GUEST POST: Teaching the Tool of Time with Cathy Ballou Mealey

2015 June 009 (7)

Today I am delighted to have picture book writer Cathy Ballou Mealey as my guest.  She and I are kindred spirits in that we both share a love for kid’s poetry, picture books, reading and… ART!  Today she’s here to inspire us with an encouraging post on harnessing the creative potential inherent in the process of waiting for writerly feedback.  Take it away, Cathy!  

Teaching the Tool of Time 

by Cathy Ballou Mealey

In a 2013 Harvard Magazine article entitled The Power of Patience, professor Jennifer L. Roberts writes about teaching her art and architecture students about the value of immersive attention. Counter to the trends in today’s high-speed, digitally oriented classrooms, she deliberately creates assignments that force students to slow down and spend time in deep contemplation.

Specifically, her students must write an intensive research paper on a single work of art after devoting three continuous hours in a museum studying the piece and noting their emerging discoveries. Of course students resist. Three hours is a large chunk of time to commit, and with no social media? But later they all report being astonished by the revelations of this exercise.

Roberts proverbially “puts her money where her mouth is” by devoting three hours to study John Singleton Copley’s 1765 work A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (Henry Pelham). Nine minutes into the exercise, she sees that the boy’s ear crinkles echo the squirrel’s belly folds. After 21 minutes, she notes the span of his fingers measure the precise width of the water glass. Then she wonders why his face is turned in profile, and what is odd about that red curtain?

When Roberts launches into the history component of her lesson, the story is completely gripping. A self-taught artist isolated from esteemed European art academies, Copley was hungry for feedback to improve his work. He painted this portrait, boxed it up, walked to Boston Harbor to put it on a ship bound for London, and waited. After eleven months, he got a note that they thought his work was “too liney.” What exactly did that mean? he wrote back. And waited again for a response.

Those of us in the throes of queries and submissions know all too well about waiting for feedback. In 250 years, have we made no progress in the speed at which we get answers? Copley knew his wait would be long, but the modern world is unused to such a pace. Roberts suggests we regain an awareness of the value of patience as a tool. We have the power to put our waiting time to good use through thoughtful observation and careful questioning. If Roberts had looked away after ten minutes, she would have missed many significant details that greatly enriched her later research on the painting’s symbolism.

Waiting is never easy, but perhaps we can learn to harness the creative potential inherent in the process. If  you would like to study an image of A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (Henry Pelham) follow this Museum of Fine Arts, Boston link. Or you may wish to watch Jennifer Roberts lecture about The Power of Patience from the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching conference. Whatever you are waiting for, I hope you pass the time productively!

20141031_144419 (2)Cathy Ballou Mealey is a picture book writer and former college administrator. She volunteers for her children’s schools, local literacy efforts, and organizations supporting children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. Read more about Cathy’s thoughts on poetry, art and picture books on her blog. She also reviews new children’s books at Good Reads with Ronna and for North Shore Children & Families. She is represented by Liza Fleissig of the Liza Royce Agency.

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32 thoughts on “GUEST POST: Teaching the Tool of Time with Cathy Ballou Mealey

    • Thank YOU! You’ve inspired me to take my kids to the Met as soon as school lets out for some unhurried wanderings through the American wing or perhaps the Impressionist wing. Decisions, decisions…

  1. Pingback: “Timely” Post at Laura Sassi Tales | bildebok from Cathy Ballou Mealey

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Cathy! Patience is definitely an art in itself worth cultivating, and in this technological age of instant gratification, it’s becoming lost. I guess it also connects with mindfulness for me–being present in the moment helps the time to pass more quickly too 🙂

  3. Great article and thank you. I’ll remember how Copley waited for months for feedback. Patience is not my strong suit; I’m learning that having faith in the internal process, sitting with the Self does bring rewards!

  4. Such a great topic in this age of instant gratification. Patience is something we all could benefit from. I will check out the sites. Like Maria, I like to think of it as mindfulness. I know it has been part of my practice for years. I’ve worked with a meditation/study group for some time. We spend three days on one page of the assigned book, reading the same page every day and choosing a different seed thought to ponder on and write about. By the end of three days it’s amazing to see how much more you see and understand. Like the suggestion with the painting, the exercise can be used in so many different ways. Again, a very thoughtful post.

  5. I love this post, Cathy. The reminder to focus is much needed and this exercise sounds interesting. Just may give it a try.

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