Monthly Archives: May 2015

Between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers

Charleston_South_CarolinaI found a new museum. If you saw it in the right light (early evening, not too much light) it might look magnificent and impressive, a building standing alone, four stories high, all white, and with six enormous Corinthian columns rising up from the second-story porch. Seeing it up close, however, the building is shockingly decrepit, with plants growing out of the walls, badly in need of paint, and with a broken window on the ground floor. Nevertheless, it functions, and it was a fabulous thing to find.

The museum is the Karpeles Manuscript Museum (or Library—they had two different signs), and the one I visited, in Charleston, South Carolina, is one of 14 locations around the United States that display original historical manuscripts, or facsimiles in some cases if the original is too fragile to display. I went today with great anticipation after someone told me only last night that they were currently showing Russian documents.

One of the things I especially liked about looking at the old documents was seeing how both the language and the alphabet were different from modern Russian. I couldn’t easily read the documents, but in most cases that was because I couldn’t make out the handwriting, especially Vladimir Lenin (seriously, the father of the proletariat wasn’t exactly Mr. Penmanship). I also especially enjoyed seeing a document from Peter the Great and realizing that a secretary certainly wrote it out, given how meticulously neat every letter was. The most touching thing was a note from Princess Anastasia, daughter of the last tsar, when she was a little girl. In a somewhat childish handwriting, she wrote to someone “How is your health and how is the health of Mama and Papa?” It was hard to realize that this little girl would eventually be gunned down in a basement by the brutal savages who cursed the earth by giving it the Soviet Union.

I went to the Karpeles museum because I’m now in Charleston for several days to go to the Spoleto performing arts festival, and it was from talking to someone at a concert that I learned about the museum. I want to finish out this blog entry by mentioning several phrases that have struck me over the last couple of days.

  1. “Let me fall out of a window with confetti in my hair”—This was a line in a song sung by Madeleine Peyroux the night I got here. Just that line inspires me to want to write a poem, but not a poem about anything or anyone. What I want is to write a poem that evokes the sort of feeling I got from that line. Whatever that feeling was, exactly. I don’t know what the chances are of writing such a poem.
  2. “Sonic landscape”—This phrase was used by the emcee (and lead violinist, apparently) for the chamber music concert I went to this afternoon. He was describing a change in feeling of the music from baroque to the twentieth century. I thought it was an interesting metaphor, to conceive of sound as a “place” with a certain shape or look, and in different centuries the shape of that sound “place” looks different.
  3. “Where our buns are always sticky”—How can you not love a phrase like that? I mean, I don’t know how you take it, but I think it refers to rounded pastries with melted sugar. Mostly. After I went to the Karpeles Manuscript Museum this afternoon, I went down the unlikely street (it’s not really a tourist area) and found the Wildflour pastry shop, where I had coffee and a lemon-coconut tart, and where—cross my heart, I did this—I sat and worked on a poem about Italy. While sitting there, I looked up and saw their slogan on the wall.
  4. “We have everything fried”—And finally, as I was having dinner downtown tonight at Jestine’s restaurant, after I had read over their very Southern menu, my waitress told me about the specials, so that I asked her (using my smartass mode) “Do you have anything fried?” She didn’t miss a beat, and replied with that phrase. They did do mighty good fried oysters, which came with either French fries or fried okra.

So one more day here, and then back to…you know, goddamnit, real life. Until next week, I’ll wish you fried sticky buns and confetti in your hair.

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On Being a Writer

woman screamingAaaaaaaaaaaah!!

To use business terminology, the line above is the Executive Summary of this blog entry. Or let’s call it an emotional summary of how it feels to be a writer. I was considering the topic of writing difficulty this week, and given my love of rigorous scientific enquiry, I did some research by talking to three people who I know personally.

The question I posed was “What is difficult about writing?” and I left the interpretation broad to see what they said. Some of the answers I got, and that I would give myself, apply to any kind of writing, some might apply to all creative writing, and some only to writing fiction. (As for writing memoires, don’t even talk to me. Memoires are for people who can’t lie.)

With the information I got from my respondents, and with my own ideas, I’ve created three categories of impediment to stop you from writing. If you write, or wish to write but don’t, you can probably add things that I don’t mention. Like what if you write about naked people and your mother reads it.

Making a Space in the World

“Getting to it is the hardest part,” one person said to me, partly for psychological reasons, but also because THE WORLD IS IN THE WAY. More than one person said this, and let me add my Amen from the front bench. Virginia Woolf alluded to this problem (in addition to the difficulty of writing as a woman) with the phrase “a room of one’s own”, having a space where you can go and work in peace.

How do we battle past all that intrudes on us? Check the kids’ homework, take the dog to the vet, fix dinner, pay bills, wash clothes, etc. etc. etc.? This battle for space to write (or to be an artist of any type, in fact) is so ubiquitous that I wonder whether it is possible to write without pushing people away and demanding time. I recall moments during marriage when I was selfish with my time. I’m not pleased to remember that I acted that way—but how do you write otherwise?

