That kind of longevity, in any vocation, is pretty rare, but when it comes to the arts? Writing? Are you kidding? It either shows tremendous faith, an overweening ego…or the simple acknowledgement that there’s nothing else I’m any good at. Or all of the above.
Over the past three decades, I’ve witnessed a lot of changes in terms of technology, trends, the way the publishing business is run. Hell, I’m so old, I can recall a time when it wasn’t embarrassing to call yourself a horror writer and John Updike and Ray Carver represented the high bar in terms of American literature. Jesus, where’s my cane and adult diapers?
In that interval, I’ve seen ’em come and I’ve seen ’em go. One-hit wonders, lighting up the sky like a rogue comet and then exploding, leaving not the slightest trace of their passing. The darlings of the critics and cultural poobahs, earnest scribblers telling their very personal stories of suffering and courage and redemption, seeking applause and acclamation the way a junkie probes for a fresh vein. Their offerings winning all the literary prizes, earning highly coveted media attention, getting their names in lights. Hooray!
Except…where are they now?
I won’t name names (that would be cruel) but how many highly touted scribblers have popped up during my 30-year tenure, sucked up some attention (and sometimes a considerable amount of money) and then faded away? Check out the prize lists since 1985—Pulitzers and Bookers and GGs and Gillers, right down to the regional level: how many of those names are still prominent today, still producing quality work?
Exactly. I’d have to use a quantum calculator to determine the number of “bold new talents” and “exciting voices” that have come down the pike in my professional lifetime. It’s an annual rite, like checking to see if Wiarton Willy can spot his shadow. Never mind that the vast majority of the “stories” these bright, young things are telling are very much their own: fictionalized accounts of their journals and diaries, their pathetic lives laid bare. A love affair gone bad, tender hearts cruelly broken; often one detects a faint whiff of revenge. The only problem is, when you write solely about yourself, sooner or later the material grows stale…or runs out all together.
Which is why the latest “next Margaret Atwood” or “next ______” (your favorite literary icon here) invariably lasts one or two books and is never heard from again.
I’m reminded of the old song that goes: It don’t mean a thing/’til you prove it all night.
True, I think, for any worthwhile endeavor.
The creative life demands a special kind of courage and commitment—it requires a soul-defining leap of faith because there’s no guarantee you’ll be successful, very little chance of your work achieving posterity. Many superb artists have died broke and unknown.
But those who are truly chosen don’t give a whit for fame and fortune, they create for the sheer pleasure of knowing that they are working without restrictions or outside expectations, designing and shaping their efforts to their own specifications and aesthetic purposes. They’re not trying to emulate someone else or jump on a popular bandwagon. Their visions may be personal, unprecedented, bizarre (by popular standards), but there’s a shining brilliance to them, helping them achieve a universality that makes them accessible to people of vastly different geographies, even epochs.
Think Homer. Sophocles. Poe. Baudelaire. Kafka. Picabia.
Authors who defy convention, risk penury, disapprobation, despair.
Vasili Grossman and Friedrich Reck, writing in the face of discovery, imprisonment, death.
And yet they persevered.
So you’ve written a clever poem, a halfway decent short story, posted it on your blog. Six people have “Liked” it. Good for you.
Are you prepared to sit down tomorrow and the next day and the day after that…until your allotment of days run out? Writing and re-writing, driving yourself to distraction trying to achieve quality, well-crafted prose. The search for improvement, perfection never ceases. I’ll testify to that.
I’ve been in this biz a long time, much longer than most, and it’s still hard, still a challenge every day to summon the courage to walk into my office, plunk myself down and commence work on my latest writing project. As I’ve gotten older, my standards have risen and so the act of composition has become even more challenging and immersive than it was when I first started out. In other words, it doesn’t get easier, kids, it gets harder.
Dreaming about writing doesn’t get you there, promising yourself that you’ll start something serious in November, when National Novel Writing Month rolls around, won’t cut it either. If you’re a writer, a real writer, you can’t wait. As much as the chore of writing depresses and intimidates you, you can’t resist reaching for a pen and putting something down on paper. Anything to fill that blank page, defeating the white silence. Only then is there a sense of fulfillment, completion, our purpose for existing realized.
