Not the Post You Are Looking For

First: welcome to May, may it be warm and lovely and enticing towards things to come. Second: Robot Chicken Star Wars Special. Oh hells yes.

I’ve been working a fair bit, including overtime (which is ironic in that they made a point of explaining how that NEVER happens during the orientation not a week before), working on “things.” I took a few days off earlier in the week to take some classes they were offering on project management — seemed to make a lot of sense naturally to me, so I’ll take that as a good sign. I was sure to thank my employee rep the next time I saw her. After that, it was back to work, wrapping up the project we’d been working on all last week (I’m working this weekend, but I’m not sure on what yet… the project from before is now “done” for the time being).

I haven’t really been doing much with my time other than work, though. While it’s only an 8 hour shift, with commute and waiting for the shift to start, it usually ends up being closer to a 12 hour day. This isnt horrible, but it has been taking a while to adjust and make better use of the ~4 hours I have left before heading to sleep. I’m definitely thinking about doing less with the screen and more with the reading. (This is my first time in Zoka in over a week, simply because while I’m thinking that heading there after work sounds like a great idea when I get off shift, by the time I deal with 520 traffic, I just end up going home and not going out again. Good for the wallet, but is making me feel like a bit of a shut-in.)

My creative and social energy has always had a bit of an ebb and flow to it, so part of it I suppose is just that I’m in something of an ebb right now. The goal, of course, is to make the ebbs as short and minimal as possible, and encourage the flow, the upswelling of energy, to go as high and last as long as possible. I think it speaks well that I’ve still managed to write at least a little on most days, whether during lunch, or waiting for work or class to start. None of it has been something to post, simply a page at a time in my personal, physical journal, but it’s still something.

At work, I sit around and talk with a bunch of geeks about geeky things, and even then, I feel like something of an outsider, and always in the back of my head, I wonder if to them, I’m one of the “annoying hangers on.” You know the ones I’m talking about — they’re basically ignored by the group, but keep on trying to interject, and end up just sort of talking to themselves and laughing nervously and too loud whenever someone says something remotely, possibly amusing. I know what you’re thinking: wouldn’t you KNOW if you’re one of those? You’d think, but I don’t think anyone ever intends to be that way, so maybe you don’t realize it when you’re doing it? (And yes, I know it’s probably all in my head. It’s just part and parcel of getting to know new people.) I feel like I’ve been talking too much and too quickly, but can’t seem to stop myself or slow myself down: all the time alone over the past several months has left me a torrent of words when I’m finally able to break the seal (for better or worse). Definitely some interesting people, at least. I don’t know whether any lasting friendships will come out of it (since the job doesn’t actually pay enough to cover my monthly bills, I sort of need to move on sooner than later, and have been working with my employee rep about doing so), but it would certainly be nice. There’s a certain point where eating alone all the time gets old, and I passed that a while ago.

Annotation: Steering the Craft

Despite being the first book I started reading this month, Steering the Craft was the last that I finished. This is not to speak ill of it, mind you, as it is an excellent book on writing, written with candor, honesty, and expertise. Nor is it long. It IS, however, chock full of exercises of varying length and difficulty, and in trying to do at least some of them, it took longer to complete than I had expected. I’m glad I took the time, however, and I hope to return to the exercises I did not complete in the near future. Ursula LeGuin is easily one of the best science fiction authors in the history of the genre. If science fiction authors were a royal court, she would not just be a dame or duchess — she would be the Queen. And justifiably so. He writing is eloquent and remarkable, and her knowledge of the genre and field of writing in general is awe inspiring. I hope very much to meet her at some point, given that she lives a mere two hours south of me, in Portland, Oregon.

One of the interesting aspects of Steering the Craft is that it is actually a how to book, a book about writing, unlike most of the other writing books I’ve read thus far, which really amount to writer’s memoirs. To top that off, the book is done well, unlike so many other books of its type. It includes a glossary of terms, and an appendix of tips and advice on handling common issues like the lie/lay/lay debacle (it is not simply a matter of laying something down and lying down, there is also the intransitive verb that requires an indirect object, with its own set of rules), and the use of tense. The chapters themselves are insightful, and handle the more substantial aspects of writing well (tense, point of view, rhythm, sentence structure). She does away with many of the more stolid (read: stupid) rules from grammar school, and explains the ones she chooses to keep. Basically, what it comes down to is that any rule can be broken, but if it is broken, it should be broken well, and for a reason.

The book can be used in a variety of ways. Each chapter can stand alone rather well, and can be referenced fairly quickly as a desktop companion. Additionally, it can be used as a textbook for a peer writing group (and one of the appendixes is how to find or start such a group), or simply slogged through individually (what I ended up doing). Because each chapter stands alone, it can be done at whatever pacing necessary, though she recommends trying to spend at least a few days to a week on each chapter. Something else that I find particularly encouraging is that she includes her mailing address, and encourages readers to contact her with opinions on the text, how we found it useful, what could be improved, et cetera. Given her list of achievements, talent, and respect within the field, she could very easily have handed this book down from “on high.” I respect her a great deal for choosing not to do so.

