Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Finger Painting



One of my earliest memories, when I became conscious of being an artist of sorts – or of being compelled to create that which didn’t exist – was a strong envy of plastic artists. You see, in Porto, Portugal, when I was growing up there was the Academy of Fine Arts for the plastic artists, but there was nothing for writers.

Even here, there still is very little for writers. Kris Rusch and Dean Smith gave as their reason for starting the Oregon Writers Workshop the fact that there is no mentorship system, there is no established pathway to become a professional writer in this country. Or, frankly, in most others.

This is because as writers we use tools everyone thinks they know how to use. Words. We shape entertainment and, yes, often art, out of an instrument that other people use to order dinner, ask for coffee or yell at the cat. (Yeah, we use it for those things too.) And it’s no use whatsoever saying that there are also finger paints used by toddlers and whistles used by referees. Most of those instruments are of a different quality than artists’ instruments. It’s easy for people to understand that. More important, it’s easy for the artists themselves to view themselves as artists. They have to use specialized means. There is an instruction. They are “real.”

We writers, on the other hand aren’t very “real.” Most of the time I start my mentoring by assuring the mentee that he or she is indeed a writer. This must be the only career in which one needs that assurance. Not that they are GOOD writers, mind. Not that they have the kiss of the muse, just that they are, in fact, artists.

And in the dark of night, in the secret of my own soul, after twenty books and over a hundred published short stories, I wake up and wonder. Am I real?

Those of us who progress beyond the beginning; those of us who continue and persist soon realize that words are just the... fingerpaint. What we really, truly deal in are emotions.

The Greeks writing their theory of drama knew this. The purpose of the play was to manipulate the emotions to produce a cathartic release. I’m not sure anymore what the purpose of that release was – other than the fact that people seem to want to experience emotions and therefore will patronize your play. It’s entirely possible that was the only reason, though I suspect it was more that it would bring you closer to the gods.

For me stories serve the purpose of amusement – always and of course. If the Odyssey weren’t a thumping good tale it wouldn’t have got retold, no matter how grand its aims – but more than that, they serve the purpose of... allowing us to be other people. They allow each of us, in a small way, to leave the confines of his own skull, of his own circumstances, of his own appearance and to – outside his/her body – experience things he or she couldn’t otherwise experience. Cathartic release – as I’ve posited in another post – might serve the purpose of imprinting people with experiences in the way that false memories can be created. Make something vivid enough and it’s as if people lived it. Only this experience can be shared by a lot of people.
Needless to say, in the past, this art has been used for a lot of purposes, one of them being forging national identity (google Lusiadas) and glorifying heroes (Odyssey) as an ideal for people to be.

Enter the modern era where we compete for the limited attention span of people with a lot of other entertainment. We writers – who aren’t quite “artists” or aren’t sure of being quite “real” artists, remember. Let’s call us velveteen artists – sometime ago realized one of the easiest ways to get attention was reaching for the shock, particularly at the beginning of a story or novel.

Look, you can do this with words, or unlikely situations, but when you’re trying to get out of the slush pile, you often try to do it with the concept of the piece. You reach for the biggest, boldest, most twisted concept.

There’s nothing wrong with that – to an extent.

But like looking at canvas with big splotches of paint might have been liberating in an era when the normal art was carefully delineated and worked with a fine brush, reading stories that start with, say, the character being raped, might have been – no, were – pulse pounding works in a time when most works wouldn’t even show your character going to the bathroom.

Showing your character in pain, bleeding, suffering, showing the horror as well as the glory of war – all those things were important. They were new, they were fresh, they would induce catharsis at their resolution.

The same with works that questioned our history – works where Western civ was the villain. Works where – say – women were the more powerful gender, or all humans were hermaphrodites. In the seventies – yeah, I was young, but I remember – these were innovative concepts that made you draw a sharp breath, just on the edge of being repulsed, but not quite – and then keep going.

You didn’t need much more, mind. Hit upon a concept big enough, powerful enough, and you didn’t need the fine detail, the painstaking brushwork you needed for more “mundane” work. (Part of the reason “literary” fiction writers hate us genre writers, is because they think our concept mojo gives us an unfair advantage. Which it does, if we know how to use it.)

But art has cycles. Everything that was new and shocking becomes the establishment; the expected. Throwing paint at canvas now has to follow rules, obey ideas of “good taste.” And there is a movement afoot to create realistic paintings once more. Paintings that are “better than real.”

