Soul at play

Author: Sonia Gernes

“This class has ruined me,” my student says. Our creative writing class is nearing midterm, and she sits in my office in her limp sweater and unwashed hair, looking both forlorn and accusing. “Before I was in your class, I wrote poems all the time,” she says. “They just flowed. Now I can’t write anything. I can’t even get anything started.” She’s on the verge of saying: ¬_And it’s all your fault!_ but she amends it and says, “And I’m not getting any sleep either!”

This scene, or some version of it, occurred several before I learned that I could spare my Notre Dame undergraduates some of this creative angst by presenting them with a simple truth: Creativity is a multiphased activity, and it begins, nearly always, with a sense of play. What will happen if I combine these two chemicals, or these three words, this paint and that brush stroke, these tomatoes and this herb?

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect,” Carl Jung says, “but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the object it loves.” An ancient classical philosopher agrees: “[M]an is made God’s plaything,” Plato says, “and that is the best part of him. Therefore every man and woman should live life accordingly, and play the noblest games.”

Play is even fundamental to evolution, Diane Ackerman tells us in her recently published book, Deep Play. Consider this, Ackerman says: “Ants don’t play. They don’t need to. Programmed for certain behaviors, they automatically perform them from birth. Learning through repetition, honed skills and ingenuity isn’t required in their heritage. The more an animal needs to learn in order to survive, the more it needs to play.”

For young children it is easy enough, but for those of us trained in linear logic by the heritage of Western civilization, it’s tougher than it sounds. We place a high value on logic, organization, critical thinking, and judicious planning — and rightly so. Our world would be chaotic without them. But allowing these factors to enter the creative process at too early a stage can shut it down entirely, as witnessed by my blocked and forlorn student.

I try to explain to my fledgling writers a theory I once heard psychologist June Singer address, although her words only confirmed what I’d already observed in my students and myself. There are two basic phases of creativity, Singer claimed, and the initial phase, the purpose of which is to generate material, must be playful, open, curious, uncritical. Singer cited four obstacles that can block this initial phase: premature judgment, inability to play, premature organization and concern for what people will think. In other words, to flirt with the muse, we need to tell our internal censors to sit down and shut up.

Once sufficient material has been generated, however, (in the form of words, shapes, mechanical tinkering, intuitions), the creative mind moves into the critical phase. Here, the very obstacles to play cited above become tools to help make the results of our play accessible, useful or delightful to someone else. We need to shape the result of our play. (In literature, we talk of “form.”) We need to organize and get the kinks out. We need to ask ourselves if there’s any merit to what we’ve produced, and what kind of audience or consumer we hope to reach with our creation.

Ordinarily, we go back and forth easily between these two phases as we create, and we don’t think about it very much. We produce, discard and alter, and then produce some more. But when the creative process shuts down or ends in faulty goods, a little process analysis can be useful. My beginning poets tend to fall into three categories in this regard. A few of them are great players. They can spew out reams of poetry (or what they think is poetry) without breaking a sweat, but they want to stop there and hang out with their mental effluvia. They don’t want to move to stage two, the sometimes painful critical process. That’s how it occurred to me, and therefore it’s good becomes their unexamined refrain.

Some lucky students seem to know instinctively how to play/work their way through the process which is, of necessity, different for each new creation. And some, introduced to real critiquing for the first time, suppress the play stage and go right to critical analysis. As soon as a line goes down on the page, Ms. Critic pops up and says: Well, that stinks, doesn’t it? A few more lines and Mr. Critic says: This doesn’t make any sense or The prof won’t like this or Obviously you don’t have anything to say so why bother writing? These are the students who end up in my office saying “your class has ruined me.” They’ve not yet learned that in the earliest stages they don’t have to have a clear vision of what to say. They can be in love with the play of sounds and connotations and allusions; they can hope for one good line, one pungent image, one sense of lack that will send them scurrying to the library to do research. Playwright David Mamet says, “It doesn’t have to be calm and clear-eyed. You just have to not give up.” And asked what he did when he experienced writer’s block, poet William Stafford replied, “I lower my standards.”

When confronted with “stage one” students, the reluctant revisers, I usually trot out the story of my pilgrimage to the Flannery O’Connor archive in Milledgeville, Georgia. Once there, I asked the archivist if I could see the manuscript of her short first novel, Wise Blood, but instead found a folder tossed onto the table before me. “You better read that first,” the archivist said. “That” turned out to be a 57-page index to a manuscript that runs about 2,000 pages. O’Connor, one of the great narrative voices of our century, had rejected about 1,800 pages of draft before getting to her final version, and the early segments bore little resemblance to the novel that would bring her to the attention of the literary world.

When confronted with a student blocked by premature critique, however, I usually confess that I myself am the victim of a domineering inner critic, that I have trouble remembering to start with play. I’m an enthusiastic reviser. I can contentedly go over and over a piece, trying out 16 different verbs, letting my ear pick up the smallest subtleties of sound, but for me the blank page can be a terrible void. Even as I write these words, I find it difficult to plunge forward, to resist the temptation to go back and torture the existing phrases so they’ll have just the right appeal and information to keep the imagined Notre Dame alum from turning the page. One of my early mentors, poet David Wagoner, who divides the creative process into three phases — madman, poet and critic — once told me that you need to find your own magic to stay in the world of creative play. His magic is earplugs to keep the quotidian world at bay. Mine is scratch paper. If the early versions of what I write are on the back of old class handouts, they’re disposable; I’m just playing around.

