Monthly Archives: November 2018

Oh, I Just Threw Something Together

Decorative swords

Deadly art

The following three things have something important in common: haiku poetry, ballroom dancing, and the carved figures on the front of old ships. Of course I don’t have to tell a sophisticated person like you what they share, but other people might not know. These are all forms of art.

Given the stupendous possible variety in artistic expression (let’s go ahead and throw in painting wall murals, weaving lace, performing rap lyrics, and raking sand in a Japanese garden), we might feel provoked—even though we really do know better—to quietly query ourselves “What is this art thing?”

In a very basic way, whatever a person’s motivation might be, art consists in shaping the physical world. Right? You have to use something to make art, even if it’s just using the sounds you can make or the motion of your own body. In fact, I’d be willing to guess that almost every object human beings have ever touched has been turned into a form of art by someone. Even swords, which are basically long pieces of sharp metal used to kill someone, have been made into art.

If we talk about acquiring skill in art, what can “skill” mean amid such inconceivable variety? I would describe skill in art as having increasing control over the medium, over that part of the world the artist is using. Heightened skill then leads to an increasing ability (1) to make the medium come closer to what exists in the artist’s imagination, (2) to work the medium in more subtle ways, and (3) to express the art with greater consistency.

Suppose, however, an artist does not have great skill, whatever the reason (lack of talent, or lack of opportunity to perfect the talent, or just lack of desire to perfect the talent). Is it possible for both the artist and the audience to be satisfied by art that shows little skill?

I think it is possible. The audience might have an emotional connection to the artist. One of my colleagues at work, for instance, has filled his office with drawings done by his young children. As a very different example, the audience might take pleasure from something unexpected and different. The painter Grandma Moses painted very popular images of old-fashioned rural life in a simplified style, or consider the fame and acclaim gained by Jackson Pollock, who would fling paint onto canvases—I mean seriously, people, he just flung paint.

In general, however, we admire those artists who work hard to learn to control their medium and have more control over the effects, even if we also like people whose art seems less controlled and polished (like early Joe Cocker).

If we consider artistic skill in writing, we could begin with basic control of the medium: (1) knowing the mechanics of written language, in particular spelling and punctuation, and (2) having a strong command over the grammar of the standard version of the language. But as I used to tell my students, knowing the mechanics of writings brings you up to zero. Then you can begin to get people to listen to what you have to say.

The true craft of fiction writing requires skills that become hard to describe, such as having a sense of dramatic flow in a story, knowing how to transition in a satisfying way between parts, or knowing how to make a character seem real.

I’m a huge admirer of craft in art, every kind of art. Craft alone is not enough, but for me, neither is raw, undeveloped talent enough. Being too talented, in fact, might make the artist lazy, and I’m not interested in lazy artists. When talent, whatever that is, comes together with a willingness to work and learn the craft, then amazing things can happen, like Artemesia Gentileschi, Fred Astaire, or Alexander Pushkin.

Leave a comment

Filed under How We Create Magic

Thinking a World Into Existence

Colored leaf arrangement

Colored leaves arranged by Andy Goldsworthy

Picture yourself, if you will, as having no physical existence, just a cloud (although a cloud is physical—so not a cloud) of thoughts floating in space (although “floating” is also physical, but anyway). You might think of your mind this way, as a kind of entity, something we can’t really describe, like a disembodied force floating in the emptiness of space.

I’m not going to pursue this blog entry into the philosophical view that our physical existence is actually an illusion. Oh, no sir, we exist, alright. It’s our minds that I have questions about. And yet something tenaciously continues to insist “I’m here. I’m here.” OK, fine, but it’s spooky. Let’s consider what these minds can do.

Have you ever known a child who didn’t draw, or play with dolls, or use objects to create an imaginary world? “This is the doctor, and she lives on the boat with her duck, but sometimes she uses the rocket ship to go places.” These activities of children just sounds normal, right? It’s what humans do. Every human is creative.

