Posted by: MC | January 7, 2012

Write Brain Change — guest blog by Dave Jarecki

Back in October I got a call from Dave Jarecki.  He had been assigned to me by the Lewis & Clark College Chronicle — the alumni magazine of the college where I’ve been a professor for well more than 20 years.  I was happy to know my school was pleased with the publication of 100 VOICES – AMERICANS TALK ABOUT CHANGE and wanted to have an article following its release.  Dave and I met at a coffee and tea house on Hawthorne Blvd in Portland.  Before we moved into the interview proper, I asked Dave the three questions of EX:Change.  He answered and agreed to have his words here as the first blog entry for 2012.

Dave is an artist.  He paints with words.  He draws similar artistry from writers young and old.  For Dave, change is necessarily creative and relies for constancy on the brain in collaboration with the spirit.  For Dave, everyone is a writer, everyone is an artist and our hope lies reliably in our infinite capacity for creation.  See what you think — and, great thanks to you, Dave.

DAVE JARECKI — EX:Change blog post

When you say the word change, what do you mean?

Change is about creativity and our right brain, and connecting with children early. I feel that we’ve lost a lot in our attempts to standardize and pass tests – and I know many people share this view. When we talk about change…it became such a big word in 2008 and, in thinking about it now, I think people still tend to think very top level: “What’s the big change, and then what’s the trickle down?”

I see change as needing to come from the bottom-up, and my connection with that has to do with working with children. In writing workshops, I try to create an environment that’s a little…it’s not chaotic, but I allow things to be off kilter. You know the basis of improvisational comedy? If you nudge people a little off their center, it opens the possibility for really amazing things to happen. To be able to nudge children is so much easier because they’re barely centered anyway. They go right over into a more creative place.

One of the things that was happening for me – I’ve been asking this question of my young writers since I started five years ago: “Do you think you’re good writers?” And these nine-year-olds will say “No.” Someone has already told them, based on a grade, or their spelling, or their penmanship, that their writing “needs to improve,” which they take as, “I’m not a good writer.”

I spend a lot of time in the first few weeks of workshops just building up their self-esteem and self-confidence around writing and creative expression, and around trusting their self-expression. That gets me excited, and that’s what I think about when I think about change.

Alongside change, what is important to remain the same?

This is the hardest of your three questions, I feel.

I asked some students recently, if you have “tude,” which was a word one of the students threw out at me, on one hand, and you have good grammar on the other hand, which is more important for a writer to possess? Half the kids said “tude,” and the other half said “grammar,” and I put my hands together and said, “It’s the middle.” You have to have the attitude that you can do what you’re doing, and that what you’re doing is right and good, but at the same time, it’s helpful to know the basic rules of grammar, form, etc. Not necessarily to box yourself in and always follow these conventions, but it’s necessary to know them.

For me, I do believe in the rules of craft and technique. The best I ever heard it expressed, at a time when I was trying to wrap my head around it, was by the poet Bruce Weigl, with whom I studied as an undergrad at Penn State. He used to speak very highly and excitedly about the jazz pianist, Keith Jarrett, who is one of the best impressionistic and abstract jazz performers we have. Jarrett, Weigl would say, got that way only after he practiced and learned his scales, learned theory, discovered pitch and tone, and all the other background work you have to do as a classically trained musician. What Weigl was saying applied directly to poetry, and can basically applied to all forms of art, and for that matter, all ways of life. You have to know where the lines are, and WHAT the lines are, in order to draw outside of them. I really trust that. I believe in a certain amount of…. I’m not a formalist by any means, but I do believe in, honor, and try to impress upon other writers the importance of studying craft, studying form, and honoring the real work of writing.

Drafting, for instance. Children want to be done with a piece of writing as quickly as possible. They want to write their one-page story and be done. Trying to say to a nine-year-old after she’s finished a piece that now she has rewrite it, and then she has to write it again, then she has to write it differently, then she has to throw it away and start over…that language doesn’t go over their heads so much as it butts off their faces and falls on the floor. But I believe in craft and the work of process.