Some parts of the book were more useful to me than others. I already have a fairly strong grasp over point of view, and while I occasionally absent-mindedly slip, a good grasp of tense as well. That said, it was vindicating to hear someone I respect as much as LeGuin declare that there is nothing wrong with using some of the more esoteric tenses (future perfect and past perfect, for instance), if you understand how to use them (which I do — four years of Latin does have SOME uses), and that largely the current avoidance of them stems from many mainstream authors and journalists NOT understanding how to use them properly. Her comments on the use of passive voice was also insightful and directly relevant: I am notorious for using qualifiers and passive voice in my writing, which makes the writing instantly less personal than it otherwise would be. It also makes it seem more “scholarly”, which is where I picked up that particular rut. It’s a vicious circle: we spend 95% of our academic career learning how to write things in an “academic” manner, which then permeates the media through graduates entering the workforce, which spreads it to the rest of the world… leaving so much of the population’s writing dense and impersonal, lacking the ability to truly COMMUNICATE.

A chapter that I found particularly useful for my own writing and myself is the first chapter, “The Sound of Your Writing”. It’s not just a matter of the rhythm, but also a matter of the sounds each word makes, in your mind and out loud. Using strong words, onomatopoeia, alliteration, rhyming, the flavor of what you’re talking about can convey a different effect. Something else I noticed about it, however, is that the nature of the exercise encourages word association, which can lead your story in unexpected directions. Word association is like a backdoor, getting you past that guard-dog we call our self-censor, and can let you be honest in ways that might not have otherwise gotten out. When I did the exercise for chapter one, what had started out as a silly little exercise ended up being a somewhat angst-ridden prose poem, which led me to discover that I still have a lot of angst in me, for better or worse. It made me realize that maybe I’m not handling my depression as well as I thought, because it became clear that I wasn’t DEALING with any of it, just burying it. Now I’m actually trying to take a more proactive stance in dealing with my depression.

Another chapter I really enjoyed was chapter nine, “Indirect Narration, or What Tells”, mainly because it’s a weak point for me. I’ve spent so much of my writing life outlining or creating character sheets and histories and not actually TELLING THE STORY, that I really found the information in the chapter really useful. It discusses ways to work in personality and history (both of the characters and the world) directly into dialogue and narrative, without creating “expository lumps”. I’ve always found my dialogue to be somewhat flat or weak in my writing, and this chapter made me realize that what I need to work on is weaving history into the dialogue. This will smooth out the story, and add a great deal of depth to the dialogue. I’m still not very good at it, but at least I’ve realized a method of improvement and can work on it more. (This is far more useful advice than what Stephen King said about dialogue, namely, you either have an ear for it or you don’t, and no amount of practice will change that.)

This is a remarkable book, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in writing. In particular, I’d recommend it to writing workshops and teachers (in fact, I’m going to email my high school creative writing teacher and suggest it), as so many of the exercises in it are perfect for a workshop environment (LeGuin even marks the ones she feels are particularly suited for workshops). I’m greatly looking forward to returning to the book as the semester goes on, to visit and revisit some of the exercises within it. Like any other artistic endeavor, art is not just a matter of creativity, it is also very much a craft. I’m looking forward to refining mine.

LeGuin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft. Portland: Eighth Mountain Press, 1998.

Annotation: Zen in the Art of Writing

Zen in the Art of Writing is not precisely a book about writing. Rather, it is a book about being passionate about what you do. While there are tips and tricks to writing and writing well, it is rather superfluous to the overall value of the book. In my eyes, where the book is most valuable is in encouraging you to be passionate. We have emotions, and yet so much of our academic lives are spent subjugating those emotions in a misguided attempt at objectivity. It is like a breath of fresh air to not only be told it’s okay to get angry or excited, but to be encouraged to do so.

The book is broken up into several essays, written over several years for various other reasons, collected into one book. As such, there is a bit of repetition in his subject matter (he comments on several of his stories several times through several different essays, often saying almost exactly the same thing), which can largely be forgiven. It really only irks when the points of repetition essentially boil down to some personal horn tooting on the case of the author (which kind of jives with what I’ve heard about Ray, namely that he is a very nice person but not all that modest about his talents). None of the repetition really harms the core of any of the essays, so no harm done, I suppose.

I thought about responding to each of the essays, but decided it would be more fun and rewarding to point out the parts that really struck me. In the essay “On the Shoulders of Giants”, Bradbury talks about the Science Fiction Explosion:

[…]and placed a gentle bomb on teacher’s desk. Instead of an apple it was Asimov.
“What’s that?” the teacher asked, suspiciously.
“Try it. It’s good for you,” said the students.
“No thanks.”
“Try it,” said the students. “Read the first page. If you don’t like it, stop.” And the clever students turned and went away.
The teachers (and the librarians, later) put off reading, kept the book around the house for a few weeks and then, late one night, tried the first paragraph.
And the bomb exploded.
They not only read the first but the second paragraph, the second and third pages, the fourth and fifth chapters.
“My God!” they cried, almost in unison, “these damned books are about something!”
“Good Lord!” they cried, reading a second book, “there are Ideas here!”
“Holy Smoke!” they babbled, on their way through Clarke, heading into Heinlein, emerging from Sturgeon, “these books are — ugly word — relevant!”
“Yes!” shouted the chorus of kids starving in the yard. “Oh my, yes!”
And the teachers began to teach, and discovered an amazing thing:
Students who had never wanted to read before suddenly were galvanized, pulled up their socks, and began to read and quote Ursula LeGuin. Kids who had never read so much as one pirate’s obituary in their lives were suddenly turning pages with their tongues, ravening for more. (Bradbury 102-103)

This piece right here is precisely what I’m talking about when I say that Bradbury’s writing is passionate and bordering poetic. It also strikes a very strong chord with me, on many levels. For one thing, I was one of those kids growing up, but in a later wave with a different fight on their hands. I had the side of the teachers now, and instead I was up against the other students, trying to convince them to just try it, and if they didn’t like it, they could throw the book in my face. I can count the number who actually took me up on my suggestions on one hand. A different but related chord is that the essay explains and encapsulates my feelings about science fiction so well. Science Fiction in so many ways should have stuck with an earlier moniker: Speculative Fiction. The genre is filled with ideas and notions and questions and ideals, some of which become reality, but that’s really superfluous to the nature of the genre. It’s the IDEAS that are important. And, for me at least, it is the challenge of Humanity.

