Tag Archives: aesthetics

The Heat Death of a Wandering Star

A fortune teller in Northern California looked at my palm and said, “You’re going to lead an unnaturally long life.”  Then she slid my money back across the table and added, “I feel bad for you.”  This was in 2008 or 2009.  My memory of the year is less distinct than the mournful expression on her face, how she pulled off her chintzy Madame Sofia veil, leaned back, and lit a cigarette as if to say, sorry, kid, that’s how it is.

I was supposed to pay her $30 for 30 minutes, but we sat there for almost two hours while she read my tarot cards.  By the time she got around to looking at my hands, she’d already told me three important things about my future.  I was going to travel across an ocean.  I was going to do things no one in my family had ever done.  And I was going to outlive everybody I knew.  As of 2018, two of those three predictions have come true.

It’s amazing how quickly life can change.  You leave the house every day and say, this is the job I do.  This is the market where I shop.  This is the person I live with.  These are the faces I see as I walk down my street.  This is the field with daisies nodding in the wind.  This is me.  For the moment, at least, this is me.

And if you succeed, if you’re healthy and disciplined and dedicated and proficient, if you don’t weaken and get that regular colonoscopy and save your money, you might last long enough to see all your variables change.  Then you’ll say, this is me—isn’t it?  But you won’t know how to answer.  You’ll remember the fortune teller saying, “I feel bad for you,” and you’ll understand what she meant.  You won’t know how to recognize yourself.  You’ll be a survivor.  And nobody actually ever wants that.  The last man standing is, by definition, all alone.

Some of us die and are reborn in a single lifetime.  In my four-and-a-half decades, I’ve already lived several full lives, played roles that had perfectly formed inciting incidents, climaxes, and denouements, which in earlier times or in other places could have described the total breadth and depth of a person’s lived experience.  I’m 44 years old, not too old but not that young, either.  Most days, I look 10 – 15 years younger than that.  Is that good?

I spend a lot of time lost in my own head, reading, walking around and looking at things.  And I’ve managed to orchestrate a life where I can do that.  I can become fascinated by very simple experiences, the wind in different kinds of trees, for example, or the way sound echoes on the canal beneath my bedroom window.  There’s a lot going on everywhere you look.  Sometimes, it’s hypnotic.  Sometimes, it’s beautiful.  Sometimes, it makes me want to scream for a real long time.  The world is too much.  It isn’t interested in making sense or being rational.  We’re the ones who make it matter.  But do we really?

I don’t recommend going to fortune tellers very often.  If they’re good, you’ll know too much.  If they’re bad, you’ll be wasting your money.  If they’re stupid, you’ll feel stupid.  And if they’re clever, you’ll feel even more stupid.  A fortune teller is like a bad pizza.  You paid for it.  So you’re going to eat it.  You might feel disgusted afterwards.  You might not want to talk about the experience.  You might want to put it away in the file labeled Decisions About Which I Will Feel Forever Ashamed and vow never again.  But you’ll probably be back. 

It’s how magical things work.  It’s how art works.  You go see the performance piece at the museum and it has some guy drenched in urine and suspended upside-down by fish hooks from the ceiling for hours over plaster of Paris horses having sex.  And you think, wow, that is neither pleasing to the eye nor conceptually interesting.  It’s pretentious and it’s trying way to hard to be something that isn’t boring.  You write scathing things about it on your blog.  You try to put it out of your mind because you know that every minute you spend thinking about it is a minute you’ll never get back.  But six months later, you go, I wonder what’s showing at the museum.  So do you want anchovies on your plaster horsefucking pizza this time?  Of course you do.  Want to know the future?  Just let me shuffle these cards.

I took piano lessons as a kid.  I was very serious about them.  My teacher was a professor in the music department at the university.  He was a lot like Mr. Rogers.  He radiated that improbable blend of whipsmart intelligence shrouded in simplicity and humor.  He was a remarkable man, a truly gifted person who knew how to appreciate life.  And one of the things he really appreciated was teaching children classical piano.  I learned an immense amount about how to be a decent human being just by spending time with him. 

