is rooted in family history: my great-grandmother might have belonged to a Satanic cult. I’d overheard bits and pieces of the story throughout childhood: She’d always been a bitter woman; then she fell in with a strange crowd. People began disappearing. And the dirt floor of her cellar, well, that was a perfect place to hide bodies.
No one had substantiated the family rumors. After I became a mother, I decided to try, and write a book about my investigation. I interviewed family members, and jotted down drafts. I spent my lunch hours at the ad agency searching digitized newspaper archives for clues. I envisioned the finished book to be a literary look at family secrets. But I couldn’t untangle the narrative threads: The fallibility of memory. The true crime angle. Genealogy. Satan.
How could I capitalize on the occult angle without sensationalizing it? Was I writing a history book, a memoir or—Satan forbid—a piece of pulp?
I struggled with these questions for nearly a year. I studied the Hero’s Journey and mapped out each chapter. This tightened up the book’s story arc, but left me no closer to understanding its nuances. Discouraged, I began spending my down time gossiping with coworkers and stalking the employee breakroom for snacks.
That’s how I found my solution. I’d wandered into the breakroom for a third cup of coffee one afternoon when I overheard a coworker explaining brand pyramids to an intern.
“All great brands are built upon something universal,” he said. “That’s what makes them relatable. The trick is to capture something universal and remain true to the things that make the brand unique. Those unique parts sit at the top. They’re what everyone sees. But that universal part provides the foundation.”
Universal yet unique, I thought. Huh.
That evening I sat down and listed my book’s narrative threads. Then I began organizing them into a pyramid of my own, from the most universal to the most unique. How did brain science fit in? Where did genealogy go? I crossed out threads and added new ones. Eventually a structure started to form.
Family was the foundation of my story; the most universal of all the angles. Next came motherhood, which had sparked my investigation—also universal, though a little more focused. Mental illness was a third theme—not quite universal, though all-too common. I’ve struggled with OCD my entire life, and suspected this or some other mental illness played a role in my great-grandmother’s behavior.
And finally, that weird little detail about the occult. The part that everyone noticed, and everyone remembered.
Calling this a brand pyramid isn’t quite accurate. It’s just an organized list of narrative themes. But once I’d created it, writing my book became easier. Talking about it seemed more natural. I felt like I’d finally found my voice.
Finding Your Own Voice
I’ve always been interested in a long list of strange and disparate things. Perhaps that’s why I like advertising: I get paid to write about candy bars and extrusion machines, all in the same afternoon.
Rather than confining me to a narrow set of topics, this pyramid has empowered me. I no longer feel obligated to insert an occult angle into every blog post I write. I’ve opened up about my personal experiences with motherhood and mental illness, because I finally understand their relevance.
Most importantly, I get excited when I look at my brand pyramid, because I’m reminded of what drew me to this story in the first place. I notice connections between themes that I hadn’t seen before. But it took me a long time to get to this point. I spent many afternoons frowning at my computer, with too much to say and no way to say it.
If you find that it’s taking you a long time to find your voice, too, don’t panic. Explore everything that feels relevant, and a few things that don’t. Keep evaluating and re-evaluating which angles feel right, and which topics draw your interest. Ask yourself: which parts of my story are universal, and which are specific to me alone?
Your direction might take the form of pyramid like mine, or a mission statement, or a mind map. Maybe it will look like something else altogether. In the end, the form doesn’t matter; only that it leads you down the path to your best work. Even if your best work turns out to be about Frabjous Krispies.
May 2, 2012 § 7 Comments
Brevity founder, editor, and slushpile slave-driver Dinty W. Moore talks of writing and non-attachment at the Inside Higher Ed blog today. Here’s a portion where he diagnoses John Warner’s recent writing block:
JW: I’m going to take advantage of your expertise by sharing my current personal hang-up. I published a novel in the Fall to marginal acclaim, and I have two other projects very close to completion that my brain won’t allow me to finish, I believe, because I’m concerned that I’ll have a hard time publishing them. I work on them all the time, but the finish line gets further away as I rework and rethink. I generally enjoy the process, but I fear the completion. What do you think I should be mindful of with these projects?
DWM: That goes back to the essential Buddhist teachings of non-attachment. You, John, are attached to a particular outcome – something beyond “marginal acclaim.” Trust me, I’ve wrestled this devil myself, time and again. Well, remember this: you can’t control publishing and all of the industry madness. You can’t control the New York Times Book Review. You can’t control bookstores, or Amazon, or readers’ whims. So what can you control? You can control your own reactions to these outside forces. If these realities drive you up a wall, remember that it is a wall you can choose to disassemble. Just take it down, brick by brick. You can’t control whether your next book is the sort of success defined by big sales, splashy parties, glowing reviews, and industry buzz, but you can control whether you define success in those terms. If you define success outside of these external forces, you can achieve that success within your own control: a book that you are proud of, a book that speaks truth, a book with elegant sentences. Easier said than done? You bet, but if success for every author is only achieved when we hit #1 on the bestseller list and have agents fighting over our next novel, then by definition 99% of us are going to be miserable and dejected all of our writing lives. What a waste. So with these two books, be mindful of how you define success, and what you can control. If you are not attached to a very particular outcome, you are more able to enjoy and appreciate whatever outcome comes along.