Man and Nature

As with some people, the beauty of the composition can only be known through direct witness.

On this day in 1956, Jackson Pollock died. He was forty-four. This morning, I’m reflecting on his legacy.

I am nature, he said, challenging ideas of Man. They said, of his work, it filled out space, going on and on, with no beginning and no end. The drip paintings are what people remember most, his whole-body dance with color on canvas.

Critics divided into camps, either praising the immediacy of the “action paintings” or categorically dismissing what appeared at first to be a random composition. I was sympathetic to both camps until I stood in LACMA before one of these paintings (No. 15, 1950, oil on Masonite) and it wasn’t even a large one. As with some people, the beauty of the composition can only be known through direct witness. From where I stood, at an intimate conversational distance, the intricacy, balance and depth of the composition was immediately clear in ways that it hadn’t been in any of the photographs I’d seen in books. 

Before he was known as The Artist, he was expelled from two high schools. Before he was widely known, he married Lee Krasner. She introduced him to principles of modernism, and also to those responsible for his career as we know it. She meant to define her own work as separate from his, but most struggled to see the distinction, except as the othered Pollock. The idea, I suppose, was that she had sprung somehow from his rib, this man who had claimed to be nature. Extending the logic, they called her only nurture, even though she was a serious artist herself.

As nature, who did he admire?  The sand painters he loved, and the muralists. His favorite was Orozco’s Prometheus, the muscular embodiment of the liberator who saw man’s terrestrial plodding and envisioned a shift in being, stealing fire from Olympus to offer the earthbound. It changed them. They could cook, gather around, watch the smoke rise, and from this came wonder and religion, science and art, song––and yes, dance. For this, he was sentenced for life, in accordance with customs regarding the official treatment of visionaries–– those forces of nature who, by virtue of knowing how to look, defy the smug authority of the keepers of knowledge, the armed guards at the borders between us.

Curating Questions

The museum is a whole. If one part defies its philosophy, the integrity of the whole is compromised.

I was working out a problem in a story last night, and it led me to wonder about museums. I have a character who is making one on a small scale, as people do. We collect, we preserve, we save, we arrange, we project, frame, curate, acquire. How and why? Reasons vary. Wondering about her motives led me to consider museum philosophy. 

Museum: a place where something is preserved. It’s different from a gallery, where works may be brought in for a certain period and taken away again.

An institution may be designed to trigger art or manage those who presume to create it. In this way, it serves as the interface between creation and exhibition.

Possible functions of a museum include: to preserve, to celebrate, to provoke, and to expand or constrain the boundaries of a concept, idea, or form. The function must be established and revisited regularly, especially with regards to how the space and the people in it support or detract from the intended function.

The museum is a whole. If one part defies its philosophy, the integrity of the whole is compromised. If the architecture of the museum space is compromised, you cannot give attention to the art.

In developing a philosophy the central question to consider is, What is this for? A space of entertainment? A showcase? A place to inform without judgement, or to voice social criticism? Is the goal to foster self and community awareness or to uplift?

There is also the possibility of museum as monument. In this case, the emphasis is placed on the exterior of the building, which may leave those in charge of content with limited resources, so that they have to keep seeking out borrowed works for a limited amount of time. 

It all comes down to certain questions for founders, developers, and leaders of any institution: What do you want, and how much? What can you spend, and where will your resources go? One might extrapolate from this an consider similar essential questions for every artist, innovator, and educator. No museum without a clear institutional philosophy can answer these questions with any degree of consistency. 

I am not on any board or decision-making panel of any museum, but I find these questions interesting and useful beyond my initial goal, which had to do with a character.  I suppose it fits with my developing awareness that the role of any artist is also curation (“The Artist and the Curator”). By extension, any curator is naturally connected to the museum; the museum connected to specific philosophies and value systems, and these connected to ideas about being in the world.  At every level, fulfillment of a vision necessitates a clarity of purpose. Are all the parts of this organization (including myself) working toward this purpose? If not, what can be changed or rethought?

Notes and found phrases for these reflections were gathered from the article, “The Museum as Concept and Philosophy”posted at Raussmüller Insights.

In Loving Attention

The endless tasks will be there, always. But we have a choice to work with and through them, in total attention, or to be pulled from ourselves and others by the noise of the day.