How does that gibe with your experience?
Are you a dabbler? A hobbyist? A wannabe?
Or do you have the courage to take a great leap…without the slightest notion or concern for what awaits you far below?
I comment on different topics: “The Writing Life”, “Inspired by Fear”, “Why I Love Science Fiction”.
Hope you find something worthwhile in these monologues, insights into the way I approach my craft, the psychology behind some of my best known stories.
“It is not enough just to identify a symptom and eliminate it, with either medicinal plants or the intervention of positive magic. To heal the body, one has to seek realignment, not only with the supernatural realm but with the Earth itself, the source of all life. It is movement through sacred geography that makes atonement possible. This is the meaning of healing. To make whole. To be holy. To give of oneself to the Earth and thus rediscover balance, the foundation and essence of well-being.”
-Wade Davis, The Clouded Leopard
Books of poetry have been scattered around various locations of the house but now, thanks to Sherron, we have a charming little bookcase that’s perfect for highlighting our collection. She happened to spot a garage sale on the way home from work and couldn’t believe her luck when she spied this little beauty. Four shelves and solidly constructed.
Poetry has taken on increased significance in my life over the past five or ten years. I’ve developed the patience and maturity required for verse and have a real appreciation for authors who have the vision, concision and mental discipline to execute truly great poetry.
I have numerous volumes by my current favorites—Paul Celan, Arthur Rimbaud, Ted Kooser, W.S. Merwin, Billy Collins—and offerings by lesser known poets like Naomi Shihab Nye and Carolyn Forsche. A cool, eclectic mix of new and old, with a few oddities thrown in to keep things interesting.
I’ve heard it said most people are only interested in poetry for use in weddings or funerals and that’s unfortunate, an indication of how badly poetry is taught in school. Dissected for its component parts like a frog, rather than appreciated for its beauty and, with the very best poetry, universality. Most readers are afraid of poetry, intimidated by it—poetry is “difficult”, “elitist”, “frustrating”.
I wonder how much of Ted Kooser’s work they’ve read. The simplicity and clarity of his language might surprise them. I advise them to pick up a copy of his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Delights and Shadows (Copper Canyon Press; 2004), encounter a writer who doesn’t hide behind opacity or cloak his ideas and themes in haughty esoterica.
Time to rediscover the joy of reading well-crafted, superbly conceived poetry.
Believe me, there’s a lot of it about.
Seek and ye shall find!
Those who follow this blog are aware that I love Christmas and still cling to the faint possibility of Santa Claus (hey, the cookies I leave out are always eaten when I get up in the morning, explain that).
This year possesses an extra poignancy, I suspect, because it’s our last Christmas before our youngest lad moves out, leaving us with ye olde empty nest. And a much smaller food bill (but I digress).
Hectic around here, as it is for everybody else this time of year. Trying to finish last minute shopping, get parcels away to relatives and loved ones, keeping the walk shoveled and the house warm during some recent cold snaps.
I’ll probably do a year end review at some point but not on this occasion.
Instead I want to announce a special Christmas treat:
I’ve created, with the help of those over-priced buggers at Cafe Press, some pins/buttons. The button with the smallest print reads “Frustrate algorithms.” Sorry, despite my best efforts, I remain mediocre at taking still photos.
(Click on images to enlarge)
These pins reflect aspects of my personal philosophy, that subversive, non–conformist attitude I’ve had for as far back as I can remember.
I’m giving away three sets of pins along with three personally inscribed copies of my latest book, Exceptions & Deceptions, for the best questions or comments submitted in the next month. Post your remarks, then, if you want to be eligible for a prize, send your particulars (address, etc.) to email@example.com. I’ll make my choices sometime in mid-January and post the names of winners at that time.
