“Don’t scorn your life just because it’s not dramatic, or it’s impoverished, or it looks dull, or it’s workaday. Don’t scorn it. It is where poetry is taking place if you’ve got the sensitivity to see it, if your eyes are open.”
–Philip Levine, describing what he learned from William Carlos Williams
Mrs. Sherby was my art teacher in both elementary and secondary school and I will never forget the lessons she taught at the Forest Park Schools. I still dream about her classroom – the way the clay smelled, the wide-narrow drawers where we stored our work-in-progress, and the baby food jars where we mixed custom colors of acrylic paint and dipped our paintbrushes.
Mrs. Sherby taught us about the Impressionism Movement and I was moved by Monet. I vividly remember learning about his haystack series and the way he patiently painted during different times of the day to observe and transcribe natural light. What an impact it made on me to realize that a single landscape scene could take on different appearances based on the time of the day and the quality of light. It is a lesson that has never left me.
My boyfriend Matt, freshman year in college at Marquette University, took me to see a Monet exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute and it was a transformative experience. Looking back I realize how painfully naïve I was from my rural upbringing. I gapped, wide-eyed and astonished at how large the canvases were. The layer-upon-layer of paint were exactly as Mrs. Sherby had described them in one of her slide show presentations. I was moved so deeply that I wanted to touch the canvas in front of me. Without thinking, my hand stretched out to one of the paintings to feel the texture of Monet’s brush strokes and I was chided by one of the docents. Though nothing could interrupt the experience for me. I was transfixed. It may seem dramatic, but my world was forever changed. I had come face-to-face with a masterpiece and I felt the spirit of Monet with every step that I took. As a teacher, I hope that something discussed in one of my classes sticks with a student so permanently that they add it to their bucket list.
As a writer, and a teacher of writing, I believe that we must experience the world with the sensibility that other artist’s do. For our craft we also study light as attentively as Monet did. Writing is an image rich process and it also must engage all of our senses.
My students are used to hearing me lecture that as writer’s we notice things that other people do not. We listen to conversations with our ears finely tuned to accents and word choice and experience color and sound in a way that approaches their essence. We constantly ask ourselves, how would we describe the way a high school hallway swaggers with students after the bell rings? Or more accurately, how would I show my reader?
I often have my teenage writers take abstract terms such freedom, love, and happiness and describe them in terms of our senses to make them concrete. What does freedom smell like? What does happiness taste like? What color is love? The true test for a writer is turning the abstract into something concrete so the reader has a sensory experience.
In my last post, Writer’s Block? Mine the Richness In Your Own Backyard, I shared how I have spent my winter snowshoeing around our homestead. Ironically, while I am a native of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I have never been fond of winter. That was until I started snowshoeing. While my primary goal is exercise and stress relief, I cannot help feeling that I am “Filling the Well” to borrow a phrase from Julia Cameron’s, The Artist’s Way.
When I strap my snowshoes on to burn hundreds of calories, I am also tuning in, memorizing, and categorizing colors, sounds, shapes, fragrances, and textures. It’s true, I even snowshoe with the sensibility of a writer. While I am trudging through the snow I am keeping a deft eye on the landscape, and even though I usually stick to the same path, every day the scenery is different. The snow is never the same shade of white and even the snowbanks are malleable and are shaped by the elements. One day they are choppy from plowing and the next day the peaks are smoothed by the wind like a piece of Lake Superior beach glass tossed by the waves. One day the snow is a flawless, glistening sheet and the next day the surface of the snow wears sparkling grooves and flowing ripples.
As a writer I have what I call my, “Monet Moments”. When I want to experience the world with a new lens. Mid-February I was watching the blues set in at night (on many levels). I wanted to snowshoe at dusk to experience the optical effects of light up close and personal and not just from the mudroom window. I have a trail carved around our pasture and approximately three and a half times around is a mile.
One night when I set out, the sky was blushing a sheer rose with a hint of lavender. Within minutes every snow covered surface was cast with an ethereal blue tint. It was the same trail that I frequented daily. However, on most nights I snowshoe after dinner and since it gets dark early I wear my headlamp. On this particular evening, I wanted to live with intention and experience a moment in tune with nature. While the purple and blue quickly faded, I could not help marveling in what a beautiful world we live in.
The blues of February set in dark and deep. Winter’s heart. Blue veined shadows throb across snowbanks. An ancient voice glistens like gaudy sapphire jewels to stare me down. A deep and sacred silence. Bare branches shiver with faceted sparks hinting at spring’s promise. Ushers of hope. Indelible moment. Winter’s bruised paradox.
When my students roll their eyes when I assign a new piece of writing, it is my job to try to convince them that they will rewarded for their efforts and that what they gain goes far beyond a grade that I assign. I acknowledge that I understand writing is work – it takes patience and diligence. Not everyone in my classroom will publish poems or novels and aspire to become a teacher, professor, professional writer or a blogger. Yet, viewing the world – as a writer – trains us to experience the world differently. It forces us to pay attention. Once our senses are opened as a writer – they can never be closed again and that makes us more astute, sensitive, and engaged human beings. Becoming a writer means looking at the ordinary and everyday things in our life through a magnifying glass. As human beings we are immersed in communication and writing helps make our thoughts tangible. This act of creation becomes as individual as our fingerprint.
I think in the age of digital technology, where much of our lives are dominated by screen time, that engagement is more important than every before. We are so focused on instant gratification that we have forgotten to step back and appreciate. To watch and wait. We neglect to see the nuances that the world offers up. I am thankful that I saw myself as a writer at a young age because it has helped me to find my balance and focus on the positive even during challenges and struggles. It has helped me become a seeker of beauty and wisdom and has taught me to look for patterns and see that everything in the world is connected.
My writing challenge to you over the next few days is to participate in a commonplace activity with the sensibility of a writer and artist. Whether you are baking bread or taking your dog for a walk – open up your senses. Leave your cell phone behind so you can have an uninterrupted experience or use it as a writing tool to capture images (sometimes taking a photo gives us an excuse to stop and focus). When you are out in public eavesdrop and listen to conversations. Listen to an individual’s diction and the melody of laughter. Watch the sun cast shadows and the play of branches on a snowbank, building, or sidewalk. Wake up early on the weekend and watch the sun rise blister the sky with color. Pay attention to how nimbly the horizon washes into new hues as it dissolves into pale morning light. Take a walk at dusk or at twilight. Fill your creative well and make discoveries about both humble and pretentious spaces and things. When you are a writer your practice is portable and your writer’s sensibility goes wherever you go.
Who knows, like me, you may make the revelation (after forty-seven years) that there is beauty where you least expected it — such as in the mid-winter blues of February. The writer in me is thankful for the experiences that I had as a teenager that shaped me. Such as art teachers like Mrs. Sherby and the paintings of Monet.
I would love to hear from you as you bear witness to your creative spark. What has inspired you recently? What fuels your inner artist? What is a lesson that you have learned about writing? Please share your insight and wisdom.
Do not forget to check out my sister blog where I share healthy lifestyle tips and recipes: Produce with Amy