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Creative Focus

When you're in the studio painting, there are a lot of people in there with you. Your teachers, friends, painters from history, critics...and one by one, if you're really painting, they walk out. And if you're really painting,
you walk out.
~ from a talk with Philip Guston

I sat in on several interesting lectures at Stanford University recently for Parents Weekend - a generous welcome into the academic richness that Stanford offers, like many great schools, to parents of students. An opportunity to dip a toe in the deep waters our children swim in intellectually. I learned about physics research in the search for the nature of deep matter, the inability of our brains to genuinely multitask efficiently and what that means in a distracted-attention world of technology versus face to face interaction, and the importance of making information on healthy living part of learning about global community ecosystems.

Most remarkable of all I had the unforgettable experience, with a handful of other parents in a small acoustic studio, of hearing the Hagia Sofia given virtual voice after a hundred years of silence through the collaboration of Capella Romana, the ancient choral music chant group, with the Stanford Art and Art History Department, and the Stanford CCRMA (Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics) facility. This project captured and replicated the unique, extended, reverberating wave patterns of pure sound possible only in the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, the largest stone and marble structure of its kind even today. Early monastic chant music, sung by Cappella Romana, was recorded through advanced technical audio patterns, defined and matched to that of the Hagia Sofia. Listening to this collaboration of history, human voice, and audio science, was to experience the recreation of the visceral unearthly beauty that once filled an ancient Byzantine mosque. The soul of the Basilica of Holy Wisdom, long silenced, filled space like light itself.

How does this link to "creative focus"? Simply. I listened to my son and his friends speak with engaging passion about their studies, of the intimate questions of their lives, and the linkage of these experiences to the Great Questions of our times. It became clear getting from "interested to expert" is a journey of FOCUS. Focus, in balance with the many polycentric obligations of life. We cannot delve into one thing to the exclusion of other commitments. Nor can we attend only to a universe of opportunities and truly experience anything deeply. A balance point is key. What is truly important is learning where balance lies within.

The quote above from Philip Guston, on painting, reflects the natural progression of social learning to personal expression. We move from the intellectual to the creative, from repetition to inspiration, from without to within, and from the known to the unique. We begin in knowledge of our greater culture and its gifts. We then learn through the able mentoring of others. We practice in the structure of training. We take flight in the space that is our own. This weekend was a deep reminder of the importance of focus in creative, and vice versa.

I recommend the recordings of Cappella Romana for inspiration. I wish I had been there earlier this month for the recreation of the Hagia Sofia recordings as part of the inauguration of the new acoustic wonder that is Bing Concert Hall at Stanford. But it pleases me nonetheless to know that great beauty is out there, everywhere. All the time.
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Pocket of my Mind

Wedding Day, February 18

Today would be Kenneth Alan Grunzweig's 70th birthday. If he had lived to see it. Yesterday was our 25th anniversary. Had he lived to share it with me. My favorite work of anything I have yet written or conceived, remains the memoir dedicated to Ken published by Broadway Books in 2008, simply titled, "The Geography of Love." For that's what it was, the landscape of a relationship. Ours.

Ken's charm and brilliant wit were legendary. His grace and capacity for compassion and loyalty enduring. His life remains a great teacher to the many who knew him, called him friend. I take comfort in the knowledge our children walk a path today he would be proud of. His love of life carried me on. In the same vein that I love to run, the spirit moves forward. I am grateful, every day, for the beautiful life he left me and led me through and to. He is the presence, the faith beneath the wings of my new marriage that lifts us both I believe.

In the ten years since Ken's death, I have grown stronger in my conviction that all is connected, nothing truly lost, memory indelible like a scent in the air. Last night I dreamed a sweet dream of a day with McDuff, my wheaten Scottie dog, gone a year now. A loyal, funny, adoring animal, McDuff was "the true friend." Companion of the early years of grief. Alone on the pine trails, the Scottie and me. Waking from that dream of walking with Duffy, and thinking of Ken, and my mother whose birthday is this Sunday, I realized the only things that ever truly do matter are imprinted on our hearts. We live in our thoughts and our thoughts are a continuous media mix of moment and dream, memory and experience. We have only to know to love.

