Saturday, August 11, 2012

On Finding a Sense of Direction

For 15 years, I have been coming to Somers Point, NJ, to meet up with a close friend whom I only see once a year. Another long-term friend of hers gives us the use of his cozy ranch house (with central air) while he is abroad. I fly or take the train. She picks me up and does all the driving. For 15 years I had no idea where I was or where we were going beyond our straight walk up the bike path or the occasional late afternoon meander to one of our watering holes a mile away. She was my tour guide, and I relied on her to get us to our destination--the Acme, the movies, Atlantic City, Ocean City, the market with the fresh Jersey produce, the shopping plaza with our favorite store and its annual markdowns. Occasionally, she would take a wrong turn, and I was of little help. The area was just a set of landmarks to me, with no connective tissue. There were no maps in the car, and until recently, no GPS. And all those years I didn’t pay attention because I didn’t have to.

This year because of an illness in the family, my friend had to cancel our pilgrimage, and my husband, a mid-westerner who had never been to the Jersey Shore, agreed to come in her stead. We drove down from Boston. Although I have GPS, I always Mapquest a journey and study the map, zooming in on those final steps. When I am behind the wheel, I want to know the contour the trip, to understand when the GPS lady is steering me wrong. She often does. Mapquest wanted to take me to a different exit from the one we usually take. I took in the shape of the town. The main road names were familiar. But this time I saw their relationship to each other--how far apart they were, where they intersected, where the bridges were connecting us to the island communities along the coast. I created a mental map of the region for the first time.

I listened to the GPS lady, with her monotone voice, and we did what she said (because Mapquest had also endorsed that same final route). As we exited the Garden State Parkway at Exit 30 (instead of the usual Exit 36) and came to our required left turn, I had a Eureka moment. All of a sudden, the world was familiar. But unlike all my previous journeys, I now understood where we were and how we could get to all our haunts. Perhaps I had absorbed some of the specifics after all these years, but this was the first time I had a big picture, and all the pieces were falling into place. What surprised me was how empowering that was. Previously, I had ceded control, and now it was in my hands.

I think there is a life lesson here. Even as adults, sometimes it’s freeing to let others guide us for awhile, to make short-term decisions. That is especially true in times of grief or illness. Other times, we yield responsibility because we are on someone else’s territory or we don’t want to be the bossy one. But in general, we shouldn’t rely on the GPS lady for direction. She doesn’t know our needs. Far better is to have a big picture in our heads--to know that we can take different routes to a destination, that we can even meander a bit, if we so choose. We can do our own “recalculating,” thank you very much. And if we get a little lost, it’s fine to ask for help.

As for me, I am going to appreciate Somers Point and surrounding towns in a whole new way. But next time I am here with my friend, my challenge will be to keep my mouth shut, even if I think I know a better way, because part of friendship is knowing which battles to fight and taking Exit 36 rather than Exit 30 isn’t one of them.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

On the Cycle of Creativity, Part I--The Artist

Two weekends ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a water color workshop taught by artist/ teacher/ writer Jeanne Carbonetti at her beautiful and restful home and studio in rural Chester, Vermont. I am not a watercolorist, but rather a dabbler in the arts, seeking an antidote to months of focusing on words in an intensive creative writing experience. I hoped to learn something more about the medium than the primitive amount I knew and to enjoy the sensation of dabbing color on paper. What I did not expect was a well-thought through theory of the creative process.

I love getting my mind around a good theory, and Jeanne’s did not disappoint. Her ideas, which are inspried by Eastern thought, are applicable to creative pursuits of all kinds and perhaps to a life as a whole. She poses a seven stage “cycle of creativity.” As someone who currently feels creatively stuck, I was at first pleased to learn that only in one of the seven stages is one actually producing!

Jeanne likens the process to an oyster creating a pearl. Each stage poses a task, a challenge, and a gift, and Jeanne illustrates each one with a work from literature. The process is more fully described in two of her books: Making Pearls: Living the Creative Life and The Heart of Creativity: Imagination, Inspiration, and Destiny.

Here are the 7 stages, briefly summarized from my rather crude notes, omitting the stories and the analogies to light:

1. WAITING (Desire): The desire forms. Maybe there is an image floating in your mind. Be alone and let it form. The Challenge of the Heart: Making sure that it is your desire and not someone else’s.

