Mama, Look What I Made!

statues of horses in People’s Park, Limerick, Ireland

People’s Park, Limerick, Ireland

Last week in Limerick, Ireland, I met the Irish artist Annemarie Bourke at her gallery. After looking at the paintings, I sat for a few minutes with Annemarie on a couch in the gallery. I had told her that I’m a writer, so we talked about the need we have to create and what it is like to have that compulsion.

For this blog, I want to expand beyond my usual range of topics and talk about creativity as a human idea. Creativity in the sense of making things that do not have to exist and have no practical purpose is completely unique to humans and is one of the things that makes us different from the animals. I’ll cite things I saw in Ireland (in the cities of Limerick and Galway) and in Poland (in Warsaw and a village called Pułtusk), and then I’ll consider what we can draw from those examples.

In Limerick there is the very fine Hunt Museum, with a collection emphasizing medieval objects. I saw things of great imagination and beauty, objects originating out of a pure need to create, to make something where nothing was, such as carving a walrus tusk into a religious figure. As an utterly different form of creativity in Limerick, I also found a nice little pub near the River Shannon where musicians come every evening to play traditional Irish music and even do a little of that Irish stamp dancing with the arms held stiff by the side.

The day I caught a bus up to Galway, all of Ireland was having Culture Night, when all over the country there were so many events scheduled that booklets were put out (I saw the one just for Galway), and it was impossible to know what to go to, to choose from such riches.

As part of Culture Night, I heard three musicians play in an old church, the next day I heard a variety of musicians—string quartet, classical guitar, and Irish traditional—in three different sessions at the city museum, and later that evening in a pub packed with pint drinkers, including happy David with a glass of Guinness in hand, local musicians filled the place with fiddle and banjo and drum. Another night in Galway I went to a tiny theater to see one of the best plays I’ve ever seen, called “Helen and I”, with four actors, surrounded by the audience, slowly revealing craziness and family secrets.

But let’s jump rather exotically to Warsaw, Poland, to the National Museum, where my friend and I saw many things, but I particularly liked the 19th century Polish paintings. For me the most interesting and darkest painter is Jacek Malczewski (pronounced Malchevsky). We also saw a huge exhibition of medieval paintings. Years ago I found such paintings boring, but when you really start to look at them, you see Saint This and Saint That doing their holy thing, and then you look down in a corner and think “Uhh, what’s that monkey doing there?” Even in the Middle Ages the playful imagination of the painter would sometimes come through.

Reminding me somewhat of the medieval items in the Hunt Museum in Limerick, I saw pots in the small Polish town of Pułtusk (a town where Napolean stayed several days). In a very old tower we climbed up a dangerous set of stairs from floor to floor, looking at exhibits. Items were from local archaeological digs, and in a set of clay jars I saw that the potters had decorated with an incised pattern mashed into the wet clay before firing. The pattern had no functional purpose, but was purely decorative, a medieval Polish example of people who wanted to express something just for the creativity of it

And of course I could talk about writing: in Limerick I bought a book by a local Limerick writer (Kate O’Brien), in Galway on Culture Night I went to a bookstore and heard local poets read from their work, and in Poland I saw statues of writers.

In this brief blog I’m just brushing across the surface of what I actually could describe, but even of the things I’ve mentioned, we can categorize various types of creation: 1) creating aesthetically appealing objects, 2) using sounds for pleasing emotional effects in music, 3) applying colors to surfaces to create images in paintings, 4) using words plus sounds in poetry, 5) using words plus the body and objects to create the illusion of real people in theater, 6) using words alone to create ideas in the mind.

In terms of materials and purpose, these are all extremely different, but they illustrate the ways humans have used both our bodies and the materials around us to create art. Creativity is being human, and through art we touch each other, whether standing next to strangers smiling at one another listening to the music, or looking at a painting and feeling the sadness of someone in another culture hundreds of years earlier.

Everyone creates. Have you doodled on paper, built a sand castle, or arranged flowers in a vase? This is hopeful. If the human race ever becomes civilized, it will happen through art. Nothing else will do it.

One last thing: In addition to the painter Annemarie Bourke, who I met in Limerick, and the local Limerick writer Kate O’Brien, who I bought a book by, I went to Limerick in the first place because I love the band The Cranberries, and they come from Limerick. But I didn’t see them.