The next most striking and invaluable essay for me was the title essay: “Zen in the Art of Writing”. It is one of his more straightforward essays, dealing with a (somewhat) more technical part of writing, namely how to do it. The entire essay can be summed up in one line: “WORK – RELAXATION – DON’T THINK – FURTHER RELAXATION” (Bradbury 144). The rest of the essay just explains that statement. What it comes down to is this: writing is WORK, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. There is craft in addition to art, and that is the structure of writing, and the act of writing itself. That said, if you are stressed out, your work will be stressed as well — it will not flow, and it will not be nearly as honest as you likely want. Likewise, if you let yourself think about what you are writing, you censor yourself: get it OUT THERE, you can always censor it later — chances are, once it’s out, you’ll be glad it is, no matter what your censor tells you when you’re writing it. Which brings us back to relaxation: ideas are from a deep part of your mind, and it takes being relaxed and receptive to get them to the surface. It’s where the “Zen” in the title becomes slightly less of just a turn of phrase. A major principle of Zen is an acceptance and receptiveness to one’s surroundings. Writing is very Zen.

The third and final essay I’m going to write about is “How to Keep and Feed a Muse”. There is always talk about a “writer’s muse”, talk that never seems to get anywhere, mostly involving some people arguing against any outside source, and others citing divine inspiration. Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle. Bradbury seems more in the camp of citing the Muse as our subconscious. There’s nothing wrong with this, and the essay is very valid regardless of which “camp” you belong to. It is worth noting that in either camp, there is the agreement that a muse must be fed. It needs experiences to grow from and work with, and life is its food of choice. It must also have an outlet, however: whether the work is good or not or feels particularly inspired or not, you need to write to keep a muse. Or paint, or sculpt, or any other creative medium — take your pick, the fact remains the same: if you are not willing to let the muse speak through you, then the muse will stop trying to. Of this I am absolutely certain, speaking from first-hand experience. You don’t even realize how important the interplay between yourself and your muse IS until it’s gone, whether through abuse, or neglect.

Zen in the Art of Writing is definitely worth reading. I would recommend happily (and have) to anyone willing to spend the few hours necessary to read it (it is not precisely long, weighing in at 176 pages in trade paperback size… I read it in less than a day). Those looking for a how-to book on writing should look elsewhere… and then come back when their priorities are in order. After all, what is the point in knowing how to write if you have nothing to say?

Bradbury, Ray. Zen in the Art of Writing. Santa Barbara: Joshua Odell Editions, 1994.

Annotation: Sometimes the Magic Works

Before getting into the meat of the actual book, I thought this might be a good spot to point out an observation I’ve discovered in the books on writing that I’ve read so far. It may not be a requirement to be egotistical to be a successful professional writer, but it certainly seems to help. Perhaps it is because they spend so much time pretending to be or writing about someone else, but it seems like any opportunity where it MIGHT be appropriate to talk about themselves, they do so, often in the most self-aggrandizing fashion they can. This isn’t just an observation from the books on writing I’ve read thus far, it’s also from meeting various authors at conventions. (I should, however, mention that there are definitely many exceptions to this notion… it just doesn’t feel like it, sometimes.) I’m not trying to single Terry out, either. He is no worse (and in many ways better) than a lot of others I’ve had the chance to read or talk to. Honestly, I think my frustration just stems from reading a chain of these books, and Mr. Brooks is really nothing more than the proverbial straw.

In the tradition of other books of its ilk (such as On Writing and Bird by Bird), Sometimes the Magic Works is more a memoir of a writer than it is a book on writing. There is a lot to be said for this style of book. The subject material is kept interesting and engaging through personal anecdotes, and their autobiographical story is inherently encouraging (no one lives a charmed life, after all). The drawback, of course, being that it is more up to the reader to glean the useful information out of the text than it would be with more cut and dry books on writing. By and large, I think that tradeoff is a worthwhile one.

Sometimes the Magic Works is broken into separate chapters that largely work as self-contained essays (there is the occasional reference to an earlier chapter’s comments, but otherwise are encapsulated nicely). The reading was informal and amusing, making for a quick read. Rather than break it down chronologically, Brooks breaks up the book according to the subject he’s talking about. For instance, one of the early chapters is called “Luck”, which discusses when his first novel was accepted, by none other than Lester Del Rey, who personally took him under his wing and made the book (The Sword of Shannara) the flagship fantasy novel under the fledgling Del Rey imprint. Had his submission been a few weeks earlier or later, that flagship role would have gone to a different author, and we may have never heard of Terry Brooks at all. That is a prime example of Luck, with a capital “L”. There is no amount of planning or skill that can account for fortuitous timing. (The encouraging flipside of this story: it points out that these sorts of lucky breaks DO happen, fate will help you, but you have to do a little legwork as well, like writing a good book and submitting it.)

