The Blessed Unrest: On Teaching, Writing, Ted Williams, and Martha Graham’s Splendid Advice to Agnes de Mille

I’ve tried something new recently. I’m teaching an online class for Gotham Writers, “Writing Children’s Books: Level 1.”

I’m enjoying the experience, mostly because of the students. I find myself thinking about them a lot, how to structure a lesson, how best to respond to a wide variety of writing and ambitions. I suspect that if I calculated the pay per hour, I’d be making below minimum wage. But payment isn’t just about money, as we know. I’m getting things out of it, too. Inspiration, engagement, clarity, connection.

But how best to respond to student writing? I mean, sure, say something positive, say something constructive, be encouraging. That’s all pretty obvious & within my nature. My friend, a far more experienced teacher, told me that every writing student wants to get published. That’s the dream, the aspiration. Maybe I’ll write a book one day. Lots of people have that thought, and certainly most anyone taking a writing class. I don’t know why, but the notion surprised me. Could it be true? Probably yes, I guess. 

In life, we receive when our antenna is up; we absorb when we make ourselves spongey, receptive. When I came across an amazing quote by Martha Graham, I was ready to hear it. Her words clarified so much for me. The excerpt comes from Agnes de Mille’s 1991 biography, Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham. At the time, de Mille was experiencing great uncertainty and dissatisfaction with her work, both in her own sense of it and how it was received by others. 

 

I talked to Martha. I remember the conversation well. It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent but no faith that I could be. Martha said to me, very quietly, “There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and (will) be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours. Clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself and your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open . . .  No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

 

Beautiful, right? 

And in so many different ways. 

I’ve decided, for my class, that there are essentially two paths open for me when responding to someone’s work. The first might be to address it from a publishing point of view. Discuss the marketplace, the types of things that are published, the “proper” length & format, things that are typically frowned upon by editors today, etc. All to help them realize the great & noble dream of publication. And I have pretty much zero interest in that type of instruction. I mean, there’s a whole cottage industry out there making promises to unpublished authors, “The 7 keys to becoming a bestselling author,” etc. I can’t help but suspect there’s a degree of flimflam to all that, snake oil salespersons preying on the innocent. Maybe that’s unfair. It’s surely good information to have at some point along the journey. But I’m not that guy.

As for the second path, yes, I can align myself with that. If I can encourage someone to express themselves, to tap that vein of creativity and authentic feeling, it seems worthwhile. One true thing. Help them in some small way to become better artists and writers. Because if you can do that, the “author” part just might follow. Eventually.

When the class started, I mentioned baseball legend Ted Williams. When asked about his goals for the upcoming season — Did he hope to bat for a .350 average? Mash 40 homers? — Williams replied, simply, that his goal was to put a good swing on the ball. Process over result.  

Here’s to putting a good swing the ball, folks. The rest will be what it will be. But somehow in the process you’ll express something of yourselves, get in touch with some meaningful memories, awaken the sleeping spirits that reside deep within, experience Martha Graham’s “blessed unrest” and possibly become a little more alive as you move through the days.

Oh, one line that I especially love in that whole thing?

It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda.

I admire the simplicity and directness of that sentence. In a passage full of spoken words and abstractions, that simple line grounds us in the reality of the scene. Two women talking in as ordinary setting as one could imagine. It is not easy for writers to leave a sentence like that alone: It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. It seems too artless, too plain: the clever writer all too invisible. Of course, that’s the point. De Mille gets out of the way. She disappears. It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. It’s all the reader needs.

So that’s the last thought bubbling up the straw. Companionship. Connection. Conversation. Two women, two artists, sitting together and supporting each other. Just talking. Maybe that’s the biggest lesson of all. Be there for each other.

Maybe it’s time to give that friend a call.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One comment

  1. Robin Pulver says:

    Wonderful. Thank you so much!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *