Wednesday, January 1, 2014

An Interview with Philosopher and Author, Harry Griffin

c. Harry Griffin
 We live in a Twitter society where you can just spout out whatever mental meandering you want; be it your love for cats, cheese, or whatever. You just have to spend 5 minutes on Facebook to get an eyeful of inane musings for the day. [I'm not judging - I do it too].

How refreshing to read local philosopher and author, Harry Griffin. His new book, Passing Thoughts,Personal Statements, and Mental Meanderings, was just published.
It is quite a read! I was able to sit down and chat with him about anything and everything. I felt smarter after our conversation.

This book contains musings on just about every topic, with an intelligent curiosity and is powered by a real excitement for what he is doing. He is a philosopher. He really takes to heart what Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living”

You can just tell that he loves reasoning and writing. I found myself consistently nodding my head as I read it.

You say that you are “exploring what I think about my thoughts and my mind and what’s in it, in all of this. I am exploring my beliefs and my life and my activities...”
How did you go about writing this? Was it just excerpts from your diary that you compiled or was it stuff you intentionally wrote about for the purpose of this book?

>>I guess my process, to respond to what you just said. My process is one that doesn’t rely entirely on my journals. I have a daily diary or journal...that I keep rather religiously. Some of it’s very personal and I don’t feel comfortable sharing it with everybody. But then there are times that sometimes it happens by accident that a piece will emerge and I call it an essay or, as the title of my book suggests personal statement or a mental meandering that something will happen will end up becoming something that I feel ok about going public with or sharing it publicly. So yes, my journal does help. But there are also times I use my laptop and will just type because I know, I get the feeling that this is going to happen, that the essay is going to emerge.


>>Right. It doesn’t always happen in my diaries. Sometimes it does and before I know it, the essay is there, I know it I feel it. I just start typing it to save myself the trouble of retyping it.

I really liked the John Henry folktale you mention. For those that don’t know, it talks about a freed slave working on the railroad. When he feels he’s being undervalued and replaced by new technology, he challenges the owner of the railroad to a “contest:’ man against machine, he has to race against the steam powered hammer alone. He literally has to dig a tunnel, himself. Can you imagine what a huge job that would be! Talk about eating an elephant!
c. Harry Griffin

>> The John Henry story was one of the earliest  [chapters] I wrote. The book is for the most part in chronological order and It was, I think, a number of years ago I really kind of discovered a way to be happy and discovered a way to sort of mentally gather my thoughts and be whole and happy and maybe the term is emotionally stable. I just, like, grabbed hold of life and just like suddenly had a grip on it, was really, just felt strong.

>>So the John Henry piece, I remember the phrase that stands out was “chipping away at things, “ was one of the things I talked about.  That was the image that came to mind of John Henry chipping away at the mountain.  At the time I was working hard at work and had a lot of dreams and aspirations and goals and that was what I was thinking about. I was just really pushing forward, I was really pushing forward with work and that was what was on my mind.

You do a lot of freewriting, which you do talk about in your book.

I first learned about freewriting in a writing class. I think I’ve been doing them all along, without even knowing the name. I know, for me, when I have a problem, when I need to reason through something I need to write about it. There is a quote by EM Forster that says, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” and that’s true for me, and from what you write, seems to be true for you.

>>You probably saw me sitting at Starbucks all the time, writing in my journal.  That was often what I was doing; fleshing out emotions and thoughts feelings and frustrations and questions. And writing is a great way to access what you think and  to help you figure out what you think.

>>I’ve often said that you can drive around town all day, and listen to music and think and think and think, but it doesn’t become solid until you write it down. You don’t actually, again to use that phrase, get a grasp on it and grip it, until you write it down. There’s something that makes it concrete when you write it down.

Have you always done that? Have you always written?

>>>>I started writing when I was 19; At least most seriously. That was when I started my first diary. Since then the first couple of years there was an ebb and flow to it. Then it became a rather religious thing. Especially after I graduated from college, I started writing like every day.

I have to tell you I’ve been inspired by you to write everyday. To not just journal but to also freewrite about my day.

>>>>>That’s how it started with me, the writing about my days. Just writing notes about what I did during the day.  Just writing a few sentences, “Today I worked.” I remember when I was 19, I worked at a pizza restaurant. I’d say “I worked at the restaurant,” It was tough. I didn’t know how to access those thoughts, and I was very self-conscious. But slowly but surely it’s emerged and all those thoughts and feelings and everything I’ve began to open up to myself and it began to come forward.

What sort of art do you do?

