Saturday, March 19, 2011

New Yorker and Janet Frame on creativity

I am always on the lookout for different ways to approach creativity and especially writing, this odd thing that we do, and this weekend I found some excellent quotes in the New Yorker and in Janet Frame's astonishing and often sublime The Daylight and the Dust: Collected Stories.

The New Yorker article by Dana Goodyear is about Barry Michels, a kind of therapist to the Hollywood entertainment industry, but about work, not about their fraught love lives, etc... So much of Michels' counselling techniques made sense to me, got me thinking. For example, when dealing with a screenwriter who couldn't write, "Michels ...told the writer to get an egg timer. Following Michels' instructions, every day he set it for one minute, knelt in front of his computer in a posture of prayer, and begged the universe to help him write the worst sentence every written". The writer thought this was stupid and pointless. But,  what do you know? It worked... "six weeks later, he had a 165 page script... when the movie came out the writer won an Academy Award". There surely can't be a more compelling way to start an article!

Michels and his colleague are working on a self-help book that basically involves "patients [being] told to visualize things going horribly wrong". Not sure about that, but this spoke to me:
"By far the most common problem afflicting the writers in Michels' practice is procrastination, which he understands in terms of Jung's Father archetype. 'They procrastinate because they have no external authority figure demanding that they write,' he says [Ah, does this ring a bell? Sure does! T] 'Often I explain to the patient that there is an authority figure he's answerable to, but it's not human. It's Time itself that is passing inexorably...Every time you procrastinate or waste time, you're defying this authority figure.' Procrastination, he says, is 'a spurious form of immortality,' the ego's way of claiming that it has all the time in the world. Writing, by extension, is a kind of death."
What Michels' makes his client do, in the face of this, is sit in front of their computer for a fixed time each day and say "I am surrendering myselt to the archetypal Father, Chronos. I am surrendering myself to him because he has hegemony over me." An interesting suggestion, I may well try that. You can read the whole article here.

Talking about procrastination and time wasting, I was very struck by a story in the Janet Frame collection, the daylight and the dust. I  had never read anything by her, I got this collection out of the library, read the first story and though, This isn't for me. Yet, I kept renewing it, something telling me not to give it back yet. And whatever that something was (Father Time??), it was right. I read a story from the middle of the book and was absolutely blown away. Her writing is stunning, poetic, rhythmic, hard-hitting, moving, shocking. It really really spoke to me, I loved what she did with language, I could hear it singing to me in my head and for the first time ever I was compelled to read a story out loud

One of the stories that I wanted to mention here is the Pleasures of Arithmetic. Basically a two-page flash story about the mind-numbing effects of television:
"Each night in each of these ten living rooms there are ten times how many people watching the same programme, receiving news bulletins (the diminutive of bullets, listening to the same music, and in the end thinking the same thoughts, in the end hosts only at the point of a gun to thoughts donated to them by courtesy of the television company... Thoughts in identical clothes... dull suspicion, criticism, my house is yours....
'What we need,' said the politician, 'is unity.'
'Our aim,' said the poet, 'is like-mindedness'."

A cautionary tale against abdicating our own thoughts in favour of mass mind control  - the remedy is to be found in another story, One Must Give Up, in which the narrator gives up the newspaper, the radio, the television:
"I am now a maker of my own news, a distributor of my own time. I receive news which no-one thought to broadcast on radio or film for television or report in the newspapers. I choose for myself again. it is long since I knew such freedom. Tight-lipped runners arrive bearing word from far countries - from friends two streets away. The cherry tree is in flower."
I love that line, that news has become something that comes from "friends two streets away". Frame hammers the message home beautifully at the end of the story:
"Fact or fancy. There comes a time when one must rely on one's own news, images, interpretations, when one must resist the pressure upon one's house of conforming, orthodox, shared seasons, and use the panel in the secret room, make one's escape to fluid, individual weather; stand alone in the dark listening to the worm knocking three times, the rose resisting, and the inhabited forest of the heart accomplishing its own private moments of growth."
Just typing that has made me shiver all over again. This was written in an age before Facebook which purports to bring its users "news" constantly, but in this ever-streaming babble, where is the sound of the "worm knocking" or our own heart's "private moments of growth"?

I couldn't find a Janet Frame story online, but here's a radio interview with her on YouTube.


Vanessa Gebbie said...

What fascinating thoughts - I'd love to have an authority figure telling me to write, at the moment! have written nothing since October, save a few poems.
Much enjoyed the extracts from the Janet Frame collection too - to my eye/ear they sound like parts of essays though - the author's own thoughts - much as I agreed with them!! Will just have to investigate.

Tania Hershman said...

Hi V, welcome home! Interesting, the connection between procrastination, writing and death, eh? And re Janet Frame, I took them out of context, you must get hold of this book, her stories are amazing! I wish I could find one online to link to

Terry said...

There are three New Yorker stories by Janet Frame online:

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Wow - two in one year! Thank you, Terry.