Love the Art, not the Artist

mw-witch_hunt_0In view of the whole Kathleen Hale kerfuffle, I am reposting a piece that I wrote several years ago. I have never read Hale’s books, and have little taste for YA lit. But while I don’t condone stalking anyone for any reason, I am flabbergasted by the outrage expressed against her work, current and future.  I have loved books, music, and art by people I wouldn’t want to hang out with, and I’ve learned the hard way that there is no point holding the artist’s personality against the work itself. Of course, with the push for artists to have a web presence and platform, it is harder for them to remain at arm’s length, and they often show themselves in the most unflattering light, which is a shame for them and for everyone who might have been moved, transported, delighted by their work. Some of the references below may be a bit dated, but my general feelings about the separation between art and artist remain the same.

A number of years ago, I stopped reading music magazines, despite the fact that I am a great lover and consumer of music.  After johnny-ramoneone interview too many where the members of some band that I had up until that moment enjoyed turned out to be idiots, I realized that what I felt about the artist had a real effect on how much I enjoyed the music. (I can’t tell you how disappointed I was to  learn that Johnny Ramone was a staunch Republican; it took the sheen off a brief, post-show meeting with him that took place when I was 18).

I had a similar reaction when I saw the biopic about painter Francis Bacon,  Love is the Devil.  Though I’d always been a fan of his powerful, bloody, carcass-filled triptychs, the film presented the painter as so nasty, petty, and vile that the art, though it hadn’t changed, was no longer something I wanted to look at, and I felt cheated.  I think anyone who knows too much about Picasso may experience the same dissonance.

GIACOBETTI_1991_Meat_TriptychNow, the more I like the art, the less I want to know about the artists that created it.  I’m always happy to learn something about their process, but as for their private lives, I’m probably never going to have a glass of wine with them or debate philosophy, love, and politics, so I feel it’s none of my business.  I’d rather let the art speak for itself.

Is an actor or a writer or musician or painter any better or worse based on their personality? In my experience, real artists are often difficult, unreliable and not always pleasant people.  Their art is the best of them distilled and perfected.  That’s why we fall in love with a singer when s/he’s onstage, or the voice and wisdom of a writer on the page.  Writers, in fact, often say that their writing is wiser than they are.  To expect these people to live up to their work is foolish.  The song, or the book, or the painting is an artifact, outside themselves, that they have put everything they are, they know, and they aspire to be into, then given it to us as a gift.  But it is not necessarily who they are the rest of the time, nor do I need it to be.

220px-Portrait_de_DanteIs Michael Richards any less funny objectively because he spouted racist epithets?  And to fans of Chris Brown, are his songs less catchy because he’s an abuser?  We may not want to support these people after finding out their dirty secrets, but what their skills are as artists remains separate from who they are. Who knows what Shakespeare, Dante,  Beethoven, and Carravagio were really like, since their every move wasn’t recorded and broadcast 24/7?   We judge them on the work they left behind.

Barring any real nefarious acts, it’s ok by me if an artist I like is “not nice.”  This requirement of niceness is perhaps the need of people who want to be able to “relate” to the artist, to believe that s/he is no different from you and me–it is a form of self-aggrandizement. It is also the dull consequence of our time, when the cult of personality reigns supreme. Look at reality shows: how many of the real talents get eliminated in favor of mediocre competitors who have more winning personalities or are relatable? Do you really want to listen to lousy music made by someone with a sweet smile and a touching back story?  Wouldn’t you rather listen to something fantastic, even though the person who made it is a little odd, or abrasive, or offensive, or anti-social (or a lot)?

Real artists are different from you and me; they are natural subversives, and don’t give a damn what we think of them anyway–that is precisely what makes what they produce interesting.   My belief is that art should stand on its own, that it should be compared to other similar works to determine its relative value, and that the person who made it is irrelevant in this assessment, both in the moment and especially in retrospect.

MJ

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Blog Hop: Una McDonnell–The Whole Yummy-Messy Smash

Thanks to the lovely Tess Fragoulis for including in me in the Blog Hop, and letting me hop right onto her blog to do it!

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Una McDonnell

What am I working on?

