Art Is What You Can Get Away With

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One of my current projects is a small book on Creative Writing advice. I call it advice because I really didn’t want to call them rules. I didn’t want to sound self-important, as if I am the sole arbitrator of good writing. The items in this book are bits of advice I have been given that I feel is worth passing on. But that doesn’t mean there are not rules. I’ve read some authors who either never took the time to learn the rules of good writing or they have decided to ignore them. They remind us that rules are made for breaking. Try that in court and you’ll see how silly that really is.

Learn The Rules Before You Break Them

If there ever were an artist who broke the rules, it would be Pablo Picasso. He once famously said about that how he took twenty years to learn the rules before he could break them. Rules are rules for a reason. This is true for fiction and for painting. By learning the rules of Creative Writing, you learn the basics and get yourself grounded in the fundamentals.

I grew up hearing you have learn to dribble before you can slam dunk. A pitcher will never learn to throw an effective curveball if he has never learned how to throw a fastball. A scientist will never be able to split the atom until he has learned basic physics and some advanced math. And an author will never be able merely by natural talent alone to compose the next Great American Novel. I don’t care how wonderful your momma or your Sophomore English teacher said you were, you have to learn how to do anything before you can ever be good at it.

Let’s say someone wants to learn how to play the trumpet and become the next great jazz artist. He needs to learn embouchure and how to play his scales before he can ever improvise. Think of a Creative Writer who wants to break the rules as a jazz solo. If you cannot even play the trumpet properly with a solid understanding of music, you can never raise the people to their feet when you perform. Your “rule-breaking” novel will never get pages turned if you never even learned the rules before you broke them.

Don’t Break The Rules As Much As Modify Them

The idea of breaking rules, at least to me, has the connotation of ignoring the rules. A Creative Writer should never really do that. The only times we defy the guidance from the greats, it should be occasional and not perpetual. And on the occasion we go against what we have learned, we have a really good reason for it. And when I say reason, I mean an artistic reason and not some personal preference.

For example, Fitzgerald shows us how going against the rules sometimes works. One of the rules is that we need to avoid modifiers, and adverbs in particular. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald wrote how a car drove “triumphantly” down the road with gifts and packages in the back. Yes, he used the dreaded adverb, but it adds to the music of the text. And moments like this contributes to his voice, which is one of the most unique and spectacular voices in all of fiction.

In Tender Is The Night, Fitzgerald makes the “mistake” of using a weak verb – were. But the sentence it wonderful. “The hotel and the tan prayer rug of a beach were one.” The end of the sentence needs to be weak so it doesn’t take away from the best part, that spectacular simile about the tan prayer rug of a beach. And still, Fitzgerald followed the rules about avoiding adverbs and using strong verbs. He didn’t break or avoid the rules, he just modified them, and only when the art was improved by these modifications.

Some Rules Should Never Be Broken

The remote modifier or being verb will not ruin your writing. But there are some things that are fictional sacrosanct. The most elevated of writing rules is Show, don’t tell. To tell is to engage in the weakest of writing and should always be avoided. I could write a chapter with all telling, and at best, when I’m stuck with is a treatment of what the chapter should be if I write it properly, with the strong action of interesting characters. Telling is boring, and boring is the unpardonable sin for any artist.

Another firm rule is Writing is re-writing. A manuscript is not done when the author types THE END on the last page. In a sense, the work has only begun. Now starts a long series of edits. No one should ever think everything that can be said has been said and in the best way when the first draft is finished. There’s a good reason why the first draft is also called the rough draft. And no manuscript we present to the public should ever contain anything rough.

The plot points need to be learned and observed. Every story, and every scene, needs to have its setting, a conflict, and rising action that leads to a climax, followed by the declining action that trails to and end to the story or the scene. Even when you read some avent guarde work, if it is written well, it will still have the plot points. Consider James Joyce and his stream-of-consciousness style. There are many rules he negotiates around, but he always has the basic elements of the story. Not just the city of Dublin, but different parts of the town, both public and private. There is something the main character of the scene wants, can’t get it immediately, but eventually does – or doesn’t. Either way, it’s a scene with elements of plot.

In The Natural, Roy Hobbs’ father tells him, “You’ve got a gift, Roy. But it’s not enough. You’ve got to develop yourself. If you rely too much on your own gift, then you’ll fail.” It was true for him and it is true for us. I have read a lot of stuff from people who were told how naturally talented they were and they never took the time to seriously study the craft of composition. It’s all bad. They willingly flaunt the idea of rules in the name of art. They try to write the way Picasso painted. His work is genius, and theirs is a rotten mess. Art truly is what you can get away with, but that doesn’t mean the rules are frivolous. more than a few authors what written with no regard for the rules, and in the end, they haven’t “gotten away” with a single thing.

