turnips

31 Oct

I don’t think I can beat this in terms of scare value this year: Original Irish Jack-o-Lanterns were truly terrifying and made of turnips.

weekend silliness: tortoise vs hare

30 Oct

Speaking of getting things done and putting in little bits of work every day, here’s everything you need to know about accomplishing anything, creative or not, summed up in one internet video…

Ann Patchett says unblock

27 Oct

On practice, putting in the hours and being stuck:

Writer’s block is a topic of great discussion. I understand being stuck. It can take a very long time to figure something out, and sometimes, no matter how much time you put in, the problem cannot be solved. To put it another way, if it were a complicated math proof you were wrestling with, would you consider yourself ‘blocked’ if you couldn’t figure it out right away, or would you think that the proof was difficult and required more consideration? The many months (and sometimes years) I put into thinking about a novel before I start to write it saves me considerable time while I’m writing.

Even if I don’t believe in writer’s block, I certainly believe in procrastination. Writing can be frustrating and demoralizing, and so it’s only natural that we try to put it off… I have a habit of ranking everything in my life that needs doing. The thing I least want to do is number one on the list, and that is almost always writing fiction. I will zoom through a whole host of unpleasant tasks in an attempt to avoid item number one – writing fiction. (I admit this is complicated, that I can simultaneously profess to love writing and to hate it…)

..Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration? Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art you must master the craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled ith sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the freshwater underneath…

The lesson is this: the more we are willing to separate from distraction and step into the open arms of boredom, the more writing will get on the page. If you want to write and can’t figure out how to do it, try picking an amount of time to sit at your desk every day. Start with twenty minutes, say, and work up as quickly as possible to as much time as you can spare. Do you really want to write? Sit for two hours a day. During that time, you don’t have to write, but you must stay at your desk without distraction: no phone, no Internet, no books. Sit still quietly. Do this for a week, for two weeks. Do not nap or check your e-mail. Keep on sitting for as long as you remain interested in writing. Sooner or later you will write because you will no longer be able to stand not writing, or you’ll get up and turn the television on because you will no longer be able to stand all the sitting. Either way, you’ll have your answer.

I’ve spent long periods when I’ve written every day, though it’s nothing that I’m slavish about. In keeping with the theory that there are times to write and times to think and times to just live your life, I’ve gone months without writing and never missed it. One December my husband and I were having dinner with our friends Connie Heard and Edgar Meyer. I was complaining that I’d been traveling too much, giving too many talks, and that I wasn’t getting any writing done. Edgar, who is a double bass player, was singing a similar tune. He’d been on the road constantly and he was nowhere near finishing all the compositions he had due. But then he told me a trick: he had put a sign-in sheet at the door of his studio, and when he went in to compose he wrote down the time, and when he stopped composing he wrote down that time, too. He told me he had found that the more hours he spent composing, the more compositions he finished.

Time applied equaled work completed. It’s possible to let the thinking about process become so overly analyzed that the obvious answer gets lost… Now when people tell me they’re desperate to write a book, I tell them about Edgar’s sign-in sheet. I tell them to give this great dream that is burning them down like a house fire one lousy hour a day for one measly month, and when they’ve done that – one month, every single day – to call me back and we’ll talk. They almost never call back. Do you want to do this thing? Sit down and do it. Are you not writing? Keep sitting there. Does it not feel right? Keep sitting there… Is there some shortcut? Not one I’ve found.”

– Ann Patchett, “The Getaway Car

While this is probably the best advice on unblocking yourself, it is ultimately a statement about technical aspects of art. The question I don’t often see addressed is how to have “good” ideas. It’s obvious that craft is a part of art that must be mastered, but the trickier issue is how come some people have fascinating ideas and other people have boring ones?? Is it also just sheer broad exposure to the work that already exists in the field, or is it some sort of filter or mental machinery that is developed some other way? This is the question I’m still most curious about in terms of process that the discussions or advice about honing concrete skills don’t truly speak to.

Or maybe it has been asked, in the form of “can art be taught?” Only this question is really two questions, and you’ll have a different answer depending on which one you hear. Can the technical skills of art be taught? I don’t think there are many debates about the answer to this one. But can how to have good ideas be taught? Can openness to new ideas be taught? Can a willingness to take creative risks be taught? I’d still like to think the answer is yes, but that is the version of the question that gets people all up in a tizzy. After having gone through grad school, I have a bit more perspective (or more accurately a more detailed perspective) than I did before, but more on that later.

