Caits Meissner will be teaching the upcoming class, “& They Call Us Crazy: Outsider Writing to Cross the Borders of Human Imagination”
In this creativity-generating workshop we’ll follow in the footsteps of genius eccentrics, outsiders and outlaws who’ve stepped beyond their perceived limitations, risking ridicule (and worse) to access their unique creative offerings — ultimately proving that what is outside the norm — and the academy — is often the most deliciously innovative and juicy.
Here is a short interview with Caits about the class!
TLA Blog(TLA): Why might this class be important at this time in the world?
Caits Meissner(CM): Imagination is our most valuable asset in confronting systems of oppression, environmental crisis, and forwarding the evolution of our human community. In addition to systemic illness on a large scale, much of our inability to expand creative energy is due to the very small and time-consuming tasks of living. We are bogged down by the minutia of survival. Taking space to unlock the imagination can feel luxurious, but I believe it is also critical. How can we ever imagine a different way forward if we cannot unhook from what is long enough to allow the “crazy” thoughts to flourish, the innovative thoughts that stretch us beyond the confounding circumstances of being a person in 2018, beyond the conventions that keep us restricted and bound? Thinking “crazy” has been the bedrock of change in our society. Another word for it— usually when it has worked and we’re speaking in hindsight— is vision.
Will this course open channels in a participant’s brain that touches on the major issues of our time, providing viable solutions? Probably not (but who knows!) But I do think this practice of playful curiosity can unlock possibility within ourselves, and that is a worthy step. As creative people, we may be feeling both a deep desire and tremendous pressure to address the inequalities, inequities and human rights violations our era has surfaced in bold form. But we also know that the most affecting work often begins organically, when we stumble over a creative trip wire that switches on a new process of ideation. The mythology that creativity relies on lived freedom is incorrect— of time, of space, or mindset. Plenty of artwork has proven this theory null, created in the most repressive environments. Where there are humans, there is creative impulse, and I believe it may be more descriptively accurate to say the act of creation is a striving towards freedom. In a funny way, guided constraints can increase that feeling of freedom by providing a safe container in which to experiment.
I think of this course as a container where we might stumble upon what we’ve been trying to, or hoping to address through our work. It is also a space where the act of failing spectacularly is encouraged, without judging our work or expecting every engagement to produce project-worthy material. My friend Lynne said to me once — imagine how many seeds a tree releases. Thousands! Only a few become new trees. That’s the creative process as nature teaches us. In our ambition-driven society, it is easy to forget that, and to despair in the fear of not making work that outlives the moment of spontaneous expression. But aren’t we nature, too? Why should our creative birthing be any different from other forms of life in this vast kingdom we live in?
And honestly, who couldn’t use a rigorous creative engagement that takes us away from the droning news, the overwhelm of being confronted with our current human form? Who couldn’t use an infusion of a little joy and play and space and discovery?
TLA: How did you discover, learn about and experience the topic that you’ll be teaching?
CM: I grew up under the influence of parents who both worked with youth and adults with emotional, developmental and intellectual differences and disabilities— parents who view all people through the lens of capacity, contribution and supreme dignity. Through their work, I forged my own connections with artists with differing abilities, anddiscovered creative processes that didn’t rely on a school degree to nudge something beautiful and affecting into existence. Often the artists were not concerned with what I thought of the work they created, nor did they obsess over the art career that might blossom “one lucky day” if they just kept at it. That felt like a form of freedom. Raw spontaneity produced fresh, alive pieces that were unlike any other artist’s hand. It was incredibly informative to witness at a time when my hunger for recognition and career advancement was beginning to growl.
Similarly, I’ve found many affecting and inspiring writers and writing birthed in prisons and needle exchanges. In these settings I found that expression often grew from a need to shake up the narrative created around worth, to write value back into selfhood, and to remind the world that in our quickness to discard an entire person, we lose out on their potential contributions— and certainly siphon off a part of our own humanity. The work often feels urgent, probing, and doesn’t wait for a stamp of approval from the gate keepers. In fact, it lights a match and burns down the gates. That’s the kind of artist I aspire to be.
Of course, children exhibit this freedom of expression with ease and joy before its pummeled out by adulthood’s demands and judgements. I am interested in the creative impulse that cannot be suppressed or snuffed out, the spark that is possible in all and any of us. That striving towards freedom. I became interested in artists who were not trained traditionally, but touched a deep chord in viewers. And of course, many of the artists we’ll be engaging with were trained, but managed to stretch beyond convention to drum up astonishing and gloriously strange creativity. This mix of study culls from my own collected curiosities about the creative process, and the artists who have inspired me. My background includes an undergrad degree in Communication Design from Pratt Institute and an MFA from City College of New York. Though I come from a trained process, my most profound learning moments have arrived in the community settings I’ve collaborated within. The prompts in this course draw on over 15 years of teaching and facilitating multimedia art and creative writing workshops in a wide variety of community and professional settings.
TLA: Who would benefit most from taking this class?
CM: Honestly, anyone looking to get messy and find something new! No one is under nor overqualified in this space. The idea is to fill up the notebook with the many seeds of creation, and to beckon the unexpected through the challenge of a strange new prompt, or by saying yes to an unfamiliar form. As I’m wrapping up two major projects, I will be engaging the course exercises myself, excited to see what arrives from giving it all a good shot. Truth be told, I find myself resistant to my own prompts! I understand that pushing past that resistance will be key in squeezing the most juice from the experience. Just writing this, I’m getting jittery with nerves about the potential discoveries revealed.
TLA: What can students in this class expect?
CM: To experiment and play. This is not a workshop, nor a space to bring work for critique. It is a wide open, generative space centered on the act of new creation. Every session will offer 5 artists to study with links to engage their work, and an article to read in connection. I recommend daily journaling on the prompts I offer that bounce off each artist’s works, but this will be a private process left to the participant to engage (or not.) A packet of poems for deeper reading launches from the thematic container we are loosely creating within. Then, 4-5 creative prompts are listed each week— writing, as well as other creative art-making. Depending on how the participant is moved to action, it might serve to give each a try as quick exercises, or to hone in on 1-2 to work on more intensively. The results of these experiments will be posted weekly. Participants will be expected to engage with the work of peers, but with a strict avoidance of critique. We’ll work from a framework of noticing, wondering and encouraging forward.
TLA: Why is it important to take risks in ones life?
CM: It is the only way we evolve, grow, move forward, shake out of complacency, create anything worth a damn. Though I will say this course is low stakes in the risk department. You have nothing to lose by participating, and everything to gain.
TLA: Where do you find the most inspiration?
CM: From other entities that create— other artists, children, the intricacies of the natural world. The quickest route to inspiration is to read a book that moves me. Sitting in silence brings forth conversations with friends that surface the need to translate what’s spoken to paper. Being relentlessly curious is the state I hope to become more present to. It’s the most fantastic and forgiving way to commune with the great mystery of life.
About the Facilitator: Caits Meissner is the author of the illustrated hybrid poetry book Let It Die Hungry (The Operating System, 2016), and The Letter All Your Friends Have Written You (Well&Often, 2012), co-written with poet Tishon Woolcock. The recipient of multiple artist residencies and fellowships, including the BOAAT Writers Retreat and The Pan-African Literary Forum, Caits is widely published in literary journals including The Literary Review, Narrative, Adroit, Drunken Boat and The Offing. She has taught, consulted and co-created extensively for over 15 years across a wide spectrum of communities, with a special focus on imprisoned people, women and youth. Caits holds a BFA in Communication Design from Pratt Institute, and an MFA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York. She currently serves as the Prison and Justice Writing Program Manager at PEN America.