Category Archives: How We Create Magic

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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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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I Am, Needless to Say, Perfect the First Time

ruined building and restored version

The revised version

Back when Fred and Wilma Flintstone still lived in Bedrock (the late 1970s), I was in college. While I was there, my college sponsored a science fiction convention, and since I was a fan, I attended. For the highlight of the convention, we brought in a very famous science fiction writer. I have just checked Wikipedia to learn that he is still alive, so I guess I won’t name him, though if you’re also a science fiction fan, you’d certainly know him.

At one of the talks given by the Famous Science Fiction Writer, he began telling us what a good writer he is, and he even at one point talked about his ability to write so well the writing wouldn’t need revision, and he could publish it like it was. He was so good, he said, that he didn’t necessarily need to revise.

I want to pause here to say that I have a theory about people who insist on telling you how wonderful they are (and by “theory” I mean bedrock truth). I’ve learned this truth from very close acquaintance with a family member who has illustrated it in detail. Anyone who feels compelled to tell you how good they are is actually seriously broken inside, cringing that anyone might discover the truth. Not that I’m going to name any presidents of the United States.

As it happens, the Famous Science Fiction Writer really is good at what he does, in spite of his obvious insecurity and loud insistence otherwise. But is it possible to be so good you don’t need to revise your writing?

I used to tell my students in first-year prisoner English class that anyone can write below their own level of ability. A college freshman can do it, a famous writer can do it. But to write the best you are capable of, you cannot do this, ever . . . EVER, if you do not revise. Now if lazy writing below your capacity is good enough, and sometimes, frankly, it is, then fine. Dash off an email. Post something on Twitter.

Writing is a complicated activity, requiring attention to many different things, such as the overall subject being written about, choosing which details to add, matching subjects and verbs, spelling the words correctly, getting the punctuation correct. The way the human mind operates, the way we focus, we cannot think about all of these things at the same time. Instead, we focus our attention, in a kind of jittery back and forth motion, on a couple of points, then stop and move to another: “Did I make the really important point I was thinking about a minute ago? Yes, oh, and is that word spelled right?”

Even if the writing process itself were not so inherently scattered, if you are doing the best you can do, that quality is created from repeatedly going over what you’ve written, to find a better sentence structure that you didn’t think of the first time, to add better details than you started with, to cut out something that you now realize isn’t working, and so on. This is real work. And humans are lazy, so it’s understandable why people don’t want to do this.

A friend who is a writer was just telling me about revising a novel she’s worked on for years, a book done in three sections. She has decided to discard one of the three sections, the middle of the book. If you’re not a writer, that probably sounds drastic, though it doesn’t sound that extreme to me. I know how hard it must have been for her to decide this, as I know her well enough to know what an emotional connection she would have to that section. I also think the book will be much more focused and thus improved.

The novel I’m currently revising has been through a similar process, with similar extensive cutting. As I was reading over the book to begin the revision process, considering what I might do with it, I went from thinking “this is a useless, irredeemable mess” to thinking “well, the parts with the two female characters sort of have something in common” and I wondered what if that was all that was there. If I cut out the male characters (half the book), what would happen? I tried it, and suddenly the book made more sense. That was the first step in a long process toward a better book.

Back in those long-gone days when my college held the science fiction convention, I knew that I was supposed to revise writing. My understanding of revision in those days, though, was to change a sentence here and there. It took me many years to realize that the best way to revise is to love what you write, then kill it if you have to.

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And Then the Cat Jumped on Those Hounds

ancient Greek bard

Tell us the story of sushi

Last week I was telling someone about going downtown to ride the giant Ferris wheel here in Atlanta, and she commented on how I tell stories. By coincidence, a few days later I was talking to a woman who I met recently, and  to my great surprise, it turned out we know people in common who are devoted storytellers. I mean they are serious about it and attend events at which people get up and tell stories, and they’ve even induced me to attend a few times.

On the subject of telling stories, I’m just now finishing the draft of a revised novel (called Birds Above the Cage). While working on the revision, I spent a great deal of effort on how the story moved along, thinking about whether the dramatic moments came too soon, and so on, what I thought of as pacing. If you think about it, what is pacing? It’s an element of storytelling.