Another chapter that was interesting to read was called “It’s Not About You”. This chapter talked about his very first book signing, sitting next to the esteemed A.J. Budrys, a well known and respected veteran author. He’d had these grand dreams of how book signings would be… which were promptly squashed thoroughly by the reality of the signing: he didn’t sell or sign a single book the entire day. This was a pretty humbling experience for him, and made Terry really reassess his idea of what book signings were about. What he decided ultimately was that book signings are about making a connection with your readers (or potential readers). It’s not about being adored, or having swarms of fans around, hanging on your every word. It’s about talking with another person and making a connection with them that they (and hopefully yourself as well) will remember later. I can really get behind this idea. It is a far more rewarding experience, in my opinion, than it would be to sit around acting like an ass because you think everyone there is a fanboy.

On the topic of actual writing, it was nice to get an alternative viewpoint to the other authors I’ve read: neither King and Goldberg don’t use outlines for their writing, but Brooks swears by them. His stance is this: because of outlining the story, plot, characters, and locations before writing the actual story, he is able to keep his first draft far more cohesive than other authors. Generally speaking, he is able to write one draft, do one rewrite, and be ready for publication. Other authors end up doing rewrite after rewrite trying to wrap up their story. He does mention, however, (and if he hadn’t, I would have) that it comes down to figuring out what style works best for you, as there are plenty of successful authors in both camps (and even some in between).

Overall, I found this an enjoyable book, and reasonably insightful and informative. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about Terry Brooks or fiction writing in general. I would say it is a worthwhile addition to the “writer’s memoir” genre.

Brooks, Terry. Sometimes the Magic Works. New York: Del Rey, 2003.

Annotation: On Writing

Stephen King is not exactly what one would call an “obscure” writer. In fact, you walked down the street, any street, and asked random people who came to mind when asked for a modern author, chances are fairly high that a pretty large number will mention Mr. King. Some rave about his work, others think he’s a hack, but either way, he most decidedly someone who knows how to write, and whom people will listen to about writing. It’s fitting, then, that he chose to make his memoir about writing.

King makes a point at the very beginning of the book of pointing out that he has tried to strip away the bullshit, leaving just useful (or at least anecdotal) information. I applaud his efforts, and feel that he largely succeeded: it reads both fast and well, with very little getting dragged out beyond what is necessary to convey his point.

The book is broken into several sections, starting with a personal memoir of his childhood and early writing career, basically spelling out how he came to be who and how he is. This was amusing and insightful to read, as well as vaguely validating concerning my own life: in terms of creative impulses and literary origins, we have a lot in common. For instance, as junior-high children, he and his brother created their own newspaper (“Dave’s Rag” named after his brother David), which they sold among family, neighbors, and classmates. As a sixth grader, I was involved in a similar endeavor (though entirely on my own), writing a book review newsletter that I sold for a dime to classmates, until the school shut me down (I was not using any of their resources, and privately the teachers appreciated the effort, but there was a policy of not selling non-school related things in school).

One of the most moving bits in the personal memoir portion of the book for me would have to be when he was talking about the call he got when Carrie’s paperback rights sold. He and his wife were living in a beat-up, roach infested apartment, scrambling to make ends meat. His editor called him, and told him that the rights to Carrie had sold for $400,000 dollars. His wife was out of town and Stephen had no way to contact her about it, and spent the afternoon pacing around waiting for her to get home… when she did, he told her. She just looked around the shithole of an apartment and started crying. That’s a pretty intense little bit of humanity. Both Stephen and his wife Tabitha were college educated, but from poor working class families. Quite literally, it’s like being given a golden ticket out of the hard life. It’s not enough to retire on, no, but it’s enough to get out of the hard place they were in. I know it’s a rare thing to get that much money for book rights, but it really does leave this gem of hope for anyone who wants to be a writer.

The next portion of On Writing is called “What Writing Is”, and is really about just that. The section is short, just a chapter long. What it comes down to for Stephen, and I largely agree with this assessment, is that writing is a form of telepathy. It is a meeting of minds: the writer’s and the reader’s, at least if it’s done well. It’s not a matter of describing every detail (that really does nothing more than bog down this mental communication), but sharing enough that there is a shared picture in the minds of everyone involved: the reader, the writer, the characters in the story. He closes this section with a pleading request that we take writing seriously, which I second. Something worth clarifying here: I’m not talking about writers being taken seriously — too often, they are taken TOO seriously, in fact. Nor am I talking about what is written being taken seriously — I somehow doubt Douglas Adams wanted Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to be treated as a serious tome. What I (and Stephen) am talking about is taking the act of writing seriously. If you aren’t willing to commit yourself to the task of writing, then don’t do it. Go read a book, play a game, watch a movie, do anything else, but don’t waste your time and ours by going in and writing half-assedly.

The third section of the book is called “Toolbox”, and discusses the writer’s toolbox, at length. The metaphor of a multi-layered toolbox is a good one: you keep your key tools at the top, and open deeper when you need to. Vocabulary and grammar are the two biggest tools at the top: looking for themes within your writing, something the author suggests leaving until your first draft is DONE, is further down. This may be less true for plot-driven pieces, but his work is largely situational. He does not outline, just comes up with a situation, creates the basic skeleton of some characters, and sees what develops where and when. It’s an interesting concept, and one that I don’t see suggested often enough. So many books on writing talk steadily about the need for outlining, and pre-planning in varying amounts (but rarely no planning at all). This isn’t something that should need validation (ie, hand-holding), but it is still nice to actually have a successful writer say “Don’t worry about it, just let it go where it goes.”

