I am still basking in the afterglow of the Colgate Writers’ Conference, which I attended this past week. I had the great privilege of being in a novel workshop led by Brian Hall, whose intelligence, generosity, humor, insight, and talent cannot be exaggerated. I read his novel The Saskiad last month, and his novels Fall of Frost and I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company are now on the top of my teetering pile of summer reading. I will also be adding his book Madeleine’s World: A Biography of a Three-Year-Old to my Education Professions curriculum next year.
In addition to the intensive workshop, I also attended the Craft Talks by other incredibly talented and generous writers: Jennifer Brice, Jennifer Vanderbes (my workshop instructor two years ago – You must read her novel Easter Island), Peter Balakian, J. Robert Lennon, and Patrick O’Keeffe. Their craft talks will be available on the Colgate Writers’ Conference website this summer. Past years’ talks by many of these same writers are already there and are a rare and invigorating treat.
My fellow workshop attendees were also a treat and shared their incredible talents as we workshopped their novels- and memoirs-in-progress. Two of our original group of five were unable to attend, and so we had Thursday and Friday mornings to do with as we chose. On Thursday we did an exercise, which I will describe in a moment, and on Friday two of us workshopped other chunks of manuscripts-in-progress.
As always when talking or hearing about the writing process, I was struck several times by the idea of writing as metaphor for life. Perhaps everything is metaphor for life, or perhaps, as the Kabbalists believe, all physical phenomena are essentially divine energy diffused into an infinite myriad of manifestations. Or maybe, as I am starting to believe, everything is a fractal, everything, if looked at in closer and closer magnification, is seen to be made up of smaller and smaller versions of itself.
One writing technique that was discussed in particular gave me plenty to think about in terms of both writing and life as I know it. This was the idea of the Limiting Exercise.
I encountered this idea during college in another wonderful Nathan Margalit class called Methods and Materials. One assignment we were given was to take a famous painting and spend … a week? two weeks? (I don’t remember) doing nothing but art based on that work. I chose Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and created 15 variations, each more surprising to me than the last.
Later, in my teaching life, I was attempting to have my tenth-graders write poetry, and realized that given no parameters, the choices were too endless and my non-poet students were, for the most part, writing schlock. Remembering my Art background, I pulled out my prints of Monet’s haystack series and explained to my students that I was going to give them a similar limitation to force their creativity.
I assigned a sestina, a very restrictive seven-stanza poetic form, invented in the 12th century and still used today by poets. I discovered this form in college when I read The Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop, whose Sestina is one of the most-often anthologized examples of the form. The summer after my friends and I finished college, we all spent the summer writing these while house-sitting in the Montague hills (ah, English majors).
This form restricts the poet to only six end words, rearranged over the course of seven stanzas in a very specific order. As soon as I restricted my students in this way, they began writing much more powerful and beautiful stuff. My sister ended up doing dissertation research for her PhD in Cognitive Psychology on using examples to teach writing by “teaching” the sestina in my tenth-grade classes.
As we discussed in our Colgate workshop, it is common practice for writers to set themselves certain restrictions any time they write: point of view, for example. Do I choose first person or third person? If third person, then omniscient or limited or polyvalent? (a new word to me this week) Once the choice is made, that to a large extent imposes restrictions on the text.
However, for the exercise we did, Brian imposed a VERY limiting rule, so limiting that all of us in the workshop were paralyzed for a few moments, and as we worked you could hear grunts and growls of exasperation as we found ourselves roadblocked every other word: we were to write about a funeral without using the letter “e.” Here is what I came up with – without the help of a thesaurus!
On my way down stairs grimy with dirt, I stop and try my ducts for salt, for liquid, for signs that what awaits within will call from my past’s dim rooms any salt or sting. Finding only “dry” and “blank” in locations from which any squall or storm might tug, I walk toward a door I would turn from if I could, but approach anyway, finding it pulls my body through.
Within, a hush of lights and aromas surround that I most avoid. Aunts and trailing husbands, boys and girls, dumb with discomfort, old grandma sitting on a dais at a lost captain’s prow, surround a box I avoid at all costs.
I hug my mom, my dad. I slowly wind a circuitous path through bumbling cousins who touch or murmur what might sound sad but actually roars, low and ominous.
Shalimar and Coty’s L’aimant swirl in battling soft clouds. Mascara, lipstick, suits long hung in musty bags, skirts and shirts in vibrant colors stab at trying on “valor” or “joy” or any mood that adds a coat of familial gloss to what lurks in sharp looks or harsh coughs or pointing hands that sign out a grim truth.
I finally draw up to that obligatory black coffin and scan that craggy chin and high brow, cold now to my touch as always it was in mood glaring my way.
When I read it back, I realized that most of what I wrote I would NEVER have normally written. My ideas had to come out through some others space, like Play-Doh coming out the sides when the sliding shape-maker of the Fun Factory is plugged up.
On Friday morning, J. Robert Lennon shared in his public Craft Talk a number of limiting exercises as well as examples of what he had written when he had given himself these exercises. Check these out on his website: The Cat Text had me crying with laughter as did his New Sentences for the Testing of Typewriters as did his disquisition on the website I Can Has Cheezburger? which is a big favorite in our household. The image to the left was my son’s desktop picture for months. The writing parallel comes from being forced to use kitten grammar, ala lolcats speech.