In honor of our Ken,

by Barbara Howes

Breezeways in the tropics winnow the air,
Are ajar to its least breath
But hold back, in a feint of architecture,
The boisterous sun
Pouring down upon

The island like a cloudburst. They
Slant to loft air, they curve, they screen
The wind's wild gaiety
Which tosses palm
Branches about like a marshal's plumes.

Within this filtered, latticed
World, where spools of shadow
Form, lift and change,
The triumph of incoming air
Is that it is there,

Cooling and salving us. Louvres,
Trellises, vines -music also-
Shape the arboreal wind, make skeins
Of it, and a maze
To catch shade. The days

Are all variety, blowing;
Aswirl in a perpetual current
Of wind, shadow, sun,
I marvel at the capacity
Of memory

Which, in some deep pocket
Of my mind, preserves you whole-
As a wind is wind, as the lion-taming
Sun is sun, you are, you stay;
Nothing is lost, nothing has blown away.

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Claim Your Voice

Forsyth, Limb's Shadow
We have trouble connecting with our own confident writing voice that is inside all of us, and even when we do connect and write well, we don't claim it. I am not saying that everyone is Shakespeare, but I am saying that everyone has a genuine voice that can express his or her life with honest dignity and detail. There seems to be a gap between the greatness we are capable of and the way we see ourselves and, therefore, see our work.
~ from "Writing Down the Bones," Natalie Goldberg

I believe this observation, by beloved creative writing guru Natalie Goldberg, can be extrapolated to apply to almost any form of endeavor. Art is work, work is art. Our perception of our personal capabilities is often hobbled by our fears of inadequacy. It is hard to produce good work if before we even commence we don't believe we can. Even harder in the wake of actual failure. How can I do better when I did so horribly before? Goldberg's observation contains two important stumbling blocks - when we do connect and do something well, we don't claim it. And second, heed the gap between capability and confidence. And confidence, my friends, is one leaky boat in need of constant repair.

Anyone who has endured the ravages of a critique group, work review, unkind agent or editor, boss, or bad public reviews, knows only too well the two-edged sword which divides confidence from the critical importance of consensus. How can we be aware and supportive of our own developing inner voice when the room is shouting in unison for us to do better, differently, or altogether stop? (Or as more is often the case, to mimic work known and approved.) We can't. But somewhere in our inner selves is the door that keeps the outside world out. We need to find it and make sure it swings both ways. Any artist, any person, needs to be able to tune in and tune out, as well as listen in when the world really has something to say.

How do we know when to listen? I don't really have the answer to that. It's almost instinctive I think, an inner reflex beyond fight or flight that says, "Heh, wait. That made sense." Our genuine selves are always in hot pursuit of stellar expressions of being; creative breakthroughs that nearly blind or light the night. We love the spectacular within ourselves and within others indivisibly. To do our own best work is mostly about staying out of the traffic intersection of public comment as long as possible. As Goldberg advises, first find and own the strong voice that is yours alone. Then be confident of a place in the room.

I generally urge new writers in my workshops to go slow moving from a "work in progress" to feeling a work is substantially formed and ready for critique. I think supportive and positive critique groups are useful in any form of project development, including writing, but they can also dismember an idea, strangle innovation, strip the twinkle right out of pizazz. The importance - way down the road - of positive consensus, critical praise, group approval or industry preference (This is the year of vampire novels, oh wait, that was last year...) cannot be dismissed. IF you are going public with your work. Not everyone should or will choose to be public. Emily Dickinson is often the star of this debate. Would the poet's work have been as strong, as confident and fresh, if she had been writing for a-farthing-a-day press? While we may or may not ever intend to take our work into the world, the first step remains the same: be genuine. Identify and nurture. Silence the inner (or outer) critic, and create until creating is one and the same as the voice in your head.