It’s easy and expected to underestimate the value of giving our full attention generously and with love. So many forces in the world can work to divide us from ourselves and each other. Plenty profit from engineering more advanced ways to do just that. It’s frighteningly easy to fall into a habit of looking where we are expected to look. Fortunately, it’s not actually that hard to do the opposite, and look with intention. Most of us just need regular reminders, that this is one of the most valuable acts we can do. 

Considering this at the start of a very full week, I am remembering how moved I was when I discovered the work of artist Marina Abramović through a video about her 2010 MoMA exhibition, The Artist is Present. Here’s a description of this installation:

“The work was inspired by her belief that stretching the length of a performance beyond expectations serves to alter our perception of time and foster a deeper engagement in the experience. Seated silently at a wooden table across from an empty chair, she waited as people took turns sitting in the chair and locking eyes with her. Over the course of nearly three months, for eight hours a day, she met the gaze of 1,000 strangers, many of whom were moved to tears.”

Rebecca Taylor at smart history.org describing Marina Abramović’s “The Artist is Present.”

Abramović speaks about her work with trust, vulnerability, and connection in her 2010 TED talk:

Poet John Clare has written, “Poets love nature and themselves are love.” These lines can be powerful reminder for an artist in any medium. These words remind me back to back to deliberate absorption, which is very different than being absorbed into the pull of endless tasks and distractions. 

The endless tasks will be there, always. But we have a choice to work with and through them, in total attention, or to be pulled from ourselves and others by the noise of the day. The work of a generous artist, offering presence and attention, never fails to remind me back to this. As Greg Boyle, one of my favorite artists of the heart has observed, “We are here to return ourselves to one another.”

So today, my focus is on returning. Not once, but over and over again. The beauty of intentional attention is that its rewards are immediately apparent. We have only to try giving it, to be reminded back to why it matters. We have only to offer ourselves fully, to be returned.

Widening the Lens into New Dreams: Revisiting the Flying Man

I have most faith in the knowing that emerges slowly, which feels like immersion in mystery, which is unknowing.

I want to return to the flying man story that’s recently prompted me to revisit it for deeper understanding. The full version appears in yesterday’s post, but here’s a brief summary:

Man escapes fire, sits by river bank, unseeing. Woman of the river finds his wings beneath the silt of the riverbed. He enters the water, pulls them out, sets the wings on land to dry, and falls asleep. Waking, he tries on the wings and walks to a cliff above the river. He looks at the water. The woman of the river sees him, and he starts to re-dream all that is to come. She releases the breath she’s been holding, it catches his wings, and he flies.

This story has been living in me for some time, and this and other stories of flying men have returned to me this week: Icarus, fitted with the wings his father built him, escaping the labyrinth, only to fly too close to the sun and his death. Toni Morrison’s exquisite Song of Solomon, “O Sugarman done fly away / Sugarman done gone / Sugarman cut across the sky / Sugarman gone home.” In Morrison’s work, there are several men preoccupied with flight, and the women are support systems for them, via song and inspiration. I had not realized until recently how deeply these myths were embedded in me until recently. I’ve been working on some new material, and the image of the flying man returns. It brought me to revisit a story that arose organically from a brief freewriting session, summarized above, and presented in longer form in yesterday’s post. 

I was deeply affected, in my late teens, when I first encountered the mythical heartbreak of the fallen Icarus, and I have long been aware of a certain longing for flight that is a noticeable facet of our current psyche, especially in men. This longing to me seemed like a very particular response to a very diffuse and complex system that works to limit, imprison, and kill.

I suppose some of the draw, in my case, is also gendered. We learn the expectations of established roles before we learn to question them. They’re embedded in the dominant systems and stories of the moment. I realized yesterday that there was more to this flying man story than I had previously mentioned.

The shift has to do with the lens, which in this tale, focuses on a moment that begins when the man enters the vicinity of the river and ends when he flies over it. In allowing him to fly, the woman has fulfilled her purpose as prescribed by traditional norms. Additionally, because he has flown, her own attentions are freed from being consumed by the day-to-day details of his terrestrial care.  In this way it is both affirming and freeing. It makes sense that I would have become preoccupied with this myth during decades when I was preoccupied with a calling to heal that felt sometimes at odds with the space I needed to generate the energy to sustain my own life. Naturally, I was influenced by extant mythologies in the dominant stories around me, in which the ideal feminine is often tied to a sacrificial figure.  By this logic, her work is fulfilled when he flies. 

