Friday, April 11, 2008

Shaping the Nuances

We meet every week for an hour or two. We talk about art, style, the way an artist can challenge conventional ideas of a culture and stir up debate and even ire. We talk about the way Obama uses oratory language to express his ideas even more clearly and emphatically, or how someone will acknowledge and deflect a weakness to diffuse it. We talk about how writers and painters express a mood beyond the concrete subject depicted, how we sometimes feel drawn to another path when we turn out to be not cut out for our first vocation. We talk about the versatility of the verb "to run." To run errands. I gotta run to the grocery store because I'm running out of bread. The river or feelings are running high. I'm running low on gas or energy or motivation. How asking someone "If you don't mind" acknowledges that they may indeed mind, and thus smoothes the way for more sensitive topics. And how we might speak to THE Universal, THE specific, THE local using the nuances of grammar.

This student is quite accomplished in the English language but still feels frustrated at not being able to express her thoughts and feelings adequately in English. She says that being reduced to expressing herself in simple language (or only in simple words) makes her feel like a child, and she's sad about that.

Compared to some of my students who are still learning to master some of the basics, she expresses herself quite well. She has a good grasp of the vocabulary, the grammar, the pronunciation, the understanding of culture, so that we are tweaking and augmenting her knowledge, perhaps patching a few holes, not undertaking any major renovations or new construction.

I know that she appreciates our time together, my patience as she expresses her thoughts (drawing her out and encouraging her), and our frequent focus on educational and academic ideas, teasing out the shades of meanings, especially important in our low-context culture in which more things must be spoken rather than implied. There are books and books to be written about such topics.

What she seems to enjoy most (and feels she lacks) is learning the *nuances* of the language, those subtle shades of meaning and phrases that express not merely the rough shape of ones thoughts but the fine detail as well. She wants her facility with words to catch up with the complexity of her thoughts. Even those of us who are native English speakers may want that!

I muse that we all develop some accomplishment in nuance, if given a chance and inclination and encouragement. One can be a painter or photographer; the more one learns the craft and the small changes one can make, the more one may be inclined to *care* about how one might shape the object. Writers and speakers, programmers and performers, too, shape their subject. Our mentors and role models shine a light to show the way.

We recently read an essay from a North Carolina author about his time at university, when he started to shift from engineering to writing... about both the confusion, loneliness, delight, the strengthening of purpose, and the people, paintings, and places that moved and inspired him. And then we talk about how the writer himself talks about his subject, how he talks about THE local, THE specific, using the most universal of grammatical forms, stealthily contrasting the two, meaning and method woven together, so that the reader wonders at his words without knowing how they have been drawn under the spell of his craft.

High flown words for me, huh? Trying to describe this nuance of the shaping.

The creative urge tickles us in myriad ways. How will I shape my life, my work?

In our everyday lives, we express ourselves both with broad strokes and with nuance. Sometimes without consciously studying, we pursue our desire. If we are lucky, we notice what feeds that delight, that creative desire. Or we have been encouraged and demanded to push ourselves to try something new, to make it better, to try something else, to push for that edge that shapes the nuances...

Yes, there are some things we can do, consciously or unconsciously, to practice our expression:

Observe more accomplished creatives, reason out what they are doing and why, try something, try something else, ask for help, observe, practice, reflect, cut away. Stretch, keep limber, sometimes do some heavier lifting to challenge the muscles.

One does not become nuanced in a week or a year. As this writer Robert Morgan reflects some 45 years later, "I am still learning how the specific, the exact, even the idiosyncratic, can be the most universal, the most accessible. The art is in the shaping, in the expressive distortion that woos attention toward a sense of intimacy."

I would argue that it's an intimacy with oneself, expressing that self. It's a life-time endeavor with our chosen mediums. Paint, light, words, spaces, time, relationships... There are few immediate masters among us, but for an art that speaks to us, we are willing to push ourselves because it feels right, because it satisfies something deep. If we are lucky, we work with more joy than dread. If we are really lucky, our whole life is a medium.

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