Monthly Archives: June 2017

The Two of Us

dog and orangutanWe’ve had lots of rain here lately, including monsoon crazy rain on Tuesday afternoon. Watching the water rise, I’ve been thinking about things in twos, and I don’t just mean giraffes, mountain goats, and naked mole-rats walking up the ramp onto the ark. I was thinking about other wild creatures, like artists and writers.

I know what you’re thinking. Wait a minute. Writers in pairs? Isn’t one enough to deal with? I’m compelled to go off topic for a moment to tell you something I experienced years ago in St. Petersburg, Russia. I was there with my wife (at the time) in a graveyard of famous people, when I saw the grave of the wife of Pushkin, who is by far the most well known poet in Russia. I pointed the grave out to my wife, who said (and I’m not making this up), “She was the wife of a writer. I feel sorry for her.” And I was like. . . what?

Regarding the idea of pairs, how much collaboration goes on in different art forms? With music, yes, there is lots of collaboration. Some forms of music have both words and music, so different skills may be involved, requiring two people. More importantly, a lot of music is made with several instruments, so you actually need more than one person. Collaboration would be natural.

What about painting? A few weeks ago, while I was in Charleston, one of the art galleries I went into had paintings in which two artists collaborated. One person painted an image, then the second artist added something to it, producing, in the cases I saw, fairly surrealistic art. But think about it. Have you ever heard of a painting that was done by two artists? It’s actually so uncommon as to practically not exist.

With writing, there are some types of writing where having more than one author is common. In science, a single author is so rare as to seem a little strange when it happens. At the medical journal where I’m an editor, in three years of working there, I have never seen an article by only one author. Most of our articles tend to average maybe seven or eight authors. I even asked Uncle Internet for an example of a science article with many authors, and I found that in 2015, the article announcing discovery of the Higgs boson (I’m not making this up) had 5,154 “authors”.

What the fuck? Didn’t the word “author” used to mean someone who “wrote” something? Not in science, apparently. And yet we get articles that someone wrote. Maybe just one person. At our journal, we are pretending to fight a battle in defense of the word “author” as a writer. We even require that the authors lie to us and submit a form swearing they all literally worked on the writing. We’re serious as a heart attack about it, and we save those forms for years.

But—ah! here we are at last—what about creative writers, the people who can make their spouses pity the dead? How many books can you name written by two writers? I don’t mean some drivel where a famous person hires a writer to actually do the work, and then they are both “authors”. I mean how many creative works have you seen with two writers?

In poetry, none. There may not be a single poem on the earth written by two poets. I don’t know it anyway.

In fiction, there are a few examples. The only one I actually know off-hand is two novels called The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf by early Soviet humor writers Ilf and Petrov (yeah, I know, “Soviet humor writer” sounds like an oxymoron). The books are fabulous, by the way, wonderful satire, and Mel Brooks even made a movie of the first one. I went looking for more examples and I found a play called “The Mule Bone” by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. According to what I read, that collaboration did not go well. There are a few other examples of collaborative creative writing if you look, but not many.

Why is collaboration so rare in creative writing? I think the answer is fairly easy. All art, at its heart, is an individual expression, from someone feeling the urge to do it. Human beings have created several complex forms of art that cannot be done by one person, and whose lend themselves to collaboration: music, theater, opera, film. Other art forms, however, like fiction, poetry, or painting, tend to be the vision and expression of a single person. Collaborating with a second person would probably change and ruin the first person’s vision. And so we write on alone.

I want to say, regarding this blog entry, that I wrote this all by myself, and I only needed two naps, a half gallon of ice cream, and a brief period of melancholy darkness to be able to do it.

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If You’re Looking for Sense, Don’t Look Here

house of nonsenseThis week I’ve decided that rather than try to be coherent and make sense, I’m just going to ramble on inanely. That is sooooo much easier. So anyway, yesterday at work, we had a little meeting (the three editors and the managing editor for the medical journal I work on), and the topic of our meeting was mostly to make us aware that we need to pay close attention to the names of the authors at the beginning of the article.

One item of discussion was an example of a middle initial that wound up missing the period which is supposed to follow it. In your world that might just be a dot that wasn’t there, but for us it’s a mistake to make frowny faces over. We also talked about how to write names of people who are descended from European aristocracy, with those little bits in the middle of the name like “de” or “van” or there was even a “ter” and what the hell is that?

We get articles from all over all the world, literally, or at least places where people do rheumatology research (which seems to leave out Lichtenstein), so I see a lot of different kinds of names. The longest last names in the world, that I’ve seen anyway, are from Thailand (like Intharueangsarn), although the Spanish generally will hyphenate two names, so they gain some length that way. The easiest names are from Korea or China, so you get some Kim and some Chen and you’re done.

