"Scratching" or What I Read This Week
Welcome to the Jean Wildest blog. The year is 2020. We're in the midst of global pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement is in full swing, the next presidential election is around the corner, and live performance is ... tenuous, at best.
I considered blogging about my performance process and experience back when I first started burlesque, but always put it off. I feel more comfortable sharing my final product on stage and leaving all of my experimentation behind the curtain.
But I don't expect to be back onstage until spring of 2021 at the earliest. And I don't expect (or want) to go back to creating in the same format that I used pre-2020. I'm looking to create art that is more socially and politically conscious, more sustainable, and that breaks out of the confines of a formulaic 3-7 minute variety act. I don't know what this is going to look like, or sound like, although I'm pretty sure it'll still smell like pepto bismol and peppers (see Pynk) While I explore, I would like to pull back the curtain for once and share my process.
And the first part of my process? Is "scratching."
I took the term "scratching" from Twyla Tharp. In her book "The Creative Habit," she talks about "scratching for ideas" by reading, being in nature, having conversations, and enjoying other people's work. In Twyla's practice, scratching is a mode in which she gathers "little ideas" to use in service of "big ideas". She uses dance improvisation along with these little ideas to kickstart her creativity. It's "a wildly unruly process" that is "about unleashing furious mindless energy and watching it bounce off everything in your path."
My scratching is a little bit different than Twyla's. I initially took the term from "The Creative Habit," but that was back in 2013 when I first read the book, and I've had a long time to tweak and edit my own creative process between then and now. In other words, I've had enough time to forget the original meaning and develop my own bastardization of scratching out of half-remembered pieces of Twyla's writing and my own word associations.
I have no remorse over repurposing the word. As much as I love Twyla's work and use it as inspiration, I do not have the financial, spacial, educational, or human resources that Twyla has. My point of access is very different from Twyla Tharp's, and it requires a certain amount of interpretive liberties when using her methods.
My scratching is a little bit less 'accumulating little ideas to use towards a big idea' and a little bit more 'chicken pecking around in the dirt looking for anything that counts as food.'
My scratching is a creative phase somewhere in between Twyla's "scratching" and her research "box." Twyla writes that "before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box," and describes a literal file box that she fills with all of her research (music, articles, photos, etc) to be used on an upcoming project. "The box is the raw index of your preparation."
A quick aside: I highly recommend reading Chapter 5 of "The Creative Habit" with a burlesque mindset. Twyla's writing about the "box" is so serious and straight that it's practically begging to be turned into an ironic staged reading about the importance of vaginas. The final paragraph of the chapter is the best example:
"Above all, learn to respect your box's strange and disorderly ways. As a repository of half-baked inspirations and unformed aids, the box can seem to be a haphazard tool while you're filling it. But when you want to go back and make sense of your path, every step is there to be found, and the order emerges if only in hindsight. Your box is proof that you have prepared well. If you want to know how any creative project will turn out, your box's contents are as good a predictor of success or failure as anything I know." (p. 90)
Bodily context aside, I basically took the space between Twyla's "box" and "scratching" and made it into my own scratching process. My scratching process is a mode of gathering ideas and finding threads of connection between them.
My scratching isn't a passive phase. It's a collection of research in the same way that Twyla's "box" is, but it requires interpretation. I'm interacting with my research, considering how it looks through different lenses and how it can be applied to performance.
My scratching also isn't product-oriented. Twyla writes about improvising and creating choreography snippets as a part of her "scratching." But no choreography takes shape during my scratching. I'm still only gathering, essentially pecking through the dirt trying to figure out which pieces count as food. But I know that the next time I do create choreography or produce art, I won't have to worry about where I'm pulling creative material from. I'll already have a deep pool of inspiration as well as connecting concepts between ideas.
So, in this weird non-performance period (which is still somehow very performative), I'll be pulling back the curtain to share some of my scratching here. I'll use this space to compile materials, shareable content, and things that I think may be useful to other artists. Access is important to me, so most materials will be available online and with no pay wall. Unfortunately, Twyla's creative success is accompanied by a fair amount of capitalism, and I can't find a pdf version. But if you would like to read "The Creative Habit" you can get it through Semicolon Bookstore, check it out from your local library, or go in the comments and ask to borrow my copy.
Have a good week, respect your box, and hopefully we can all find some creative food among the dirt.