Monday, October 29, 2012

The Haunted Art of Matjames Metson

I was in the Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum gift shop last weekend, buying a little bowl, browsing the jewelry in the case, when I pointed to some booklike objects that I knew weren't books. "What are those?" I asked the clerk. She reached in and drew one out for me, a little box about 2" x 3", framed with rulers, a wooden assemblage, with some photographs.

"He calls them shadowboxes, I think. He's a Katrina survivor."

The back was signed "Matjames."

I felt like I had tripped over him by accident and had to step back to look again.

The fact that he was a Katrina survivor made me think these boxes were made with the things he had saved. But that isn't true. He's been living in Los Angeles for a number of years. Hurricane Katrina uprooted people and tore them from their New Orleans homes in 2005. Many of his pieces are house shaped. Curious how that label became an important part of how he was defined.

Knowing that part of his past touched me, but the boxes had a life to them beyond the artist; they had an emotional impact all by themselves, and they were mysterious, too. In an online video Matjames says, "If a house can be haunted, why can't ordinary objects?" (4:01). And I did feel that his created objects were haunted. Old objects, old photographs: the people who owned them are long gone, but still they remain, embalmed in gel medium. Matjames selects and composes and arranges them carefully.

The video gives you the flavor of his work and how he thinks. He also writes and creates graphic novels (here's the one he reads from). At one point he says, "…I don't like the term 'found objects.' So much of it is sought after, and very specific…once I've found it, it becomes part of my little language" (2:17). I hadn't thought of collage and assemblage quite like that before; I like the idea that we are creating language, and perhaps roaming the world seeking our language as well.

And after we gather it, we form it into something else that others can see. "That's kind of what I fancy my job to be…to translate or to give you an opportunity to hear what's being spoken that I hear…" (3:42). A translator, a receiver, a transmitter. The mysteries that filter through us that we are compelled to share.

I was too surprised to buy any of his work that day. I was drawn more to his assemblages than to the $20 bowl that I bought, although I liked it, too: metal birds cut out of an oil drum and formed into a bowl, made by craftspeople in Haiti. Maybe next time I'll be ready to spend the $100 to find something closer to my own language.


Friday, October 26, 2012

Noticing Bumpy

I was heading back from my usual walk up the hill when a white-haired, ponytailed woman wearing a baggy light blue shirt and shorts jogged toward me. 
"Interesting sidewalk up there!" she called as she passed. 
"Oh yeah?" I asked. 
"Bumpy," she replied.

I walked over the sidewalk pushed up by tree roots. I hadn't really thought about the topography here or if bumpy was, indeed, interesting. But I felt happy, for some reason, that my "normal" was the jogger's "interesting." I walk the same walk every day and always see something new. But, at the same time, it seems, I am failing to see something old.

The day before, I nearly bumped into two people exiting the house where they and this iron lawn deer reside. One said, "If it doesn't rain, we can decorate George." I guess this is George. (Or Bumpy. Although I'm tempted to call him, "Mummy Deerest…") 
Happy Halloween in advance!

Monday, October 22, 2012

No Mistakes, Only Opportunities

Art is our creative voyage, but often we are tripped as we go. A woman in my class brought in a book she had made with storebought, handmade paper for endpapers, a dark color—generally a paper that is forgiving and easy to use. But when you looked at the book closely, you could see that the endpapers had been cut too small and that the edges were patched from leftover pieces. "Did you mean to do this?" another student asked. The first student explained and said she had hoped no one would notice.

The phrase, "honest mistake," comes to mind. Sometimes, we honestly make a mistake. Could be in a conversation, could be in an artwork. Depending on the severity of the mistake, in a conversation we may wish no one will notice, or at least that the remark will be forgotten soon. But with an artwork, there it stands. Could be temporary, could be forever. But there it is, staring back at us, a reminder.

From the back of my brain I pulled out a phrase I once heard* and told the students, "There are no mistakes, only opportunities." Each time we make what we think is a mistake, we have the chance to forge a new path, maybe head in a direction we hadn't ever thought to go. In this student's case I suggested either that she cut a new piece of paper the appropriate size and cover the patches, or that she look at the monochromatic collages she had made and push them even further: make intentional looking collages by adding new elements to enhance the content of her book.

Got guilt? No worries! When we feel the least bit guilty about some part of our pieces it is time to get creative, make a decision, and then boldly go in what may be a nifty new direction.

