Creating work in isolation is often lonesome. That’s why many writers and other artists turn to the workshop for critique, feedback, and inspiration. While helpful in many ways, much of the feedback I’ve received at writers’ and artists’ groups seemed superficial and impersonal.* In the traditional workshop, artists sit fidgeting, drink too much coffee, and tell each other lies. Members tend to offer sweet generalities about the piece in question so that everybody will think they’re nice and will like them, or they rip the work to shreds with their cleverness so that everybody will think they’re smart and will like them.** In either case, the critique is typically far more informative about the people doing the critiquing than about the piece on the table.
I wanted something better for our 8-day multidisciplinary arts intensive. I wanted to go deeper. I wanted the artists to share what they honestly thought and felt about the content of newly created pieces. I wanted to have nothing to do with weak cheerleading or clever critiquing. I wanted genuine response.
Genuine response would require a genuine shift in what we artists ordinarily do. Instead of simply evaluating and critiquing the technicalities of a piece, each member would share what she thought and felt about her own experience of another artist’s work. In other words, each artist might get a glimpse at the impact her work might have on an audience.
I had been planning the intensive with Roger Sams at his Sacred Arts Center, when I met Donna Mazzola, a student of what she called “dream work.” Donna invited a small group gathered around Roger’s dining room table to try a little dream work of our own.
I love dreaming and talking about my dreams. Who doesn’t? Still, I was reluctant. I feel irritated when I share a dream with someone who tells me what they think my dream means. Usually it’s clear that all this person is doing is projecting their own stuff into my stories. And, frankly, I was a little reluctant to join in at first because I find listening to other people go on about their dreams kind of boring. But the model Donna practiced made the sharing fascinating. She used a practice called projective dream work, based on the work of Jeremy Taylor.
A woman at the table told the story of her dream. Then, instead of asking us to avoid projecting our own meanings (a practice I thought of as invasive and negative), Donna encouraged projection. She asked that we begin each response with “If this were my dream…” as we offered our responses. This little phrase made all the difference for me. The projection we unintentionally inflict on each others stories became transparent. The urge to plant our own experience into another person’s dream added depth to the story. Since I respond to your dreams from my own experience, your dream has personal significance for me. Now that I know it really is all about me, your boring dream becomes fascinating, and my response adds layers to its meaning.
Honesty. Transparency of intent. Support in peeling back the layers of meaning. Deep discovery. This is what I wanted in our feedback circles at the arts intensive. I told Donna then of my plan to borrow Taylor’s model, modify it, and use it for art and works-in-progress.
Donna agreed to share her dream work with our group, give us the chance to practice sharing our dreams as a peer group, and I proceeded to adapt Jeremy Taylor’s process for our feedback circles. During the day, with Donna we shared and responded to dreams. In the evening, we shared our work. For both we used the following, with my adaptation (in red). My comments appear in blue. Taylor’s unmodified Dream Work Tool Kit is available here.
The Dreamwork (Artwork) Tool Kit:
Six Basic Hints for Dream (art) Work
All dreams (all works of creative and expressive art) speak a universal language and come in the service of health and wholeness. There is no such thing as a “bad dream (inspiration for art)” — only dreams (works of art) that sometime take a dramatically negative form in order to grab our attention. This statement assumes that the piece of art speaks to universal experience. Seems a little lofty, doesn’t it? But why not assume that our work is universal? Why spill so much blood, sweat, and tears in service to anything less? The idea that “negative art” might work in service of our “health and wholeness” encourages the feedback circle to respond with honesty to work they might not think is pretty or pleasing.
Only the dreamer (the artist) can say with any certainty what meanings his or her dream (his or her works) may have. This certainty usually comes in the form of a wordless “aha!” of recognition. This “aha” is a function of memory, and is the only reliable touchstone of dream work. There may be many reliable touchstones in responding to works of art in progress.
There is no such thing as a dream (a work of art) with only one meaning. All dreams (works of art) and dream images are “overdetermined,” and have multiple meanings and layers of significance. To me, nothing feels more magical than when new layers of meaning are discovered in response to an emerging work of art.
No dreams (works of art) come just to tell you what you already know. All dreams (All works of art) break new ground and invite you to new understandings and insights. Breaking new ground with new understandings is a rather high bar for a work of art.
When talking to others about their dreams (pieces of art), it is both wise and polite to preface your remarks with words to the effect of “if it were my dream (poem, play, dance, painting, garden or other work)…,” and to keep this commentary in the first person as much as possible. This means that even relatively challenging comments can be made in such a way that the dreamer (artist)may actually be able to hear and internalize them. It also can become a profound psycho-spiritual discipline — “walking a mile in your neighbor’s moccasins.” “If it were my -fill in the blank-” became a group mantra at the arts intensive. We used it to preface just about suggestion, interpretation, or opinion we wanted to qualify.
All dream (arts) group participants should agree at the outset to maintain anonymity in all discussions of dream work. In the absence of any specific request for confidentiality, group members should be free to discuss their experiences openly outside the group, provided no other dreamer (artist) is identifiable in their stories. However, whenever any group member requests confidentiality, all members should agree to be bound automatically by such a request. Creating art can be risky. Confidentiality helps us to feel safe. Safety allows deep, personal sharing to happen.
© Jeremy Taylor 2004, with modifications
Artists very often require feedback about technicalities. We need to know the specifics about what works and what doesn’t. This is all good and fine, but when I’m presenting a work-in-progress, often one that just came to me like a gift from the cosmos, I have more basic questions. How have I reached you? What does my work mean for you personally? How does my work resonate with what you’re feeling and thinking? What made it into your head and heart? How do I connect with you and how does the work that flows through me flow through you?
The results of this experiment continue to unfold. Our circle often focused on personal stories and revelations rather than addressing particular works of art. During our week together we bonded much like a close family, made possible, in part, by Taylor’s process. We lovingly referred to each evening’s feedback circle as our “deep dive.” I, for one, dove in much deeper than I expected or intended. Deep sharing about art can be painful, challenging, and life-changing, not unlike working with dreams.
*I found notable exceptions to this phenomenon in workshops at Women Writing for a Change.
**For anyone who has ever sat through too many writing workshops, you must read Billy Collins’ “Workshop”.
***I know, I know. There is a time and a place for technical critique. I could have used some for this entry, right?