I found the ranting King does in the Toolbox section hilarious but spot-on. He discusses several of his pet peeves such as adverbs, passive verbs, and cliché metaphors and similies. Of course, after all the rants and arguments against them, King does point out that he is vaguely hypocritical about this. He tries to catch these things, but sometimes stuff just slips through. But really, I think that’s kind of the point. In my opinion, it’s not that these things should be actually shunned, but that they are things that if used too much, they become painful. Unless you have angelic levels of restraint and a DEEP understanding of the English language, it’s best to avoid them simply so that when they DO appear (and they will), they’ll be used in moderation.

The fourth portion of On Writing is the title section. It is a strange mishmash of personal curmudgeonly diatribe and remarkably useful and sage writing advice. His discussion of the use and development of theme was remarkably insightful, as was his diatribe about getting over ourselves about trying to pretend that we live in a vacuum as writers. In so many other artforms, especially when learning, it is expected that you will try to emulate the style or even composition of prior artists. But in writing, there is this myth and fear that writing “in the style of” another author is plagiarism. It’s bullshit, and if you stop to think about it for even a moment it’s obviously bullshit, but that doesn’t stop us from having that initial gut feeling that we have to fight to overcome. I’m as guilty as the next person about this one… I used to get so upset, feeling like I was “ripping off” some of my favorite authors, and only realized much later that there was nothing wrong with what I was doing. It is part of developing your own voice, if nothing else.

The final section of the book was about recovering and returning to writing after a near fatal accident the author was in during the summer of 1999. It’s a pretty intense piece of writing, deeply personal and yet filled with fact-finding and observations. In all of it, I’d say the part that most impacted me was when he was talking about his intial recovery:

I entered the hospital on June nineteenth. Around the twenty-fifth I got up for the first time, staggering three steps to a commode, where I sat with my hospital johnny in my lap and my head down, trying not to weep and failing. You try to tell yourself that you’ve been lucky, most incredibly lucky, and usually that works because it’s true. Sometimes it doesn’t work, that’s all. Then you cry. (King 263)

What was really heartening about the whole ordeal is just how supportive his wife was throughout all of it. When the author decided he needed to get back to work, Tabitha backed him up, setting up a workspace where he would have access in his wheelchair, and then staying within earshot but not in the way while he tried writing (this was a period of time that due to his injuries, even being upright for more than 45 minutes at a time caused him serious searing pain). This sort of support is way more valuable in my eyes than any amount of accolades. It’s a real show of trust.

Overall, I’d definitely recommend this book, without qualification. Regardless of whether you are a Stephen King fan or not, or whether you are interested in writing or not, it was an enjoyable book, and worth the time to read.

Annotation: Writing Down the Bones

I think it is worth mentioning, at least in passing, the similarities between what is discussed in Writing Down the Bones and what is brought up in Art & Fear. This is by no means a bad thing, as the similarities focus around a very important message: get out of your own damn way and let yourself be the creative person you truly are. When congealed down to a single statement like that, it may seem a little hokey, a bit like something a motivational speaker would say, but it is absolutely true: the biggest limitation in our creative growth is our fear of being creative. The sooner we realize this and stop being so self-critical (to the point of paralysis, in some cases), the sooner we will become what we hope to be.

The structure of Writing Down the Bones is simple and more useful through its simplicity. Rather than building upon each prior chapter in a linear fashion, this book can largely be read in any order you want. This is intentional, a design used to allow these brief (2-5 page) essays to be used on an individually encapsulated fashion, like a reference book. I really enjoyed this style of writing, at least partially because it kept any thought or message the author was trying to convey encapsulated into a small body of text. This really helps keep the “literary mental masturbation” to a bare minimum: in a five page essay, there is much less room for the sort of hoop-jumping and fluffing that occurs in most writing of this type.

One concept that Ms. Goldberg brought up repeatedly was the use of regular journaling as a technique to both get the creative juices flowing as well as to get you used to the concept of generating output every day, even if it is never seen by anyone else (or even if it’s material you don’t WANT anyone else to see). It gets the crud at the surface of the mind out of the way, allowing your deeper creative self room to express itself. Generally speaking, I agree with her: streaming consciousness is all well and good, but the “good” stuff is when we progress past that into the streaming unconscious. I disagree with her to some extent, however, concerning how much she uses that period almost entirely as warm-up, delineating it from any other writing she chooses to do that day. This disagreement, however, is roughly akin to whether milk chocolate or dark chocolate is best: both are good and perfectly valid choices, and which is preferred is entirely a matter of taste.

Something we are in complete agreement about, however, is the need (almost requirement) for passion. What makes a writer — or any artist, for that matter — good is the ability to see even the most mundane, ignored aspects of life in a passionate manner. Red wheelbarrows are glazed with rainwater all over the world, but it took William Carlos Williams to notice and appreciate it enough to write about one. Long before anyone suggested this to me, I was declaring to anyone who would listen how important the little moments were to me. I live for them, and cherish them so much. I feel emptier when I haven’t noticed any of these moments in a while, and I feel enriched every time I do catch it. The next step, a step I used to take but for some reason have become too timid to do now, is write about these moments.

Which brings us to the another subject Goldberg wrote about: validation. I used to write about the moments I had experienced, but did not receive any validation from my peers about what I was sharing. Most of the time, the most I could get out of anyone was “It’s good, I just don’t know what to say.” Finally, I just stopped writing, because I felt like I was ripping my heart out in my writing only to find out that no one was willing to take it. (I am aware that this is largely whining, crying over spilled milk, but that’s part and parcel with this subject: it is easy to get into this cycle of feeling under appreciated and then refusing to believe if even when you ARE appreciated or validated.) This, of course, is just another way we block ourselves: we should be writing for ourselves, not writing to be validated by our peers. By seeking validation, all we do is set ourselves up for disappointment, because a lot of the time, it simply won’t happen.

