Monday, December 1, 2008

Problem Solving

Several people have asked me to elaborate on the last post, so here goes.

People were mostly interested in the notion that trauma makes everything feel personal. Surely, what applies to trauma also applies to failure and loss.

Trauma makes people feel alone and isolated, lacking in resources. As the old saying goes: "Success has many fathers; failure is an orphan."

When everything starts feeling personal we ask questions like: Why did this happen to me? What is wrong with me?

Trauma makes us turn away from problems. It tells us not to attack the problem but to attack ourselves. If that does not work, it directs us to attack others, beginning with those who are trying to help us to escape the trauma.

Trauma and failure convince us that we cannot trust anyone. We withdraw into our mental sanctum and feel overwhelmed by the anguish. Sometimes we even imagine that if we get fully in touch with the pain, even allowing it to take us over, then it will exhaust itself and we will achieve catharsis.

We might tell ourselves that we will eventually return to the fray, but that currently we are too wounded to compete. We may trot out an overused metaphor and say that by withdrawing we are taking the time to heal.

When we follow this strategy we are doing the trauma's work. We are allowing it to continue to influence our lives. We are making a single failure into a meaningful event, one that tells the world who we are.

Of course, the way to overcome feelings of failure is to start solving problems, the sooner the better.

The trauma has another idea. It wants to control your mind. It will tell you that you will never succeed, that it is too soon, that you are wasting your time trying, and you should get in touch with your feelings and heal your soul. Then, presumably, the world will follow your soul's lead and the sun will shine on all your endeavors.

If you believe that what happens in the world is merely an enactment of an inner mental conflict, then you can change the world by resolving your mental conflicts.

The trouble is: this new healed soul is not going to be solving any problems. No one even suggests as much. What it really wants is to express itself, to create a work of art.

Yet, this theory, which saturates the therapy culture, misrepresents art. Wordsworth notwithstanding the artist's work is not a spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion. It is work. It is disciplined and self-controlled; it engages itself in constant problem-solving. Art does not reward laziness and inattention.

Art is in the details. And you do not get the details right, whether they concern a dab of paint or the curve of a line or the color palette... without very hard work. Each of the artist's gestures is like a move in a game; it addresses and solves a problem.

And think about this. We are so enthralled by our vision of art as an expression of the soul that when we think about the artistic process we often ignore the model.

Artists learn to draw by trying to reproduce, even to mimic, the model's form. They develop their art by focusing on the model, not on their own state of mind.

It is hard work and requires a scrupulous attention to detail. Each brush stroke, each line, each word and sentence... receives the benefit of the artist's focus. How to draw a line that renders a curve is a problem to be solved.

The artist succeeds to the extent that he can get out of himself.

And this is even more true when he confronts that other, often neglected, aspect of the creative process: the moment when he steps back from his creation and looks at it through someone else's eyes.

A great artist, like a great writer, is a great editor. The ability to set aside the memory of the mental state that produced the work and to give it a cold objective appraisal is rare indeed.

It is rare because the disparity between the great feelings you had when you were painting or writing and the mediocre quality of your first efforts produces its own anguish, its own sense of failure.

If an artist is captivated by the feelings he felt while he was working he will preaching to the converted. His work will never break outside the very small circle of those to whom his feelings are relevant.

This reflection gives us an insight into how best to solve a problem.

First, choose a model, a situation where someone, perhaps even you, solved a similar problem. Examine the way it was done, focus on the details of the actions that took place. And look especially at the small stuff-- a gracious gesture, a kind remark, an extra effort-- and ask how they facilitated the resolution of the problem.

Second, look at your problem as though it were someone else's. Compare its current state to your model's. Ask yourself how you would advise someone else to deal with the same problem.

Do you need to add a dab of red here or there? Or should you introduce a new form or a new character into the scene? Or does it need a more extensive reworking?

Perhaps the situation is in such bad shape that it is not worth salvaging. If there is no way your new effort is going to achieve something like a payoff, you might do best to walk away. In finance it is called Gresham's law: don't throw good money after bad.

Finally, never expect that your current efforts are going to be an exact replica of the model you have chosen. Every solution is going to have its own integrity; and it cannot have any integrity if you try to repeat exactly what happened in the situation are using as a model.


1 comment:

T said...

Are you an artist? I'm getting the feeling you're not. As someone who makes art, this does not translate for me. Art is all about the artist's perception. Your growth as an artist comes when you trust your own vision, that you develop a distinct style. And that style comes from your vision. A vision that has refined within and an attention to detail that has grown. People love the great artists because they are offering their pure interpretation of the world. There are some (myself included) who would say that your own personal perceptions when taken to their fullest actually represent much of the collective unconscious/collective conscious and shared symbolism. Art is learning how to trust your hand and your eye, and to buckle into the observation around you. Commentary in a work is still the artist's vision, it's just made more explicitly. Telling people to get further from themselves and their healing to overcome healing I think can be the worst advice you can give to someone after trauma and getting their life together. I would think the most important thing is to not be so concerned about what others think of you, and present your self and work as you know true.