Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Creative Life: Use Your Hands

Technique Tuesday

If you've been writing for any length of time, there's advice you've probably heard so often that your partner sometimes has to wake you in the middle and tell you to stop mumbling, "Show don't tell," in your sleep. A corollary to that writerly axiom is that we should engage all our reader's senses when showing. So it's deeply ironic that we scribblers often do our work watching screens as we type on keyboards, using as few of our senses and as little of our body as possible.

Austin Kleon's fourth admonition, in his presentation, "How to Steal Like an Artist (and 9 other things nobody told me)," is to Use your Hands:
"So my advice is to find a way to bring your body into your work. Draw on the walls. Stand up when you’re working. Spread things around the table."
When we talk about being fully engaged, we're usually referring to one's attention. But consider times when you've been fully engaged in a physical activity. Perhaps it was the bottom of the ninth, or in the morning cool of the garden, or dancing with a certain someone. In those moments, do you remember thinking about how your were going to move or what you were doing next, or did one movement flow into another?

We've talked about the psychological state of flow--a conceptual analog to superconductivity where the distinction between you and the work blurs, at least in a conscious sense, and everything seems to come together almost effortlessly. Flow is more common when you're physically engaged in an activity. It springs from the joy of feeling fully alive.

I have a three-year-old nephew whose barely contained glee with all the things he can (or imagines he can) do drives him to fling himself bodily into every bed, cushion, or pile of leaves. And if he suffers a bump or bruise, he cries with the same passion until it's time to leap into the next adventure a few minutes later.

On a quieter note, I have, for many years, supplied my family with flour tortillas. It's as difficult to reduce the experience of mixing, kneading, forming, rolling, and cooking to words as it is to explain why and how I shape a round of dough before I roll it without using my hands. Sometimes, it's as though the day's frustrations melt out of my arms as I knead the dough. Sometimes, it's like making mud pies when I was almost as buoyant as my nephew. Over the years, I suspect I've saved a significant amount on therapy while producing something warm and tasty to share with those near and dear.

One of the subtly sad things about growing up is internalizing all the ways in which we're not to use our hands. And so, one of the best and simplest ways to tap into our creativity is to channel your inner three-year-old and get dirty with joyous abandon.


Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net