Monday, September 28, 2015

Holes & Lumps

Sculpture is the art of the hole and the lump.

-Auguste Rodin 

The first time I taught Public Speaking, I used a textbook titled The Art of Public Speaking. I was a fan of that book, & I admit I was hooked when I read the title. At present, I am not teaching out of that text, & I miss it (if I had my druthers, I would be using The Art of Public Speaking, but adjunct instructors aren't usually asked about the text from which they'd prefer to teach). I usually reference the text longingly at some point in the semester, as I think the title highlights an important truth my students need to grasp: public speaking is an art, not a science. If it were a science, I certainly would not be fit to teach it.

Every semester I have a few students (usually of the female variety) who struggle with the subjective nature of a course like Public Speaking. They want to know exactly what they need to do to nail down an A for the semester. These students sometimes begin breathing deeply & muttering to themselves when I announce that they will select the topics on which they'll speak when delivering their informative & persuasive speeches. This shatters their notions about educational assignments; they want more direction, to be told to write a report on the wives of Henry VIII, or an essay explaining the themes in A Farewell to Arms.

I've been thinking (too much, obviously) about subjectivity, & about the freedom to create, & the blessing & the burden inherent in that freedom. Last week's theme is Tabula Rasa (don't hold your breath for another Latin theme anytime soon, though, okay?).

John Locke famously argued that children are born with no knowledge, that everything we learn comes to us via experience or perception. I thought about Mr. Locke's assertion that we're born as blank slates a lot when my kids were born. If you have children, they are likely the most intimidating canvas you're going to face in your life, but at every turn, we're constantly confronted with the dueling exhilaration & fear that accompany the art of creation.

Semester after semester, I watch students fret over the freedom I give them to choose their own speech topics; some of them beg me to assign them a topic, to strip them of their choice, to relieve them of the burden of deciding. I give them a blank canvas, but they want a paint-by-number assignment.

You likely don't know (or if you once did, have long since forgotten), but there's a reference to Rodin's The Thinker in the book I wrote. It comes in the second chapter:

Edie’s hand slowed as Dr. Foster’s voice trailed off. For the first time since her late arrival, her eyes were free to roam. He continued to pace slowly, his glare fixated on the speckled linoleum floor as he rhythmically tapped his lower lip with the arm of his spectacles that were dangling from his right hand. An image of Rodin’s The Thinker danced in Edie’s mind as she watched Dr. Foster consider his next words. Unlike Rodin's masterpiece, however, Dr. Foster was covered from head to toe in what Edie surmised was an expensive suit. She was waffling back and forth over whether it was black or a deep navy when he turned on his heel and resumed lecturing.

I've always loved Rodin's The Thinker & The Kiss.

Rodin's work is stunning, but also inspiring are some of his words. When I was digging around for the above quote, which I'd read before but couldn't recall word for word, I came across the following, which is excerpted from a letter he wrote to his lover, Camille Claudel:

Have pity, mean girl. I can't go on. I can't go another day without seeing you. Atrocious madness, it's the end, I won't be able to work anymore. Malevolent goddess, and yet I love you furiously.

How fabulous is that? His mania leaps off the page. Honestly, I would not be insulted were I to be referred to as a malevolent goddess. I might have a T-shirt made. As you may've surmised from this brief but illuminating look at their relationship, Rodin & Ms. Claudel had a fleeting but, by all accounts, fiery affair.

I love his description of sculpture quoted above; I imagine he purposefully chose the ordinary words hole & lump to describe the majesty of his art. The crux of what he's suggesting, I think, is that what you exclude (the hole) is as important as what you include (the lump). I think it's helpful to approach life with this mindset; it's applicable in countless situations.

I think most of my speech students would admit at the end of the semester that they are better for the struggle most of them endure as they select their speech topics. They are forced to think about their interests, to eliminate options, do a little bit of research, & organize what they find so they can put together an outline to be used during their speech (those who do not present me an outline do not speak . . . *insert evil laugh here*). Despite their (sometimes crippling) fear of standing up & speaking, the process of deciding on a topic & preparing for the speech is more than half the battle.