However, we tend to see through a glass darkly, and I missed a larger message, one which carries within it seeds for new understandings. It has to do with who this woman is before and after this. Even though she is called the “woman of the river” I somehow saw her waiting on the banks. Here’s the point I missed. She didn’t live at the water’s edge, but only came up there to look from time to time. She lived in the water, moving between the river and the sea. Her world is invisible from the perspective of the man, and the original story, as I read/told it, was viewed through his lens. The dominance of male lenses in storytelling is so omnipresent that it tends to be invisible, even to female storytellers. 

The stories that we tell ourselves allow us to slide through and around those places that we most need relief from. They can be a temporary salve as well as a key to a locked door. As Ben Okri writes in A Time for New Dreams, “We are constantly becoming, constantly coming into being.” In their stunning work, Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People, philosopher Timothy Morton stresses the necessity of deliberate dreaming as the way for our species to imagine restorative ways forward. Dreaming into new ways of being is very different from “finding solutions” from a locus of established norms. And yet, as Morton puts it, real solutions to today’s crises can only come into being with the deep, immersive visioning that we associate with dreaming, not boardroom-oriented crisis management task forces. 

I consider the implications of this new understanding of the woman and her relationship to the flying man. I am still moved by the badly burned men always arriving at the water’s edge, and yet I am having a better sense that the capacity to heal comes from living in a place separate from the land of fire that keeps burning and imprisoning them, from which they might fly.  She lives in the river. Seeing this, I can better and more deeply understand the importance of returning to the water. There is plenty of work to do on land, but to do it, she must emerge from the river and return to it, again and again. In her story, the moments on land are brief. This is significant. In order to listen and respond most effectively and honestly to the real and immediate needs of a given day, I need to be continually immersed in the aqueous otherworld. 

I have most faith in the knowing that emerges slowly, which feels like immersion in mystery, which is unknowing. I marvel how one of the preliminary understandings drawing me to this deeper knowing was a pull I had a few days earlier, to remember the manatee, this other former land-dweller who lives in the water, this curious, non-competitive species, now endangered. They feed on abundance, these manatees, consuming a quarter of their weight a day in sea grass which are naturally plentiful in the rivers where she lives. When the natural abundance of these grasses is choked by the machinations of greed, she suffers. What is good for her is good for all of us, because we also suffer by this machine. 

Saving ourselves is not separate from saving others, human and non-human; is not separate from nurturing art, laughter, wonder, and joy. Returning to the depths of the dream worlds that allow us to see this is not separate from relief from the fires that burn us, is not separate from the need to fly. 

The Flying Man, Revisited

Reflecting on the myths we live by.

Once upon a time, there was a man who came walking from the land of fire, and he was badly burned. He sat on a rock by a cool stream and the woman of the river watched him with his shoulders stooped and she noticed how his eyes would blur so that he was not seeing the river, really, not seeing anything at all but his own broken reflection against the broken sky.


So, the woman of the river sunk her hands deep into the ancient silt of the riverbed and she pulled from this a pair of wings, and she released these into the river’s rush, and as she released the wings, she slowed the waters of the river by inhaling a deep breath, thick and musical with time, and she pulled it inside herself sharp at the edges like freezing air or smoke. She held it within her, resisting the urge to cough against the pressure.

The wings floated beneath the gaze of the man on the rock, and he bent at the banks of the river and reached one arm and then both, and then he entered the water: one leg, then both, and then he was up to his knees and then past the tops of his legs and then to the middle of his chest as he pulled on the wings. It takes more strength than anyone would think, to pull a pair of wide wings from a current, even when the current is slow. Eventually, he pulled the wings up the banks and set them on the rock where he had earlier been sitting. Panting and soaked, he had forgotten for a moment all about the land of fire from which he had escaped, and he sat and stared at the wings: large, black, and weathered, glistening beneath the dapples of sunlight pairing through the forest canopy above him. He stared at the wings as they dried and he dried as he stared at the wings, and then he fell asleep.

When the flying man woke, he picked the wings up and he noticed that they were attached to a harness that he could fit through each of his arms like a backpack, so that the wings were attached to his torso. Then, wings attached behind each step, he walked through the forest, beyond the last tree, to the base of a great mountain, and as the woman of the river watched him, he ascended the great mountains, carrying the full weight of his new wings on his back, and he walked three days and rested three nights until he reached a cliff, and there stood before a vast green valley, and as he breathed on that cliff he looked at the river running through the valley, catching sunlight. He stood, looking, and the woman of the river stood also, watching him, and after several long breaths, various cloud bands, and several movements during which he witnessed in the valley a retelling of all that he had seen before in the land of fire, and against this, a re-dreaming of all that was to come.

