This Writer's Life

Sticks and Stones: Memoirs About the Writing Life


 Being Present

I recently watched The Artist is Present, a documentary about Marina Abramović. Abramović is known as the “grandmother of performance art.” She has cut and burned herself, ingested anti-psychotic drugs, and invited people to manipulate her body with a variety of objects, including “a rose, a feather, honey, a whip, olive oil, scissors, a scalpel, a gun and a single bullet” (Wikipedia). With her former partner Ullay, she created works that involved the two of them slamming into each other with bruise-inducing force.

Abramović created an even more controversial and popular performance piece at the New York City MoMA in 2010. Instead of shocking the public with violent and boundary-pushing acts, she simply sat in a chair and looked at people who, one by one, took the seat opposite her. She did this daily for three months. You can see the faces of every person who participated:

Expectation, embarrassment, bemused smiles, tears: the same expressions repeat over and over. Abramović herself maintains a calm, almost beatific demeanor throughout the performance, except for the times when she, too, weeps. It’s an affecting piece, one that becomes more and more intense as the weeks wear on. Regardless of the discomfort she must be feeling, seated in a chair for hours each day, the artist bestows the same attention on each person.

As I watched the film, I could see that something happened between the participants and Abramović: they felt present. The artist looked only at the person seated opposite her. Her attention from that person did not waver: she hardly blinked. Within the space of two people and two chairs, she created a complete environment. After each person left, the energy lapsed until the next person took his or her seat. Abramović closed her eyes between participants, an act as effective as closing the curtains after a play. When she opened them on a new person, the performance began anew.

As writers, what can we learn from The Artist is Present? After all, we rarely get a chance to witness the affect that our writing has on our audience, and few of us are as edgy and compelling Abramović. However, we can learn to be present, in our writing and in our encounters with the public. Being present is not easy: when we read in front of an audience, how often do we think about the actual people listening? Are we focused on their listening experience, or on our reading experience? What would it feel like to stop being “the writer” and instead become the interpreter of the writing?

When I was twenty-one, the poet Denise Levertov read at my college. Within a few minutes, she had the audience completely enthralled with just her voice. She read for us, not at us; each person there felt part of an environment created within the space of her poems and our presence.

Think about your readers. As a gift for their listening, be present for them. Just as you create for them, they complete the environment for you. Enter into that relationship with your full attention.

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