Critique Part 2 supplement — What is on the page?

Pianist Marilyn Nonken.  Image via .

Pianist Marilyn Nonken.  Image via


One of the hardest lessons for workshop students is to respond to only what is before them.  What is on the page?  On the screen?  On the stage?  On the canvas?

The lesson is important for both respondents and artists: let the work accomplish its goals under its own power, by its own means.  Lengthy notes of explanation from the artist, if they are not part of the work, encroach on a respondent's ability to evaluate the work’s success.  Likewise, responses to things outside of the work (the artist’s process, her level of effort, her other work) distract the artist from hearing how the work itself has been received and gauging how it might be received by those she may never meet. 

One tipoff that the response looks outside of the work is the presence of moral judgment.  

Compare this . . . 

            “I just don’t feel like you tried very hard.”

Or . . .

"I felt like the writer was trying to get me to feel sorry for her."

With this . . .  

“I couldn’t figure out what the piece was really about.  At first I thought it might have been the arson.  Then there were five paragraphs about the brother’s troubled past, but then it returned to the arson and the investigation.  So I found myself unable to grab hold of the story, because I couldn’t determine which storyline was the ultimate focus, the brother or the arson.” 

Note how the gratuitous moral language in the first two responses offers nothing about the art, only speculation about the artist.  The third response highlights the source of the respondent's confusion and stays within the bounds of the art.

Respondents do well to confine their attention to what the artist sets before them. And artists do well to learn to let their art speak for itself.  Well-conceived work can stand on its own.

Consider, for instance, how strange and yet perfectly articulate this piece of music is.  It's an excerpt from Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories, performed by Marilyn Nonken.  Feldman's composition and Nonken's interpretation require no introduction, even though a listener may be unfamiliar with this kind of music.  The logic of the piece is sufficient unto itself.  And understanding it does not require us to reflect upon anything outside of the piece and its performance.  

Thank you for reading.


Critique Part 2 supplement— The Hazards of Prescription

Anoushka Shankar.  Image via .

Anoushka Shankar.  Image via


Creating art requires an artist to channel the mysteries of her intuition into something others can behold.  It requires her tune out chatter from within and without.

In my writing workshops, I ask students to avoid prescribing solutions to their classmates.  I do this for several reasons:

  • The main goal of the workshop is to get the students to listen to their experience as readers, and if they begin to offer prescriptions, they shift out of listening and into broadcasting.
  • The artist is the person most in tune with what she is trying to make.  Attempts to interfere with her process are likely to disrupt the learning that is bringing forth the artwork.

This does not preclude the students from considering possibilities.  But note the difference between this . . .

“I think you should end it at the third paragraph from the end.”

and this . . .

“I was really captivated by the description of the parachute ride back to earth, but the closing paragraphs after the landing felt less compelling.  I wondered if you considered ending the piece at the third paragraph from the end, when the narrator is still in the air.”

The first response offers prescription without experience.  It leaves little room for the writer, who might know that the final paragraphs are crucial to some purpose not yet evident to her readers. 

The second reports on the reader’s experience, and rather than prescribing a particular solution, which might conflict with the writer’s ultimate purpose, merely invites the writer to consider one valid option.

In order to create work that will reach her audience, an artist must tune out the chatter of the audience members (real and imagined) and descend into her own intuition.  It requires the kind of focus and deep attention so evident in the following clip of sitar player Anoushka Shankar, tabla player Tanmoy Bose, and tampura player Kenji.

Thank you for reading.


Critique Part 2 — Reporting Experience

Image via

Image via


In my writing workshops, I invite students to skip the question “What do you think?” and answer a different question instead: “What did you notice?”

Consider some of the differences between these questions:

“What do you think?” invites opinion.  It invites grand pronouncements, verdicts, and thereby situates the conversation outside of the work instead of within it.

“What did you notice?” invites a report on a reader’s experience.  See how the verb notice makes room for even the smallest observations, ones that may seem trivial at the moment of being offered but which may turn out to contain important information.

“What do you think?” produces a conversation where respondents argue over their opinions, whereas it’s nonsensical to disagree with someone’s experience.   “I was confused as to who was talking during the stretch of dialogue on page seven.”  Though others might report having no such difficulty, they can hardly disagree with this report.

“What do you think?” invites the others in the workshop to become reviewers, a pursuit beyond the scope of a creative writing workshop, whereas “What did you notice?” keeps the participants rooted in the question of making art.

Because “What did you notice?” keeps the conversation rooted in the work, it invites the respondents into discovery.  The conversation, I have found, continues to uncover aspects of the work that escaped the first response.  “What do you think?” invests each respondent in a position.  Changing her mind comes at a moral price.  By contrast, “What did you notice?” allows the respondents to remain fluidly engaged and leaves room for backtracking, “Now that I think about it, what I actually noticed was . . .”

For all of these reasons, I have found that “What did you notice?” offers a more fruitful framing for discussing work by someone else and, of equal importance, for reading one’s own work. 

Thank you for reading.

Critique Part 1 supplement — What is the piece about?

Image via .

Image via


One of the important lessons students take from an art workshop is that their work might miss the intended mark.   Thus, the first response fellow workshop members might make is to address the question, “What is this piece about?”

The question will be addressed differently according to art form. In my nonfiction writing workshops, I invite students to use the framework presented by Vivian Gornick in her book The Situation and the Story.

Every work of literature has both a situation and a story.  The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.  

— Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story, p. 13

Thus, when my students comment on a piece by one of their classmates, they are asked to begin by identifying the situation and the story.  They have an easier time identifying the situation, which might be as simple as . . .  

“The narrator, a high-school senior, goes with her family to Thanksgiving at her grandparents’ house, and a big argument about politics and family history breaks out.”

They have a harder time identifying the story.   I ask them to describe the arc of the narrator’s insight.  Something like . . .  