The woman of the river released the breath that she had been holding, and the man above her opened his winged arms, and he felt her breath through his feathers.

He felt his feet leaving the ledge and he leaned into the current of wind now lifting him above the valley, above the river, above all that he had ever known and all he had yet to see—and he flew.

***

This story was originally published in sections, embedded in a larger story, “Twilight at Blue Plate” which appeared in the August 2019 issue of Oyster River Pages. As I woke this morning, I noticed that this piece was demanding some reflection. I have recently been coming into awareness of certain understandings that appeared to me in this fairy tale before I was ready to consciously know them. It’s been my experience that stories often do this. I will be revisiting in tomorrow’s post and considering its role and possibilities in my own. It has been my experience (and I don’t think I’m unique here) that usually my reading and writing vision is a few years ahead of my conscious understanding.

I think this is true for many people. Has it ever occurred to you what stories are shaping your life? I never would have known precisely how central this flying man story was to me, except that I was in a class where we were challenged to spend fifteen minutes on the spot writing a fairy tale, and after my initial eyeroll, thinking “I don’t write fairy tales” this came out whole, in that one brief sitting. This is because it had been in me all along, as so many myths, legends and fairy tales are. In my notes this morning, I began to uncover some layers of understanding that I hadn’t been ready to see before. To share them here would make for an over-long post, so I’ll save these for tomorrow.

Perhaps you may find value in considering what myths and fairy tales are central to your life. As Joan Didion writes in The White Album, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live… We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

Pigeon Spectrum

Ever notice them in the light? If you look really close, there’s a lot happening there. These feathers, you have to see what she does with them, zooming in.

You gotta come see this.

What?

These feathers. This artist makes these huge rainbow murals from the colors.

Oh, I love peacocks.

Who doesn’t, but this is about pigeons.

Flying rats!

No, but look close. Ever notice them in the light? If you look really close, there’s a lot happening there. These feathers, you have to see what she does with them, zooming in.

Where?

Sides of buildings, chimneys, warehouse walls, shipping containers. They started out more muted, but then it was the winter of sirens and another lockdown and everyone inside. That’s when they started getting really bright.

Huh, there’s a legend I heard once, about what the Cottonwood remembers about the pigeons.

Why people started calling them flying rats?

No, why they became the first birds eaten by another bird. It’s a Caddo story, I think.

Hawk get ‘em?

Owl. Legend has it that in the beginning, no bird killed another bird. All they ate was grass and leaves. Great Spirit didn’t like to see anything she made killed by another creature.

But the owl always hunted at night.

Not always. It used to see fine in the daytime. Matter of fact, that’s how it started. Owl laid eyes on a swan and fell hard in love. 

Always the swan. Great white ladybird. They’re mean, though.

So, owl goes every day to see the swan and then he proposes marriage. Swan’s like, “Come down here.” Now, usually owl knows better than to get near any water, but love makes you do crazy things. So, what do you think happens?

Wet feathers.

Yep, he falls in, can’t get out, and there’s a loon in the reeds cracking up, going, “Hah! Fool!” and Owl is humiliated, furious. Thing is, he can’t see the loon. What he sees instead are these two pigeons above him on a cottonwood branch. The pigeons are not paying the owl any mind. They’re lovers. One’s saying to the other, “Who do you love?” just as the raging owl below them is going, “What are you laughing at?” The other pigeon, addressing her love, says, “You, you.”

Uh-oh. I see where this is going.

Yep. Owl goes crazy and attacks her. Her feathers rain down, brush against Great Spirit’s cheek. Spirit wakes up, sees what’s happened, and punishes owl. And that’s why owl can only see at night now. 

Huh.

I know. 

Point being, you gotta see these feathers. 

Let’s go.

The artist is Adele Renault and I came across an article about her “Gutter Paradise” murals in My Modern Met. Here is a link to the article with images.

The story “The Cottonwood Remembers” can be found at When the Storm God Rides, by Florence Stratton, collected by Bessie M. Reid [1936], at sacred-texts.com

Manatee: a Retrospective

What moved you, manatee?

