Thursday, July 29, 2010


I have been repeatedly tortured by my own body lately.  I have been subjected to horrible emotions and harrowing pain -- to say nothing of the psychological distress and symptoms of depression.  I did not come to the blog today to moan and seek sympathy.  I'm not a seeker of sympathy anyway.  I therefore won't divulge here what has led to all of this spiritual and physical angst, but I will say that it is connected to a fundamental biological process.  (I think those lines are wide enough to read between, so I'll leave it there for you.)

Because it's a biological process to blame for all of this anger and bewilderment and helplessness, it is perfectly natural.  I am no different than those of my fellow humans who do extraordinary things just to secure love, or a safe place to live, or a steady paycheck to ensure that life and health can be maintained.  Most things we do as human beings have perfectly logical and completely natural origins.

I think about those times when I feel ravaged and taken advantage of by my own instincts and biological issues.  I think how helpless I am to the commonality of being human, and how a crying fit can be attributed to little more than an abnormal cascade of hormones.  I wonder why some people are blessed with so much -- pretty faces, genetically superior bodies, incredible intelligence -- and some are given so little by the stroke of genius or madness that determines these things.

And then I think about the one thing I have, the one thing I do, that escapes proper biological or evolutionary excuse.

I write.

I do not do this for the sake of my body or the advancement of my DNA.  I do not do this to make my habitat more secure, or make those people I hold dear safer and more prosperous.  I do not do it, obviously, to put bread on my table (since I have no sincere hope that this will be a lucrative occupational endeavor).

Why do I do this?  Why does any of us, if it is not an evolutionary imperative?  Why did the first cave-dweller glance up at the walls of the cave and decide to commemorate that day's hunt in crude, but recognizable and oddly graceful, stick drawings?  What compels us to create?

I don't know the answer to the question (even though I suspect there's a nugget of the Divine in the resolution), but lately, just being able to ask it refreshes me and keeps me from the worst of the despair.  I am not just a natural creature, cursed to roam the world, live, and die without anything greater being done.  Like all my fellow artists of all stripes and types, I am super-natural.

Friday, July 16, 2010

When the Words Don't Come (Or, When the Words Come and Real Life Objects)

If you live with a writer, or if you watch one very carefully in their day-to-day lives, you will know for certain when they're engaged in their art.  They smile more.  They have more confidence (even if it is a mere modicum).  They walk around in a pleased but distracted fog, because they can hear their characters' voices and see glimpses of the worlds they've built.  It takes a little more effort than usual to get their attention.  They hum to themselves.  They are happy.

If they are not engaged in writing, however, you will see something significantly different.  They get emotional, or they withdraw.  They are easy to find; they're either in the kitchen, staring listlessly into the refrigerator, or they're in the bar, losing against their half-empty glass in an impromptu staring contest.  They either avoid their computers, the scene of so much happiness in the past, or they engage their computers too much, trying to milk inspiration from Minesweeper, Bejeweled, or Facebook.  If they could, they would sleep most of the day in an effort to fast-forward through their lives to the point where the voices in their heads are once again their characters' friendly voices, instead of the chanting voices of Failure.  They are obviously not happy, and their symptoms are similar to, if not the same as, true depression.

There are two reasons for this tragic state for writers, and I can't decide, frankly, if it's worse for the writer to have nothing to write, or have something to write, but be kept from writing.  The one form of deprivation is referred to as writer's block, and it's a cold killer of joy.  I've described the euphoria of having a project to work on -- you have a cacophony of voices in your head, and you never feel alone.  To have those voices suddenly vacate -- to have no companions and no preoccupation -- is awful.

But the other form of deprivation, to have those voices pleading with you to spend time with them, to make time for them, and to give them a chance to live and breathe and act and fulfill their destinies -- and to not be able to give them what they want -- that's awful, too.

So is it worse to have friends and not give them your time, or is it worse to have no friends to disappoint?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Fertile Field

Now that I've shared my thoughts about what writers are and why artists do what they do, I feel the need to discuss the environment that spawns artistic creation.  Almost any artist can tell you, after years of experience with trying to "set the mood," that this just plain doesn't work.  You can't set the stage for creativity.

It's not like getting set up for relaxation.  In that scenario, you draw bath water, light scented candles, turn on peaceful music, and pour a glass of something tasty.  If you take your time with the preparation, your mind begins to disengage.  If you focus on the flickering candlelight and immerse yourself in the water with full appreciation of Here and Now, you really can't help but be lulled into defenselessness.

I've often tried to set the scene for writing.  I've closed the door to my office in an attempt to block distractions.  I've turned on music that's gotten my creative juices flowing in the past.  I've opened an empty, pre-formatted Word document, taken a swig of water, then waited for my Muse to arrive.