In writing? I don’t know. If there’s anyone out there who still thinks attacking western civ – or males, or for that matter humanity – is shocking and induces catharsis, they must have been living under a rock or perhaps too much in their own heads. This has become the expected – the established. It’s easier to sell a female action character than a male one. Particularly if you are female. It’s easier to sell a YA with a heroic female character than a male one. A male one is almost unexpected and shocking. I can’t even imagine a work that glorifies western civ. And don’t sneer. There’s at least as much – more, from a prosperity-perspective – to glorify in Western civ as in any other culture. But it feels somehow indecent, of course. It feels like running other cultures down. (It’s not, but never mind.) It feels taboo. Which, of course, would shock us and surprise us. Which is risky. And daring. And will have trouble getting past the gatekeepers, and we all know it.

And there hinges part of the issue. We have to pass the gatekeepers, and most of the mass of writers – as of everyone else – are not rebels. They have to wish to challenge the establishment. They want to be “real” artists and some of that involves the kiss of the establishment and the appropriate laurels.

More difficult – far more difficult – is to build that catharsis of everyday elements, until the realization hits you, until the understanding explodes in your mind, until you “get” it.

Even more difficult is to write in such a way that your reader questions the easy answers; that your reader thinks and discovers unexpected facets in his world.

And that, my dears, is when the blue fairy of art touches you and you became a real artist.

I’m not there yet. I’m working on it. But Dave Freer is – I highly recommend Dragon’s Ring. Heck, I highly recommend everything Dave Freer writes, but I insist you go and order the paperback of Dragon’s Ring, if you haven’t.

Terry Pratchett is also a real writer. He rarely starts with shock. He weaves HUMOR into his work. He dares you to laugh, in the midst of the most serious parts. But when it all comes together, you get it, suddenly and completely. If you don’t believe me, go and read I Shall Wear Midnight. Read Night Watch. Read Monstrous Regiment.

Heinlein was real as well. Read The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. Or Revolt in 2100. Or Have Spacesuit, Will Travel.

Other names off the top of my head in no particular order: Georgette Heyer; Shakespeare. Go read. See how art can be found in the subtle tints, in the chiaro escuro, in the subtle shading between light and darkness – in the turnings of the human heart, the coils of the human soul.

Finger paints are well and good when you’re making a poster. Hate and Love, murder, betrayal and eating babies for breakfast are fine, strong, shocking ideas. But adults find catharsis and joy and sorry in the more subtle shadings.

There’s an infinite spectrum between red and blue. Use all of the shades.

*crossposted at According To Hoyt*

8 comments:

MataPam said...

Beautiful! Yes, we all need reminders that we don't need to defend the world from absolute destruction in every book. Much more realistic problems might actually be believable, and thus more easy for the reader to worry about.

danielocasey said...

I read this fast, now I'm going to have to go back and read it slowly in a little while. Lots of good information here Sarah, but my sick and addled brain is processing slowly today.

Dan Casey

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Matapam,

Actually my issue is not so much with "saving the world" but with certain plots that become repetitive. "X Y Z is the enemy" "I'm going to shock people by having the religious man be the villain." "I'm going to surprise everyone when the millionaire is the thief."

Yeah, those would... in the nineteenth century. But it's been a long time and now those are just boring. And I'm tired of books boring me.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Daniel,

It's entirely possible the post is addled, also -- I've been fighting something that's making me less than coherent.

Kate said...

But Sarah...

I thought all religious types were really hypocrites who wouldn't recognize their own deity if said deity smacked them upside the head with the nail-studded cluebat!

And... and hereditary nobles were all inbred idiots with receding chins and jug ears!

And, salt-of-the-earth common-born girls are all kick-ass geniuses who can outfight guys twice their size without breaking a sweat!

You've spoiled all my illusions. I shall go and sulk now.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Oh noes. oh waly waly waly waly. I've offended Kate. Worse than offending a cat.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sarah, you really outdid yourself with this post. I had to read it twice. Don't mean that in a bad way.

The core concept is something I keep trying to get across to my students.
You could do this in the 70s/90s but now your audience is so sophisticated you need to be aware of it and work with their assumptions to astound them.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Rowena,

Yes. Unfortunately a lot of the editorial houses THINK it's still the fifties.