Last week we attended the ballet. We arrived early and chose our seats. I forgot we were sitting in a high school auditorium and laughed elegantly.
The show was titled “American Masterpieces.” Included in the program was choreography by Alvin Ailey, George Balanchine and Twyla Tharp. I do not know very much about contemporary ballet. In fact, I have never heard of Alvin Ailey, George Balanchine or Twyla Tharp outside of that evening’s brochure.
I enjoy dance. I enjoy watching bodies metamorphose into instruments of art, language, beauty and meaning. I enjoy watching the ordinary transformed and transposed by the extraordinary. –And then there are the costumes!!
I sank into the dark into my seat and prepared to enjoy the show. Carried aloft by the dancer’s movements, I forgot my own body for the thrill of following theirs. Then, a couple behind me clapped me back to earth.
For every elaborate spin, every display of strength or stamina, the excitable folks behind me swooned with loud, exultant oohs and ahhs. They clapped and muttered awestruck praises. “Wow!” They said. “What strength!”
Instead of irritating me, the couple got me thinking. I didn’t notice how particularly skillful that last leg raise/spin/bend was, I’d muse, biting my lip. Am I not an appreciative audience member? I never seemed to catch the moves and maneuvers that inspired my fellow ballet attendees so effectively. As I watched, I forgot about skill altogether. The dancers appeared so light, so agile, and I had ceased to judge them by human standards.
But isn’t that the point? In the dark, at the ballet, my thoughts turned to writing. When you’ve truly succeeded in producing a masterpiece, the average reader should not notice (even if to applaud) the skill involved. If the reader notices the skill without looking for it, the reader has been distracted from the piece as a whole, and the writer has in some ways, failed.
I resolved that night to strive for this in my work. To eliminate the ego entirely. To render myself completely to the good of the work as a complete piece. This is no easy task. It involves the constant acquisition of skill along with the ability to transcend that skill.
I belong to The Internet Writer’s workshop–the IWW. The group frequently raises the topic of how-to write literature. Members recommend authors and books promising sage guidance and writerly success.
I read these emails somewhat dismayed. Sure, I’ve read Steven King’s On Writing, Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. I own John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, but when it comes to good writing advice, my resources prove much more disparate.
I recommend The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics, The Shape of Content by Ben Shahn, Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols. When it comes to learning more about your particular art, your area of interest, it is decent to remember that everything is everywhere–and all things interconnect.
Look to the Painters
Most of my mentors have been first and foremost visual artists. Through working with sculptor and painter Wayne Trapp, I have learned how to look. Through my work and inestimable friendship with Zoey Brookshire, I’ve learned how to better surrender to that looking, trusting that the language will come on its own accord, with both grace and truthfulness.
Watching Wayne interact with his model, I’ve gained the ability to recognize the difference between looking at a chair and looking at the unique lines, patterns, arches and shapes that compose a chair. Zoey has helped me translate this learning into my writing. She has encouraged me to experience without the crutch of preconceived language or numbing cliche. She has taught me how to, on my own terms and in my own language reassemble those experiences onto the page, into the poem, the story, the essay.
Look at a painting. See how the meaning of one object or image changes according to what sits next to it. Apply this lesson to your poetry, to your short story.
Study Ganguin. Marvel over his expressive intensification of color. Note how this intensification coincides with a simplification of form. Explore how this reads in your novel.
Cezanne advises the painter to “paint as if you held, rather then if you saw objects.” Writer, how could you read this and not feel instructed?
Create with the Dreamers
In The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, challenges the artist: the dancer, the painter, the sculptor, the poet, the novelist, the musician, the actor and actress alike with the task of creating new images, a new mythology that is transparent to transcendence.
Campbell elaborates on his terminology “transparent to transcendence”:
Mythology opens the world so that it becomes transparent to something that is beyond speech, beyond words, in short, to what we call transcendence.
If the metaphor closes in on itself and says, “I’m it, the reference is to me or to this event,” then it has closed the transcendence; it’s no longer mythological.
In order to discover images and symbols that resonate with archetypal importance, it is necessary for each one of us to find our own symbols.
Most archetypes, to put it simply, are universal psychological patterns, events and situations. Common archetypes include Mother, Child, Wise Old Man, and Femme Fetalle. While stereotypes are rigid and specific, archetypes are loose and “transparent”. Myths prove an excellent resource for finding archetypes. The archetypes Hero, Trickster and Shadow are all through Roman, Greek, Nordic, Native American, Indian (etc. etc.) mythology.
