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Archive for August, 2012

I am someone for whom the internet was invented. My friends have told me so. It has to do with my generally insatiable curiosity and the ability to ferret out the bits of life’s ephemera, the stuff that amuses and illuminates and unifies our lives. I am a scholar in the loosest sense of the word but no less so than one with a formal doctorate. Of course, internet surfing – or “research” as it is sometimes derisively called in our house – has turned us all into masters of the ephemeral, but it also has become a giant time-suck as well. Such is the double-edged sword of knowledge.

On one of my ventures into the wilds of the internet I came upon a tumblr blog that did a daily upload of the scans made from the journals of artist Keith Haring. I could try to summarize Haring’s life, style, and his impact on the art world, but that’s what the internet is for, and others have already done that. I subscribed to Haring’s journal feed because the archive handling his journals were uploading pages chronologically from Haring was a teen and I was curious to see if there was a moment when you could see an artist emerge. I wanted to know because I have a back-burnered project to write about a teen artist coming into their own and I was hoping to limn some sense of what it looked like from within.

There was a lot of earnest trying-to-be-an-artist type entries, and while I recognized the truth in this from my own life – those early days when everything is so deep and so full of meaning, as if you were the first to have these thoughts – what I wanted was the moment when the trying became simply being. This, I knew, was what I wanted to capture, the narrative moments that rang true without all the sturm und drang attached. Sometimes capturing the truth means editing out the whole truth. Then this past week the beginnings of a new journal were posted and I felt like I’d found the emotional core of what I was looking for.

WRITING IN A BOOK IS ALSO PUTTING TIME IN BOXES – PAGES – THE TIME IN BOOKS IS A DIFFERENT TIME THAN RECORDED TIME BECAUSE YOU CHOSE WHAT SPEED TO READ IT.

Haring had written this on the inside front cover, and it encapsulates not only the inculcation of a life deliberately set on understanding the process of creating, but it so underscores the experience of the reader and the writer and the event. Haring isn’t likely the first to articulate this idea but his youthful phrasing was what I was looking for, and his use of a box as a metaphor was exactly what I’d hoped to find. He elaborates on the first page of the journal proper

TIME defines CONTEXT

We experience “art” as a result of many factors outside of the actual “art” itself.

Are all of the factors part of the “art experience” itself?

Three years after Haring had written these words I was coming to a very similar understanding though through a different lens. I had encountered Koestler’s theory of bisociation at the same time that I discovered the Dadaist art movement and suddenly it was as if the creative world started making a whole lot more sense. But I didn’t keep a journal (foolish me) and it was stumbling onto Haring’s that helped me understand what I had been wrestling with in this shelved project.

But beyond my personal searching Haring underscores what makes books a distinct storytelling medium that has survived, and thrive, despite the development of television, movies, and other narrative distractions. Other media control the speed at which the story is told but the book allows for an individual, personal, and perfectly tailored experience. Naturally time can be controlled within all storytelling – it can be condensed, expanded, telescoped, and otherwise manipulated – the the experience of that time, that’s the ability to look inside the “box” and decide when it’s time to move along. When you look at a painting or a photo and are amassing the thousand or so words the picture paints you are composing the page that places that experience, that moment, in a box of memory. Likewise, reading a book allows the reader to take in the information at their own speed before defining the memory box in which it is kept.

So while casually looking for an attempt to capture the feel of a young artist making sense of the creative process I managed to find some comfort that working in the written word isn’t the pointless exercise it can sometimes feel like. Especially when the idea of finding an audience is still in a distant “someday,” a box full of time for another day.

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That’s right, ignore everybody.

Those aren’t my words, nor are they really Hugh MacLeod’s words either in that he’s probably not the first person to ever use the phrase, though they are the title of his book on creativity called, appropriately, Ignore Everybody, and 39 Other Keys to Creativity.  The title is a pretty good summary of his 40 short, zen-like chapters (taken from various blog posts at gapingvoid.com) where he lays out the problems and pitfalls of what it means to be a working creative, in any field.

I’m mostly throwing this out there to any of my creative peeps, but really there are a lot of people who could use a good shot in the arm when it comes to (re)thinking their priorities. For the writers and artists I know, there’s always something nibbling away at their confidence, something gnawing at their creative productivity, for better or worse. I know for me much of what is in MacLeod’s book isn’t new so much as a collection of reminders about when, where, and what to focus my creative energies on. In a lot of ways the chapters are like concentrated versions of much larger ideas bulking out other books on creativity (which shall remain nameless); these are like espresso shots in a world of watered down instant coffee crystals.

Though I would probably get different things from the books little aphorisms depending on where my head was at when I read it, this time around what stood out were the following:

3. Put in the hours
7. Keep your day job
27. The best way to get approval is not to need it
34. Beware of turning hobbies into jobs

Numbers 7 and 34 hit a funny chord in me as I recently found myself working a day job (after four years of unemployment) and, separately, been thinking of starting a new venture that would effectively turn a would-be hobby into a job. This is where number 3 kicked in to remind me that I just need to put in the hours. On the thing that is most important. Which is the creative stuff.