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Symbolism In The Godfather: Orange You Glad I Didn’t Say Banana?

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In Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, he uses the moon as one of the symbols for the love shared between Gatsby and Daisy. In this way, the reader can learn something about their relationship, how crazy it truly is. One might say – lunacy. In this, it’s clear why he would choose such an emblem as a symbol. That having been said, anything can be a symbol of anything, as long as it is well written and the symbolism works. For example, oranges are symbolic of danger and death in the 1972 movie, The Godfather.

Examples

The two clearest examples involve the Godfather himself, Vito Corleone. The first is how he buys a sack of oranges from a street vendor just before he’s shot. The shooters even knock over a basket of oranges as they run up to fire on the Don. The second is how he plays with an orange with his grandson before he has a heart attack. He puts a slice in his mouth and pretends to be a monster and scares his grandchild. From the strength of these alone, it would be hard to establish how oranges are a symbol, but there is more.

The film director Jack Woltz has a bowl full of oranges on his dinner table when he eats with Tom Hagen. When the camera shoots down the table towards Woltz, the orange is prominently in the center of the table. He awakens the morning to find the head of his prize horse in his bed. Threat taken. At the bank meeting of the Dons, a bowl of fruit sets before Don Barzini. An orange is on top right under his head. This could be a portend of his own death at the hands of Al Neri, or symbolize how he is the real threat, and not Don Tattaglia. At the wedding feast, Sal Tessio reaches at his table for an orange. This is not just s symbol, but a portend of his death at the end of the movie. In fact, the get the fruit he crosses over the Don’s wife and two of her grandchildren. Sal literally crosses the Corleones, which he did at the end to set up his death.

You see the same in the second movie. In the flashback portion, Don Ciccio eats an orange as he walks down the street towards his apartment. Vito meets him at his door and shoots him. At the party for Anthony’s first Eucharist, Johnny Ola gives Michael Corleone an orange as a gift from Hyman Roth from Miami. That night, assassins fail to kill Michael and is family in his home. The orders were given by Roth. Near the end of the movie, Michael eats an orange with Hagen and Rocco Lampone while discussing the hit he has just ordered to be put on Roth.

Lessons

While creating symbolism is never easy, there are some that make more sense to both author and reader, such as the moon for lunacy to describe the love between Gatsby and Daisy. Any small space can symbolize a prison, or for that matter, any restrictive system, or the other way around. But when you as a writer work on your symbolism, don’t always go for the low hanging fruit (even if it’s the orange).

An orange is not an obvious representative of danger and threats of death. But here it works because Puzo and Copella use them consistently. It’s true that anything can represent anything, and that a symbol can work even if it’s used just once, but not oranges for danger. At any time, a single tree can stand for the cross, a snake for temptation, or a mirror for introspection (okay, I wrote this on Sunday). But when you use a symbol that in itself it not obvious, you need to use it more than once. Not just that, but whenever you can.

When creating symbolism, you almost have to over-do it. Don’t be afraid it coming across as too much. What seems as too many of a symbol to you will not be noticed to many readers. Let your beta-readers tell you if it’s too much, and maybe ask them to look for it. But if you want, a rake can symbolize hope, a skillet can stand for justice, or an owl can represent unrequited love. It’s all how you use them. Symbolism makes your storytelling richer, and we should not neglect them. As Creative Writers we make our words dance, we manipulate them like puppets on a string. Work symbolism into your tales, and your readers will cherish you or your skills and advanced craft.

 

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The Devil Is In The Details

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Most fiction written today is boring. It all reads the same. No one is distinctive from another. This is not just a failure to find the author’s voice, but it is also a failure in the use of the details within a given tale. They are overdone, underdone, or done poorly, if not all three.

Make stuff happen.

We need constant action. The scene from The Last Tycoon with Stahr and Boxley where the tycoon gives a writing lesson to the writer is a good point to remember here (that scene was in an article I posted on Show, Don’t Tell. You can read it if you click here). Great writing is more than anything else a recording of action. I’ve often described great fiction as interesting people doing interesting things. And this bends back to the absolute rule of Show me, don’t tell me.

When I’m reading a book, I don’t want to read the personal rantings of the author as if he has crossed over into philosopher. And I don’t care what’s in the mind of the character. Show me what he’s thinking by his actions. Moreover, don’t tell me a certain person is feeling this or that. Display that emotion with actions.

