Craft: Square One by Donna Steiner

I took an aesthetics course as an undergrad in college. The professor was well-known and dynamic and the class was held in a large lecture hall. I was probably the only non-art major in the room.

On the first day of class, the professor asked us to draw a table. My classmates took out shiny metal rulers and mechanical pencils and methodically created accurate renditions of what anyone could immediately identify as a table.  I was accustomed to taking notes during lectures or participating in seminars about poetry; I sat stupidly, startled that drawing was part of the class.

“Don’t worry about the technicalities,” the professor prompted, so I sketched a barely recognizable object-with-legs-of-some-sort.  It looked, perhaps, like a table that had survived a hurricane or, if such a thing were possible, like a table drunk on whiskey. It looked, for sure, like a kindergartener had drawn it, and I hoped that my effort would be met with amusement rather than derision.

After a few minutes, during which my classmates continued to refine their drawings and the professor paced up and down the aisles of the hall making a sound that must be described as chortling, we were issued a new challenge.

“Draw a chessboard.”

My classmates again began to draw in earnest, many of them attempting to depict a single chess piece with precision. Were they slowly going to recreate the entire set?  I had no time to wonder, as I – neither an artist nor a chess player – simply drew a square and slashed a quick tic-tac-toe grid across it. Rough squares within a rough square… I watched in fascination and dread as my neighbors created cross-hatched, drawn-to-scale portraits of knights and queens and bishops.

Finally came our last task: “Okay, now draw a chessboard on a table.”

I heard some sighs and a few groans from the students, who were laboring to fill their tablets with master-pieces.  I flipped to a new sheet of notebook paper and drew yet another square.  This, I reasoned, was the top of a table, viewed directly from above.  I drew a square inside of that square: the chessboard’s perimeter, also viewed from above.  Then I filled in the squares of the chessboard, taking the time to shade alternate squares.  There, I thought. This will have to do.  The limits of my abilities, such as they were, had been met. I felt a little like I had cheated, especially as I could see the remarkable efforts at perspective, shadowing, and composition that my classmates were sweating over. Even so, I reasoned, I’d given it a shot.  Maybe my non-artistic approach would provide a laugh.

Eventually the professor asked us to place the final drawing on our desks and relax. Then he roamed up and down the aisles, humming and exclaiming over what he saw. I was nervous, awaiting ridicule. It’s just an elective, I reasoned. It’s only the first class. I can drop it if I’m humiliated.

By the time the professor made it to my row he wasn’t saying much, just occasionally adjusting a particular drawing so he could view it better. I was sitting in an aisle seat; there was no way I could hide my drawing. He paused beside me, reached down, turned my notebook to face him. Then he stood back and scrutinized me.  He looked puzzled.

“Who are you?” he said, his hand stroking his chin.

“Uh…” I said, fostering my impending impression as class imbecile.  “My name?”

“Yes,” he said. “Where did you come from?”

“Oh, I’m taking this class as an elective,” I said, hoping I understood what he was asking. “My name is Donna Steiner.”

“Well, Donna Steiner, you’re the only one in the room who didn’t try to draw a realistic table, side angle, with a full chess set on top of it.” I wasn’t sure if this was praise, so I waited, hoping I wasn’t visibly trembling.

“Congratulations,” he finished, issuing an implied wrist-slap on my talented classmates and mercifully refusing to acknowledge the obvious: my creativity was a direct result of ineptitude.

I flipped my notebook to a clean sheet of paper and recorded my first lessons of aesthetics:

      • One’s failings can be one’s successes.
      • The imperfect is often appealing.
      • The conventional is, well, conventional.
      • Lack of sophistication (inexperience), for a time, can be an asset.

All of these lessons are related and, of course, can be applied to writing. They may help one think about my actual topics today: writer’s block and inspiration.

Before I go any further, however, I should come clean.  I don’t use either of these terms and, frankly, neither do my writer friends. My students, however, use them with frequency and verve, and seem to understand them as being twinned – that is, both joined and oppositional. Inspiration is good, and is defined as whatever helps you write. Writer’s block is bad, and is defined as whatever keeps you from writing.

I am not trying to belittle or undervalue my students’ beliefs. But they – and others – do themselves a disservice by “believing in” inspiration and writer’s block. It’s almost an equation: by believing in the former, it is very easy to succumb to the latter.  Or, to further clarify, by believing in the kind of inspiration that is dependent on outside forces – inspiration one waits and hopes for – you are potentially dooming yourself to writer’s block. More often than not, the inspiration you wait and hope and pray for simply fails to arrive.

So what is to be done when the writing is not happening? What do we do when we’re in a dry phase, a dark phase, a phase of emptiness and wordlessness? If we are not to wait and hope and pray for inspiration, then what?

Well, I’ll suggest taking a good shot at failing. Fail well. Fail fully. Give yourself an assignment you’re sure to do poorly.  Seriously – don’t cheat. Pick something you wholly suck at. Try drawing a picture using an iPad ap, or taking a photograph at night, or building a sculpture out of materials found outdoors. Write a one-act play. Try a sestina… Create an assignment, make it as ridiculous as possible, and do it. That’s the important part: do it. Do it poorly, but with enthusiasm. Plan to fail with gusto.