“The narrator braces herself for a holiday with the family, especially given her tense relationship with her father.  He has always been critical of her, most recently about her plans for college.  Over the course of the weekend, she sees her father bracing himself for his encounter with his own parents.  Never before has she taken note of how much criticism they dish out to her father or of how much her attachment to her grandparents might reflect a sense of mutual alliance against her father.  By the end of the weekend, when she rides back home with her parents, she wonders whether these discoveries into her father’s psyche will inspire renewed connection or simply enlightened detachment.”

Or perhaps . . .

“I couldn’t find the story.  I wasn’t sure if what the narrator was describing was a series of revelations about her father or her evolving plans for life after high school.”

When students dig out and articulate the story (or report on the absence of a clear story), their critiques reflect a more organized understanding of the piece’s successes and problems.  More importantly, the process of asking and answering the question “What is this piece about?” drills into them the fact that their readers will be attempting to answer the same question. 

Thank you for reading.

Critique Part 1 supplement — The Distinction between the Artist and Her Voice

Vivian Gornick.  Image via .

Vivian Gornick.  Image via


As I mentioned in the previous post, one of the advantages of the workshop format is that it helps students become more critically aware of their own work. 

For my writing workshops, I’ve adopted the pedagogy that Vivian Gornick presents in her book The Situation and the StoryOne of Gornick’s emphases is the distinction between the writer and the narrator:

The writing we call personal narrative is written by people who, in essence, are imagining only themselves: in relation to the subject in hand.  The connection is an intimate one; in fact, it is critical.  Out of the raw material of a writer’s own undisguised being a narrator is fashioned whose existence on the page is integral to the tale being told.  This narrator becomes a persona.  Its tone of voice, its angle of vision, the rhythm of its sentences, what it selects to observe and what to ignore are chosen to serve the subject; yet at the same time the way the narrator—or the persona—sees things is, to the largest degree, the thing being seen.

To fashion a persona out of one’s own undisguised self is no easy thing.  . . . The persona in a nonfiction narrative is an unsurrogated one.  Here the writer must identify openly with those very same defenses and embarrassments that the novelist or poet is once removed from. . . .

Yet the creation of such a persona is vital in an essay or a memoir.  It is the instrument of illumination.  Without it there is neither subject nor story.  To achieve it, the writer of memoir or essay undergoes an apprenticeship as soul-searching as any undergone by novelist or poet: the twin struggle to know not only why one is speaking but who is speaking.

Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story, pp. 6-8

With this in mind, I ask my students to observe the distinction between the writer and the narrator.

Instead of this: “When you escaped the burning building . . .”

This: “When the narrator escaped the burning building . . .”

And instead of this: "When you told your boss you hated your job . . . "

This: "When your narrator told her boss that she hated her job . . . "

It takes the workshop participants a while to get used to this.   But as they develop this habit and cultivate awareness of the distance between the writer and the speaker, they bring a keener awareness of this distinction into their own work.  Their writing sharpens and sound more real, more vivid, because they are now aware that the speaker on the page does not exist until she has been created by the writer. 

The distinction holds across art forms.  Though their work speaks for them, it is worth considering the distinctions between . . . 

  • A composer and the compositional voice in her music.
  • A painter and the voice alive on her canvas.
  • A dancer and the voice alive in her movement on stage.
  • An architect and the voice alive in her design.

In each case, the artist creates a speaker, someone whose sole job is to express the art.  Her being does not perfectly overlay the being of the artist.  She might do or say what the artist would never think of.  The power and freedom she gives to the artist is available only upon recognition of her separate existence.

Thank you for reading.

Critique Part 1 — Critique as an element of artist training

Vivian Gornick.  Image via .

Vivian Gornick.  Image via


A lesson I learned as a drummer: one show is worth ten or twenty rehearsals.  The presence of an audience raises my critical awareness to a place higher than where it had been in rehearsal.

I noticed this, too, as a songwriter.  Only at the moment of handing off a demo to a listener would I realize "Damn, I never figured out the bridge."   Handing over work and getting in front of an audience raises the stakes and our attention.

Artist workshops, where fellow artists exchange and comment upon each other's work, provide an opportunity to share one's work regularly and to learn from that sharing.  As a writing teacher who works in the workshop format, I can say that most of what the students learn doesn't come from the other students or their professor; it comes by way of their deepened connection to their artistic intuition.

In The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick describes how she teaches her writing students:

". . . I have learned that you cannot teach people how to write—the gift of dramatic expressiveness, of a natural sense of structure, of making language sink down beneath the surface of description,  all that is inborn, cannot be taught—but you can teach people how to read, how to develop judgment about a piece of writing: their own as well as that of others.  You can teach them how to puzzle out the experience buried in a mass of material and to see whether it is being shaped on the page; how to search out the link between a narrative line and the wisdom that compels it; how to ask, Who is speaking, what is being said, and what is the relation between the two? . . ."

Vivian Gornick,  The Situation and the Story, pp. 159-160

I have adopted Gornick’s approach and found that it contains great wisdom.  When students become better readers, they learn to read their own writing and see its problems and potential. They begin to understand, for instance that . . .

Good writing is aware of the reader. 

It seems like an obvious fact, but many writers lose sight of it.  They become absorbed with getting their thoughts onto the page, which is hard enough.  Encountering work by others, especially work by fellow students who are still figuring things out, they become more attuned to the fact that a reader will have to pick up their writing and make sense of it.

Good writing trains the reader how to read it.

This question is invisible to many writing students.  A student may not yet have realized that her essay about her travels in Croatia could be read as a portrait of Croatia, but also as a story of the dissolution of a relationship with her travel companion, or a story of finding a sense of mission in life, or a story about realizing what she left behind at home.  She herself might have had clear intentions, but she hasn't yet learned that the writing didn't help her readers intuit those intentions.  By reading and critiquing work by her fellow students, where similar problems hover over the page, she is more likely to attend to the problems her readers might have.

