Friday, April 17, 2009

The Line Exploring Space

The essence of drawing is the line exploring space.
    - Andy Goldsworthy

We have a discussion about arts integration going on at my school, and one of my colleagues in the art department referred me last week to the Artsedge site, where I ran across the Goldsworthy quotation, which has been ricocheting around in my brain all week, and has found its way into a number of conversations, including one I had with Chris today. We were talking about our sophomore critical thinking course and how it has been evolving, and Chris was saying something to the effect that he found it hard to think about critical thinking without thinking about problem solving, and we started talking about the role of writing in both processes. And I started describing an art workshop I had attended last month where the artist, while he was doing a demonstration painting for us, was talking about the nature of the interactive process in painting. He was saying that each move you make as you draw or paint creates a sort of problem or imbalance or issue that generates the next move, and it is your job as a painter to pay attentiont to what was happening in front of you and work, basically, on one issue at a time. "If it gets too busy, or loses grandeur, or gets picky, as soon as you recognize that, you know what to do with it: find the complementary quality; that'll be the answer." It is, he says, a way of working that is explorational. "The only thing you know in advance is to be true to the process of discovery. You work toward a shift taking place every time you go at the painting."

All of which is equally true, of course, of writing, or at least of writing the way I understand it and have experienced it and have tried to present it to my students. What I am doing right now, as I type, is laying out a line of words that started in one place and is on its way to ending in another, and while I have a general notion of what I want to try to get at here, the particular form that it is taking is emerging right in front of me, with lots of fits and starts and hesitations and reconsiderations that will hopefully not be visible in the final product, but which very much determine the outcome. If the essence of drawing is, as Goldsworthy says, the line exploring space, then so is the essence of writing.

Which is unfortunately NOT the way that writing is most generally taught, and certainly not the way that it is experienced by most students. I've made the argument before in other posts and essays, but I'm returning to it again: Properly understood and properly practiced, writing is an exploration. It's a way of working, a process that requires a sometimes intuitive, sometimes explicitly analytical sensitivity. You write a word, you write another, you hear a rhythm, you replicate it, you find a pattern, you push it, you do one thing, you do another, until you decide to stop and do the next thing, and the next thing, and the next. "Composition," my friend the artist says, "is a progression, a movement. It needs to have a rhythm to it. Each element needs to lead to the next without much delay. The more you delay, the more disconnected you become from the impetus of the work. It's not just design and placement, it's choreography."

I would argue that the challenge for teachers who want kids to learn to write well and think well is to talk with them and demonstrate to them the nature, and the allure, of the explorational process, to point them at an open space, to send them out to explore it, and to listen well, when they get back, to their reports of what happened while they were away.


nmckeand said...

Thank you. I think I have lost that understanding of writing over the last semester or so, and I needed to be reminded! And now I need to do something about it!

Liz Foster said...

Amen! Yum.