*turned out to be Tina Fey in Bossypants, although there are likely others who have said it as well

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Words As Water: Ang Lee

Water plays an important role in director Ang Lee's new film (Life of Pi). I remember gazing at the ocean when I was sixteen and wanting to paint the waves, so I understand his impulse to render the sea on screen in 3D. It's a mystery why we desire to take nature and recreate it. Perhaps, as Lee discussed when he was interviewed on October 15, 2012 by KQED Forum host (and SFSU English professor) Michael Krasny, we try to capture our awe of things that are larger than us. The filmmaking process, like other artistic processes, explores that interpreting of one medium to another: nature to art, words to images.

Adapting one genre to another always presents a challenge. How do you retain the flavor of the story or the intention of the author? In a recent conversation with book art colleagues, one was worried that we were expected to embrace the next technology. The main argument was that it just wouldn't be the same. But it doesn't have to be exactly the same. A translator decides whether to accurately depict the words and literal meaning, or if the work would be stronger if the mood and intention are embraced instead. Or a combination of all of these. It is possible that one medium will present the content even better than another. Sometimes the film is stronger and more memorable than the book or vice versa.

Film already shifts media. In the interview, Krasny asked if it was "more of a challenge" to work from a book rather than from a screenplay (15:30). Lee explained that he was "not a translator to the words" (17:04), that it was not his job to move the same words from place to place. Lee said:
 …nobody really studies it [movie scripts]; they're the blueprint…words…[are] only a suggestion…Even though you want to be loyal to the book, you have to change that to make it happen; they're by nature very different. (16:05-16:54)
Lee was speaking specifically about the difference between published fiction and the screenplay. Fiction is studied, analyzed, critiqued, and it gathers a history and weight around it. The screenplay is only seen by the filmmakers; it is malleable and can be tossed and rewritten at any time. For this particular project, he was more interested in the mood and intention of the story than in the specific words.

When we think of words as a "suggestion" we suddenly find ourselves on water. It can be helpful to think of words as fluid rather than rock-carved. I used to write a story and to believe it had to remain exactly how I wrote it. But the story can flow in different directions as you change the words. You could probably write several stories out of one if you use the words as a suggestion for action. It is overwhelming, at times, to realize that there are so many choices. The task, then, is to find the most compelling way to tell the tale, the storyline that really grabs you and makes you want to keep writing. In reading Life of Pi, Lee found the book "haunting" (3:07). Even though he indicated that it wasn't the best book he had ever read, the haunting quality compelled him to make the film. 

As storyteller, you get to be the creator. How do you stay humble about it? Krasny quoted a past interview and asked Lee about "tenderness and humility," noting that they are not the usual words associated with directors. Lee's answer shows his awe at the process: 
Even though you have this ego, you have this desire to stage something, to put out your vision, but when it happens, along with real people, it still shocks you and humbles you. …You are not dictating some image to happen you are actually allow[ing] something to happen. (13:53)
Lee spoke of his desire to keep the process "organic," to keep learning, and to be flexible— useful suggestions as approaches to life and art—and all the qualities of water.

Ang Lee presented his 3D film Life of Pi at the Mill Valley Film Festival. It will be released nationwide on November 21.

The audio interview:

Monday, October 15, 2012

A World of Writing Advice

I've just finished reading the last half of Mentors, Muses & Monsters and found helpful writing advice in two more of the essays: "The Seducer," by Lily Tuck (about Gordon Lish), and "Harold Brodkey," by Edmund White.

Gordon Lish (in my mind, anyway) is most notable for his editing of work by Raymond Carver: Lish is the man who shaped Carver. The book, Raymond Carver: Collected Stories (Library of America) includes the original Carver stories and the Lish-edited ones. Carver rambled a bit, but gave the story more nuance and detail. When Lish edited them, the stories became tough gems, quite tightly woven and spare: very different.

In Lily Tuck's essay, she shows how Lish had plenty of amazing advice, but was tough, made people cry, and if he didn't like the work, he would cut the reader off after the first sentence. He said, "Your first sentence ordains your world; do not be trivial or petty.…Own your first sentence, make it yours…" (172). You are setting the tone, the mood, the kind of world this is, and grabbing the reader's attention all with this first line. Comedy. Trauma. Fantasy. Irony. Your world has to be conveyed; we shouldn't read it and say, so what?