I remember us sitting in a room with about 50 grand pianos.  He played a single note and we listened to it until it passed away.  Then we discussed its shape, its color, its temperature.  There was an entire life in that sound, a whole universe from the big bang to the last chapter of the Book of Revelation with dinosaurs and empires and prophets and an Industrial Revolution and fiber optics and climate change and insane politicians and Mad Max and the heat death of a wandering star.  All we had to do was listen.  And, like gods, we knew we could always play another note—that, in fact, we or someone of our great pantheon would play another one and would inevitably bring another cosmos into being.

Years later, far away at a different university, I’d study the Metaphysical Poets and I’d encounter Thomas Traherne’s poem, “Shadows in the Water.”  It contains these lines:

I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seeméd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

And I’d write a half-baked undergraduate essay on the metaphysics of sound as expressed through the semiotics of Traherne’s mirror imagery.  Fabulous.  The only important thing about it was that I remembered listening to my piano teacher play that note when I read “Thus did I by the water’s brink/ Another world beneath me think” and thought: exactly.  Our second selves these shadows be.  The gods look down from Olympus and see their reflections in us as we, in turn, look and listen to our own universes encapsulated in the breadth of a single note—as above, so below.  Quod est superius est sicut quod est inferius, ad perpetranda miracula rei unius.  I’ve lived many lives, been reborn into many universes.  Godlike, I’ve brought universes into being.

All being depends on context, which is to say, on the existence (meaning) of a universe.  One of the many reasons I love Carl Sagan is that he said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”  This is as true for the pie as it is for the pie maker—they both depend on the existence of a universe to contain them and give them meaning.  By extension, if the pie maker is the last man standing in his universe, all meaningful correlation between the existential condition of the pie and that of the universe eventually breaks down. 

In short, one can only eat one’s own apple pies in solitude for so long before one goes insane.  The existence of a pie implies both future and past in space: in the future, someone will sit in a landscape and eat the pie which the pie maker made in the past.  Because of this, if you succeed at the game of life, I will feel bad for you. 

You will outlast your universe; your apple pies will no longer be meaningful.  You will survive and will have no one for whom you can make an apple pie or anything else.  You will see the sky fall, the stars burn out, the destruction of the world.  You will be haunted by memories of times long past and people you loved and wars that no one remembers.  That is a truly horrible fate.  Do you want to win this game?  For your sake, I sincerely hope not.

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What HP Lovecraft Can Teach Us About Programming the Reader

One of the many reasons I love pulp fiction from the early 20th century: writers like HP Lovecraft can have a line like, “the moon was gleaming vividly over the primeval ruins” (from “The Nameless City“) and actually get away with it. If I wrote something like “gleaming vividly,” my teachers would have beaten me publicly for about an hour. Is it gleaming? Really? Do you have any idea what that is? Vividly? What does “vividly” look like? Do you even know? If you know, how come you’re not showing it in concrete terms? If you don’t know, fuck you, why are you writing it? Oh, the beating would be vast and terrible.

Instead of telling the reader that the moon was gleaming vividly, the harder, more powerful, more evocative and immersive technique, is to show the gleam, show how it’s vivid, show how the ruins might look primeval using descriptive language. That’s the way I was taught. But HPL can get away with lines like this because he’s consistent. And this brings up a deeper lesson about fiction writing: stylistic consistency is more important than any given stylistic choice.

In other words, Lovecraft will write a line like “the moon was gleaming vividly” and we will have to either accept it or shut the book. If we accept it–okay, it’s pulp fiction or it’s HPL or we’re just feeling generous that day–then he hits us with “It poured madly out of the dark door, sighing uncannily as it ruffled the sand and spread about the weird ruins.” Wow. Take it or leave it. Do you want to enjoy the story or not? It’s no fun if you have to complain about the writing. So you take it. And then he’s got you: you’ve decided to let him have as many adverbs / vague adjectives as he wants. You’re going to let him tell you that the sigh was uncanny (what does “uncanny” sound like, eh?) and the ruins were weird (can you think of the last weird ruins you’ve seen?). He has trained you to read and appreciate *his* fiction rather than trying to meet your expectations.

