September 17, 2014

Sustaining Creativity: A Review of Madelyn Kent’s Sense Writing I: Memory, Life Stories & Fiction. ~ Coriel O’Shea Gaffney

sense writing

“Compose it in your body, and bring it in your mouth.” ~ Marie Howe

Before our final class of “Sense Writing I: Memory, Life Stories and Fiction,” Madelyn Kent, playwright, director, teacher and developer of the approach, asked us to watch a Tedx talk.

The presenter was a Quantum Computer Scientist by the name of Dorit Aharonov. (“Those are the computers that don’t exist yet,” she explains at the start of the lecture.) Like Kent, the Professor had studied the Feldenkrais method of Somatic Education. Ms. Kent employs the principles of Feldenkrais to foster ease and creativity in Sense Writing classes.

Listening to Aharonov’s talk was like being handed a key to a lock I’d been picking for six weeks.

In the following, illuminating excerpt, she explains what she views as the consequences of muscling toward a goal:

“We lose lot from [a] forceful approach. I strongly believe that all scientific discoveries, great or small, can be boiled down to a very small step of maybe a twist or a rotation around what you thought before; or looking at things from a different angle; or making an unexpected connection…Maybe you’re putting too much energy in the direction that you expect things to move.”

I registered for Sense Writing at an especially challenging time in my life. I was trying to get through each day without bursting into tears or quitting my job or getting completely trapped in a self-loathing mental loop. I felt like a victim of what Yogis call Samskara, stuck in the deep grooves of habit.

So I would walk in every Tuesday evening straight from work, leave my boots by the door and lie down on the carpeted floor of the space Kent rents only to feel my heart thrumming wildly, my jaw seized, and my head racing with a thousand “should haves” and “to dos.”

As a practitioner of Yoga and Creative Writing I am no stranger to mindfulness, body-mapping or meditation. But I, like most humans, have my own struggles with these disciplines. And Feldenkrais, new to me, coupled with the challenges I was facing, coaxed some old monsters to rear their heads.

Kent would say, “Feel your sitting bones. Which one feels heavier?” and I’d mentally respond “the left.” She’d say, “Don’t do anything, just notice.” But I would have already shifted around to demand symmetry of my hyper and exhausted form.

She’d say, “Notice your breath but don’t change anything” and I’d let out a long, rattling sigh. Then I’d try to correct my correction, return to the erroneous and natural way things were. Each generous instruction to simply become more aware of various aspects of my physicality resulted in a panicked struggle to become better.

And so it is with writing.

I hold a Masters in Fine Arts and have taught college level writing classes for years. I have put a lot of pressure on myself to write prolifically and well and I’ve never felt I was as accomplished as I should be.

In my pursuit to be better, I tend to freeze up and do less.

Courtesy of author Coriel O'Shea Gaffney

Writing can feel like a cycle of guilt and shame.

How easily I forget what compelled me on this path: the love of it; the sheer pleasure of rubbing words against words and watching them spark. When I signed up for Sense Writing, I suspected that these workshops might invite me to return to that love.

I don’t know if Madelyn Kent would call herself a minimalist but I would. From the get-go, she offered very few explanations or justifications. And yet I felt in extremely capable hands. Kent lets the process do the talking. She says nothing extraneous and nothing disingenuous. Her voice is self-possessed and soothing.

When she does offer commentary, it is astute and pithy. Borrowing from Feldenkrais, she says, “This work is about finding our comfort zone and making it more comfortable.”In a society that reinforces, over and over, “No pain, no gain” this sounded like a radical idea. Kent’s workshop challenged struggle’s worth and reminded me of the original impulse that led me to make my life about writing.

Every other class, we generated new material using the surrealist’s simple and evocative automatic writing prompt (“I remember”) or wrote from our senses in the moment (“I see, I hear, I smell, I taste, I feel”).

Sometimes the prompts embraced the arbitrary—write about a hotel, write about bike-riding. It was all meant to stimulate memory and uncomplicated creativity and to silence the knee-jerk critic in our heads.

In between generating new material, we would edit. Of the revision process, Kent had this to say: “Rewriting is re-experiencing” and “Content is important but process is more important.” To drain it of its grave undertones, Kent even substituted the word revisit for revise. Revisit this experience. Let it unfold further. Describe its new shape.

I was surprised and pleased by what I wrote, both its quality and its content.

I wrote about my first New York apartment, a canvassing job I’d held. I wrote about poverty, the taste of Gingerale, my mother’s illness, my uncle’s death. I wrote about playing make-believe with my sister in a swimming pool as a child. I wrote to my husband, to the kids with whom I was working, to strangers.

Sense Writing offers a fresh approach to writing.

It becomes less about risk than ease. Rather than trying to write about the big stuff, we were advised to linger in the moments before the moment. Rather than trying to invent characters, we were invited to let setting yield them. We were instructed to hover over a place, to imagine being in that moment, lying on our backs, eyes closed and see it from various angles. To allow for unconscious connections. To let the story emerge.

A writer is never finished, only dead-lined or blocked or between projects.

There may be a certain inevitable “sadness” that accompanies this occupation. But that doesn’t mean you can’t delight in the process; get lost in the flow; learn to be less self-serious; or, at the very least, find glimpses of joy and ease as you create.

“If you practice struggle,” Kent warned one evening, “the only practice is struggle.” That comment, triple-underlined in my notes, really resonated with me. Her closing advice was equally profound: “Make space for the smarter part of yourselves.”

What did I find during those six weeks? It is there, that smarter self. Fellow humans, fellow writers, I suggest you meet your own.


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Apprentice Editor: Carrie Marzo / Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photos: Author’s own

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Coriel O'Shea Gaffney