June 3, 2013

Searching for Saraswati: Finding Susan.

But this I know; the writer who possesses the creative gift owns something of which he is not always master—something that at times strangely wills and works for itself. He may lay down rules and devise principles, and to rules and principles it will perhaps for years lie in subjection; and then, haply without any warning of revolt, there comes a time when it will no longer consent.”

~ Charlotte Bronte

A few weeks back, I got an email from a fellow yogini asking if I could teach her how to write.

She’d read one of my blogs, and felt a connection with one of the lines in it—a line that described me picking up my own dog’s shit on our morning walk. (I always hope that my writing will resonate with people, but I had no idea that recording the rankest moments of my day would do it.)

So after a few seconds of feeling all proud of myself and stuff, I set about answering her email. Yes, I typed, I’d love to. When can we start?

It was in the few seconds after sending my response that the panic and regret took hold. What the hell do I know about writing? Yes, I’ve done it for as long I can remember in some form. Yes, I served my requisite time for four years plus grad school writing my ass off. Huge portions of my life have been dedicated to it—I’ve missed more parties and dates and happiness than I can count because I was doing it.

Or, more likely, drinking a bottle of wine alone while beating myself up for not doing it.

The truth is that for all of my experience and tear-stained thesis projects, I got very little advice about how to actually write. Sure, we talked about process, about finding your very own specific voice, about how it’s best to write in the morning when head is empty and your creativity limitless (a rule that has never worked for me as I’m dull and cranky before noon).

Like anyone who has been through an intense yoga training can attest, creative education shakes your soul up, cuts right to your deepest insecurities and makes you hate the very thing you are attempting to master.

Then it ends, abruptly.

Like the new yoga teacher fresh out her 200 hour who spends most of her time peering down at her notes and adjusting the music volume, an accredited writer spends a lot of her time figuring it all out post-classroom.

In my writing catalogue, I’ve got about 100 fairly strong pages of work. The remaining thousands are part rant, part self-pity memoir, part thinly veiled diatribe against the people who’ve spurned me. Most of it should never see the light of day—it should stay locked on my external drive, the key irretrievably thrown away.

Unlike so many other areas of life, art thrives on failure. Creative fractures, trip-ups, muddy watercolor, 3:30 am poorly conceived poems, marks missed and cheesy metaphors that choke an otherwise good story.

This is what you will endure in order to make any progress.

You will humiliate yourself in front of yourself. You will become humbled because you have no other choice, given all that you’ve seen of your untalented self. You will take up scrapbooking, or needlepoint or reading Young Adult novels.

Then you will come back. You just have to. It’s the same thing for yoginis who say they are going to take a few weeks off , but end up busting a pigeon pose the very next morning because they miss it already.

Creativity is the ease of a nurturing Asana and the rhythm of Pranayama. It demands structure, flow, and transitions. It’s a dance with divinity, and a bloody wrestling match with the mind.

And you do reach bliss for a few lovely seconds.

This is what I learned not in school, but through yoga training and practice. My professors never mentioned divinity or connecting with a deeper source. We never spoke of goddesses or chakra meditations. Creativity was seen as something to wrangle, to force into submission. There were rules and grades and harsh critiques by your fellow students. We all had great respect for creativity, but it was so connected to the fear of getting it wrong—of failing.

I was paralyzed by that fear for years.

Something changed, though. It was the influx of new and very different teachers in my life: yoga teachers. These men and women demanded that I accept falling on my face and feeling fat and refining my sloppy Warrior II. They taught me to me to step back from my practice, to let go of my expectations and lose myself in the experience of the mat against my toes or my wobbly Eagle.

They taught me how to enjoy the sticky process of creativity on the mat and off.

Susan, a teacher and friend of mine, is a prime example of the kind of teacher that every creative person needs. She doesn’t have an office at a university, but a healing arts business that she created from the ground up. She is an acupuncturist, massage therapist and amazing yoga teacher who was the first—very patient—person to get me into side crane.

She is also a dedicated artist in almost every medium.

Seriously, from the outfits she wears to the kale salad to the collage to the morning yoga class, it’s all art. Her palate is, simply, life.

Susan’s Work Table

So, in the wake of self-congratulatory elation followed by panic-stricken second guessing, I went straight to Susan. Every teacher has a teacher, like a neverending stack of Russian nesting dolls, each containing a multitude of multiverses. Ever the student, I looked to Susan to teach me to teach creativity.

Susan seemed confused when I mentioned things like creative blocks or fear of failure. These were not new concepts, but ones that held very little space in her brain.

Isn’t everything creative, though? When you put a meal together or paint your apartment a new color. It all comes from the same instinct, she said.

Susan’s Work in Progress

I pressed her for more nuts and bolts advice, like how did she get in the mood to paint. How did she find the muse? Again, she seemed a bit confused. She was, she said, always inspired. There weren’t enough hours in the day for all the ideas she had.

Creativity is a non-linear thing, a timeless space that you have to inhabit. No phones or appointments. Just being and listening and letting the inspiration find you.

This doesn’t mean being lazy. There is intention to Susan’s passivity, grace in her inaction. Instead of filling herself up with what she’s going to do, she empties herself of expectations and plans. Emptiness creates space for creative thought, for pockets of unbridled imagination.

When your mind is quiet, your blood and bones begin to speak.

She also mentioned Chuck Scalin, a teacher she credits with helping her hone her skills. She credits Scalin with this very creative period of her life.

This is Susan’s advice, and it’s worth all those years of critiques and workshops.

Creativity is a spiritual force, requiring the same determination and practice as yoga. It’s the path of unlearning and unraveling all the other stuff of life that leads us to a beautiful painting or a good story. For her, a vital part of that is by being unabashedly creative with the salad on her plate and the shoes on her feet. It’s the path of infusing every aspect of your daily life with those little pockets of energy uncovered through meditation and practice.

When all your daily patterns are rife with creativity, the task of writing or painting is just another extension of that. It’s not forced. It’s feral.

The salad is the story. The pink scarf arranged just so is the painting. Your voice vibrates through your life, sometimes unknowingly. You don’t even notice the moments of inspired creativity because they seem so small, so quiet.

That’s the first lesson.


Entering Susan’s Studio



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Ed: Bryonie Wise




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