A student artist’s insights about making art apply to prose.
By Richard Gilbert, Contributing Editor
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few. . . . This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner. Be very very careful about this point.”
— Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
One day late in the semester just ended, I ran into Shelby Page, a former student. I was leaving Otterbein University’s Art and Communication Building, and Shelby was going in. When she was a freshman, I had taught her and 13 other whip-smart honors classmates in my themed composition class, “Tales of Dangerous Youth.” I hadn’t seen her since our class. She told me of her upcoming senior exhibit, which I’ve now attended. I was impressed by Shelby’s work and by her brief Artist’s Statement on the wall. Her thoughts on artmaking addressed her work as a visual artist, but they apply to writing and probably to making anything.
Here’s her first paragraph (I have added a break for web readability):
Artwork tends to take on its own life as it is worked on and the basic composition is set up. With each piece, it is a compromise between the life of the piece that has been created and what has been intended for the piece. The metal sculpture Iron Horse, for example, took on a life of its own as the end result was completed through the piece’s specific needs. Like any work, each medium, composition, idea, and so forth, need different ways of being handled.
With Iron Horse, the material was something that required a bit of practice to work with and pre-planning ahead of time. The composition of the piece—like the decision to have it balance on one point—was decided on later but greatly impacted one’s view of the piece. It would be much different if it was to sit on the entire base of the neck.
There’s hard truth in Shelby’s insights here, and there’s hope. The truth is that what you envision in a flash hasn’t really been planned, though it may feel that way, and it sure isn’t done. What you sensed was glorious completion was pure possibility. Nothing more, nothing less. A glimmer. The first step is to act on it or to let it go. Let’s say you begin, fired with intention. As Shelby says, your intention quickly meets the reality of what’s emerging.
Art is a field of geniuses, but I presume that, like me, everyone gets humbled. In writing, no one is smart enough to foresee where actual words and sentences will send your notion. And of course the writer is struggling with what s/he’s capable of—at that moment, with that material—and so on into the future. But because art flares during creation, as Shelby says, also lends hope. Especially when, however cheerfully you began, you proceed in fear and trembling. What happened to my plan?
Wow and Amen, were all I could think as I read Shelby’s first paragraph. Any serious writer must learn and accept Shelby’s first precept:
Artwork tends to take on its own life as it is worked on and the basic composition is set up. With each piece, it is a compromise between the life of the piece that has been created and what has been intended for the piece.
Here’s Shelby’s second statement, which I’ve also broken in two for the web, in which she discusses an initial “mistake” in painting “Sitting Woman.”
Paradoxically, greatly complicating her work helped her keep it alive. A seemingly mistaken choice created a struggle that freed her:
When setting out to work on a piece, there is usually a new challenge to face, whether it be a new medium or a different way of approaching a familiar style of artwork. It is a push to try something new so the piece does not lose the sense of a natural quality as it becomes routine. Creating challenges makes the piece more interesting to create. It becomes much more about the process and becomes a great learning experience, as well as makes the piece that more interesting in the end.
A challenge that was faced in the painting of Sitting Woman, was the use of two non-traditional paint colors that were used for the base layer. Working around this challenge allowed for the painting to have a more loose and natural quality that was achieved by breaking the initial tension of making a mistake. Having a challenge to overcome when creating a piece helps to break through minor concerns that can get in the way of the creative process. In this way, having a challenge can actually work as a way of focus and although it is an obstacle that one may face, it is an obstacle that allows the maker to overcome the smaller challenges and worries that can stop the creative process dead in its tracks.
Blazing truths here. I wish I could take credit as her long-ago teacher for Shelby’s quiet authority. Her eloquent statement defies excerpting, though “Having a challenge to overcome when creating a piece helps to break through minor concerns that can get in the way of the creative process” seems key.