In our workshop right afterward, we workshopped my essay Ah-Ha! Moment: The “Diagnosis”. In addition to some very helpful writing feedback, I also got, as I often do in regard to living with Asperger’s, “How do you do it?” “How can you live with this?” and “Doesn’t this sometimes just drive you crazy?” On a bad day, my answers to these questions would be “Not with much grace” and “Some days it’s really hard” and “Yes.”
Later in the day these two things overlapped in my head and I thought to myself, Marriage to an Aspergian: The Ultimate Limiting Exercise, which of course could also be the subtitle for Life as a Dairy Farmer.
Sure, Asperger’s imposes certain limitations, but doesn’t every marriage? Marry a PhD in History and you are probably fated to moving from university to university waiting for tenure. Marry a lumberjack and you will be living near forests. Marry someone with diabetes and you will be monitoring blood sugar.
Look what often happens when people HAVE no limitations: celebrity athletes worth millions go broke or commit crimes, kids who inherit enormous trust funds become alcoholics or addicts, Brad runs off with Angelina when obviously Jennifer was his soul mate (please don’t think that last was anything but ironic). Limitless money, limitless fawning men or women: people usually do not handle that situation well.
Benedictines often talk about the value of their vow of stability. Thomas Merton flopped around like a crazed dilettante until he committed himself to the most restrictive monastic order there is: the Cistercians. They do not leave the monastery and they do not speak. But look at what came out of him then. Perhaps Flannery O’Connor’s lupus forced her creative hand. Dorothy Day chose poverty, and her very life became her creation.
The Taoists have a saying that I frequently fall back on: One disease, long life. No disease, short life.
Having some sort of restriction forces us to act wisely within that restriction’s confines and to care for ourselves or our marriage or our art in purposeful, thoughtful ways. No restrictions allows us to live in perhaps too daring a way, putting ourselves in dangerous situations. Think of children: in the absence of restrictions they will touch hot stoves, jump into deep water, wander into traffic. Our son, as he has gotten older and we have allowed him a longer leash, has often run gratefully back into the fold when we have snagged him from some dangerous social precipice, at least until he hankers for another foray toward adulthood.
My theory on this from a scientific standpoint is that our genetic code is hardwired for limitations because that is one of the natural laws: an ecosystem will expand and diversify until some limiting factor stops it at the system’s carrying capacity. There is only so much available to the system. As Jane Jacobs so brilliantly pointed out in her book The Nature of Economies, our human economies MUST function under the same laws because they ARE regulated by the same laws. Our economy is a fractal made up of the ecologies on which it is based.
All living beings are forced to survive in conditions of scarcity. Plants and animals do this by instinct or by trial-and-error or stimulus-response: Fly south — NOW. No food here → migrate. Not enough nitrogen → stop growing vegetatively.
We humans employ rational choice in a condition of scarcity. There is NOT an infinite amount of money or time or physical resources. You assess what you have, weigh the costs and benefits of each option, and choose accordingly. In the same way, we weigh potential spouses, look at the costs and benefits of each potential mate, and make our choice. (Can you tell the Asperger’s has rubbed off on me a bit? Read John Elder Robison’s memoir Look Me in the Eye for an Aspergian take on mate selection.)
Because we are rational, speaking beings, we have developed rituals that make public some of these rational choices. Marriage is one of the most significant limiting exercises we perform. That’s what the vows are all about: “forsaking all others, cleave thee only unto him as long as you both shall live.” That is a pretty serious limiting exercise right there, like writing using ONLY the vowel “e.”
Sure, Asperger’s imposes more restrictions than the normal marriage, and so does dairy farming. Wendell Berry talks about this in his essay “A Few Words for Motherhood.” As he helps a cow give birth, he thinks of Thoreau’s farmer-bashing words from Walden (which raise my hackles, too) and says that we all commit to something, even if it is to the idea of having NO commitments. Wendell Berry chose farm animals.
I chose Andy, and Asperger’s came with the package. I could get all frustrated and kick and scream or leave, or I can accept the limitation and use it as an exercise in marital creativity.
If you are an artist or a writer, when you impose a restriction on yourself, the creativity gets squeezed out in other unexpected ways. Brian encouraged us to “look for unpredictable elegant opportunities” that happen in writing when we don’t dictatorially impose our own will on the text, that these often lead the text in a new direction that is BETTER than the original plan.
I choose to see my marriage that way. The Asperger’s has been a “restriction” that forced the writing of my own life into a very different direction. Perhaps the creativity this requires of me will make of my life something more creative, and maybe more beautiful, than what it might have been without that restriction.
This is what I love about reading good literary fiction: you can tell when the writers have allowed the texts to force their hand in a way, and have followed and shaped those sometimes unplanned restrictions into art. For my own tastes, I love when a writer or artist has made beauty out of real and sometimes difficult limitations. This is art that, because it is true, always rings true.
Please share your thoughts …..