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.
Fun With Hypomania
This year I’m on an AWP panel called “The Poem You’ll Write Tomorrow: How to Teach Vision.” Now I can’t tell you what that poem is, so let me talk for a minute about the you who is going to write that poem. My topic is the mind of the poet, but I’m really taking about the mind of anyone who wants to be original and creative. The mind of the physicist and the chef and the cinematographer are all one mind. You have the same mind they do; it just happens that you write poems.
At my university, I belong to a group called the Lawton Professors. These women and men are from every field possible: chemistry, psychology oceanography, computer science. I’m the only poet, though there is one dancer. When I look at the Lawton professors as a group, my hypothesis is that they all share a condition called hypomania. As the name suggests, it’s a low form of mania. And it stays there; it never sinks into depression, nor does it soar into the kind of enthusiasm that gets you into trouble.
If you google “hypomania,” you’ll see a list of characteristics, my favorite of which is a quality called “confident curiosity.” Hypomaniacs tend to want to go around the corner and see what’s going on there, convinced that something good will turn up, that they’ll meet people who like them and will be helpful and so on. So a manic person on an airplane will start proposing to flight attendants; a hypomanic one will just sip his tomato juice and think, “Nice plane! If something happened to the pilot, bet I could fly it!”
There’s a recent book called The Hypomanic Edge by John Gartner, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who says that, for better or worse, American energies are hypomanic; the original European settlers had to have confident curiosity to sail across the Atlantic in leaky wooden boats, and every day people come to this country who are confident that they can make a better world for themselves.
Now let me see if I can relate all this to the world of poetry while keeping it scientific. John Keats trained as a surgeon-apothecary, which means that, if he hadn’t died at the age of 25, he would have been a sort of nurse-practitioner, possibly in a small town that had no doctor. One of his teachers was the surgeon Sir Astley Cooper; there’s a procedure involving the ligation of the external iliac artery that is named after him and that any surgeon will tell you about if you ask him is he’s ever heard of Sir Astley.
Sir Astley Cooper said a surgeon needed three things: the eye of an eagle, the hand of a lady, and the heart of a lion. When I read that, I thought, the man’s right: that’s exactly what every surgeon needs. And then about five minutes later, I said, Wait: in what profession do you not need the eye of an eagle, the hand of a lady, and the heart of a lion? Without using the term “hypomania,” Sir Astley Cooper was describing that condition centuries before it was given a name
So at the AWP panel on vision, I’ll be talking about what you can do to be more of a hypomaniac than you are already. I’ll be using lots of examples: poems, of course, but memoirs, fiction, biography, even sculpture. And I’ll be fast. I’m on the panel with three brilliant women–Traci Brimhall, Natalie Diaz, and Erika Meitner– so what I really want to do is say my piece quickly and then listen to them.
Event Title: The Poem You’ll Write Tomorrow: How to Teach Vision
Scheduled Day: Friday, 4/1/2016
Scheduled Time: 4:30 PM – 5:45 PM
Scheduled Room: Room 501, L.A. Convention Center, Meeting Room Level
Pedagogy is deeply important for creative writing for a reason beyond teacher professional development or the legitimizing of creative writing as an academic discipline. While pedagogy certainly helps in those areas, students are the main reason for its importance.
It’s not news to say that the traditional workshop model has been critiqued for its lack of a nuanced or evolving pedagogy. (I think of it as a “mono pedagogy” in the way a bra fitter once told me during my impoverished graduate student days that a sports bra is “mono mammary.”)
Organized as it is around exchanging drafts (usually at a fairly advanced stage) and the giving and receiving of feedback, the workshop model makes certain assumptions about where the student is located in his or her writing process.
Typically, the workshop model pays sparse attention to prewriting, early drafting, and the actual implementation of that feedback to revise. The workshop approach casts light onto a fairly limited stretch of the writing experience, leaving radio silence before and afterwards.
The workshop model also operates from a certain set of assumptions about the context (the who-what-where-why-and how) of a creative writing education. It assumes the student is:
- someone who’s authored a fairly advanced draft
- someone who’s fully ready for peer feedback and doesn’t require training in the earlier moments of the writing process
- someone whose intent is the production of belletristic and possibly publishable texts
- someone who writes in response to literary models
- someone who’s sitting in a classroom.
One of this year’s AWP panels on pedagogy, “Creative Writing Is for Everyone: Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century,” strives to dismantle these assumptions.
