April 2, Dybek, Packer, the value of being present in the moment

Today’s, post is about the value of being present in the moment in fiction.

A short story is really about a moment in time. Usually, an important moment. Well, why else are you going to write a story about it? It’s always about something that is emotionally significant. Sometimes it’s also about something that is also politically or sociologically significant. Either way, this moment has imparted wisdom, an enlightenment, to the person who lived it. If it happened, then in order for it to be fiction, it’ll be embellished or abstracted like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter House Five, where the bombing of Dresden imparted upon him the wisdom of the absurdity or sheer mindless violence of war. The subplot of an alien species watching was most likely a way of putting us in the mind of someone who didn’t know anything about Earth culture or war, so they had to view the war neutrally – nobody’s a good guy or bad guy, just people fighting, killing each other, destroying their painfully crafted works of art all for… reasons.

More often, the fiction is not something that the writer experienced. He or she witnessed something and put him or herself into that person’s shoes. Perhaps it’s a thought experiment, a what-would-happen-if after realizing what a news article really means, or a series of events are pointing to, or perhaps she is creating a kind of parable from a bit of wisdom she wishes to impart to the world (like Sophocles telling the story of people in cave chained up so that they can only look at their shadows). Sometimes something happens, but it’s too complicated, the writer must streamline it, fictionalize it to encapsulate what it means. Turn moments into Moment.

A short story if well crafted enough will communicate that moment of enlightenment to its audience. The audience can sit back and think about what they’ve just read and let the meaning filter into their consciousness. That for me is my favorite part of reading a really well-made piece – the thinking. That point where I have to ask myself, “what did that really mean?” And my mind will jump from detail to detail.

If the story is painfully and carefully crafted, it’ll have many beautiful pleasurable moments within the moment, finely crafted details that give you hints to understanding the greater whole. After all, a story should be like a fractal, where the smaller details echo the larger and fan out into a bigger meaning.

If those smaller details of the story are carefully crafted (as in worded in way that is original, surprising and at the same time specific and honest), it stays with you. It lingers as it should.

I just read Stuart Dybek’s short story Pet Milk (Pet is an old fashioned brand name of condensed milk, original to the East Coast – which most likely has been replaced by national brand Carnation). He talks about nostalgia and how beautiful the small and ephemeral moments are, even if at the time, they seemed so ordinary. The small beautiful details stick out like. “Pet Milk isn’t real milk. The color’s off, to start with. There’s almost something of the past about it, like old ivory.” And he describes the way he’d watch it swirl in his grandmother’s coffee. “[It] would swirl and cloud in the steaming coffee, and noticing, outside her window, the sky doing the same thing above the railroad yard across the street.” He gets more descriptive when it’s used as part of a drink he has on a date with his girlfriend, “the crème de cacao rising like smoke in repeated explosions; blooming in kaleidoscopic clouds through the layer of heavy cream.”

He later describes the meal and then kissing his girlfriend. And he describes her with that same poetic, bittersweet nostalgia, “I caught the reflection of her face in the glass covered [painting] ‘The Street Musicians of Prague’ above our table….The reflections of her beauty startled me. I had told her once….But, this time, seeing her reflection hovering ghostlike upon an imaginary Prague was like seeing a future from which she had vanished. I knew I’d never meet anyone more beautiful to me.”

I also read ZZ Packer’s short Brownies. Another trip down memory lane, but of a different sort. It’s the story of a troop of black girls in Atlanta who come into contact with a troop of white girls. Both are Brownie troops, but one is viewed with envy and the other doesn’t see them at all.

I’d love to go into the political implications, but want to save that for another post. (Because there’s a lot to say, and this story is so good, it deserves it’s own post.) Instead, I want to go into the beautiful details like when little Daphne, the quiet, sensitive girl, decides to clean the bathroom. The rest of the troop watches her:

“We all looked back at the bending girl, the thin of her back hunched like the back of a custodian sweeping a stage, caught in limelight. Stray strands of hair were lit near-transparent, thin fiber-optic threads….She abided, bent.” A portrait of quiet strength that is transformative.

Or one of the den mothers of the troop who is trying to emotionally work through her divorce while watching over the children, “But when Mrs. Hedy began talking about her husband, thinking about her husband, seeing clouds shaped like the head of her husband, she couldn’t be quiet, and no one could dislodge her from the comfort of her own woe.”