She doesn't oblige me.

You cannot summon a Muse.  They don't respond well to commands.  Unless you are a very powerful writer (think: Patterson, King, Evanovich) who has the Muse on a leash and can crank out new books at a blinding clip, the thought of directing the creative urge becomes laughable, and fast.

Think, instead, that the Muse comes to you when she's ready.  You can be sitting in the middle of a job interview, sweating bullets, when you notice the original art hanging behind the interviewer.  You latch on to it, hoping that the tranquil mountain scene takes you to a peaceful place psychologically -- and that's when the dizzy bitch finally shows up, cooing over the pattern of the clouds and handing you an invitation to WriterLand.  "It's time," she whispers in your ear.  "Now.  If you come with me now, I'll explain to you why your character did what he did in the last chapter.  It's brilliant.  You'll love it -- but you have to come now."

And you can't.

Some of my writer friends are reading this and nodding their heads.  Some are raising their fingers in polite protest.  "But," they say, "you can't excuse writer's block so conveniently.  You should still be writing something every day, whether your Muse is with you or not.  There's no better way to weave a leash than to let her know she's wanted."

You may be right.  Daily writing exercises (like blogging) do open things up.  It keeps the pump primed; it keeps the tools sharp and ready.  You can every day practice the art of transferring concepts into words, and, like artists do, share your perspective with people and hope they get your point.  But that's not the same thing as the art itself, and I hope you understand what I mean by that.  A blog should not be confused with a short story.  A blog is a thought, an impression, a means of communication.  It's casual journalism.  Sometimes, frequent blogging can lead to discussion of topics that may appeal to the Muse, but the blog is not the will of the Muse.  Even short story exercises, where a plot is indicated and resolution is sought, can't be confused with true creative inspiration.  Real creativity, the kind that comes from your Muse, comes in a forceful rush, and it's dizzying, inspiring, and a little like madness.

On a personal note, I've discovered my Muse loves road trips and travel.  When I'm flying along in a metal tube more than 30,000 feet from solid earth, gazing around at my fellow travelers and watching them amuse themselves, she whispers and giggles in my ear.  The experience of seeing new places is my fertile field.

What's yours?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

What Is Art? WHY Is Art?

Imagine a songwriter, a writer, and a painter, all sitting together to watch the same sunset.  Of course, each person witnesses the spectacle through their own filter of experience, and each sees something different.  They are each motivated to capture the moment they share.

The songwriter picks up his pen and starts to hum to himself.  The music that comes to this man may be a melody that reminds him of his father's favorite song, because the sunset reminds him of a hunting trip he shared with his father.  The sunset disarms him and makes him feel the freedom and trust of that trip.  He writes a sweet homage to the man in his memory.

The writer also picks up a pen.  She examines the shadows and the light, the variation of hues.  She leafs through her mind, trying to find the words to describe the richness of the palette in front of her.  She settles on a memory, the experience of walking through a grand art gallery.  She writes about the world as a canvas and the sky as the artist.  She writes about the way the sun tilts to the horizon and spills a rich carpet of color on its bed before settling into night.  The writer has transferred her impression to words.

The painter takes up his paints.  He sees the sunset in its components -- amber, purple, magenta, cobalt, all centered by a spectacular golden orb that's fading into bronze.  The last time he saw this specific palette, he was in Miami, celebrating his honeymoon with a wife who has since died.  The beauty of the memory moves him to tears as he paints, and the canvas comes to life with his emotion.  His strokes are broad, but not hurried.  His painting becomes a tribute to a golden moment of happiness.

This is how art is created.  No matter how different you think your art is -- writing vs. painting vs. music -- every artist aspires to the exact same thing: Every artist creates art to transmit emotion filtered through experience.  The best art in the world, therefore, is the art that doesn't have to be explained.  If the artist has done their job, everything should be easy to follow.  The lines on the canvas belong where they are.  There are no misspellings in honest, passionate writing.  There are no jangling notes thrown in for "artistic context" in a good song.

No one should have to explain lyrics to you.  You shouldn't have to read the card beside the art hanging in a gallery to get it.  You shouldn't have to run to a dictionary to understand the words a writer uses.  Those things are acceptable, of course, if you do initially get it -- if you feel the emotion and see it through the correct filter.  If, then, you're motivated to go deeper into the experience and read the lyrics and examine the art for subtexts or get the dictionary to understand all nuances of a word, then so be it.

I hope this also explains why what is art to some is trash to others.  All art created authentically and for the right reasons has an audience.  It is the artist's job to find his or her audience.