Some great fiction writers can do both. F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, can write idiosyncratic prose and also ground those weird (!) choices in hard-edged concrete description. People think he learned this through his association with Hemingway, but that’s according to Hem in A Moveable Feasta great book but likely packed with exaggerations and a few outright lies. Hem might have learned it from Gertrude Stein, but the idiosyncratic flourish we’re talking about is less evident in his work probably because he had such a strong background in news writing. He *had* to make his prose acceptable to the reader (something that also helped him support himself by selling stories to LIFE and The Saturday Evening Post in an era when you could live that way).

Lovecraft is great in other ways. Still, when I read a passage like this, I have to smile: “In the darkness there flashed before my mind fragments of my cherished treasury of daemoniac lore; sentences from Alhazred the mad Arab, paragraphs from the apocryphal nightmares of Damascius, and infamous lines from the delirious Image du Monde of Gauthier de Metz. I repeated queer extracts, and muttered of Afrasiab and the daemons that floated with him down the Oxus.”

I know HPL sets himself the very difficult task of writing about states of consciousness that have only a tenuous connection to everyday life. So maybe that’s the reason for many of his writerly choices. I do take a certain daemoniac enjoyment of how he disregards certain modern conventions.


Kill the Beta Reader

I’m sitting in a cafe in downtown London with a show tune version of the Doors’ “People are Strange” playing overhead. At some point, some focus group, some collection of sample listeners employed by a marketing concern or polled through a survey, decided that this schmaltzy cover was better than the original. Based on their decision, the track was included. This is the hidden world of the beta listener, beta reader, product tester, quality control specialist, and sometimes that of the literary editor. And it smells like untreated beta.

Let’s play a magical game of what if? What if you wrote something and not everyone liked it? Would you still be a legitimate writer? In the words of the incomparable Ksenia Aneske:

Stop worrying about what will happen. Will anyone read my books? Will anyone like them? Will anyone buy them? Will my mom call me and tell me I’m a genius? Will my dad send me a pistol to put to my head? Will I have to forever hide from my friends in an opium den and will my face slide off my head from shame and embarrassment at the atrocious and absolutely abominable quality of my prose? Put it out of your head!

Yes. Stop. And fuck the beta reader. Do this for any number of good reasons that remain good no matter what kind of writing you’re doing, how famous you are, or whether you feel the thing you just wrote is brilliant or incoherent.

One of them, maybe the biggest one, is that ultimately only one entity is served by the advice of even the best beta reader: the publisher. Having beta readers for your story or novel helps your publisher in three ways: (1) it lessens the already considerable work of the publicist-editor-copyeditor tasked with getting your manuscript in line with what the publisher wants; (2) it focuses your work towards a viable consumer demographic; and (3) it reminds you, the author, that you are not as important as you would like to think, given the cruel, rapacious hellworld of publishing.

Why does having a beta reader do these things? Because there is a difference between a beta reader and someone just providing feedback. This difference is rooted primarily in the language and assumptions of genre presses and e-book publishers; though there has been some bleed into the general vernacular of publishing in general.

Consider the submission guidelines for the “Harlequin Heartwarming” imprint. It’s worth reading the entire set of guidelines for all the Harlequin imprints, by the way:* “Similar in tone and feel to movies and TV shows like Sleepless in Seattle, Parenthood and Enough Said.” Why would a publisher say something like this as a guideline? Why, indeed. Because the job of a beta reader on a manuscript meant to be sent to this imprint is to give feedback relevant to that tone and feel—i.e. the beta reader’s job is one of aesthetic critique and revision. It’s writing-by-committee. And it sucks.