The final subject I want to bring up specifically from Writing Down the Bones (though not the final subject of the book) is that of coffee shops, restaurants, and other public spaces to write. Some people need their dens to write in, they need it quiet (or with their choice of music playing), and the door closed away from the world. Others — like myself, apparently, as well as the author — need public spaces. Borrowing a term from Ray Oldenburg, third spaces, places that are neither home nor work that serves a social function. Especially as an introvert, these spaces (generally coffee shops, personally) create a sort of insular bubble where there is activity around you, but that you are not required to participate in. I find this environment extremely motivating, and end up writing easily three times as much as I do at home (it took me over a day to write the first paragraph of this essay at home. I have written the entire rest of the essay in a little over an hour sitting in a Barnes & Noble Café). Some of her suggestions about new third spaces have a lot of promise, which I plan to look into at some point in the not too distant future (restaurants, for instance). Some might call third spaces a crutch, and that I should be able to write ANYWHERE. They may be right, but frankly I don’t really care. It is worth it to me to spend the $1-5 a session buying coffee, tea, or juice in exchange for the amount of creative output I gain over sitting at home for free. I’m inclined to believe that Goldberg would agree.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading Writing Down the Bones, and would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to write (or to a lesser extent, create any sort of art). I finished the book very quickly, which is more a testament to the writing in the book than it is to the length. Originally, I was considering just borrowing this book from the library, but after reading it, I am glad to be able to have it on my shelf.

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones. Boston: Shambala Publications, 1986.

Annotation: About Looking

This is the second book I’ve read by John Berger this semester. The first, Ways of Seeing, was excellent, cogent, and topical, all without being too over-intellectual or stuffy. With that in mind, it seemed like an excellent idea to pick up another of his books, to continue to the authorial conversation. Unsure which to pick (he has several collections of essays), I selected somewhat randomly, and ended up with About Looking, which proved to be likewise cogently written, but not as consistently so, and certainly with a more academic vocabulary (this is not a good thing). There were a variety of excellent points and ideas brought up in the course of the book, but it really failed to make as significant an impact as his previous work.

I think that perhaps the reason the book doesn’t work as well for me is how it was collected. The essays are in no apparent order (neither subject nor date seem to have any influence), other than — and this may be my own perception — the longest essays are in the front, and the shorter, more cogent essays are in the back. He opens with a 28 page essay about how the perception of animals has changed in society, and the man-animal relationship has changed as well. He made some excellent points in it, in particular concerning the role of zoos in our urban society, as well as the social misperception of zoos. A zoo is a place to see what animals look like, not to see and be seen by animals. Of course, all his excellent points could have been said in half the space if he stopped beating around the bush for so much of the essay. It felt (and this sentiment extends to a lot of the essays) like he knew he had something he wanted to talk about, but wasn’t sure how to say it, and the essay is his process to get it out.

The rest of the book is a bit more directly topical, and the collection is loosely broken down into “Uses of Photography” and “Moments Lived”. The photography section I suppose is fairly clear, but what exactly does “Moments Lived” mean as a subject title? Apparently, it means “new takes on the motivations of artists,” if the actual content is any indication. I’ll get to it more in depth in a moment, but first, the photography section.

Technically speaking, these were four separate essays, written over the course of a decade (1968 to 1978), though not necessarily in chronological order. Subjectively speaking, it read like one long, rambling essay. As a photographer, I was a little taken aback by his somewhat antiquated views of photography. He talked at length about how they serve as a method to capture a moment in time, as a supplement (and sometimes replacement) to memory, unlike traditional painting. He is entitled to opinion, of course, but I am also allowed to completely disagree with compartmentalizing photography like that. The “capturing of memories” is a minor part of photography (though I will admit, it IS a pretty significant portion of the popular sentiment about photography). Photography can also be used as a very potent tool in creating abstract imagery, as well as creating a range of emotions that can be every bit as distinct and strong as a painting. As much as Berger was trying to tout the values of photography, I think in the end, he ended up doing it a disservice, which is unfortunate.

The majority of the book fell under the “Moments Lived” section, and was in my opinion the strongest writing in the book. in each essay, it was clear the author knew what he was talking about, and really brought some interesting insight into various works of art (mostly paintings, but some sculptural work as well). In particular, I really appreciated his juxtaposition of Francis Bacon and Walt Disney, with one taking a pessimistic conclusion and one taking an optimistic conclusion, both from the same underlying concept and intent. Also worth noting was a recurring topic between several essays on how birthplace influenced the art of several artists, both in subject matter as well as style. For instance, Courbet was born in the foothills of the Jura mountains in France. The most direct and obvious tie to this area is his predominant use of minimal horizon (very little sky is shown in the majority of his work), which directly relates to the towering mountains blotting out most of the horizon when he was growing up. Another example would be Fasanella’s cityscapes (in particular of Manhattan). They succeed in capturing the sentiment of finding privacy while simultaneously being on display that many other artists fail to capture, because quite simply, they’ve never truly lived in that fashion.

My favorite essay is the one he closed with, entitled “Field”. It had nothing to do with any artist, and most precisely captured the sentiment of the section title. The essay describes a simple, uncultivated field that sits amidst the trees near a set of train tracks that he has to pass on his way home from work. Occasionally, he has to wait for a train on the tracks, and when doing so, looks over and sees the meadow between the trees, a short distance away. He watches two birds playing, or butterflies doing what butterflies do, or a cat stalking some invisible prey, or any of a variety of simple things happening in the meadow, and feels as enriched and rewarded by it as he feels about any work of art.