But the descriptions of nature are what stick with me the most. “The sun was setting behind the trees, and their leafy tops formed a canopy of black lace for the flame of the sun to pass through.” As if the trees are the walls of these girls’ secret world for them to speak their mind freely. Or when the girls are walking through the darkness of night. “The stars sprinkled the sky like spilled salt. They seemed fastened to the darkness, high up and holy, their places fixed and definite as we stirred beneath them.” I can see the sky filled with sparkling crystals and the girls transfix by it’s beauty. There’s probably a political interpretation of these images as the story is political. (The blackness of the lacy trees, the servitude of the girl, the whiteness of the “salty” sky.) The wonderful part about them is how evocative they are. They appear concretely in the mind and the beauty of their wording stay with you, so you have to keep thinking about them and that is what a good short story aught to do.


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March 25: JG Ballard, Dan Chaon and Donna Leon

It’s been six months of stagnation, so I decided to change the name of the blog…again. It didn’t feel instructive to read books on how to read fiction and rehashing what they had to say (kind of boring actually). I thought that it would be better to make my own observations on the fiction that I’m currently reading.

I usually read more than one at a time. Keeps my ADHD well tuned.

I’m currently reading a mystery book that takes place in Venice (to do some research on the city) Uniform Justice by Donna Leon, the painfully beautiful Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Ed Tarkington, a short story by Andy Duncan and I just started up High-Rise by JG Ballard. I also, had the wonderful opportunity to read the opening chapter of Ill Will by Dan Chaon (thanks NPR.org) and will be obsessing about it until my library hold comes through.

I won’t be commenting on the Tarkington or Duncan today (save those tidbits for later).

But the others I have commentary for. I wanted to start on the theme of Using Small to Get to Big where little details seem to indicate bigger things in the story or in the character’s inner world.

With J.G. Ballard I’m cheating a bit. Starting with the opening line of the opening chapter, but it is a doozy.

“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.” That’s how it opens. Already, you can see that you’ve dived right into the middle of something precarious (and all we needed to indicate this was the word “Later”). He’s eating a dog. We don’t know if he’s eating his own dog (as in “honey, I think the dog needs to be let out”) or a neighbor’s dog. Maybe it’s THE dog who has been a bane to him, his nemesis, this last three months and he finally had it out with a smack down, show down. He showed him who the top dog was. Of course, Ballard, who is known for making social commentary, is making a subtle reference to the old adage “dog eat dog”. Many people often use the adage in the context of the sentence”we’re living in a dog eat dog world.” Already we know what the world of High-Rise is going to be like and all we have is a sentence.

The rest of the page indicates that this is the future where entire cities (banks, schools, shops) are located in giant, unfathomably tall apartment buildings, yet I didn’t read this on the back of the book. Ballard doesn’t mention anything about the future, but the building that he describes doesn’t exist – yet. Its four thousand feet tall and contains things that no single building can possibly contain. It’s definitely beyond what we have now and nothing else like it has existed (certainly not it was published). So, we see into the future without mentioning gadgets or time, just a strange building where everyone must fight to survive.

Ill Will is somewhat the opposite of High Rise. It’s more of a personal story about what a character must learn, not about society, but himself. It reads similar to Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places (though a bit less angry) where the character has survived the slaughter of his family as a child. Many years later, as an adult, he has blotted out, or the very least, blunted the memory of the event to keep himself going. And then the body of a young man surfaces in the river and memories start to surface.

The opening chapter is too soon for this character who has worked hard to put as much distance as he can between him and “the event” for him to remember those horrors, so nothing graphic is described, yet there is a subtle darkness to the few ineffectual memories that surface whether he likes it or not.

There’s a wonderful detail that stuck out in my mind. The main character is thinking back to the night that his parents were to be murdered, just hours before it happened: “And Kate reached down and without thinking scratched a bug bite on her bare ankle and Dustin was looking surreptitiously, the way her fingernail made a white mark on the reddish tanned skin, the fingernail which had some polish on it that was flaking off.”