Good writing knows the difference between a portrait of confusion and a confused portrait.

Many writers want to capture the sense of being muddled, unclear, lost, and so forth.   Only after reading successful (and unsuccessful) pieces by other writers do students come to realize how much clarity is needed to portray the lack of clarity they hope to capture. 

These are only a few examples of how the act of critically engaging work by others puts an artist in conversation with her intuition, a lifelong source of her learning.

Thank you for reading.

The Audience Learns Part 4 supplement — Denial and Reward

A fascinating book that you can read in an hour (and then may find yourself revisiting over and over): Matthew Frederick’s 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School

The 101 things in question are short observations accompanied by illustrations.  Many of Frederick’s insights about architecture have relevance to other fields.  Here is one.

Use “denial and reward” to enrich passage through the built environment. 

As we move through buildings, towns, and cities, we mentally connect visual cues from our surroundings to our needs and expectations.  The satisfaction and richness of our experiences are largely the result of the ways in which these connections are made.

Denial and reward can encourage the formulation of a rich experience.  In designing paths of travel, try presenting users a view of their target—a staircase, building entrance, monument, or other element—then momentarily screen it from view as they continue their approach.  Reveal the target a second time from a different angle or with an interesting new detail.  Divert users onto an unexpected path to create additional intrigue or even momentary lostness; then reward them with other interesting experiences or other views of their target.  This additional “work” will make the journey more interesting, the arrival more rewarding.

 #11 of Matthew Frederick’s 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School

Creators in a variety of mediums make use of this technique. 

In Fiction

Consider, for example, the tantalizing withholding of the title character’s entrance into F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

  • We see Gatsby’s name in the title, and in the introduction we hear of his impact on the narrator, Nick.
  • Nick moves in nextdoor to Gatsby’s mansion.
  • At Daisy and Tom’s, Nick notices Daisy’s reaction to mention of his name. “Gastby?  What Gatsby?”
  • Later that night, Nick sees Gatsby’s silhouetted profile, looking at the stars.  As Nick tries to determine what far off light Gatsby might have been looking at, Gatsby disappears.
  • From next door, Nick witnesses the spectacle of Gatsby’s lavish parties, the deliveries of liquor, oranges, food, tables, the orchestra musicians, and so forth.
  • One day, a chauffeur walks over an invitation referencing a “little party.”
  • As Nick weaves his way into the scene, the other party guests are evasive as to Gatsby’s whereabouts.
  • Nick overhears rumors from others in the crowd: Gatsby murdered someone?  He was a German spy?
  • Nick wanders into the house, peruses the library, talking with a stranger, and then during a lull in the action, another stranger sees Nick in the hall.  “Your face is familiar.  Weren’t you in the Third Division in the war?”  Yes he was.  The two of them talk. Nick’s sort-of girlfriend, Jordan, comes up to the two of them.

    “Having a gay time now?” she asks.

    Nick explains to the stranger, “This is an unusual party for me because I haven’t even met the host.  I live over there and this man Gatsby had his chauffeur walk over the invitation."

    And the stranger replies, “I’m Gatsby.”


At this point, we are almost one-third of the way into the novel.  Our denied access to Gatsby and then the sudden reward of encountering him helps to convey a sense of expectation that echoes the long wait Gatsby himself has endured as he plans to win back Daisy.  The book revolves around his hope that his denial will end with reward.

In Music

Musical examples abound,   One form of denial and reward is dissonance resolving into consonance  Bach's Prelude #1 in C Major thrives on this principle.  (This video begins with 15 seconds of silence.)


Notice how the dialogue between dissonance and consonance is roughly the length of one breath cycle; we inhale one and exhale the other.  It suggests that this tension between denial and reward is necessary to sustain the music.

Another musical instance of denial and reward would be a song with an introduction that delays the entrance of the band.


The rollercoaster metaphor, present in the melodic oscillation of the guitar riff,  also applies to the long, suspenseful ascent to the band's entrance. The denial and reward is created by the extended, tiered instrumental introduction.  The guitar starts, then enter the hi-hat and bass drum (playing only on the weak beats to add suspense), then agogo bell . . . 

roller coaster climb via

. . . and  finally, with a whiplash drum fill . . . 


the song plunges down into the verse. 

Thank you for reading.

The Audience Learns Part 3 supplement — Three-person Jokes

Stand-up comic and author  Katie Schreiber  doesn't tell three-person jokes.  All the more reason to catch one of her sets in New York City.  Image via .

Stand-up comic and author Katie Schreiber doesn't tell three-person jokes.  All the more reason to catch one of her sets in New York City.  Image via


“A _____, a ______, and a _______ walk into a bar . . .”

We know this joke format.  Three characters face some common circumstance and deal with it differently.

The first two characters—let’s call them A and B—will establish some pattern that sets up an expectation of what happens to the third character, C. 

  • A does something.
  • B does something like it but a little different.
  • C does something even more different.  The success of the punch line rests on whether or not what happens to C feels surprising.   

A and B are basically two versions of the same thing, which highlights the contrast of C, the character whose story ignites the laugh.

It's interesting to note the importance of B, squished in the middle and therefore likely to be the hardest to remember.  B’s storyline varies from A’s but in a way that suggests a similarity between A and B and establishes a trajectory that sets our expectations for C.  The trajectory is the crucial bit of misdirection on which the punch line relies.

After A and B, we wonder about C.

After A and B, we wonder about C.

  So we find a progression from A to B and then imagine a trajectory leads to an expectation of C. 

  So we find a progression from A to B and then imagine a trajectory leads to an expectation of C. 

And then C violates our expectations.  Images via , , , and  o .

And then C violates our expectations.

Images via,, and

This is yet another illustration of how variation, in this case B, draws us away from what came before it but in a way that serves to deepen our understanding of the original, A.

Thank you for reading.

