The title, You Must Revise Your Life*, by William Stafford, many of you will recognize. What books are you reading? Who do you really enjoy spending time with? What do you do to nourish those friendships? How much of what you do is motivated by who you really are, and how much is duty? What do you do that has nothing to do with what someone else thinks, or has any practical value? The answer to the last question for me has been taking silent walks in the woods. No matter where you are, quietly observing the world around you alters your perspective.
As a teacher and a poet, Stafford demonstrates how our work happens not only when we are in the studio, practicing with the skills that we have– but also in the larger context of ideas, our attitude toward ourself and the world. It is essential to cultivate imagination by taking time away from virtual responses, and change our habitual course by shifting to the vertical, inward movement of deep time. We discover that time isn't only the kind that is slipping away– there are other kinds of time (for example, we know the experience of being in the zone), and as Joseph Campbell said,
"Eternity has nothing to do with time."
My well read copy of this book is wavy- from when I recovered it from the Chama River about 15 years ago. (That is another story- me and my car suspended vertically in a tree high above the river, under a half moon– and my supplies for Ghost Ranch falling into the waters below!) I took this book with me, wherever I was teaching. It is a handbook for calligraphers, artists, poets and teachers (and now mine is full of magic from the river). This book is for anyone who is in the vocation of creativity.
Perhaps thinking about making art from the perspective of a poet can be useful, and one need not be a poet to do it. There is a love for the dance and movement of language– for "serving the music", for listening. Stafford had a daily practice of writing, not for others, but for himself. I love the well known story of him describing this practice to his students by stating that he gets up each morning and writes a poem. They are incredulous, asking
how do you write a poem every morning?
Stafford replies by saying “Lower your standards.” By this he means, just begin. Every piece does not need to be a masterpiece. It is the commitment to showing up for the practice that allows something to happen over time. He did not believe in writer's block, as that comes from having an expectation of what needs to happen. This reflects his humility (more of his poems were rejected than accepted) and faith in the process. He was willing to fail. I ask myself, am I willing to fail? And that reminds me of Father Greg Boyle:
"Anything worth pursuing is worth failing at."
The idea of creating recklessly, without the editor who may or may not be favorable toward your work, is vital. There is no other way to discover your voice, and new forms. This approach is not about whether our work is concrete or abstract, traditional or expressive- it is an attitude of openness to surprise and innovation:
“...I take my hands off the handlebars and see what happens.”
Try this exercise:
Stafford talks about taking many poems, over a period of time, and laying them out on the floor. He describes getting glimpses of relationships by seeing how the pieces respond to each other, urging new ideas. I enjoy doing the same thing with my paintings– laying them out next to each other, in unlikely combinations. It reminds me of Alberto Manguel’s description of the books in his library coming alive at night– like toys in the nursery that wake up in the dark, talking and moving around. The proximity of the books in Manguel's library allow “one book (to) call to another unexpectedly, creating alliances across different cultures and centuries.” This is how Stafford plays with words in a line, allowing one to suggest another, working from discovery rather than a plan. This is how I get ideas for one painting from another- I imagine them talking to each other. As William Stafford states:
“An artist is someone who lets the material talk back.”
Each morning I make a move toward revising my life by forming an intention. At night before I go to sleep I can consider what happened– for example, did I practice loving kindness to myself and others? And if I didn't, can I be kind to myself in spite of failure?!
*This post includes some thoughts I published in a book review for Letter Arts Review a few years ago.