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Tess Callahan
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As he explains in his TEDx talk, “Embrace the Shake,” when artist Phil Hansen could no longer do his pointillist drawings due to nerve damage in his hand, he learned countless other ways to create art. But why wait for a disability to open your mind to new possibilities? Whether you are a poet, artist, teacher, novelist or musician, here are five unconventional ways to climb into your creative projects from a fresh entry point. Use your non-dominant hand. This is a practice I learned at the Art Students League in New York, where I realized that drawing a model with my left instead of right hand made me see the subject differently. Sure, the drawings were terrible (though they did get better over time) but when I went back to drawing with my dominant hand, it was as if a bit of the left hand perspective had joined in. If you keep a writing journal, try making every other entry with the opposite hand. Yes, it will slow you down; that’s part of the benefit. Get up and move. In her New York Times essay, “To Invigorate Literary Mind, Start Moving Literary Feet,” Joyce Carol Oates says that running allows her an expanded consciousness in which she can envision what she’s writing as a film or a dream. Back at her typewriter, she recalls that dream and transcribes it. The scenes in my own novels usually unfold during walks in the woods with my dog. In the classroom, I try to get my students up and moving as much as possible. Physical stagnancy can cause the creative juices to stagnate, too. Employ the power of two. Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Atlantic essay, “The Power of Two,” explores how the tense creative collaboration of Lennon and McCartney produced artistic genius that far exceeded the sum of its parts. Hemingway and Fitzgerald would not have been who they were without Maxwell Perkins. I regularly have my students do brief story-generating exercises in pairs or groups of three. Sometimes it devolves into silliness, friction and occasional brilliance. All are worth it. I meet weekly with writer friends to work in silence together, a practice which strikes some as bizarre, but which helps us stay motivated and on task. Even the lonely work of novel writing can benefit from company. Sleep In. This is a luxury I don’t often enjoy, but when I have the time and courage to lie in bed for awhile after waking in the morning, looking around at the semi-dark room and frail light slipping between blinds, entire scenes from my novel write themselves without my having to do a thing. It’s amazing. All I have to do is be present and watch the scenes unfold. The trick then is to write them down before the obligations of the day surge into motion. This is sacred time. If your day allows it, take it. Work on more than one thing at a time. Full disclosure: I am terrible at this,... Continue reading
Posted Dec 11, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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When artist Xu Bing was asked by the Chinese government to create two phoenix sculptures for the atrium of the new World Financial Center in Beijing, he accepted, but when he visited the site and saw the dismal working conditions of the migrant laborers who were building the luxury towers, he was so disturbed that he decided to create the phoenixes out of the workers’ battered tools. The elegant, gargantuan birds are constructed of shovels, hard hats, jackhammers, pliers, saws, screwdrivers, plastic accordion tubing and drills. The building’s developers worried about the message the sculptures conveyed and asked if Xu would consider covering them with crystals. No dice. They withdrew the commission, but the artist forged ahead with the project and the birds have been exhibited in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and elsewhere. While the limited materials made the sculptures more challenging to construct, they also made them infinitely more compelling both aesthetically and symbolically. In the introduction to his book WIND/PINBALL: TWO NOVELS, Haruki Murakami explains that he discovered his writing style by first composing in English with limited vocabulary and syntax and then “transplanting” those sentences into his native Japanese. In the process, a new style of Japanese emerged that was entirely his own. He describes the experience as a moment of clarity when the scales fell from his eyes. “Now I get it,” he thought. “This is how I should be doing it.” “The Ten-Minute Spill,” a Rita Dove poetry exercise found in THE PRACTICE OF POETRY by Chase Twichell and Robin Behn uses a limited palette of words and an inverted cliché to point writers toward a similar eureka experience. After doing this exercise with my creative writing students, we tried it a second time using a palette of words they “found” on a “field trip” (see yesterday’s post) and then exchanged with one another. They complained about the confines of the exercise, but promptly produced great stuff. Material is one way to exploit constraints. Structure is another. Frank Lloyd Wright would not have created his Fallingwater House if he had seen the waterfall as an obstacle to be overcome rather than an asset to be incorporated. Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” came from an exercise in end stops, and Jennifer Egan’s story “Black Box” would not exist if she hadn’t been trying to figure out a creative way to use the impossible limitations of Twitter. In my creative writing class, students first groan over and then feverishly tackle the constraints presented to them. They have written villanelles, sestinas, haiku, 6-word stories, Yelp reviews, fictional book blurbs and recently “Contributors’ Notes” in an emulation of Stacey Harwood’s poem by the same name (BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2005). The ratio of early complaints to eventual satisfaction is gratifying. Great ideas come from pushing against boundaries. The frustration of constrictions can distract the thinking brain enough to allow the deeper work of the creative mind to unfold. Get your students moaning. You won’t be sorry. Tune... Continue reading
Posted Dec 10, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Thank you for these kind comments. Naturally, when my students do emulation exercises, they always include "After (insert poet's name)..." in the title to credit the source of inspiration. We do fixed verse as well, villanelles, sestinas, etc. Both the emulations and the form poetry give the flailing new poet scaffolding on which to hang their own images and ideas. It's akin to the young artist learning to mix colors or a musician practicing scales. We all stand on the shoulders of others, yes? Thank you, BAP, for this chance to share.