The Audience Learns Part 2 supplement — The transition states of repetition

When engaged in repetition, singing a short melody over and over for example, it’s interesting to note how our attention engages and releases at certain points. 

The first few repetitions may hold our attention, the next few may lose it, but then we might be surprised to find ourselves reengaging and going deeper. 

I once saw Sun Ra and his band play a concert of songs from Walt Disney films.  They ended the first set with “Forest of No Return” from the 1961 musical Babes In Toyland.


A few minutes into the song, the band stopped playing and the musicians all stood up and sang the refrain over and over:

Can’t you read, can’t you see
This is private property,
Aren’t the sign plain and clear,
No one is allowed in here,
But since you’re here you should know,
We will never let you go,
You can cry you can shout,
But you can’t get out.

This is the forest of no return
This is the forest
Those who stumble in,
Those who fumble in,
Never can get out.

They paraded around the stage for a few laps as they sang, and then continued to sing as they marched out into the audience.  My attention went from focused to bored (after ten repetitions) and then to rapt (after twenty), at which point the many possible interpretations of the lyrics (references to a literal forest, comments on the modern world, the interactions between performers and audience in a club) began to resonate.  The repetitions had taken me through the crucial transition state necessary to achieve this resonance of ideas.

An application of this principle is found in rituals where a song or recitation of words is repeated over and over.  Liturgical planners, in my experience, are often too wary of repetition, fearing the first point of disengagement.  They often fail to recognize that the next transition into deeper attention comes a few repetitions later.  They could learn something from Sun Ra (and from traditions such as Sufi whirling).  A repeated action, if given time, takes on a resonant quality.

The incomparable Sun Ra.  Image via .

The incomparable Sun Ra.  Image via


Thank you for reading.

The Audience Learns Part 2 supplement — Cumulative songs and tales

We have seen how repetition draws an audience member’s attention inward, to a place where she can begin to manipulate what she has been given and begin her own creative work.  We’ve also seen how repetition helps an audience absorb work that is full of challenging twists and turns.

Another, related use of repetition is accumulation, wherein the audience memorizes one phrase and then adds on to it.  A famous example of this is the nursery rhyme “This Is the House That Jack Built.”

This is the house that Jack built.

This is the cheese that lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the rat that ate the cheese
That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the cat that chased the rat
That ate the cheese that lay in the house that Jack built.

The verses get longer and longer, starting at greater distance from Jack’s house. 

This is the horse and the hound and the horn
That belonged to the farmer sowing his corn
That kept the rooster that crowed in the morn
That woke the judge all shaven and shorn
That married the man all tattered and torn
That kissed the maiden all forlorn
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn
That tossed the dog that worried the cat
That chased the rat that ate the cheese
That lay in the house that Jack built.

"The House That Jack Built" is what’s known as a cumulative tale.  (Another example might be Green Eggs and Ham.)  There are also cumulative songs, one of the best known being "The Twelve Days of Christmas."  Cumulative tales and songs keep returning to a simple root image by repeating a lengthening set of details.  Part of the thrill for the audience is discovering the surprising capacity of the human memory.  Also, each recitation of the ever-lengthening refrain allows them to observe what happens to their attention.


Danish poet Inger Christensen.  Image via .

Danish poet Inger Christensen.  Image via

You can see these same principles at work in alphabet, a book-length poem by Danish poet Inger Christensen.  The book proceeds through the letters of the alphabet, and the length of each section follows a pattern know as a Fibonacci sequence, in which each number is the sum of the previous two numbers—0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and so forth).

Thus it begins . . .


apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist



bracken exists; and blackberries, blackberries;
bromine exists; and hydrogen, hydrogen



cicadas exist; chicory, chromium,
citrus trees; cicadas exist;
cicadas, cedars, cypresses, the cerebellum


doves exist, dreamers, and dolls;
killers exist, and doves, and doves;
haze, dioxin, and days; days
exist, days and death; and poems
exist; poems, days, death


and a little later . . . 


given limits exist, streets, oblivion

and grass and gourds and goats and gorse,
eagerness exists, given limits

branches exist, wind lifting them exists,
and the lone drawing made by the branches

of the tree called an oak tree exists,
of the tree called an ash tree, a birch tree,
a cedar tree, the drawing repeated

in the gravel garden path; weeping
exists as well, fireweed and mugwort,
hostages, greylag geese, greylags and their young;

and guns exist, an enigmatic back yard;
overgrown, sere, gemmed just with red currants,
guns exist; in the midst of the lit-up
chemical ghetto guns exist
with their old-fashioned, peaceable precision

guns and wailing women, full as
greedy owls exist; the scene of the crime exists;
the scene of the crime, drowsy, normal, abstract,
bathed in a whitewashed, godforsaken light,
this poisonous, white, crumbling poem

alphabet by Inger Christensen.  Translated by Susanna Nied.


Note here the cumulative feel of the lengthening sections and role played by repetition.  As we encounter the poem’s recursions, we feel we are learning something about the workings of our minds, much as we do when presented with a cumulative tale or song.  Though each section is different, the repeating language, tropes, and sense that the line-length of the sections point back to their predecessors yields a particular form of insight that would be lost without the repetition.  Through the repetition, we discover connections and resonances between disparate elements and enter into the deeper learning of the poem.


Thank you for reading.

The Audience Learns Part 1 — Space

"Don't speak unless your words are more beautiful than the silence."

This Arabic proverb contains an important lesson for creators.  We might valorize silence, and not only for its beauty.  An audience requires space in order to consider and process an artist's work.   

Sitting on the beach and looking out across the horizon, or sitting in large and otherwise unoccupied space such as an empty church or concert hall—such environments invite reflection precisely because they offer the sense that our thoughts have some space in which to work.  Though the trail through a forest may be narrow and confining, the hiker’s sense of the forest’s vast dimensions explain why this is another likely place to go think things over.  It's as if our thoughts actually require physical space in which they can be unpacked and turned over. 

