Archive for the ‘Creativity’ Category

It’s been ages since I read an entire book in one day—until After the workshop came to my attention. That’s John McNally’s new novel about life after an MFA (in creative writing).

Some folks have the World Cup. Glued to their TV screens, they pump their fists in the air every time their team scores. For 24 hours, I had After the workshop. Immersed in its pages, I chortled every time McNally took down another deserving target—from clueless publicists to trendy but talentless novelists to literary groupies.

Great literature? No. (But I doubt it was intended to be.)

An engrossing read? Yes, with a fully imagined (and rendered) main character, who endears himself even as you suppress the desire to whomp him over the head.

Great fun? Absolutely!

The novel is a first-person account of media escort Jack Hercules Sheahan, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Jack, it’s safe to say, is a major fuck-up who lives hand-to-mouth in Iowa City, earning his keep (barely) by escorting visiting authors around town. After a few early successes, including publication in The New Yorker, he’s lost his way, with a half-finished novel tucked away under his bed (but not forgotten). Twelve years have passed since he graduated from the Workshop, but he still lives in the same apartment and drives the same old Toyota, which drops a muffler in the opening pages of the novel. And because Jack has just spent his last $200 on a breast pump for one of the authors he must escort—who skips town soon after—he has to spend the next few days at the mercy of the locals and the visiting literati, most of whom aren’t so friendly. The cast of characters includes that runaway author (creator of a hit novel entitled The outhouse); a big-city publicist; a romance writer; a reclusive author (think Salinger); a steroid-injecting weight lifter with a real poet’s soul; bloggers; pompous Workshop students; and so on.

At one point, I must admit, the cynical capitalist inside me stopped to calculate the potential market for such a book. I mean, MFA programs are a dime a dozen these days. By now, there must be thousands of people like me, graduate of one such program, who have failed to live up to expectations, however grandiose those hopes may have been. What the novel succeeds in demonstrating is that this “failure” may not be entirely their fault. And “success” takes many forms. It may be better, in the long run, to retain your humanity than to star on the New York Times bestseller list.

If you’ve ever marveled at the adulation heaped on writers of little literary heft, or rejoiced when one of them finally gets their comeuppance in a Michiko Kakutani review, this book is for you. Just make sure you have an extended interval in which to enjoy it. Once you start reading, you won’t want to put it down.



Art is not the application of a canon of beauty
but what the instinct and the brain can conceive
beyond any canon. When we love a woman
we don’t start measuring her limbs
—Pablo Picasso

We are a society obsessed with beauty, with the surface of things. Perhaps it is because there are so many of us and we are so hard-pressed to accomplish the basics of survival, that we no longer have time to look very deeply at the people and things passing before our eyes.

Then there is advertising, which homogenizes everything it touches. The models in these ads are attractive, yes. For the most part, however, they inhabit a narrow range on an endless spectrum of “beauty”—and not the most interesting part of the spectrum, by a long shot. We have focused our perception on this single band of color so intensely that we can barely recognize true loveliness, or, rather, authenticity, anymore. I recently spent a considerable amount of time with a woman who had quite obviously had a face lift and nose job—yet, because her doctored appearance coincided with our official understanding of beauty, men and women fawned over her, despite the artifice, to the exclusion of all else around them. But that’s another story.

What I want to write about is Picasso. On a recent trip to France, I had the good fortune of stopping by the Cathedrale d’Images in Les Baux de Provence. This unique museum started out as a limestone quarry but was converted to a gallery of projected images in the late 1970s. Here is a description of the main viewing area from a brochure published by the museum:

…a large gallery disappears 60 metres under the mountain, leading to a gigantic hall that is split up by huge columns left behind by the quarrymen to support the “roof.” The bases of these natural pillars measure between five and 10 metres and they are between seven and nine metres high. Like the walls and ceiling, they are used as natural screens for the projections. Thus some 4,000 square metres of natural screens are available for projecting images in 12-metre high rooms. These surfaces are not completely flat and even, which increases the relief effect. The images are never flat nor centred. Spectators move around, discovering new angles of view and perspectives. They are submerged in a world in which the ceiling is lit up with images and images creep along the floor and burst onto the ridges.

