Did you know a gathering of owls is called a parliament? Well, it turns out I made a parliament of owls this year, for Christmas.
I haven’t posted in a while, but this is not because nothing is happening. I’ve actually been very, very busy. And I’ve discovered that when I’m very, very busy, the posts to Think.Do. are one of the first casualties.
Being on sabbatical has given me some time–and space–to think about what it means to be busy. What my “busy-ness” actually means. How being busy relates to creativity, productivity, and probably, longevity and lots of other words ending in -ity.
I am immensely lucky to be able to say that much of my busy-ness is of my own choosing. In my job, I love discussing literature with my students and my colleagues, thinking about new ways to teach things, editing others’ writing to make it sharper and clearer. In my non-working time, I like to make things and spend lots of time thinking of new things to try. The weeks between Labor Day (apropos, that!) and Christmas are when the spirit of making kicks into high gear. I’m not sure if my family members always agree, but I like making people gifts for Christmas. It is a small, personal stand I’ve taken against the crass materialism and shallowness of feeling that has overtaken the holiday.
Perhaps because I’m on sabbatical, and thus freed of the end-of-semester flurry of activity that normally comes with my job, I kind of went crazy with the giftmaking this year. Our house became an off-Pole manufacturing workshop. I was even a little chagrined by my excess when I assembled this year’s line of Presents by Jean for a group photo (I also included pics of a couple of other things I made that I forgot to include):
This level of production strikes me as totally ridiculous. But it was awfully fun.
I needed to finish everything up by this weekend so that I could pack everything up and get it all sent off in time for Christmas. Along with that, I also played the piano in two events– one, our department’s annual Holiday Feast (accompanying the Loyola Literary Singers in renditions of “Anything You Can Do” from Annie Get Your Gun, “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” and some random Christmas carols), and the other, my first ever performance in the Loyola Chamber Ensemble, playing piano in the beautiful, haunting Adagio from Bohuslav Martinu’s Trio for Piano, Flute, and Cello, and flute in an unbelievable arrangement of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” for four flutes.
What really struck me about playing this arrangement is that Debussy wrote a piece that flows from the fingers when played on the piano, but feels incredibly unnatural and awkward when played on the flute. Fortunately for all of you, we did not record the concert and so you will not have to suffer through our rendition of the piece. But if your curious to hear what the arrangement sounds like, here’s a professional group, the Collage Flute Quartet, playing it.
I was on 3rd part, which has lots of noodling going on for the middle third of the piece, as well as right at the end. My second-to-last note, a high E, is notoriously difficult to play in tune, and to end with that was really a masterstroke by the arranger, Mark Thomas, to inflict as much torture as possible onto his musicians– and their audience.
Oh yes — and I also did some research travel. Spent two days at the Delaware Museum of Art doing research in the John Sloan archive and the Everett Shinn and George Luks Papers, and a couple days commuting into DC to read microfilm copies of the New York World newspaper and The Truth magazine, dating from 1890-1896.
Thanksgiving happened somewhere in there. Keith and Jeri came in for that– fun times.
Yes, it was all fun. But exhausting. And I could not even think about writing for the blog, or writing poems for the Weekly Poem Project.
What I conclude from all this is that creativity (mine anyway) is a finite resource. I seem to produce a certain amount of it, and can either store it up or use it–but it definitely gets depleted, used up. My tank is currently empty.
And I think that our stress on constant productivity must have a similar impact on all of us. Why is it so important to constantly be working? Meeting milestones, achieving outcomes, maintaining ever-escalating trajectories of productivity? Are we not all feeling depleted these days?
On this sabbatical, I’ve been trying to pay closer attention to what my body & my unconscious is trying to tell me. What have I heard? Some unsurprising things: I need to sleep more. Exercise is freeing for the mind as well as good for one’s health–if the health of the body can in fact be separated from that of the mind. Things like that.
But I’ve also realized that not all periods when one is not actively producing are actually unproductive. When the tank is empty, it takes time to fill it back up. Even when the tank is full, it takes time, and quiet, and space, to figure out where to begin, and where to direct one’s energies. This is not a dead time, a period of non-productivity. It’s actually essential to producing anything that is worth something more than nothing. Scientists like to say that “speed is simply velocity without direction”–that’s something I’ve been thinking a lot lately. And the idea of farmers leaving fields fallow. You have to let things alone in order for them to grow.
My friend Janet Maher, who is blogging at Trusting the Process, recently addressed this issue of productivity and process from an artist’s perspective. (I reblogged her entry “Here, Now, Beginning” last week.) Here’s an excerpt I found especially apt:
Artists and writers, makers of all kinds know about process. It is where the best part of anything resides, the real stuff of the matter. It’s why I always feel that my art exhibits are residue, frozen moments arranged neatly in a logical visual narrative. They were never that way until all the elements came into that particular space at a given time. I find that part of the process to be strange, yet it is how things are done. Something very important for me is over once the work hangs in a room for a month or so waiting for people to come and see it.
In a comment to one of my own Think.Do. posts where I lamented the agonies of writer’s block, she gave me great advice that got me to appreciate writer’s block as simply part of the process, not a “block” or impediment or failure to produce. She said, “Block? not so, just other tangents that are all part of the creative writer… If cleaning the closets gets the creativity flowing, then one must clean the closets.” She also encouraged me to recognize and value my own process, rather than confining myself to “how something ‘should’ be done (i.e. as ‘boring academics’ would).” This observation really struck me. And unsurprisingly, I think I started writing again the very next day, freed from worrying about whether I was doing what I should be doing, and rather, simply doing.
I leave you with a little tidbit from one of my recent research trips to the Library of Congress. I went looking for illustrations and comics work done by George Luks, who exhibited with The Eight in 1908, and also was included in the 1913 Armory Show. Like the other painters I’m examining in my book, he got his start in newspaper illustration (newspapers used to rely on artists to depict the news before photographs could be easily reproduced onto newsprint). This is a page from the Dec. 19, 1891 issue of The Truth, a weekly New York humor magazine that competed with Puck, Life, and Judge in the 1890s.
These humor weeklies were precursors of our present-day Sunday comics section, and in the page reproduced below you can see some glimmers of what would become the comic strip. Interspersed between the jokes, anecdotes, and single-panel cartoons that made up the bulk of the magazine, you can see some sequential panel cartoons. Eventually, William Randolph Hearst (and his comics supplement editor, Rudolph Block) simply gave over the entirety of the comics section to these sequential cartoons–or comics. Below, George Luks drew the three illustrations beginning in the top left corner, and continuing diagonally down the page:
Not the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, but interesting as a lead-in to the strips he would end up doing for Joseph Pulitzer’s NY World:
Well, this cartoon isn’t exactly what you’d call rip-roaringly funny, either. It’s actually pretty offensive. But it’s wild nevertheless, don’t you think? I simply cannot believe that something like this was really intended to be read by children alone.
More soon! Poems will come back online in 2015. (I’m already starting to get some ideas.) Happy holidays, everyone!