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Archive for October, 2010

At my desk

A while back, I was participating in a guided meditation practice in a workshop at my yoga studio. The facilitator instructed us to imagine walking along a road that would lead us to a guide who would share wisdom with us, something we particularly needed to hear at this time. I followed the road and found myself in a meadow I have visited before in previous meditations. There is always a festival going on, with tents and maypoles and lots of people celebrating. At the periphery of the meadow I met my grandmother, Elsba, who has also appeared to me before in meditation. Into my palms she placed a large white pearl as she said, “There is much to be learned in silence.”

It may seem contradictory for a writer and writing teacher to be extolling the virtues of silence. After all, I make a large portion of my living from the desire of individuals, myself among them, to articulate their visions, thoughts, feelings and stories. And I always find it a privilege to be a witness to those expressions as over time they become ever more intricate, more articulate, more crafted.

At the same time, the whole world has gotten noisier. More people are practicing expression—be it in music, words, or images—than ever before. More people are disseminating information and opinions; the Internet provides an ever-expanding number of outlets for this expression. My email inbox is full; the FaceBook status feed is endless; I could spend all my time tweeting and texting and browsing and blogging. Never mind talk radio and its TV corollaries; never mind the 24-hour news cycle.

It seems that everyone is so busy expressing themselves that we are in danger of losing the art of listening. The anxiety to produce an expression makes it very hard to be receptive. If I’m preoccupied with formulating what I’m going to say, how can I devote time to taking in what you’re saying? One of the conversations that goes on among artists and writers these days is that if everyone is making art, who is left to receive it?

Not only is it hard to listen to one another, with disturbing ramifications for personal and social relations, but more importantly, it seems to be more challenging than ever to listen inside ourselves. To do this requires quiet, stillness, being at rest.

The internal and external pressures to produce make it difficult to seek or allow that silence. Many writing handbooks insist that one must write every day, or that one must produce a certain amount of pages each week. There’s a pressure to keep up a presence by posting frequently on social networking sites or blogs. We measure our productivity as artists in quantitative, rather than qualitative terms.

And I do find a certain diminishment of content can result. Where do we gather the wisdom, the depth that is so needed in our blathering culture if we are caught up in the same pressure to constantly blather?

What if our measure were not how much did we produce but rather, what is the quality of our ideas? Not how many pages did you generate today but, instead, what is the most important thing you have to say and have you explored it fully before you said it?

The author Thomas Carlyle said, “Silence is deep as Eternity, speech is shallow as Time.” It isn’t that I think writers and artists should cease our labors altogether. But I do think we might consider valuing our contemplation time as highly as we do our output.

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Last week I had the chance to participate in two separate discussions about David Shields’ Reality Hunger: a Manifesto, the first with members of the Working from Life: Writing Creative Nonfiction workshop and the second with two members of the Future of Publishing Think Tank (FOPTT).

Shields’ book contends that shifts in perception—of self, of the world, of the nature and function of art—are changing the ways in which content is created and consumed.  The book is loosely assembled as a collage of quotations by writers, musicians, filmmakers and cultural critics—and occasionally Shields himself—that allows disparate points of view to bounce off one another and vibrate in proximity.  The structure supports one of Shields’ assertions—that a tidily structured narrative is so unlike the way we experience our lives, barraged with information as we are, as to be an obsolete way of structuring a work of art.  Instead he argues for breaking form and for barely mediated content and he challenges the notion that one can originate content. As his subtitle indicates, he intends to be provocative.

Among Working from Life participants, two points garnered huge pushback. The first is Shields’ flagrant appropriation of the words of others (he does cite sources but only at the insistence of his publisher’s attorneys and suggests one might just cut out of the book those pages of citation). One of my students is a board member of the National Writers’ Union and a vigorous defender of artist copyright protection. While it’s self-defeating for any artist not to be a defender of these laws, I’m also not in favor of sacred cows.  I’m willing to at least imagine a world without intellectual property, one in which ideas and their expression are not owned by anyone, just as many indigenous societies did not have any concept that land should or could be owned.  What would that be like?  It would mean artists would need to find other ways of supporting themselves, but most artists do anyway.  What would it mean for the kind of art created or the way we regarded such creations—not as the result of the effort of a single, exceptional individual but arising out of a collective and communal pool of values, ideas and experience.

The other point of resistance, also shared by one of my FOPTT colleagues, is Shields’ dismissal of fiction.  He clearly believes that nonfiction is the more honest and relevant form (though he does acknowledge that nonfiction contains a health dose of fictionalizing.)  One of my students and one of my colleagues were both passionate in their defense of the pleasures of the novel, of losing themselves in an invented world that could nevertheless reveal potent truths about this one.

Shields is especially scathing about the element of plot, which he feels is artificial and tidy and serves to narrow the perception of the world rather than expand it.  Anyone who has worked with me knows I am an avid proponent of plot as an engine that can move the story forward and as a device that helps to shape meaning.  To me, plot provides the bones on which a story can be hung; Shields may be proposing that we move beyond story itself.

To me this is the value of a work like Reality Hunger. The opportunity to engage with bold ideas—whether one agrees with them or not—is expansive, and nothing is more valuable, I think, for an artist, is whatever facilitates that expansion of mind and perspective.  When I teach at Antioch, I tell the students, “I’m here to mess with you.”  By that, I mean I want to help them broaden perspectives, undermine assumptions, open to greater possibilities.  In Reality Hunger, Shields intends to mess with us, and in the best possible way.

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