The aesthetic appeal of space may be more immediately grasped than the cognitive role that space plays in learning.  That so many pop songs start with a guitar riff and then build up into full instrumentation (a move found in countless orchestral works) reflects more than a concern with drama.  It reveals an appreciation for the value of space—in the case of music, aural space.  The listener makes use of the space around a riff or sparely presented melodic motif to examine it.  The greater the space, the more extensive the listener’s examination.

These landscapes by French Baroque painter Claude Lorrain are filled with detail, but note how important the sense of space is. 

Claude Lorraine, "Embarkation of the Queen of Sheeba"(1648).  Image via .

Claude Lorraine, "Embarkation of the Queen of Sheeba"(1648).  Image via

Claude Lorrain, "Landscape with Apollo Guarding the Herds of Admetus and Mercury Stealing Them," (1645).  Image via .

Claude Lorrain, "Landscape with Apollo Guarding the Herds of Admetus and Mercury Stealing Them," (1645).  Image via

A viewer has the sense that she can take in the details and also step back from them, turn them over.  Indeed, that space is invaluable to her learning and creative work as a viewer.  So it is for audiences of all creative forms.

Thank you for reading.

Creative Process Part 4 supplement — The Audience Innovates

El Matador State Beach, California.  Image via .

El Matador State Beach, California.  Image via


I’ve suggested that audiences take what they are given and do their own creative work, which follows the process outlined in Clark Terry’s formulation for learning jazz improvisation: “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.”  In the case of an audience member, someone absorbing a work of art, her innovation lies in her attaining a new understanding of something that lies outside the artwork.

The process might be quite similar to what happens when sitting on a beach and listening to the waves.  It inevitably produces some insight beyond what is happening in front of us.  The rhythm of the waves starts a process that might lead the person on the shore to realize what’s going on with a particular aspect of her life.  That insight is her innovation, the product of her creative imagination.

Likewise, when she listens to music or reads a book, she reaches insights about herself or life that are not part of what she heard or read.  The music or writing she encounters launches her on a process of discovery that soon becomes her own.  Her access to that discovery may rely on the particular workings of the music or writing, but the discoveries are hers.  Indeed, her discoveries may be quite different from someone else’s. 

The nature of the discoveries may remain too abstract to put into words, but her attainment of them feels palpable.  She listens to the Jupiter Symphony or “Midnight Train to Georgia” and discovers something by way of taking in the various images and then imitating and assimilating them with herself and her experience. 

Thus, when we peruse favorite albums looking to find what it is we want to hear, we are not only asking ourselves a question about what music we want to keep us company, we are asking ourselves about which place within ourselves we might want to access through the innovative creative work we do as listeners.

Perhaps audience members know less of their own creative powers than artists do, for artists study audience responses to their work.  They inevitably find that just as the rhythm of the waves inspires all kinds of thoughts about life beyond the shoreline, some of the most successful art simply gives the audience a point of departure for a journey of its own devising.

Thank you for reading.


Creative Process Part 4 supplement — The Audience Assimilates

We’ve been exploring the creative process of the audience.  I’ve offered Clark Terry’s advice to those learning to play jazz —“Imitate, assimilate, innovate” — as a framework for understanding the creative work we do as listeners, readers, viewers, and so forth.

Yesterday, I offered the idea that our attraction to idiosyncratic works of art testifies to the fact that those absorbing the art engage in some act of imitation (because the more idiosyncratic a work is, the more easily it can be imitated).  Today, I offer snapshots of audience assimilation.

I met one friend of mine, Kelly, while she was carrying five copies of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity.  She explained that she was buying up all the copies she could find before the movie version was released.  “I want to get copies for all my friends before they print up new copies with John Cusack’s face on the cover.  I hate when publishers do that.”  She wanted her friends to have the freedom to imagine the story’s protagonist, Rob Fleming, on their own. I am not sure if the book was actually ever issued with a new cover featuring John Cusack’s face, but Kelly’s concern still holds.  Readers feel a certain right to work with what they are given, and they are protective of that right. 

My ever-insightful friend, Kelly.

My ever-insightful friend, Kelly.


It seems to me she identified an important aspect of audience creativity, our assimilation of the work.  Our assimilation of the work requires a bit of freedom to embellish and augment what we have absorbed.  In the case of High Fidelity, my friend had noticed how a movie version of a book can encroach upon one’s own mental version of the story, thus implicitly valuing the work of her own imagination.

We can find many parallels.  When MTV emerged, music listeners started seeing videos images of the songs in their heads, and to some of them this also felt like an unwelcome encroachment.  The sense was that the video got it wrong.  The song didn’t look that way inside one’s head.

Most common of all might be when fans of a book encounter the movie version and feel that the film, even if it has accurately reproduced the plotlines, disagrees with too much of what they had imagined.

In all of these cases we are encountering the fact that an audience not only imitates the work but also expands upon it.  Indeed, they feel protective of what their interpretive powers have produced.

Thank you for reading.

Creative Process Part 4 supplement — The Audience Imitates

One of the most enduring albums of the 1990s and also one of the most idiosyncratic—Liz Phair's  Exile in Guyville .  Image via .

One of the most enduring albums of the 1990s and also one of the most idiosyncratic—Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville.  Image via


It’s interesting to note that works of art with the widest appeal are in some way the strangest, the most unique.

On the list of the greatest rock, pop, and R&B offerings, we might find Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Live at the Apollo, Highway 61 Revisited, “Mississippi Goddamn,” Are You Experienced, Clouds, “Baba O’Riley,” Innervisions, First Take, Tapestry, “Radio, Radio,” Horses, Remain in Light, “Running Up That Hill,” Nevermind, Exile in Guyville.  All of these are marked by their distinctiveness. 

A list of the great plays might include Hamlet; a list of great novels might include Mrs. Dalloway and Song of Solomon; a list of great films might include The 400 Blows and The Godfather.  In the case of these and other entries on lists of widely loved works, we would not be surprised to see works that featured distinctive characters, settings, image systems, and so forth.