The gusto is important; have a blast while you’re failing. Because here’s an under-heralded fact of art: failing can be fun. Listen to actors talk about their bad movies, or find an artist willing to show you paintings that nobody ever bought or liked or understood. Sometimes they didn’t enjoy those experiences, but sometimes they did. Reframe your thinking to include these possibilities: failure can be fun. And fun – another underappreciated fact – can be instructional.

Last summer I was having a hard time writing. This wasn’t a few quiet weeks or a few dry months. It endured, and my customary acceptance of these phases – I knew they always ended – began to erode. Nothing was happening. There were no ideas, no sparks; the fallow months were piling up with alarming rapidity. On the brink of despair, I made a decision: I would work on some other art. The problem, as already established: I have no artistic talent. But that didn’t stop me. I set up a desk, accumulated rudimentary supplies, and started gluing things on paper. Almost every picture I created was terrible. I didn’t have the right kind of glue, I’m not very good at cutting things out, my sense of design is unsophisticated. But I had so much fun that I kept making things all summer long. I wrote nothing. But when I was assembling these pictures – I couldn’t bring myself to even name them collages or assemblages or anything more than What I’m Doing When I’m Not Writing – I realized that I was utterly immersed in the process, totally absorbed. I felt exactly the way I felt when writing, only I wasn’t writing. I was failing. I was failing and I was having fun.

I saw that being immersed was what mattered. Doing something. Creating something. To put it another way: doing nothing was detrimental. Waiting was useless

Lest I had too much fun, I wondered if my diversion was detrimental. Was I just wasting time? Was I avoiding some hard truth about my writing? Was I losing it? But something began to happen that allowed me to ignore those worries. I began, ever so slightly – imperceptibly perhaps – to get better. And I began to see how my early failures could be improved. I began to have real ideas, began to conceptualize real projects. I saw that being immersed was what mattered. Doing something. Creating something. To put it another way: doing nothing was detrimental. Waiting was useless. Hoping and praying were ineffective.

I don’t want to make this sound more positive and gleeful than it was.  The facts: I didn’t write anything for a long time. Distress was real. I lost sleep over it. I’m sure I cried. But the only thing that helped was immersing myself in art and failing until the failure started to resemble success. Those art projects – simple endeavors where I placed one thing next to another, like rose petals next to a photograph of my grandmother, or broken egg shells next to fragments of a poem – helped me understand composition in new ways. They kept the physicality of art-making in the forefront – the actual moving of the body to type or pace or cut or turn a page or erase or stack or rearrange elements of a collage. They helped me create titles, which led to poems.  They kept me tethered.

Listen, this thing called writer’s block might feel like darkness. It might feel like emptiness. It might feel like a coffin. But my intention, when I’m in that dark, empty, coffin-like space, is to scratch pictures on the wall. And those pictures are going to suck, and if anyone saw them they might say who are you and where did you come from? But they’re going to keep me company and keep me connected until the light comes back. And it does. And it will.

Donna Steiner, Columnist

Donna Steiner’s writing has been published in literary journals including Fourth Genre, Shenandoah, The Bellingham Review, The Sun, and Stone Canoe. She recently completed a manuscript of linked, place-based essays and is working on a collection of poems.  Her essay chapbook, Elements, was released in 2013 by Sweet Publications.

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  • Marge Pellegrino

    sigh….I’m printing this out for next time…gratzi.

  • This is the second of your columns I’ve read, Donna, and I really like them. I have known inspiration as a funny thing. When I was writing poetry in college, I was taking a shower once and lines of poetry started putting themselves together in my head so fast that I literally ran out out of the bathroom naked, dripping and started writing them down. A few little revisions and additions (not much, or many), and that poem won one of the Hallmark Honor Prizes for undergraduate poetry that year, a national competition. Another time I was writing a letter to a friend, by hand (in the 1970’s) and I wrote: “I’ve got a poem in my head I’d like to write. Let me put down a rough draft of it. Tell me what you think.” He wrote back “John, that is one of the best poems I’ve ever read,” and I realized I hadn’t written a rough draft at all, I had written the poem. That poem was a runner-up in the same Hallmark competition. I have also known incredibly long periods in which I haven’t written anything. For forty years, while I was working for a living, I gave up writing. During that time, I took up nature photography. My wife and I were living in Estes Park, near Rocky Mountain National Park, and there was a lot of nature to photograph there. As a poet, I would often imitate poets I admired–James Wright, Gary Snyder. As a nature photographer, I chose Galen Rowell (also a climber and mountaineer) as my mentor. I learned f-stops and shutter speeds, and I became a student of light, of darkness. A local photo shop sponsored an annual contest, and I started entering, and darned if I didn’t start winning prizes. I think that is because even my poetry had been visual. I have a gift for imagery. Then the age of digital photography arrived, and I just wasn’t up to learning technique all over again, and that was that. I still shoot 35mm film. But I have finally started writing again. In my old age, so far anyway, the vagrant and fickle muse hasn’t touched me on the shoulder like she used to do when I was young, but I keep hoping for her. Writing is mostly hard work. Maybe she doesn’t visit because I haven’t tried writing poetry again. I wonder, sometimes, if I still have a voice that is capable of singing. Or if I just must content myself with talking. Sometimes I can feel profound rhythms moving inside, like the waves of the sea off the coast of California, where I lived for a year, or the turning of the seasons in the Colorado mountains, where I live now. But at least I am writing again. May your own words and thoughts continue to flow easily, Donna.