The first line of Tuck's story creates a mood, of sorts, but it is confusing. When she begins to read it in class, "The back of my mother's head was like the prow of a ship—" Lish cuts her off and says, "don't strain for a trope." His preference for comparisons included, "Quiet as a church" (172). A simile should make it easier to visualize the scene, not harder, and it should not be used as mere embellishment. I keep trying to imagine a head like a prow of ship and that image, I'm sorry to say, just makes me laugh. I'm not sure what she wanted to convey with that line, and she doesn't explain in the essay. They uncover a first sentence that Lish likes:
Every day and it is my husband burning, is how Janet…begins her story. Gordon approves.…"You see…there's a cross-indexing in her sentence.… Think of two circles somewhat merged and the area created by their overlap. Therein lies the meaning, that's where the story is." (172)
The images rub against each other to make the third feeling. "Every day" suggests a habit or routine, "my husband" signals a relationship, and "burning" alerts us to a conflict. The story squirms in our bodies, we feel it intuitively. If we try to analyze it further, we may ruin the allure. Lish says, "Do not proclaim…Instead, show the world being made…'His feet are together' is bad. 'His feet pushed together,' is better" (173). I like this example because many times when we use a form of the word "to be" we can use a specific, active verb, such as "pushed" instead. I am also wary of proclamations such as "She is pretty." How? Who says? Her soft skin? Her new clothes? Lish would probably want her described so that, given the evidence, we feel that she is pretty, too, without proclaiming her to be so.

The line that stood out to me in the essay about Harold Brodkey by Edmund White was:
 Perhaps because it suited my own temperament, I learned from Harold to "defamiliarize" the world and to render it in the freshest, most Martian way possible. Where I disagreed with him was that I thought not everything could be treated so thoroughly. There had to be background and foreground, and what was in the background necessarily should be sketched in—not with clichés but with some familiarity, even facility. (186)
I've written before about making the familiar strange, the strange familiar (at the end of this post), but White adds the layer of contrasts. Making everything evenly strange is like listening to a musical piece with no louds and softs. After a while, it all sounds the same, puts you to sleep, or sends you out the door. In this case, the louds and softs, the background and foreground, can be highly nuanced. How much detail will you provide? A little here, more there. Where is the detail important? It should help the narrative and keep the reader's interest.

A college drawing professor once said to me something I did not understand until decades later, "Your work is so serious it scares me." I believe he meant that I was trying too hard to draw realistically and wasn't showing my unique vision or style. These particular essays suggest that we are responsible for uncovering and then presenting our individual ways of seeing. We create parallel worlds that are familiar, but rebuilt with words to our unique specifications. We can provide new insights for others by rearranging and juxtaposing images, but we must keep those images clear. Our responsibility is to guide the reader on a journey through those worlds and to keep the journey exciting by alternately making them familiar, and then strange. And to own our worlds and our works. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

What About Writer's Block?

In the book, Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives, there is a humorous essay by John Casey called "Mentors in General, Peter Taylor in Particular," in which he writes: 
The first time I got stuck writing—really really stuck—I ran into a well-meaning friend. He said, "Writer's block? Hey, you don't hear plumbers going around talking about plumber's block" (40).
Plumbers don't stop to consider, "Do I like this drain? Do I not like this drain?" The comparison is funny, but writers don't get paid as much as plumbers and aren't in such demand. I don't know anyone who has awakened in the middle of the night to overflowing words and said, "Quick, honey! We need a writer!" (I wish!) But still, the work needs to be done by those who feel they can't stop doing it and who feel panic when they aren't doing it. How do you, like the plumber, just go and do your job? 

Anyone who tells you that writer's block doesn't exist is wrong. Anyone who tries to tell you that you just need to do x and y is probably also wrong. In fact, anyone who makes ridiculous pronouncements is probably wrong as well. So, listen or don't. Let's see what we can glean from this book, and then get back to work.

In Alexander Chee's essay, "Annie Dillard and The Writing Life," he passes along an activity that Dillard gave to the class. The students were to appear with drafts of their essays, and with tape and scissors.
Now cut out only the best sentences, she said. And tape them on a blank page. And then when you have that, write in around them, she said. Fill in what's missing and make it reach for the best of what you've written thus far (67).
With our computers, of course, we can cut and paste easily, duplicating the writing and creating new files for each iteration. But the physical activity is a brilliant way to bring it closer to consciousness. The outcome would be similar if you had to set your story by hand in metal type, one letter at a time. Someone suggested to me that if you had to pay a dollar for every word you used, you'd probably be able to choose only the words you need and edit your story pretty well. Chee found that the voice is "trapped, nervous, lazy" and cutting it apart was illuminating and helpful. It's hard to think about doing violence to one's work with a sharp object, but that may be what it needs. This works best after the piece is already written, but what if you don't have anything, yet?

