Guest Post, Amy Lemmon: Discussion of AWP Panel “We Don’t String Popcorn Necklaces Here: Brain Science and Assessment Beyond Craft”

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The Cave of Making and Making the Most of Time 

At AWP in Los Angeles this year, I’ll be presenting on a panel with Laura Valeri, Brendan Constantine, D. Period Gilson, and Zohra Saed that explores how brain science can help us in teaching our students about creativity. About a decade ago I developed a course on creativity for honors students at the Fashion Institute of Technology. We study theories about creativity and the imagination, personal accounts of the process by creators, and profiles of creative people over the centuries. Much of the research comes from the field of psychology, and recently the neuroscientists have weighed in. One of these, Dr. Shelley Carson, put brain science and creativity studies into a neat self-help package she calls Your Creative Brain (I’ve written a bit about this for The Best American Poetry blog).

I’ve also recently had the chance to experience the creative process in a way I haven’t in a very long time. I am on sabbatical this semester, which means that for the first time in years, writing is actually my job. Because my last sabbatical was nearly 9 years ago, and I won’t have another one for at least 8 more years, I feel pressured to make the most of it. I have taken this very seriously and put several structures in place so that I can get writing done and avoid any of the pitfalls of procrastination, distraction, or general discouragement.

For me, as for many others, accountability is key to productivity. During the month of February, I was part of a small group of women poets who made a pact to email each other a new poem every day. I missed a few days during the month for various reasons, but some of the group decided to go an extra week, so I did make my “quota” of 29 new poem drafts (it is a leap year, after all). You must understand how miraculous this is—I have written more poems in the past five weeks than in the previous five years. Despite other obligations (solo parenting two teens, one with special needs, an online class I’m teaching, other professional commitments), I have made writing a priority most days. Clearly, my plan is working.

The phrase “the cave of making” has floated into my consciousness from time to time when I think of this immersion in the process, and especially when I imagine describing my activities to someone else. If anyone asked what I was up to during my sabbatical, I would reply, “I am in the Cave of Making” in capitals or hushed and reverent tones, surely inspiring awe in my audience. No one has asked, excepting a few texts from friends, but even within my own personal echo chamber it seems an appropriate term for the angst and groping in the dark, the moving around in one’s own sweat and exhaust. I wasn’t sure where the expression came from—something I read during graduate school, or perhaps a creativity book by Natalie Goldberg or Julia Cameron, or maybe a Jungian image from Robert Graves or Joseph Campbell. I was surprised, then, when a quick Google showed it actually came from one of my old poetic familiars, W. H. Auden. “The Cave of Making” is the title of a poem from Auden’s sequence About the House, about his home in Austria in the early 1960s. Rather than the metaphorical realm I had conjured up, he was literally describing his study, the room of the house where he composed and revised.

Because I compose in several places—my dining room table, a cubicle at Paragraph, a shared workspace for writers in Manhattan, or at various cafes in the city—the cave as metaphor will have to do for me. And it is an apt one for writing—there is a certain amount of searching and digging to be done before you can gain entrance, and you never know what you’ll find as you creep further down and in with your puny lantern. This spelunking is not for the faint of heart or easily discouraged. It requires a commitment of time and focus and a promise to return to the site regularly, if not daily. It requires letting go of expectations about the outcome and being open to whatever you find. Some days it is Happy and Dopey in the Disney diamond mines, full of song and slapstick; others, it resembles modern extraction of precious metals, requiring the force of rock-crushers and earth-movers, and when the boulder is finally pried away from the cave’s mouth, all manner of bats and dust and foul gases fly out.

I’ll be doing what I can to infuse my presentation on the creativity panel with these discoveries, as well as what I’ve learned from guiding my students on their own excavations. My other duties at AWP will be chairing the annual meeting of the Art School Writing Faculty Caucus, an organization of writers who teach at art and design schools who gather to share best practices and discuss concerns particular to those institutions. Founded by Hugh Behm-Steinberg of the California College of the Arts, the Caucus has a growing constituency and we are in the process of adopting bylaws, electing an Executive Board, and generally becoming a more solid presence within the AWP.

I know that being at the conference will inevitably produce “AWP Brain,” that state of mind where input can lead to sensory overload and require much time afterwards to process it all. Thanks to the folks at Superstition Review for giving me this space to chat about the creative process here in preparation for these events!

The panel “We Don’t String Popcorn Necklaces Here: Brain Science and Assessment Beyond Craft” occurs at AWP on Saturday, April 2 from 9-10:15 AM in Room 512 at the LA Convention Center. The Art School Writing Faculty Caucus Meeting will be held Friday, April 1 from 6-7:15 in Room 412 at the LA Convention Center. 