There’s something about the rawness of this, scratching a bug bite, scraping a white mark into reddish skin (red the color of blood), and the polish that is flaking off. All details of little, vicious imperfections where something is being destroyed – just a little bit. It feels like foreshadowing. It’s something innocuous that feels a bit off, a bit disgusting and horrible. It feels like the before time: the silence that signals the storm. Perhaps it only feels less innocent, because we already know what’s going to follow. Maybe that’s how memory works. This is probably also a signal to us, the reader, that this is going to be a story about faulty memories.

Donna Leon’s Uniform Justice is a little less interior in scope, a bit less symbolic in prose, but it is commercial mystery fiction, so it’s intention is different. It’s well written, but just a bit more plain. The action on the page is the story itself and subtext is minimal, but that isn’t to say that it is non-existent.

There are some wonderful interior moments, mostly experienced by the lead detective, Brunetti. The one I’m most fond of is his reflection on his stint in the armed services (apparently required of all young Italian men). After his wife complains what vipers soldiers are, he has a different point of view (if a guilty reflection).

“Brunetti had, in his youth, done eighteen months of undistinguished military service, most of it spent hiking in the mountains with his fellow Alpini. His memories, and he admitted that they had acquired the golden patina of age, were chiefly of a sense of unity and belonging entirely different from those his family had given him. As he cast his mind back, the image that came through with greatest clarity was of a dinner of cheese, bread and salami, eaten in company with four other boys in a freezing mountain hut in Alto Adige, after which they had drunk two bottles of grappa and sung marching songs. He had never told Paola about this evening, not because he was ashamed of how drunk they had all got, but because the memory could still fill him with such simple joy.”

This small moment of remembered happiness in the armed services is contrasted by the rest of the soldiers throughout the book who act as bullies and authoritarians in an elite club that sneers at the Public and complain of persecution when they are caught doing something hideous. The opening quote of the novel is: “You expect fidelity in men, in soldiers?” Perhaps his interior memory is to show that what appear simple from the inside is actually quite complex when viewed objectively. Perhaps to the soldiers their rules and their strict hierarchies make sense to them, but only them. This might be why they treat outsiders so unkindly, because they can’t follow their rules. Maybe they haven’t been made to see that the world outside is much more subtle and complex than their interior rules. I don’t know. I haven’t finished the book yet. I’ll let you know.

Anyhow, this gives a nice illustration of how a small detail can illustrate a larger theme or story structure (or character detail). Every book has this, it always sticks out as this small lovely detail that paints a vivid picture and sticks with you throughout the book and beyond.

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Show don’t tell (well, sometime tell)

If you’ve taken up fiction writing as a hobby it is best to become familiar with the common piece of advice to show don’t tell. What does it mean to show don’t tell. On the outside it seems so simple. Show what’s going on, don’t tell it, but if your art is writing how do you not tell it? After all, don’t you tell a story? Isn’t writing meant to convey an action by telling it? When you write what has happened, aren’t you telling?

In my mind, show don’t tell is what separates fiction from non-fiction. A newspaper will tell you what happened. Joe Smith got robbed by a masked man on West 57th Street. And technical manuals will be even more specific. In order to build this bookshelf follow these instructions. Step 1: insert peg A in to hole A. (Oh my, what an A hole!)

But if that was all there was to fiction, it would be a pretty boring book and the point of telling a story is multifarious, but it is not to direct you how to build a bookshelf, or to report an incident.

So what does it mean, show don’t tell? The College Handbook of Creative Writing gives a good explanation. “The grammar-school game of ‘Show and Tell’ is often used to clarify the distinction. There is a big difference between being told by a child that he found a dead rat and having him actually produce the ugly corpse from a brown paper bag.” Imagine the shock you’d feel at seeing the grizzled bit of matted fur stuck onto guts, the tongue jutted out of teeth, the limbs stiff from rigor mortis splayed out ready to scratch and the smell of rotting meat. This would be a more vivid experience.

So consider a few examples. In David Mitchell’s Bone Clocks one of the characters, Miss Constanin is described by an admiring girl as, “young and beautiful in a cold way, like an actress who can’t be touched; she’s got white-blond hair and bone-pale skin, rich rose-red lips and a midnight blue ball gown like a woman from a story.” This is much more effective than simply telling the audience, “This woman is other worldly.” A lustful young man describes her in this passage: “The hairs on my neck prickle, as if blown on. By her, for example, sitting across the aisle…Her eyes  are closed to drink in the music so I drink her in. Late thirties…vanilla hair, creamy-skinned, beaujolaid lips, cheekbones you’d slice your thumb on. Slim beneath a midnight-blue winter coat. A defected Russian opera singer, waiting to meet her handler.” You can almost see her and feel how vivid his attraction is to her in the description. Much more effective than saying, “Wow, look at that hot chick.”

