Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Lia Purpura on Imagination

(This essay, like the others published this week, was originally presented as part of the AWP 2017 panel “Imagining the Essay” with Rebecca McClanahan, Ander Monson, and Lauret Savoy.) 


Well, everything’s changed, hasn’t it. At this very moment, I feel a sense of terrific urgency and a sharpening of alertness; I’m scouring, as never before, the worth, intention, purpose, and role of my work and my teaching. This is a necessary and constant task of course, but one that requires a new kind of attention to the forces bent on decimating the commonwealth. Today I’m going to speak as a writer who teaches and I’m going to talk about imagination, and the cultivating of it in the context of this historical moment, wherein language is being dangerously and concertedly macerated, and where the truth is being perverted, and for good measure, shredded. How to teach in such a climate?
     We are accustomed to calling up good content—the poem, story or essay as anti-toxin approach. This is important. More important than what to teach our students, though, may be how we teach them—specifically, how we communicate what they’re being trained for. I’m proposing that we consciously discuss with our students not just the value of Poetry or the Essay or Fiction, but that we discuss the values students are upholding by practicing as writers and readers. So this goes out to all of you who are teaching and working to articulate what you do in broader, more public ways. (I’m slanting towards undergrads but you can extrapolate.) Let’s be unabashed about the term “values” and haul it back from those forces that have profoundly narrowed its meaning, appropriated it, and politicized it. The values of art-making are among the most humane I know, and I want my students to understand exactly what it is they’re upholding and building and creating by being involved in art creation.
     In general, I make it a point to teach my students to live like writers, which includes teaching them practices that openly resist the forces of noncommital irony, unchecked consumerism, passive perception, and inherited assumptions about who’s stance and subjects “matter.”
     At the beginning of each semester, I ask them to assent to a practice for those 14 weeks—not in order to make professional writers out of them, but to confirm that there exist ways of being and habits of mind that will feed them for the rest of their lives in ways they can’t even imagine right now, and so they undestand that the act of creation is open to them, and is not some rarified realm for experts. I am direct about this and I make these claims openly: I say these practices will feed you for the rest of your lives in ways you can’t even imagine right now, and the act of creation is open to you. It is free, it is yours and it is powerful. So here are some of the practices I teach, and the values I associate with them and openly discuss with my students—3 points.

1. Keeping a Journal and The Problems of Perception

The practice of keeping a journal helps students recognize, take seriously, and make use of shades of perception. These back of the head thoughts, flashes of image and insight, unworded emotion are the first to be compromised by a “goal oriented” society—or currently, by a totalitarian leaning one. The culture at large generally devalues roaming and dreaming and conjuring. Much that isn’t quickly identified as potentially “useful” gets jettisoned. The first step is to teach how to recognize worthy inklings and then confirm that it takes work to keep these thought-realms alive. Keeping a writer’s journal shows how to protect a young, green idea from critical pruning too early on. I give explicit and daily assignments in how to perceive or what to think on, look at, look for, remember, and then how to notate quickly and unselfconsiously and how to keep it all organized in once spot. We read aloud from these assignments in class to show our different angles of entry, we listen for both exciting subjects and language moments, and I spin out for them how an image or perception might work itself into further complexity or depth—in other words, I make up stuff in front of them. I imagine ways in to a poem or essay—I “what if” my way through on the black board with them. I remind students that work spins out from the smallest moments. I confirm that pressure to set forth “big ideas” stifles and tanks the free imaginiation in search of idea.
     But in addition to imagining into their words, I talk about the ways that contemporary life makes perceiving and imagining really hard. I’ve always know this was important but an impromptu moment last semester illustrated this very clearly. There was an amusing, triggering event for this but I won’t go into it here….I asked my class to put their phones on the desk and empty their pockets, and instructed them to go outside and walk, look, just notice stuff, pay attention for 20 minutes, by themselves, without stopping to talk to anyone, then come back to class. What they had to say was pretty shocking. One woman said walking over dry leaves startled her terribly because she always had earbuds in and was totally unaccustomed to other sounds. Another said it was so unexpectedly bright out because she was looking up and not down at her phone; similarly another said she couldn’t even get herself into an upright position because she was usually bent over texting which she realized looked in others like the “posture of depression”. One guy reported a “quiet screaming in his head” because “I always mange to distract my mind with music because I’m too afraid to hear my own thoughts”. One said she felt as she hadn’t in years, like a child, and “she remembered how green the grass was and everything felt new upon inspection.” Yet another said “I was suddenly able to look at things around me and see how small I was in this world which I know should be terrifying but for me was calming. I enjoyed the peace so much that I’m actually craving it now as I’m talking about it.” And “I felt completely naked without my phone but it was an unexpected great feeling to find out I had my thoughts to accompany me.”
     So, while we as teachers and writers know we’re up against the forces of techno-distraction in many forms, I want to show my students how those forces actually manifest, and it’s a whole lot more potent if they themselves see how distraction and mediation manifest, than if you harp on them about it. (Show them exactly what they’re up against and exactly how to notice and counter that.)