Guest Blog Post, Michael Davis: On the Art of Talking to Oneself

M. Davis stock photo for postI went through a phase where I was writing from my dreams. I’d wake up and try to get story ideas from the things I’d written on a little notepad during the night. It went like: susurrous–Cambodia–Remember this!–not harm but the other–bullshit–cantaloupe–too true? Sometimes, it looked more like an unfortunate cardiograph, like I was doing a contour drawing with my eyes shut. I’d turn the page upside-down. I’d wonder what certain squiggles meant.

I switched to a voice recorder. This was better but it scared me. The sound of my voice floating up through deep theta was unnerving, made me think of a seance. I’d be sitting at my desk, cup of coffee, yellow steno pad, obsessive-compulsive story writing pen (Uniball Vision Micro 0.5mm–there shall be no other) poised to take down anything promising, and I’d hear myself half in a dream, speaking from a world of ghosts–a man with a green hat who kept telling me about my mother; my old German Shepherd, Shadow, leading me through the rooms of the house I grew up in; ex-girlfriends; former students.

I’d get sentences, whole paragraphs. Some of it was nonsensical. Other things were deeply painful memories I normally tried not to think about. It surprised me that I was dwelling on those things fairly regularly while asleep–and that some part of me had remembered to wake up and drone into the voice recorder. The sleeping Michael was a different person, a stranger who took emotional risks, who went to difficult places while the protective drawbridge of consciousness was temporarily down. I filled notebook after notebook and learned some interesting things about myself. But none of it seemed to apply to my fiction in any meaningful way.

Around this time, I was in the last year of my PhD. I’d published my first book of stories (Gravity, Carnegie Mellon, 2009) the year before and thought it would be a good idea to go to the AWP conference being held in Denver. I brought the voice recorder, but I didn’t continue my subconscious spelunking while there. Instead, I did what everyone does at the AWP conference. I walked around and bought books, listened to panel discussions, talked to people I already knew, stared wistfully out my hotel room window, and burned through my grocery budget for the next three months. In retrospect, however, the trip was justified because I learned something important about writing: I was going to have to write more and do it more quickly.

In the middle of the Colorado Convention Center’s exhibit level where, in a trade show, there would be a local model posing on a combine harvester, there was instead a table full of literary agents. They were from a local agency and had made themselves available for questions. At that time, I had never spoken with an agent. So I took advantage of the opportunity and struck up a conversation about how one markets a novel to the “Big 6” (Random House, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan–you get the idea). I wanted to know if there was a special kind of etiquette agents followed with the biggest publishing houses.

When I asked the question, the young agent in a navy suit that should have been beyond his earning capacity, pushed his glasses up on his nose and looked at me carefully as if he might have to pick me out of a lineup someday. “No,” he said. “There’s no special procedure.” Then he reminded himself to smile. “But if you want to succeed with the trade houses long term, you need to be really productive. Can you write around 300 pages a year?” I said no, I didn’t think so, thanked him, and got out of there as quickly as possible. A book a year? It had taken me six years to produce the stories in my 200-page collection. I had 75 pages of a novel that had taken me most of the previous year.

Later, catching up on some window staring in my hotel room, I tried to envision that level of productivity. One page a day? Writing from canned outlines? Some kind of method book, How to Write a Blockbuster Novel in 2 Weeks and Avoid the ER? I didn’t know. I picked up my voice recorder and started complaining about it to myself. I bitched for around 90 minutes. Then, as I started to get tired, I thought I might turn my rant into a piece of creative nonfiction–something about running up against the cruel commodifying values of the publishing industry in Denver. When I typed up what I’d recorded, I had 35 pages and a brand new idea about how to write more without sacrificing quality.

Since then, I’ve experimented with narrating stories and novel chapters into a voice recorder the way I’d once narrated my dreams. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write 300 pages of polished fiction a year. But I’ve learned to be more productive this way, to carry some of that dream energy into my conscious drafting. And I’ve learned to hear my own voice the way I hear someone at a literary reading–listening for the caesuras, the paragraphs, the meanings that emerge from syntax.

I tell my students at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop to at least read what they’ve written out loud to themselves. I tell them that their ears will teach them new things about narrative. I say stories were originally meant to be heard and there are lessons about storytelling we can only learn that way. Some of them believe me.

Those of us who have become fascinated with producing spoken drafts have also learned that, while text-based revision is still necessary to produce a finished product, beginning with the spoken word can connect us to a primal source of creative expression. Now I begin every draft by speaking at least part of it into a voice recorder, deliberately tapping into that ghost world of my other self, shaping narrative with the energy of dreams and visions that return to me in my own voice. I listen and write down what I hear, paying close attention to the speaker.