Mary Anne Mohanraj doesn’t need a shout-out on my blog, but I have to give it. To me, Mary Anne is the epitome of the working creative writer. Engagement is her way of life.

I first met her at the orientation for new graduate students at the U of U lo, these many (almost 15) years ago. For me, getting through our doctoral program required an unsustainable level of focus (hence an extended leave of absence between coursework and exams). I felt a bit of envy and also the hope of new possibilities when I saw that she had a different way of doing our program, one that included weekend jaunts to California, time to make music and crafts, and a generally easier (but no less determined) vibe all around. I kept her in mind as I returned to prepare for my exams, making sure I made room in my week and my mind to take pleasure in the process.

We swapped stories in Fiction workshops and ideas over coffee & the occasional lemon bar at Cucina’s. The giant ficus she couldn’t take to Chicago still flourishes in my house. And I will always be grateful to her for lending me a stack of Harry Potter novels when I really, really needed to remember what I loved about Story.

She’s had an impact on my life, in other words, and I’m grateful for it.

Now this creative force for good has cancer and, like the writer she is, she’s writing about it here. I love that she’s turning her light on this experience–brave! brave! brave!–and sharing her insights with the world.

I encourage you to check it out.

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…to draw a heart. By the way, at about heart #3 my inner slacker started pointing out that I would probably run out of ideas by heart #5, and that would be pushing it. I’m glad the rest of my inner committee decided to vote down the slacker, because this is maybe my favorite heart of all, and it came in at #14 in the proceedings, inspired by my younger son:

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That’s not what my son looks like (most of the time, anyway). He just happens to like monsters. A lot. And here are some more–posted not as examples of fine art (NOT the point of an ART DARE), but in case a little variety inspires you to try one, five, fifteeen of your own… As ever, if you want to share your ART DARE with me, you can reach out via the Comments here or @jenngibbs on Twitter. Dare to have some fun with art!

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For the past several weeks, I’ve been keeping a promise to myself to make more room in my life for art of all kinds. Last weekend, I was blown away by the Tanner Dance Program‘s showcase, In A-Chord, with performances by dance groups ranging from itsy bitsy ballerinas to the dramatic ensemble work of The Tipping Point teen company. As a bonus, the music—mostly live, much of it original composition by members of Salt Lake Alternative Percussion (SLAP)—added to the dynamism of the show.

I’ve also been sketching, though after all the structured effort it took me to get through the last two years (studying for doctoral comps) and a wicked bout of carpal tunnel syndrome, I haven’t had any interest in pulling out my long-neglected paints and taking on any capital-p Projects. Instead, I’ve been having fun just sketching and scrawling with cheapie markers on whatever paper happens to be on hand. Sometimes all I can think to do is decorate the letters I use when writing the date in my journal.

Guess my delight in finding (during a Sunday bookstore browse) Jenny Doh’s Creative Lettering: Techniques and Tips from Top Artists. The diverse styles of the artists got me thinking about how I could experiment further with my own letter-doodles, and that got me thinking about how fun it is to make art-stuff just because. Because you want to see some color. Because you like seeing one line lead to another. Because your hands need to show you they sometimes know better than your brain. Because art for its own sake is part of a life worth living.

So, thanks to Tanner Dance and Jenny Doh, Invisible Sun is launching a series of ART DARES. I invite you to try them out and/or invent your own and share them through the Comments on this blog or via Twitter with #ARTDARE (and, pretty please, @jenngibbs so I’m sure to see it).

What’s an ART DARE? It’s an invitation to take however much time you wish to play around with art. The dare is to listen to & follow your inspiration without worrying about whether or how what you create measures up. For some of us this is a very, very hard thing to do. So, I double-dog dare you to try.

Part of the joy of recently completing my doctoral exams (and I passed! yea!) is having more time for fun service projects, like team-teaching a Third Grade class with my lovely husband, poet Dave Hawkins. On Tuesday, we got the kids to write haiku poems focusing on an image or mood they associated with a winter holiday. Dave did a great job introducing the writing project, and we each took on helping a different half of the class as they drafted their poems.

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On Thursday, we returned to the class to help the kids turn their poems into teddy bear ornaments. It took me a short time (and several versions) to develop the design, then about two hours to hand-copy and cut enough bears and bows for the whole class. Dave helped me prep the kits, including stringing the yarn through the bears’ heads. It was well worth the effort: the kids had a great time with the activity and, at the end, were eager to stand up and read their poems to the class.

To save time by reducing the need for clean-up, we used glue dots and sticker-backed embellishments (gem stickers) for the eyes. To improve the longevity of the projects, I sprung for acid-free papers. It helped that I found the acid-free brown cardstock on clearance, but in any case, I know I’ll use the extra. That said, this project can easily be done less expensively with construction paper or even repurposed chipboard (i.e., a cereal box).

