BEAT.

Or How I Found Myself Picking Through Garbage, Wielding a Hammer, and Thinking About Narrative.
I write best when I’m terrified. That is how I find myself taking a studio art class in the last semester of my MFA program. The class scares me because: I am a fiction writer, masterful with words, not visuals; the last time I took a studio art class was 20 years ago; the concept of the class is beyond my realm of understanding (similar to when I view a work such as Joseph Beuys’ “Flannel Suit” at MoMA); and I’m a type-A who expects to excel but anxious the class may jeopardize my perfect grade point average.

I recognize that I need to be scared out of my wits right before I graduate (as if the thesis and dim job prospects aren’t scary enough). A strong writer creates an experience for readers by disrupting their expectations. Readers will believe what they feel. My words need to evoke feeling, and I can achieve that by disrupting my own way of thinking, and challenging and surprising myself.

For example, it is one thing to tell a reader a fish is covered with barnacles. Yawn. That can describe any generic fish. However, a fish “speckled with barnacles,/fine rosettes of lime” is a very particular creature in the mind’s eye of the reader. Speckled and rosettes are surprising word choices that cause the reader to have a different experience of the fish as described in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish”. This is the level of writing to which I aspire.

The Peripheries of Perception project is a perfect start because it pushes me off the cliff of my comfort zone. I used a truly found object: a discarded plastic toy drum retrieved from the recycling room of my residential building. I decided to approach this project the anti-Nancy way, i.e., at every step I asked “What would I normally do?” to ensure I did the exact opposite.

  • I used a truly found object. I did not allow myself to “cheat” by deliberating and selecting a specific object to fulfill a very particular and organized plan.
  • I became a Velcro ball. I followed Starling’s approach to research, i.e., be informal and far-reaching. Some things will stick, some won’t, but this approach creates the conditions for luck, which allows discovery of what has significance.
  • I shared with others. Brainstorming within a group gave me new ideas, and helped me expand and refine my original ideas. I decided to give the drum a new life as a tambourine, filled with the shattered extra pieces of its past drum form. The exercise helped me understand Starling’s view that the “scars” are part of the narrative, just as the very particular, granular details within a story (e.g., character flaws) make the body of work interesting.
  • I beat the drum. Literally. I began to disassemble the drum carefully, but abandoned that in frustration and began to whack the plastic to pieces with a large hammer. Beating the drum helped me understand Parker’s view that there is creation and possibility in destruction (and a lot of stress release). The exercise also led me to think about the possibilities of the word “beat”.
  • I continued to beat the drum and the word till both were transformed. My meditation on the physical act of destroying the drum and the cerebral act of thinking of the meanings and uses of the word beat (a la Friedman) led me to the disruption that resulted in a renewed form for the object and the word.

The result: A drum beaten to redemption as a tambourine, a pandereta de aleluya, which is the Spanish equivalent of the English phrase “beat to death” / “beat like a born-again’s tambourine”. I like to think I’ve made a statement a la Starling, i.e., a statement against mass production by making an artisan object from a Made-in-China mass produced toy.

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