The Five Obstructions

My husband Ben and I watched the “The Five Obstructions” when it came out in 2003. The film follows the Danish director, Lars von Trier, who visits his old friend Jorgen Leth and challenges him to make new work. Leth is an experimental filmmaker who in 1967 created “The Perfect Human,” a short film that earned him a cult following, but the film implies that he’s been creatively stuck for a while. Von Trier challenges Leth to re-make his short film five different times, giving particular rules, or obstructions, to each one.

The film blew our minds when we saw it and influenced our ideas about writing and art-making. This may have been partly because 2003 was the year our first kid, Coen, was born, the biggest creative collaboration we’d undertaken since Gumball Poetry. It’s possible we feared that the job of parenting and the necessary domesticity might mark the death of our creative work if we didn’t carve out a way to keep making stuff. Whatever the case, we decided to offer creative Obstructions to one another. We took turns describing what we’d been thinking about and what we’d like to be working on, and from these conversations we created a curated Obstruction for one another.

I don’t remember everything we assigned each other – I know some projects included short stories, visual art and even a film, (which Ben made and which wound up being screened here in Portland and also at a film festival in Australia – fun fact: My brother James takes a small part as The American Photographer, resulting in a woman outside the theater pointing and hollering, Hey, there goes the American Photographer!).

These years later, it’s clear to me that the point wasn’t where (or whether) the work itself found a home in the world – it was about creating the space to make it in the first place. Obstructions enabled us to work inside a kind of container with a deadline and this made all the difference. During the pandemic, I find that I’ve sought ways to create these same kinds of spaces in time. These take the form of teaching I do, like Truth & Dare workshops for teenagers or the courses I create for the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College (two new ones coming up in 2021: Writers’ Notebook as Blueprint & The Art of the Letter). I have also been lucky to take part projects created by others as well, like Daily Write with Portland writer Brian Benson, which ran this past spring/summer and a Poetry & Divination workshop with Coleman Stevenson hosted by the IPRC yesterday.

Coen just turned 17, which just goes to show how quickly days evaporate and time passes. As I write this, he’s downstairs singing and figuring out the chords of this haunting song on the piano, the theme from Over the Garden Wall, (a weird animated show he and his sister love – worth watching just for the frog on the piano).

I’m signing off with love and the hopes that your solstice includes rituals to mark the time and to carve out space for what you most need right now. For those of you who most needed a frog on a piano, you’re welcome.

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