But can creative play be taught? Obviously a lot of people think so. The word “creativity” typed into the search engine of the on-line bookstore yields 1,553 items in the book department alone. Some of these, like The Artist’s Way or Writing Down the Bones, or Anne LaMott’s delightful Bird by Bird have sold thousands of copies. And yet, when I tell people that I teach creative writing, I’m often met with a narrowing of the eyes and a skeptical stretching back of the neck: “Yes, but can anybody really teach creativity?” my questioner demands. Probably not. But along with teaching my students the tools of the craft and helping them apply critical judgment to their own work, I can tempt them with the joys of “making it new.”

When I teach the introductory level poetry writing class at Notre Dame, I sometimes bring pieces of fruit into the class on the first or second day. I hand them out and tell the students to study the fruit until they notice something they’ve never noticed before. As the fruit goes around the room, each student has to tell us something very specific about an apple or orange — or that particular apple or orange — that nobody else has said yet. To their surprise, they can do it. That’s followed by an assignment in which they are to take any common object, any bit of their personal landscape, study it minutely, and make it the subject of a poem, as Elizabeth Bishop does in “At the Fishhouses” where all objects, even the scaling knives, have become silver and “plastered/ with creamy iridescent coats of mail.”

In other words, the first thing I want to teach these young poets is not to rhyme or count meters, or even make metaphors, but to see, to pay attention, to develop a habit that current spiritual gurus, influenced by Eastern traditions, might call “mindfulness.” It’s an old tradition. Poet and spiritual writer Kathleen Norris quotes a fourth-century abbot who declared, “the monk should be all eye.” The eminent Victorian, John Ruskin, believed “the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.”

Virginia Woolf in “How Should One Read a Book?” endorsed this method not just for creative writing but creative reading: “Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a novelist is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties of words. Recall, then, some event that has left a distinct impression on you — how at the corner of the street, perhaps, you passed two people talking. A tree shook; an electric light danced; the tone of the talk was comic, but also tragic; a whole vision, an entire conception seemed contained in that moment.”

Though I don’t teach my own work, thinking that it puts students in an awkward position, I do try to get across that for me writing is a way of thinking — or at least of clarifying what I think. My own experience of where poetry comes from is closely linked to the concepts of metaphor and association, but for me it often works in reverse. I don’t decide to write about a concept and look for a corresponding metaphor. I go about my business or sit on my porch and witness some object, some event, some juxtaposition of material things or ideas, that strikes me as significant, though I usually don’t know why. If that image stays with me, hanging around and nagging long enough, I began to explore its meaning, its significance, and the very act of exploration becomes the poem.

Here’s an example. Some years ago I was putting on my coat to leave for work one morning when I happened to glance out the front window and saw a creature I couldn’t identify sitting right in the middle of my front walk. The creature, which had its back to me, was of the animal kingdom, about 20 inches tall, with rough, grizzled fur and a huge tail like a rat. Blood from some injury or eruption stained its right side. I stood there wondering what it was and where it came from and how I was going to get past it to my car, when the creature turned, revealing the long pale snout of a possum. It wandered rather erratically across my lawn and crawled under the neighbors’ porch. I knew that possums are nocturnal; they aren’t supposed to be out making friends in the bright light of day, and I was worried about the children next door in case this possum should turn out to be rabid, so I called the Humane Society, and then called the neighbors to warn them. The mother wasn’t home, and the children, recently arrived from Chile, wanted me to come over and protect them from this beast until the van came to take it away. I did so, but when the van arrived, and we all went outside, there was nothing under the porch; there was no evidence a possum had ever been there. Oh great, I thought, now I’m hallucinating about large ratlike creatures!
We searched the back yard, and the neighbors’ back yards, and the bushes along the alley, as I felt increasingly foolish every step of the way, but just as the woman from Humane Society was packing her equipment into the van, she looked up and said, “There it is!” The possum was standing plain as day in front of my house again. Even more remarkably, it offered no resistance to capture; it seemed to walk right into the noose, as though that was what it had wanted all along.

I couldn’t forget that possum. I knew it had something to say to me about my own life, but I didn’t know what. So I started to write a poem, and in playing with words about this experience — in trying out sounds and allusions and puns as I struggled to get it down right — I came to understand how this possum related to my own experience. I had some months earlier come to the end of a rather long relationship, and it was a messy, wounding breakup. I wanted to present a dignified face to the world about this event. I wanted to say “Well, we’re both good people, but it just didn’t work out, etc, etc, etc.” But when close and sympathetic friends asked me about it, I found myself saying, “Well, this happened, and then he said that . . . and then . . .” and I was ashamed of myself. I wasn’t acting like the mature and compassionate woman I wanted to be. I was carping and sniveling and I couldn’t seem to help myself. The possum, or more accurately, the act of creating a poem about the possum, gave me a way of objectifying that experience in my life, and, I suppose, of forgiving myself.
There’s always a temptation, when writing about personal experience, to fall into the stage-one trap, as some of my students do. Pouring out all the emotions that cluster around an actual event may be therapeutic, but it isn’t art. Employing critical and intellectual skills has its own reward, however.

When I’m asked how I can bear to stand up in front of people and read poems that deal with personal or painful subjects, my answer is this: In seeing a poem through the creative process — in playing, testing, researching, ordering, critiquing and then playing some more — I have created an object, a thing. That thing may or may not have aesthetic value, but in striving to make it a new and artistic creation, my experience has been objectified. The poem is not I. The poem exists in itself.

Next term, when I talk to my students about the creative process, I plan to share with them the words of Nadia Boulanger, famed music teacher and conductor, as quoted by Bernard MacLaverty:_ one does nothing good without passion; nothing great by passion alone_. Perhaps I’ll put on their syllabus this slice of wisdom from Emily Dickinson: It is easy to work when the soul is at play.