“The most widely loved works are idiosyncratic”—on the surface, it’s a conundrum.  Yet the explanation might lie in idea that our first task as the audience is to recreate the imagery inside of us, to somehow imitate the art.  The more specific the object we attempt to imitate, the greater success we will have.  Think of how we have the easiest time doing an impression of the odd characters in our lives, even when those we are imitating feel different from us.  The people whose traits stand out the least are the most difficult to imitate.

Likewise with art, the more original the creation, the more distinctly it will strike the imagination of the audience and the more easily it might be imitated within them as they absorb the work.  Another way of thinking about this: there is a reason that the most loved albums are also the most imitated by other artists, and it might have to do with something beyond the desire for replicating the success of the original.  Artists who hear distinctive work have an easier time imitating it.  So it is with the audience.

Thank you for reading.

Creative Process Part 4 — The Audience’s Creativity

Thus far, we’ve examined creative process from the perspective of those making art.  But the audience for any work of art engages its own creativity.  What if Clark Terry’s advice to those learning to play jazz — “Imitate, assimilate, innovate” — tells us something about how we receive art as an audience?

I think his formulation captures exactly what happens:

  • First, we imitate.  — We listen to a piece of music, or read a book, or watch a film, and we take what we see into ourselves and begin by imitating it.  We recreate what we are hearing (or reading, seeing, etc.) inside of us by way of our imagination.
  • Then we assimilate. — Once we have recreated those images, we begin to embellish them.  We ascribe details and meaning that may have been missing from the work we took in.
  • Finally, we innovate. — After recreating and then embellishing the images, we discover parts of ourselves that stand outside the work, and sometimes, beyond our previous experience.  The act of taking in the art has given us access to a part of ourselves.  What we have accessed is not part of the art, it is a discovery made possible by our own creative imagination.  The art made it possible, but the act of discovery (and perhaps the thing being discovered) is the result of our own creative innovation.

Consider these examples of how I think this works:


We imagine ourselves in stories.  We are drawn to characters with whom we empathize and contexts that we find most appealing, perhaps because they are more readily imitated in our imagination.  We imagine ourselves fighting off the antagonists.  We imagine ourselves running for our lives.  

When we listen to music, we imagine ourselves playing the song.  We might even play air guitar or drums.  The impulse to reenact what we are hearing is a natural form of the imitative component of our creative imagination.

Beneath theses surface forms of imitation, we imitate by way of repeating the artwork to ourselves by way of revisiting the images.  


We take a few details from a story and fill in the world around it with details of our own, thereby embellishing and augmenting the work.  An example of this: my memory of John Bonham’s drum sound on various Led Zeppelin albums is always larger than what I hear when I sit down to listen.  His sound is huge on record; it’s even bigger in my imagination.  The suggestive power of the recordings has led me to recreate and then embellish the largeness of the sound.


I can report that I sometimes have the urge to listen to music without knowing what I want to hear.  Yet the impulse to listen seems to be specifying some song album I must identify before I can start: 

Is it Hejira?  Maybe. 

Fulfillingness’ First Finale?  Very Close. 

The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night? No, but I have to revisit that one soon.   

Aha!  It’s Journey in Satchidananda.

Alice Coltrane's album  Journey in Satchidananda . Image via

Alice Coltrane's album Journey in Satchidananda. Image via


My intuition has told me that this choice will give me access to some part of myself.  In this case, Alice Coltrane and her ensemble launch me into a journey of discovery (or rediscovery).  At the end of that journey lies some part of me that I may or may not have previously encountered.  My need to hear the album points to the particular piece of music’s role in helping me make that journey.  (Note that sometimes we listen to songs or albums over and over, because we want to stay in the place we've found within ourselves by way of listening.)  I enter into unconscious recreation of what I’m hearing, and then mental embellishments of what I’m hearing, and then finally access a part of me that lies beyond the music.

All of this happens in abstract, which is why absorbing art is so wonderfully mysterious.

Thank you for reading.

Creative Process Part 3 supplement — Teaching Song Writers

Yesterday, I described how in my work with Music That Makes Community, I have taught song leaders to lead singers who are not reading the music from paper.  The pedagogy draws on several principles we’ve encountered in this exploration of creative process.

Another workshop I have led for Music That Makes Community addresses how to write a song.  The workshop participants span a wide spectrum of experience and training, and the pedagogy exploits this by focusing on experiential learning, which not only helps beginners take advantage of their musical intuitions but also reminds trained musicians of how listeners absorb the ideas of composers.

The pedagogy relies on several principles we have encountered already:

Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate (from Clark Terry)

The importance of clearing one’s mind by focusing on something external (from Sanford Meisner)

The process of staging these processes one step at a time (from Bill T. Jones)

The workshop lasts 45 minutes and has what looks like a simple agenda.  Prepare participants to write their own music by inviting them to experience how . . . 

1. Melodies have a shape that takes the listener on a journey.

2. Memorable melodies include surprises such as  . . .

Melodic Leaps

We start by singing a familiar melody, “Amazing Grace” (the participants are almost all writing for a church context), and painting the melody with an imagined paintbrush. 

We talk about the basic shape of the melody we just painted.  It takes a journey and then returns home.  (This is not a prescription, only a bit of noticing.)  We then sing the words with the order of the melodic phrases inverted, so that “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound . . . ” is sung over the melody of “I once was lost but now am found . . .” and vice versa.  And we talk about what we noticed about that switch.

I then invite a participant to step forward, find one of the short texts I’ve posted along the walls, and sing the words using a melody of her own.  “See if you can sing one that takes a journey and returns home.” 

Note the various principles are at work here: Imitation (basing her melody on a simple shape idea of going away from the starting point and then coming back to it); focusing on something external (the texts posted on the walls relieve her of having to come up with words of her own); staging things one thing at a time (we have not yet discussed melodic leaps, dissonance, or syncopation.)

