Friday, April 26, 2013

One Answer to the Questions "Why Do We Do This?" and "Is It Worth It?"

This is a stunning answer to the question I was asking here in my last post (Is it worth it?  Am I ready to give up?).  Here is the story of Vivian Maier, someone who followed her creative drive utterly in private for an entire lifetime and left an incredible legacy that has thankfully been found and shared with the world.  She was an "amateur" who neither sought nor received any public validation for her work, and yet it's clear that she pursued it with the dedication, commitment and vision of a "professional."  Let's put that distinction to bed, shall we?

This is what it means to be an artist.  You see the world a certain way.  You try to capture and express what you see.  You create.  You do so because it is who you are.  And then comes the question of whether, with whom, and how to share what you create.

There are artists who believe their creative work is meant only for them, it is a private endeavor.  Sometimes they're right.  But sometimes, as in the case of Vivian Maier, and many another great posthumously discovered creative artist (and yes, I include writers as artists), they're wrong.  They have failed to see that they are creating something that speaks to other members of the human race so eloquently that it must be shared.

We human beings are engaged in a millenia-old struggle to understand ourselves and our world, to make sense of it.  This struggle builds and grows and bears fruit through conversation, through discourse.  That discourse happens not merely in the present and face to face through talking, but mind to mind and soul to soul across time and space through art, through the written and spoken word, through music, through scientific discovery, through inventions and engineering and architecture.  You could say that the meaning of life is to participate in this conversation, to contribute to the expression and exploration of life and the world and the human journey.

There's a reason we humans have a drive to understand, to create, to give expression to our experience.  That struggle to understand, the effort to explore and capture and express, is worth it because it's why we're here.  It will never be complete, but it is a beautiful, magnificent, holy, eternal work-in--progress.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Is the Hard Work Worth It?

Doug and Wendy Whiner are in the house lately.  Well, they're in my brain, anyway, cutting loose with a chorus of "This is HAAAAARD!"  Normally, I try to make this blog have some sort of redeeming value.  I put thought into it and try to make it relevant to the writing craft and the writing experience.  And I try to post once a week.  Well, this week, I failed.  I also try not to post about lame excuses and whine about why I can't keep up with my writing goals.  I'm not interested in blogs that do that, so I assume you aren't interested in that either.

But this week, I have waded into an unproductive swamp.  And all I can think of to say about the craft is "Writing is HAAAAARD!  WAHHHH!"  My drill sergeant self says, "Get over yourself, get off your duff and out of bed and sit down and do it, damn it!  Quit bellyaching!  Of course it's hard!  Anything worth doing is hard!  So what?"  Funny thing.  That drill sergeant voice doesn't seem to be doing the trick.  But it's right, you know.  Writing is hard.  And so what?  Perhaps the question is, is the hard work worth it?  And worth it by what criteria?

On the other hand, "Is the hard work worth it?" seems like the wrong question.  It's not like I'm suddenly going to stop wanting to write stories or express experiences and thoughts through the written word.  That's always there.  It's part of me.  The question is whether I am willing to do the hard work required to take it to the next level.  Is that worth it?  That's a task that goes beyond the joyful creation of stories.  That's a task that requires longterm commitment and determination and slogging through those swampy areas and sticking your neck out and getting knocked down and failing over and over and over again.  It takes patience and focus and a tough hide.

Still, that question "Is it worth it?" doesn't seem to fit.  "Am I ready to give up?" might be more to the point.  That's the bottom line, isn't it?  Am I ready to give up on this larger notion of writing novels and submitting novels and finding an agent and a publisher?  That's the bottom line.  Am I willing to give up on that because it's "TOO HAAAARD!"  Nope.  Nope.  Not yet.  Drill sergeant wins.

What about you?  Is the hard work worth it?  Worth it by what criteria?  Are you ready to give up?  What keeps you going?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

From Banal to Sublime: Tolstoy's One-two Punch

As I may have mentioned, I've been reading ANNA KARENINA, one paragraph or so at a time on my phone, which somehow tickles me to no end.  I'm nearly finished.  It is a strange and contradictory piece of literature, at times so achingly poetic I want to cry, and at other times so blandly dry and superficial that I wonder if it's still the same book.  However, I think I've concluded there's a method to that madness.

I hit a particularly long and excruciating section of the novel in which Konstantin Levin, the secret heart of the story in my opinion, spends a bunch of time in the confusing world of Russian small-town political machinations.  This section seems interminable.  I found myself wondering what the hell Tolstoy was up to.  Then - BAM!  He writes this transcendent description of the birth of Levin's child, and the contrast between these two sections is so shockingly vivid that I can't help but think it's done on purpose.  By juxtaposing the banal and the sublime, Tolstoy's given us a potent, in-your-face reminder of what things truly matter in this world, and it ain't political intrigue and bureaucratic backslapping.

So what do I take away from this as a writer?  Structure at the service of theme.  The courage to take your reader down a side road that will set up a later section.  The impact of contrast.  The power of a well-written and sympathetic character to keep the reader following them down those side roads.  Tolstoy's one-two punch would never have worked if Levin hadn't been such a fully realized internally complex and well-drawn character.

Tried any one-two punches of your own lately?  

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Writing in the darkness

My current project is steeped in darkness.  Yes, I've paid my electric bill.  No, this project is about inner darkness and outer darkness and monsters real and imagined.  Working on it is a process of peeling away layers to find the story, and then artfully layering images back over it in a purposeful manner.

Spring Break arrived, which meant I could immerse myself in this piece, which is what has to happen if I stand any chance of making it work.  To make this character work, I have to think like her, feel like her while I'm writing her.  When I don't fully immerse myself, the writing just lays there on the page, full of events and logistics, with no soul whatsoever.

But immersing yourself in darkness has its pitfalls.  It stirs up your own inner demons.  It can cloak your days in a bleak film and affect the way you view your world.

Apparently, my brain is protecting me from too much immersion in darkness, because, after a flurry of inspiration that rebooted this piece for me, I've proceeded to get stuck.  Again.  So now I'm attempting the yeoman labor of trying to muscle my way through this stuck spot.  The problem is, when a piece is this driven by the inner world of the character, muscling through doesn't seem to be enough.  The only time the piece truly moves forward is when it's injected with that particular spark of energy that can't be found by muscling.

I will have to find a way to sit down and dialogue with my brain, a way to reassure my psyche that I will watch out for it during this process and I won't let this character and her inner demons overwhelm me.  The thing is, I'm not sure how to do that.

Have you written a character that took you to dark places?  How did you manage to let go of your own fear or anxiety enough to do the work?  Did you ever find yourself stuck just out of self-preservation?

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