In this season, we are—worldwide—being called to surrender. We have been forced to surrender the freedom to gather, the freedom to move around, and for some of us, the freedom to work. As the death toll continues to rise, and the stories of those who have lost their lives to this virus have been circulating, we are being pushed deeper into isolation. There are no words sufficient to soothe those who have lost loved ones, no words that can provide solace to those who have been unable to gather to honor the passing of friends and family. These are profoundly strange times.
As life smacks us around, we are forced to accept and admit that our efforts frequently have limited power. We can’t make the virus disappear, yet we can work to contain its spread through our individual choices. This is the great paradox of life: our sphere of influence is so small, but simultaneously so large. As the years roll on, we become intimate with the ways that life demands our surrender. You can’t continue on your life’s journey without surrendering expectations, surrendering fears, surrendering time. And little by little, we learn that we can cause significant outcomes through the repetition of small, continuous action.
Ultimately life is an exercise in surrender, and surrender is an exercise in trust. The further along I travel into this artist journey, the more deeply I understand that I can’t evolve as an artist without surrendering beliefs about what kind of art I’m going to make or what kind of artist I’m going to be. There is no artistic evolution without accepting the necessity of rough and imperfect drafts. There is no acquisition of mastery without being able to sit in the developmental stages of your work.
When I was in Atlanta some years ago promoting Ancient, Ancient, a college student asking, “How can I write something original?” He thought his writing was derivative and he wanted to find his own voice. I told him, “Don’t worry about trying to be original, focus on learning how to write. Work on your foundational skills and trust that by the time you have a firm grip on craft, your voice will emerge.” In other words, surrender to being a student.
As artmakers, it is so easy to focus on who we want to be, and in so doing, overlook who we are. It is very American to “do your own thing,” but it can be very stressful to be set free to be creative before you have the tools to create. Visiting a Waldorf school, I was introduced to an education system where there are no text books. The students record their notes in booklets that meld art with education. And when they study art, they follow the teacher’s instruction closely for years. This goes against the grain of every individualistic impulse that says artists should do their own thing. The Waldorf instructor giving me the tour said that they believe in the apprenticeship model. They determine what the students will create while students are learning control of color, and line, and form. Then she showed me some high school students’ work. They had created these profoundly detailed scientific drawings. Having spent many foundational years studying the craft, they had the tools to later express their own original ideas.
Writer adrienne marie brown talks about referring to the work of other thinkers in this way. “It’s humbling in the way I can learn from [other people’s] thinking and push myself and my communities to go further in our own thinking and practice. …. Individual success is a lie. Collective innovation is a necessity.” Collective innovation as a developmental tool for creativity and craft is an interesting exercise for growing writers. During this quarantine, I was drawn back to two specific experiences where I followed the lead of more developed artists to find new ways to flex my own creativity.
One of my MFA instructors, Chris Abani—a super dynamic writer and instructor—peppered his workshops with challenging writing exercises and great reading selections. In his poetry class, I crafted a poem called O Saída do Ilê, based on a Kwame Dawes poem. (You can read more about Ilê Aiyê in the last four paragraphs of this travel post.) My first draft of the poem, I literally followed Dawes’s phraseology, line by line. Then after I sat with it, my own thoughts and ideas rose up to replace his wording with my own rhythms and phrasing. His poem was the catalyst and medium through which mine emerged.
In another of Abani’s workshops, I was inspired by Marguerite Duras’s super short, super spare novel The Malady of Death to write a creative piece that would eventually become my short story “The Malady of Need.” In The Malady of Death, Duras creates an emotionally challenging world with a daring economy of prose and evocative language. Featuring two unnamed characters, the novel’s poetic ambiguity centers on the friction/contradiction between the desire for love/connection and emotional distance. Speaking of the man looking at the woman, Duras writes: “You look at this shape, and as you do so you realize its infernal power, its abominable frailty, its weakness, the unconquerable strength of its incomparable weakness.”
I was captured by both Duras’s language and the fractured relationship the text describes. Experimenting with the story’s second person “would have” tense, I dove into my own description of a couple dancing around emotional distance and contradictory intimacy. The outcome was deeply personal. I loved the story, but never planned to publish it, but as adrienne marie brown writes in Emergent Strategies “Nothing is wasted, or a failure.” Ten years later, I returned to “The Malady of Need,” rewrote the setting as a futuristic prison and published it in my second collection, When the World Wounds.
Despite its brevity, the story is quite heavy. So when reading it in public, I often paired it with Debris. I actually consider the entire collection dark, but Sherese Francis describes When the World Wounds as exploring how “the outside forces of the world can break open spaces that lead to the displacement and restructuring of the body, of the self, of identify, and place.” Something we are all dealing with right now.
Ultimately, surrender is a difficult and tricky practice. It is about letting something other than your will dominate (and paradoxically, it often takes all our will to surrender). One pleasurable way to surrender your will is to color someone else’s work. Here are some free coloring pages from artist Oju Ayo. (Use code SHLOVE20 at checkout). For a more challenging exploration of surrender, choose a poem or story that resonates with you and write your own version. Surrender to your fumbles and failures and stick with it. As adrienne marie brown writes: “Relinquish perfection, because it truly isn’t possible, at least not for long. Laugh at your missteps and mistakes, and then learn and keep playing the game.” Any expression of creativity creates a tiny expansion of the soul! As we continue navigate the unknown, I wish you the best as we all move through this collective journey of surrender.
Be well. Be love(d).