The latter half of the essay completely misses the point, however, and relegates this sublime moment to a set of rules that must be applied for any sort of effect, which he partially uses as an excuse to not actually visit the field, lest the feeling be destroyed. After such a strong start, too. The first half of the essay struck a very strong chord with me, as it managed to at least partially describe a sentiment that I am constantly trying to explain. Walking around on the half-snow half-mud in Vermont in late March/early April, where the world is just starting to wake up again, and you can hear the trickle of a stream still partially obscured by ice in the distance. Wind playing with leaves on an empty street at dusk, where the lights are just starting to come on, but it’s still light out anyway, and there is a crisp, real taste to the air. Sitting in the grass in the shade of some trees, looking up through a gap in the branches and watching the clouds float by, while butterflies flutter nearby. Standing in the woods after a snowstorm, in that brief “warm” spell that sometimes follows snowstorms in New England, and listening to the snow drop off the overladen branches.

It’s experiences and sentiments like these that fill me with an enormous sense of personal peace and well-being, and I try to be receptive (not vigilant… that would defeat the point) to these moments whenever I can.

Despite its faults, I still feel this was a pretty good collection of essays, and I’m glad I read them. I would probably suggest this book to people who enjoy art essays (whether for school or personal enjoyment), but at the same time, I would probably also suggest AD Coleman’s Critical Focus as a counterpoint and companion to this book. Between the two authors, I think a really great creative sentiment can be painted.

Annotation: Leonardo Da Vinci: The Mind of the Renaissance

While I found Vezzosi’s writing interesting and intelligent, and found the subject well researched and scholastic in tone, I can’t help but feel like this book should have instead been called “Leonardo Da Vinci: The Mind, The Man, The Myth”. What it comes down to is that despite all the research about Da Vinci that has been done over the years, very little is verifiably known: most of our “facts” about him are taken from journals (some his own, others from his contemporaries), which are ultimately an entirely subjective view. There is this notion of him as a seer and visionary, which is largely due to his self-portrait and the use of his likeness in Raphael’s painting of Plato. That’s not to say that he wasn’t visionary and innovative in his work and ideas, but rather that the assumption of a benevolent old man is ultimately conjecture.

Though a relatively small book, Leonardo Da Vinci: The Mind of the Renaissance is extremely dense, using a high quality paper to allow for high quality reproduction of his artwork. It is also dense in the another sense of the word, in terms of the amount of information that was packed into such a small space. Organized in a chronological/geological fashion, the book is broken down into several sections, starting in Vinci (his birthplace), and ending in Amboise (where he died). Considering that his works often spanned several years, this is really as good a method to organize his life as any.

Leonardo definitely had an interesting life. Despite being born as an illegitimate child, he was taken into his father’s house and raised largely as if he was. Really, the only aspect of family life that he was not able to participate in was the family business as Notary to several noble houses, including the Medici family. (The role of Notary required a level of gentility that his illegitmacy prevented.) He taught himself to write, which the author attributed a large amount of the mirror writing Leonardo is famous for (also, in conjecture, the idea was posited that he may have been dyslexic, which would also contribute to his adoption of backwards writing).

At the age of 17, he entered an apprenticeship in Florence, studying under the famous artist Verrocchio, during which time he became well respected among his peers, contributing to several remarkable works, including The Annunciation, and the Dreyfus Madonna (as well as the similarly composed Madonna with Carnation). He had already gained a mastery of painting at this time, but was able to refine that mastery while also learning more about sculpture, collaborating with Verrocchio to create Verrocchio’s David and Putta with Dolphin. Even after being admitted to the artists’ guild, he stayed with Verrocchio’s studio for several more years before finally heading out on his own.

Leonardo worked on several commissions while in Florence, working to curry favor with the Medici family, whom was the ruling family of Florence at the time. He achieved a moderate level of success, but after reaching something of a dead end, he found an excuse to travel to Milan, where he tried to get a position as engineer in the Ducal Court. His attempts did not succeed, but he did achieve moderate success as an artist in the area, until finally he began working for the Duke of Milan, Sforza, designing a giant bronze horse statue that was never completed. (This is a well known story: war broke out, and the 66 tons of bronze that Leonardo had managed to accumulate for the project was taken in order to make cannons.)

The entire region was embroiled in a variety of alliances, wars, invasions, and political intruiges, and Leonardo largely managed to play every side. He primarily worked for Milan and Florence, but he also worked for France and Pisa at several points, in various roles ranging from royal artist to war and civil engineers. He maintained ties with the Medici family, which allowed him to become an engineer/artist for Pope Leo X (a member of the Medici family), where he enjoyed relatively free reign over his projects (in fact, he worked for a man known as “il Magnifico”, the Pope’s brother). It was at this time that Raphael used Leonardo’s likeness for his fresco The School of Athens.

After il Magnifico grew ill and died, Leonardo decided that it was time to seek his fortunes elsewhere, taking the king of France up on a prior invitation to come and paint for him in Ambiose. Leonardo enjoyed his time in Ambiose, though he no longer was working with color as much as he had in the past, due to an injury to his arm (since he was ambidexterous, it really only hindered his work a little, but still enough to make it worth mentioning). He designed and (with the help of the King) initiated the building of a new city, Romolontino, in France, though work on it ultimately ended due to complications at the build site. Leonardo remained in Ambiose for the rest of his life. He remained well respected throughout these years, and purportedly, died in the presence of the King, whom had great admiration for the artist. (The actual accuracy of the legend is subject to considerable debate, apparently.)