I’ve given examples here of telling a story in a personal conversation, of getting up in front of people to intentionally tell stories, and of treating the flow of a novel as telling a story. People love stories, and both children and adults will sit enthralled to hear a story well told. If we go way back in time to Homer’s Odyssey, in addition to the book being a story, there are multiple scenes of someone telling a story to a group that sits quietly listening. Storytelling is so important to fiction that modern fiction is often categorized as to what type of story is told, what we call genre. Thus we have detective novels, romance, science fiction, and so on, but no matter what type of fiction a person writes, even if the story doesn’t fit one of the common genre categories, telling a story is important.

I don’t think I’m a natural storyteller. With a lot of effort, I can do it (as in the last book of short stories I put out, I’d Tear Down the Stars). Maybe I’ve listened to too many stupid cliches about the south, about how people down here are natural storytellers, sitting on the wide front porch, mint julep in hand: “Did ah tell yall ‘bout the time the hounds got loose?” I’ve been led to think that for some people telling stories must be easy, maybe, but it’s hard as hell for me.

Why do people like stories? Important disclaimer here: I don’t actually know anything. If you’re looking for real knowledge, maybe you should stop here and get back to watching Homer Simpson videos. But here’s what I think:

1) It’s just entertainment. A story can pass the time. That was part of the appeal when the bards of Homer’s time told the stories that eventually became the Odyssesy, and it’s the same reason TV shows like “Breaking Bad” become so popular.

2) Perhaps as a variation on entertainment, storytelling may meet a desire for titillation or prying into someone else’s life. To use another ancient example, Oedipus killed his father and married his mother (go find a modern story to match that for straightup weird and icky), or from Victorian novels, how about Rochester’s insane wife locked in the attic? I’m gonna guess that both Oedipus and Rochester didn’t want anybody knowing about that.

3) Though we are mostly not conscious of the fact, I think stories often meet our need for somehow making sense of the world, our need for mythology. So we tell stories both to shape events and to interpret them in ways that allow us to understand our chaotic world a little more.

And here’s a story to finish up:

I first heard of sushi when I lived in California, so long ago Bruce Springsteen was still new. My wife went one day with friends to San Francisco, then came home and told me about this sushi thing, and I thought, well, it will be a cool and pleasant day in Hell before I eat raw fish, by God. Yet last week I emailed a friend here in Atlanta and told her I was in the mood for sushi, something I now love so much I’d eat it once a week if I could afford it, so there we were at the Mall of Georgia, waiting forty minutes for a table at a place where the sushi rolls were as big as footballs, and I’m only exaggerating some. While we were waiting, we walked over to a beef jerky store, and I never imagined there could be such a plethora of dried, flavored meat in one small store. The owner even said he sometimes has alligator and kangaroo, but sadly was out of both. Something they did have, however, was novelty items—are you ready?—of packs of insects. Now in recent years, I have thought about whether I’d eat insects on purpose, and I thought “OK, crickets, maybe. Really really fried.” But one thing I knew I’d never, ever eat, swear on a pickup truck full of holy Bibles, was fucking larvae. Jeeesus, who would even think . . . but I had had a couple of glasses of wine at my friend’s house before we went out. So there I was picking up a pack of “Larvets” thinking Hmmm. It said they were fried, so I bought them, because everything is OK fried, right? On Tuesday back home, with a cold beer, like the bold adventurer that I am, I picked up one of those challenging little critters, trying not to think about what it actually was, and crunched it up. It had a remarkably close flavor to potato chips, so I ate them all. I’d probably do it again.

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The Final Point of View

Greek vase painting

Third person: He decided that being naked was better than wearing armor.

An airplane was flying above a river in the book I was reading a couple of weeks ago, and the pilot was shooting at two people on the river. The chapter ended with him shooting. Before I read on later to find out what happened, I was thinking these two characters in the canoe can’t be killed, because they’re so important that the author has let us be inside their mind in earlier chapters.

Most fiction is written from one of two points of view, or “person” to use the technical term. When it is written as if a person is directly telling it to you (I ordered a piece of lemon pie and winked at the waitress), we call it first person. When it is written as if the narrator is describing someone else, using he or she or they, we call that third person (she wondered why the weird guy winked at her when he ordered the pie). There is also the rare and usually awkward second person (you walk into the diner and see a lemon pie in the glass case, and you think about how your mama used to make it).