2. How to Think About Time in Revision and Reading

I've talked about teaching students how to perceive, and how to recognize the impediments to perceiving. Now, about how to work with Art time. Art-making reframes time in profound ways. Art comes into being over a kind of time that’s mighty different than the urgencies students are accustomed to, and have to adapt themselves to (production, efficiency, evaluatives). I want them to understand revision as the practice of “working with time”. I lay out the different kinds of time they might encounter. There’s the rare gift piece that just descends whole, say in the shower—though I confirm that the daily practice of sitting down to it lays the ground for the gift’s arrival. I talk about the whittle and build methods of incorporating others’ comments. I have them write something on the first day and I hold it till the end of the semester and ask them to revisit it and what can happen when you let something sit for a long time—how you either lose total contact with it or it snaps quickly into place. I bring in 20 drafts of a totally failed piece of mine that just had to be let go. Or that got utterly rerouted. In other words, I want to make explicit for them the many things that can happen with time. Why is this important? This shows a way of imagining creation and collaboration which runs contrary to a reliance on singular, immediate fixes. You might also use this sort of discussion to teach a wariness about any one singular solution, any one claiming that he “alone has the power to fix our problems.” Similarly, as we know, poems, essays, stories need to be read very differently than other words on the page: repeatedly, slowly, for seepage. Not for informational gist or fact gathering. So many students sort of sheepishly admit “they had to read a thing 3 times before it really sank in”—I let them know this is exactly right according to Art values and art time and that art asks exactly this of you, and this kind of time is worthwhile and lets you be a slow grower, not a quick gulper. Take any opportunity available to point out occasions for depth over gist.

3. Workshop as a Way of Thinking and Being

Give explicit instructions for workshop that accord with the values of the free imagination and the drive to maintain that freedom for all. So you might say in your instructions that “the goal of a workshop is to see what a piece itself wants to be and help it grow into its best self. Not make the piece what you want it to be.” Once that language is posted, and persistent reminders laid in, it can be used and referred to by students and it becomes a ground of shared reasoning. Workshops are complicated - -so many “issues” roiling around. I’m sidelong addressing the “self-assigned gatekeeper issue,” those students bent on adjudicating what’s “proper art” tonally and subject wise—and this is done either overtly or it’s unwittingly coded and maintained by the consent of a majority aesthetic. You can read in depth about one form of this in Claudia Rankine’s profound article in last fall’s AWP ChronicleIn Our Way: Racism in Creative Writing." Some of my language directions include not using the phrase “I want” as in “I want the father here to do x or y”or “I want more of...”—not only is this the language of unfettered//grabby consumerism, a kind of personal pan pizza approach, but it’s language that short changes critical thought. It’s really not about what you want (and who are you anyway?) There are things other than “wanting” at stake here. I say. We teach forms of imaginative entering –empathy—by way of the very language and stances and roles we ask students to use or avoid—but these need to be well defined and our reasoning behind them made clear. So yes, I know “I want” is shorthand, but again I’m emphasizing the issue of time, and the importance of confirming how long it takes to fully articulate thought on behalf of the work.


I mean to encourage you to articulate the values at the heart of the practices you’re already likely teaching and present those values as central to the health of imaginative behavior. I hope to give my students a language for this subtler register of perception, and confirm what they already suspect: that those realms and registers, the ones that come on hazy and grow slowly are not only worthwhile, but are in fact where the deepest roots of civically important values like empathy, curiosity, tenacity, surprise, justice, historical contextualizing, and so on, are planted. And it’s the realm where spirit lives, and where the ineffable finds its body. Though students may have a sense of why their work matters to them, I’m trying to help them sustain a sense of the practice of art as a way to uphold a humane, creative society—one that we are all in danger of losing if we do not actively tend to its best and most powerful features.


Lia Purpura is the author of 8 collections of essays, poems, and translations. Her awards include a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, NEA and Fulbright Fellowships, and four Pushcart prizes. On Looking (essays) was finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her poems and essays appear in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Orion, The Paris Review, FIELD, and elsewhere. She lives in Baltimore, MD and is Writer in Residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County. It Shouldn’t Have been Beautiful, her new collection of poems, has recently been published by Viking/Penguin.

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