I’m currently attending the annual conference of the Canadian Association for Theatre Research (CATR) on the gorgeous UVic campus in Victoria, British Columbia.
This morning we kicked off with a keynote by playwright and performance-maker Marie Clements; Maris is a Metis/Dene artist whose spectacularly magical-realist plays have featured prominently on my Canadian Drama courses over the past few years. She’s also an utterly inspiring speaker. Her topic this morning was “A Creator’s Guide to the Unknown”; she cheekily began by telling us all that she’d duped us – there’s no guide to be had. Sipping her water and settling in at the podium, she then offered up a beguiling riff on the subject of what it takes not just to create art in her/our world right now, but to survive, creatively, this life we share. I took a lot of notes (not something I do much at conferences any more), because the more she spoke the more I heard echoes not only to my current research interests, but especially to my teaching and learning practice. I’d like to share here three of the most valuable insights I pocketed at Marie’s talk this morning.
1. It’s important to bring your baggage to creation.
A few of my colleagues were chatting this morning before breakfast about how powerful students’ anxieties can be. And ours too! We work in a creative industry, and I don’t just mean because we’re all theatre professors and students, driven by the impulse to perform. We are creative when we make performance, to be sure, but we are also creative when we write scholarly papers about performance (or anything else). It’s true: scholarly labour is creative labour, and a scholar’s writer’s block is no less severe than a novelist’s or a playwright’s.
I have been absolutely defeated by writer’s block in the past. When it comes upon me, it stems from the fear that I will never be able to get down on paper in any kind of coherent fashion the ideas swirling chaotically in my brain. And I know I’m not alone in this fear and in my encounters with its attendant inertia. (Did I mention I’ve been writing this great book about contemporary realist performance for, oh, about four years now?) One way to get over this stuff is, as Marie notes, to bring your baggage along: not to ignore it, or to try to forget about it, or to hope it goes away – but to reckon with it. Talk with peers, friends, teachers and mentors about it. Acknowledge that what we are doing is hard, intellectual, creative labour, and requires us, sometimes, to dig deeply into our own selves in order to make critical connections and face painful ghosts. I might not be writing about those ghosts, but do not think they aren’t bugging me while I’m sitting there not writing. Do not try to pretend the bags away – that has never worked. Zip them open.
2. The most important thing is to keep the pace.
Marie told us that she tells her young mentees to write for three hours a day. Or, if that’s not possible, to sit in front of the computer/paper/desk/whatever for that period of time, and just try. Write something. Write crap if it’s crap you think you’re writing; something may or may not be salvaged, but the act of writing itself is never, ever a loss.
I’ve only recently come to recognise this advice as wisdom; I always thought that I was one of those people who wrote best in blitz form, after the crucial research was done. But, hey, did I mention that book I’m writing? Right now the blitz just isn’t working; I’ve taken, as those of you who read my summer strategies post back in April know, to doing 60-90 minutes a day, outside term time, of core work on stuff that scares me. So far so good; in fact, so much so that I know this is advice – in slightly modified form, of course – that I’ll be passing on to undergraduates in the autumn. Got four papers due in the next three weeks? That’s ok; work on each for half an hour a day. You’ll get there. Just keep the pace.
3. A huge part of surviving is knowing what not to be afraid of.
Fear can keep us from doing a lot of stuff: we all know this, right? This morning, Marie reminded us how important it is to embrace fear. Getting used to fear – what it feels like, what it can do, what it can’t do – is part of living, she told us; instead of trying to control fear, why not train ourselves to live with it, to experience it “as a tool” that will help us get what we need? The only way to know what is not worth my fear is to allow myself to feel fear when needed, and to be ok with it.
This is superb advice for any teacher – for example, I need to allow myself to be afraid in the moment just before I walk into my classroom, so that I can experience the care, the concern for my students, that fear signifies, and so that I can not be afraid when I’m actually standing in front of them – but it’s also ideal advice for anyone engaged in a process of active learning. I’ve written in this space already about the value of sitting in the presence of failure, feeling it and observing it rather than trying to control it and make it go away. I think Marie’s advice to feel fear, embrace it, and then use that fear-feeling as a tool to move forward productively is of a piece with my thinking about failure as a valuable feature of any teaching and learning experience.
What does it mean to use fear as a tool of learning? I suspect it’s about understanding proactively how much power resides in fear, and about knowing that fear can make you do useful, mindful things as well as lousy ones. Marie’s examples this morning tended toward her family’s experience of working in the natural world: when you are hunting animals, for example, or working on the land you need to know what things – storms, predators, certain plants – warrant your fear, so that you can know where safely to step, where to take shelter, how to protect yourself. Fear, embraced and accepted, provides a clear path forward: step here but not here; take this action instead of that action. In my role as a teacher, feeling fear in a mindful way can help me to make a good classroom plan, and to execute it knowing that I’m doing something to help myself out of stress’s way. Feeling fear mindfully may help me to develop systems for being more adaptable in the classroom, so that when I’m shaken I can stand up again, acknowledge the shakiness, and keep going. In my role as a researcher, feeling fear in a mindful way may help me to try out new strategies for curbing the anxiety that a big block of writing labour produces in my imagination. It may help me to give myself a break when one strategy doesn’t work, knowing there’s another yet to be attempted. Or perhaps it may help me simply to be kinder to myself, to remind myself that many of my colleagues and peers feel this same fear, and that we all, every day, survive it anyway.
Not being mindful of fear may prompt the opposite actions, and those actions may become ruts, roadblocks, perhaps even catastrophes. I want to avoid those – and I want my students to avoid them, too. Here, then, is to unzipping that baggage, embracing that fear, and keeping the pace. Advice for teachers and students young and old, from a tremendous artist and a gifted human being.