During our morning meeting, our boss got on the phone, so the rest of us launched off into the first nonwork-related topic to come to mind, and I mentioned that the election (Georgia’s 6th district: Jon Ossoff vs. Karen Handel) is next Tuesday. This reminded one of my colleagues how much she hates the political ads running like an open sewer from her TV. I have no TV and haven’t seen them, but I sympathized with my colleague’s interest in the rhetoric they use.

One of the approaches isn’t exactly rhetorical, but more theatrical. For the negative ads, they tend to use black and white instead of color, possibly with odd camera angles, and the announcer will use what my colleague called a Darth Vader voice, kind of low and ominous sounding: “Jon Ossoff wants to kill your puppy.”

Rhetorically, one of the most common approaches in the negative ads against Ossoff is referring to him over and over in connection with Representative Nancy Pelosi, as if that actually makes sense. In case you’re not trained in rhetoric or logic, that’s called an “ad hominem” argument, which ignores logic and facts and just tries to attack the person in any way possible.

I believe nearly all politicking, certainly 90% of it, is nothing but ad hominem, attacking one another personally. How much discussion of actual policies do you remember from the election last year (I’m sorry to drag you back to that time of horror)? Why do politicians use ad hominem, the miserable assholes? Because it works. And why does it work? We can all go look in the mirror to answer that.

Since I’m free in this blog entry from the ugly chains of consistency or sticking to a topic, I want to mention that I went to a new bookstore this week. I’m using the word “new” the way I might refer to a shirt I bought at Goodwill, it was new to me. This was actually a used book store called Atlanta Vintage Books that I had never been to before. I had thought I was running out of books, forgetting I just bought a new one, so I went in to browse a bit and pick up a book or two.

I was thinking about Mark Twain or Dickens, but then I bought books by three writers I never heard of. You know, for a writer it’s kind of overwhelming to go into a bookstore, even an old used bookstore, because good God, where did all those books come from? Someone wrote those books one by one, in some cases with great effort and spending years to do it, and they may have spent even more years trying to get the book published, and then at last it happened. Perhaps they celebrated and drank champagne and did a happy dance and stayed up late. And here the book is piled up with other old books in a dusty bookstore not far from the municipal airport.

So that’s how it goes. It doesn’t seem to make sense to write novels, I guess, but I’m going to keep writing them.

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She’s Such a Character

abstract bird artWhat does it mean to say that a character in a book is real? I mean, they’re obviously not real, just words on a page. But one of the ways we talk about characters in literature is how much they seem like a real person. As with everything we read, the character is created entirely inside the head of the reader, who takes the words and puts them all together somehow, to mentally picture someone.

Because the reader is using the words the writer provided, the writer and reader are actually working together to create the character. Sometimes fiction writers make it easier, but there are other writers whose characters never seem to acquire much depth. We could also ask whether or not it matters if a character becomes real.

Sometimes, no, it doesn’t really matter. Some books exist just to tell a story for entertainment, with no other purpose, and for those books, while the reading may be more fun if the characters are somewhat real, in the end, the story is what matters, and the characters are only tools to help tell it. Also note that since character development is a cooperative enterprise, with writer and reader working together, for some types of books, if the reader has to work too hard, they may feel the book is less entertaining.

I don’t write those kinds of books (i.e., the kind that sell easily), such as romance, thrillers, spy novels, detective novels, and so on. I never made a choice not to write such books, I just write what I write. That’s not who I am.

When I’m writing, it matters A LOT whether the character seems real. In fact, that aspect of the book matters more to me than anything else about it. I want my characters to remain in the reader’s mind afterward, almost haunting, as if these people I’ve created were someone you really knew. I’m not sure whether I actually manage to do this, but that’s what I want.

I’m finishing up a book right now (called Birds Above the Cage), and I find myself using a technique I’ve used on the last couple of novels. When the book is “done” in terms of the story, I then go through it once for each major character, looking only at sections that have that character, and I focus on character development. This time I also tried something new, kind of eccentric. I went on the web and searched for photographs, choosing one that I thought represented each major character, and I downloaded those photos. From time to time I’d look at the pictures to give me a sense that I was writing about a real person.

So at the moment I’m working with Lily. Something I did this time was scan quickly through all her sections of the book, making notes on things I said about her: she doesn’t like coffee, she reads Newsweek, etc. Now that I’m going back and reading her sections more slowly, I keep looking at that list, to see whether I can use any of it, to reinforce something I’ve already said.

