Try Walking Backward
In order to write the book called This is Love I had to make my way through years of obsession, discovery and failure. I had to leave my home, abandon much of my life and travel across the world. And then I had to forget, completely, that I’d ever thought of or tried to tell the story in the first place, before it finally came back to me again.
Along the way I found different teachers, in places both expected and unexpected; people who helped me to discover the ideas, to shape the tools that I would need, in order to find my way to the journey’s ending. People who gave me gifts, and helped me to comprehend the gifts that were already my own.
The most important teacher I ever had was M, someone I more or less stumbled upon. During a summertime visit to New York City, my friend Q said, “Oh, you’re going to school at _____? You have to take a class with M; it doesn’t matter what it is, if she’s teaching a class this fall just take it, trust me.” When I got home, I checked out the course catalog and found that M was teaching a class in the coming fall semester, an upper level course listed in the theater/dance department called Improvisational Performance Techniques. Most definitely not something I would have found on my own, but as soon as I read that course title there was an intuitive, strong resonance; well, that’s an understatement, really. Honestly, those three words — Improvisational Performance Techniques — seemed to inscribe a world, as I read them, that was going to give me exactly what I needed.
At the time, the idea that I had a story I needed to tell was still in gestation, not quite born yet. This was the summer of 2004, I was 26 years old, and in the process of re-booting my life, pretty much. I’d moved back home, and getting back into school (overall it took 5 schools, and 12 years, to collect my BA) was sort of the obvious first step. I’d had a good first semester that spring, focused on the process of getting re-acquainted with the patterns and rhythms of academic life, but still had yet to really identify an orientation, a compass point at which to direct myself. What I did have, though, was a clear sense that it was time for a left turn of sorts, that I needed brand new information. That led me to a four-class slate for that fall with two introductory classes in the art department, an upper level class that was cross-listed between theater and sociology, and at the center of it all, Improvisational Performance Techniques.
From the outset, it was the obvious gem in my schedule. All of the other three courses also proved valuable and worthy; served to open up new imaginative capacities, develop bridges between previously separate modes of thought. But M’s class was…I mean, I can’t really overemphasize it. In the first place, it was a great class in and of itself; M’s polite disregard for the rigidity of traditional academic structures, combined with her ability to create and command an architecturally unique class-ecosystem, made the class into an entirely distinct educational opportunity within the confines of the university as a whole. But beyond that, it was ridiculously timely for me personally; felt god-gifted, in the way that it helped me to comprehend the questions I needed to be asking, and subsequently to help me also begin to divine those questions’ answers.
In short, I loved it, super-loved it. Manna from heaven, as they say. This is the first thing M said, at the outset of her introduction to the class on the very first day: “I believe that art is fundamentally important for life.” The words, and the conviction of the tone in which she spoke them, seemed to open up some door within me, or maybe several doors; like an activation code for some dormant but pre-existing system within my body. Lights coming on, gears beginning to click and whirr into motion. It was immediately recognizable to me as an invitation: to take the class seriously, to take your education seriously, to take your life seriously. To be engaged, and to believe in the ultimate validity of your engagement.
The one thing she had to impart, really, was that central directive; beyond that, it was about creating an environment for exploration, bounded only by your own desire and capacity to learn. The structure of the class was simple and intuitive, indicated by its title: a survey of improvisational techniques, across a variety of performative disciplines, combined with the requirement to generate performances of your own, both individually and within small groups. The class took place in a medium-sized dance studio, wooden floors, high ceiling, natural light from windows high up on one wall. Much of it was conducted by M herself, but there were also a number of guest instructors, specialists in one technique or another.
I existed in the class as an anomaly, an outlier. Of the twenty or so (a mix of graduate and undergraduate) students, I was the only one who wasn’t a member of the dance or theater departments. And beyond that I had already, obviously (5 schools, 12 years), pretty much levered myself out of anything resembling a typical path within the academic world. As such it became clear to me, as time went by, that the rest of the students were operating within varieties of constraint that I wasn’t, that had no effect on me. This was, I think, the most important lesson the class taught me about who I was, and how I needed to direct my life, accordingly; and it was a lesson that crystallized itself on the day, halfway through the semester, when M introduced us to the Situationists and the practice of dérive.
A very quick summary: the Situationists were an art group (in France in the 60's, I think) composed around certain philosophic principles (as such groups are), and they generated practices of art based on those principles (as such groups do), and one of those practices was an entirely improvisational form called dérive. M started class that day with a succinct and clear introduction to the group and this specific practice, which I’m going to sum up by describing it as, “entering — and existing in — public spaces without having an intention” (and if you want a more detailed description you’ll find it here, most specifically in the 3rd paragraph/section, starting with “Concealed”). This introduction took about 5 or 10 minutes, and then M paused, looked at us all and smiled and said “Ok, off you go!”
