Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Keeping the Channel Open

I spend entirely too much time on Facebook, perhaps to the detriment of my own productivity outside of my work day (though my brain seems to turn off at 9:30, so perhaps it's not such a loss after all), but sometimes it pays off: the other day someone posted a link to a short piece on judgement by James Clear about Agnes de Mille and Martha Graham.  And though I've heard the quote before, today I can't get it out of my head.

The story, briefly, goes like this: de Mille spent years of her life choreographing things she thought were wonderful, but received no critical acclaim.  Then, she choreographed Oklahoma!--which she deemed second-rate--and it was a fabulous success.  Confused about her own ability to judge her work, and worried that she couldn't be as good as she wanted to be, she went to see Martha Graham, who told her that:
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open."
In other words, not only are we our own worst critics, but we have no business deciding what's any good.

As someone who studied literature and philosophy, I find myself bristling, because this approach complicates our notions of standards (which humanists fight to establish all the time...why else make decisions about what we teach in an art or literature class?).  But it also doesn't exactly leave the worth of your work in the hands of your consumer, either.

And I get it.  We can't let our self-judgment paralyze us.  Our job is to show up, and create, to the best of our ability.  The work isn't good or bad; it just is.

Clear says we should "fall in love with the process."  So we're not so obsessed any more with the end, but we can luxuriate in the great middle, the producing.  Which is useful food for thought for me this NaBloPoMo.

The last time I did NaBloPoMo, it was summer.  I had lots of vegetables to cook in new ways, I had sunlight to shoot photos, I was going to yoga, I wasn't commuting.  I got lots of comments.  I felt like I was part of a community.  I enjoyed the process.  This time, I get home late, when it's too dark to shoot; I haven't been cooking a lot of original things because I have only the weekends, and even those have been busy; I haven't been going to yoga.  I get home, do the chores, and feel tired.  I sit on the couch and eat, because invariably I haven't eaten enough for dinner.  I want to do NaBloPoMo, and at the same time, I resent my own commitment.  I think about what I have to get done, rather than the doing.  And invariably, I judge.  I tell myself there's no point in blogging.  I have nothing to say.  No one comments anyway.  If I have lurkers, I'd never know it.  All of this is about the end, not about what happens in the middle.

(The other day I sent a poem I'd written to an English professor, and immediately regretted it, telling myself how bad the poem was, and how could I presume to send my crappy poem to someone who knows anything about literature.  Wrote Anne Lamott tonight: "I would be just fine most of the time, if it weren't for my mind."  I hear you, Anne.  I hear you.)

What would happen if we just kept the channel open?  What would it look like?  All of this talk about finding voice ... what if it's been there all along, if we just stopped trying to think so much about it?

Do you "keep the channel open"?   Do you think you'll ever be satisfied with your work?  Do you believe, as Graham does, that dissatisfaction breeds creativity?  Have you fallen in love with your process?  How do you decide what's good, and does it matter?

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  1. It is almost always the things that I am most proud of that go out into the world and receive the most resounding silence.

    And then it is the things I think are shallow and flat that get praise.

    When I am being kind to myself I just ask if what I've done is the best I could do in the circumstances and move on. And when I am not being kind to myself, well . . . I should be kind to myself more often.

  2. I know this is beside the point, or perhaps against the point, but I'm a lurker and I really enjoy reading your blog. I'm sure there are many more of us, too.

  3. Me, too. I usually read and try to comment from my phone and often find the commenting difficult to complete. I don't mean to be a lurker, but sometimes I get cut off in mid comment and that's quite frustrating.

    However, I must tell you that really like some of your posts. The Breakfast Treats was a wonderful example. Loved it! It inspired me to write one of my own childhood memories. I was going to post it on Stirrup Queens #Microblog Monday list but it was just too long. I did a #Microblog post last Monday as a little thank you to you for the inspiration.

    I enjoy your writing very much.

    Now if I can just get this comment sent off to you without a mishap. :)


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