That’s not enough, however. When it comes down to it, I simply have to read a scene and stare at the computer until blood is running from my eyes, thinking, “What else can I do here?” For this kind of writing, good enough is not nearly good enough. There are various “sets” of approaches that I can use: (1) thoughts of the characters, which is very useful, but I want a fuller sense of the person in space as well, (2) physical appearance and motions, like frowning, brushing back the hair, walking quickly, and so on, but it could be easy to overdo this, (3) the setting as it relates to the character, like piano music she left lying on the table, a bag of oranges she just bought, photographs hanging on the wall.

Here’s a small example from about an hour ago. Lily gets a phone call from her estranged father, who she hasn’t talked to in years, and he gives her some astonishing news. I wanted to enliven the scene a bit physically, have more than just lines of dialogue, so I had her suddenly stand up in amazement from a chair where she was sitting. That gave a little physical motion to the scene, and it also said something about Lily’s emotional state, that she would be provoked into that action.

I was also going to have her look out the window and notice something outside. I had in mind seeing a chipmunk run by, as she sees a chipmunk much later in the book, but then I thought that under the circumstances of the phone call, she would have such a strong emotional reaction she probably wouldn’t notice anything around her. To stay true to her psychology, therefore, I ignored the outside.

Doing this kind of writing, for me at least, is extremely challenging. It’s hard work, and I keep thinking, “I want a nap. I want a glass of wine. I want a cookie. I want a hug.”

Anything but sit here working on this book.

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Let There Be Light

How do you make light flow like water. I saw it done three days ago, so I know it’s possible, but I wonder how. More pertinent to what I want to say here, how do you decide to do that, and to add flowing light to the backdrop of an aggressively modern opera?

Or let’s say you’ve painted a fairly large canvas with a semi-abstract vase of flowers. Do you look at the picture and think, “This really needs tiny white dots scattered at random across the canvas”? So you add them. Or do you have white paint on your brush and accidentally splatter the picture, then think, “Oh shit. Well, I’m leaving it”?

Let’s take a third example, using the Tchaikovsky opera “Eugene Onegin”. If you are staging this opera, which is more than 200 years old, how do you decide to incorporate video segments? And if you decide to use video, what will it be, and where will it go, and how will you do it? It would already seem like a lot of work just to decide where the singers should be standing.

I’m thinking a little more at the moment about how people make creative decisions because I’ve come to Charleston, South Carolina, specifically because of the creativity I find here. I’m in Charleston for four days attending the Spoleto Festival, but the creativity here is much more than just Spoleto. I went yesterday to Blue Bicycle book store, where they have a shelf with local writers (particularly Pat Conroy). There are also more art galleries here than any place I’ve ever been. The smallest number I’ve heard was around 45 galleries, or up to 80.

From the last two days I’ll consider three more examples of creative decision making: (1) a painter I happened to meet and chat with, who had his easel set up outside painting a boat; (2) a poet who lives here and works with highly structured poetry, and (3) Gullah basket makers who live out on the barrier islands and who come into Charleston to sell baskets on the steps of the post office.

(1) The painter is named Ignat Ignatov, from Bulgaria, but living now in Los Angeles. He came to Charleston to judge an art show that runs for 17 days in a park here, and he also told me he has work hanging in one of the galleries in town. I went to the gallery and looked, and for much of his work, I could recognize it, with broad brush strokes, in a semi-abstract style. I liked it very much, by the way. When I asked the gallery manager, however, I was shown other things Ignat had done in radically different styles. I wondered how a decision is made for how to work on each painting. Is it conscious? Is the style inspired by the subject? Does the light itself affect how he decides to paint something?

(2) I also talked with a woman who told me her husband is a poet, but a poet who works in a more structured and controlled way than most poets. I would probably consider him a more serious poet, having had a lot of experience myself with people who pour the words out, and out, and out, in one sitting and then don’t touch the poem again. By contrast, the poet in this case has worked with verses of three lines (I think I got that right), organized in a particular way—something, in other words, that would take a lot of conscious control. Why do that? What is the creative impulse to use any particular structure and not another one?

(3) The Gullah basket makers are famous for the baskets they make using sweetgrass and pine needles (the baskets are also called sweetgrass baskets), and I’ve seen the baskets in museums. One of the most notable things about them is that both the technique and the culture encourage creativity in form, especially regarding the basket handles. Sometimes they curl and twist into handles of fantasy. As she does this (I’ve never seen a man making baskets), what is the basket maker thinking? Is she remembering a dog’s tail she saw last week? Is she inspired by the back and forth curves of a creek near her house?

Since we’re in South Carolina, here in the deep south, it seems appropriate to end this with the Bible. One of the things I particularly like about the Genesis version of creation is that the creation of the world takes place entirely with language. God simply speaks, and things exist. I also know of one ancient Egyptian creation story that does the same thing, creation through language. Creating with words, I can relate to that. But I wonder what he was thinking.

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