Sunday, March 16, 2008

Gliding Through Water

Herbert Kohl, the founder of Teachers' and Writers' Collaborative, has written more than forty books, including A View from the Oak, which he wrote with his wife, Judith, and which won the National Book Award for children's literature.

In his newest book, Painting Chinese: A Lifelong Teacher Gains the Wisdom of Youth, Kohl describes his journey into the unfamiliar terrain of aging as he searches for answers to questions about life's purpose and how best to use the time that he has left as he gets older.

Quite unexpectedly, Kohl at seventy finds himself a student again, not in a traditional classroom but in a Chinese painting class at the Joseph Fine Arts School--"located in a storefront squeezed between a small Chinese market and a Vietnamese restaurant"--in San Francisco. His fellow students are not in their seventies. They're barely ten years old.

In the process of learning how to paint with these children, Kohl rediscovers a joy in learning, and he shares numerous insights into the process of learning to paint that can help writers deepen their understanding of the writing process.

Here, for instance, Kohl reflects on his struggle to find that creative place within himself that the children seem to find with such ease:
For the children the brush was a friend, a familiar, an extension of the hand. For me, initially, it was an object to conquer. When I stopped fighting the brush, I painted well, and when I thought too much about it, my painting became a mess. There is a wise thoughtlessness, a creative freedom, that develops when tool, person, thought, emotion, and activity are one. Young children can be creative and imaginative in ways most adults can't. Overteaching and rigid rules force young children to perform in a rigid way, destroying this organic gift. As an older person, I had to let go to get back to that place that comes so naturally to children. (p. 44)
And in this reflection on his inability to stop worrying about making mistakes, Kohl pushes past his anxieties and reaches a place where he can feel child-like again:
Joseph glanced at me, and I knew it was time to get to work. I still had not given up the ingrained habit of worrying about making mistakes or creating an ugly painting. Not surprisingly, I put too much ink on the brush, and my bamboo looked dark and lumpy. I pressed down too hard on the brush, so my first effort led to a stumpy bamboo stalk with knobby lumps at the end of each section. Joseph came over, smiled, and said it was a good effort. He then slowly showed me how to move the brush one more time and remarked that bamboo came in all sizes and shapes. My second effort was better, but there was too little water and too little ink on the brush. However, the effect was great: The bamboo looked as though it had some dimensionality, since the stroke left white space in the center of each section. I tried a third time, almost getting it. This time, there was just a little too much water and a blot on one of the sections. The children and I were painting away. I saw them smiling at their own work and caught myself smiling and relaxing. It was like gliding through water--I was totally immersed in the act of painting for several minutes. It was in me and all around me, and I felt childlike for a moment. Or at least I felt what adults like to call childlike. It felt closely akin to meditation... (p 61-63)
That sense of "gliding through water"... "totally immersed in the act of painting"... is what most of us strive for when we sit down to write, isn't it?

It's a time when we can lose ourselves completely in a task...and forget everything except the story.

How a writer or artist arrives at this state of being, this sense of "gliding through water," is different for each of us.

The key for me--and maybe for you--to arriving at such a place is casting aside judgment and letting one's words emerge on the page just as raindrops might appear on a window or as snowflakes might fall against a windowsill.

"One goal of the Chinese painter's brushwork is to be effortless, uniting hand, heart, mind, and nature," writes Kohl. "Joseph's avoidance of pressure, his soft voice, gentle guiding of one's work, and subtle support, which does not involve explicit praise so much as examination of the virtue's of one's work, all aim toward helping his students move toward painting effortlessly."

Focus on the virtues of your work.

Seek to unite hand, heart, and mind.

Let yourself explore the world like a child... without self-consciousness... and you may find that you're able to glide effortlessly through water, too.

For more information about Painting Chinese, visit:

For an article discussing Kohl's influence as an educator, visit:

And for more on self-consciousness and writing, take a look at these sites:

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