I’m working on a book of short stories I started during an MFA in Creative Writing with the amazing Zsuszi Gartner, who taught me how to unleash my own voice as a short fiction writer. I don’t know whose style I was trying to write before, but it was some safe, bland compilation of a “literary” voice. For the first class, I’d written this truly horrible last line in a story, involving one tenacious leaf hanging from a winter branch. Zsuszi and the gang—we later named ourselves “The Tenacious Leaves”— facilitated that breakthrough moment in which I could finally see how I was getting in my own way as a writer. Once I kicked the nasty self-imposed critic, with all her “shoulds,” off my shoulder, the writing and my enjoyment of it opened up. That’s the book I’m working on now, The Hard Problem of Consciousness.

In the title story, I was interested in that particular problem of consciousness in which there is no logical reason why we should have experience, or a rich inner life, as part of the meat-machine processes of mind. How then do we share our experience? Or as Betty Goodwin asks in one her preliminary sketches, “How long does it take one voice to reach another?” I like playing with that in story—how little of what we mean gets across once its been through the filter of our personality and the listener’s own psychological makeup. The extraordinary capacity of language and its failures. I find I’m always drawn to books and movies with interweaving story lines and characters. I have a triptych in the book that takes place on one night in a small village (very like the one I live in) with three characters in the middle of various crises that draw direct and indirect connections between them.

I also have a mostly-completed book of poems and half a novel and a small business. Starting a business is like pushing a huge boulder off a mountain peak, then getting in front and running. The boulder is slowing down and my legs are way stronger than when I started. So, right now, the stories. I’m learning to focus.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

This is the sort of question I wouldn’t have the first clue how to answer. It’s hard to see my own work objectively. One thing I’ve decided about other people’s art—to dispel that feeling that I’d have to take survey courses covering the whole of human history in every discipline to properly “understand” it—is that if a work engages me on numerous levels, then it’s working for me. A Betty Goodwin mixed media piece challenges me intellectually and visually, cracks me open and gives me goosebumps. That method of engagement with art has a corollary for my own work: that the best I can do is develop my craft and strive to be authentic. The writing I most admire has spiritual grit, and by that I mean, it’s earnest in the best sense of the word, but has its feet on the ground too. It feels elemental, like a brilliant new idea, yet one that resonates in my most hidden self, and I wish I’d written it. I try to write the work that in a parallel universe, I would wish I’d written.

Why do I write what I do?

It’s nice to be asked to talk about writing, and I enjoy reading factual articles and memoirs, but so far, the only kind of writing I love to do is fictional. In fact, I wither under the mental organization of other kinds of writing and of life tasks in general. The regular world, with its exigencies and details makes me tired. I can feel a nap coming on right now…

I write fiction and poetry because those forms engender more epiphanic moments than anything else I could do. So, yup, I chase that feeling. Everyone has had those seconds in the morning mirror, when, for some reason, time slows, and you can see yourself, really see yourself, briefly, from a slightly different angle, as though a veil has dropped, and you think, “My God, that’s me, I am Me.” You are both more familiar and more a stranger to yourself in those moments. Or as one of my characters, an adolescent girl named Tanya, says, (cause, lets face it, my characters know much more than I do), you get pulled “into the big old world and every living thing we share it with, all the animals and trees, rivers and caves, stars in the sky, and everyone, the whole implausible, irreconcilable, yummy-messy smash.”

The specifics come based on whatever gets lodged in my mind or body and haunts me until I let it out.

How does my writing process work?

Before a first draft, I spend a lot of time working when I’m not working. I need to fill my life with the right things in order to write well—time in the world of nature, time to read, and some good old-fashioned loafing about on the couch and staring at the ceiling with a song like Springsteen’s The River on a repeat loop, à la my sixteen-year-old self. Caffeine helps. Sometimes wine. Long drives are good. So is sleeping on it. Once I can feel the story, feel the emotion of the idea, character, or question that’s asking to be written, then I can face the blank screen.

When it gets down to writing the story, I have to say, I have a pretty unstructured mind, so sometimes laying down a structure frees me up to delve into character and ideas. I want the content and the form of the story to work together and I really enjoy playing with that. Revision is my favourite part of writing, where I really develop the characters, the line by line craft, etc. The best I can hope for in a first draft is that I get the voice on the page. Most of it gets cut later, and everything else is re-writing. If my writing process were a poem, it would be Steven Heighton’s Ballad of the Slow Road.