The book I was reading was in third person, as we watched the plane fly overhead and turn around to come back, but to say that something is written in third-person is to drastically oversimplify the possibilities. In the real world, for instance, I can talk about someone who is standing beside me or someone across the room or someone living in another city, and I can talk about someone who I know very well or who I’ve just seen.

So when the bullets began to hit the water, the author could have put me inside the plane, in the canoe on the water, or standing on shore. I could also have been simply watching, or I could know what a character was thinking.

I’ll categorize four possible types of “third person” point of view. 1) Omniscient from a distance: the story can talk about someone as if looking at them and in the next paragraph talk about what’s happening across town. 2) Omniscient up close: the reader can be told things the character doesn’t know, but the narrative follows the character around and stays right with that character. 3) Not omniscient, but physically close to the character: this is like a camera with a close-up, so that the reader can only experience exactly what the character experiences, but we’re outside the character’s head. 4) Inside the character: now we are inside the character’s head, listening to their thoughts and feelings.

These third-person points of view can be extremely different from one another, and they can even be mixed in ways I’m not getting into. Here in the tedious real world where we while away the hours, we actually only know in depth what’s in our own head (if even that), and as much as we might want to, we can’t normally watch people when they’re not around. Through the magic of fiction, however, woohoo! I’m inside your brain while you’re thinking about . . .  whoa! I’ll just back on out of there.

One of the things a writer is able to do is leap about among all these possibilities. In the last book I wrote, for instance (The Invention of Colors), I had chapters in third person talking about one character, alternating with first-person chapters where a second character narrated, saying “I did this and I did that”. This was no great innovation on my part, as I read books like that years ago.

It’s also possible, working only in third person, to be very close to one character for a while, follow them around, then suddenly move to another character, who is now looking at the first one. I’ve been in multiple writing groups where the advice is to avoid doing that. When such advice is offered with a justification, such as “you’ve made the story too confusing to know what’s happening”, then it is good advice.

Oftentimes in a writing group, however, the admonition not to shift point of view is given as if it were a rule in a Soviet prison camp. This Is What You Must Not Do. Lucky Leo Tolstoy that he lived before that time, as he often broke the rule. Maybe he never belonged to a writing group. Of course, if the writer does shift around on the point of view, readers are free to hate it, and such shifts can, in fact, be jarring. But also interesting.

In the book I was reading, with the potential killer in the airplane, I realized my reasoning was wrong that a character could not die because the writer had allowed us inside a character’s head. Although my reasoning was wrong, in that case, fortunately, the bad guy missed, the people in the canoe were OK, and later in the book the evil pilot crashed his plane.

Nevertheless, some writers will let you experience a character’s thoughts—and then kill the character. I think at some point in the past I even read a book where we were inside the character’s head at the very moment of death. That’s pushing the envelope.

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Enough Already

The Guggenheim Museum

A museum. A lake.

Let’s start with some vague, useless advice for writers: Show, don’t tell.

Charles Dickens, at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light—” Now if he had known enough to take this book to a writing critique group, someone could have said, “Hold it, Charlie, hold on. You’re telling us, dude. Show us how it was the best of times. Did people have big houses? And this age of wisdom thing. Like what? Were they making scientific discoveries, finding new moons?”

Aside from the fact that the phrase “show, don’t tell” is so abstract as to squat dumb in the corner, one of the aspects of writing that writers must frequently deal with (perhaps constantly deal with) is how much detail to give.

If I say, for instance, “The attractive woman sitting at the bar turned and looked at the man who had come in”—that sentence can be sort of interesting with its implications. But what if I say “The woman sitting at the bar, with a silk scarf around her neck, turned and looked at the man who had come in.” Does that detail with the scarf make it more interesting? Or what about “The woman sitting at the bar, wearing a silk scarf, turned and looked at the man, a slight smile crossing her face.” Is it more interesting, or does it not matter?

How much detail is right? Would it be even better to know that the bar stool where she is sitting has a back to it, that the bartender is a bald man with a diamond earring, and that the man who just came in is shaking the water off an umbrella? Do you need to know that the woman is from St. Louis, that she’s 42 years old, and her hair is dark brown? How much is enough?

This week I finished a chapter I’ve been working on for the current novel, and I’m pulling out a couple of examples to illustrate the problem of deciding how much detail to use.