Making a Space in Your Own Head

“I have to go outside my comfort zone” to write, another interviewee said. Stopping to write was seen as being outside the flow of normal life, and it’s easier not to push against that normal flow. All humans are subject to inertia, and I’m saying Amen again, with my hand in the air. Notice, for instance, the name I gave this blog at the top of the page. I take naps.

Specific to writing a novel, the effort involved doesn’t merely feel big, or Big, or HUGE, it feels FUCKING IMPOSSIBLE. Who could write a novel? How long does that take, and…and…what if you forget stuff? What if you don’t really know why your character wants to leave home or falls in love or wants to run for political office?

I know from my own experience how hard it is to make yourself work on something that seems to go on forever, or at least for years, with no actual end in sight and no assurance that it will even get finished. The effort can go on so long (with life happening in the meantime) that most writers surely experience the predicament of having to stop for a while, and then it’s hard to go back to it, and you don’t remember what you were doing, and some of the fire may have burned out. Still, one of the writers I talked to said, that “the unfinished work often feels like a baby one cannot abandon”.

Writing While the Demons Roar Around You

Yes, fear:

  • rejection (confirming your secret belief that maybe you’re a crappy writer)
  • being compared with other writers (who will all be, guaranteed, WAY better than you)
  • the blank page—who’s not afraid of the gaping maw of nothingness?
  • not knowing enough to make the story work (doing a disservice to a good idea or beloved characters)
  • not knowing enough about punctuation, grammar, and so on (fear of looking stupid)
  • writing truthfully about painful topics

After talking to people on the idea of fear, I realized that one of the demons all writers must fight is an expectation that what gets written should be so good, so great, so uplifting and remarkable, that we know we can’t do that. So we sit back in fear of even trying.

You might think that I must not worry about showing people my crappy writing. After all, I write a blog. Of course, three or four beers help with that.

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Even If I Never Find It

snowy field

Still looking

I think it’s time to occupy blog space with another poem, before we get back to the serious business of…oh, well…of whatever it is I do here. I’m sure it must be serious, though. If it wasn’t serious, it wouldn’t be in a blog, would it?

I’ve noticed that I seem to have a thing about dragons, and I don’t mean the fun-scary good luck kind from China. (Or I’m just guessing about that good luck reference; maybe I made that up.) Recently I’ve been looking over some short stories I’ve written in the last few years, and I find that I have one about dragons, another in which imaginary dragons are referred to, and a third that opens with a metaphor of a dragon.

Maybe this dragon obsession was because when I was a kid a dragon flew down and burned up our house. I’m not lying. It also kidnapped my cousin Linda, and we had to find a noble knight to go and get her back. That wasn’t easy to find a knight in those days, with no Craigslist.

In writing this poem, I didn’t feel bound by reality, which made it more fun to write. So the images are not true, but paradoxically, the poem itself is true. In order to express some truths, it’s necessary to use a poetic language that tries to pull us out beyond the dull weight of logic and language, out to the weightless space where some realities exist. This poem is, in the end, as true as any poem I’ve written.

You Can Keep Everything Else

I want more dragons in my life.
I want that flame and thunder,
the covert caverns treasure-filled,
the yellow eyes that make me wonder.

I’ve looked in open snowy fields
or the darker parts of churches.
To find the things that dragons bring
requires some cryptic searches.

I’m willing to walk on winding roads
where nothing is in sight.
I want what’s different, secret, strange,
honest by day or taken at night.

It’s a life of smoke and distance
where the papers don’t get signed,
but when you finally smell that fire,
the songs are epic and the singer blind.

Then I’ll drink the wine of a gypsy
who asks if you want what’s true,
or would you rather be happy?
He shrugs, and it’s up to you.

Some days I’ll wake up not alone,fire burning
some days I’ll wake up cold,
but I’ll never wake up thinking
it’s too late and I’ve grown old.

I intend to climb the treasure
to look the dragon in the eye,
and if it chooses to burn me,
that’s how I choose to die.

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Oh, Mr. Medici, Could I Have a Word?

Lorenzo de MediciWe have a section of town here in Atlanta where I rarely go (i.e., never). Except for when I do, like two weeks ago when I went for a doctor’s appointment, and in that area I was gaping stunned like a foreign tourist at the mansions and castles that lined the road, thinking “I don’t know where the king’s house is, but now I know where the nobility live.”

I was also thinking, “Geez, I’d like to just walk into one of these houses, just to see it.” And then this past Tuesday, I did. I went to a fundraiser that was, if I was paying attention properly (not a guaranteed thing), for local theater companies as well as for the website www.ArtsATL.com, who I’ve written book reviews for.

The house where this event was held was in that genteel section of town, and I knew I was near the house when I saw a lot of cars parked and cultured-looking people walking up the street. The house was quite large, of course, rather modern in style with beaucoup de verre… Sorry, I got caught up in being cultured there, I meant with lots of glass looking out on the forest and the swimming pool. Before I was even in the house I was admiring the sculptures as I approached. Inside were more sculptures. And paintings and fabric pieces and glass and LOTS of pottery.