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Is Irish Alive?

A people’s language is a huge part of their identity. This fact is so well known that dominant powers across the world have tried to force smaller groups to give up their language. When the English ruled Ireland, where I am now as I write, they tried to destroy the Irish language.

In spite of English attempts, the Irish language is everywhere here on official signs. This is especially interesting to see the Irish names of cities (such as Luimnigh for Limerick or Gaillimh for Galway).

When you start to notice, however, you see signs for things drivers need to know right now, only in English, such as “All through traffic turn here” and you realize the Irish is just symbolic.

There are people who do speak Irish at home, however. The western part of the island has the most Irish speakers  (40,000 to 50,000).

The parts of Ireland where the Irish language is mostly spoken are called the Gaeltacht, which is broken up into multiple small areas, and includes the city of Galway. As a bad sign for Irish, the Gaeltacht is shrinking.

I wondered if I would hear people speaking Irish. I’m using AirBnB while in Ireland, and I asked the woman I was staying with in Limerick if she speaks Irish. She surprised me and said yes she does. She did not grow up speaking the language, and in order to really use it now, she has to seek out conversation groups. Nevertheless, she sent her daughter to schools where she studied only in Irish. As a positive sign of interest, the demand for places in the school exceeds availability.

Here in Galway, over on the west coast, I asked my waitress at dinner if she speaks Irish. She said it’s her native language, that she grew up speaking it, and in her village, it’s what people speak. She added, however, that she was the only person in the bar who was fluent in Irish.

In most of the country, most people do not speak it, and I’ve been told that it’s badly taught in schools. If the Irish want to save their language, and I hope they will, the country has to try a lot harder than it is trying.

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The Never-Ending Novel

Viking ship

Is someone writing all this down?

Find yourself a soft spot to sit here—just push the dog, he’ll move—settle in with your glass of chocolate milk, and I’ll tell you a saga. Who doesn’t love a saga? This particular saga doesn’t have men half wild with flowing beards, or wooden ships launched boldly across the dark sea, or dragons with a passion for torching the bearded men.

This saga is a little more. . . mmm, conceptual, about how a book, like a magic entangling vine, can grow in every possible direction, so that it becomes impossible to know what the book is, or what it could be, or how it should be trimmed back to make sense, or where it should be allowed to grow.

In 1997, when I was still teaching here in Atlanta, before I launched off to be smacked around America like a billiard ball, I began writing a novel that takes place in Atlanta around the time of the Olympics, in 1996. Sitting here now, nearly twenty years later, I’m considering how to revise that book, wondering if I can make something of it.

From time to time over those twenty years, I’ve worked on the book, revised it, and made extensive changes, and yet as I was looking at it a few nights ago, I thought, “Oh my God, this is rambling and ridiculous.” Whoever wrote this needs to be spanked. I should just spank myself.

The original “novel” consisted of six stories, about six different characters. I had some overlap of characters, but each story was really a separate thing. These days I don’t think of something like that as being a novel, and I wouldn’t do it, but here I am telling my literary sin in public.

I may have written a lousy book, but I was bold and imbued with faith, and when the book was done, I went looking for an agent. By then I was living in New Jersey, and as part of my quest, I signed up for a writers conference in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Without a lot of detail, I did get an agent (the only time, so far, that I’ve had one). At one point I went to meet her in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where she lived. It was a five-hour drive in one direction, but I drove over, met her in a coffee shop for a couple of hours, then drove home.

The agent suggested that the book needed more coherence—an easy call, now that I look back on it. So I took one chapter of the six, a chapter involving an elderly monk at a monastery near the city (yes, there is a Catholic monastery near Atlanta), and I cut that chapter into pieces, using them to frame the other stories. This technique did create a slight facsimile of flow and connection in the novel, but not much, and the agent was unable to sell it. Shocking to hear, no doubt.

Several years later I had moved again and was living in central Pennsylvania, more energetically engaged with writing novels, and I said to myself I’ll try this book again, and this time I’ll seriously revise it to make a real story out of it. I plunged in, and I cut and I stitched and I threw things out (including all of the monk’s tale) and I wrote new bits and new bits and new bits. Why, it was a completely new book! And did I mention rambling and ridiculous?