I really enjoyed Leonardo Da Vinci: The Mind of the Renaissance, and found it quite informative about this master artist. I would recommend it to those looking for a grounding in the background of the arist and a general sense of what works he did, though for a more in depth look, I’m sure there are more robust works about Da Vinci, that would probably serve that purpose in a more complete and enriching fashion. Frankly, I’m not sure what I’m impressed more by: the works he completed, or the works that never made it out of his sketchbooks.

Vezzosi, Alessandro. Leonardo Da Vinci: The Mind of the Renaissance. New York: Henry N Abrams, Inc., 1997.

Annotation: Wabi Sabi

Considering that it is virtually impossible to define the Zen philosophy in a succinct fashion, it should be largely unsurprising that an art-form that grew out of Zen required an entire book to even begin to explain. That is not to say that the author evaded the question, far from it: the fault (if it could be called such) lies directly in the subject. I found the topic of wabi sabi fascinating, while at the same time finding my own tastes justified within a larger school of thought on art. It really all comes down to impermanence. In fact, that is the subtitle of the book: the Japanese art of impermanence.

Of course, that title might be a little misleading. While yes, they do discuss the tea ceremony and other transient events as art, there is a great deal more to wabi sabi than that. It is more an acceptance of your surroundings and letting nature have a role in the creation of things. The example used that really encapsulated the feeling for me best was when he was discussing ash-glazed pottery. The author described an old kiln that is still in use, though it only burns once a year. The pots are placed in or near the flue, and as the ash is pulled upwards through the chimney, it glazes the pots. Each pot is in a different spot in the kiln, and so the glaze is different for every pot. That act of abandoning the work and letting nature take its role in creation is wabi sabi in a nutshell, for me at least.

The words wabi and sabi both have extensive histories, during which time they have gained enough meanings to become too ambiguous to have a direct and literal translation. The basic gist when used together, is finding beauty in solitude and natural desolation. The author related a story of Sen No Rikyu, master of the tea ceremony, whom had a marvelous garden with flowers in it that his guests would pass through to reach the tea room. The Emperor, Hideyoshi had heard of the garden, and in particular desired to see the morning glories in it. He was invited to a tea ceremony, and upon his arrival discovered that all of the morning glories had been cut. Upon arriving to the tea room, he discovered a single, beautifully arranged morning glory adorning the tea room. This sort of attention and focus really appeals to me, aesthetically speaking, and grounds my sentiment that simplicity and letting things fall where they may can prove to be provocative and striking on a level that more complex and ordered images might not achieve. (A case in point: one of my favorite pieces that my mother has painted is a single maple leaf, done in ink and water color… she’s done a variety of more complex and detailed images, but my attention is invariably drawn to the leaf.)

Overall, the book manages to avoid being pretentious, which makes it a significantly better read than it could have otherwise been. There are a few points where the subject was treated a bit too much like a golden calf (notably, in the introduction itself), but they are thankfully few and far between. Mostly, the sentiment I gathered out of the book was that the author had a genuine interest in (and knowledge of) the material.

Wabi Sabi is broken into a few parts. It starts out with a reasonably in depth history of the art form, which grew out of Zen philosophy when Buddhism first started making a cultural impact in Japan. This was a fascinating topic for me, and really elucidated a lot about the origins of different forms of Buddhism. One thing that really interested me about it stems from an ongoing conversation I have had with my father about Baha’i Art. He is of the sentiment that there largely isn’t any currently being made, and that what is currently touted as such is really nothing more than ecclesiastic art. Reading about wabi sabi really drove home that idea. Wabi Sabi is essentially Zen Buddhist art. Yet it rarely if ever has anything to do with images of the Buddha or others. What makes it stem from Zen Buddhism is that it is a representation and extension of the philosophy that underlies Zen Buddhism, not that it depicts religious scenes, individuals, or icons.

The next section discusses the interrelationship between wabi sabi and the culture it originated in. I was less impressed with this section, though I can’t put a finger on exactly why. I think what it comes down to is that in trying to make a distinction between Japanese culture and American culture, the author relied too much on his own opinions, and less on objective observation and facts. It was clear that he had lived in Japan for several years, and disagrees strongly with the adoption of aspects of western civilization.

The third section discusses wabi sabi art specifically, and was pretty interesting. This is where the author talked about the ash-glazed pottery that so intrigued me, as well as going a bit more in depth about how the philosophy behind wabi sabi can be applied to various kinds of art. It was a little short, however, and made the next section somewhat jarring, since the fourth section quite literally laid down basic ground rules for using different materials in your designs. The whole notion of setting down firm rules of how materials must be applied seemed to go against the entire notion that he had been describing for the rest of the book. I think that there is a lot more flexibility to the form than what he laid out.

The fifth and final section was a personal diatribe on the state of things in modern western society, and an argument to justify why adopting wabi sabi principles is important. I largely agree with him: we are an increasingly disposable society, with huge amounts of luxuries and technology, all the while lamenting our unhappiness. In the current generation especially (the post-gen-x generation), there is an overwhelming sentiment of feeling spiritually lost, a disconnect with our surroundings and ourselves. I can’t help but feel that encouraging the sort of reconnection with nature that occurs in wabi sabi art would help that sentiment.

While it had very little to do with drawing explicitly, I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in eastern art It was well worth the time to read it.

Juniper, Andrew. Wabi Sabi. Boston, Tuttle Publishing, 2003.