After she has improvised a melody, the group sings it back to her, and we discuss how the melody journeyed away and then returned home.  Two or three more participants are invited forward to try the same thing.

Then we move on to melodic leaps.  I have the group sing the opening lines of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as they paint the shape of the melody with their imagined paintbrushes.  We then try singing the same words with some of the leaps removed and talk about what difference the leaps and their absence makes.  We repeat this as we sing the opening lines of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.”

A workshop participant improvises a melody using a text such as those seen behind her.

A workshop participant improvises a melody using a text such as those seen behind her.

The other participants sing her melody back to her.  Images via

The other participants sing her melody back to her.  Images via

Then I invite a participant to come forward, take a sample text, and sing it using a melody that takes a leap.  She sings, the group sings it back to her, and we talk about what difference the leap made.  More participants follow.

We follow this same pattern of learning as we sing and then improvise our own melodies with dissonance and then syncopation.  (Come to one of our workshops to see all of this in action.)

The participants are then asked to spend 40 minutes writing a quick song of their own (usually one-line in length) that they can teach to the group.  We invite them to use any of the sample texts on the wall or use a text of their own choosing.

Judging by the quality of the songs that are brought back to the group by even first-time songwriters, this method works.  We hear songs that have a sense of melodic shape (whether or not it returns home or not), melodic leaps, dissonance, and syncopation.  Most of the songs include several of these elements.  The participants are surprised to find how capable they are of doing something that many of them had never even thought of attempting.  They are also surprised by what their fellow participants come up with.

All of it attests to the insights of Terry, Meisner, Jones, and other master creators who have paid attention to the process of learning.

Thank you for reading.

Creative Process Part 3 supplement — Teaching Song Leaders

Jazz vocalist and Music That Makes Community presenter Chanda Rule leading paperless singing through voice and gesture.  Image via .

Jazz vocalist and Music That Makes Community presenter Chanda Rule leading paperless singing through voice and gesture.  Image via


Yesterday, we saw a demonstration from one of the giants in the field of modern dance, Bill T. Jones, in which he revealed his process for taking a dance phrase and allowing his feeling to find its way into the performance. 

Phase 1 — Perform the dance phrase

Phase 2 — Perform the phrase as if teaching a class, as clearly as possible with detailed verbal description.

Phase 3 — While keeping the movement as accurate as possible, perform the phrase while saying whatever you are thinking or feeling.

Phase 4 — Perform the phrase while saying whatever you are thinking or feeling, but now what you say and feel affects your movement, and your movement affects what you are thinking and saying.

He gets to his destination in graduated steps.  Each step adds a task, but the leap from step to step never feels too great.  His process is mindful of the cognitive demands necessary at each step.  (If you look at the video, note the distance his imagination has traveled from the beginning to the end of this process.)

In my work with Music That Makes Community I help train people how to lead songs paperlessly.  The singers are not reading the songs off a page but rather following visual and vocal cues given by the song leader.  The work relies on gesture, moving your hands to indicate when to listen, when to repeat what has been sung, the shape of the melody, when to end, and so forth.  What I noticed was that asking people to stand up and learn how to perform the gestures while also leading song was a heavy burden.  Most of the students are not confident singers, so we were asking them to take on too much. 

I then had the idea of breaking this into steps and invented a game that looks a lot like charades.  I’d stand up and model some gestures for listen, sing, continue, stop.  Then I tell everyone that we’re going to see how much we can accomplish using only gesture.  Then I hand a slip of paper to the first workshop participant, which reads . . .

Exercise #1

Dear Song Leader,

Get everyone to drone on a pitch
Get them to continue
Get them to end

After the participant has led the group through this task using gesture (and it always seems to work), I then ask that person to read the instructions aloud so the group can hear what the goal was and review what we all learned.  

We proceed.

Exercise #2

Dear Song Leader, 

Get everyone to sing “la la la” together
Get them to continue
Get them to end

As we progress, we learn other skills, for instance how to teach longer pieces of text by breaking it into chunks and then piecing it back together into one whole. 

Exercise #6

Dear Song Leader,

Teach everyone to say

"I look at you and I would rather look at you
than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally
and anyway it’s in the Frick" 

Then we learn how to divide the group to perform different parts.

Exercise #7

Dear Song Leader,

Get one half of the room to drone on a pitch
Get the other half to moo like cows
Get them to continue
Get them to end

Note the playful content of some of these exercises.  That is deliberate.  We want to remove the self-consciousness of the participants, and giving them silly tasks relieves them of thinking they need to put in a command performance.

Once they have learned these basic gestures, we then ask them to start leading songs that they know.  By this point, the cognitive work of having learned the basic gestures has been accomplished.  They’ve also had a chance to overcome their reticence to lead by way of leading the gesture exercises.  So as they begin to lead real songs, their workload has been vastly lowered. 

And even this early in the process, one can start to see each song leader’s style begin to emerge.  The participants have learned something about getting out of their own way, and their gestures start to channel their innate musical sense and awaken their bodies to it, which is exactly what song leading is all about.

Consider that creating art is a form of learning and therefore that the creative process can benefit from a process which is staged, such as what we saw Bill T. Jones demonstrate yesterday.

Thank you for reading.

Creative Process Part 3 — Bill T. Jones's process

Modern-dance legend Bill T Jones via

Modern-dance legend Bill T Jones via


In parts 1 and 2 of our exploration of creative process, we've examined a famous bit of advice from jazz trumpet great, Clark Terry

 “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.”

The idea might be that to find our own voice, we might start with our attention fixed upon some external point of reference.  As we imitate and learn, our attention draws inward, integrating what is outside of us with what is inside until, at the end of the process, we have shed the imitation and learned to channel ourselves through our art.  

As Sanford Meisner's Repetition Exercise revealed, accessing our creativity requires a process that allows us to get out of our own way.