INSTRUCTIONS

Materials & such to create 1 kit:

Black permanent marker

Cardstock

Light-colored, patterned paper

Gem stickers

Glitter paper (or any contrasting paper)

Glue dots (very helpful for classroom)

Hole punch

Plastic/paper bag, small

Scissors

Yarn

Steps:

  1. Trace the outline of a bear onto cardstock. (Feel free to copy/adapt mine if you’d like.)
  2. With the black marker, outline the bear’s body and draw features such as the face, ears, and paws.
  3. Cut out the bear, including cuts under the bear’s front paws.
  4. Punch a hole at the top of the bear’s head and thread it with a loop of yarn. Set aside.
  5. To create the placard for the poem, cut a rectangle of decorative paper (large enough to hold a haiku, small enough to fit when tucked under the bear’s arms). Make enough so that kids can have a new one if they mess up. Set aside.
  6. Cut a bow out of glitter paper. (Hint: Make sure the center of the bow is a little larger than the size of your glue dots.) Set aside.
  7. Assemble the kits: one bear, one placard, one bow. Add sticker sheets if you have them. My gem stickers were on such small sheets, I couldn’t cut them up and I couldn’t afford a whole sheet per kit.

Xmas Bear Ornament

INSTRUCTIONS – DURING THE EVENT

Materials and such:

Kit

Crayons/markers for coloring

Marker for writing (fine-tipped, dark-colored ink)

Scrap paper

Stickers (optional)

Steps

  1. Show a completed version of the project, pointing out that the bow can be on the bear’s head or at the bear’s neck, or anywhere else the kids want to put it or nowhere at all. It’s their bear.
  2. Get the kids to practice writing their poems with their markers on scrap paper as you pass out the kits. Assure the nervous ones that legibility, not perfection, is the aim. When the kids are ready, direct them to write their poems on the decorative paper.
  3. As the kids complete their poems, have them decorate their bears using crayons, markers, and stickers. I walked around delivering gem stickers for the bears’ eyes while Dave walked around doling out glue dots for the bows and to hold the placards in place once the bears were all done. Watch out for kids who want more than their share of stickers to put on their earlobes, unless you have plenty, in which case, who cares?
  4. Hold a rapid-fire holiday haiku reading party!

There’s a lot to hate about reality TV. Even if you avoid the shows that feature alliances and gossip, the declarations “Go big or go home” and “Failure is not an option” seem as central to the genre as the premise that these are real people doing real things. Setting aside the role of constructed events, failure is an option. Saying otherwise doesn’t guarantee success. And spouting clichés during breakaway spots doesn’t infuse a ritual challenge with drama—it just makes you sound like somewhere behind the scenes, a producer is saying, “You sound too wishy-washy. Can you say, ‘I’ll crush these losers’? No? How about ‘go big or go home’?”

Despite my dislike for reality TV in general, a couple of years ago, I got hooked on Food Network’s Chopped. At first, I was just looking to watch something relaxing that wouldn’t require a channel change each time a young kid walked through the livingroom. Then I noticed similarities between my life as a grad student and the chefs on the show.

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the premise. Each episode begins with four chefs and “chops” one chef per course—appetizer, entrée, dessert—to get a winner. Every round is strictly timed and starts with the contestants opening a picnic basket of mismatched ingredients. Then they cook a dish that includes these Mystery Ingredients and whatever they need from a well-stocked pantry. The Mystery items can lead to some amazing innovations (gummy worms melted down and acidified with balsamic vinegar for a vinaigrette) and some horrible-sounding failures.

Like comprehensive exams, the challenges require the chefs to come prepared to improvise. From what I’ve gathered from watching more episodes of this show than I should admit, those who emerge as Chopped Champions generally arrive having internalized such a range of recipes, techniques, and ingredients (some very esoteric) that they can swiftly unite the random ingredients in pleasing arrangements. Some of the chefs say they prepare by practicing various recipes beforehand; others have traveled extensively or apprenticed themselves to many different master chefs. Whatever they do, they often need to treat at least one Mystery Ingredient as a substitute for a standard ingredient in a familiar recipe.

Another feature of the show that seems relevant as I prep for my qualifying exams is the critique the panel of judges deliver after tasting each chef’s food. The judges often disagree about the merits of the dishes, but they rally around three criteria which are more or less consistently understood:

Taste. It’s arbitrary and conventional, so you should try to understand your judges’ palettes. In one episode, a Chopped chef zealously stuck to her health-conscious cooking style. Had she watched the show before, she would likely have understood that the judges tend toward the “full fat, full flavor” principle. They axed her in round one. Making sure I’m aware of and able to account for my committee member’s perspectives while authoritatively representing my own might be challenging at points, but that’s part of the job, I think.