The five panelists present a sample of pedagogies from the 2015 collection Creative Writing Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century (Southern Illinois University Press): Steve Healey, Tom C. Hunley, Tim Mayers, Stephanie Vanderslice, and Alexandria Peary (moderator and presenter). Panelists discuss service learning; process and rhetorical pedagogy; Creative Writing-Across-the-Curriculum; and creative literacy.
By rethinking the individuals, purpose, and location of creative writing instruction, speakers in this panel point to the ways creative writing can be relevant not only to those on a path to becoming literary writers, but to every other student as well. Pedagogy is a matter of access: it determines which students receive the benefits of an education in creative writing. While sticking to the workshop model potentially disenfranchises students, the reverse is also the case:
- creative writing can assist many types of learners in other majors
- creative writing can be learned and practiced by individuals outside the university
- creative writing can show students ways to lessen the mystery of finding ideas through a time-honored rhetorical tradition
- creative writing can celebrate the writer of the unfinished as much as the writer of the polished product.
This AWP session occurs at AWP on Friday, April 1, from 3:00-4:15 PM in Gold Salon 1, JW Marriott LA, First Floor. Copies of Creative Writing Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century will be available at the Southern Illinois University Press booth. Southern Illinois University Press will be offering a 30% conference discount on Creative Writing Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century to people who attend the panel and AWP; the promo code will be valid for 1 1/2 weeks after AWP.
Wednesday, February 24th from 12pm-1pm, ASU instructor Lori Eshleman (College of Letters and Sciences) will be giving a book discussion on her novel Pachacuti: World Overturned (Bagwyn Books). This discussion is open to all in the ASU community and will be held in the Piper Writers House on ASU’s Tempe campus.
Lori Eshleman, who has taught at ASU since 1994, has always been drawn to those spaces in time where cultural and religious traditions have encountered each other, from the European Middle Ages to colonial Latin America to the American West. Her new book of historical fiction explores the overlap of complex issues of race, gender, politics and religion through characters whose lives become entwined during an uprising in the Andean kingdom of Quito in the 1700s.
For more information on the event, click here.
Prescott College writing instructor and Arizona Commission on the Arts grant recipient Susan Lang presents her new thriller The Sawtooth Complex, available now from Changing Hands Bookstore. On February 25 at 7 pm, Susan will be doing a reading at Changing Hands First Draft in Phoenix.
The Sawtooth Complex is a fascinating novel that deals vigorously with the dilemmas of human life on the planet. Our willy-nilly destruction of the exquisite natural world is set against the efforts of some people to protect and care for the biology that sustains us. Most characters are torn by contradictions, both personal and political. A few are avid developers; others seek a balance between humanity and nature. Several touching love stories develop and falter among them. The true hero, Maddie Farley, is an inspiring and reluctant monkey-wrencher who lives most closely to the earth. The natural world she inhabits is invoked with poignant accuracy and love. Ultimately, nature itself blows up everyone’s world in a startling forest fire that overpowers the land and the people, laying waste to most everything. The writing about this thrilling climatic event is terrifying, spellbinding, very intense and powerful. And then a miracle occurs. In the wreckage left behind, the author, who is no sentimental idealist or doomsday prophet, finds reason to hope. The story is engrossing, entertaining, and really makes us think. It’s a fine addition to our best environmental and human–humane–literature
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Lang is the author of a trilogy of novels about a woman homesteading in the southwestern wilderness during the years 1929 to 1941. The first novel in the trilogy, Small Rocks Rising, won the 2003 Willa Award, and she was awarded a 2008 Project Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts for her novel-in-progress, The Sawtooth Complex. Lang’s short stories and poems have been published in magazines such as Idaho Review, Red Rock Review, Iris, and The Raven Review. She founded and directed the Southwest Writers Series and Hassayampa Institute for Creative Writing at Yavapai College. Currently, Lang is Faculty Emeritus at Yavapai College, teaches courses at Prescott College, and serves as Event Coordinator at the Peregrine Book Company in Prescott, Arizona. Susan Lang was raised in a wild canyon much like the one referred to as Rattlesnake Canyon in a place homesteaded by her mother. As a young child she lived there first in a tent, then in a rugged cabin once her parents built it. Water was piped in from a spring on the mountain, and the family used a wood stove for cooking and candles and kerosine lamps for light until butane tanks were available to be hauled up the twelve mile rut road from Yucca Valley. A garden and rabbits were essential to the family’s survival. The love her mother had for the wild canyon was passed on to her children, especially her brother, and his wife and daughter who made protecting that wild canyon the focal point of their lives.
Friday, February, 5th at 7pm the University of Arizona Poetry Center, ASU Creative Writing, Superstition Review, and ASU: Performance in the Borderlands are co-sponsoring a reading by Terrance Hayes at the Phoenix Art Museum. The reading is open to the public, and more information can be found here.
Terrance Hayes, author of How to Be Drawn, was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award, the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award, and the 2015 NAACP Image Award for Poetry.
How to Be Drawn is Hayes’ fifth collection.. Founding editor of Superstition Review, Patricia Murphy says of reading the book, “I left feeling better informed about how others walk around in this world.”
“…don’t you lie/about who you are sometimes and then realize/the lie is true? You are blind to your power, Brother/Bastard like the king who wanders his kingdom searching for the king.”
Are you in LA this weekend and looking for something to do? We suggest checking out the last weekend of “Connections to the Natural World” exhibit at the LA Artcore Brewery Annex. This collection features the personal responses to nature through various media of seven unique artists, four of those artists being past SR Contributors. Sarah Kriehn, a printmaker, uses nature as a visual framework for intuitive play. Monica Aissa Martinez works to experience and understand nature through human anatomy in her intricately rendered paintings. Carolyn Lavender explores natural preservation while portraying the fake and the real of flora and fauna in detailed graphite drawings. Mary Shindell reframes nature’s geometry and reorganizes its special relationships in her large-scale installations.
This collection is only on view until January 30th during normal gallery hours (12-5 pm Thursday- Sunday). Be sure to admire these artists’ brilliant work in SR. Sarah’s paintings were featured in Issue 10, Monica’s drawings in Issue 9, Carolyn’s drawings in Issue 9, and Mary’s work in Issue 11.
Tempe, Ariz. — On Jan. 14, 2016, the Arizona State University Art Museum (10th Street and Mill) opens the exhibition Participant: Photographs by Spencer Tunick from the Stéphane Janssen Collection, which includes more than 20 photographs by Spencer Tunick from 1997 to 2013 drawn from the collection of Stéphane Janssen. The exhibition will be on view through May 28, 2016.
Since the early 1990s, Tunick has traveled the globe to create staged images of multiple nude figures in public settings. And since 2000, collector Stéphane Janssen has been a participant in Tunick’s photographs, which have ranged from a handful of figures in an art museum to more than 1,000 volunteers in the Dead Sea in Israel.
Janssen, who is now 80, posed for the first time on a street in Harlem, New York, with 25 other people. Most recently, Janssen was one of 1,000 people covered from head to toe in dramatic red and gold body paint in front of the opera house in Munich, Germany, a project commissioned to coincide with the presentation of Richard Wagner’s operas Der Ring Des Nibelungen, also known as the Ring Cycle.
All of Tunick’s participants are volunteers who respond to an open call to appear at a time and place. They are carefully arranged and then photographed by the artist. The gathered human bodies sometimes recede, sometimes dominate the built and natural backdrops. They meld into a unified composition of abstract patterns and challenge conceptions of nudity, privacy and the ideal body.
These human installations combine elements of performance art, sculpture, land art and photography. They also reference street art and flash mobs, which bring temporary art and experiences into the public space, expanding the reach and impact of the work. Tunick’s art practice explores the social, political and legal issues surrounding art in the public sphere.
The exhibition and the accompanying artist’s book are generously supported by Stéphane Janssen. The book is available in the Museum Store or from http://www.nakedpavementbooks.
Tunick will give a gallery talk Wednesday, Jan. 13, at 1:30p.m., and both Tunick and Janssen will attend the exhibition opening Thursday, Jan. 14, from 5–7 p.m.
About the ASU Art Museum
The ASU Art Museum, named “the single most impressive venue for contemporary art in Arizona” by Art in America magazine, is part of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University. The museum has three locations across the metro Phoenix area: the ASU Art Museum at 10th Street and Mill Avenue, on ASU’s Tempe campus; the ASU Art Museum Brickyard at 7th Street and Mill Avenue, in downtown Tempe; and the ASU Art Museum International Artist Residency Program Project Space at Combine Studios, in downtown Phoenix.
Free at all three locations
The ASU Art Museum and ASU Art Museum Brickyard are open 11 a.m. – 8 p.m. on Tuesdays, and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. The museum is closed on Sundays and Mondays.
To learn more about the museum, call 480.965.2787, or visit asuartmuseum.asu.edu.