With this idea in mind, watch this video of one of the greatest voices of modern dance, Bill T. Jones.

In this video, he demonstrates a multi-phase process.

  •  Phase 1 — Perform the dance phrase
  • Phase 2 — Perform the phrase as if teaching a class, as clearly as possible with detailed verbal description.
  • Phase 3 — While keeping the movement as accurate as possible, perform the phrase while saying whatever you are thinking or feeling.
  • Phase 4 — Perform the phrase while saying whatever you are thinking or feeling, but now what you say and feel affects your movement, and your movement affects what you are thinking and saying.

Jones's approach to unearthing what he has to express—starting from procedure and then seeing what emerges from it— feels resonant with Terry's and Meisner's.  They are describing one of the great creative paradoxes: to look inward, we have to first look outward.  And in order to accomplish this task, they have created a procedure that frees their attention from the question "What should I do now?"


Jazz great Clark Terry via

Thank you for reading

Creative Process Part 2 supplement — Bounce Hit

Tennis legend Serena Williams.  Image via .

Tennis legend Serena Williams.  Image via


In Part 2 of this series on creative process, we’ve touched on methods for getting out of the way of one’s impulses and abilities.

Here is an interesting analog from tennis, a notoriously mental game.  In his classic book of instruction, The Inner Game of Tennis, renowned tennis instructor Tim Gallwey outlines a practice called Bounce Hit:

The mind has difficulty focusing on a single object for an extended period of time.  Let’s face it: as interesting as a tennis ball may be for some, it is not going to easily capture the restless mind, so habituated to distractions of every kind . . . 

So the question arises as to how to maintain focus for extended periods of time.  The best way is to allow yourself to get interested in the ball.  How do you do this?  By not thinking you already know all about it, no matter how many thousands of balls you have seen in your life.  Not assuming you already know how is a powerful principle of focus. 

One thing you don’t know about the ball is exactly when it is going to bounce and when it is going to hit either your racket or your opponents.  Perhaps the most simple and effective means of focus I found was a very simple exercise I called ‘Bounce Hit.’

The instructions I gave were very simple.  ‘Say the word bounce out loud the instant you see the ball hit the court and the word hit the instant the ball makes contact with the racket—either racket.’  . . .  As the student said ‘bounce . . . hit . . . bounce . . . hit . . . bounce . . . hit . . . bounce,’ not only would it keep his eyes focused on four very key positions of the ball during each exchange, but the hearing of the rhythm and cadence of the bouncing and hitting of the ball seemed to hold the attention for longer periods of time.

The results were the same as with any effective focus.  The exercise would give the player better feedback from the ball and, at the same time, help clear his mind of distractions.  It’s hard to be saying ‘bounce-hit’ and at the same time overinstructing yourself, trying too hard or worrying about the score.

W. Timothy Gallwey — The Inner Game of Tennis,  pp. 85-86

Note the resonance with artistic techniques such as Sanford Meisner’s Repetition Exercise that employ a procedure to direct the mind elsewhere, so that our impulses can arise naturally, not artificially.

Lest we view these techniques as relevant only to beginners, watch the video below, in which I swear we can hear Novak Djokovic employing the “bounce-hit” technique in a point against Roger Federer in the 2014 Wimbledon finals.  (Djokovic won the point and the match.)

 Thank you for reading.

Creative Process Part 2 supplement — The Reader's Journal Exercise

Vladimir Nabokov.  Image via

Vladimir Nabokov.  Image via


We’ve been exploring creative process through the lens of jazz trumpeter Clark Terry’s formulation, “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.”

The last two posts have focused on acting teacher Sanford Meisner’s famous Repetition Excercise.  We saw Meisner and then acting coach Jack Waltzer state that the value of this exercise, rooted in imitation, is that it gets us out of our own head.  We focus elsewhere and thus clear the way for our impulses to emerge naturally (instead of artificially as the result of overthinking).

Hold that thought and consider the following quote from Vladimir Nabokov.

“A wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine.”

Vladimir Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers” 

By reading with the spine, Nabokov is describing something very much like the natural impulses that the Meisner exercise aims to produce, attention unfettered by overthinking (and in Nabokov’s case, over-feeling, too). 

When I teach writing, I ask my students to keep a journal of favorite passages of writing by others.  Here is an excerpt from my instructions to them:

As you read begin to notice when the writing does something, stirs your imagination, strikes you as especially vivid, elicits even the slightest shift in your attention.  Take note of those passages (e.g. “p. 32, middle ¶”), and when you are finished reading, go back and record them in your Reader’s Journal, always noting the author, work, and page numbers.  Write out the passages by hand (or, if you must, type them, print them out, and paste them).  The act of transcribing the work from the page to your journal will further inscribe the text into your consciousness.  (Photocopying, not so much and is thus not allowed.) 

Then record any observations about why each passage might have moved you.  Your journal will begin to fill up with passages and notes, for example . . .

"The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.”  Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West.  The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes.  The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them." 

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, opening paragraph

“Greek temples” a surprising but convincing note of epic grandeur

Sound sets so much of the mood: the flat A’s — “accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness” and then the sharpness of the T’s — “frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes.”

Pay particular attention to your aesthetic experience and cultivate that part of your awareness. Becoming a reader who notices even the subtlest effects will make you a better writer.  Furthermore, your Reader’s Journal will allow you to revisit those passages, study them, and unpack their magic, for instance, how the allusion to Greek temples sets off Capote’s description of the plains of western Kansas.

Enter at least 100 words of excerpts every week (not counting your insights about the passages).  Everything you read (in and out of class) is fair game. 

My goal, like Nabokov and Meisner, is to cultivate each student's attention as a reader.  Because if she can learn to access her impulses as a reader, she will begin to access them when she reads her own writing and thus learn to discern when her writing feels contrived and where it feels natural.

Thank you for reading.