How would you recognize positive change coming toward you?

I think I would recognize it about ten-years later. I had this idea for a book, which was based on a dream I had. I was a journalist, and I was trailing a cult leader. His cult was under scrutiny because there were rumors that he and his followers were kidnapping children, which, in the dream, turned out to be true. He believed – the dreamt up cult leader believed that in order to save the human race, we needed to start over, and therefore he was, in a very Noah like fashion, kidnapping children under the age of five in order to start what he saw as a purified generation. All colors, all nationalities – very Noah-like, two of each and all of that. And then he was going to launch some sort of doomsday disaster that would wipe everyone else out, or most everyone else. I don’t remember for sure, it was a crazy dream and in the end I wound up being shot.

The notion of it, in the context of our conversation, is that if more children were exposed to and encouraged to engage with their right brains, and this form of right-brain creative expression, we’d start to see the results of it 10-years later when they were becoming young adults.

It’s the way people would start to go through life, or the way the creative economy would become less of a nebulous thing that many people don’t quite get, but would become more ingrained in the way people sustain themselves and earn a living.

(Laughter) Truthfully, I think the country would look more like Portland, if you could imagine. Something that gets me excited, but can be a harder reach, is working with older writers, people in their upper 60s and older. I worked with a guy who was in his late 70s, a career lawyer. He took three workshops with me. I asked him at one point, why are you here, and he said that, after 50 years in law, he was looking for new meaning in his life. During the second or third workshop, he said to me that poetry was giving him that meaning.

For me, I would know change was coming, or that change was here, when I saw that mindset begin to disappear, and see people going to creative expression earlier in their lives, and both trusting and allowing it. And that’s an individual thing.

My father is a good example. In my own soft way, I’m always encouraging him to write. He has heaps of stories. He grew up poor. His father was a coalminer, his mother was a shop girl. When he starts telling stories you can listen all day, but when I ask him to write he says he can’t, or he doesn’t know how. Every now and then he whips off a poem and sends it to me, and it’s beautiful. For me, change has come when that idea of not “knowing how” is dissolved, when the dialogue between our left and right brains becomes more two-way and open, and whatever wall exists for some people between those hemispheres breaks down and dissolves. And I think we’ll start to see this on a person-to-person basis. So it’s not that the whole world starts to look like Portland, but I feel that if you get enough people creatively inspired in their own lives, then you do see change.

The way bridges are designed, for instance. That sounds like a random thought, but living in a place like Portland for the last nine years, I’ve come to enjoy the thought that goes into architecture, and that has gone into a lot of what we see around here. I went back to my hometown of Wilkes-Barre, PA a few years back. Wilkes-Barre gets popular every 10 years or so because there’s usually a flood that makes national news. I went home after having lived in Portland for a few years, and they’d built a new bridge, replacing an old gothic, wonderfully designed but unfortunately dilapidated bridge in the process. The new bridge was just a slab of concrete over the river that didn’t seem to have a thought behind its design. I made a comment about it to my father, something along the lines of, “They put no thought into this bridge.” And my father, speaking for the mass of people who live there, said, “It’s just a bridge. It’s meant to get us to the other side.” It’s that utilitarian view of life that I’m talking about.

I’m for creative thought whenever possible. Even though it’s “just a bridge,” and it’s just meant to function to get us across the river, you can still put thought and color and form into its architectural design. There’s something about the design of a bridge when seen from a distance that just may stir something in us, whether it’s because we feel the passion of the designer, or we see how the color plays off the landscape. Basically, there are so many ways art can be splashed around in our daily lives that seems to happen here in Portland, but not in other places. When I see a beautiful new bridge in my hometown, then I’ll know change has come. There – I finally got to it. That’s the visual image I need.


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this, and for being such a great interviewer and interviewee!

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