What reads better? A person was angry, or they crumbled the letter in two white-knuckled fists, closed their eyes so tightly that it made the eyes hurt, and his red face shook until he screamed. The second shows anger with action and the first is the dreaded adjective that is the most empty calorie of words in literature.

Take Notes

The best writers are not so much creative as they are observant. Watch life around you and take notes of everything. I have a notepad function on my phone, and of course, I have my phone with me at all time. Whenever I see or hear something interesting, I think, That’s going in a book. I can’t remember them all regardless of how interesting they are, so I have to write them down if I’m going to use them. Even if I do not have any work in progress that would accommodate a particular statement or action, I may in the future, so I’ll saved the unused in a file.

It’s these little gems that add flare to the text and make your characters more interesting. We need to do all we can to make the text interesting or people will not read our stuff. Elmore Leonard famously said that he tries to leave out the stuff people skip through. Good advice for us. But not only leave out the dull parts, make sure to fill our pages with interesting stuff.

Speaking Of Interesting Stuff

Start with your own life, then go to extremes. Remember, “All fiction is biography, and al biography is fiction.” Hemingway and Shakespeare and Homer all wrote from what they knew from their own lives, independent from whatever story they were telling. That is, if such things can truly be independent from ourselves and our writing. All we encounter shapes us, which means it shapes our creativity.

So when you write form your own life, what you have done and what you have seen, use the things that are different, even outlandish. The things we all do may be worth noting as it is action, but the unusual things people do are the things worth noting in our lists and worth adding to our stories. For example, I once saw a woman lick the skin of an apple before she took a bite. I took note immediately and it found its way in my next short story. And who knows, but I may want to put it into a novel some day.

Notice details others usually miss. Unusual is interesting. But don’t make your narrative a laundry list of details. Use only those details that help tell the story, just make them spectacular. Some people think of details as the particulars of physical description as opposed to the details of people’s actions. I don’t want to know every bit of how a room looks. I only use any detail of physical description when it helps tell the story. This can be a detail about the scenery or how a person looks. We need these details, but not every cotton-pickin’ one of them.

You may have seen before the bit about the blue curtains in the novel, and some English professor goes on about the symbolism of the blue curtains, but the only thing in the author’s mind is that the curtains are blue. I don’t like that. If that’s the case, that means some author is wasting details that have nothing to do with the story. Any detail about a person or the scene can by symbolic, or a metaphor, or possibly a portend. If you use a description, make it useful. To try otherwise is lazy and ineffective writing. When it comes to great writing, the devil is indeed in the details. We need to use them, use them carefully, and use them deliberately.

 

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“Art Is All About The Artist”

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Whenever you tell someone that you bought a new book, the first question is, “Who wrote it?” When you buy a new record, excuse me, CD, you hear, “Who’s it by?” if you are quaint enough to still go to the museum (good for you) and you talk about the exhibit you saw, people will ask, “Who did you see?” It took me a while to figure this out, but it seems more than clear to me now that any work of art is about the artist.

Mental Medium

There are many opinions abbot the place of art in society, and many of them consider the role of the artist in this place. There are thoughts like that of Duchamp who thought every thing the artist did was art to the post-modern notion that the artist practically disappears as soon as if the work is done and made available for the public. I’m somewhere in the middle, but it seems clear to me that any given work of art is the best way to see what was in the mind of the artist at any given time.

If you’ve seen the movie Immortal Beloved, which is a about the life of Beethoven, you may recall how the Maestro tells a friend of his how the Kreutzer Sonata puts in sound the agony Beethoven felt when he was trying to get to see his lover, but his carriage got stuck in the mud. Even commissioned art lets us know about the artist more than they impresario. This may be more obvious in the visual arts, such as painting and sculpture, but it is also evident in music and literature.

For Creative Writers

For the author of novels and short stories, I think the notion of voice come to mind as much as anything else. Let’s face it, as writers we are more interested in many things more than getting stuck in the mud. Writers may have a message or a lesson (without being preachy!), but for writers it is much more than placing your thoughts in your work, but making sure you are there. And as I said, the writer’s voice gets the author across more than anything else. The equivalent for musicians and painters and their “voice” is probably true, as well.

