Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What we can and cannot do

Inevitably when I talk about Goddard College, I talk about one of my favorite workshops ever.
Port Townsend campus director Erin Fristad offered a session based on the film The Five Obstructions. In the documentary, filmmaker Lars Von Trier (Melancholia, Dogville, Dancer in the Dark) challenged his creative mentor Jorgen Leth to remake his 1967 avant garde short film The Perfect Human (video) five different ways. The catch was Von Trier chose the difficult parameters: the film had to be remade as a cartoon, for example. Another was Leth had to relinquish control over his creation: Von Trier remade one version himself and Leth had to put his name on it and do the voiceover for the film. For artists, relinquishing control is huge. Monstrous, scary.

Sometime scary is good.

For Fristad's workshop, we were to bring along a section of our work that was giving us trouble. I wasn't sure how much of a role my protagonist's mother should play throughout my post-apocalyptic novel -- I had killed off the mother but it felt like she should still be present somehow. We each discussed what we had brought and then Erin made her decisions.

I was to be paired with my friend Ellen, a poet, who was working on a long poem concerning the unnatural evolution of the world food supply and its impact on human rights. We were to trade our work. Ellen was to write a poem based on the section of novel I had brought with me. I was to write a short science fiction story about Ellen's section of poetry. We had twenty minutes to finish.

Ellen and I have a great respect for each other and our work, but were essentially coming from completely different directions on the literary road -- a poet and a genre fiction writer? We kind of smiled nervously and thought, well. Hmm.

Ellen wrote a poem in the voice of my protagonist's dead mother. I wrote a story from the perspective of a genetically engineered grain of rice.

What happened was a marvelous collision of art and inspiration.

She helped me to see what role my character's mother could play even though she was gone physically. Ellen said my story helped her to let her poem, Rice, evolve naturally. The exercise worked beautifully for us.

Art is perspective and the exercise helped us to see our work through the eyes of the other. Exploration is key to developing our own creativity -- we can be inspired and shaped by works in other genres. Ellen's poem and subsequent work, The Botanical Garden, undoubtedly freed me to try non-traditional forms in my own writing.

The Five Obstructions trailer says: We want to see what he can and he cannot do.

What can you do? What can't you do? Are you sure?


Sidney said...

Great post! That's a very good thought for dealing with a troubled portion of a work.

Isla McKetta said...

I love this post, Nikki! I think I missed that workshop by a semester, but the spirit of crossing genres was one of my favorite things about Goddard, that and getting to know a diverse group of wonderful writers like you and Ellen. Thanks for the inspiration!

Anonymous said...

Nikki, This post was helpful. Thank you.