And then? And then? The Value of Improvisation
23 Wednesday Apr 2014
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One question I hear frequently has to do with how to sustain and nourish the creative energy for writing poetry (in other words, how not to get stuck); related questions are where to turn for material, how to keep it fresh, and most of all, how to find enough of that “dreaming time” so necessary for seeding poems.
There are many poets and writers who have written more eloquently on these subjects. Speaking just for myself, however, there are a few things I’ve come to realize— One of these is the absolute importance of returning to a sense of play (of pleasure, spontaneity, and enjoyment) in writing.
I think of that scene in “The Shining” when Wendy Torrance creeps down the hotel stairs to Jack’s typewriter and discovers that the only “writing” he has managed is reams of paper with one sentence— “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”— typed over and over. I suspect that’s what writers are most afraid of: when the enterprise of writing becomes too driven by the engine of labor, or so grim and joyless that it truly becomes a monster to be feared.
We create best when we’re in that space where it seems time and judgment are suspended; when it doesn’t even occur to us to think of what readers or critics might say; when all that matters in that moment is that we follow the heat of the idea, image, feeling or insight. What was it which seized us by the hair roots so we felt compelled to search for language to match it, and the form and music with which to embody it? What is it that we love about writing (and by extension reading), in the first place?
Because I too don’t want to turn into Jack Torrance, I look for ways to enliven and sustain my writing practice. My goal is not perfection(ism) but rather the cultivation of what I hope will be a lifelong ability to keep my senses open, to focus my sensibility and attention, and to be excited by the opportunity that the page signifies. And so for more than three years now, since November 20, 2010, I have been writing (at least) a poem a day, which I’ve posted on Dave Bonta‘s Via Negativa website. Elsewhere/previously here on my own blog, I’ve written a little bit both about what this means to me and what the process has become:
“Without initially intending to do so, I have … become fully engaged in and by the daily practice of writing poems. Not only has “running with my muse” daily made me more limber and given me much valuable biofeedback about my writing; it has also taught me many lessons about fear and anxiety, my habits (both good and bad), the many little (and big) excuses that the self seems to conveniently find when confronted with things it is afraid of and/or that must get done…”
A few other writers have also done interviews with me or featured my daily writing practice on their own blogs: Satya Robyn, an artist, writer, and blogger who lives in the Malvern Hills (UK); Marly Youmans, poet and novelist in upstate NY; Ellen Wade Beals, poet from Chicagoland; Kristin Berkey-Abbott and Dave Bonta for The Woodrat Podcast on Via Negativa; and poet and editor Iris Law for Lantern Review, the journal of Asian American poetry.
When I was a child, my mother read stories and poems to me at bedtime. She would choose something from the Little Golden Books, Palgrave’s Treasury, Philippine folk tales, fairy tales (Andersen and Grimm), Bulfinch’s mythology… But at the end of every selection for the night, I would always beg for more; so much so that she grew tired of having to get up and search for another book. Instead, she began making up stories: at first, stories she knew from other sources, or stories she might have heard growing up; then, stories of real people she knew during the war, during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, when she was a little girl and her mother had died; stories of friends or relatives that I never met because they had long passed before I ever came to be, and that I knew by the old fashioned feel of their names in my mouth— Filomena, Lorenzo, Victoria, Conchita. Who knows where the real left off and the imagined began? Nevertheless, she wove them together as a patchwork, thus turning them into something entirely new. Lying next to me in bed and narrating them in my ear, she’d pause to consider and improvise. When the pauses grew too pointed, I would prompt her impatiently: And then? And then?
And then she would be forced to take up the thread. But rather than encourage sleep, these exercises in spontaneous storytelling instantly pulled me back to awareness: now I wanted to know what might really be coming next or how it related to what I’d heard a few moments before. And now that I knew she was drawing things out of a hat, I had question upon question— What happened to the horse? What happened to the man and his wife? I thought you said the little girl’s grandfather died, so why is he back in the story? Is that the same cup that you mentioned at the beginning? I think I wore her patience thin sometimes; but she continued to indulge my hunger for stories, for that amazing, malleable capacity of language to create as if out of nothing, whole worlds where anything seemed possible.
Improvisation, curiosity, invention, experiment— When children are playing in an empty lot they might find stones and grass, dangerous bits of broken glass, sparkly pebbles, a piece of barbed wire, a tin can. They might gather them or line them up, rename them, repurpose them, declare dramatic scenarios, invent the laws and logic that apply to these objects. Writing, I want to feel that I can begin from a similar place— close to the ground or in the mud, where I can put one thing that I’ve found next to another to see: What if? So then, anything can be a prompt or a trigger— It is the mind’s veering and suggestive tilting of what it finds toward other meanings and connections (other than those that are givens) that seems the most fertile for poetry. And then—
Remembering my mother’s nightly story-telling improvisations, I can see how they were important early lessons for the poet in me. I saw that “being stuck” could be perceived as a temporary condition; that anything on the road to a story (poem) could be made into material; how the arrival at a conclusion or an ending did not necessarily mean finality or the last word. There was and could be infinite variation, a long corridor lined with doors to try and open; behind them was not necessarily death or dragons, but I knew that neither would there always be love or gardens.
As a woman, and as a writer of color in the diaspora, this perspective is additionally relevant to me when I consider the ways in which histories are typically written by those who have access to the most power. To improvise— and thereafter to rewrite— is to re-imagine consequence; is to wage/engage in little revolutions, is to overturn the sense of given expectation. This kind of virtuosity and openness to risk can be a source of great creative and political power.
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