One of the reasons I enjoy writing is the challenge of the glaring white page, the blinking, teasing cursor. Sometimes it's all wrong & I delete, delete, delete & start over from scratch, but until you pick up your pen, or begin stroking the keys, or sculpting the statue, or painting the canvas, you'll never know what's possible, what works & what doesn't work.

When you write, what you don't say is as important as what you do say; the holes are as important as the lumps. Whether it's a novel or a sculpture or a painting (or a speech), never forget that your (adult) audience will bring their own baggage with them. You don't have to supply every detail, whether you're painting a landscape or writing horror or a love scene or giving a persuasive speech on abortion. Great artists, whether they work with words or marble or paint, know what to omit as surely as they know what's essential.

Consider horror films (or walking through your own house in the middle of the night). What is scariest is the suggestion of what you cannot see; in the same vein, often what's most alluring is what you cannot see, the details that are not given. Choose wisely what you share.

The few of you who read Dear Miss Moreau might recall that Edie is often clad in sweaters & turtlenecks & all manor of heavy winter clothing. She's contrasted with a female peer, Kayla, whose, um, assets are constantly on display (yes, even in the frigid Boulder winter). Dr. Foster is usually in a suit; he is contrasted with Edie's friend, Jess, whom Edie sees wearing only running shorts early in the novel. Honestly, when I was writing it, I didn't have all this figured out in my head at the time, but I am having to defend some of my choices (for instance: detailed descriptions of clothing) & I'm realizing why I made decisions, even if they were somewhat subconscious at the time.

When I say defend my choices, I mean every word ought to be purposeful, or it's up for renegotiation. If a sentence doesn't (1) further develop character or (2) further the plot, rethink its necessity. In this case, clothing choices are reflective of personality as well as preference. Edie & Dr. Foster are drawn to each other because of the mystery & possibility they see in each other, mystery that is physically represented by the restrictive, ample clothing they wear. At one point, Dr. Foster thinks to himself that he loves the way Edie's black turtleneck, "hid every inch of her."

The lack of mystery the leading pair find unappealing in others (i.e. Kayla, Jess) is represented by said others willingness to expose themselves, literally, to those with whom they are merely casually acquainted. Foster's suits are his armor. He uses them to build a wall between him & his students, & between his life on campus & his tumultuous life at home. When Edie begins to tear down his armor, & her (somewhat jealous) friend, Jess, questions her about her relationship with Dr. Foster, he says, "Does he let you wrinkle his suits?"

Sorry, this is what happens when I'm forced to think hard about why I drone on & on about an American literature professor wearing a suit.

I guess it'd be simpler to just say, "Here. He looks like this:"

Anyway, I think one of the reasons I love Rodin's statues is because of the multitude of possibilities they suggest. There is so much beauty & mystery wrapped up in them. We don't know what The Thinker is thinking; there are a hundred different scenarios that could be written about the kissing couple whose permanent embrace has entranced art lovers for over a hundred years.

Reagan's been begging for a sleepover at her grandparents' house lately, & so last Thursday night Trey took the kids to his parents' house for the night. If you're doing the math, that left me at home ALL BY MYSELF. I'd received an email from Dillard's earlier in the day alerting me to a big sale they were having, & I took that as a sign & drove myself to the mall.

I didn't spend much time in Dillard's. There are rare moments when I feel totally satisfied with the contents of my closet, & that was the case Thursday, which I realized when, despite being alone in Dillard's, surrounded by clothes being sold at drastically reduced prices, I saw nothing I thought was worth the trek to the dressing room & subsequent removal of my shoes, clothes, etc.

After milling around the mall for half an hour, I decided what I really wanted to do was get lost in Pier One, & so that's what I did. Pier One is a place I don't dare take the kids, what with all the breakable things on display, so I cannot recall the last time I'd been in there prior to Thursday evening. We've lived in our house since 2012, & there are blank walls I pass every day that I still am not ready to tackle. I take wall hangings very seriously, as you cannot repair sheetrock with a delete button. I did browse Pier One's selection of wall art, but I ultimately decided I'd tackle another glaring white space that's been bothering me lately: our table.

