My friend Jenni, a student who single-handedly improved my sight-reading abilities by 75% by showing up with new music every week, recently accomplished something admirable: She went without words for a week. Part of an Artist’s Way class, she called it her Reading Deprivation week. She went without books, television and computer, explaining in part why my Facebook news feed was so meager. My friend Nancy, who teaches college-level English and can point out every time I have deconstructed a thought, was so busy with module four of her online course, that she, too, was absent from Facebook. I didn’t realize how much fun that news feed was until some of its big contributors weren’t there.
Oh dear, I hope this isn’t going to be one of those dreary pieces about stress, over-stimulation, and the pace of life. But you know, these blogs just pour out of me. I have no control over them. It’s the Artist’s Way.
When I realized that Jenni had gone a week without reading, I thought it was nothing I wanted to do –like anyone suggested I should. It was my fundamentalist upbringing talking: If someone has found a way to deprive herself of life, then it must have some Biblical basis and we should all take it up.
“Did John the Baptist read novels?”
“Not with his head on a platter he didn’t.”
“Somebody, pass the sackcloth.”
I love the things Jenni did with her week: she sang, she sat at the piano bench and swung her feet; she cleaned out a closet, did yoga, gazed at the moon, and admired a hummingbird; she and her husband ate dinner at the table.
Jenni didn’t actually go a week without words. She went a week without written words. It’s an interesting distinction. Written words can be taken back. They can be revoked, edited, censored, changed, and enhanced. You can write “fuck you” all over a hurtful letter, and then tear it up. It helps, trust me. Reading written words can be escapism. Not that there’s anything wrong with escapism. Not that that is what I am doing when I read formulaic mysteries with short sentences.
But spoken words are carriers of energy. That’s why reading aloud can be so powerful. (Can be. It can also be boring. I don’t want to go all fundamentalist here.) Do you remember that stupid thing the adults taught us to say when we were in grade school: “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.”
I see a lot of adults in my studio who were hurt by words.
“You shouldn’t try to draw. You have no talent.”
“Mouth the words. You aren’t a singer.”
Words scare the artist out of us. We focus on the irrelevant question of whether or not we are a singer or writer or painter rather than wallow in the experience of singing, writing, and painting. The magic shows up when we show up and then lose ourselves.
When I was first learning to write, back when I needed a pen in my hand in order to think, I found myself stopping and thinking, “Can I really say that?” I learned to answer myself, “Of course you can, just write it down.” Soon I stopped asking the question. I just wrote. The more I wrote, the more it flowed. I could always go back and tweak. Editing is a different part of the creative process.
My singing students try to edit themselves prematurely. They have their own version of “Can I really say that?” Students often want to know, “What good is that?” “Is that singing?” I say, “Try it and see what happens.” It’s on the other side of the experience that we understand what the experience was about.
What I love about watercolor painting is that the paint is hard to control. I love to wet the paper (Arches 130 lb cold pressed), wait a few minutes, then drop in some rose madder genuine, aureolin yellow and cobalt blue and watch a sky materialize. The paint will paint itself if I stay out of the way. Just like the words will flow and the voice will sing.
It’s the artist’s way.