In one part I have a man and woman go into the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. That’s the one designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, where the walkway spirals round and round the open center, so that you can walk from the lobby up about four or five stories. Here are possible details I could have used in describing that: the curve of the walkway around the space, the white painted interior, the vault of the ceiling, the giant glass skylight looking like a huge spider’s web, other people in the museum, the crowding, the ticket desk, the sounds of people talking, the cost of a ticket, particular paintings on the walls.

After the Guggenheim Museum, I had the couple walk about a block into Central Park, where they went up some stairs to look at the reservoir, a large lake surrounded by trees, a fairly surprising sight when you’ve just come off the helter skelter of Fifth Avenue. Here are possible details I might have used for that description: the path, trees on the other shore, standing under similar trees, size of the trees, kind of trees, other people passing by , the weather, the view of buildings on the other side, clouds or birds or planes in the sky, the wide expanse of water, light reflecting off the water.

In both instances, I used the details in italics above, but not the others. Would the writing be better with more details? I don’t know, but I had a reason for limiting them, as I wanted to move the chapter along, to keep a sense of something happening with the characters, so I didn’t want the writing to slow down into long descriptions of New York.

Part of the basis for my decision about detail was the context of how I wanted the writing to move at that point, the feeling I wanted in the scene. It was not necessary for the reader to see the Guggenheim very much, as it was the third museum my characters had been in, but the lake in Central Park was in contrast to what we had just been reading about. I wanted the reader to really see the lake and feel that contrast, so I used more description.

How much detail is enough? There is no answer. It is always a guess.

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Somebody Get That Dog a Bowl of Water!

A dog

Sono un cane parlante

A week ago a friend sent me a link to a site where a writer was talking about his writing process, about how he arrived at the final text through a somewhat random process of discovering things, but definitely not a process based on having a clear plan in mind from the beginning.

Writing random stuff? No plan in mind? Don’t really know where you’re going?

Hey, I have the same writing process!

I wonder if that writer’s process also includes going to kitchen every evening to get dark chocolate. And if so, does his writing process involve stopping in the kitchen to look at the dirty dishes in the sink and think, “Goddamnit. Who’s gonna wash this stuff?”

Because that’s how I write. I mean, you can’t just sit and push on computer keys while you’re writing. Who would do that? You’ve got to walk around some, go look in the mirror to see if you’ve changed in the last few hours, get out the vacuum cleaner and leave it standing in the middle of the living room, as a guarantee that you’re definitely going to vacuum within the next week.

I also think about the plot when I’m writing, things like “What reason does this character have to go to New York?” or “Maybe I’ll add a talking dog, people like dogs,” or “Do I want this book to be about trying to find the light of reason in the existential darkness of life, or about a man who finds a kitty?”

Being the observant writer that I am, I’ve noticed that people really like kitties. Or . . . wait a minute, I could have the kitty meet a talking dog. Hold on while I write that down.

Boy, that next novel is practically going to write itself. Sometimes it’s just a joy to be a writer.

Then there’s all those other times. I’ve mentioned on this blog, just last week, if your memory goes back that far, that I’m revising a novel I finished writing back in 2000. You understand that the word “finished” in that sentence means “wrote a piece of crap”. Which is disappointing, because at the time I didn’t think that, but now I do. So what if at some point in the future I look back at what I’m writing now and think “Oh, my God, why didn’t you just blind yourself before you wrote that?”

That’s a spooky thing about art, of any sort. What if it’s terrible, but while you’re doing it you don’t know that? What if it’s like being insane and everyone knows it but you? “No, I’m fine. Really. Here, did you read my novel?”

I’ll tell you something about the last two books, that is, the one I’m on now, plus the one before (The Invention of Colors). Both of those books at one point had four main characters, two male and two female. Over the course of floundering through both of them for years, like a really drunk mud wrestler, I came to the point with both books of taking the male characters and reducing them down to either background or secondary characters, focusing on the females. In both cases, the novel finally came together and started to make more sense. It wasn’t easy to throw away so much writing that I had worked on so hard for so long, but the books got way better, which did provide some compensation.

Here’s a little brainstorming for the next book. What if the talking dog and the kitty form a musical group? How great does that sound? Then they’ll have a reason to go to New York.


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