A group of seven seemingly disparate people came together recently to begin a creative workshop experience unlike any other; at least, none they’d come in contact with before. The idea germinated in a lecture given on a Mozart concerto at the Julliard School. I had the good fortune of stumbling on it at the invitation of a young violinist friend who was working that night with the amazing musicologist, Bruce Adolph. I would never miss a chance to hear my friend play the violin, but in the interest of full disclosure, I had an inkling there might well be material in the lecture I could use for my own writing. I was struggling with the structure of my novel, Certain Liberties, at the time, and expected Mozart’s genius would undoubtedly supply me with ideas for my book. How right I was!
That spring night at the lecture, we heard about the narrative arc of Mozart’s concerto as well as his multiple layering of themes, often seeming to follow very different threads at the same time; like many thoughts in one head. Mr. Adolph made the point that we never have just one clean, clear voice at work in our minds, and that Mozart was representing the human thought process in a most realistic way. ‘Just try to clear your head for meditation’, he suggested; ‘you’ll see how much interference your mind gives you.’ My violinist friend then demonstrated the multiple woven themes with his usual sensitivity and skill. I came away filled with designs for my own writing, and realizing again as I often have, how invaluable cross-genre arts training can be. If all the arts are different languages, then all artists would benefit from crossing their wires with somebody else’s. That thought started me looking for a way to make a combined craft workshop happen, and with very little advance planning, a small group of artists came together for a July day in the country to test the validity of my hypothesis.
Two painters, four writers and one musician made up the group of seven ranging in age from their early twenties to past seventy. Most of the participants had worked in other professions. Most had been teachers at some point in their careers. Only the young painters and a cellist had started their careers in their current crafts, although one of the painters had trained at an early age as a musician as well, so there were combinations from all directions. The day was a phenomenal success. The arts certainly proved to be the greatest communicators of all and there can be no doubt people who might not have thought they had much in common came away feeling the synergy.
We did drawing exercises (gazing out at a beautiful water scene), learned to listen to the finest classical music in a whole new way (live, up-close and personal) and discussed solutions to writing problems that might have seemed insoluble before the painters and musicians weighed in. There was no doubt in our minds we’d made invaluable discoveries and friendships. Art had certainly shown us how similar our cares and joys are no matter where we come from or what age we are. Obviously we were also overstimulated to the drowning point by the end of the day, and it took time to unwind and recover back in our own environments; but the thoughts wouldn’t stop just because we were home, and we used them to move to new places in our work.
Two days later, I pulled out the five minute sketch I’d done with the others for the artists’ assignment. We’d been working on a landscape of bay and shore, sky, clouds, and boats, creating a horizon first and then placing things we saw in compositions that included silent spaces and true beginnings and ends. I’d been at a loss to complete something satisfying, and was surprised at how difficult it was. Why had I struggled so? And for heaven’s sake, why had I erased the tiny sailboats that were there on the horizon, certainly the easiest shapes of all to copy and the ones included in everyone else’s sketches. Yes, I had actually erased the tiny triangle I’d drawn first and replaced it with a tall radio tower in the distance (a lot harder to draw and not very romantic) and a large osprey nest perch in the foreground (an even tougher model). It was obvious I was trying to show the most prevalent structures I saw in the landscape before me; an accurate representation with the proper balance, but nothing more.
Suddenly I remembered being mesmerized by the two tiny boats with gray and white sails on the horizon. Minute partners, I’d wondered who was in them and what their stories were. Was one sailed by a couple of lovers and the other a single friend who’d agreed to join them for an afternoon on the water? My mind started to soar with the thoughts of those two boats seemingly tied together by an unseen thread, until I realized I was so caught up in the imagined story I wasn’t drawing the landscape. I quickly erased the first boat and decided they’d have to stay out of my picture if I was going to sketch instead of write. I had to fight to get back to my drawing assignment, as the story of those boats kept insinuating itself through my mind’s eye.
Looking afterwards at my poorly erased outline of those tiny sailboats, and then at a sketch, with the boats clearly visible, left behind by one of the workshop participants, I realized the arts are not just there to communicate our similarities, but just as importantly, to highlight our differences. I use words instead of shapes or notes to tell a story, but discrimination is not a dirty word. We need to identify and appreciate each other’s cultural and personal differences and what makes us each unique. What could be more important to our understanding of humanity than the acceptance of the distinctive, irreplaceable exclusivity of a human soul? Our creativity workshop showed me how different we all are, as well as how similar, and for that I’ll be a better writer in the future; you mark my words!