This morning, when I wake tense against the noise of the coming day, knowing I’ll need to retreat from it so I can hear, I am thinking of the manatee. Of the fingernails on its flippers from when they walked on land. 

I am wondering, what moved you, manatee?

Legend has it you were a young woman, bathing at the river’s edge. Then came a hunter and you knew: better to throw your body into the water than to risk staying where you were. Since then, they watched after you, puzzled after your retreating form–– comparing it, I imagine, to their memories of other women, gone.

They call you sea cow, but watch your fluent dance: now alone, now a pair, now an aggregation, all after the same dying grasses. It’s the algae, they say, fed by runoff, blocking the light.

The mothers when the calves are born, lift them to the surface, to breathe. You will wait to breathe when needed. You will wait to breathe, when sleeping. You will not wait forever.

Your curiosity draws you to the nets. Your hunger draws you to the grasses, entanglement in fishing line. Your calves would feed beneath your flipper, except when the line chokes your milk, and they say your name comes from the word for breast.

When you can’t get warm, there are lesions on your flippers like frostbite. On the surface of the water, you sigh rather than breathe. Do you whisper, too? You must have known the hunter once. How else could you know when to leave the land? 

What did you know, daughter of the river, before you entered, and where are we supposed to go now?

Real Talk with Dead Folks: Here’s to W.G., Absurdist O.G.

My interest to learn more about him was piqued when I learned he was described with the following words, not necessarily in this order: “exiled, absurdist, brilliant, perverse, singular.”

You can’t honor the living if you don’t honor the dead, and large swaths of the current death machine work towards erasing them. One way to erase the past is to erase history. Another is to sanitize it and put our heroes on pedestals.  That’s why I like to engage in conversation and occasional correspondence with dead folks. From time to time, I will write letters to dead artists, writers, and other notable or unknown people. Sometimes, the occasion for this arises organically, from a question or reference in the air. Other times, I may discover that it is the birthday of a person of interest and be moved to strike up a conversation. This can be especially fruitful when it offers an opportunity to engage with someone previously unknown to me, as is the case with today’s entry.

Here’s something I learned this morning as I was wondering what today’s post would be about: On this day in 1904, writer Witold Gombrowicz was born in Poland.  My interest to learn more about him was piqued when I learned he was described with the following words, not necessarily in this order: “exiled, absurdist, brilliant, perverse, singular.” I decided to make him the subject of my next “Real Talk with Dead Folks,” which is one of the Breadcrumbs exercises that I find generative, especially when I am tired of my own ideas.

Dear Witold,

I’m sorry we couldn’t do this in person. Perhaps you would not have talked to me, but I think I would have enjoyed listening to you, at least for a little while. Probably I would have found you a bit too obsessed with yourself and this question of authenticity, and perhaps you would have made assumptions about me when you learned that I worked in schools, which are the places that perhaps best fueled your sense of the absurd. We’d both have our reasons, I’m sure. Fortunately, when it comes to this sort of work, liking or not liking does not need to factor into capacity for deep appreciation.

You claimed that the best lessons of school were in the breaks, when your classmates beat you. Your education, you said, was reading ––forbidden books, especially–– and loafing. You were often ill. Puzzling over your dreams, the symbolism and possibility within them, you considered a possible way out. Of what? I wondered. And you said, The whole farce! Then I knew I loved you.

It was perhaps one long project you were on, a quest to get to the “real” of you. You kept a daily public diary also, but you preferred different lenses: sometimes polemic, other times self-absorbed lens. I am skeptical of claims to authenticity, but I have a soft spot for those committed to an aesthetic with relentless dedication. For this, I can love you also.

They called you “creepy as Poe” and “absurdist as Kafka” and you relentlessly criticized their forms––all of them, calling them covers for the conventions you despised. Refusing to be tamed, you cultivated immaturity as wisdom, imperfection as an antidote to the fake. Every artist has their obsessions; your grail was authenticity. “I am a circus,” you said, “what more do you want?” Hah! I thought. That’s all I need to know.

You raged at the teachers babbling clichés and poked at the nonsense of their often-hollow aphorisms, so devoid of meaning as to be deemed universally palatable substitutions for truth for anyone who prefers the easy nicety to real thinking. “Chirp, chirp, little chickie!” your hero announced. 

Were any of your elders spared your criticism? You called out Schulz on his assent to conventions, you joked that Proust “found more in his cookie. . . than they found in years of smoking crematoria.” You called Kafka “unreadable” and lacking sex appeal. You called your diary the faithful dog of your soul.  You did have a few nice things to say about Kierkegaard.

Rejecting institutions of honor, you baptized yourself a self-made man, planned a life of exile in obscurity, and were soon after celebrated. But Europe broke your heart. You were a bumpkin among sophisticates, and you died soon after.

Relentless in your quest not to be a type of writer, but yourself, you left behind a legacy at once brilliant, hilarious, dangerous, redemptive, perverse, irreverent, heartfelt, and voluminous. Today I celebrate your defiance of easy classification, and I celebrate your love of the absurd.

Titles, for example, you did only randomly. You chose names for your books like one names a dog – “to tell one from the other,” you said. You had, after all, the one faithful dog of your soul, your daily letters, and this was after all, the singular work of a life, continuous and ongoing in all of its embedded and wondrous contradictions. 

You said, “Serious literature does not exist to make life easy but to complicate it.” You reminded, “Don’t be fooled by your own wisdom.” You honored paying attention, observing “the more profound the awareness, the more authentic the existence.”

Thanks for leaving a trail. I’m glad to meet you. I love the way you challenge people to examine contradictions, how you challenge pedestal-making with irreverence, and how you combat calcification of statues built as stand-ins for truth by dancing with the fluid and absurd. 

I hope to see more of you in years to come. 

Follow-up: It didn’t occur to me until this morning to make this a series on Breadcrumbs. Until now, I hadn’t articulated the impulse to be in conversation with dead people I never met, nor had I acknowledged that it’s something I tend to do in my notebooks and in my head fairly regularly.  I’ve done this once before on the blog, in a memo to artist Hieronymous Bosch, posted here: “Curious Sends Memo to Dead Artist of Living Work.” I look forward to more of these. 

The source I used for this exercise is Ruth Franklin’s excellent New Yorker article about the writer, “Imp of the Perverse: Witold Gombrowicz’s war against cliché.”

Against Forgetting

How do you resist the monster that would have you forget your purpose in creating?

Against forgetting, give water to the plant

and notice the light in a stranger’s eye

––and the shadows. 

Notice the work still waiting, against

what would have you close your eyes,

surrendering time, white flag waving

for a moment before it falls like a sheet

over the sleeping body, like a sheet

over the dead.

I’d lose my head, The old women would say, 

If it wasn’t attached, as if to remind us to

hold the tether to what was less securely 

attached; as if to say, you’ll lose your life

if it isn’t attached, by the substance

of a series of tiny actions like clay around

the whisper-thin thread of your otherwise

invisible dreams.

Against forgetting, say to the child unsure

how to begin, Here, and hold out a hand

and keep mealtimes. Against forgetting,

extend an invitation to the table, 

to those cast out, disposed of,

dispossessed. This includes the children

before you and the ones made invisible

and the ones you once were.

To say, I see you, Here 

we are and remember.

To notice the little bird in the low branch,

to say its name and listen for its response

to what you have not said. To walk in

the desert, in the dark, with water and

with light.

“The bottom line is this: You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. In some way, your aspirations and concern for a single man in fact do begin to change the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks or people look at reality, then you can change it.”

-James Baldwin, from a 1979 interview published in The New York Times

This post is a follow-up to yesterday’s post, on the monster that wants us to forget.

Monster Mash 3: Forget It!

One of the challenges with a new project is that it’s not entirely clear what it wants to be, and the already-existing projects and responsibilities, with built-in expectations and demands, are already taxing.

I’ve got a new monster lurking around me this week. He’s given me trouble before. I haven’t named him yet. Every time it occurs to me to notice, he goes, “Forget it!”

That’s his thing, forgetting. Not the kind that makes you wonder where you left your keys, but the kind that makes it easy to forget where you were in a new, not-yet-realized project, and what the next step is supposed to be, and why it matters. I think I know why he’s showing up now. One reason is because I am now moving to focus my evening writing time on developing a new manuscript, the outlines of which are not yet fully realized. And the second is because the return to school (full, unmodified schedule of the like that we haven’t seen since early March 2020) means that the pace of expectations and outside-world responsibilities in a given day is about to increase dramatically. My work as a teacher is work that I care about deeply, and it is also true that achieving a balance between these and other responsibilities and a writing life is a constant tension. Already there are team events, extracurriculars, a great deal more meetings and noises and last-minute events and lesson planning and homework help and lots of new things to learn, make, and do–– all of which matter.