2. OPENING (Fantasy): This is a time of experimentation, a time when you fall in love with the idea. The Challenge of the Heart: To see the truth behind the fantasy or dream.

3. CLOSING (Goal): The oyster closes his shell around the seed that will become the pearl. Imagination has become a goal. You don’t want other energies to take you away from it or casting negative energy on it. The Challenge of the Heart: You know what you want to happen but you can’t force it. This is the ONE stages that seems as though it is true production.

4. HOLDING (Dream): This stage is a plateau. Your goal is becoming real on the “quantum level,” but it’s not there for other people to see yet. (The pearl has grown, but the oyster can’t let go of it yet.) The Challenge of the Heart: Holding onto your dream in the face of all your chores. There may be a feeling of not wanting to commit.

5. RELEASING (Mission): You are one with your mission. The Challenge of the Heart is not to “get missionary” about what you are doing. Let others do their thing; you don’t need to talk about yours.

6. EMPTYING (Vision): You are letting go of your ego, and a higher self is taking over; you are one with your creation. The Challenge of the Heart is to ground your vision. You will let it be whatever it is and will know when it is finished.

7. SITTING (Destiny): The pressure is now off until the process starts all over again.

How did this cycle play out for me in my artistic retreat? I arrived enthusiastically, my unopened tubes of color and sterile brushes in hand. I had no anxiety because I had no expectations. I enjoyed myself, but I struggled through my first few paintings, trying to apply Jeanne’s techniques and then taking in the suggestions she gave me. I was never at one with my creations. They were all experiments, misformed pearls at best that allowed me to learn about the properties of the paint. I watched as some of the other artists confidentally filled gigantic pieces of paper. It hardly mattered when I ripped one of my creations as I removed the masking tape. The painting was good in parts but not as a whole. Finally, I realized that what I really wanted to do was to paint small, to create tiny works of focused art. When I let go of the external voices, in less than half an hour (with a gap in between for the holding period), I produced my favorite painting of the weekend, my perfect little pearl (for a novice). It felt right and true. I was content for a brief moment. And now I sit and wait.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

On Returning Home

Dear Blog,

Before you scold me for abandoning you for a full year, let me first say that I missed you! I’m not trying to butter you up. I really did. Yes, absence does make the heart grow fonder.

I was honest with you. I told you on in my last entry to you that I was temporarily leaving you for another form of writing—a year-long novel writing program. Maybe you would have been willing to share me, but alas, my energy was too depleted to court two of you.

Please don’t be jealous. One of the things I’ve learned about myself is that I am not a one-project kind of gal. Let’s face it; I was never monogamous with you. While I dutifully gave you two thoughtful entries a month, I was also quite serious about my three novels and even dabbled in the odd short story, flash fiction, or (cough) poem. Each one met a different need and contributed to my overall happiness. You do want me to be happy, don’t you? If you recall, our last date on June 14th, 2011, focused on happiness. As excited as I was about my new venture, the Grub Street Novel Incubator program, I expressed some doubts then about the kind of singlemindedness it would require.

I am proud to have stuck with it, to have learned and accomplished so much, to have made the acquaintance of so many fine writing colleagues, and to have enjoyed myself. But after the program was over, I needed a break from "Best Seller," my hot and heavy romance of the last year. I couldn't even bring myself to look at it. I felt guilty—we’d been with each other day in and day out. I’m pretty sure we’ll be lovers again, but not for awhile. Does that make you feel better? Perhaps you will be a beneficiary of that liaison. I hope I have become a better writer and editor. You may even gain some readers

And I’ve come home to you. I feel confident that you and I have something solid. It’s regular, but we don’t overdo it. There’s mutual respect. You let me express myself in a way none of the others have. I can talk about anything with you whenever I want. And when we’re finished with one topic, there is that satisfying sense of closure. Not the nagging doubt those demanding, pesky, never-ending novels give me. Yet, I am drawn back to them. Remember, it’s me, not you. I’ll introduce you if you like.

If you are confident enough to let me mix it up with them, I think you and I will be friends for a very long time. What do you say? Can we give it another shot? I have a dandy idea inspired by a funeral I just attended. Who else will let me share my thoughts, without judgment? If you say “no,” I may have to throw myself at the mercy of “Twitter.”

Yours faithfully,

Musings from the Third Half