You can do a little searching and see what is blocking you. If it is an incident you want to forget, you may be using all your creative energy to tamp it down. Robert Boyers had always wanted to write fiction, but had been "reluctant" to do so. In the essay, "Imagining Influence," Boyers wrote, based on the influence of reading work by Natalia Ginzburg, that he discovered the answer:
…I had prided myself on a certain gift for equanimity and tolerance that now, increasingly, seemed to me perhaps a form of dishonesty.…I wanted, all of a sudden, to get to the bottom of the sentiments of rage and resentment that had long colored my relations with my own unlovely and unhappy mother (20).
Rage. Resentment. Write about it, however unpleasant it is or was. The act of confronting strong emotion is a good beginnning to creative work. Robert Frost wrote (an often-quoted phrase), in his poem, "A Servant to Servants," that "…the best way out is always through" (line 56). The poem is an acknowledgment of a servant's (or wife's) unrelenting work and disappointment, but carves out a little space for the narrator to rest. Whether you use the writing about your unpleasant situation or not, you may be able to find that place and move forward from there.

Fear can paralyze you. It may be your anxiety over your writing that is stopping you from writing more. John Casey wrote, "…a mentor can level out the sine wave of arrogance / helplessness / arrogance / helplessness that is often the initial flight path of a writing career" (40). If not a mentor, then perhaps a friend who knows you well can calm you. In any case, you, and I, and we are not alone in the ongoing ups and downs of writing.

I've never heard anyone mention what a writer's block is made of. I don't think it is hard and solid. I'm thinking it's ice. And it can be melted. 

Here comes the torrent of words. Time to get to work.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Fall Fiction Recommendations

Even though I had to read a goodly number of books when I was in school, it wasn't until after I graduated that the books started piling up on the floor by my bed. I've been, somehow, unleashed to read. I thought I'd share some thoughts on the short story collections that I've read recently, or am reading now, or am rereading.

Rock Springs by Richard Ford (Grove Press, 1987). The first story, also the title of the book, packs a plot punch that stunned me. If ever a work could show you how to write a short story that moves along well, "Rock Springs" is it. It begins with a character fleeing, which is interesting enough, but no, the car he's in is stolen. Without revealing the entire plot, I'll just say I was constantly surprised and interested in what would happen next as the sequence of events layered upon itself. This road trip story winds up in a thoughtful way. "Great Falls" is an emotionally resonant, fresh story of a boy trying to get his parents' attention and love and the downfall of the family, which begins, "This is not a happy story. I warn you." "Sweethearts" also layers its surprises, including the odd relationship of ex-lovers. The dialogue throughout is snappy. The characters are flawed and they accept themselves and others. 

The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories (Penguin Classics) by Bruno Schulz, translated from Polish by Celina Wieniewska, foreword by Jonathan Safran Foer (originally published in 1934, translation in 1968, this edition 2008). I've written previously about this book and its stories here and here, but I keep rereading "Spring," and I keep thinking about "Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass," "Birds," and "Father's Last Escape." The stories are strange, fantastical, and dreamlike, the style highly appropriate to the theme of the father's going crazy. I like reading these before falling asleep for their colorful impact on my own dreams.

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories (New Directions Paperbook) by Delmore Schwartz, preface by Lou Reed, introduction by James Atlas, afterword by Irving Howe (originally published in 1948, this edition 2012). The title story was what prompted me to buy the collection; I'd read it for a class and reread it several times since. A beautifully structured piece in which the narrator reflects on his life and his parents' marriage, as told through a film or hallucination, but of course it is a dream. I'm still reading, but the stories so far have very light plots and contain idle characters who tell stories to try to understand life. The author may be winking self-consciously in "The World Is a Wedding" on page 40: 
Edmund Kish recognized the weakness of the plays, the fact that Rudyard used character and incident merely as springboards for excursions which were lyrical and philosophical, so that the essential impression was dream-like, abstract, and didactic. But he liked the plays for just that reason…

Amsterdam Stories (New York Review Books Classics) by Nescio (Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh), introduction by Joseph O'Neill, translated by Damion Searls (originally published in Dutch in 1933; English edition 2012). The stories are mostly about the same group of young men who roam and discuss and cogitate on life, similar to, yet not the same as Delmore Schwartz's characters. The landscape, the light, and the sky are extremely important in Nescio's stories. The stories have "Amsterdam" in the title because the city is as much a character as the guys who wander through it. I love the language of these descriptions. In "Young Titans" he included the "ring of dikes around the city" and "the buttercups" and "inquisitive cows." "The Freeloader" is my favorite of the collection: the ultimate outrageous story of a guy who usurps his friends' resources, but is so charming no one has the heart to turn him away.