Feeling very positive as this year comes to a close. There’s a desire now that I’m fifty to start living a more spiritually and aesthetically fulfilling life, to continue to expand my horizons by exposing myself to smart, daring books and films and music, eschewing the trivial and formulaic. Off with the old skin, on with the new.
“…Identity is the daughter of birth,
but in the end, the invention of its owner,
not an heirloom from the past.”
-Mahmoud Darwish, from Almond Blossoms & Beyond
(Translated by Mohammad Shaheen)
It doesn’t happen often, but every once in awhile my literary faculties abandon me and I’m reduced to a non-verbal level of communication. I have something to say but it can’t be expressed via text—and so I’m forced to rely on other, more tenuous, abilities to get across what I feel must be said.
Initially, I worked with collage, refusing to trust my “skills” with paint and brush. Then I shot some abstract films, usually with quasi-science fiction elements, incorporating some of the strange, spacey music I like to concoct with Garageband. You’ll find a couple of these cinematic efforts on my “Film & Music” page. I’m collecting footage for another short flick, which I hope to have ready in the new year (2014).
It took me awhile to work up the courage to paint but Sherron recently bought be a lovely set of acrylics and gave me various brushes and so…why not?
For the past month or so, I’ve labored over three pieces and I’m going to surprise my dear wife by posting them here. Y’see, normally I refuse to exhibit my visual work or allow anyone to look at it—my canvases are kept wrapped and stacked behind a chair in my office. Hidden from prying eyes. Sherron thinks that a waste and urges me to get them framed, hang them somewhere in the house (bathroom? basement?); so far I’ve resisted her prompting.
I’m not a visual artist, I have very little talent but a whole lotta inspiration and desire. An eager amateur, respectful and deferential of the painters who have mastered and transformed their discipline while acknowledging I possess none of their gifts or aesthetic affinities. My efforts may lack artfulness and sophistication, but they do pay tribute to true genius, those individuals who have transcended their medium and presented viewers with an innovative and impassioned view of the world they live(d) in.
Recently I’ve been reading about Mark Rothko and poring over his oeuvre. Simon Schama has a wonderful feature on Rothko, which can be found on YouTube. The story I love best about M.R. is when he received a huge commission to provide paintings for the Seagram building in New York and ended up giving back the money and keeping the gigantic canvases he’d executed because he dined in the restaurant where they were to hang and didn’t like the affluent patrons frequenting the establishment. Walked away from over a million bucks in today’s currency because, at heart, he was a leftie/anarchist who had little truck with institutionalized power.
My kinda guy.
A casual glance at my daubs and smears reveals a chap whose influences are all over the place. Like my writing, my visual efforts are impossible to categorize, highly personal…and decidedly not for all tastes.
For instance…”Beneath”, the first painting (top of the page)—is that some kinda blundering swipe at impressionism?
And what about the second one (above), unhelpfully titled “Rosetta”?
Obviously influenced by my love of cave painting, ancient visions of the world as imagined by minds that were proto-human…and already beginning to question the solidity and permanence of the universe around them. Oh, for a few hours in Lascaux…
Hard to do credit to these pieces in photographs—there’s lots of layering and texture that is obliterated, subtleties and nuances (yes, there are a few) utterly lost.
I use gobs of Wellbond glue, found objects, whatever I can lay my hands on to give an impression of a third dimension in my work. Scrape at the canvas with trowels, x-acto knives, sandpaper; employ toothpicks, Q-tips, styrofoam and (frequently) my fingers, often discarding brushes as too inexact.
How about this last picture (below), “Yule”, which started out as something completely different and gradually morphed into what you see here. I hope it’s apparent from this piece: I love Christmas, a Grinch who secretly desires to run down and join in the fun with the good folks in Whoville. Don’t ask me why, I won’t be able to supply you with a coherent, reasonable answer. Christmas morning, I’m the first one up, practically bouncing off the walls as I wait for our family to descend and gather in the living room for our gift opening. Possessed by child-like excitement. Hopefully, all that is evident in “Yule”.
The rest I’ll leave up to your imagination.
(Click on paintings to view enlarged versions)