So how d you decide between the mostly preferred show and the mostly advised against tell? The best thing to remember when deciding is that fiction is an experience akin to an amusement ride. Do you want to go on the ride, or be told about it? And this is the consideration if you’re writing fiction purely for entertainment purposes, but what if you are writing for political reasons? What is more powerful? Telling you audience from an objective distance what your characters are suffering or having the audience walk a mile in the suffering character’s shoes? Feeling their feelings, experiencing their pain. The same applies if you are writing for purely artistic reasons. What is ore powerful? The description of a sunset – or how it feels, sounds, how it moves you and what emotional landscape does it take you to.

Consider this passage: “A yellow bus drives across a traffic bridge over a river of boats.” Now, consider this: “An omnibus across the bridge/Crawls like a yellow butterfly,/And, here and there, a passer-by/Shows like a little restless midge./Big barges full of yellow hay/Are moored against the shadowy wharf,/Thick fog hangs along the quay./The yellow leaves begin to fade/And flutter from the Temple elms,/And at my feet the pale green Thames/ Lies like a rod of rippled jade.” (Symphony in Yellow by Oscar Wilde.)

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Writer as Carpenter – how writing is a craft

I’m increasingly annoyed by creative writing teachers who talk about “exploring your creativity” as the sole act of fiction writing. Sometimes they talk about teaching creativity as if that was something that could be taught. Everyone is creative; everyone makes things; everyone daydreams and night dreams and thinks fantastical thoughts. Men who scoff at “little superstitious women” will swear that wearing his lucky (smelly) football jersey helped his team win that week’s game. A creative excuse from a creative mind.

But to say that fiction writing is all art (as if the speaker had an understanding of what art really was) and that all that is needed is creativity is to be entirely ignorant of what fiction really is. There are many viewpoints of what great art is, many schools of art, but I think I agree the best with what my friend Tim once said to me, “I subscribe to the notion that art is as its terminology suggests: artifice. Taking something from nature and improving on it.” He said that that was the view of the ancient Greeks who took the figure of the owl and constructed a golden owl. And, yes, nature is beautiful, but either way Art is construction (and, yes, there’s more to it than that). The more well constructed, the more beautifully designed, the better the story. Beauty comes from symmetry and patterns. When we listen to a piece of music we listen for the repetition of the patterns and the various ways that the patterns are constructed, repeated, re-constructed (breaking with the pattern) and re-woven into the piece. But only the master composer knows how to do this with balance and flair; how to make the piece feel like one seamless whole (no parts feel bulky or thin). It takes a long time of working with the music to learn how to construct it in that way.

So does the author with the story.

So too does the carpenter with his woodwork. I liken fiction writing to carpentry all of the time. The ideas of story construction are too ethereal for the beginner to understand in any helpful way (you have to have worked with it a long time in order to discuss it in any meaningful way), but wood and furniture is something that we’ve all been exposed to since we were little. It has the added advantage of being tactile, something we’ve experienced in three dimensions, so it gives a concrete example.

When the beginning writer starts out, she thinks that all she needs to do is tell the story that is in her head, start from the beginning and move to the end, just as the novice to carpentry thinks, “all I have to do to make a table is get four pieces of wood and nail a slab on top of it.” This rarely turns out to be the case (if ever). The novice ends up with this ugly, misshapen thing filled with splinters. It’s wobbly and often falls apart with the first set of dishes placed on top of it. It doesn’t serve its purpose and usually gets hacked apart later for firewood. The secret to creating a magnificent (or at the very least functional) table, the novice learns, is knowledge. The novice must gain the skills of the craft. She must read books, take classes, acquire the right tools, but more than that she must practice, practice, practice. She must learn the traditional methods for table making, find the tools to construct the table and learn the proper technique for using them.