We all have something to say about this world. Paint, sing, dance, play, design, innovate. There's but one of the each of us. (Generally speaking, cloning efforts aside.) Begin here. Begin within. Pursue the genuine.
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Taking Risks

Cherish your own emotions and never under value them.
We are not here to do what has already been done.

~ Robert Henri

There is a famous essay by Robert Henri in the collection of his essays and letters, "The Art Spirit," which begins with the words Age need not destroy beauty.
Henri, a painter, was speaking of the spirit within people that makes them engaging subjects, as well as addressing the importance of freeing art from the cliche, the facile elements of likability or familiarity. Henri then explains to his students,

There are people who grow more beautiful as they grow older. If age means to them an expansion and development of character this mental and spiritual state will have its affect on the physical. A face which in the early days was only pretty or even dull, will be transformed. The eyes will attain mysterious depths, there will be a gesture in the whole face of greater sensibility... About the portrait of Whistler painted of his mother I have always had a great feeling of beauty. She is old. But there is something in her face and gesture that tells of the integrity of her life... There she sits, and in her poise one reads the history of a splendid personality. She is at once so gentle, so experienced, and so womanly strong."

He ends by saying, Beauty is an intangible thing.

The reason for the inclusion of this excerpt is not to launch a beauty campaign in celebration of the aged, but to highlight within Henri's words the exquisite inviolable nature of what is fundamental. For example, besides the intangibility of beauty, how about the qualities of integrity, courage, wisdom, embracing risk? For the artist, a great deal of process is taking the intangible and making of it something present, material on the page, depicted on canvas, conveyed in song, movement or stone. I think it is incredibly important to respect the emotional and intuitive side of work, to know our muses and our process, to let the permeable elements of character and the patina of experience soak through us. To invite in the transient, that we might filter the firmament for inspiration and then make something marvelous of it.

I wrote about creative blocks last week, and have been fortunate (Hallelujah!) to have had a good week of creative work in the wake of that self-exposed essay. I think a word about "risk" is important here as I go on exploring creative blocks and address elements of process that work for me. And I do mean good old-fashioned risk: uncertainty, openness to failure, likelihood of setback, unprecedented, undetermined, ideas or work as yet un- or undervalued. Those in the arts risk every day they commit to be original. Originality is the hardest and most time-consuming and risky of any impetus toward creativity. Another print of a successful painting is not a risk. A year or three spent in a studio working with a fragile medium toward an original goal, is.

So why risk? Because in the fateful moments following a personal commitment to be original, risk floods in: immediately the powerful ebb of doubt sucks us back toward uncertainty. But if we stop flailing around and accept the powerful fear we feel in the surge, we become instantly unblocked. The worst creative block anyone can face is the fear of taking a risk. This is the dreaded fear of the second-time author, the painter who wants to try something entirely new, the dancer without a mentor or description, the story that cannot be indexed. We curl inside, quaking. What if my time ends up wasted, I never publish, I'm thought a fool, my work is loathed, I can't get it done? What if it doesn't sell? We believe that art, like beauty, rests in consensus. Not true. Genuine beauty and talent lie in the unique. No two of us see or appreciate wonder alike.

The thing is, we succeed by taking the risk. As if risk were a mirage that dissolves when confronted with commitment.

Making a decision has launched a thousand pieces of work for me. I imagine this, I want to do this, I will. I try and disconnect any expectation for the project other than beginning and committing to a natural follow through. I am accepting, if not thrilled, if the work dies on the vine. Sometimes you can only experiment with an idea to know if it will work. Failure is a draft, nothing more. And, sometimes originality is not good, it's just...original. I think of those outcomes as practice of craft, honing the creative vision. Now and then everything about the work is right, but its place in the world is not now. Whereas once I used to deplore the post-mortem success, now I view it as a kind of bow from the grave. Good one world, you finally got it.

The point is, just begin. Decide to begin. Before you'll know it, you will have something beautiful, tangible...and yours.
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