I’m most productive at writer’s residencies, where I can be locked away in my room with a view, but know that there are great people working near-by, stimulating conversation and a cuppa tea or a pint waiting when I’m ready to leave my bubble. So right now I’m renting a studio with the writer Lesley Buxton in the Farrellton Artist Space in an old, country school housing 20 other artists. It hasn’t produced as much beer-drinking as I’d like, but I’m getting work done.

I’m passing the rabbit’s foot over to playwright, poet, short-story writer, and fibre artist, S.Lesley Buxton, who is currently writing a Memoir through Dalhousie’s King’s College based on her beautiful and heart-breaking blog Fall On Me, Dear. And to poet, Dilys Leman, (who will also post on Lesley’s blog) great-great-granddaughter of Dr. Augustus Jukes, senior surgeon of the North-West Mounted Police during the 1885 Rebellion. Dilys’ new book, The Winter Court (McGill-Queens University Press), challenges the official story about the roll of First Nations in that rebellion through a mix of original poems and reconstituted archival texts.

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Una McDonnell has performed at literary readings and music festivals, on top of café tables (to get a gig), and on one occasion in a boxing ring (she won her round). She attended the 2002 Banff Wired Writing Studio and the 2003 Sage Hill Poetry Colloquium and has a Masters of Fine Arts from UBC. She has published work in Arc, Prairie Fire, Written in the Skin: A Poetic Response to Aids, and Musings: An Anthology of Greek-Canadian Literature.

Blog Hop: I Almost Never Write and Tell

A few weeks ago, I was tagged in a blog hop by writer and friend Sally Cooper, asked to talk about my work, my process, my current projects.  advice mod verbsApart from the fact that I feel there is way too much talk about writing these days–who does what, how often, how–which I almost never relate to, though may find interesting–I am, at base, against the concept of the writer as public figure, asked to pronounce truisms about the writing life, give advice to the aspiring, or lay down wisdom derived from his/her own struggle with the written word.  I am not saying that I’ve never engaged in these activities: as an instructor of creative writing, that is half of my job, and even this blog has such pondering, such pronouncements.  So here I am, after several attempts, some contempt, and a good deal of procrastination, with my answers to the questions posed, by whom initially, I am not sure. Make of them what you will.

What are you working on?

PR-SecretsI am, by nature, a secretive person.  This may not be evident given how social and garrulous I can be on occasion, but no matter how much of a story I tell, there is always something I leave out.  This is true in all aspects of my life–in my relationships with family and friends, in my intimate relationships, and even in my relationship (when I had one) with my therapist.  Part of this might have to do with a fear of being judged and found wanting, but the greater part has to do with keeping a tantalizing something for and to myself.  This also holds true in my writing life.  I will generally only speak of my work in any sort of detail once it is complete.  I don’t consider it a superstition that a work can be damaged or talked out by speaking of it too soon, before it and the writer have grown a skin thick enough to resist both skeptics and detractors, not to mention the well-meaning critics who are only too willing to offer what more they desire from it.  But mostly I am just happy to selfishly guard it, like a fabulous secret life, full of passion and conflict, created to suit myself, since I write first and foremost for myself.  So I’m not going to talk about what I am working on.  That is, as they say, for me to know and for you to find out.

I can, however, talk about what I have almost finished: a collection of magical and wistful stories called In Love with the Dead, which are mostly about people in relationships that may or may not be real. They are fairy tales for adults and, as such, will come with illustrations by South African friend and artist Lynne Lomofsky. Why should only children’s books be illustrated? Do we not all desire and require a little more art and colour in our lives? I do.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I have no idea.  This seems like a question for academics and agents, not for writers.  Answering that kind of question would likely stop me in my tracks. Are fairy tales a genre? Then there is not always a happily ever after to my stories, at least not the expected kind. Is literary fiction a genre? Then that’s what I’m doing, at least I hope I am. Is magic realism hallucination-selfhelp-012413a genre? Well, the stories are somewhat magical, and somewhat realistic, and do exactly what they are supposed to do: they explore and reveal human desires, wounds, psyches, conflicts, and consequences without being tied to the literal and mundane aspects of physical reality. On the other hand, a reader might be tempted to conclude that many of my characters are suffering from mental breakdowns; this might be the one difference. But those types of conclusions or interpretations are also not my responsibility.  I have been known to entertain magical thinking in my life, so who am I to judge?  I just tell my character’s stories as they come, without much of an agenda–at least that is true of this book.