At the Mouth of the River of Bees: Stories by Kij Johnson (2012, stories originally published in magazines 1989-2011). These stories are wildly different from each other. Although the collection as a whole feels uneven, the brilliant stories are so outstanding I can ignore the ones that don't grab me. The first two, "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss," and "Fox Magic" pulled me right in. "The Bitey Cat," looked freshly at a frustrated, unruly child and an independent cat. "My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitaire—Exposition on the Flaws in My Wife's Character—The Nature of the Bird—The Possible Causes—Her Final Disposition" was light and amused me. And I was floored by the emotional impact and original storytelling in the final piece, "The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change." (Can you tell she has an affinity for fantasy and animals?)

Bleak House (Bantam Classics) by Charles Dickens (1852-1853) with introductory excerpts from Vladimir Nabokov's Cornell Lectures on Literature. Although now regarded as a novel, Bleak House was published serially and read as an enormous collection of interconnected short stories with an overarching theme and plot. It is ostensibly about a lawsuit that has gone on for generations and the people it affects, but at the heart is the life story of Esther Summerson, an orphan, and all of the people she meets. The book is packed with characters who are thankfully delineated by a tall hat, a strange laugh, a speech tic, physical quality, or other such thing so that it is easier to tell them apart. The plot gets cooking about halfway into the roughly 900 pages of the book, but the colorful descriptions and wonderful use of language keep the reader hanging in there. Nabokov's intro is fascinating to read as you can't help but compare what he is saying about Dickens to his own work as well.

Each of these collections has its strengths—and I'm grabbing randomly at one for each—Ford's plot lines, Dickens' characters, Nescio's descriptions, Schulz's imagery, philosophical ideas of Schwartz, and Johnson's startling originality. It is fascinating and inspiring to see this variation in works that are all successful. 

I can see the carpet now. Time to find more books and bury it again. An easy task…

Monday, October 1, 2012

Banned Books Week 2012

Banned Books Week (September 30 - October 6, 2012) is sponsored by the American Library Association, among other organizations, and is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the freedom to read and the continued accessibility to all books.

"You define yourself by what offends you. You define yourself by what outrages you." This is a quote from Salman Rushdie (author of The Satanic Verses, among others) in a recent article. Banned Books Week defines us by our fierce belief in freedom and our outrage when that freedom is restricted or taken away. 

Free speech runs two ways. On the one hand we have to allow for differences of expression (whether we agree or not), and on the other, we must fight injustice. Year after year libraries are asked to restrict our freedom to read and to pull books from their shelves. Here is a link to the most frequently challenged authors of 2011, the ones certain groups wish to eliminate, and a link to their titles. To Kill a Mockingbird is on the list again, as is Brave New World.

The various complaints against books that are "banned" or "challenged" are: offensive language; not suited to age group; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; nudity; sex education; anti-ethnic; anti-family; insensitivity; occult/satanic; violence; racism; drugs. But what exactly does "anti-ethnic" or "anti-family" really mean? Who's defining the terms? Those are two descriptions listed for The Hunger Games. Racism is listed under Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and under To Kill a Mockingbird. Literary works are meant to open up a discussion, not shut it down. People are free to complain, but they are not free to dictate.

In the age of the screen it seems ludicrous that people are complaining about books on shelves. What's next? Parental ratings for books like the one run by the Motion Picture Association of America? Would a ratings system cause the removal of even more books from the shelves or just a special section? Maybe I'm looking at this backwards; maybe it is actually heartening to think that books still have so much power.

President Obama explained, in response to a different situation, why we protect free speech in an address to the United Nations:
We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities…We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech—the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.
With our freedom we have opportunities to stand up, to lead active lives, and to make our own choices. We cannot fade away or allow ourselves or others to be silenced.