Nevertheless, in the societies that we’ve constructed, we have managed to devise a world in which some people think they are not creative. All humans create, even if they do not write novels or symphonies or bake cakes that look like movie stars. It is a basic aspect of being human.

In my discussion here, what is creativity? You may not write a novel, but you’ve spent your life telling yourself stories, imagining things that you wish would happen (and I don’t just mean, you know, stuff you don’t want to tell anybody). Your mind pictures something that does not completely exist in the physical world, and the thing you think of exists in your disembodied force floating in the emptiness of space (your mind). That’s creativity, the same idea that every religion attributes to whatever gods they worship, from the Jewish/Christian/Muslim god to Hindu Brahman to ancient Egyptian Ra. From thought comes existence.

Yet there is a difference among people, or there appears to be, in the intensity with which they pursue creativity. If creativity allows us to escape the prison of physical life, maybe some people have a greater desire to escape. In other instances, creativity is probably not about escape, but about expression. Something inside has to get out, I just gotta dance!

I feel it myself, the compulsion to make something appear where nothing was. It can be a little overwhelming sometimes, to look at the blankness of a page and wonder what should be there. It’s interesting to ponder, since creativity is basic to human thinking, why someone chooses a particular way of creating over another way. I feel driven to write, and another person feels driven to build birdhouses.

The first answer that comes to my mind is that it’s because we discover we’re good at something. I would love to be a musician, for instance, but I think I’m not good at it, so I don’t pursue it. And yet I’ve known some craaaaaapy writers, who really loved to write. So maybe we’re drawn to particular forms of creativity for mysterious reasons, like so much of life. It’s a mystery, like our minds.

Leave a comment

Filed under How We Create Magic

I Pretend to Know That

bowl of herbsA couple of weeks ago, I had intended to drive to a state park in the North Georgia mountains, where a national herbal medicine conference was being held. I didn’t specifically want to attend the conference, but I did want to see what was happening, to get a feel for it and make some notes. It turns out I did not go, but I’ve talked to someone who did.

The reason for the herbal medicine interest is that I have a character in the novel I’m currently writing who is in the process of becoming a herbal healer, which I know almost nothing about. Because I have a strong interest in character development, I try to have characters familiar with a wide variety of topics, like real people, so my characters will necessarily know things that I don’t know.

I’m not going to become seriously knowledgeable about every possible thing familiar to my characters. What I write, in effect, is an illusion (assuming it works). If character development is done well, and I’ve read people who do it well, it really does seem that the characters know many different subjects.

If you are a writer, unless you strictly follow the idiotic advice to “write what you know”, a great deal of research may be needed. I was recently reading about the movie director Mira Nair, who made the movie “Mississippi Masala” and how she went to Uganda to do research for the movie. That kind of thing is far beyond my resources, but I still do a lot of research.

If you’re a clumsy writer (and it’s easy to be clumsy, as I know from experience), you can take what you’ve learned about some topic and drop it in clumps into your novel. Even if you put quotation marks around it, however, and present it as the character speaking, that block of information doesn’t even come close to creating a real character.

People don’t usually go around giving lectures on what they know. Most of the time, as they move through daily life, what they know about topic X comes out in more subtle ways. To be realistic, what you must to do is show repeated, more subtle references, as in these examples.

  • Someone who is a good cook might be standing in line at the supermarket, looking at a recipe in a magazine, thinking I wouldn’t put tarragon in that.
  • Someone who is a basketball fan may look at a calendar for a different reason, but notice they’ve marked a date to meet a friend to watch a playoff game.
  • Someone who trains dogs could be in their basement looking for something when they happen to see an old [insert dog training implement—do research].

In the novel I’m currently writing, in addition to the character who will become a herbal healer, I have a visual artist, a painter. Attempting to show the knowledge of these two characters requires both research and attention to details within the writing.