A few nights ago, as I said, I was looking at the novel once more. Having finished The Invention of Colors (a book I am very happy with), and as I begin making notes for a completely new novel, I thought I’ll also make one final attempt on this Atlanta novel. If I’m not able to make it work this time, well then, twenty years was a good try, and that will be enough.

I had barely been skimming through the book, just to see what’s there, when I decided that the two major male characters have to go, and I began cutting their chapters. In a way, it makes me sick to cut those sections, as there is so much writing that I really love, and things I will probably never write about otherwise, but as I was making the cuts, it also struck me that suddenly the book began to make more sense.

And I’m adding the monk back in. I kept all that material, and I missed having him there. Somehow in my head, he never went away. Maybe he will bless the undertaking.

*******************************************

In a few days I’m headed to Europe for two weeks (Ireland again, and Poland), and as I did last year, I should be able to post to the blog from there. It won’t be the elegant, polished writing you naturally expect from this blog, but dang it, that’s just how it is.

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), How We Create Magic, Writing While Living

Drinking Cocktails Called “Furryboy”

Man making a cocktailLast Friday, if I had been at a very hip, ultra chic bar named Moonster (with a werewolf as the symbol of the bar), instead of being home studying my Sunday School lesson, I might have ended up sitting next to two young men in their late 20s, one with short red hair and a bushy auburn beard, the other with a completely shaved head and an earring that was literally a dangling gold ring.

It’s a shame I wasn’t there. I can imagine how their conversation might have gone. Perhaps Mr. Beard would have made a little political commentary, such as, “Donald Trump is a full-on groadster.” We understand the slang term “full-on” to mean something like “complete” or “total”. But a groadster?

Mr. Ring addressed that. “No,” he said, “a groadster is somebody who’s dirty or disgusting.”

“Like I said?”

“It’s not for politicians. It’s for people who don’t shower or brush their teeth.”

“Well,” said Mr. Beard, wagging a finger at the bartender, then pointing at his empty drink, in his intentionally cool, sophisticated way. “I think you just don’t know how to use that word. Or maybe you think Trump is a charmpimp.”

Mr. Ring snorted with disgust. “Right, amigo mio. The only women he could charmpimp are overweight groadsters working at Walmart. Or women from Slovenia.”

“You’re leaving out his major demographic,” said Mr. Beard. “White men who barely got out of high school and who are in touch with their gay shadow.”

“A gay shadow?” said Mr. Ring. “I never heard that.”

“I guess you’re not cool enough to keep up,” said Mr. Beard. “If you don’t know the lingo, Bingo, just let the big boys talk.”

“I think you made it up.”

“Everybody knows gay shadow. Except you. It’s that dark part of you that follows you around and wants what you can’t admit. Or if you admit it, then you don’t have a gay shadow.”

“I still think you made it up.” Mr. Ring finished his drink and opened up the menu that was still lying on the counter.

“I don’t have to make stuff up,” Mr. Beard said. “I know how to stay in touch with what’s going on. I keep up with the cool ways to talk. You can’t be zack if you don’t do that.”

“You’re the least zack person I know,” Mr. Ring said. “You wear a bowtie, for God’s sake!”

“Bowties are the new zack. See, I keep up. I’m not an agno like you.”

“If bowties are zack, I’d rather be an agno.”

“Don’t worry. You are.”

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I Smell Literature Pie

painted womanWe’re having a brief Hallelujah dance here at my humble shack. On Tuesday I finished the last, long revision of the novel The Invention of Colors. At least four years it was in the oven, and now it’s nice and crispy with a golden color. I knew I was close to finishing the book, but I wasn’t sure how long it would take. I hoped it would be in a state of utter perfection before I left for a trip to Europe for a couple of weeks, which will be two weeks from Monday. And here I am, a full fortnight early (I think “fortnight” means two weeks).

Now that the novel is, in fact, in a state of utter perfection, I have given it to three readers for their comments, to make it even more. . . Hmm, wait, how can it be more perfect than utter perfection? There’s some kind of paradox here. Oh, and did I use the phrase “beta readers” to describe them? I want to make sure I use as much jargon as possible to show I’m in the club. Though when you think about it, it’s a club that mostly has writers as members, so why would any rational person want to be in a club like that?