I relate this here to give you some sense of the scale of the exhibition I saw, which took Picasso as its subject. Sometimes whole paintings, but just as frequently fragments of his work, moved across the walls and ceilings and floor, to fine musical accompaniment (works by Nino Rota, Vivaldi, Shostakovich and others).

At first it was a bit disorienting, I must confess. Where was I supposed to stand? How could I take it all in, with different images cascading across different sections of the theater? Eventually, I gave up on doing it “right,” moved toward the center of the space, and gawked. And the thing that struck me about Picasso’s great gift was this: He did not try to paint “correctly,” or apply some standardized criteria to make his images palatable. Although he was a master of technique, and would never belittle its importance, he applied it to his own ends. Take the women, for example. I think it is safe to say that none of the women Picasso painted are depicted as classically beautiful. There is always something off or grotesque about them—some flat-footedness or deformity, some raw need. And yet, they surge with life, your eye drinks them in. There is something essential about them, some basic truth embodied, yours to discover. The world they inhabit is so much more vibrant, and potent, and captivating than ours, thanks to the narrow piece of spectrum we choose to inhabit.

Take, for example, “Two women running on the beach/the race,” from 1922. One of them has turned her face away from the viewer altogether, and the other has thrust her gaze unnaturally skyward. They are pudgy, plainly dressed, each with an ordinary breast exposed. The beach is unremarkable, the sky mostly clear. Yet the whole milieu is captivating. I feel like a pale ghost in comparison.

Even the dark pieces like Guernica cannot deter your desire to look. There are flames and broken weapons. Even ordinary objects, such as a light bulb, seem menacing. The figures seem partly human, partly spirit. With the exception of one figure, who screams into the sky, all the humans and even the horse are gazing off the canvas toward unnamed demons. The painting fascinates and roils. I doubt that even a photograph of war could convey such a strong sense of horror. It could capture the essential details—but only true Art, with a capital A, can get at what lies beyond. (Yes, a photograph can be true Art, but I’m speaking of photojournalism here.)

One more painting: “Girl with mandolin.” The girl in this work is not entirely of this realm. We can make out a head and shoulders, arms, a breast, hands. She is fragmented and indistinct, yet she still has a powerful presence. Even more potent, however, is the music. In fact, the painting, as I see it, seems to gaze beyond the human figure to the music itself, which enters the artwork almost as another dimension. Picasso manages to render both image and sound in two dimensions. He goes way beyond the surface.

Another thing that struck me in the Cathedrale d’Images: Picasso didn’t pussyfoot around. Even his squiggles have more force than a lot of prose. When it came to Art (and a lot of other things, too), he inhabited his power. No mitigating. No undermining of himself. Every stroke is boldly confident. But he is not content to be a simple force. He also looked—really looked—beyond the blinders society imposes.

Can I boil this down to some basic lesson? I’d rather not, but here’s a stab: Don’t always be so sure you understand the meaning and significance of the things you paint, or photograph, or write about. Don’t even waste much time seeking the meaning. Chances are, any significance you assign to your work will be arbitrary. What is important, instead, is the struggle to maintain an open channel, to permit the creative force itself to intervene and direct you. Picasso himself said, “The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place; from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.A beautiful woman is not an assemblage of perfectly proportioned parts that can be replicated on a canvas or page. True authenticity involves much more. The role of the artist is to look beyond assumptions and rules and metrics and inhabit the ambiguity that lies beyond. Then pass it on.