Why do I write what I do?

Sometimes I have a question that I want answered. In my last novel, The Goodtime Girl, I wanted to know what it would have been like to be a female singer in the 1920s tavernas and hash dens of post-war Greece.  In Love with the Dead was a reaction to such research-based writing, which often made me feel shackled to reality, to history. I wanted freedom and less tragedy. I wanted imagination to be the driving force in the lives of the characters. I wanted anything that happened, no matter how unlikely, to be acceptable.

I also tend to write the types of stories that I want to read. I try to fulfill my own wants and needs for emotion, for amusement, for certain types of narrative the best I can. Curiosity, hunger, and self-satisfaction sum it up best.  If I could simply find other books that perfectly satisfied those three needs, perhaps I would stop writing. Or maybe not.

How does my writing process work?

I have a very long gestation period for any idea.  I collect tidbits for it while I’m waiting for the moment, for the motivation, for courage to begin.  Sometimes I am plagued by a first line that I know I must write down, which repeats in my brain like a disembodied, obsessive voice, and more often than not pushes me towards a notebook, just to shut it up.  That line often has momentum, at least for a paragraph, if not more.  I can also, on a disciplined day, have an intention to write and begin putting something down on paper scriptcrumb(yes, I still write on paper) just for the sake of doing it, so I can say that I tried.  If I can hang in beyond the awkward stiltedness of the first lines, I can sometimes get into a rhythm, begin to feel the flow of language, let the writing take me beyond my mechanical intentions.  I used to work 3 or 4 hours every day, no matter how I felt: inspired, uninspired, tired, resentful, hopeful.  That really is the way things like a novel get written.  Now, I have less time to dedicate to my writing, but when I am ready to dive into my new project, currently waiting patiently in the ether, gathering strength, momentum, urgency, I will clear my schedule again. Writing is not a thing I can do part-time, or in stolen moments.  It completely takes over, and I need full days, with no other distractions, to surrender to the new relationship.

So that’s my two bits, and now I pass the baton over to poet Una McDonnell, whose contribution will appear on this blog in a few weeks, and poet, publisher, and dandy rob mclennan.

Thanks for hopping by!

If Sally Cooper were Proust

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The unofficial version is that I met Sally Cooper when we were both select members of Ann Beattie‘s fiction workshop at Humber College. We became friends on the basis of some sort of mutual weirdness that expresses itself differently in both our writing and our lives. It is hard to say what I got out of Beattie’s workshop, other than getting to know Sally, whose novels I have been lucky enough to read in draft form, and who never disappoints my readerly or writerly expectations of what makes a good story.

In the official version, Sally Cooper is a bold, powerful writer whose work lays bare the human heart. The author of acclaimed novels Love Object and Tell Everything, she has also published short stories in several magazines such as Grain and Event. A long-time professor at Humber College, Sally Cooper happily devotes her time to writing and raising her two daughters in Hamilton, Ontario.

Whether she answered these questions while reclined, I could not say for sure, but it is fine if you imagine her lounging in a garden resplendent with peonies.

lady lounging

1. Your Favourite Virtue.
Radical honesty.

2. Your Favourite Quality in a Man.
See above. The truth is sexy.

3. Your Favourite Quality in a Woman.
Brilliant humour. I’ve been blessed to know many intelligent, funny women and each one has expanded my life considerably.

4.Your Chief Characteristic.
Creative drive.
LoyalDog

5. What you appreciate most in your friends?
Loyalty.

6. Your main fault.
Indecisiveness which has led to inaction and countless missed opportunities.

7. Your idea of happiness.
Living in a perpetual state of wonder, as Louis C.K. says of his four-year-old, waking up full of joy that “it’s all still here!”

8. Your favourite occupation.
Writing.

9. Your idea of misery.
Disconnection from people I love and who care about me.

10. If not yourself, who would you be?
My daughter, in the best possible position to teach me how to best be a mother to me.