>>>>In college I was very focused on photography. I went to NC State and I went to school for art, and then after I graduated from NC State in 2000. I went to a certificate program at Duke. It was a certificate in Documentary Studies. Again the medium I focused on was photography. But at NC State they had just a few photography classes and they didn’t have them all the time. So in the meantime I was also taking painting classes. So I also paint.

So you’re multi-artistic. You write, you paint, you snap, you really are a creative stew! Do they all kind of feed of each other? Have you ever thought about doing a project combining all of your talents?

>>I’ve thought about that before. I’ve thought about maybe intermixing some paintings with the writings in some way, but I haven’t gotten there yet.

c. Harry Griffin
Yeah, it’s on the list.

I like the ‘ideation” chapter, because ideation, or actually the creative process in general, relates to everything, not just art. I think everyone goes through an “ideation” period, whether they are conscious of it or not.

>>I keep a stream of consciousness journal and we have these really great journals at the store where I work and they were handmade or at least somewhat handmade, had rough textures and torn paper and whatnot. I would write the strangest rants; no intention or direction. I would just let my mind wander and often ideas would come that way.

Kind of like freewriting but more of a non-directive freewrite.

>>I sometimes call them meditations.

I loved this quote:

“Making art is a process of constantly experimenting and playing and honing skills, but once success happens it is well worth the wait and the hard work. But there is some interplay that happens for some time between ideation and execution. One moves back and forth before success finally happens.”

You’re writing this as an artist, but really even a non-artist can appreciate and understand and relate to what you’re saying. So in a sense we’re all artists. When you think of life as art, it just seems easier. Mistakes aren’t bad in art; they’re learning tools. If we framed life as we do an art project, it would be so much more fun!                                                        

You wrote a paper about the creative process.              

>> That was very influential.

Yeah, I could tell.

>>First of all I lost that paper. I keep thinking my mom’s going to uncover it someday in some of her stuff and I’ll be so happy to have found it again. But...

But it’s all up here.

c. Harry Grffin
>>Right. That was what I was trying to do was uncover it myself, in my own mind and in my thoughts and remembering what I could about it, and I remembered that it was a step by step process and I didn’t remember the names of those steps so I had to come up with my own names for the steps again of the creative process and I don’t remember what they were what I said they were, but essentially an idea is sort of birthed and then is carried through to a completion stage and then there’s even  a...I even went a step further and said you actually....part of the process is sharing it and pushing out to the public and so the creative process is very interesting and very inspiring.

>>Art is like ...can be like baking a cake, or like making a recipe. There’s a step by step process of putting things together of mixing them up in a bowl and baking it until you have something that you’re ready to sort of partake of. So that’s kind of an allusion to the creative process it’s a step by step process of putting things together making something and having the idea and thinking about it and really stewing on it and then sort of making it and bringing it forward.

That’s a really interesting analogy. I think that most people would not consider themselves as artists, but I think the majority of people would say, ‘ oh yeah, I can follow a recipe, I can cook, I can make something.’ so it just kind of brings in this whole thing that art is... I was just struck by the universality of art; that everyone is an artist. So much of what you were saying can be related to the non-artist.

>>Right, I was at work the other night; you know I work at an art supply shop here in Charlotte...

Right, Binders.

>>...and this lady came in and she said ‘I just want to say thank you for what you do. She said I ‘m not an artist at all and people who are artists are such a blessing and they do all this work that’s so great.’ and she said, I could never learn to do that.’”

>>I said well, I think we were taught when were growing up that artists are people who are born with talent and that you have to have some sort of special talent that you were born with. I don’t think that’s true at all. Art is something you can learn. So for anybody out there who is interested in learning about art and learning to be an artist, it really is a step-by-step process of sitting down and following the directions and buying a book on it and reading it and seeing what it says step one do this, step two do this, and then you follow the instructions you wind up with a piece of art.

And letting it bake.

>>Exactly. Letting it bake.

I guess maybe not so much that everyone is an artist, but just that the whole world is art. And I guess that people being in the world are all artists, are all doing art.

>>Everybody has talent.

Everything you were saying seemed so relatable to just, this is life. Not that this is a painter, this is a photographer - this is life! This is just you know, what you do. Even as an artist, I can appreciate the universality of art. Everyone does it.

How do you not let the disappointment of your creation not turning out as you had hoped get to you?