After much deliberation, I left the store with a table runner, two candlesticks, & two scented pillar candles that smell of fall. I went through the window at Chick-fil-A & then rushed home with my purchases, which I immediately put on the table along with a few pumpkins I'd purchased earlier in the week at Hobby Lobby.

I lit the candles, sat down with my Chick-fil-A, & enjoyed a quiet, quiet dinner at my newly decorated table (please ignore the empty box on the floor in the background . . . it'll eventually make its way to the trash).

It's crazy what this new table decor has done for my mood. It all makes me smile every time I walk through the kitchen, which is, on average, about five-hundred times a day. Even if I'm carrying a diaper filled with poop, or I'm racing through the house because I hear the tell-tale sound of Henry turning on a faucet somewhere, poised to make another of his epic messes, I am briefly cheered by my recent purchases when I whizz past them. 

When I finished eating, I blew out the candles, made some decaf, & snuggled up with Sophie. Sophie & I then watched mindless things via Netflix. It was spectacular.

When the kids returned home Friday, Reagan wanted her picture taken with the newly decorated table.

I've told you this lengthy tale of my new table runner to make this point: when your husband asks you why you spent money on a table runner, you tell him it makes you happy (& it costs much less than a gun!). I used to think it was foolish to spend money on things for the house because we rarely have people over, & there are always toys everywhere, & our life just seems chaotic & urine-centered in general, & so what's the point of a table runner? The odds of Henry not pouring or dumping something on it are slim to none.

I bought the table runner for the same reason I pick up the toys over & over again, knowing full well I'll do the same thing again tomorrow: I am anal retentive. No, but really, I thoroughly enjoyed the process of shopping for the table runner, drifting lazily through the store, deciding (finally) on one above all the other options, & sitting & enjoying it all alone Thursday night. The table runner is my lump, you see.

Something in me is deeply satisfied when I figure out what it is I want in the house, be it on the walls or the table (or the beds or the floor, etc.). I think it's important to create spaces that are visually pleasing, even if I'm the only one who sees (sees & appreciates!) them. I spend a lot of time in our house, & my mental state is much improved when it's clean & somewhat orderly & at least a corner or two reminds me of a Pottery Barn catalogue.

Sitting at the table Thursday night, I felt the same satisfaction I feel when I've littered a formerly snowy white page with words that express what it is that's going on in my head. Every day you rise, an empty table presents itself. Every day you rise, the cursor is blinking. Every day you rise, you're handed a shiny, solid piece of marble; it's yours to sculpt as you please.

You don't have to paint or sculpt or write or craft compelling speeches (or obsess over home decor) to understand Rodin's words. Every day you're presented with options. What you choose not to do, not to say, is just as important as what you choose to do, what you choose to say. Holes & lumps, lumps & holes. What I choose not to expose my kids to is just as important as what I do present to them.

Consider the impact of saying versus not saying the following:

Thank you.

I am sorry.

I miss you.

I forgive you.

I love you.

Holes & lumps, lumps & holes. Like public speaking, & writing, & painting, & sculpting, life is an art. Relationships are an art. Parenting is an art. Being a Christian is an art. As an artist, pay attention to what you're slinging on your canvas, & consider what you're omitting, & why. I know the why questions will come soon enough from my kids. Why don't you drink? Why don't you __________ ? Why do we do ________? So & so's family doesn't ______________.

I hope this has made a little bit of sense. It's possible I just had way too much time alone Thursday evening & am far too attached to my new table runner & decorative Hobby Lobby pumpkins. Maybe I've been sniffing the fall scented candles too much. I know you may've expected a word or two about one or more of the following men: John Boehner, the Pope, Leonard Fournette. I'll leave you with this: I have glowing things to say about only one of them.

(see that above? that last sentence? that's a hole . . . a hole perhaps more meaningful than any lump I might be tempted to insert in this post)

This concludes the holes & lumps tutorial.


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