I’ll tell you honestly, because that’s how I am, and you know that, I feel pretty damn good about this book. I think it’s going to go somewhere, and I recognize how dangerously cocky it is to say that here, because 1) I’m nobody, and 2) if I’m wrong, whoo, will I look stupid. Then again, if I look stupid, who’ll know? I’m nobody.

In November I’m going to a writer’s conference here in Atlanta, and I’ve signed up to talk to one literary agent and one publisher. Oh, and did I use the phrase “make a pitch” to describe those talks? Because the jargon thing, you know.

So what else is happening in my astonishingly interesting literary life? You sit wondering silently. When I get home from Europe, the short story collection I’d Tear Down the Stars will be coming out, and my publicist is arranging a book release party. Left to my own sad devices, I’d never have such a party, because I didn’t even know they exist. A book release party? Huh? A whut?

This will be a cool thing, I think, and when I say “cool” I mean Moses coming down from the sky in a turquoise chariot with crimson robes flying behind him. More or less. Plus a chicken that does tricks. And me. I come on after the chicken, but I don’t do tricks, and if that chicken upstages me, somebody’s looking at biscuits and gravy.

Seriously—and when am I not serious—I’ve rented the Highland Inn Ballroom just off Ponce de Leon Avenue, and on Sunday October 9, we’ll make people laugh, cry, and ponder the meaning of life, especially if they use the bar on the premises. I’ve got other writers who will join me for the book release, and they will be reading from their own works as well, and we’ll have some music courtesy of my brother. If you plan to attend from around the country, go ahead and buy your plane tickets.

In the meantime, now that the current novel is done, I’m thinking about the next book, already making notes on it. That book will take place in my hometown of Gainesville, Georgia, about a 45-minute drive from where I live. I even have a working title, which will surely change, but it’s rare for me to have a title so early. Other than calling it “the Gainesville book”, which I will, I also think of it with the name Moonapple Pie. How do you like that? In my deepest imagination, that book already struts like a giant. I know how silly that is, but maybe that’s how these big things get done. You dream them first.

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), Writing While Living

Go Write This Over

wine bottle and glass

Writing tools

Many moons and suns ago, I used to sit at my plain, cheap desk. . . Come to think of it, I still sit at a plain, cheap desk. Well, it fits my social station. Good enough for the likes of me. Anyhow, I’d sit there writing for hours, turning out page after page, sometimes throwing pieces of paper on the floor. Bear in mind, that was in the Middle Ages, so I was using a typewriter, one of the most wretched machines ever invented.

Look how I’m rambling here, and I haven’t even gotten to my topic. That happens all the time when I write, and I have to go back and rewrite it. Revision. Right, that was my topic. I had always heard that writing needed to be revised, so when I was younger, I would revise it, change a word here and there, maybe remove an entire sentence.

If you’re not smiling sardonically reading that paragraph, it means you don’t know any more than I knew then about writing. Serious revision isn’t changing a word here and there. That’s revising the way a four-year-old would bake a cake. Here’s your pretend pan and pretend stove. Cake’s done. Mmmm, here’s your piece. It’s all imaginary and no effort.

Serious revision means reconsidering plot, structure, characters, tone, etc. It means throwing away things you love. Serious revision is actual work, and therefore ugly and filled with anguish. It begins—and this is probably the hardest part—with truly recognizing that what you first wrote isn’t the most beautiful thing that ever graced human language.

Once you honestly recognize that your drivel ain’t no prettier than anybody else’s, then you’re on the path to being a serious writer. The next step is moving beyond the shock of seeing how bad you are, to also recognize that if you WORK AT IT, you can make it better. Actually, that second step is so huge that when I was teaching writing, I had a lot of students who never got to step two.

But if you have climbed those two mountains, you now sit breathing cool clean air, surveying the mighty majesty of human endeavor. Are you not pleased, young grasshopper?

For several weeks, I have been revising the current novel (The Invention of Colors). I’ll pause for a moment while you write that title down, so that some day when you see it again you can say, “Hey! I read a blog about this!” I know, it is kind of exciting.

Everyone has their preferred method of writing, and mine involves loud music, a bottle of wine, and late nights pretending I don’t have a job. After about four years (maybe more, I don’t know, I got lost in the darkness), I am soooo close to finishing this book. Maybe within a month, finito buddy-o. But in fact, as anxious as I truly am to be done, I’m forcing myself to slow down, slow down, slow down. It’s not enough that sentences and paragraphs are fine. Can I make them better? You may not agree with the “better” part, but here is a brief example of what I’m doing:

Original

“At three o’clock Friday afternoon, she left work and met him, then drove away from the town, out past the mall, past the impressive state prison on its pleasant tree-lined road, and up onto one of the ridges that ran like fingers through the valleys in the area.”

