Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Mr. White Notebook

In elementary school, my music teacher was Mr. White. His name was fitting, since that was the color his hair had turned. He was a short, penguin-like man. He wore button-up shirts in dark mauves and periwinkles, and he always had gigantic sweat stains under his armpits. We couldn't help but notice, since he was always doing "conductor arms" along with the children's songs he played us on records or cassettes. His facial expression was always very intense behind his gigantic glasses. He kind of scared us a little. That man took music SERIOUSLY!

Only recently have I realized that Mr. White must have been the most influential teacher I had in elementary school. I have found myself relying on a creative exercise that he taught me when I was only six years old. Here's how I remember it: He would hand out huge pieces of white drawing paper and a pack of crayons to each of us. Then he would play various classical musical pieces, instructing us to draw whatever the music made us think of. We could draw absolutely anything the music evoked in our imaginations. What was important was to truly listen... to connect with the music and let it carry our minds off into its world. I remember where my imagination went during those exercises. It was a place entirely free of walls or limitations. Time and physical laws of the universe stopped existing. I stopped thinking in traditional shapes and symbols. My crayons drew magical wonderlands. When music class was over, I didn't want to leave.

Now I've been trying to find that place of creative freedom again, but this time with writing. I've been having difficulties allowing my current writing project complete freedom. So I've started a separate writing notebook that I'm calling The Mr. White Notebook. Around midnight, when the impish enchantment of late night darkness starts beckoning to me, I put my headphones on. I play haunting music by a Bulgarian women's choir or avant-garde punk music by the Russian group Auktyon, and I put my pen to the paper. I pretend I'm in Mr. White's music class, but instead of ME passing Dorothy-in-Oz like into the world of the music, it's my characters. The creatures and landscapes my characters see in the sounds of the music have nothing to do with the story I'm writing about them. What happens in The Mr. White Notebook is an act of delving into my characters' dream worlds, not into the facts of their daily lives. The writing that results is not necessarily something that will be included directly in my actual writing project, but it does give me a sea of magical words and imagery to dip my net into when I get stuck in writing the scenes from my characters' lives. I think The Mr. White Notebook has become my secret passage out of the "eternal dawn" that Arkadii Dragomoschenko speaks of in the quote below...

"The writer dreams of night while being sentenced to an omnipotent and eternal dawn, when even the banality of a shadow can't relieve the impersonal nothingness of the surroundings." -Arkadii Dragomoschenko


  1. I love hearing about excercises like that that people can get to work for them. It sounds like you had a really neat teacher.

    In art school, classroom time was always my most productive time. I think every once in a while about signing up for a community college art or creative writing class just to get that kind of enforced structure.

  2. I agree. Mr. White sounds like an awesome teacher.

    And it does seem like one of the most difficult parts of the creative process for ALL artists and writers is enforcing the time put into it. Thank God for writing group, or I'd never get any of my work done!

  3. Funny, my music teacher at southeast elementary was named Mr. Brown. A somewhat pudgy middle aged man with a speech impediment that compelled him to begin every sentence with "uhhhhh"--and to frequently punctuate his speech with "uhhhh." He was also very serious about music, classical music in particular. He was probably the most disliked teacher at that school. My classmates loved to make fun of him. I didn't like him either, perhaps in part due to peery pressure, even though he introduced us to Holst. Years later, I discovered Mr. Brown was also the coach of the boys high school fencing team. I tried out anyway. He taught me to always take the blade before lunging, and that bouts were won at the opposite end of the strip: skills that paid for a substantial part of my formal higher education (for good or ill). I did grow eventually to like Mr. Brown, but only after I realized that I loved him.