The reaction of the entire class was total bewilderment, basically. “So you’re telling us, to just go…walk around?” M just sat there, nodding, smiling and sphinx-like. And I got it, immediately I got it. People were confused, dismayed even, and I remember seeing it; watching their reactions, and thinking to myself that this class was like, oh man, just about the best thing ever. For me, it was the nexus, the core merging point of what the class offered and what I needed. You are free. To reinvent yourself, and to reinvent everything around you. Your preconceptions and your judgments are not in fact the composition of reality. Open your eyes and see.
It took me awhile to really find it. I walked around inside the building for a bit, kind of finding the pulse, half in the zone and half not, before coming across an exit door and leaving. Outside, it was a lot harder. Other people walking back and forth in a heavily signified and proscribed environment, feeling myself as a kind of spectacle, uncomfortable and awkward. I took off my shoes at some point, as a way of trying to identify myself within a different landscape, and then I was walking on the grass under a tree; walking in a circle, and my body started turning, slowly…and then I was walking backward, and it all clicked into place. Suddenly I was fully absorbed, no longer concerned with anything but my own singular movement through space and time.
It’s a hard thing to describe, that kind of transitional moment of consciousness. I mean, I can describe the physical mechanics, what you would have seen if you’d been watching me, namely a person with bare feet, walking backwards; but the inner, invisible motion is a harder thing to put into words.
First of all: when I say it all “clicked into place”, I’m being as direct as possible in describing that inner motion. And I think the sense of things “clicking into place” is a recognizable enough, and common enough, phenomenon of conscious experience.
Secondly: recall that I’d been given a clear goal at which to direct myself. In other words, I was actively seeking for that transitional moment, that doorway into a different world.
Third though, and most importantly: how did the action I chose — walking backwards — engineer that moment, create that doorway? That’s the most interesting part to me. I mean, once I was in that world I stayed there, walking backward for the next, oh, close to an hour or so: off campus, into the surrounding neighborhoods, sometimes looking back over my shoulder as I walked but for long stretches also not, just clam-happy walking backwards, all over town. But the joy, the elation I felt wasn’t from that action itself, it was because I’d been able to discover it; had been able to find this specific action that delivered into me that other world, that functioned as a key which unlocked the door.
I think it worked because it was so simple, and yet so fundamental. Walking is the most basic form of human locomotion, part and parcel of the unconscious way in which we form the world. That is a tree, over there is a rock, when I move my body from one place to another I walk forward. Basics of existence that we know and therefore give no further thought to. I mean, of course you walk forward, duh…but, well, what if you don’t? What happens if you investigate the unconsciously-held motives and values of walking forward, and instead turn around and walk backward for awhile? Well, what I found is that it literally transformed my perspective: instead of seeing the world come toward me, I saw it moving away from me. My locomotive process, instead of causing objects in my field of view — and thus the world — to grow larger as I approached them, caused them to grow smaller as I moved away from them. In other words, I was able to create a different inner world, by engineering a very literal transformation in my experience of physical “reality”.
That was the first part. The other, of course, is how it allowed me to dissociate myself from the social milieu. Because in public spaces everyone is moving with intention, always: they are going from one place to another, to shop, to eat, to work, and they are doing it with so much affectation, projecting about themselves in regards to how they want to be perceived, in regards to their values and insecurities and sense of place in human society. Once I left the building it was incredibly difficult to not participate in all of that, to not respond to it; to not also project my own affectations about, for example, this weird exercise I was trying to engage with. But walking backwards was a way of disengaging from all of that; such an obvious sign that I was in a different world, that it enabled me to act that way. Instead of trying to ignore all the sensory social input, I was able to let it all flow in, because I wasn’t like anyone else, I was completely different; they were all walking-forward people, but not me, I was a walking-backward person. And as such, the way I saw and interpreted the world was entirely different from everyone around me.
Walking backwards that day was, I think, the first step — and yes, sort-of-pun intended — into understanding that I could be an artist; that the burgeoning sense that I had a story I had to tell, was a task that I could in fact take on, could accomplish. Seeing what you could manifest, by such a simple maneuver; what hidden bodies of input, caches of information there were to be accessed. And as time went by, and the full scope of the story began to make itself clear, being able to find those bodies of information became crucially, vitally important.
The point is that having a story is one thing, and knowing how to tell it is entirely something else. The invaluable fact of M’s class was to show me what it meant to be an artist, and that I was built for it. That creating art was about the actual working practice, yes — putting paint to canvas, pen to paper — but that just as much, it was about being open. What you want to create, to bring into being, isn’t about your preconceptions; a true work of art is its own creature, guided by its own principles, its own inner cosmology. It’s not what you want it to be, it’s only what it is. M’s class embedded this principle within me, as the only real actionable truth in any artistic practice. Writing a book is a performance; the chair you’re sitting in, the table, the pen and paper are your stage. The letters and words and sentences are formed out of the force of your own life. And in order to find them, you’re going to have to go places you’ve never been before, do things you’ve never done. Investigate the unknown, yes, but even more importantly investigate the known, because it’s probably more than what you think it is. You think this is the way to walk, the only way to walk, but maybe it isn’t. Maybe, in fact, there’s a whole other world out there. And in order to get there, maybe what you need to do is to try walking backward.