Tuesday, October 16, 2007

This orange...not that one

While I was living in Doylestown I belonged to a small writer's circle of twenty-somethings. The Writer's Room was just budding at the time; since then it has exploded full-bloom, attracting writers from all over Bucks County and beyond.

I give props to the girl who organized our little group. Trying to establish a cohesive, semi-permanent community out of a group of die-hard egoistic individualists, most of whom were in a transitional state of life (myself included), must have been hard. But we got together once a week to discuss and critique each others work, talk about writing, go out for beers, and do exercises.

I remember one exercise we did specifically. We went around in a circle, each person picking an object in sight, which we would then write about for five or ten minutes. Then we would stop and read what we wrote. It was not very complicated, but was neat exercise because you saw how two people could be looking at the exact same thing and be seeing it totally differently. I remember seeing an orange sitting on a table and using that as the subject for this exercise.

I also liked this exercise because it accentuated the inexhaustible potential of words to describe reality. The primacy of the written word in the Christian religion and even John describing God as 'the Word' (logos). There is always something to write about; there is never anything that can't be written about. For someone who gets bored quickly with just about everything, this is comforting knowledge.

When I first moved to Philadelphia and taught 7th grade English at St. Martin's, I used such exercises as a warm-up before each class to get the kids' minds limbered up. My favorite exercise (which soon became their favorite too) was timed stream-of-consciousness. I laid down the rules at the beginning: 10 minutes, pen or pencil must never stop moving; no editing, no erasing. There are no limitations or parameters on content. If you get stuck, keep writing the last word in your stream until you get unclogged. But there is to be absolutely no stopping to think, and no stopping of the pen, until the ten minutes is up. You may share what you wrote at the end if you choose, but no one will be asked to.

It took a while for the kids to get used to this kind of writing, since they were so used to censoring themselves. I think they grew to like this exercise because it gave them what every kid wants when they are in 7th grade: freedom. Freedom from rules, from their parents, from convention, from peer pressure, from expectations.

But it was also a spiritual exercise in letting go, that is, refusing to let the mind be controlled by reason for a time. Any time I would see one of the students stopping to think, I would slam my hand on the desk. It was the best equivalent I had to Zen masters hitting their students in the back of the head with a stick. Your mind has diarrhea, I would tell them...don't hold it in.

If I could think of any job I would love to have, it would be to teach creative writing. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if I had gone through with my application to Temple's MFA program instead of studying Theology. I wrote a proposal to teach a creative writing class at the Mount Airy Learning Tree last spring, but never heard back from them. I would do it for free I enjoy it that much. At this point I don't know where to start or what is available to me. But it does feel good to know a little more clearly where my passion lies.

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