After a while, many readings, many classes, many hundreds of dollars, the novice is still not much better unless she has practiced and failed several times. Then after her twentieth attempt (and many long hours practicing dovetails, hinges, sanding and varnishing), she stands back and to her amazement she has a table. It might still wobble a bit and still look a bit amateur – nothing you’d find in an Ethan Allen catalogue – but it is a sturdy and useable table.

The writer will also follow this pattern of writing a story and winding up with pages of meandering and uninspiring prose, then read about how to construct realistic characters, a vivid realistic world, how to put together a clever, surprising (but not upsetting) plot, how to select out the right words and language and point of view. After years of readings, classes and practice, the writer will have a good sturdy story, but not a great one. If the writer is intent on creating something durable that will be read and re-read beyond the writer’s lifetime (read by anyone beyond her friends and family), then she must go the extra step.

Back to the table. If the woodworker feels strongly after all that time, money and work, she ought to have something beautiful to show, not simply functional, but something that can be put in the dining room and shown off. “See, I made that.” Perhaps even something that can be shown to the world at large. The woodworker learn to recognize what a well-constructed and beautifully designed table looks like (really looks like). To accomplish this she must read more, work with better, more expert woodworkers. There are more secrets to learn, there is a difference between the craft table that can be used in the child’s playroom and the table that can be put in the center of the dining room, and be passed down as an heirloom. The woodworker must delve into the more advanced ideas of furniture construction and design, learn the history of it, learn the variety of techniques that can be applied (and there are so many!). But most of all the woodworker must practice, practice, practice. And often fail, fail, fail.

If the writer wants to be a great writer, say, have a career, the writer too must learn the advanced techniques (must gain skills), work with those who are expert, learn how to construct the patterns, how to invert them, how to weave them back into the overall piece just like a beautiful symphony. This goes beyond word selection to selecting out patterns where to repeat and where to create symmetry. The master writer will give a repetition of patterns and which or repeated, re-constructed (breaking with the pattern) and re-woven into the piece. She will learn the art of when to be simple and when to be complex, finding the right balance (no parts feel too bulky or too thin) making it appear to be one seamless whole. This too takes practice, practice, practice and failure, failure, failure.

And once you’ve created that durable piece that will last beyond your lifetime (if you are able, not all woodworkers can) you can secretly laugh at the people who reagale you with praise at how creative you are. After all, that’s all it took, right?

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August 22nd The Writer as Explorer

Writing is observing. Writing is dreaming, but it’s also searching. I feel that the best writers are explorers of a different sea, the vast sea of the subconscious, searching out a different sort of truth.

“When the writing is really working, I think there is something like dreaming going on,” wrote John Hersey. John Irving wrote “I feel the story I am writing existed before I existed; I’m just the slob who finds it, and rather clumsily tries to do it, and the characters justice… it is entirely ghostly work; I’m just the medium.”

In the College Handbook of Creative Writing’s (Robert DeMaria) introduction the editor writes that the best writers “see themselves as ‘witnesses’.” They “feel that writing is drawn from the deep well of the unconscious mind. In short, the attribute to writing…the highest kind of importance: the creation of beauty and the discovery of truth.”

I always thought that the advice to the young writer to “write what you know” was misleading. It tells you to basically stop searching, stop exploring, when as a writer you should precisely be doing just that. How can you find your truth if you only confine yourself to what you know.

But what sort of truth are we talking about here? To go on a search without a goal seems akin to taking to the High Seas without a map or any sort of direction – to be lost forever in the maelstrom. Amy Tan says that when she writes it’s an act of faith in the hope that she “will discover what [she] mean[s] by the truth.” But she does have a direction, “I also think of reading as an act of faith a hope that I will discover something remarkable about ordinary life, about myself. And if the writer and the reader discover the same thing, if they have that connection, the act of faith has result in an act of magic. To me, that’s the mystery and the wonder of both life and fiction – the connection between two individuals who discover in the end that they are more the same than they are different.” There is truth in connection.

Many writers state that they don’t see writing as an act of pulling something out of the air or building things that never before existed, but rather an act of uncovering something that was always there, an adventure of discovery. When the European explorers first took to the oceans, they saw things that they couldn’t explain. They used tall tales to give their discoveries form: sea monsters and cannibals and magical man eating plants, but not what was actually there. Still they found that the world was filled with wonders that were far beyond what their small hometowns could provide. They were changed by this, they knew that there was always more to know. Some described their discoveries the same way that scientists describe their discoveries – that answers often only lead to more questions, and the world is far more complex than we could have ever imagined.