And yet, this other thing I am trying to make, which is somehow tied to the very essence of my life, matters also. But the thing about creative work like this that you are putting your energy into something that does not yet exist. It’s an act of radical hope. And this kind of hope is often under attack. 

Some of the challenges with a new project can be that no one’s asking or expecting anything, that it’s not entirely clear what it wants to be, and the already-existing projects and responsibilities, with built-in expectations and demands, are already taxing. As I’ve been noticing this week and feeling a creeping low-grade anxiety about my slippery grasp on this thing I am trying to make. I use the mornings for early pages and usually these posts, and then comes the day, and all the activity that comes with it, and then, by the time afternoon writing hour strikes, I am often sitting at my desk trying to find my way back to something that seemed very urgent and clear when I was in a space of more focused attention.

That’s all I can say about this creature so far. I don’t have a face for him, or a name beyond Forget It. What I am developing now is a plan to deal with him. I am called back to one of my biggest takeaways from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: how it can be helpful to treat the artist-self as a child, in a spirit of play. Sure, I think, but when I’m tired and under stress I tend to also be too tired for play. Thinking of this I am prompted to consider how, as a teacher, I have plenty of experience working with young, usually reluctant and generally insecure writers, who also tend to be tired and under a great deal of stress. I know that reasonable demands paired with consistent structures and gentle encouragement can be most helpful in these situations. As I remember this now, I realize that while I may not have a full grasp on this monster’s anatomy, mannerisms, and preferences, I can grasp how easily he might win if I do not employ thoughtful proactive planning into my afternoon sessions. With this in mind, I begin to develop a plan that employs the best of what I have learned from working with students, who I always expect, even if I saw them one day or a few hours beforehand, will tend to arrive with a certain glazed-over sense of overwhelm and a sense of confusion or disorientation as to what, exactly, we are doing here. Well, I think. When you put it in those terms, we actually do know what to do, when it comes to this “Forget-It” force:

1. Post an agenda. Anticipate that at the end of the average “crazy” day I am going to need a written reminder as to what I am doing, where I left off, and what needs to happen in the day’s session. I would never think of having students begin the day’s work without reminding them back to it, and setting a clear purpose, time and length parameters, and some scaffolding tools and/or examples. I can write this the night before, as with lesson plans, and leave on my desk or desktop to review before I begin.

2. Provide an example when possible. An insecure writer or artist needs models. I can be on the lookout for these. This is something I have not proactively done with myself before, which recently struck me as rather absurd. Only when I was recently challenged to do an imitation exercise, did it occur to me to notice how I had foolishly resisted such practice, which made me realize how often I had been giving myself a challenge that went something like this: spend a lifetime reading what has come before you, and then, in a bold act of self-affirming will (whatever that is), reject it all and reinvent the wheel. Even though I have written about the value of Learning by Imitation, I need to give myself regular reminders that I don’t have to start from scratch. This can seem difficult with some projects, but there is always something that can be used (a prompt, a passage, a model of excellent dialogue, even a mood-setting song or work of art).

3. Set clear parameters. Just as I would with a class, I can be clear with my confused, possibly recalcitrant, and possibly insecure artist-self. As in,“By the end of this period you will have . . .” I will be specific and detailed in these instructions: how long, what’s included, how much time allowed. 

4. If time is a parameter, watch it. In the evening hours, it’s generally unreasonable for me to expect uninterrupted time. I’m a single mom and there will be practice pickups, meals to make, math homework to check, and various other welcome responsibilities that are going to need my attention. I am also going to occasionally remember that there is an urgent email or phone call I never responded to. During hectic times like this it can be useful to use a time-tracker app which I start when the work session starts and pause every time I go off-task. It was eye opening when I first started using it last year. I learned that when it came to the evening hours, three hours of scheduled writing time tended to mean more like ninety minutes on task.  So, I set a time-on-task goal and tended to be more effective.

This monster is especially pernicious, and I can already tell that I will need more than one post to make a plan for dealing with him. My gut tells me that the antidote to this “forget-it” force goes much deeper than task management. Until then, Remember. 

This is the third post in the Monster Mash series. The other two are here: #1: “It’s Nothing!” and #2: “Meet Dr Blob”