>>I think you just have to make more work. I have a student I was giving some advice to the other day about some of his work. It was constructive criticism. I wasn’t entirely confident in telling him this, but I told him that I felt he spends too much time self-criticizing his own work and scrutinizing his own work. I said, I think you would really stand to benefit from a very high volume production, if that makes sense, process of working where you are constantly putting out work, constantly writing and rewriting and not spending so much time editing and piecing together and crossing out words and refitting words but just finishing a piece, reading it being proud of it, sharing it and moving on to the next piece. And doing that process over and over again.

Right, just doing it.

>>It’s starting over again and coming back to the beginning and starting the creative process again and going through that process so that you sort of have a fresh blank page to start from.

c. Harry Griffin
And then, tied to that, we’ve all felt the stagnancy that comes from a disappointment, but I think it’s interesting that you point out that it’s just as easy to become stagnant with a success as well.  You said, “If we’ve succeeded with a work, we may not be able to move quick enough to get started on something new. “ And that’s true for me as well. I’ve been equally stagnated from my successes; “I’ve succeeded! I don’t have to do anything more!”

>>I recently, I guess it was March of last year I wrote a journal entry that was very revelatory to me in terms of process and not just writing about my day but elevating the experiences of my day to something I felt was an art form. I went through a period where that was something that I did very often and I wrote like that. I kept coming back to the same process of elevating just the mundane experiences of my day to art form...

Yeah, I remember that.

>>and then I kind of forgot how to do that and that was a challenge and it sort of slowed my writing process down. And there was kind of a depression there that was  tough to work through. But you just have to have faith that you will get through it. I’ve recently discovered - OK, if I get to that point where I just don’t know how to start that next journal entry that’s exactly what I want to say, I just need to write a sentence,

Yeah, just start.

>>...just one sentence and hey, that’s the journal entry and move onto the next sentence. Little sparks can pop in and you work through it. It can get muddy, it can get dense, it can get hard sometimes but you’ll get through on the other side.

You were talking about Jackson Pollack. I think you were saying that it was simple. I feel the same way about him because when we were studying dada and the readymades, in art history. I remember thinking, that’s really cool that they have the audacity to call a toilet bowl art, speaking of another dada piece. My thought was, I still think it’s art. I think it’s more about being able to appreciate the innate artistic qualities that are in everything, which is a little different than saying that this is a piece of art.

>>Jackson Pollack, I just find his work to be amazingly beautiful, but it just stuns me that it was so simply made

My art history teacher said that this isn’t all they did. They were artists. They had other stuff that was really well done. I don’t know that much about Pollack. Maybe it just takes an artist to deem something art. Is it art, just because he threw the paint on the canvas? Would it be art if I threw it across the canvas? Would it sell as much?

>>I guess there’s that line of thought that maybe the world was ready for something like that at the time; That the world needed to have that simplicity. When you think about photography we suddenly had this mass-market camera that was very easily making pictures. So there wasn’t that need to have portrait painters anymore because it could be done with photography. So, for Jackson Pollack, painting had to go into a new territory to stay alive and to have value. Not that that was his motivation I don’t think he said “Oh I have to push painting into a new territory so that it has value.” But that’s what happened. And now we have contemporary art and modern art.

I think it’s all just fascinating. That’s why I love the art history classes because you can see the natural progression of things like that.

>>There’s something that just catches my eyes, to use an overused phrase, but when I look at his work, that I just see in his work and I think, God! That just looks so great! The way it just looks on the canvas.

You said, “I think to some artists abstract, non representational work is very hard. They need the security of the rules of technique to create

And you said, “Nonrepresentational works look easier than they really are, that there is a deceptive quality to them. Non-representational work does take practice, I can tell you that, and perhaps it requires a higher quantity of completed pieces to finally gain success. You have to experiment and play to find your way.”

>>I was a part of a group in town called Charlotte Artist’s Society, and discussions with several people there, kind of presented that idea, that non-representational art is very difficult to do. The answer to that problem for me has always been to sort of set up an assembly line and not just to do one piece, but again to start that process all over again, to come back to the creative process and have that blank page to go from again and to know that’s always there and come back to that.

I think it’s really interesting what you were saying about “dreamwork” that we have the power “to change the course of our dreams and ultimately to change the course of our days.”

>>I don’t always remember my dreams. There have been times when I remembered all of my dreams and they were very vivid. But right now I’m in a stage when I’m just occasionally remembering them and even probably fewer do I write down actually at the moment.

And you talked about how you could change your dreams that would basically affect your destiny and basically your life. That’s a lot of power.