If you’ve seen any of these cooking competitions on TV, you will often hear the judges talk about how the chef needs to put themselves on the plate. As a creative writer, we should put ourself on the page. This is more than what you believe on this or that or what you feel about the other thing. It is our personality, our range of moods, and our baseline worldview that should come across in the text. When someone reads something that you have written, they should know something about you better than before, and I mean much more than relaying autographical events of your life. The true creative writer in not afraid to reach deep down within themselves and convey that their true being in a story, in fact they relish doing it.

One of my creative writing professors said often that all fiction is autobiography and all autobiography is fiction. It’s not vain as an artist to think that your stories are all about you. Don’t hide or cower from that notion, but embrace it and fully engage it. It is the best way you can create the best stories that there are in you. And don’t forget to brand yourself and market your brand however you can. It’s your story, make sure it stays that way.

I wrote an article on the author’s voice. If you wish to read it, click here.

 

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Marcel Proust & the Power of a Cookie

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Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust begins with the narrator sipping tea and nibbling a Madelaine. He is instantaneously brought back to his youth where he spent time in his aunt’s house in the French countryside. From there, the narrator examines his life for what makes his existence special and wonderful. He takes a close look at three things: fame, love, and art.

Fame

The narrator is able to climb the ladder and rub elbows with the celebrities of his time. He learns there is nothing special about these people. They are just as boring, just as cruel, and just as depressed and the ordinary man on the street. He learns that virtues and vices are scattered evenly throughout the population and are not balanced with more of the good on the rich end any more that an excess of evil lives amongst the poor. Neither wealth nor popularity made you in any way a better person that the anonymous wretched of the earth.

It may be a common error for the young to assume that there is a class of people up there somewhere who is in some ways better, else why would be not be elevated? Not only is this not correct, but the upper crusts open themselves up to great ridicule because of how poorly they behave and how inferior they are to many of the common people. The grass is never greener on the other side of the fence, and there is not a better life out there somewhere going on in the upper and distant circles.

Love

Later in the novel, the narrator meets a girl on the beach and falls for her, and she is named Albertine. The narrator fixates on her for a few hundred page, but it all falls apart when he is finally allowed to kiss her. He thinks of the nature of humans as compared to animals. Our anatomy is far more complex than creatures of the sea or beasts in the wild. And yet, we lack the essential organ required for kissing, so we substitute our lips. This proves to be as weak of a substitute as animals rubbing noses.

More than the failures of physiology, Proust’s narrator holds out hope that love will cure that one almighty ailment that curses all of mankind – loneliness. By falling in love, we can find that person who will understand us fully and, in some way, complete us, as if we are somehow lacking when we are by ourselves. The narrator concludes that no one can ever truly understand anyone, that the notion of love is pure folly, and we are left to do nothing more than offer beast-like kisses in the dark. And in the end, we are all alone, even the ones who say they are in love.

Art

That leaves only one more area of life remaining, and that is art. It’s not that we need to spend all of our time in the museum or opera house. We need to see the world as an artist does. In the novel, art is foiled by habit. We fall into ruts and do the same thing every day and it is not special at all. Children do not live by any habits. That is why so many things are so special to them, like splashing in a rain puddle, eating candy, or chasing butterflies.

The shroud of familiarity blankets our minds from everything that is truly special merely because we have become so accustomed to them. We are bored by the events of everyday life and think the cure lies in seeking fame or love, which do no give life anything wonderful. The only other ones who see life like a child is the artist. Most people walk over a swampy bridge, but the artist paints the water lilies. A farmer may plow up a nest of varmints and give no other thought, but the poet writes verses apologizing to the mouse and contemplates how their two lives are not too different.

The artist can look at the simple things of everyday occurrence and see it as something wonderful and special and beautiful just like a child. So the solution according to the narrator is not so much to be an aesthete, but learn to look at life as an artist does and take great pleasure in the small and simple things just like a child. Life will be appreciated when we strip away from it all the fluency of habit and fill life with the glory of enjoying the ordinary as something extraordinary.

We see this return to a child-like view of being alive from the very beginning when the narrator is swept to a youthful past by the taste of a Madelaine. He, like any of us, can dispel the boredom and restore the gratitude of life by living like a child who sees every small and insignificant thing as wonderful. Truman Capote once famously said that if were given the choice between reading Proust or the Pau Pau’s that he would chose Proust. I would, too. This isn’t to knock the people of New Guinea. Maybe they just have yet to master to baking of French cookies.

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My Top Ten List of my Favorite Quotes about Reading

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I know that reading is powerful and that great literature has made great contributions to society. It’s good to know that I’m not the only one who thinks that way. I’m sure many of you who read this will share in this sentiment. But beyond this, some of the greatest writers ever have had some wonderful things to say abut the contribution of reading in their own lives and in the lives of others.