This is exactly the problem in MFA programs with the soulless “workshop story.” As the Writer’s Digest article puts it, “a workshop story is . . . insidious: on the surface it appears authentic, profound, meaningful. But really, it isn’t about anything.” Yup. It’s about style at the expense of substance. And this is the realm of the beta reader. In a bad workshop, every participant becomes a MFA beta reader, an experience worse than death.

Oh, you’re an artist? Excuse me. Hugh Howey puts it like this:

[W]riting within a genre is a huge first step in being discovered. No one is looking for you or your particular book. You are both unknown unknowns. So you better write a book that’s near a specific book. You can either change your name to L.E. James or you can start writing billionaire erotica. Of the two, I’d go with the latter. Science fiction, romance, new adult, erotica, fantasy, crime all sell better than literary fiction.**

This is unquestionably true. But if you want to write a memoir or a novel about an old couple living in Kansas, please, please, please do it. Please don’t make it a novel about a teenage couple having a romance in a post-apocalyptic Kansas because you think no one will be interested in the novel if you don’t put zombies and vampire ninjas in it.

In contrast to the beta reader, the person providing feedback is not reading relative to a particular style sheet—or she shouldn’t be if she’s trying to be a good reader. She’ll try to understand your project. And she’ll give you feedback that helps you realize that project more fully. That’s it. And that is very hard to do. It’s what happens in a successful story workshop. It helps writers become more of who they already are as artists. It does not churn out something that can be positioned as the next big salable thing (which is bullshit anyway—ask Hugh).

Back to what if? What if they held a workshop and nobody came? What if you’re writing all by yourself in your drafty garret? What if you actually are writing a teen paranormal werewolf romance novel in a post-apocalyptic dystopian vampire Kansas? Do you need a beta reader then? Not really. Do you know what you’re doing? If you don’t, aesthetic quality control isn’t going to be that much help (Um, I think, the scene in the taxi could be a little more like that one scene in Sleepless In Seattle . . . ). If you do, your polished draft will arrive in the editor’s inbox with only a few changes necessary–which is part of being a professional instead of a hack.  I do think reading and sharing our work is really important and useful. But the beta reader is a creature of marketing, not art.

 

* Note: I choose to pick on Harlequin because they’re an institution in the world of the romance genre and because I am not aware that any of my writer friends are publishing with them. Of course, I want all my friends to publish everything, get rich and famous, and bathe nightly in bathtubs filled with Cristal if that’s what they want. Still, it won’t stop me from grinding my axe on this blog. Sorry, bubu, them’s the breaks.

** Hugh Howey has good things to say and I’m not disagreeing with him about being discovered. I’m disagreeing with the attitude that literary fiction is irrelevant based on what sells.


The Genius of Imitation

mission24: perseverance

mission24: perseverance (Photo credit: greenkozi)

Creating reproductions of other works requires an extremely high level of technical proficiency.  One’s subject matter will always be personal, but I want to encourage my students to deliberately acquire new technical skills by taking on the aesthetic of the writers they read.

In this sense, every text is a potential writing instructor.
 
I have taught myself a lot by doing this assignment.  For example, by imitating Melanie Rae Thon‘s imagistic descriptions, I learned how to make an idiosyncratic first person voice graphic.  By imitating Hemingway, I learned greater control of the line, of syntax, as a mode of characterization.  By imitating Thom Jones, I learned to appreciate tragicomic realism, which led me to the work of Denis Johnson, which ultimately led me to Maupassant and Isaac Babel.

I want my students to learn to see how one writer connects to another stylistically and thematically.  I tell them to imitate everyone.  Fill notebook after notebook.  This is how one practices, how one acquires a technique that can render and evoke anything the story needs at any point.

And it never ends.  We should use the library as the ultimate resource for self-education, the ultimate art studio.
 
None of this will cause a writer to forget herself or her own voice.  On the contrary, it will enrich her style, inform her subject matter, and teach her more about who she is as a working artist.

http://doctormike.posterous.com/the-genius-of-imitation