Creativity. The Chopped judges like being surprised as long as the thread of innovation isn’t pulled to snapping. If a chef calls a squid ink and corn chip dessert French Toast, then the judges will expect it to resemble traditional French Toast*. But if they serve just plain old French Toast, then they get a shrug. This may be more relevant to my field (Literature) than others, but the advice I’ve received from a committee member to “be interesting” as I demonstrate how I’ve engaged with these texts seems relevant here—but, I caution myself, this exam is not the occasion on which I want “interesting” to edge into “incomprehensibly eccentric.”

Presentation. Although no one ever seems to win Chopped because they led the pack in visually engaging plates, this element is sometimes used as a tie-breaker. It’s also used to weed out chefs who simply can’t get their food composed and delivered on time. There’s a lot of latitude given for the chef who manages to get all the required ingredients on the plate in perhaps a less-than-stellar way versus the chef with the pretty plate that lacks Mystery Basket ingredients. From this, I’m thinking—hoping—that even if I don’t answer every exam question as gracefully as I’d like, I’ll still pass to the next round as long as I show I understand my field of inquiry.

I notice other affinities between my position as a Humanities grad student and the chefs. One is that the majority of them appear to have chosen their field out of a genuine love for the alchemy of their work and the good things it makes possible. I keep returning my own love because–to pull another phrase from the Reality TV lexicon–that’s what matters at the end of the day.

Though I want that $10k too.

*Incidentally, far too many chefs on Chopped appear to think French Toast is an acceptable dessert item. It’s not. Even when you call it pain perdu.

Picture a house with broken kitchen cabinets and mouse droppings, cobwebs hanging from the dining room ceiling. Narrow footpaths between stacks of magazines and catalogs. You don’t see food wrappers or pet waste, but the once-beige carpet is stained and splotched, having passed its five-year expiration date four times by now. The aging, almost elderly, couple living here can’t put up a Christmas tree anymore. Guests, when they can’t be turned away, have nowhere to sit in the three-bedroom, three-level house with a separate sub-basement and garage.

This house isn’t from the reality TV show Hoarders. It belongs to my relatives.

I’m working on my PhD in English and American Literature, and as part of this activity I’ve found myself thinking a great deal about Time and The Body, particularly about memory and emotional attachments as embodied by things. I’ve also found myself staring with horrified fascination at the people on Hoarders, thinking there but for the grace…

We moved so many times when I was growing up—abrupt emergency moves, where many of my familiar treasures were lost or left behind—that I’ve become perhaps hyperaware of the paradoxical action a memento can have. It may serve as a root to a nourishing past or as an anchor that impedes your progress into the future. Sometimes both.

Looking at things through the lens of Time, I see the recent yard sale my family had as a sort of temporal recalibration: sure these footie pajamas remind you of a sweet then and you might have a place for this art print in the future, but do you have use or love for this item right now?

Circumstances that ripped from me objects I valued—such as a stint of homelessness when I was twelve—made me prone to processing my feelings and thoughts in writing and painting. They also made me appreciate the simplicity of a clean room, a clean slate, an empty apartment and all the possibilities it could contain. Though twelve-year-old me mourned the loss of my truly extraordinary dress-up box, I came to love being unencumbered too. It helped that I started embodying my attachments with notebooks. They’re much easier to curate than, say, a garage full of my grandparents’ furniture.

But the impulse to gather and keep is still there. As I study, I want to hoard up into my memory every interesting notion and promising line of inquiry I encounter. My physical space may be relatively clutter-free, but part of my labor now is distinguishing the point at which, for me, a rich and fertile collection of ideas becomes a dangerously top-heavy load. It causes me a twinge—sadness—to confront the truth that there are more paths I’d like to follow than there is time for me follow them.

The odor of death is what we want the hoard to disguise.

feedback infographic

CCL: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

When it comes to being a critic of other writers’ works-in-progress, I’ve hit all the points on the continuum from tactful expert to boorish junk show. I’ve been on the receiving end of the gamut of criticism too, and have concluded that criticism of the constructive persuasion emerges only from a shared understanding between artist and critic.

Ideally, critic and creator agree on the kind of feedback that’s called for. For example, some teachers and editors are in the business of achieving a certain quality of performance by a deadline. Their prime directive (a la Jean Luc Picard) does not include pussyfooting around your delicate feelings. The best editors (in my opinion) know how to be honest without causing unnecessary harm (see nonviolent communication), but the assumption is that you, the creator, are so committed to excellence, you’ll set aside your ego and thank them for the chance to make your work better.