>> It felt, I guess there was a period of time when I really became convinced that my dreams indicated something about the day ahead and I became convinced that I needed to kind of have this awake state in my mind so that I could cause things to happen in my day that I wanted to happen. It didn’t always work, but there were still kind of strange coincidences that emerged anyways where I would have recurring people or things in my dream that would then appear in my day, and I just found that coincidental.

I think that’s really interesting. I’ve not explored dreams but I like to explore the inner-workings of the mind. I think that was kind of the thing with me when I wrote my book. I was so obsessed with just fixing and curing stress. And if I could control stress; if I could learn everything about it, I could get rid of it and live this stress free life. While I did learn a lot more about it, I certainly haven’t eliminated it. But I do think that’s the first key to being able to change things. I’d be interested to know your techniques on how to affect your dreams and affect your reality.

>>A lot of that’s slipped away from me. But I do find that my dreams take on meaning sometimes. And a lot of times it’s sort of looking back on the dreams that it makes more sense. That’s what I was going through then and if I could have just woken up to what that dream was saying, that everything would have been ok. Maybe it has to do with stress, I would have been less stressed out about something that the dream was telling me I was worried about. I guess the dream was kind of nudging me and saying, accept what’s happening in your life right now and just be okay with it because it’s going to work out.

Of course in the Bible, God spoke to people in dreams frequently, he still does today, I imagine. I think that’s very interesting how you’re exploring all of that. I think you should write a book about it, because I want to learn about it.

I think you are a lot like me in when you say, “There are so many subjects out there and I’m interested in all of it. I want to know about everything.” I don’t know if I want to learn about everything....I just don’t think there’s enough time in the day to learn everything. How do you go about trying to learn about everything?

>> Well, I think the image of sitting in, it must have been some random science class in college and filling the margins of my notepaper with random objects that I wanted to do. It ranged everything from poetry books to sculptures, to music that I wanted to play, to plays that I want to write, just, I mean, everything under the sun...all these creative things I wanted to do. This book has offered me a way to pull on those ideas and for some of that to resolve itself...some of that energy to resolve itself. It’s given me a way to express myself and to express myself in all the ideas that I’ve had.

Reading the book, I was just struck by what a philosopher you are.
You say that you are exploring what you think about your thoughts and your mind and what’s in all this. I don’t think many people do that.

I know for me, sometimes I wonder why I ruminate about all this stuff because I don’t feel that anyone else does. What do you think? Do you think anyone else some extent?

>>I think I function under the delusion sometimes that everybody writes, which maybe, is in fact very good for me, this illusion that everybody’s a writer and are secretly writing and they’re writing these wild books and so it makes me want to write more. But no, I think I’m being called upon to teach about writing, to help people access their thoughts, and to access their emotions, and to be okay with themselves through writing. I think that’s probably where I’m being led by God in the greater world right now is to do something to help people learn to express themselves with the written word.

Are you teaching anywhere?

>>I started teaching this year. I’ve taught photography for a number of years, but I started teaching writing this year at Urban Ministries Center and Speak Up magazine. That’s been really good for me.

So you work at Binders and you work the Urban Ministries....How many things do you teach...or how many classes do you teach?

>>Tuesday is my teaching day. I teach photography...I’m an assistant in the photography class from 10-11:30 at the Urban Ministries Center and at noon my writing class at Urban Ministry starts it goes til 1:30 then I drive from Urban Ministry Center through downtown to Mint Street where the office of Speak Up magazine is and I teach writing there from 2:30-4.

So just for anyone who wants to come or just for the journalists or the writers of Speak up?

>>It’s pretty much open to anybody. Urban Ministry Center is an organization that helps the homeless community and Speak Up magazine is a street magazine that puts people who are experiencing homelessness back to work.

So basically you have three jobs.

>>My only paying job is Binders. Speak Up and Urban Ministries are volunteer opportunities.

They’re still jobs.

What’s your next book going to be about?

>>I don't think I have decided yet.  The last few days I have been typing up my very first handwritten diary from 1995 with the thought that like Thomas Merton I might publish all of mine at some point (even though his were published posthumously).  But that is something that would likely be very complex and hard to do, not only revealing all the so-many personal struggles and feelings and thoughts I have had, but also stories about others in my life.  I think though I want to focus on diaries and journals in general right now.  Whether that leads me to write my own publishable diary or journal, or whether I form my handwritten journals into some hybrid memoir-diary format, or whether I simply write an instructional or inspirational book on diary-keeping, I don't know.  I just think so much of this form and enjoy my own journals so much.

Thank you so much, Harry! This has been great!

>>Thank you, Brooke!

c. 2014

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