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My teacher Roy Kinzer routinely warmed us up for our life painting class with a series of timed gesture drawings beginning with lightning fast poses. He required us to use large paper and to fill up the whole page. Grumbles of exasperation reverberated as every 15-seconds he told the model, “Switch.” Sometimes, in his smooth evil voice, he would call the change after only five seconds. Our hands flew. Our charcoal snapped. We tore pages from our sketchpads and cursed. When the beauty of a particular pose made me desperate to capture it, I held my breath until the switch. Details impossible to catch abbreviated themselves into lines expressing movement, rhythm and musicality, as seen in this drawing by artist Greta Skagerlind. Once Roy had us where he wanted us, that is, with our thinking brains shut off and our arms in motion, he would gradually lengthen the poses to 30, 60 and 90 seconds. By the time we reached two minutes, it felt like luxury. He had succeeded in shutting down the part of our brains that wanted to hesitate, deliberate and ponder accuracy. We simply dove in. Just as I had in Roy’s class, my creative writing students love to hate our timed exercises, which take many forms. Here are a few: BAG OF TRICKS: I pass around a “bag of tricks” filled with various objects. Each student reaches in and grabs one, a pinecone, a playing card, a broken watch, whatever. Using the object as a prompt, they write for X seconds, and then pass the object to the right until every student has written about every object. Sometimes they write pure physical descriptions using the five senses. Other times they write memories or associations the object evokes. In the spirit of gesture drawing, we start with 15 seconds of writing and work our way up to a minute or more. NOUN VERB SWAP: In a variation of the above exercise, I ask each student to write on separate slips of paper a verb and a noun. I tell them to go for highly specific words (“wire fox terrier” over “dog” or “paraded” over “walked”). Next, I set the timer and have them pass nouns to the left, verbs to the right. Students combine the two words in their hand into a prompt (…the wire fox terrier paraded…”) and write for a minute. SPEED DATING: We do similar exercises in pairs, wherein students “speed date” by joining their words to a partner’s words for a blitzkrieg brainstorm before the timer sounds and they move to the next person. Inevitably they argue and beg. “We were just getting started!” Eventually, I increase the time. IN-HOUSE FIELD TRIPS: The exercises the students love best are in-house “field trips.” For example, if we are brainstorming for a one-act play, I send them out of the classroom to collect eavesdropped dialogue for ten minutes. Another day I might have them pick from a hat a particular location in the school (library,... Continue reading
Posted Dec 9, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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For my students’ first poetry assignment this year, I distributed a dozen past issues of BEST AMERICAN POETRY along with other anthologies snatched from my shelf and asked them to browse through and settle on a poem that caught their eye, one whose style or cadence made them envious, a poem they wish they had written. Next, I gave them several prompts to consider and we did a bit of memory brainstorming around those ideas. In particular, we conjured up the memory’s smells, tastes, sounds, textures and visual details. Finally, I asked them to use their brainstorm to construct a poem in the style of the one they admired. Initially, some students were not enthralled. Hadn’t they signed up for this course in order to unearth their own personal voice? Why imitate someone else? I described the copying exercises that are part of traditional visual arts training, in which the student tries to create a replica of a masterpiece by analyzing the brushstrokes, composition and color. In the painting classes I took with artist Roy Kinzer, (seen in photo) we sometimes started with monochromatic under paintings, as the masters did, and built the painting up from the inside out, endeavoring to mix colors and apply brushstrokes to resemble the original. The learning curve was steep. The point was not to do one such copy and subsequently forever paint like that artist, but rather to do dozens of them from a wide range of styles, each time depositing another tool in the toolbox, building up our own style. Art forms, whether pain ting, poetry, dance or music, move forward collectively, an unfolding conversation. Picasso borrowed from Braque, Braque from Cézanne and so on. Last year, a student of mine named Michael wrote an emulation of Major Jackson’s “Why I Write Poetry” called “Why I Do My Homework.” Another student named Dani wrote an emulation of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Map” entitled, “The