ikebana and the learning of craft

I watched one demonstration of ikebana in Japan and it changed my philosophy of writing. To be fair, I was only twenty-one at the time, so I hadn’t yet developed a philosophy of writing other than “I want to tell cool stories about cool characters doing cool things.”

And it took about seven years.

The Japanese master I observed picked up a chrysanthemum stalk with two beautiful flowers on it. The arrangement was meant to have a beautiful flower at three different heights to signify something I’ve long since forgotten, but that was the arrangement she was creating. I thought she’d put down the stem that had two beautiful flowers as one had a 90-degree angle to the stem and pick up one of the others, but its stalk was the length she was looking for.

So she picked up the snippers and cut the second flower off despite it being as beautiful as the one she needed. From my immature and western perspective, I remember feeling horrified at the waste of its potential just because it wasn’t what was needed in the moment. But she was an artist using pretty flowers to say something significant, not using pretty flowers to be pretty flowers.

If anything didn’t suit the arrangement she was creating, it could not be there.

The only strictly Japanese hobby I enjoyed when I was there was etegami — the art of painting postcards. It was held by the seniors in my town. The more Japanese I spoke, the more I could have meaningful interactions with people who always spoke absolutely textbook Japanese slowly and carefully enough for even my ears to follow when I started. I had loved watercolour since high school and I understood the aesthetics of negative space. I even knew how to control my brushwork.

Most Japanese art forms codify the basic practice again and again and again and again before you ever get to do “the fun stuff” like painting fish in bubbles with as few brush strokes as possible. The joke for the kyūdō club that was in the closest city to me was that by month I-can’t-even-honestly-remember, you got to hold the bow.

But that’s the thing about creating art. The artist hones their craft so that they can speak more significantly to themselves.

It took me years of never seeing a single scene that didn’t progress the story yet still served it for me to realize my scenes that didn’t serve the story needed my attention. Even moments of relaxed tension serve the story if they are in contrast with multiple scenes with a lot of tension as the character (and the reader) would understand tension to be.

Scenes with low tension and stakes only work as a contrast to the rest of the story.

I had to see it a thousand times in other people’s work before I even realized it also applied to my work. I thought my lateral story movement was so good it was worth the movement away from the progression of the piece. It never was. It still isn’t.

And as soon as I realized that I wasn’t trying to make nice arrangements of words — and given enough cooling-off time — what did or didn’t fit a particular story became painfully obvious. No matter how much I loved any one particular scene in the first draft, if I could tell what was revealed in it at an earlier point in a more engaging way, I replaced it.

I replay the image of the second flower falling with an entirely new understanding of the value of caring more about what is trying to be said than how an earlier draft said it.

Flower arrangements don’t have to be culturally significant statements. They can just be beautiful flower arrangements because their purpose can also be to show other people that people are thinking about them and want some beauty in their life. Their beauty as beauty still serves a purpose.

Prose that is only well written does cannot serve any purpose in its arrangement. It can be revised to serve the story by whatever means necessary or it can be cut. No matter how the reader got the book in their hands, the reader still has to invest their spare time into its reading.

Holly Lisle says in Mugging the Muse that the writer makes the reader five promises. One of them is that the author will not waste the reader’s time. The other four are just as valuable.

And as lovely as my classes were, the fact that they only taught their learners how to improve what they were already doing well made the methodology antithetical to the learning process. That’s not me speaking, that’s the learning process. The moment it taught craft isn’t even required to be discussed, the UBC’s methodology broke.

The program’s mission statement states that its learners will be assisted in their intentions for the piece. If the learner’s intention is publication — on repeat: a Master’s level program in Canada must be at the forefront of professional knowledge — a methodology that stresses craft must be taught.

Again, this is not me saying it. It is what the University of British Columbia’s School of Creative Writing Mission Statment when I enrolled in the program said. It promised it would be the purpose of its institution. The UBC didn’t even think its MFA in creative writing had to be guided by its mission statement.

I remember how much disdain I had when I first learned about mission statements. They seemed so ivory tower. But I didn’t know anything about teaching until after I graduated with my teaching degree. I had to learn how to teach before I had a professional opinion as to the value of a mission statement. If I didn’t agree with it, I could avoid the program. But the UBC just put pretty words up and hoped no one would call them on it.

So asking, “okay, but *how* does what you teach in class assist the objective stated in its mission statement?” broke a university at one of its most basic functions.

That’s not me saying that, either. That’s the University of British Columbia’s Academic Freedom Statement. But as soon as UBC realized its policies were not legally enforceable, it abandoned its principles entirely.

It only took terrible legal advice, a Provost who was quoted on that page as supporting “unpopular opinions” but didn’t want to put his reputation where his mouth was after he realized he’d put in writing: No! Our pedagogy is TOTAL ACADEMIC FREEDOM VIOLATION!, and an “academic” “institution” so poorly trained that it didn’t know it should have set dragons to defend its institutional definitions over completely irrelevant-to-the-situation legal terms.

But the UBC just needed to hear it only had to hold itself accountable to one of the definitions of improper conduct and it committed improper conduct as an institution. In one policy expert’s professional opinion, that’s a very bad thing to do.

And this was all because I was told to suggest craft might be important was an unsuitable opinion to have at a provincially funded university. No university should have wanted to silence that opinion. Academic freedom states they couldn’t have, even if they wanted to.

Until UBC lawyers got involved.

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