  • The artist: I knew there is such a thing as complementary colors, something a trained artist would presumably know, but I didn’t know what they are, so I looked up a color wheel (several, in fact, as I prefer to verify what I’m finding).
  • The artist: He is looking at an object, thinking about what colors he might use to capture that look, using [name colors of paint—do research]
  • The herbal healer: I met someone who knows herbal medicine, so I asked if I could interview her, which I did once for a couple of hours over lunch. I made notes, and I followed up on information she gave me.
  • The herbal healer: My character is at a friend’s house and notices a pot of flowers in the room, then learns that the flowers are a herbal plant she’s just been reading about.

Doing the things I’m describing above is a LOT of work. That’s what good writing is.

Leave a comment

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

I See That Candy Hidden in Your Pocket

SupermanThursday morning I woke up lying on the floor, chocolate smeared across my face, with dozens of candy wrappers lying all around me. But hey, we’ve all been there. The day after Halloween, right?

This year for Halloween, even though spirits of the dead were walking the earth (granted, many of them less than four feet tall), I decided I would be brave and give out candy whenever they came to my door. So I bought several bags and poured them in a bowl, which I set by the door. I was ready to distribute sugar to the dead. Or to SpongeBob SquarePants. Or princesses.

The first knock on the door, I opened up and saw five or six children. “Trick or treat!” they yelled. I started handing out candy when I saw behind them a tall, muscular figure in a black and grey outfit with a long cape and a mask. “Who are you?” I said.

“Batman,” he said. “I promised Robin I’d get him some candy. He’s in the car.” I looked around Batman and there was the Batmobile sitting by the curb.

I said, “Uhhhh,” and Batman said, “Yeah, look, just put it in the bag here.” So I did.

The next knock on the door, I opened up and only one person was there, a grown woman in a skimpy red and blue outfit with stars and more sequins than I expected. I said, “Are you—”

“Wonder Woman,” she said. “And you know what, I’ll skip the candy. I mean, all that sugar is incredibly unhealthy, right? But it’s kind of cold out here, and this outfit…this is just stupid. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m half naked.”

“Let me get you an old sweater,” I said, and I gave her that.

The next couple of knocks on the door were normal children, or tiny dead people, I’m not sure. Then I opened up and a grown man was there wearing a straw hat, dark blue overalls, heavy boots with mud on them, and a skin-tight gold shirt. “Who are you?” I said.

“Farmboy,” he said. “A superhero.”

I looked at him kind of suspicious. “I never heard of you.”

“I’m not as well known as the others, but I protect against insect pests, in addition to leaf blight, root rot, and powdery mildew. Trick or treat.” He held out a burlap bag.

What was I going to do? I didn’t want him to pull a trick and put powdery mildew on my azaleas, so I gave him candy.

No more superheroes seemed to be showing up after that, which was OK with me. Eventually I ran out of candy and I made some popcorn balls and started giving those out. Late in the evening, though, there was a real loud knock, and Superman was standing there.

He held out a bag and said, “Trick or treat, man,” which he kind of mumbled.

I gave him two popcorn balls, but he looked down in the bag and said, “What the hell?” I explained that I was out of candy, but he told me he hated popcorn and was going to give me a trick for not having candy. The trick was that he turned back time.

The first knock on the door, I opened up and saw five or six children. “Trick or treat!” they yelled. I started handing out candy when I saw behind them a tall, muscular figure in a black and grey outfit with a long cape and a mask. “Who are you?” I said.



I want to thank everyone who reads this blog, those who have been reading from years ago as well as new readers who have recently subscribed. I truly appreciate that you give me some of your time to read it. I’ve been writing the blog now for around six years or more, posting once a week. As you can imagine, such an endeavor has been quite a lot of work, not to mention that I also have to work for a living (goddamnit), plus I write novels when I can. At the end of this year I am going to take a break, so these regular weekly posts will continue through November and December.


Filed under Really True Really