But how, as artists, can we discover new myths? How do we find our own symbols? Simply. By taking a nap. Freud proposed in Civilization and its Discontents that myths are to society what dreams are to the individual. While sleeping, we tap into a well spring of creativity (the objective psyche or collective unconscious according to Jung). We interact with not only our personal constellation of symbols but that of the universe’s.
An example: Recently, I’ve dreamed that I cannot find the matching pair to my shoes. In one dream, I stood in the middle of a mountain of sneakers, high heels, and sandals, but could not find a single matching pair. In another dream, I scrambled around my house with one sneaker in my hand, peering under the couch and table for its partner. In every dream, time is of the essence. I am rushing to find the shoe, shamed of my inappropriate bare feet and anxious for a remedy. The repetitive nature of this dream has convinced me of its greater symbolic meaning.
This dream has provided me with a strong and potent image/situation that I can later use in a story to communicate something beyond the immediate and obvious situation at hand. The language of symbols is perhaps one of the most powerful languages we, as humans speak, and our dream lives are nothing short of that language’s 101.
A side note: If you are like many people and have trouble remembering your dreams, try jotting down whatever you can whenever you can. You’ll find yourself suddenly recalling more and more.
Craft and Structure
Ultimately, the needs of a story should dictate that story’s structure. The common evolutionary rule–form follows function–should be a guideline to the artist as well.
That said, sometimes, I believe that the content of a story can also be informed by that story’s form. Most books on writing offer suggestions guiding the neophyte writer through the process of construction and the suitable structures.
But we live in a Post Modern world that likes to fancy itself above tried formulas like the one to the right. We, as contemporary writers are free to experiment with structure and the process of a story’s development.
I have looked many places for structural patterns.
Math! (and Music)
To the Pythagorians, ratios and proportions controlled musical beauty, physical beauty and mathematical beauty (yes, beauty). The golden mean can be found everywhere in nature. What does the golden mean accomplish within a story?
Milan Kundera, author of many books, claims to use mathematics and a history with music to structure his novels. While the reader would never consciously note the pains Kundera takes regarding ratios while reading his novels, the reader is affected, regardless. When noticing an attractive face in a crowd, we do not think, My, that person’s eyes, nose and lips are perfectly symmetrical. We just admire that person’s beauty.
I’ve always wanted to write a story as if I were building a building. Writing one scene to serve as one “room” and another scene to serve as another room with another function. But good architecture is not only about function.
In his philosophical (and humorous) book on architecture, The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton writes, “The essence of great architecture was understood to reside in what was functionally unnecessary.”
After reading this, and visually exploring some of the great architectural wonders, I felt a little more freedom supplying details that didn’t necessarily progress the plot. For amusement’s sake. For beauty’s sake. Just because I felt like it.
Objects and Toys
The novel can be viewed as a sack in which a dozen special objects and fancies are stuffed. The story can be viewed as a Matryoshka, where one doll fits snugly into the other ad infinitum. The story can be an elaborate collage where a hundred disparate images collide into one cohesive message. The ability to think metaphorically aids in this game of Everything is Everywhere.
Learning to Write Through the Body
My pregnancy has taught me much about writing. Just this morning, I received an email from an old dear friend that started,
… while doing taxes, I came across a letter from you about maternity involving a friend of yours who had become pregnant. I think this was more than two years ago.
And in the letter you spoke of your children as your stories. I’m sure that you see the story now is your children. And that’s good to see.
I use to love comparing the expectant mother with the artist, mid creation.
Conception ———————–The idea
Gestation ————————-The idea grows
————————- The idea develops
————————–The idea acquires life of its own
Labor Pains ———————-The struggle for completion
———————-The struggle to communicate
———————-The struggle to bring forth
My stories, poems and books are pieces of myself; reflections but a part from and separate, entities all their own. I imagine I will view my child similarly.
I’ve also learned from my pregnancy to trust the wisdom of the body (as inconvenient as it can be). When editing my own work, I train my awareness onto my body and note its reactions. Christopher Vogler writes on this subject in The Writer’s Journey:
I came to depend on the wisdom of the body to determine the quality of the story. If it was bad and boring, my body would grow leaden and the pages would weigh a thousand pounds apiece. I knew it was bad if, as my eyes scanned down the page, my head kept drooping and I nodded off to sleep. The good ones, I noticed, the ones that ultimately made good movies, had the opposite effect on my body. They woke me up. The organs of my body came to life one by one.
When it comes to good writing advice, my pregnancy has taught me that literature and my body are not as incompatible as I may have at first thought.