Other times, the work’s sole purpose is to express the author’s ideas and feelings. No particular reader in mind. No ad rates to justify. No public to sway. Just one soul out loud. The cancer survivor’s workshop is designed for just this kind of work: using writing to connect with oneself and with other survivors.

But how do you give feedback in this context? Do you just nod and smile? If the creator actually wants suggestions—wants to make sure the work carries its message to an intended audience—then isn’t it a disservice to softball the feedback?

Because participants in the cancer survivor’s workshop have expressed different needs regarding feedback, and ours is a student-centered class to the nth degree, one of my main tasks is to find ways to offer differentiated approaches to feedback. The method I’m using for this group is to ask each creator which she or he prefers after they’ve read their work aloud: No feedback or Two Questions. If the former option is picked, we just say thank you and move on to the next author. If the latter is chosen, we discuss (1) What stood out? And (2) Is there anything one would like more of?

So far, folks seem to be happy with this approach, based on the informal feedback I’ve received. But I’ll be collecting formal feedback on the course this Saturday, and perhaps will learn that adjustments should be made before running a workshop like this again. Well, if that’s the case, I am committed to excellence…

Jorge Rojas, HCI’s “Art Guy” teaching classes to survivors

When Angie dug her fingers into my shoulders, I sighed. When she found the knots of my levator scapulae, even her hands, which were large and corded with muscles, couldn’t press too hard or go too deep. But when it was time for me to lie on my back and she brushed the skin over my clavicle lightly as a dragonfly, I bucked off the table as if she’d jabbed me with a lit match.

As good with the intangible side of massage therapy as with the rest, Angie remained neutral and let me settle back. She asked me about the pressure and we continued: chest, arms, hands, feet, and all the while I was marveling at the sensitivity of such an erstwhile part of my body. It occurred to me I had no memory of anyone having touched my clavicle before. My neck, yes, my boobs, sure. But that unassuming span between the public and private areas of my upper body? At that point in my then-young life, no lover had been inventive enough to be inspired and no medico had cause to linger there. The mere weight of Angie’s attention, expressed by fingertips, had been enough to elicit shock from the cells of my skin.

Another reason I was surprised by my reaction was that the massage therapy was part of a project: I was on-purpose healing a trauma that was both emotional and physical and that (I thought) had nothing whatsoever to do with my upper chest. I’d worked through the emotional stuff—writing, painting and dancing had been instrumental in that—but it’d become clear I’d developed what bodyworkers call holding patterns—habits of movement and tension that develop from a defensive response to a specific situation, like an injury, and become so ingrained, they can ultimately impair the body’s functioning. And so I expected Angie to find numerous imbalances in my back muscles, to advise me on ways to realign my off-kilter hips. I didn’t expect her to give to me a part of myself that had escaped my notice, perhaps for the very reason that it had not been the site of damage.

Over the years, Angie and I have talked about the role of the witness in healing. As a bodyworker, a large part of her job is to create and hold a safe space in which another person can unfold and make discoveries like the one I had.

“Most of my clients would benefit from simply lying down for an hour in the middle of the day but won’t let themselves do it unless they’re paying someone a hundred bucks,” she once said, only half joking.

Her quip made me think of my many experiences on her table. We both knew the value of her skill, which combined hard-earned knowledge of anatomy and physical processes with a deep intuition and excellent training. Without taking anything away from that, I could see what she meant about the simple act of being there for yourself. But I’d done so much of that already, I’d reached a point where I needed to do some of my healing work in the presence of another person, someone I could trust.

She agreed that sometimes having a witness is in itself valuable and went on to describe the labor involved in facilitating a healing experience for someone. Her philosophy, not uncommon in bodyworking, is that her job is to help people get unblocked so their body’s natural process of recovering health can proceed.

I can relate: as a writing instructor, a great deal of my labor goes into setting up a situation in which people feel they have a reason to write, which often includes having a live, present audience for their work. There’s an exchange of energy between the witness and the author; sometimes, that exchange is needed more than suggestions and elaborate discussions of “what’s working” in a given piece.

In the writing workshop for cancer survivors, I’m the Angie. And it’s such a simple thing, the job of a witness. To be there. To listen, not simply hear. To watch. To hold for time, in your consciousness and, in this case, in a collective, a space in which some else can unfold.

Simple, but not always easy.

As I told the group at our first meeting last Saturday, ours isn’t the kind of workshop where we’re pushing each other to reach some external standard, some Platonic ideal of literary production. Those classes exist and can be tremendously useful depending on your goals, but that’s not our agenda. Our aim is to explore, to share, to witness. I know that “good” work can emerge in this context. More importantly for our aims, I know that even if the author is writing about some little happenstance, an image or a moment that has nothing whatsoever to do with their trauma, something very good for them might happen. Through sharing their work with a roomful of compassionate witnesses, they may find a forgotten part of themselves.

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