Ann Patchett says from head to hand

25 Oct

Sometimes I need to be reminded of stuff like this. It’s a great even-handed take on the nitty gritty of creative process that comes from her own personal experience. So much of it rings true. Just a tiny excerpt, about the distance between an idea and its execution, and how not to get bogged down in waiting for perfection:

Logic dictates that writing should be a natural act, a function of a well-operating human body, along the lines of speaking and walking and breathing. We should be able to tap into the constant narrative flow our minds provide, the roaring river of words filling up our heads, and direct it out into a neat stream of organized thought so that other people can read it.

But that’s right about there, right about when we sit down to write that story, that things fall apart. I’ve had people come up to me at book signings, in grocery stores, at every cocktail party I’ve ever attended, and tell me they have a brilliant idea for a book… I feel for these people, even as they’re assuming I’m not bright enough to realize where they’ve gotten stuck.

If a person has never given writing a try, they assume that a brilliant idea is hard to come by. But really, even if it takes some digging, ideas are out there. Just open your eyes and look at the world. Writing the ideas down, it turns out, is the real trick.

Living a life is not the same as writing a book, and it got me thinking about the relationship between what we know and what we can put on paper. For me, it’s like this: I make up a novel in my head. This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling. During the months (or years) it takes me to put my ideas together… I’m figuring things out, and all the while the book makes a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame. This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from teh region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page… What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly assembled. Dead. That’s my book.

…The journey from the head to hand is perilous ad lined with bodies. It is the road on which nearly everyone who wants to write – and many people who do write – get lost… Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words. This is why we type a line or two and then hit the delete button or crumple up the page. Certainly that was not what I meant to say! That does not represent what I see.

It turns out that the distance from head to hand, from wafting butterfly to entomological specimen, is achieved through regular practice. What begins as something like a dream will in fact stay a dream forever unless you have the tools and the discipline to bring it out. Think of the diamonds, or, for that matter the ever-practical coal that must be chipped out of the mine. Had I wound up with a teacher who suggested we keep an ear cocked for the muse instead of hoisting a pick, I don’t think I would have gotten very far.

…I got better at closing the gap between my hand and my head by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages. Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don’t know where exactly, I arrived at the art. I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it…

Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. … it is the key to making art. Every time I have set out to translate the book that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing.

– Ann Patchett, “The Getaway Car

DFW says, perhaps on artspeak

29 Jul

We live today in a world where most of the really important developments in everything from math and physics and astronomy to public policy and psychology and classical music are so extremely abstract and technically complex and context-dependent that it’s next to impossible for the ordinary citizen to feel that they (the developments) have much relevance to her actual life. Where even people in two closely related sub-sub-specialties have a hard time communicating with each other because their respective s-s-s’s require so much special training and knowledge. And so on. Which is one reason why pop-technical writing might have value (beyond just a regular book-market $-value), as part of the larger frontier of clear, lucid, unpatronizing technical communication.

It might be that one of the really significant problems of today’s culture involves finding ways for educated people to talk meaningfully with one another across the divides of radical specialization. And it’s not just the polymer chemist talking to the semiotician, but people with special expertise acquiring the ability to talk meaningfully to us, meaning ordinary schmoes… If you’re like me, you practically drop and hug the ankles of technical specialists like this, when you find them.

As of now, of course, they’re rare. What they have is a particular kind of genius that’s not really part of their specific area of expertise as such areas are usually defined and taught. There’s not really even a good univocal word for this kind of genius — which might be significant. Maybe there should be a word; maybe being able to communicate with people outside one’s area of expertise should be taught, and talked about, and considered as a requirement for genuine expertise… Anyway, that’s the sort of stuff I think your question is nibbling at the edges of, and it’s interesting as hell.

– David Foster Wallace, The Believer

DFW says

28 Jul

…political discourse is now a formulaic matter of preaching to one’s own choir and demonizing the opposition. Everything’s relentlessly black-and-whitened. Since the truth is way, way more gray and complicated than any one ideology can capture, the whole thing seems to me not just stupid but stupefying…

How can any of this possibly help me, the average citizen, deliberate about whom to choose to decide my country’s macroeconomic policy, or how even to conceive for myself what that policy’s outlines should be, or how to balance domestic security concerns with civil liberties? Questions like these are all massively complicated, and much of the complication is not sexy, and well over 90 percent of political commentary now simply abets the uncomplicatedly sexy delusion that one side is Right and Just and the other Wrong and Dangerous. Which is of course a pleasant delusion, in a way—as is the belief that every last person you’re in conflict with is an asshole—but it’s childish, and totally unconducive to hard thought, give and take, compromise, or the ability of grown-ups to function as any kind of community.