But those who state that science is the only medium to discover the truth are limiting human discovery. Surely, there can more to the human experience than simply logic, observation and measurement. There are those who argue that there is nothing more to us than a handful of chemicals and electrical impulses, that we are no different than a goldfish, a fruit fly or an amoeba. But gold fish don’t build cathedrals, or symphonies. They don’t paint portraits or speak seven different languages, do calculus. They don’t make rocket ships and fly to the moon, or plastic, or cell phones, or baked Alaska, or Xboxes. They can’t imagine what other gold fish are thinking or feeling. They can only know that they are scared, but don’t know that other gold fish are as well.

There is another way to understand, to discover a deeper truth.

I remember that I was working in a Montessori classroom with an autistic child. I was not qualified for this work, but the Montessori way did not differentiate children with different needs from those of normal development. I was told to just sit and read with the child for a certain number of minutes. Read to him and he’ll remember the words. I knew that this was hard work for him, because it didn’t take long to lose focus. I knew that one of the problems with autism, having read an article about it, was that all of the synapses  will fire off at once and the autistic person will sink into confusion. The child I worked with began goofing off and then stood up, walked to the middle of the room and started spinning. I couldn’t allow him to do this, because it was distracting to the other children, so I guided him back to his chair and told him that, no, we needed to read. Still, a sentence went by and he was back into the middle of the room. I was frustrated, but the more I watched him the more I thought about this documentary I’d seen about Turkey and the whirling dervishes. “They twirl to lose their sense, to connect with god,” said the documentary. This is when I realized, the child was trying to disconnect from his rapidly firing synapses. I knew that I needed to re-focus him, so I went up to him and rubbed his back, focus him on that sensation and to calm him. He stopped, froze for a bit, then walked back to the reading cubby and picked up the book where he’d left off.

That realization was not careful observation, measurement and re-measurement, it was a leap of imagination, of intuition. Was it not Albert Einstein who said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited, imagination encompasses the entire universe.”

Science is limited. If it cannot be measured, it cannot be explored. Scientist can never define Absolute Zero, never truly measure the entire universe, never tell you when exactly Schrödinger’s cat dies. It can never find out what happened to D.B. Cooper or Amelia Earhart, but the imagination can sufficiently fill in the gaps where science cannot. Science uses the five senses and machines to measure the world, but fiction writer explores it by watching, listening, smelling, tasting, but also intuits it. She delves in to the complex labyrinth of the human emotional, thinking and feeling mind. She explores the inner impulses of humanity and the battle of minds, the battle of the ego versus the id. This dimension is one that cannot be measured or monitored, it simply must be understood. Perhaps that too is an act of faith. But we are complex creatures and saying that the only way to understand us is to simply measure us is to sell us short in all our marvels. And to sell the world itself short – there’s more out there than you can possibly know just leave the world you know – either through travel or a good book – and you’ll see.

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Zen and The Art of the (Im)perfect Story

How do I make my story just right? That’s a question I get often as often as I ask it myself. I hear that as much as I hear, “How will I know when I’m done?” This is a particularly irksome aspect of making art (or writing literature – or making sculpture – or painting a portrait, etc…).

My mother would paint barns when I was a child. No, she didn’t put a coating of Sherwin Williams on the sides of an outdoor building (but she also did do that). She painted pictures of dusty, old, dilapidated barns, places I’d often stare at and dream of hiding in while reading a good book to while away the summer hours. She loved to depict outdoor scenes, but there was one with a picture of the Hunt – horse riders in their black hard hats, high leather boots and fancy, red coats as they followed their hounds through the fields. It’s an energetic picture where the hounds are racing and all four of the horses are jumping a rather high wooden fence, but two of the horses at the center of the piece are missing their back legs. I often shudder at the result when the horses land. I ask my mother when she will finish the painting. She sighs and says, “Oh, some day when the feeling strikes.” It’s been thirty years now, perhaps I shall buy her some oil paints this Christmas and task her with a New Year’s Eve resolution. The trouble with this is that she had explained that when was working on the piece and she had gotten to this point in the painting process, she felt that she could go no further. Oddly, the rest of the painting is finished with all of its details just horses have no back legs.

