Processing SHARE 23

Updated July 22, 2015

I recently had the fun opportunity to participate in the 23rd edition of SHARE, organized by two writers, my friend Margaret Malone and Kathleen Lane. Here’s the description from their website:

SHARE is a bi-monthly event in Portland, Oregon that brings a small group of artists together to create in a shared space. Artists have two hours to create from a one-word prompt.
I was a little intimidated to go at first, but that pretty much vanished once I met some of the other folks. There were a bunch of writers, a couple of designers, visual artists, a musician, multimedia artist and me. I’ll update this post when they put up Check out their blog post of artists’ process and outcomes from SHARE 23. Below is my account of what I experienced.

Going into SHARE, I knew I would start with creating a blackout poem aka erasure. It’s recent practice I’ve taken up inspired by lots of makers on Instagram. A blackout poem is created from an existing page of text or prose. You create the poem by selecting words from the page and blacking out the rest. (Austin Kleon wrote a bestseller, Newspaper Blackout, some credit with helping to spur a blackout poetry movement.) I’ve been doing these for a few weeks, either as stand alone pieces or as inspiration for something else, another writing or a physical improvisation.

SHARE23_ttr-processI brought with me several thrift store self-help books I’d picked up for use in my blackout poems. I brought my markers and an oil cloth to mark on. I brought several books on physical improvisation, thinking that I might be inspired to create an improv or an improv score.

With FIRE as the prompt, I started paging through the book I thought most likely would have something that inspires fire. I chose Strengths Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath. If you’ve ever taken a personality test like a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the Strength Deployment Inventory, this book has a similar bent. It helps one assess personality traits by profiling 34 common talents, such as Adaptability, Arranger, Futuristic and Woo. (Can’t wait to Here’s my blackout poem for one page of the “Woo” section!) I thought about which of these strengths might identify as fire. The very first one in the book is “Achiever” and I thought, that’s the one, bingo. It literally had “fire” in the text.

When I improvise from a prompt, I like to take the prompt and move a step or two away from it, so as not to hit the prompt on the nose within the improv. With that in mind, here’s how my blackout poem turned out:

help drive need
some form of burning rekindles
relentless whisper brings energy jolt
it is power
it is moving

From that, I found myself drawn to the word whisper. But I also wanted to see what would happen if I paired different words within the poem together:

help rekindle
burning whisper
some jolt
power whisper
whisper form
form it
moving form
drive power
brings drive
relentless moving
energy help
is energy
of energy

“Power whisper” jumped out at me. Everything up until then had been pretty straightforward, kinda serious, earthy. I wanted to see if I could create something more funny. From there I did a free write, which I’m not going to share in full. Here’s are two excerpts one from the very beginning and one from the very end:

I love the idea of a whisper in relation to fire. The quietness of it. It’s like the power of silence. Power whisper? Like a power ballad? I imagine a person talking in a power whisper…

… could be someone with extremely high status, who says very little, but when says something it’s a power whisper where you have to lean in dangerously close to hear. Like a Wilson Fisk. Where am I going with all this? What do I do with this?

Yes, this is where I got a little stuck. I took a break and enjoyed some almond thins and more beer. I went and bugged my pal Lena who was getting into some interesting things. After we chatted, she offered for me to draw from her Science Tarot deck for inspiration. That was just the kick I needed.

Gathering more inspiration from my tarot draw, I started improvising a two person scene on paper. I had two characters in mind, and at the time, I created the script first and then wrote brief character outlines. Below I’m sharing the characters first and then the scene, to help you picture the characters. I was imagining a “post-apocalyptic sit com” kind of genre. (Not only did I have that Daredevil character Wilson Fisk in mind, I think that the recent hubbub over the impending earthquake has been blanketing my mood this week.)

The Maven

  • speaks in slow whispers
  • likewise, moves very slowly, very little
  • seems old
  • loves to be outdoors
  • never sits down, only stands or lies
  • meticulous dress
  • fastidious
  • warm, soft

The Empress

  • voice is deep and lyrical, almost a song
  • slow moving, grand gestures
  • has a feline quality
  • almost always seated
  • never leaves her space
  • cold on the outside, warm inside
Maven: Thank you for this water.
Empress: Not many places offer it for free anymore.
Maven: You’re a good friend.
Empress: An old one.
Maven: Yes, I can hardly remember.
Empress: Because you’re wasted.
Maven: Because I’m wasting away.
Empress: What was your last meal?
Maven: Peas. Four peas from one pod.
Empress: When?
Maven: Yesterday. Lucky me, eh?
Empress: An actual pea pod? Like from a plant?
Maven: I know, seems impossible.
Empress: I had peas, too, but from a can. I’m jealous.
Maven: Here, a blueberry.
Empress: You’re a good friend.