11. Where would you like to live?
New Mexico or somewhere remote, warm and coastal.

12. Your favourite colour and flower.peonies-2
Aqua and heady-scented peonies (but not aqua peonies).

13. Your favourite bird.
Herons. So prehistoric-looking and long-leggity.

14. Your favourite prose authors.
I’m a fickle reader. For instance, if you’re Ian McEwan or Richard Ford or Michael Ondaatje or Toni Morrison, say, I might love five of your novels but dismiss a sixth. Alice Munro, always. Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, Lisa Moore, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx.

15. Your favourite poets.
I love poets. Who could pick a favourite? Anne Sexton; Anne Carson; Michael Ondaatje; Pablo Neruda.

Atticus_Finch16. Your favourite heroes in fiction.
Atticus Finch.

17. Your favourite heroines in fiction.
Alice Liddle; Jane Eyre; Sethe in Beloved; Dell in Lives of Girls and Women; Scout

18. Your favourite painters and musicians.
Van Gogh; Miro; Chagall; Alec Colville; Georgia O’Keeffe; Emily Carr; Agnes Martin; Bruce Springsteen; Lucinda Williams; Gillian Welch; Ryan Adams

19. Your heroes in real life.
Firefighters.

20. Your heroines in real life.
Foster mothers and single mothers.

21. What characters in history do you most dislike.
Hitler and his ilk.

boudica22. Your heroines in World history
Boudica, the anglo queen who led an uprising against the Romans in A.D. 61 in Colchester, where my mother’s family lives. Virginia Woolf.

23. Your heroes in World history.
Martin Luther King; Crazy Horse; Shakespeare.

24. Your favourite food and drink.
What’s forbidden to me now: a baguette with salted butter, a frosted glass of micro-brewed beer and a Hello Dolly square.

25. Your favourite names.
My daughters’ middle names. And all my characters’ names. (Mercy, Ramona…).

26. What you hate the most.
Having my secrets told.

27. The natural talent I’d like to be gifted with.
The singing voice of an angel.

28. How you wish to die.
I don’t wish to die.

29. What you wish to come back as.talking-rocks
A bird of prey or a sentient rock.

30. What is your present state of mind.
Over-sugared and brimming with peaceful ambition.

31. For what fault have you most toleration?
Loquaciousness. I love a good talker.

32. Your favourite motto.
Live and let live.

Follow Sally on Twitter @cooper_sally or dive into her brain here.

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If I Were Proust

ProustMarcel Proust and I have several things in common. We’re both writers. We’re both over-writers–though I come nowhere near his graphomania. We like pastries–Madeleines, millefeuilles, whatever. And most of all, we enjoy spending much of our time reclined, though unlike Marcel, I have no servants and, thus, have to get out of bed every once in a while to fetch those pastries.

That said, having recently read through his answers to what has become known as The Proust Questionnaire, a series of questions that were meant to reveal a person’s character, I found myself wondering how writers I know might answer. Of course, Vanity Fair adopted a version of the questionnaire that it puts to celebrities every month. I know no real celebrities, but I do know many, many writers, especially here in Canada. So I intend to publish a series of their answers over the coming months, not only introducing their work, but their inclinations and aspirations, as determined by 31 questions–only slightly modified from the original ones that good old Marcel answered in 1890.

I will begin with myself, not only because I am the most readily available writer I know, but also because I’m still in bed as I type, which seems somehow appropriate.

1. Your favorite qualities in a man. Charming
Charm mixed with kindness. You sometimes get one or the other, but seldom both. Beware of free-standing charm.

2. Your favourite qualities in a woman.
Confidence and directness. I like a gal who can tell it like it is, without couching it in too much politeness or euphemism.

3. Your chief characteristic.
Open-mindedness. I am much more curious than judgemental. It helps in both writing and life.

4. What you appreciate the most in your friends.
Their intelligence and wit. Their ability to lend a sympathetic ear when necessary.

5. Your main fault.
Tendency to worry/be anxious. This may be the downside of an active imagination.

6. Your favourite occupation.beach
Sitting on the beach on a sunny day, staring at the waves and sky. Going into the water every now and then. I guess I was supposed to say writing…

7. Your idea of happiness.
A stretch of empty days that I can fill with whatever I please. If the weather is fine and the locale interesting, even better.

8. Your idea of misery.
A prison of responsibilities and obligations that you cannot escape, that sour the soul. Anything you don’t want to do but have to.

