Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Intensive Journals & Connective Threads

Every time we pick up a book to read, we inadvertently choose a path or take up a thread. We may be choosing consciously or we may not even realize what we are doing. From that one book we may be propelled to another. From Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, a quote by Anaïs Nin lead me to read the book, In Favor of the Sensitive Man, and Other Essays, in which Nin reviewed Ira Progoff's At a Journal Workshop: Writing to Access the Power of the Unconscious and Evoke Creative Ability, which I am reading now. In turn, that book took me back to books by Judith Tannenbaum that I had read previously.

Nin's book review of Progoff's book was written in 1975, when it was first published. (It should be noted that she had already published half a dozen of her own journals by then.) I'm sure part of what attracted her to the book was the repetition of the process of sitting still, being quiet, taking deep breaths, and letting words, events, and images flow without judgment or editing. This is the way to get into the creative zone, familiar to many of us now. In her essays, Nin writes frequently about the extraverted world, and how this inner stillness is needed. She also seems glad that Progoff "begins by eliminating the idea of the journal as a literary achievement" (98). Right there, the focus changes from something that sounds unattainable to something part of everyday life. As we proceed through Progoff's method, "every life acquires a value, a richness." With Progoff's book we move back and forth between what we consciously remember and what appears to us in that quiet stillness. Through some of the exercises, our conscious thoughts and feelings are woven with our subconscious images and feelings.

I wondered what other of his methods had already been absorbed into psychological work, into creative society, and/or what I would recognize from my own practice. Progoff suggests reading what you wrote aloud, which is standard advice in writing classes today. In addition to the quiet and stillness, he also talks about "the well" where each of us goes to find our own meaning. Progoff expands the metaphor, adding that if we go deep enough within our own wells, we can find the underground spring that we all share. We can connect to the universal via the personal. But Progoff goes deeper than that. We can do good work in society, empathize, and understand other people better if we are connected to ourselves.

If we each have a well within us, we must dive down to see what is there. This reminded me of something I had read before, but still decades after Progoff published his methods. "Diving" as a concept first came up for me in Judith Tannenbaum's 2000 book, Disguised As A Poem: My Years Teaching Poetry at San QuentinSpoon Jackson, an inmate, uses it as the term for accessing something deep inside and learning. It later becomes an activity they do together. "Diving" is the title of Jackson's chapter six in the 2010 book they wrote, By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two LivesHe writes that in these two-person diving sessions, "I discovered the importance of questions" (65). Questions can direct our attention, allow us to notice without telling us what to think. Jackson was able to make personal discoveries with the help of Tannenbaum's questions. Progoff also makes very good use of questions to get us thinking for ourselves. In Disguised as a Poem, Tannenbaum uses the idea of depth for creative work this way: "in meditation I let pictures and sounds come and go, while when writing a poem I keep my gaze on them steady and words arise and I write the words down" (143). Being still and then both diving down and letting words and images bubble up from the well is alive today into creative culture; these words echo back at me as I continue to read through Progoff's book. 

As you do the exercises you may be taken to buried territory. Progoff's questions about an image or memory may stir up new emotions as you view them with today's eyes and how they connect to today's you. Some of his questions are: "What do you recall of the feelings you had about yourself at that time?" "Did you have any particular beliefs about your personal destiny, favorable or unfavorable, fortunate or unfortunate?" (95). At first, I felt impatient and a little annoyed, partly because I am resistant to other people's assignments, but after reading a while, I began embracing the methods to see what I could learn. Just being reminded of something we may have already known or thought is useful in itself.

What makes Progoff's journal method appealing for some people is that you keep separate pages for separate kinds of thoughts and approaches, but work back and forth among them. There is a system and some limitations, which can free you from certain kinds of choices. The point is not to make an artistic or literary masterpiece at the end that is separate from you, the point is integrating yourself, finding your story and discovering what is really important to you at whatever point you are in your life. He talks about finding the "connective threads." Progoff writes, "We work day by day as much as possible to keep ourselves in an ongoing relationship with whatever is taking place within ourselves" (65). It's a process, and it is fluid. We can change where we look at and how we approach what is happening in our life story every day.

At a Journal Workshop seems long, but the length is due to quite a bit of repetition. The point I think is to try to create a way to experience the Intensive Journal practice on your own. In a workshop or classroom setting, the teacher must often repeat something new several times before the students can absorb it. The repetition in the book provides that learning situation.

Nin writes about the process, "evaluation is creative, judgment is not" (103). Judgment is useful in certain situations (don't pet the alligator), but not necessary when doing exploratory creative work. Editing and judging your thoughts and feelings before you can explore them can lead to a creative block. While it is possible to read through the book and lightly do some of the exercises, I think it is ultimately more helpful and more fulfilling to dive in and engage with them. Being open to new experiences helps. So does trusting that we can spin the assignments in whatever way works for us. Even the light work I've done with the book has already sharpened my vision and changed my approach, letting me work with the raw material that is given to me as is, without judgment.




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