November 21, 2010

Poetry & Change

Poetry comes of direction and indirection.   In order to write, I need to do a fair amount of staring out the window.  It's helpful to do some mindless tasks like cleaning and laundry.  Somehow the sound of water running into the washing machine helps me find my way to the page.   Dreams help; this morning I climbed out of bed with a phrase delivered to me in my sleep.  Some poems I've written began in just such a way.   Daydreams, reverie, and music help.   Good conversations, reading, and especially walking or yoga help me make the transition from conscious mind to subconscious.  Spending time by the lakeshore or near the river, journaling, writing letters.  In my studio, I find the process of making a fire in the woodstove very conducive.  It is a journey that leads inward.

The process of artistic submersion is similar to the process of planned change.   As a writer, I've learned to invite the meditative state that leads into artistic work.  In the field of social work, research about the process of change reveals a parallel:  a premeditative state, followed by contemplation, preparation, and action.   Now, an evidence based practice (one that has been proven to be effective) called motivational interviewing is used to support and encourage the process of change; the social worker affirms the point in the process, no matter what it is, and discusses the process of change and possible scenarios of changing, or not changing.  Amplifying ambivalence often leads to taking action.  In creative immersion and change, talking about process is so important to help you find your way, your own unique way.

Consider what you do to help you enter into contemplation and preparation.  An artist friend of mine has a strong Buddhist practice.  Meditation, silence and contemplation of the words and writing of teachers has been very helpful to her.   Another friend works in more than one medium; besides writing, she also does visual art and music. 

Writer's blocks are perhaps an earlier stage of the process and can be investigated. Perhaps more contemplation or more preparation is needed.  A block may represent fear or a resistance to change.  The social work response to these two obstacles is acknowledgment and affirmation and then a consideration of how staying stuck affects you in the short and long term.  Practicing respect of the internal and external obstacles is a skillful tactic.  The use of force doesn't work.  Controlling responses don't work.   In artistic counseling, Anne Paris, PhD, suggests three solutions; mirroring (finding somebody to reflect on your work with you), eliciting creative work in relation to a hero that you have (another writer or artist), and working with peers.  These relationships with others help us stay connected to the source of our own inspiration.   

In the action of creating something new, we must stretch and rise in ways not otherwise called for.  Consider the language we use for such experiences; we say a person is consumed by their work.   At times, I've been consumed by writing and afterwards, I was not the same.   Artists are perhaps marked by their changefulness, like Merce Cunningham.   We are willing to enter in again and again, to create something new.   And of this new beginning, the artist or writer creates an experience with a beginning, middle and end.

Each new work has a different constellation or different set of principles, in order to engage with it, an artist or writer has to let go of the past.  What has worked before might not be what works in the new project.   Adjustments are needed.   Perhaps this is also what Rilke meant in his poem, Archaic Torso of Apollo:  " must change your life." (To read this poem and poet Mark Doty's critical analysis of it, click on this link

Besides writing, I work with people who are affected by mental illness and I help facilitate recovery.   Once I had the opportunity to attend the Creativity and Madness Conference in Sante Fe, New Mexico.  It is a conference that examines the psychology of art and artists.   Many artists have transformed very difficult life experience and mental illness into astonishing artistic achievement.   (

The artistic process engages us with the process of change in a very intimate and personal way.    Not only does creative work relax and help us feel centered, it is a profound act of change in the world.  We all know you can't change anybody else; it is possible to change oneself (and that is difficult enough).  Creative work allows us to make small alterations in the patterns of the self, allows us to follow an image through to a completed work, and sets in motion a beginning that reaches farther than we realize.

Arts learning is so important.  The wisdom we gain from working artistically is valuable.  Artists can help others learn how to overcome obstacles, especially the difficult obstacles that one's own self can erect during the process of change.  Music programs, theater departments, art departments, and creative writing classes not only help students improve their math scores; they give an individual an important tool that might save him or her, and maybe the world.

If you are interested in artistic process, check out this book by Anne Paris, PhD: Standing at Water's Edge: Moving Past Fear, Blocks, and Pitfalls to Discover the Power of Creative Immersion (New World Library, c2008)  If you want to know about the change process and motivational interviewing, read Miller, William R. & Rollnick, Stephen. (2 edition) Motivational Interviewing:  Preparing People For Change . New York:  Guildford Press (2002).

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