She spoke to me on the subject of painting. She told me that when other people view your work, they see it as a whole piece and regard it either with wonder or disgust, but never see its components. But when you, the artist, view your work, all you can see is its little flaws. She told me that she never really knew when exactly she was done. “I could tinker with it all day, go on and on, adding details here and painting over them there.” At a certain point, she admitted that she could go on too far and spoil the painting – and doing so without knowing it. “After a while, you simply give up,” she told me. “You just stand back and say, ‘okay, that’s enough.'”

But where is that point? How can we know? There is a zen to knowing when to stop. Perhaps it’s akin to the process described in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. You simply have to do it enough to know when to stop. Unfortunately, you have to do end the process at the right point every time in order to develop this instinct, but you have to know when to stop in order to know where that point is, an unfortunate Catch-22.

For this  I don’t have any satisfying answers. I suppose you could go off of the reactions of others provided you don’t have friends with bad taste or friends who lovingly only give you positive support. An example of this is Florence Foster Jenkins who was one of history’s most famous bad opera singers who was constantly told by friends how wonderful her singing was. She even made recordings and gave bad public performances. It must have been a shock when the reviewer from the New York Times gave her a mocking review.

But even the review of others, no matter their expertise, is still coming from a matter of opinion and taste which you might not share (it’s very rarely the case). And it could be that your work is, in fact, terrible or just that the person reviewing it simply doesn’t understand what you are presenting. So other’s opinions are only limited in their usefulness.

You could base it off of your own judgement in comparison to the work of those artists you love, but that would be unfair – they already have years more experience and their work is unique to their character as yours is to you.

So, surely, there must be some sort of ultimate litmus test. To this I only answer with a story. This is a story I often tell fellow writers. It’s a zen story and I never tell it the same way twice (how zen of me) and, to be honest, I’m not even certain that this is the original story (perhaps someone will write in and correct me – how very un-zen-like of them).

The story is of an aging zen monk, a zen master, who met a gardener. The gardener was an admirer of the monk, he wanted to learn the ways zen from the monk and become a master himself. He offered to help the master with his garden in exchange for lessons. The master obliged him, especially seeing as he was getting on in years and was having a hard time keeping up any ways. So, the gardener went to work and did his best work, getting the garden as neat and orderly as possible. When he finished, he felt he’d done more than any other job he’d worked on. He showed it to the monk who only stood and frowned. “What’s the matter?” asked the concerned gardener. But monk could not figure out what it was and could only respond, “It’s not quite right.” The down-hearted gardener sulked, until inspiration struck and he ran up to the cherry blossom tree and shook it until the blossoms spread messily down the side of the little hill. The monk stood back and smiled, “Yes, there, that’s perfect.”

To me, the moral of the story is obvious. A story should be as neat and orderly as possible, but in order to be perfect be a little messy. So perhaps my mother’s instincts were right and the horses should never have back legs added. Perhaps because a human being is not a perfect thing, but messy and with flaws no matter how neat and orderly that person tries to be, perhaps also because art should be a reflection of life, that a story should not fit all together neatly in a perfect framework (perhaps, shudder! some of the facts are wrong, not that!) and that is the best way to get the most perfect piece. So, stop when you feel you need to stop, stand back or put it in a drawer for a month and look it over and get a feel for what really affects you and what leaves you cold. Perhaps you’ll know that you’re done when you can stand back and say, “Yes, that’s enough.”

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July 3 Word Power: How word choice can not only be powerful, but political: Comments on the evolution of revolution from Black Panthers to Black Lives Matters and the true meaning of Urban

Word Choice. What does it mean? It’s a subject that, as far as fiction writing is concerned, could fill up an entire book. Certainly, in the larger sense Word Choice is, and I quote the College Handbook of Creative Writing: “[finding the right] sound of the words, the shades of meaning, and the images the words evoke.” The book goes on to say, “Some writers and critics have even gone so far to insist that finding the precise word (le mot juste) is what good writing is all about.” Certainly it’s what make a piece powerful when it can say exactly what it means.

