Thursday, March 03, 2011

Outside Research, inside Life

Some days, you feel detached enough from your social settings that you participate as though you were an anthropologist undertaking fieldwork: Participating, but with always part of you sitting back and observing, taking notes, observing the natives and the local wildlife, feeling like a non-native, an outsider.

Some people go through their entire lives feeling this way. I've heard more than one writer mention it: Part of them is always taking notes, knowing they'll recycle life into art, even at moments when it might seem ridiculously inappropriate.

But sitting back and observing at one remove, like an anthropological fieldworker isn't necessarily a good way to engage with actually living your life. I would say to more than one writer, or artist, of my acquaintance: While you're living your life, live it to the fullest. Don't keep part of yourself disassociated or abstracted. Live life with full engagement in the present moment. Write about it later. Make art about it later.

It's shocking to me how often that advice falls on deaf ears—often for no better reason than a failure of the imagination, or a lack of trust in one's own memory. Some artists can't stop taking notes because they're afraid they'll miss something—apparently they're stuck in college classroom mode, or grad school mode if you prefer, taking notes in seminar or lecture. For some artists, school does become a habit—but it's a habit that can also be unlearned.

I feel my own best writing is engaged writing, not observational writing. Dive right into the moment, in memory, and write about it. When I sort through photographs, I often find myself able to re-experience somatically what I was thinking and feeling in the moments I made the photograph. And ought of that often emerges a short bit of writing. Photographs as memories, photographs as reminders. Which in the imagination and recreation of memory and experience, become short poems, or prose-poems, or sometimes, longer poems, or poem sequences.

I'm back to not doing much poetry writing again. It's been a slow year for poems, as I mentioned before, except for the surprising poems that emerged this past summer, when I was extremely ill. That series of poems doesn't feel like it ever ended—who knows? another poem can always emerge unexpectedly—but it doesn't feel, at the moment, as though there's any urge to write anymore. I'm back to writing short poems, haiku, and prose-poems, mostly triggered by photographs.

There's no abandonment in this. It's just, as ever, a change of emphasis, a switching of creative channels, an artistic crop rotation. I'm putting my energies where they need to be, for now.

The truth is, I am reserving most of my wordsmithing energies for the new music commission. I'm writing the lyrics as well as the music for this commissioned project, so I'm giving most of my word-oriented creative energy to the lyrics for the songs. I say most, of course, because things always spill over the edges of the container and splash onto other parts of the floor. I've been keeping a notebook of all the fragments, ideas, and structural notes for the commission in a single notebook. I keep it nearby at all times. More than once, when I was on the road last month, ideas for sketches and lyrics would come to me while I was driving, driving along and letting my mind roam over the work, over the landscape.

One of the core themes of the new commission is that Midwestern, heartland culture, really has something unique and special to offer> It has its own tone, style, and pacing. People here in the Upper Midwest do have a culture distinct from the rest of the USA, a certain attitude towards life, a certain way of being—and that will be reflected in all aspects of our lives. The commission is inspired by the living stories of the members of Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus—myself included. And one of the key themes that has emerged from those stories is our about what makes us uniquely Midwestern. It's a little hard to define, or pin down, in prose; and it has both light and dark aspects to it. I'm finding that the best way, so far, to get the lyrics to come forward, is to inhabit the stories, absorb them, become them, and let them re-emerge in my own words. One or two quotes from interviews and writings given to me by Chorus members are going to make it into the finished work; I'm already clear about two or three such fragments. The rest will be passed through my own sensibility—so much so that i feel I am living the stories, which in many cases are not too different from my own anyway, and re-telling them the way an actor does, or a bard does, by living them from the inside.

There's no theoretical framework here, no intellectualizing about what should be said. I do have a rough structural outline for the overall piece. But I don't want to overthink or overintellectualize this music. It needs to emerge via a living process of being inhabited, not merely didactically described. As with poems, I want the lyrics and the music to recreate an experience in the audience. The old dictum "Show, don't tell" is very relevant here. I don't want to create something artificial, an artifice. I want to make something essential, engaging, and gripping.

Stylistically, that means I'm not pushing the musical envelope too hard, so far. I want the music and words to be accessible (without being simple or shallow or clichéd), clear and straightforward (rather than too artificed or overwritten), and universal. GALA choral commissions such as this have an ambassadorial function: they are not only about preaching to the choir, i.e. the LGBT membership of the audience. If only one stranger, or friend, or family member starts to understand the lives led by their gay and lesbian friends and family, because of the music I've presented, I will be joyous and feel richly rewarded.

GALA choruses function as ambassadors for changing peoples' lives, changing peoples' minds, bringing people together, making connections where there may not have been any before. There are two reasons GALA choruses commission so much new music: to build the choral repertoire; and as educational outreach.

The music itself is a kind of activism.

That's how one can change the world, change peoples' minds, open new doors in their experience: by artistically, indirectly communicating with them what it is like to live our lives. Years ago, I was the kind of activist who did march in the streets, participate in protest rallies, and all that. Now I let my art be my quiet, far more compelling, far more subversive, far more viral, form of activism.

And that is about living life from the inside, rather than just intellectually describing it. I once saw an oversized button worn on a shoulder bag by a person met at random on the pedestrian mall along State St. in Madison; the message inscribed thereupon was:

This isn't a rehearsal, this is your life.

So mote it be.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I think it’s a matter of degrees. To say I have spent my entire life observing others would be a gross exaggeration – I have done quite a lot with my life albeit nothing especially outstanding – and I can and do draw of those experiences but in recent years, since I too fell ill, I certainly have withdrawn from society to a great extent but I feel no loss. I remember when we used to get chips when I was young – chippie chips, not these horrible I’m-convinced-they’re-synthetic oven fries we get these days – and my dad would ask for one. I never got why he didn’t buy himself a bag but he always wanted a chip, just a taste, and that taste was enough to conjure up all the bags of chips he’d had in his life. I feel a bit like that these days. There are very few genuinely new things out there that I might want to experience. There are things I’ve never done – I’ve never ridden a horse – but most of these are things I’m content to watch others do; the fear of injury overpowers any curiosity that might still linger in me. Your point has a certain validity I grant you and if I were younger I might heed it but I’m also burdened by the fact I ‘wasted’ so much time during my youth and early manhood (not reading, not writing) that I feel I have to play catch-up now and I see that continuing for some time.

6:02 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Proust's madeleine.

The thing is, Jim, you HAVE lived your life. You do have things, like chips, that trigger substantial memories, things you lived through. None of which was wasted, in my opinion, since you can dip into it.

I see a lot of younger writers, who haven't had years of living under their belts, try to write as if they had, and the results are often hollow.

I recall how writers' resumés used to have a lot of "school of life" elements, i.e. the assortment of random jobs in many fields, through which one gains experience, meets lots of different kinds of people, and so forth. One matures through experience and contact. While there may be many good things about MFA or PhD writers' programs these days, it leads to a lot of younger writers without those "school of life" resumés. Which is fine, it's just that a lot of those writers simply haven't LIVED enough to be able to have something to say. I'd encourage them to go and gather some living to themselves, before the tried to publish their novel, or became creative writing teachers.

9:36 AM  

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