I wrote another scene, which I didn’t share at SHARE, but I’ll include here:

Maven: I’m glad you came to walk with me.
Empress: I’m scared shitless.
Maven: The last time you were out?
Empress: 33 days.
Maven: I see. I’ve walked this path for the past 33 days.
Empress: Trying to make me feel better?
Maven: Just saying.
Empress: I don’t see any people.
Maven: I haven’t seen any people in 33 days.
Empress: You’re shitting me.
Maven: Ah, you’re right. I did see a car, I think, in the distance over there.
Empress: Maybe it’s been more than 33 days.
Maven: Yes, perhaps it has.
Empress: I should get out more often.
Who knows if I’ll ever do anything more with these characters, but I do quite like them. I do know that I look forward to more SHARE.

Four ways of destroying to create

I’ve recently started a creative practice called erasure or blackout poetry. (Follow me on Instagram to see more.) Basically, you take a page of text or prose and create your poem by removing words from the text. Here’s one I did recently:

it isn't brokenAs someone who loves process and improvisation, this kind of exercise has just enough structure to be challenging, and also extremely liberating. And I’m interested in how much creating is about destroying.

  1. In this case, I quite literally destroyed a book by tearing out the page, then destroyed the page by using my very permanent sharpie to cover up the original work underneath. I was surprised at how difficult I found it to actually rip this book up (a rather compelling read titled Ten Things I Learned from Bill Porter: The Inspiring True Story of the Door-To-Door Salesman Who Changed Lives by Shelly Brady), a thrift store book I should have no emotional attachment to.A book, any book, seems like such a final, permanent product. And yet it’s not, nothing’s ever permanent. Whether you take the book and use it as a coaster for your coffee mug, or throw it in the dumpster to get jostled with banana peels and used tissues, the book’s finality is perhaps not what it seems. Eventually, like a creative band-aid, I just tore that page out Ten Things knowing that it’s all part of the process.
  2. The process also included that bittersweet, destructive creation tool called editing. Editors are notorious destroyers! In this case my process went something like: What word grabs me? What word goes with that word? Shall I go with a verb pattern? How about that phrase? O now that word doesn’t work anymore. What themes are emerging? How does choosing a different word, change the work? But, I like that word! What if I switch the order? Where does it start, and where does it end? Is that the right ending, or is this the right ending? Oh, it’s what time? I’ll just find one more phrase. End process. Begin sharpie.
  3. Once I chose the page for erasure, I had to embrace the limitations of the text, sacrificing a whole universe of choices for the few in front of me. In the worlds of improvisational arts, these limitations or structures are gold. One of my teachers, the great Ruth Zaporah, wrote in the introduction to her book Action Theater: The Improvisation of Presence, “These rules open pathways that lead into unexplored territories.”
  4. After I completed my blackout poem, I just couldn’t leave well-enough alone. I actually started playing around with using it as a jumping off point for a physical improvisation, extending the creation process into another discipline. Or, more precisely, an erasure of the erasure, destroying the poem in order to create a new piece.

The destroying and creating cycle has endless possibilities.

Want to check out any of my favorite books on the creative process and support this blog? As a Powell’s Books Partner, we’ll will receive a small portion of any sales that come directly from links on this page. Thanks!

A look at “Last Stop on Market Street”

I am so grateful for our awesome Multnomah County Library. I love to pick up  “Lucky Day!” books – the most current, hot titles without waiting on hold forever. This week, my eyes were drawn to Last Stop on Market Street a picture book written by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson.

I’m always on the lookout for good books for my preschooler, with sophisticated storytelling and beautiful art. And most especially, ones that feature people of color. Last Stop has it all!

The story follows CJ and his grandma as they ride the bus from church through their bustling city to regular post-church destination, revealed in the final pages. For me, three things make this book a cut above the average picture book:

  • The storytelling is rich and layered. It’s neither too simplistic or over-explanatory as some children’s books tend to be. It feels colorful, whimsical, playful. In one scene, as a man starts playing his guitar on the bus, a blind man who has befriended Nana and CJ teases, “To feel the magic of music, I like to close my eyes.” Nana, CJ and a friendly dog also close their eyes, too.
  • The “cast” of the book is extremely diverse, with the protagonists a black child with his black grandma. Throughout the pages are a wonderful palette of colors, ability, age, dress. But the story doesn’t have to talk about diversity or hit you over the head with it. It simply tells the story of a city, and shows all kinds of different people that you would actually see in a city. Hooray!
  • Spoiler alert. CJ and his grandma arrive at their destination at that last stop on Market Street: a soup kitchen. The story ends showing the two serving folks at the center. I love how this book gives you just enough story to be a conversation starter. There’s no judgement or lesson here. Just a sweet day-in-the-life depiction of an intergenerational relationship, a city, a community.

More about the book in this NPR interview with de la Peña and Robinson. De la Peña also wrote a sweet post on Brightly about the significance of diversity of characters for young children.

Want to buy Last Stop on Market Street and support this blog? As a Powell’s Books Partner, we’ll will receive a small portion of any sales that come directly from links on this page. Thanks!

Last Stop on Market Street
by Matt De La Pena