I’ve become a fan of prompts and borrowed structures for this reason—they thwart intention. By raising or lowering the stakes, they bleed off preexisting intention and some anxiety. When I write something with a fully realized intention, it risks being superficial, boring. Without friction, it isn’t deep enough: there hasn’t been enough discovery. I sense this sometimes in others’ work as well. For me, intention, in the sense of chasing a germinal idea or feeling, is vital—but not in the sense of hewing to a predetermined plan, of transcribing what you already “know.”
Shelby’s thoughts remind me of one of my favorite quotes:
To write is to overcome a certain resistance: you are trying to wrestle a steer to the ground, to wrestle a snake into a bottle, to overcome a demon that sits in your head. To succeed in writing or making sense is to overpower that steer, that snake, that demon. But not kill it.
This myth explains why some people who write fluently and perhaps even clearly—they say just what they mean in adequate, errorless words—are really hopelessly boring to read. There is no resistance in their words; you cannot feel any force being overcome, any orneriness. No surprises. The language is too abjectly obedient. When writing is really good, on the other hand, the words themselves lend some of their energy to the writer. The writer is controlling words he can’t turn his back on without danger of being scratched or bitten.
—Peter Elbow, Writing With Power (reviewed)
Teaching is such hard and such humbling work. I suppose that’s well known, or easily imagined. What’s seldom mentioned about teaching is how much your students teach you. How much they inspire you. Shelby’s wisdom awed and humbled me.
At the same time, students often give me my keenest instruction in classes that go hardest for me. But enlightenment doesn’t come till I’ve labored, and sometimes suffered, all the way through them. Unlike a piece of writing, you can’t shelve a class and walk away. I’ve slowly learned, at least, that how I feel about a class doesn’t necessarily reflect the experiences my students are having.
For instance, in Fall 2013, shortly before Shelby’s class, I taught a composition class under the same “Tales of Dangerous Youth” banner. Except I had thrown out proven coming-of-age memoirs and had tried untested ones. Edgy, artistic books, they came highly recommended. A parallel honors section dealt with them okay, with some grumbling—freshmen need plot!—but the regular class suffered. They didn’t complain, but I could see their pain. The few talkative students who loved reading, and found these new toys stimulating, soon fell silent before their classmates’ wall of silence. What a long semester!
And the stunner came when I received their evaluations: they gave me high marks. They’d expected to suffer in an English class. And, forgive me, I delivered. That class taught me, at last, about choosing books for different audiences, and it taught me to try new pedagogical moves. One of that class’s problems was that I’d made it my responsibility alone, so I’ve since had two or three students lead reading discussions. In spreading responsibility, the teacher helps build a community, however various or reluctant its components.
Two weeks ago, at a class’s last session—during our final exam period, actually—I played a song by Loudon Wainwright, “The Picture,” about a man looking at a photograph of himself and his sister when they were children. Integrating both visual art and narrative, it hit our class’s theme one last time, I’d co-taught the class with a talented artist-teacher, my friend Susan Fagan, whose first half exposed these juniors and seniors, mostly science and athletics majors—with smatterings across the board: history, global studies, music, art—to journaling and making visual art. Then I taught them memoir writing for two months. Most had never written about what’s been significant in their lives. That’s now my guide for them, significance, not drama, though most of their stories also involved things like bullying, injuries, parents’ divorces.
My eyes glazed with tears as I listened to “The Picture” and then talked about it. I told them that when you do what Wainwright did, write carefully and truthfully out of your significant experience, you connect with others. And in the belief that we’re all connected at the deepest level, I said, resides much of my faith. Maybe I got carried away. They have their own ideas, I know that, but I saw them listening closely to my passionate, nondenominational witness. And of course connection’s highest form is love. In a teacher’s sweat, s/he comes to love students, the hard and good alike.
At Shelby’s exhibit, I remembered an essay she’d written in my class about her high school art teacher. Shelby had found artistic delight and community in the woman’s room. To learn to become a teacher like hers, Shelby had to learn to make many types of art at Otterbein University. I thrilled to see some of what she has made since leaving my room. And for her two paragraphs of wisdom about what she learned doing it, I’m grateful.
Originally published on Richard Gilbert’s Draft No. 4