Avoid Mere Self-expression!

Avoid mere4inThat’s a line that I once scrawled inside a paper sculpture—one of a series of artworks called “messages.”

Google “self-expression.” Today I got 2,480,000 results in less than a second. At a glance, it’s obvious that a lot of our cultural dialogue is dedicated to self-expression. A Wikipedia article connects it with a “creative class” of people who get to express themselves in their work. Centers, classes, and various kinds of gurus offer to teach people how to express themselves. And self-expression is highly recommended in discussions on leadership, spirituality, democracy, self-esteem—to say nothing of selling pitches for cars and clothes (which, of course, look just like a lot of other cars and clothes).

OK, so that could go on and on. Clearly, self-expression has many advocates.

First have a self. Wim reminds me of the observation—probably originally from Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way—that one must have a self to express. But that self must be an evolving thing. So we sort of dance around in circles—find self … express … find … express … Maybe that’s not a bad way to go about a creative life. (Though I must note that art galleries and publishers can resist the finding and expressing of a new self—they often prefer the repetition of whatever has already proved commercially successful.) Why should anyone avoid expressing the self?

Let’s get back to that word mere.

In essays, articles, books, academic research, and artworks, I’ve tried to understand, identify, and explain the creative experience. In my definition, “self-expression” is not nearly enough. Those very words seem to imply the expression of something you already know, and that’s what a lot of self-expression seems to be about. But as the expression of a self in a state of discovery it can become part of the whole creative experience. At that point, it’s no longer “mere.”

The creative experience is more like hanging off the edge of a cliff … or jumping off … or falling off. It’s risky. You’re writing about something you almost know, or barely know, but that you’re in the process of finding out more about.

Comments from other cliffhangers are welcome. —Pat

Of Dragonflies and Pepper Pods

220px-MatsuoBashoChusonjiIf you’re serious as a writer (or sculptor, painter, composer, fishing-fly maker, or anything else that involves creative work), you can surely remember some lesson from a master that had a lasting impact on your work. I was just re-reading Harold G. Henderson’s classic book An Introduction to Haiku and ran into this anecdotal gem about the Haiku master Matsuo Bashō:

One day, when he [Bashō] and [his young pupil] Kikaku were going through the fields, looking at the darting dragonflies, the boy made a seventeen-syllable verse:

Red dragonflies!
Take off their wings,
and they are pepper pods!

“No!” said Bashō, “that is not haiku. If you wish to make a haiku on the subject, you must say:

Red pepper pods!
Add wings to them,
and they are dragonflies!”