10 “Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel as if I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escae and the opposite from escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day in making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real.” Nora Ephron

9 “We should read to give our souls a chance to luxuriate.” Henry Miller

8 “Libraries raised me.” Ray Bradbury

7  “By reading the most interesting minds of history, we meditate with our minds and theirs as well. This to me is a miracle.” Kurt Vonnegut

6  “In the highest civilization, the book is still the highest delight.” Ralph Waldo Emmerson

5 “A fondness of reading, properly directed, must be an education in itself.” Jane Austen

4  “When the Day of Judgment dawns, and people, great and small, come marching in to receive their heavenly rewards, the Almighty will gaze upon the mere bookworms, and say to Peter, ‘Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them. They have loved reading’.” Virginia Woolf

3  “You think your pain and heartache are unprecedented in the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me were the very things that connected with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” James Baldwin

2  “For all I know, writing come from a superior devotion to reading.” Eudora Wealty

1  “The one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy.” Gustav Flaubert

It’s clear that reading great books make you great. I hope these quotes inspired you to read some more. Maybe it inspired you to think of your top ten list of favorite quotes on reading. Post your list in the comment section, or let me know what’s wrong with my list.

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Tolstoy & Art

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There are many theories on art. The one rule of aesthetics that seems to tie them all together is the idea that any work of art is a sure-fire way of putting yourself into the head of the artist. Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy thought that art should not be used as a way of escape, and on this I agree. Art should enable the aesthete to deal with the world, not avoid it. Tolstoy wrote about what really is art and what isn’t in his book What is Art? While he discusses what succeeds as art, as per his vision, and what fails, I tend to allow all that is called art to be art. I make the distinction between fine art and popular art. Fine art makes the aesthete a better person and pop art is the low-hanging fruit of mere escapism.

Tolstoy believed that art, and particularly for him, the novel, should be a vehicle of psychological reform through the conveying of emotions. Sometimes these emotions are beyond mere words and come to us through the storytelling method. The novel was the best way to look at other people that we would see as outsiders, truly learn of their humanity, and extend sympathy to these individuals. By this, we should learn to extend warmth and kindness to people in our lives whom we might not otherwise do so. Tolstoy was a pious man, even though many of his religious viewpoints were far outside the orthodox. He believed that the novel should supplement religion, but not replace it, and a means of learning all about brotherly love, both how to do it and why we should. Tolstoy’s three most celebrated novels are War & Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Let’s see how the Russian master achieves his ends in these great works.

War & Peace

There have been many jokes about the tremendous length of War & Peace, and it is long, although not as long as Proust. But it is a cracking good read and I highly recommend it for anyone willing to invest the time it would take to get though it. While there are many layers to it, we will examine one, which many consider the main story. It’s all about Natasha Rostov. She’s young, free-spirited, and given to frivolity and pleasure, but not as a vice as much as exercises of her youth. She’s deeply in love with her fiancé, Andre, although he is remote and unavailable for her. He does truly love Natasha, in his way, and shouldn’t be thought of as the bad guy because he does not fulfill her.

No, the bad guy in this small fold of the story is Anatol. He’s everything wrong with the youth of Russian nobility and as careless as they come. She falls for him, like he’s working charms over her. She is about to run off with him, but is withheld at the very last. Everyone is furious with Natasha. She has shamed her family and ruined any prospects she might ever have of marrying well (it’s a good thing Pierre is silently carrying a torch for her). It would be easy to write her as a character where the reader shares in the scold for her. But Tolstoy makes her so human and completely sympathetic, that we truly feel for her in her plight. We genuinely hope the best for her. And with this, Tolstoy wishes that if we encounter anyone like Natasha in our own lives, we will not dismiss them as they got what they deserved, but that we will feel their pain with them and show them the kindness they warrant simply because they are folks just like us.

Anna Karenina

There is a character type in Russian literature known as the Superfluous Man. They are the idle rich who gamble, chase skirts, and get in the occasional duel. They are recklessly selfish. This title comes from the Turgenev book, Dairy of a Superfluous Man. I have written an article on this and it is available if you click here. Anna Karenina is the story of what happens to the woman who falls in love with the wrong kind of man.