9. If not yourself, who would you be?
Lucinda Williams. At least for 3 days. But would she have to be me in the meanwhile? I wonder what she’d make of that.

10. Where would you like to live?
I like where I live now, but would love a life spent partially in exotic and tropical climes. Bora Bora, Fiji, somewhere with crystalline water, white sand and palm trees. I would take a Greek island in a pinch…

Star-Gazer-Lily11. Your favourite colour and flower.
Purple, of the deep variety. Any type of lily, but especially the tall Asian ones that smell like flowery butter.

12. Your favourite bird.
I’m partial to African Grey Parrots. I like a bird that can hold a conversation and make up its own vocabulary.

13. Your favourite prose authors.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Richard Ford, Truman Capote.

14. Your favourite poets.
I’m going to say Ruth Stone for today. Poems ambushed her in fields!

15. Your favourite heroes in fiction.
Jose Buendia in 100 Years of Solitude, especially after he was tied to the tree. I also have a lot of affection for Dell in Richard Ford’s Canada.

16. Your favourite heroines in fiction.
I’m currently enamoured with Isabel Archer in Henry James Portrait of a Lady.

17. Your favourite painters and musicians.
So many, but here are a few: Otto Dix, Modigliani, Francis Bacon; Bach, Jack White, Psarantonis

18. Your heroes in real life.
Rebels, geniuses, whistleblowers, and anyone who helps without expectation of reward.

nunfun19. Your heroines in real life.
Nuns. I think nuns are awesome. And what I said about heroes.

20. What characters in history do you most dislike.
Pick any psycho/sociopathic dictator and insert name here. And Stephen Harper.

21. Your heroines in World history.
Hypatia, Catherine the Great, Mata Hari.

22. Your heroes in World history.
Democritus, William James, Carl Jung.

23. Your favourite food and drink.martini-fruit
Japanese and Italian, and, as always, very dry vodka martinis, preferably with berries in them.

24. Your favourite names.
I’m partial to mythological ones: Persephone, Ariadne, Telemachus, Achilles, etc. People still have these names in Greece.

25. What you hate the most.
Aggressive stupidity.

26. The natural talent you’d like to be gifted with.
Singing. I’d give my left arm to be able to sing. Opera especially, but anything really.

27. How you wish to die.
Suddenly, without warning. Would save me from worrying and suffering. But I hear drowning is nice too.

tropical bird28. What you wish to come back as.
I was once told it would be a lemur, but I would prefer to be a very pretty, tropical songbird.

29. What is your present state of mind.
Quiet, but anxious at the same time. Yes, it’s possible.

30. For what fault have you most toleration?
Sentimentality.

31. Your favourite motto?
Expectation is the root cause of all suffering.

I trust you all feel you know me a bit better now, and won’t use it against me.

No Cure for Ignorance (or Writing)

Most of the major projects I have undertaken in my writing life have been preceded, if not encouraged, by a sort of blissful ignorance. When I wrote my first book, Stories to Hide from Your Mother, for instance, I had no idea how difficult it would be to create and perfect 14 self-contained worlds, let alone how difficult it would be to sell a collection of stories to a publisher. With Ariadne’s Dream, my second book, I was happily unaware of the gargantuan task of keeping all of a novel’s details, characters and subplots straight, let alone the sheer laboriousness of reviewing 400 pages at every stage of the publishing process.

Having written and survived one novel, I felt primed to take on another one. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and all that twaddle… But instead of sticking even a little bit closely to what I had just taught myself to do, I chose to burden myself with an extra layer of difficulty without truly understanding what was I was doing. No, I didn’t write and entire novel without using the letter “e”– I mean, isn’t it challenging enough to tell a great story in beautiful language without excluding five of the last ten words, Monsieur Perec?

Due to that pesky thing called inspiration, which we all know is only 1/10 of the work involved in writing, so it can afford to be charming and frivolous, I decided to take on a historical novel, set in a time I knew almost nothing about, and about which there wasn’t much written in English. My third book, The Goodtime Girl, which is set in Greece and Asia Minor during the 1920s, took about ten years to complete. It’s safe to assume that had I known I would spend a decade working on one book, I would have chosen to do something, almost anything, else, like go to med school. In fact, I used to make fun of my novelist friends and their ten year prison sentences, as I called them. But I’d heard a song from the period that intrigued me, and the next thing you know I was researching music, fashion, drug culture and war, then writing character sketches and preliminary chapters, and by the time I realized what I’d gotten myself into, it was too late to bail (I tried, I’ll admit, but the story wouldn’t let me. It warned it would haunt me FOREVER!).