Revision

“Friday morning Carmen chose lapis lazuli earrings she had not worn in a year, and Friday afternoon at four o’clock she left work to meet Sebastian. Choosing an itinerary of afternoon ease and evening ale, she drove them away from the town, past the mall, along a pleasant tree-lined road that went by the impressive state prison sitting up a slight hill to the left.”

I liked the added detail about the earrings, as it was both interesting and implied that she was looking forward to seeing him, given the attention to her appearance. I’m also right proud, and you don’t need to make fun of me, for coming up with the phrase “an itinerary of afternoon ease and evening ale” as it uses words beginning “a– e– e– a–” as well as accurately describing what they were going to do. It was a lot of effort to do that, maybe twenty minutes on that one phrase.

Not all writing needs this kind of meticulous attention to detail, but mine does. So I revise, with red wine and Snow Patrol.

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), How We Create Magic, Writing While Living

Raise the Hills

hillsAlright, fellow logotrons, here at the blog that flits about like a butterfly, it is metaphor time again. More specifically, I will oppose one of the more common metaphors in our lives. I’m talking about a metaphor of movement, expressed most of the time in two ways, either as “move forward” (using words from Old English) or “make progress” (from Latin: pro = forward, gress = move).

Before I argue against this metaphor, let’s consider what it means, exactly. As I indicated, it literally means movement in a forward direction. When applied as a metaphor, as in “We’ve made progress in getting people to lose weight” the phrase also means movement forward toward . . .

Movement toward what? If the phrase is to make sense, there has to be a recognizable goal, and in the sentence about losing weight, there is. Blubber down—that’s the goal. This metaphor is so common, however, that sometimes we use it as a general description of human life: “We’ve made a lot of progress as a society in the last 50 years.” Toward what? Overall goodness? More people who have a smart phone?

Maybe you’re thinking, “This guy is against progress. I’m outta here.” But I’m all in favor of progress if we define it, such as expanding the ability of humans to be free and autonomous, and to improve the quality of human life (health care, meaningful work, more vacation than I currently get, etc.).

Lately I’ve begun to realize, however, that in some serious ways we are still in the Middle Ages: superstitious peasants (anti-vaccination arguments, claims that evolution can’t be true), religious fanaticism (that one’s easy), brutal nobility and oppressed serfs (billionaires in politics and illegal farm workers).

It occurred to me as I was taking a walk this week that maybe it isn’t just the Middle Ages that haven’t gone away. Maybe every stage of human development that ever happened is still there. It just depends on where you are. Are there people who don’t have fire yet? At any rate, there are tribes of people with very little technology living in the jungle in Brazil. The problem with the metaphor of progress is that we tend to think of it as something like a wave moving forward, that we’re all sweeping along at the same speed in that wave.

That metaphor is wrong. From country to country, sometimes from one mile to another, in some places even from one house to another, the level of human development is drastically different. Is it progress if you have a library in your house and spend time on the internet when the kids who live three houses away from you can barely read? Which century is your neighborhood in?

In some places a woman can run for president, while in other places a woman is not even allowed to drive a car (for instance, in a particular hell-hole country in the middle east). But even in the country where a woman can run for president, other women don’t have health insurance and don’t go to the doctor because they can’t afford it, despite having jobs. Which century is that country in?

So I think we need a new metaphor. Think of something like a landscape filled with hills and valleys. The top of each hill represents a rise toward greater human freedom and development, but the hills are all of different heights, and they are surrounded with valleys.

This image is more reflective of how the world is. We are not all moving “forward” together. Some are rising, others are not. One of the appealing things about this new metaphor is that it fits so well with how our brains already work, because we grow up with a feeling that “up is good, down is bad”. You can probably come up with your own examples for that (or you can start with “the computer system is down but the stock market is up”).

Instead of talking about progress, we should be saying that we will raise more hills, we will make the hills higher, and we will raise every hill. This might be a richer, more useful metaphor. If we can truly raise every hill, that will be a hill worth walking up.

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