My own belief, perhaps starry-eyed, is that since fictionists or literary-type writers are supposed to have some special interest in empathy, in trying to imagine what it’s like to be the other guy, they might have some useful part to play in a political conversation that’s having the problems ours is. Failing that, maybe at least we can help elevate some professional political journalists who are (1) polite, and (2) willing to entertain the possibility that intelligent, well-meaning people can disagree, and (3) able to countenance the fact that some problems are simply beyond the ability of a single ideology to represent accurately.

Implicit in this brief, shrill answer, though, is obviously the idea that at least some political writing should be Platonically disinterested, should rise above the fray, etc.; and in my own present case this is impossible (and so I am a hypocrite, an ideological opponent could say). In doing the McCain piece you mentioned, I saw some stuff about our current president [in 2003], his inner circle, and the primary campaign they ran that prompted certain reactions inside me that make it impossible to rise above the fray. I am, at present, partisan. Worse than that: I feel such deep, visceral antipathy that I can’t seem to think or speak or write in any kind of fair or nuanced way about the current administration.

Writing-wise, I think this kind of interior state is dangerous. It is when one feels most strongly, most personally, that it’s most tempting to speak up. But it’s also when it’s the least productive, or at any rate it seems that way to me — there are plenty of writers and journalists “speaking out” and writing pieces about oligarchy and neofascism and mendacity and appalling short-sightedness in definitions of “national security” and “national interest,” etc., and very few of these writers seem to me to be generating helpful or powerful pieces, or really even being persuasive to anyone who doesn’t already share the writer’s views.

– David Foster Wallace, The Believer

waking up

25 Apr

Someone forwarded me a fascinating article about the impact of being aware of the emotions of others: What It’s Like to ‘Wake Up’ From Autism After Magnetic Stimulation.

“Though he wasn’t diagnosed with autism until he was 40, John Elder Robison felt isolated and disconnected throughout his entire youth and early adulthood. But in 2008, at 50, he took part in what became a three-year research project looking at brain function in individuals with autism spectrum disorders and exploring the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to help them.”

So what exactly happened when you first stated noticing emotional cues?

When I got to work I walked into the waiting room, as I usually do, and I looked at everyone and there was this flood of emotion. I could see it all: They were scared and anxious and eager, and never in my life had I seen something like that. I had to step out of the room because I didn’t know how to cope. It felt like ESP. Maybe in the past I used the logical part of my brain to look at people around me and carefully analyze. I figured out situations using logic. So I had that powerful ability but now the screen of emotion was turned on, too.

So it wasn’t the positive outcome you had hoped for?

I’d fantasized about really understanding other people’s emotional world. I imagined a world of sweetness and light — emotions I’d been missing all my life. But when it happened, the reality showed me what a fool I’d been. Now, I could look at a person and sense all their emotions. And most were downers. Maybe they were upset about whether they could afford to fix their car. Maybe they had kids in college and tuition was choking them. Maybe they were jealous or angry. It was enough to make me burst into tears over ordinary auto service-department conversations. I couldn’t talk and I had to go outside. I must have come across as so very weird.

So, in a way, you feel your autism had protected you from the pain in the world?

Yes. And now, I realized, that protective shield was suddenly lost.

Perhaps non-autistic people are so accustomed to this that we don’t feel the impact like Robison. Or at least I’d always assumed that empathy was a good thing. Seeing it from his perspective puts a new spin on it. Maybe we haven’t quite evolved along with the pace of urbanization and globalization. I’d imagine that if we lived in small towns back in the day, empathy was manageable, but being exposed to news from all over the world, feeds from hundreds of contacts, an endless stream of strangers in dense cities… maybe our brains are a bit behind in being able to properly manage the emotional load.

ASCO

19 Apr


ASCO (wiki)

Julie Nyman

8 Apr

Julie Nyman‘s Shreds of Laughter and Kys

Echolalia

6 Apr