From Viva for the Losers! or What My “Tiger Dad” Didn’t Teach Me

David Mura

“A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.”

--James Joyce

 

“Do it right the first time is insane advice.  Nobody does anything...INTERESTING...right the first...or the twenty-first....or the forty-first...time.  Doing the new means screwing around, trying stuff, and messing stuff up....again and again and again.  That is...WASTE.”

--Tom Peters

     Attention to the “rules” hinders the creative process.
     Though I first came upon this notion when teaching poetry to young people, I soon realized this attention to the rules meant more than the rules of grammar or spelling.   This doesn’t mean that you don’t learn these rules or other rules or techniques.  As an adult I didn’t worry about the rules of grammar or spelling because I had learned them.  (Well, actually that’s a lie.  I don’t worry now about spelling because I have a computer and spell check does the work for me.)   What this does mean is that worrying about rules you are just learning and, at the same time, creating a new work is too difficult a task.  Separate the tasks.  Don’t make your brain do two things at once.  When you’re creating, your unconscious needs to follow its own course rather than worry about rules.

     In writing, the creative mindset is one that is relaxed and loose.  It involves a willingness to travel anywhere, to entertain whatever comes up.  It can be helped along through work beforehand gathering images, ideas, material, etc. so that you don’t feel you’re starting to write with only a blank page before you.  Instead you have the sense that there’s a vast array of materials you can draw from.   You have to adopt an attitude of openness to whatever language comes forth.

     Creativity comes through a willingness to experiment, to make mistakes.  It involves what others might call waste or failure.  But Thomas Edison remarked that no experiment is a failure; it taught him what didn’t work, and that brought him one step closer to an answer.

     What hampers creativity?  A pressure to be perfect, to get it right every time.  A pressure to produce a product, to perform to a grade.  A pressure to never do anything foolish or outré, anything risky.  In other words, the exact mindset I’d learned as an A student—to get everything perfect—was a recipe for writer’s block.
     Or, as William Stafford put it, the key to writer’s block is “lower your standards.”

      Where does language come from?  Our unconscious.
     Thus, when the conscious mind decides to write, it is the unconscious mind that sends up a sentence.
     But then the conscious mind, the critical mind, the A student mind, the get-it-perfect mind, says, “Well, that’s not good enough.”  Depending upon who you are, your conscious mind might add, “That’s so far away from Garcia Marquez…” or any other writing hero you might use as a critical standard setter.  And then, another part of your brain might add your parents or family members saying, “This isn’t serious real work, this is a waste of time.”
     A bit daunted, your unconscious tries sending up another sentence.
     “Not good enough,” says the conscious mind.  The other voices clamor in with their jeers. 
     A third sentence.  Criticism, rejection.
     By about the fourth or fifth sentence, your unconscious mind shouts back, “Screw you, I’m not going to work for you anymore.”
     Hence, writer’s block.

     Imagine yourself getting up before two groups and speaking. 
     In the first group is a committee of tenured English professors and administrators who think everything great was written in the distant past and who want to prove creative writing is a waste of time.
     In the second group are the people with whom you feel most comfortable speaking, your partner or spouse, your best friends.
     With which group will you be more articulate?  With which group will speak to more easily, more naturally, more eloquently?  With which group will you be more likely to let your personality break through?
     The second group, of course.
     So why do writers think if they imagine themselves writing to the first group, that will make them better writers?
     Banish that first group—the censors—from your writing room.  Do not listen to them.  Stop wringing your own throat.  Lower your standards.

     When you sit down to write, there’s nothing you can do that will make you smarter, more talented, more interesting, sexier, more learned, more prepared.  You are who you are at that moment.  You can be no one else.
     Accept who you are, accept your words.
     You have to be the reader who welcomes your language.  You have to listen to whatever language your unconscious mind comes up with, whatever sentence that happens to drift into your consciousness.
     If you allow the unconscious to speak, it will keep speaking; it will lead you to places your conscious mind could not imagine.  For the unconscious mind is smarter and far more creative than the conscious or critical mind.
     Writing is a process.  Enter into the process, let it unfold.

Comments (1)

  1. Garrett Hongo:
    Apr 06, 2015 at 01:59 PM

    Aloha David. Well, I think the culture has done pretty well with Stafford's injunction to "lower standards" as a matter of fact. I'm all for raising them myself. And my own "best friends" include many who think highly of the writing from the past--the Chinese T'ang, the English Renaissance, the Italian Trecento, 19th century England, and the 60s and 70s in American poetry. As for English departments and university administrators, they themselves have become complicit in the lowering of standards in terms of literacy--doing away with the study of Shakespeare and Milton (and all period literature) as requirements, crowding the curriculum with blogosphere and graphic novel reading, and generally pandering to the lowest denominators. I'm all for writing to the familiar, but why not be as familiar with Dante as with Fanon? With Keats as well as kung-fu? My own next work is entitled "Portrait of the Artist as Biggie Huang." One foot in the past, then heel-and-toe remix to the future, my man.


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