Number 27 probably ought to be lumped with number 12 to have the most meaning for the writing community – If you accept the pain, it cannot hurt you. Accepting the pain is about the rejection process, and the approval process is a corollary to not caring and letting the process roll of your back. It’s a tough thing because somewhere deep-down the need for approval (or to not be rejected) has to do with confirming that we’re on the right path. Doubt, fear, confusion… they’re all there to keep us off-balance, to keep us from doing the work we’re driven to do.

Friends, creative or otherwise, hunt down Ignore Everybody and see what I mean. Do as I did and read it while commuting or someplace else public; you can practically feel people seething as they notice you reading a book that instructs you to ignore them. Consider it a first step to a new creative path (or path correction, as necessary).

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Okay, so I made that word up, from the Greek roots of the word “middle” and “place” because I really think there needs to be some sort of alternative to the unrealistic idea of utopia and the dour-as-all-get-out dystopia that’s all the rage.

I understand the popularity of dystopias because I enjoy many of them myself. The idea of looking at the world as it is and wondering how bad things could get, wondering if we’d land on the “right” side of things. Growing up my friends and I would play a similar game of what-if but through the lens of the past: if we were in Paris or Italy or Austria in the late 1930s, or even Germany, would we have done the right thing, would we have joined the Resistance? We’d like to think we’d know to do the right thing, and its these sudden shifts in the ideological ground that makes a dystopia fascinating.

But when you look up the word utopia, and then its antonym, you find that the opposite of a perfect world is hell. Dystopia is hell on earth. And all the hope in the world ladled into the ending of YA dystopias cannot hide the fact that hope is merely a band-aid on hell, a word of cheer meant to let the reader close their eyes and pretend it never happened, that it was all a bad dream, and that everything would get better from that moment onward.

Reality is never that clean. In fact, it’s rather messy.

You know what, I don’t particularly like this partisanship in fiction, I don’t like this idea of black or white with no middle ground. I love me some good dystopia but I’m feeling starved from a lack of a more positive visionary substance. I want to see something in between, the messitopia, a future with human complications but not at the brink of using its children for blood sport or shuttering us in a post-global warming nightmare or forcing us into protective domes that keep the ugliness of the outside world at bay. I would hope that there are writers out there with enough imagination who could deliver an action-packed tale of a future where we got somethings right but still had some kinks to work out.

Give us a future to hold onto, not one to fear.

 

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If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s one of those clichés that shows up in movies as an unimpeachable truth, a type of suffering artists grok and continue to believe is necessary in order to create great art. Ray Bradbury’s own advice to writers is to make a bucket list of fears and write about them as a way of conquering them, and in his own work those fears, guilt, and anxieties he possessed all manifested themselves in great stories; his fear of flying was the source of his writing about ships heading into deep space!

In the kidlit game, writers are encouraged to mine the depths of their childhood anguish in order to render a realistic world for their young readers. This is what allows a 40- or 50- or 60-year-old to capture the imaginations of those just barely into their double-digits. The advice to writers is to put the reader into the main character’s head, then keep putting the main character into increased danger, and at the very last minute pull them to safety — the requisite “hopeful” if not happy ending.

A bit sadistic when you think about it.

The danger in a culture, a media, an entertainment that continually relies on fear, pain, and anxiety as its inspiration is that it diminishes the value of other emotions and experiences. It trains individuals to respond more and more (and ultimately only) to fear to the extent that our political discourse is almost entirely based on our reaction to manufactured dangers. The worst part of all this fear-conditioning is that as a society we have also been trained to expect someone to come to the rescue at the last minute and save us.

If our ancestors had that same expectation during the Great Depression we might never have recovered as a nation.

In children’s literature, more so in middle grade that YA books, there is a fervent cry for realistic stories with hopeful endings. The idea is to give kids something they can relate to and then let them know they can rise above whatever crisis or turmoil is at stake. The problem is that the world around them, around all of us, isn’t interested in making the hopeful happen. We aren’t interested in the same gas or food rationing that was the result of the last Depression because it wouldn’t produce the “right” kind of fear; the fear of imaginary assault on our protected freedoms as opposed to the real fear that would cause us to rise up against the banking, corporate, and political entities that do well by courting our collective fear.

While I certainly agree that the traumas of our past make great fodder for the stories we tel,l I think writers owe it to kids to tell them the truth, the whole truth, and without the sugar-coating of a false hope tacked on. Perhaps this is what makes realistic fiction difficult for all but the best writers, and why fantasy gluts the shelves, because when you control the world you can control the outcomes better. But writing about the fears or growing up, the pains of adolescence, the anxieties of the world requires endings equally bold. If you want young readers to remember what they have just read you need to leave them hanging with all the suspense that the world has to offer. When it comes to endings writers might do well to remember:

If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.

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