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Mimsy and Outgrabe

a record of panic, parenting, teaching, and art making

  • Writer's pictureSarah Gutowski

Some Discoveries This Week

Number 1 -- Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit -- that is, I discovered how helpful it is. I've had this book in my TBR pile for a while, and reading it in the morning (and some afternoons) has been essential to my progress during the residency. Namely, it's reminding me not to focus on "number of pages" that I've generated or "how much of the play I've developed" -- i.e. the product -- but on "what questions do I need to be asking?" and "what's the spine?" (Tharp's word for "thread" or "central idea" of a creative work) -- i.e. the process.

It's very very difficult for me to create under a deadline -- it's one of the reasons I abandoned journalism: I find deadlines can be generative with their pressure, but they also necessitate cutting off tangents -- going down rabbit holes of thought that might, in and of themselves, be really fruitful. As I've become older I've become more and more wary of deadlines -- my creative process becoming much more one of meandering than dedicated, disciplined plowing toward a final goal.

This is, of course, antithetical to the sabbatical. Stuffolk requires pages, literal pages, sent to them in February, and so I need a product to show for my time away from teaching. I'm really trying to stay grounded in Tharp's good common sense suggestions for tackling creative problems and just... trust... that eventually, come the new year, I'll have something to show for all of my agonizing over the play.

The play is important to me for several reasons. I think it's necessary for a writer to challenge themselves, to shock oneself out of or away from complacency, and writing a play entirely with metrical verse is a *massive* challenge to my creative and technical abilities as a poet and writer. (I mean, it's clear I'm in over my head, right?) Also, I began the project in 2011, so the fact that it isn't finished 10 years later is frustrating and slightly demoralizing. (I'm sure my friends, old and new, are tired of hearing me talk about this damn project so much -- 10 years is a lot of complaining.)

I don't think it's a sign, however, that the play isn't supposed to be written -- although I *will* admit to being stubborn as all get-out. Rather, I think that my issue with the play is its material, and its scope: I'm writing about my family, a kind of tribute to family history and legacy, which raises the stakes immeasurably. More specifically, I'm writing about three women, each of whom had her own set of incredible and epic life-events, and it's a LOT to cram into one play. Maybe I *shouldn't* be cramming them all into one play. Maybe these should be separate plays. Maybe I should only write about one of them and just be satisfied with that.

My mind has been spinning over the past two months thinking about structure and purpose and narrative thread vs. lyric image. If I can come to the end of *this* month, after having experienced the residency and solid hours of uninterrupted quiet, with a central idea around which to organize all of these different *moments* in the lives of my grandmother and her two sisters, I'll feel much better. I'll have a direction for November and December, and hopefully that will result in the dreadful but necessary "pages" that the college needs to justify this sabbatical.

Number 2 -- This blog post on the New York Foundation for the Arts -- about success and how different artists measure it. It was a good reminder via my inbox that there are many perspectives, many angles from which one can feel successful about -- content with -- one's creative work. (So when I was panicking about writing not going well this week, it was like a worry stone to hold and turn in my mind -- it calmed me down.)

Number 3 -- I've really, really missed exercising. Since my RA diagnosis, I've avoided most activities that would place stress on my joints. I've been trying to walk regularly around our neighborhood -- and it's been lovely -- but not very vigorous or challenging. But walking here, in the high hills of Corris, my lungs have been pushed (so out of breath, so often!) and my legs are sore and I'm psyched about it. When I return home, I think I'm going to have to try running again -- my janky knees be damned.

Number 4 -- I like having a hobby that has so little to do with any other part of my life, and also I need it. Playing with my "toy" camera, an Instax Square, is that hobby. It brings me joy to just play, and to not worry about product. I have zero creative investment in the outcome, I just enjoy the process. Taking photos along my walks (with both the iPhone and the Instax) has been a release and a yet another necessary reminder about how I should be focusing on process/the journey/etc. (I still like sharing some of the "products," though.)


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