Don’t get me wrong, I love all my books like parents love their children, even after the teenaged years. I have no regrets. But I have to wonder, had I known how tough the process after inspiration and before publication would be, would I have persisted?

Possibly.
Probably.
Yes.

There really isn’t a choice when you have a story in your head that must be told, that takes over both your waking and dream worlds, that suggests lines to you when you are about to fall asleep and makes you turn on a light and pick up a notebook, all the while cursing, but also feeling a little exhilarated when the words appear, as if channeled, on the page.

No one ever said literature was easy–it’s just worked on until it looks that way. But there’s no use thinking about writing as a never-ending and unavoidable chore–like dusting. In the end, a bit of ignorance, willful or pure, is indeed bliss, and perhaps vital to my creative development. It allowed me to write three books, each one different and more ambitious than its predecessor, and a fourth (yes, difficult-to-sell short stories) is almost finished. As for the fifth, though I have sworn up and down over the last decade that I will NEVER EVER write another historical novel, the other day a reader asked me whether I was going to write a sequel to The Goodtime Girl, set in another place, another time. I have to admit I’m considering it.

It has to be easier the second time around, right?

Cross-posted at 49th Shelf

Other People’s Secrets: The Stories I Won’t Tell

Once a week I volunteer at an active listening center, where I lend an ear to people in distress. In my eight months there I have spoken to people with Asperger’s Syndrome, with schizophrenia, with bipolar disorder, with borderline personality disorder, with depression, anxiety and paranoia. There also have been closet cross-dressers, frustrated poets, and at least one female masturbator, who kept me on the phone for 45 minutes–until she was done, I guess. Far from being depressing, I find it fascinating to talk to and listen to these people. I am a person addicted to stories, and their stories are more surprising, have more depth, pathos, strangeness and humor than most of the things I read. In other words, these people are the perfect characters, who willingly reveal themselves to me. But I am sworn to secrecy (one regular caller ends every conversation by asking me if our talk is confidential).

It is said that Dostoevsky stole the epitaph from his mother’s grave for a story. I have used incidents from my life, along with versions of the characters that have populated it for my stories and novels, and I have been called on it more than once. I have even abandoned a story more than once because it would probably get me into trouble. Dostoevsky’s mother was already dead, so he had nothing to answer for. As for the characters in my stories who recognize themselves, they are there because I am–my story couldn’t be told without them. But these anonymous callers are just passersby in my life, though I speak to a few of them at least once a week, know their first names in some cases, have heard the details of their life-altering story–the one that sent them to the hospital, that keeps them up at night, that no one else believes–more than once.

When I teach creative writing, I tell my students that every character has a secret that motivates or hinders him/her, and whether the writer reveals the secret in the story or not, he/she must always be aware of it. It is the secret that makes the character interesting, and the way it manifests that makes the story unique. My callers are dying to get their secret off their chests, to have it understood, untangled, justified, and most importantly, to not be judged for it. At the end of a good call, they will thank me profusely, bless me, tell me they love me or even adore me for the simple reason that I listened, responded, took interest, and possibly even helped them–at least in the moment. A bad phone call will end pretty much in the absolutely opposite manner, but luckily I don’t have too many of those. Unless someone is being pushy and disrespectful, I respect them enough to believe their distress, even if its cause is transparent to me. Carl Jung taught me long ago that psychological reality is that person’s reality. We all count on our brains to tell us what is real and how to react to it, and this is as true for person whose brain is not absolutely reliable.

When I teach literature, I give my students a list of hints that a character is unreliable, including explicit contradictions and other discrepancies in the narrative, contradictions between the narrator’s account of events and his/her explanations and interpretations of the same, and a high level of emotional involvement, including exclamations and repetitions. Many of my callers meet the criteria for unreliability, but that makes their stories no less fascinating. They are not stories, however, that I will be stealing for my own writerly purposes, not whole hog anyway. It would feel like I was stealing their souls. Perhaps a detail will eventually work itself into something I write, divorced from the person and his/her whole narrative. I do think the masturbator is fair game since she already used me for her own selfish purposes. But everyone else is too vulnerable, too beaten down and used by their families, their mental illness, the health system, by the world at large. Though some of their stories are heartbreaking, poignant, hilarious, I cannot become one more person who betrays them for my own benefit.