I’ve never seen a house with more art, like a gallery. What also struck me was that I recognized the work of at least three artists and maybe of a couple more. I couldn’t remember their names, but I recognized their work. “Could these be real?” I thought. “Are they copies?” I don’t believe that particular house was filled with copies. One of the things I recognized was a glass bowl by Dale Chihuly.

My reason for going to this fund raiser, and paying $50 to go (actual money back in my humble part of town, where it is possible to buy a butchered goat), was the hope that the fund raiser might be a place to meet people, part of gradually promoting myself as a writer, as it goes. You never know about that, but you just try. My experience of life tells me that it’s necessary to do 100 things in order for one thing to work out as you want. Even so, as I walked to the house, on a long drive up a hill, I thought, “Oh, hell, I won’t know anybody in this crowd. I’ll just stay a few minutes and then leave.” As it happened, though, I stayed well toward the end, about an hour and a half.

My only definite goal in attending was to find and speak to Cathy Fox, who runs the website ArtsATL and who I had written the book reviews for. I located her as soon as I got in the house and said hello, then I moved on around the house looking at the art, which was a good reason to be there in any case. This event also came with free alcohol (beer, wine), entertainment (singers and a stand-up comedian), and food (rather fancy finger food, along with the requisite fruit and cheese).

There was quite a crowd, presumably either with connections to the arts or at least people who kind of like art. And all strangers to me. I was standing off to a side, wondering how hard it would be to trick someone into talking to me, when I looked up and—hey!—there was someone who I knew. It was a woman from the writing group I went to for about a year, though I haven’t been in months. She was also one of the writers whose work I liked, which I could not say of every person. It was a pleasure to see her, though I think it had been a year since we’d seen one another. It was also a pleasure to discover that she is on the board of directors for a fairly new theater group here in the city, Arís, focused on Celtic theater.

Driving home from the fund raiser, I was thinking about the way the world has always been, that most artists are either poor or don’t spend much time on their art (because they go to work to keep from being poor). Yet some people who have money, including big M Money, support art. They buy it to go in their houses, hold fund raisers, maybe even give to theater groups.

Of course most artists are still poor. Or going to work as medical editors. I need to find a sugar donor who likes eclectic odd writing with a philosophical undercurrent, because I can do that.

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Let It Be

Egyptian god AmunWhere there was nothing, there is now something.

Say that a thing exists, and it does. I know of two versions of creation stories in which everything is created by language. There is the Bible, in which God speaks and things happen: “let there be light”. The other that I know is one of the creation stories from ancient Egypt, in which the first of all the gods also creates by speech.

We use the word “create” to mean these incomprehensible theological events and also to mean what we do as humans to make things, such as baskets or operas or skyscrapers. Is it deliberate that we use the same verb for our own activities that we use to decribe the actions of God? Or is it simply that we sense the same idea in both cases, that something begins to exist that was not there before?

It is amazing what we humans have done. Our natural state was to be born naked lying on the ground, like animals. Beginning from that, we have created baskets and operas and skyscrapers. We seem to be driven to create, as if doing so is one of the basic aspects of our existence.

EinsteinLast Saturday I had the good luck to witness a new creation, an orchestral work by the composer Christopher Theofanidis, a work called Creation/Creator (presented for the first time). To examine the theme of creation, the work used an orchestra, a huge chorus, five solo singers, two actors, two screens of projected words, one screen of projected images, and a few colored scarves. Theofanidis’s work looked at creation both in the religious sense and in the sense of people creating art (with some references to philosophy and physics). Have you ever heard the words of Einstein or Plato being sung?

I’m moved to create through words (when I say “moved” I mean something like being strapped to a cannon ball blasted through the light of day), and I’m also compelled to the point of becoming transfixed by other works of creation: paintings, gardens, movies, music. If we could live in the world of our imagination, I would live in a world of art. Sometimes when I’ve gone to the opera or an art museum, I’ve thought, “Why can’t I live like this? Why do I have to go back to work?” That’s my real world, but I only get to visit once in a while.

opera singersHowever, wanting to experience other people’s creativity and doing your own creation are not quite the same thing, though both experiences may allow us to briefly stick our hands through the dreamwall and touch the other world where we can’t live.

The work I saw last week, Creation/Creator, used quotes from a variety of artists to comment on the need to create, and I’ll add my own comments to that conversation. Lately I’ve been reading Ralph Waldo Emerson, a type of writing that flings multitudes of comets past you. Most of them are simply mysterious and disappear into the darkness, but once in a while you catch one and ride it for a few minutes, surrounded with a brief glow of ideas before you fall off. Perhaps it’s under the influence of Emerson that I’ll make my suggestion about creativity.

fruit tartIn some way, all creation is done for the same reason, as an expression of what our soul is, whatever the “soul” might actually be. We can’t absolutely know the reason we create, because we can’t know the basic nature of the soul. When the soul is allowed to express itself, however, there is color and life and joy—dancing and flower beds and vaulted arches and haiku and fruit pastries. And novels, that’s what I do. The more we allow creativity to flourish, the more the soul of each person is able to express itself, and the more the human race will find itself at home in this illusion of reality that we have to inhabit for now.

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