I used to work for a very small book publisher, and one of my responsibilities was reading manuscripts from the slush pile. Because we were  such a small publishing house, we got the slush—except for a few rare gems—from the absolute bottom of the heap. Most of the authors of this slush had no idea what kind of books we were looking for. They submitted their manuscripts to us only because everybody else had already rejected them.

I relate this anecdote as proof that I have read some really really lousy literature.

Several years have passed since then, and I no longer have to read other people’s manuscripts. In fact, I’ve ventured into the land of fiction-writing myself—and have even begun to think of attempting a novel. Casting around for assistance, I bought an atypical guidebook: How Not to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman. I bought it because I hate manuals that purport to tell you how to write. They usually have some good information, but, as the creative process involves infinite possibilities, such books invariably are limiting. So I bought an anti-manual, reasoning that I would be a few steps ahead of the game if I knew which pitfalls to avoid.

I’ll give the authors credit: It’s a very funny book in places. Example: the assertion that deus ex machina is French for “Are you fucking kidding me?” Or that “the overall message of any bad novel should make the staunchest First Amendment absolutist long for the Thought Police.”

Ultimately, however, the book is hard to read. The reason: The examples of bad writing are so awful, they leave you craving escape. They also warp your view of language. After finishing one chapter near the middle of the book, I was unable to read any other printed material objectively for more than an hour—it all seemed to echo the lame lingo of the examples.

Then I chanced upon an interesting sub-chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. In it, he discusses the fine points of communication in the cockpits of jumbo jets, and demonstrates how mitigated statements—the watered-down language we often use to keep from offending others, especially our “superiors”—can actually cause a catastrophic accident. Gladwell takes as an example a conversation between two officers on an Avianca airlines flight that crashed in Long Island in early 1990. When the captain asked the first officer to convey to air traffic control at JFK airport that the airline was “in an emergency,” the first officer did so less than urgently. The reason? The first officer, a Colombian, had been raised to view authority figures (in this case, the air traffic controllers) with reverence. He, therefore, did not want to offend the controllers, so he mitigated his language. But the American controllers weren’t accustomed to reading between the lines—nor did they really have the time. The captain repeated his request, and, again, the first officer mitigated his language. In the end, the plane crashed before the direness of the situation got communicated, and most of the passengers—and both pilots—died.

Bad fiction isn’t fatal, that’s true. But mitigated speech can keep fiction from succeeding. And mitigation in fiction can take various forms: trying to sound authentic, rather than saying what you mean; watering down dialogue to avoid offending someone; seeking mass approval by catering to the lowest common denominator; and so on.

If I had to name an author who rarely mitigated, it would be Hemingway. Consider the succinctness of description, the non-cloying dialogue, and the get-it-told attitude in this passage:

They were both beet workers, a Mexican and a Russian, and they were sitting drinking coffee in an all-night restaurant when some one came in the door and started shooting at the Mexican. The Russian crawled under a table and was hit, finally, by a stray shot fired at the Mexican as he lay on the floor with two bullets in his abdomen. That was what the paper said.

The Mexican told the police he had no idea who shot him. He believed it to be an accident.

“An accident that he fired eight shots at you and hit you twice, there?”

“Si, senor,” said the Mexican, who was named Cayetano Ruiz.

“An accident that he hit me at all, the cabron,” he said to the interpreter.

“What does he say?” asked the detective sergeant, looking across the bed at the interpreter.

“He says it was an accident.”

That’s from a story called “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio,” but I could open pretty much any Hemingway book and find a scene just as economical and informative. Hemingway had something to say and he said it. A mitigator, on the other hand, pays more attention to how he is saying something than to what he is saying.

That’s why writer’s manuals don’t work—even anti-manuals. If you want to write fiction, you just need to have a story to tell. The story is the thing. Once you have it, tell it like it is. No mitigating. I don’t guarantee success—you’ll have to struggle like the rest of us—but it’s a start.

Oh, and one other thing: Read good fiction. In the process, you’ll see just about every so-called rule broken with great success.