The literal, or the dictionary definition, is also important. What does the word actually mean. Backing your words up with a dictionary gives them power and power gives the writer command of her commentary. “I can back up what I’m saying,” she tells us, “and here’s the authority to prove it.” Your word choice tells as much of a story as the words you string together – as much as your sentences, your paragraphs, pages and chapters tells us, as much as your book entire.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. says, “I have a dream.” That is very powerful. “I have” means that he owns it, it’s mine. “Dream” is this big vision that he will now illustrate for you; he will make the nebulous vision clear. So, what does it mean when Langston Hughes writes of a “Dream Deferred”? Could he be hooking into Dr. King’s epic speech? Could be giving a subtle critique of it? Or perhaps the society that says they like Dr. King’s speech, but aren’t really going to do anything about it?

What does it mean to take Word Choice one step further and not simply think about the sound of the word, the shade of meaning or the images evoked, but what power structure they imply? How does one politicize one’s word choice? The words chosen are done so to evoke not just an image, but an emotional response to get the audience engaged, perhaps even influenced. Sometimes the wrong way.

I remember watching Spike Lee’s movie Malcom X, the scene where Malcom reads the definition of the word “black” in the dictionary. All of the connotations where negative. Darkness, evil, impure. The character screamed in rage. He hated that society had made him into that dictionary definition, one he knew that he did not fit. I wondered if this was the reason that the Black Panthers, and the African American community of the 1960s and 70s, had adopted the slogan, “Black is beautiful.” Taking the dictionary definition and turning it on its head. Instead of white being fair and lovely, “she walks in beauty like the night.” I don’t know if it changed society’s mind about the African American community, but it did empower it. The slogan was a way to take back the word “black” and make it something more complex than just a cowboy hat that a movie villain wears. Black also can be beautiful, sacred, complex, and beloved. Black was not simple black was a complex of many things few of which the greater whole understood.

Many other words have been reclaimed. Women have reclaimed the word “bitch” to mean someone who is strong and independent who won’t be nice – won’t be your doormat. Gay men have worked to reclaim the word “queer” as a source of pride (as in it’s okay to be different, “we’re queer, we’re here”) instead a hated outsider and the black community the N word (no I won’t write it, I’m white) as a word of brotherhood and solidarity.

Even today words have political power. People tweeting “Black Lives Matter” turned into a political movement. And candidate Hilary Clinton got into a lot of trouble when she changed those words – a feeling among the activists in the community that a powerful white person was trying to change the movement with her verbal misstep. Some of her supporters claimed that she was just being an idiot, she was trying to show that she felt that all minority movements deserve a shout out, but absconding with the words of the movement was the wrong way to do it – she should have known better. The activists worked hard to give those words meaning, motion and power, they weren’t about to let anyone take that away.

I had published a poem on this blog called “The White Man Pressed the Locks” about a white couple parked in a car in a black neighborhood who pressed down their locks as the author of the poem wandered by. They’d done this without knowing who he was. They couldn’t trust what he really was: a well-to-do man, a professional man, a family man with a successful career. All they read on his face was black man – danger!

In his poem, he speaks of the body of the city. Of corpuscles and arms and varicose veins. Words that represent the body. We see a body and we read what we want to, not what that body contains – not the true spirit of the person. We lock out that person, we don’t reach out and try to get to know who that person actually is. We keep each other apart. I have the white part of the city, you have the black.

I complained in my post that the word “urban” meaning “city-like” was code for black, but that isn’t what the city really is. That urban conjures up the image of something dirty, unkempt, pitiful, unruly and crime ridden. I live in the city, I love it here and that connotation is not what it is. Those things are there, but that only scratches the surface of what the city really is. A city is a vibrant and colorful entity with every sort of person, every sort of experience, with all the bad and all the good squished up together in a joyful chaos of life. Perhaps it’s actually a more hopeful place to be, a place to express yourself more freely, more truthfully. Unlike the suburbs where it’s cold and polite, where nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors. Where emotions are reserved and you aren’t very free to be who you really are. Don’t stand out in the suburbs or the Home Owner’s Association will kick you out.

Perhaps “urban” should be code for multi-cultural, free to express yourself, free to be as large or small as you want to be, free to be complex and interesting. Let’s reclaim that word and let’s use words to empower ourselves and to build a kinder, more just world. We have them within our command, these powerful tools that are democratic and can be used for good.

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