By CINDY SHEARER, program chair and core faculty, Department of Writing, Consciousness and Creative Inquiry
Rebecca Solnit’s “Open Door," the first section of "A Field Guide to Getting Lost," feels like a challenge and an invitation, similar to the chance to open new artistic doors and get lost—not just in artistic work, but in inquiry that our MFA programs at CIIS provide. Solnit writes:
"Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That's where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go. Three years ago I was giving a workshop in the Rockies. A student came in bearing a quote from what she said was the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno. It read, 'How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?'...The question she carried struck me as the basic tactical question in life. The things we want are transformative, and we don't know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration--how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?"
For the artists in our MFA, living and art-making are in deep relationship. They are not parallel experiences or separate entities. They reside together—and are transformative when they arise from inquiry. How do I want to live? How willing am I to become something more or different? Our artists explore these questions together—in conversation with each other—about their lives and art.
The key to engaging inquiry and learning from it Solnit says, is to get lost: "Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery." In our MFA, we don’t focus on art for art’s sake but discovery for art’s development. We know that learning occurs when we sit skillfully with the unknown—so when we learn as artists, we are also becoming new human beings. Artists, we believe, don’t make art to live—they live art.
It is vital to stay—and be content with—the unknown, Solnit writes. "For it is not, after all, really a question about whether you can know the unknown, arrive in it, but how to go about looking for it, how to travel.” Solnit quotes Thoreau saying that a man has only to close his eyes once and be turned completely around in order to get lost. It's that easy and, at the same time, it takes that much trust.
Trusting in our curriculum requires you to focus on questions rather than answers and to sit with the possibilities that arise, new perspectives that emerge, discomforts that questioning inevitably brings. It asks you to allow yourself to be as much with what you don’t know or aren’t right now able to know as with what to question or further explore. I think this is why another value of our MFA—working with and being supported by a community of artists—can be so valuable. It's hard (although necessary) to be lost alone, but in community, you can share what it feels like and means to be lost, and, at the same time, you can have a shared experience of being lost.
Solnit tells us 19th century explorers were willing to get lost because they remained optimistic that they would survive and would ultimately find their way. Our experience of students in the MFA at CIIS supports this optimism—artists who lose themselves to inquiry do more than find their way—they embrace the unknown, are challenged and transformed by it—and thrive.