City,” which Poetry.org selected for publication on their website. These poems were not appropriations of Jackson or Bishop, but a salute to them. This year, a student wrote an emulation of Robert Haas’s “After the Gentle Poet Kobayashi Issa,” an emulation of an emulation! I sometimes do a similar exercise with fiction. I give students signature lines from established authors with a wide range of styles—Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Borges, for example. (Having asked my English Department colleagues for their favorite lines of literature, I have an ample supply). I then ask the students to pluck out the nouns and verbs and replace them with their own words while retaining the scaffolding of the sentence. What’s left is a syntax the student may never have considered using before. While there’s no immediate end product to this exercise, it attunes their ear and broadens their idea of what’s possible. Strictly speaking, these are not true copying exercises in the style of the visual arts, but many writers do find it useful to handwrite passages they love word for word as a... Continue reading
Posted Dec 8, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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Give your students a Houdini challenge. Having taught creative writing for more than ten years now, I’ve found the most restrictive assignments, the ones they gnash their teeth over, invite the most inventive work, while the free-for-alls they beg for often produce reams of ‘meh.’ I’m talking high school students here, but writers of any age enjoy outwitting a dare. When I was a high school student myself, my English teacher asked us to write a story on the theme of violence. Maybe he was trying to engage the bored freshmen boys by giving them the chance to write shoot-em-up stories (not so quaint anymore). I thought the theme was stupid and retaliated by writing about the violence of being silent when your voice is needed. I thought I had tricked the teacher by twisting the prompt to my own design. Of course, he had tricked me by giving me a chains to break open. Studies show wild chickadees who must forage for food have bigger brains than captive ones with an endless supply of seeds. The passion of Juliet and Romeo is multiplied by the taboo they brazenly dodge. Artist Andy Goldsworthy’s site-specific vision springs from the natural constraints of his landscapes (see photo below). Be like Goldsworthy, Shakespeare and the wild chickadees. Give yourself and your students something to wrestle with. Trick them into tricking you. Many of the shackles I devise for my students are borrowed from techniques used in visual arts, such as copying exercises, limited palettes and timed tasks. I’ll describe these more fully in forthcoming posts this week. While I’ve gained vital insights from my MFA teachers and critique groups over the years, the person who taught me the most about writing was my painting teacher, Roy Kinzer, and he only wanted me to produce a decent canvas. I’m not sure I ever did that, but he did make me a better writer. These days as I complete my new novel, I still hear his voice telling me to work the entire canvas at once, to resist getting stuck in one area, to keep moving, to relate new colors to previous ones and to spend more time looking than rendering. He taught me to work within constraints of time and material, and most of all, to have an honest eye. When I gather with a new batch of young writers every September, our first order of business is to establish ground rules for our workshop. When I give them this job, they eye me suspiciously. Why should a class about creativity and free expression start with regulations? But I charge them to create their own parameters, decide what’s allowed and what’s not in terms of our conduct toward one another and our work. In June, with the benefit of hindsight, I ask them to revise those rules and package them up as suggestions for the following year’s class. Generally these ground rules have to do with confidentiality, anonymity, specificity, trust and mutual respect—qualities that... Continue reading
Posted Dec 7, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
I didn't think this was possible, Jim, but you've actually made me want to open an algebra book so I can better understand what you mean about seeing problems in reverse. Your comment about music, "what is not heard is as important as what is," reminds me of another line from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets: "And the children in the apple-tree Not known, because not looked for But heard, half-heard, in the stillness Between two waves of the sea." Thanks, Jim!
Amazing! My kids and I went to a llama/alpaca sheep sheering day recently. The speed and deftness of the shearers was impressive. And yes, the scrawny, naked looking animals did seem much happier after the fact!