So they remain ephemeral, like the charming songs children make up while they are playing, to be felt, enjoyed in the moment, then forgotten. I do enjoy them immensely as they unfold over the line, and though I won’t forget them, I won’t repeat them either. They have nothing to do with me. They are not my stories to tell.

Writing as Fortune-telling (starring Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

I was truly saddened to read yesterday that my absolute favorite author (in fact, I often refer to him as my literary god), Gabriel Garcia Marquez, has succumbed to dementia and can no longer write.  I never met him, but his books and stories have been my best friends for many years, and when I was writing my first novel, Ariadne’s Dream, I dreamt he chased me down the street trying to give me a pint of beer. I took this as a good omen. If every writer has a great mentor on his/her shoulder, guiding his/her hand, raising the bar to vault over, Gabriel Garcia Marquez has been mine.  His style, his literary magic and magnificence gave me something to admire, to envy, to emulate and, most importantly, something to aim for in my own work.

I’ve lost count of how may times I’ve read 100 Years of Solitude, and The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World can still bring me to tears.  Love and Other Demons, a slim novel that not a lot of people know, remains one of my favorites with its tragedy and passion between a young girl bitten by a rabid dog and the priest who comes to exorcise her of demons.  When I was in grad school, I opted to do as much work as possible on Garcia Marquez, and I’m happy to report that academe did nothing to spoil his fabulous tales for me.  They are so finely woven they resisted being unravelled and studied except in small sections–the whole is elusive–which makes them even more magical.

I’ve already used the word magic twice, and the label magical realist has long been applied to Garcia Marquez, though he always insisted that he had no imagination and invented nothing in his books, but simply recorded his observations and his grandmother’s stories.  I’ve always wanted to visit Colombia because if he truly recorded daily life as it existed, it must really be the most fantastical place on earth, where, no doubt, the handsomest drowned man would land.  Of course, seen through the eyes of Gabo, processed through his mind and his pen, it was certainly transformed in the manner only great art can achieve.  Though everything in his books may have been real, it was his reality, shared generously with us.

As a bit of a magical realist myself, not only have I never been that concerned with the boundaries between the real and the fantastical (it is all a matter of perception and expression), but I have always suspected that we create our reality as we write it.  More than once, something I have written has come to pass, sometimes sooner, sometimes later.  When I was first researching and writing my second novel The Goodtime Girl, whose central event is the destruction of the city of Smyrna in 1922 through fire, I visited the village of Zipolite in Mexico. On my last full day there, a large swath of the village burned to the ground after a kitchen explosion in one of its restaurants.  Like the citizens of Smyrna, the inhabitants of Zipolite ran towards the water, and we all watched helplessly as black smoke clouded the sky.  Now, I am not saying that my writing caused the fire in Zipolite, but it is quite odd to have just recently written about a cataclysmic and (thankfully) uncommon event, and then to witness a facsimile of it.

There are other examples of less dramatic events that have also manifested after being imagined and written. This has made me consider trying to write happy endings to some of my stories, so perhaps I could eventually experience one, too.  But my mind is as dark and complicated as some of my fictions, which probably accounts for why they mirror each other or are prescient–burning cities and villages notwithstanding. We are what we write and we write what we are.  It is a sort of fate, with an often predictable outcome.

Buddhists (and cognitive psychologists) believe that our thoughts create our reality; in The Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde argued that life imitated art and not the other way around; and in his sunset years Gabriel Garcia Marquez has turned into one of his own characters: patriarch Jose Arcadio Buendia from 100 Years of Solitude, who became so mad he had to be tied to a tree in his own yard for his own (and everyone else’s) sake. Gabo has fared better so far.  Jaime Garcia Marquez has stated that dementia runs in the family, but that, luckily, his brother ” still has the humor, joy and enthusiasm that he has always had.”

But there will be no more books from his brilliant mind, which saw what was to come a long time ago,  based on history and the spells conjured as he wrote. Those marvelous visions will be forevermore reserved for his own enjoyment.