Imperfect Offerings

Stories, interviews, and commentaries on accepting one's own—and other people's—limitations.

Looking Inward for Advice in All the Wrong Places: The Lessons of Imagination Training

Go inside and find your creative advisor suggested our coach....

"Go inside and find your creative advisor," suggested our workshop coach, Gary Goodwin, "someone who likes you and who can be trusted with your questions."

Fifty minutes ago, I'd settled onto floor cushions at the Inner Arts Center in Alexandria, VA for my first Imagination Training Workshop. I surveyed the light-filled room, smelled the incense, and admitted it had been too long. I've spent the summer in the world of the pragmatic: child-care swaps, house showing-selling-hunting--buying. This workshop promised to refresh my writing life in time for fall.

Imagination work, Gary said, could reunite us with meaning, beauty, and mystery. And it could help us problem solve.

Our first exercise called for us to return to a familiar place. I revisited my University Office from ten years ago, reliving minutes past when between student conferences I spaced out under too-florescent lighting, listening to colleagues come and go. Once again, I warmed to gossip and debate. I re-experienced excitement over engaged classes, numbness over stalled ones. After years of not smoking, I felt the urge. And I emerged from the exercise with a meaningful reminder about work--it can disappoint, create anxiety, but at the same time it sparks connection.

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I got stuck in thought rather than feeling during our second exercise, inner bonding with "a meaningful object"--in my case a favorite art t-shirt. It didn't matter. In discussion afterwards, I experienced the beauty and mystery of another woman's image--a shell, dulled by time on the outside, on the inside sensual, pink and smooth.

Now we only had ten minutes and one exercise remaining. Time to cut to the problem solving. How would my inner advisor suggest I segue from writing short pieces (my comfort zone) to writing book length ones-(my discomfort one)? With the right advice, I knew I could emerge charged with creative ideas and the stamina and charisma to manifest them.

But first I had to find the right advisor. No sooner had I shut my eyes then an everyday friend, JM, ambled in. Her over-sized shell earrings jingled. Annoyed, I snapped, "Aren't you in Peru this week?" For the record, I love JM, and admire, sometimes even envy her travel-rich success as an academic. Nevertheless, as I know from our frequent child-swaps and movies nights, her daily life as a single mother is too full of complicated logistics and frequent doubts to put on a pedestal. Friend? For life. Advisor? Ehh. It's not that familiarity breeds contempt. It just doesn't breed awe--the kind I wanted to feel for my inner advisor so that s/he could convey her awesomeness to me.

"Go deeper," I urged myself, "Go more exotic." Suddenly I saw an image, "The Jungian Analyst" from a wood engraving print by the artist I'm writing about. This was more like it! With his brooding eyes and sensual lips, The Jungian Analyst promised penetrating omniscience. I waited for acknowledgment through speech or some expression.

Instead KW startled me. "Hi Sos!" KW and I grew up together, sharing tea parties, unpopularity, and later some fun. When we talk once every two years or so (more frequently on facebook), our shared past is more important than its details. I know when I tell KW my grief over my mother's Alzheimer's she really listens and vice versa when she talks about her family. My life would be diminished without this touchstone. But if K has a part time job in...something...she doesn't, as far as I know, write. "Thanks anyway, K. I'll call you soon."

I glanced at the Jungian Analyst. He looked more glowering than sensitive.

"Hey, you're looking a little tense." Huh? There was JB, slouching at a desk two feet away from me. This former teaching colleague actually had been a mentor, coaching me through my first year of stilted teaching, congratulating me when he saw me loosen up. I really like this guy's life...he writes and publishes poetry, runs a lit. mag and bookshop, and still finds time to teach. But I'd known him, after all, when he shared an office, bad coffee, and a certain amount of bitterness with me and ten other adjuncts. How could I wear his gems of wisdom, knowing the rocky spots from which he'd mined them?

"It's almost time to start returning to the room," our workshop leader reminded gently.

Argh! Panic-stricken I force-fed my imagination images of potential charismatic advisors past and present: Like Mr. W., the high-school English teacher/wrestling coach with the sardonic wit, someone I'd longed to please. If I was looking for ego-boosting advice, however, I needed some vision I didn't possess. "That crush you had on me? How'd that work for you? You went from showing promise to showing nothing. You stopped writing! Besides, I'm a grandfather now...." Okay, okay, moving on... With time running out I rushed to imagine and connect with cool writers and taboo artists, "sort of friends" acquired through social networks, people I look up to...but they had their own work and their own needs for advice.

"In a minute, I'd like you all to open your eyes..."

As if saying goodbye, JM, KW, and JB suddenly gathered round and...hugged me-a group hug, a nerdy one! I never asked for this! Still, coming back to the room, I felt better. In the last few nights, since my imagination training, I've dreamt of calling and receiving calls from varied friends, all my equals, bright men and women with work problems (or the problem of no work), with loving families...and family conflicts, with insecurities and strengths. I had always known, I guess, (isn't that the point of inner work?) how I would proceed creatively-- with less ease and glamour that I'd wished, with more satisfaction and friendship than I could have hoped for.

 

Karen Sosnoski, Ph.D., is a mother, writer, and documentary filmmaker.

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