Restless Books, New York publisher, has begun a series of books about the human face. To date there are three books in the series. One of these completely captivated me. To be more accurate, the method the author used to write her book completely captivated me. To read my impressions about Restless Books’ project and the books published, see my post here.
At the beginning of a month off from my paid writing job, I sat down to carry out the exercise Ruth Ozeki gave herself in order to write her contribution to this series: The Face: A Time Code. The exercise with mirror, several pens of differing shapes (for the sake of my hand(s) and arm(s) and a fresh pad of A4-size Clairefontaine writing paper, was to stare at my face for three hours in a mirror(s) and to write my reaction, thoughts, musings, reflections, memories and recollections.
I was very excited to carry out this exercise as soon as I read the review of Ruth Ozeki’s book in Tricycle magazine. http://tricycle.org/magazine/the-face-in-the-mirror/
I did not want to read the body of her book until I had a chance to carry out the exercise so, at first, I read only the prologue and “the experiment” where she explained her method. Although she relates this to an exercise created by a Harvard art professor, I found a similar exercise referenced in Jeannette Winterson’s, Art Objects. The exercise, which intrigued Ozeki, is to stare at a painting for three hours and truly see the artwork and all of the temporal information (time code) it contains. Ozeki was prompted to use this exercise with her own face as the object of her gaze.
With anticipation and some trepidation, I tried to arrange my laptop and a wall mirror for the exercise. Quickly, I saw that would not work well. I resorted to the simplest materials—handwriting equipment and a shaving mirror, with the same wall mirror as a back-up or more distant viewing spot for variety. I anticipated three hours would seem quite daunting. I did have to take one bathroom break and, a few minutes before the three hours were up, the phone rang. Aside from that, I wrote quite steadily. There were pauses of course. But staring at my face (something I rarely do in day-to-day life), led me not to recollections of past events or memories or associations. Instead, it led me to the future. This is the future I found deeply embedded in my face—the desire to write. Yes, along the way I made similar observations to the writers in the series: facial features associated with each of my parents and the wrinkles and marks of age. But the experiment led deeper.
I had no idea that the exercise would lead me where it did. I was expecting journeys into memories of myself and my family or places I have lived. The Borges’ quote, when I first read it, had made me think of rivers and of a painting of mine which I call Rivers. I spent some of the three hours thinking about my painting and of all the rivers I have known in my life but it turns out that rivers are another project. Looking at my notes, just now, I see that the experiment ended up picking up on a thread about my personal future begun in a class I had taken a short time earlier—a class in which the main exercise had caught my fancy in a similar way as Ozeki’s exercise had. I turned, in the face experiment, to asking my face questions about possible futures.
During my experiment, I even took a few selfies to show myself how contorted and distressed my face was at the issue of doing (not doing) my own writing. I thought I might need those photos to remind me should I finally take the decision to leave the paid writing work and do what I clearly desired as much as ever—to do my own writing.
I had no agenda in terms of what part of my life or type of issue or plan I might explore. I simply wanted to carry out the exercise of staring at my face for three hours and recording the results of the experiment with time markers (as Ozeki did). This proved to be a very significant exercise for me. I am most grateful to Ruth Ozeki for the exercise and her thoughtful example.