Anna is a married woman, but falls for the dashing Count Vronsky, in every way the Superfluous Man. And true to his type, he leaves her after he gets her pregnant. He doesn’t want babies, just babes. A foil to Vronsky is Anna’s husband, Karenin. He’s stuffy and uptight, worried about convention and appearances. His wife’s affair with Vronsky, complete with child, upsets Karenin more because of the gossip and scandal it would cause than the fact his wife cheated on him. All three of these can be dismissed as pathetic creatures, and Vronsky really is. But we fall back in love with the married couple as they reconcile. In a touching scene, Anna gives birth and falls sick from the delivery. A broken Karenin weeps for his wife and her child. He forgives his enemies and his life is filled with a happiness he had never known. Tolstoy wants us to know that Karenin is not exceptionally bad, but simply the normal mixture of bad and good that occurs in all of us. And once we see him in us, we will see it in others around us and suspend our judgments and our criticisms.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

While War & Peace may be much longer, The Death of Ivan Ilyich plumbs to depths not know in the lengthier work. Ivan Ilyich deals with matters of human existence in the face of death. Ivan is a high court judge who is cynical, vain, and fussy just like Karenin. He is only interested in increasing pleasure, which for him is really avoiding pain, and maintaining the appearances and decorations of the well-to-do and the successful. While hanging new curtains, a symbol of his constant attempts to keep up appearances, he falls and injures himself. He goes to the doctor and finds out he has a fatal disease, although no one can say exactly what it is.

Ivan has a just a few months to live and spends this time on the couch. His family is only concerned with how Ivan’s death with negatively affect their status and financial standing. In time, they resent Ivan for doing them the discourtesy of dying on them (I never said all of Tolstoy’s characters end up sympathetic). Ivan returns his own spite for them, but alone on his deathbed, he has a long spectrum of epiphanies over the shallowness of the life he has led. He grows aware of the subtle beauty of nature and of the kindness of his illiterate servant, which in turn makes him want to be more kind. He still shows his anger toward his family, but only because they continue to avoid the one fact that we will all die. For Ivan (and for Tolstoy), life should be lived in view of death. And since he was a Christian, life should be lived in view of eternity and judgment. The fact that we will all die should constantly be before our minds, and this should inspire great demonstrations of charity and kindness.

When Ivan dies, all his family sees is a man of no emotions who kept to himself, but what the reader sees is a man who feels true pity and love for those surrounding him even though they do not deserve it for not one second. Ivan is a man of true moral courage and is the potential for every man, only if we would but read his story and learn the lesson Tolstoy wanted us to. Tolstoy wished that his books would make us less moralistic and judgmental. This aspect is ignored by most critics, but his works cannot be fully understood without appreciating this vantage point.

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The Struggling, Suffering, Sacrificing Artist: An Analysis of the movies Whiplash and Black Swan

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Whiplash and Black Swan are both movies about the struggling artist who seeks greatness through sacrifice. In Whiplash it is a drummer named Andrew Neiman, and in Black Swan it is the ballerina Nina Sayers. Andrew is a first-year jazz student at the Shaffer Conservatory in New York, and Nina is a part of the New York City Ballet Company.

Desires & Fears

Both artists desire to become great and well-known, but that is actually too broad and nebulous. What they really want is what is before them. The NYC Ballet just announced they are doing a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. This means new principle dancers. Nina wants to be cast in the lead as the White Swan. But the one cast as the White Swan is traditionally the Black Swan, also, the foil to the White Swan character. Andrew, a drummer, wants to be a part of the Studio Band, the most advanced band on campus.

When we say that Nina desires the role of White Swan and Andrew desires to drum in the Studio Band, we mean much more than a simple want, but a craving and an obsession. The only thing as strong as their desires are their fears. Their fears stem from three places, their parents, their mentors, and the threat of replacement. Nina’s mother, Erica, is a failed dancer and Andrew’s father, Jim, is a failed writer. Both have seen into the world of artistic greatness but for whatever reasons they both fell short. It’s easy to imagine how hard this was for them because they try to protect their children from the same fate. They presume their child will fail like them and try to hold them back in their own ways.

The mentors are just the opposite form the parents. The artistic director for the NYC Ballet is Thomas Leroy and the musical director of the Studio Band is Terence Fletcher. Each of them push their protégés farther than they have even been pushed. This is saying something because each of these young artists push themselves farther than their peers. But by pushing so hard, they may discover what skills they truly possess. Thus, their tutelage is savage and cruel. The challenge for Nina and Andrew is to endure the severity of their mentors and possess the grit to climb on. But each has a rival that makes the threat of being replaced a real danger. For Andrew, it’s the drummer from a lower band he passed up to come to Studio, Ryan, and for Nina it’s the free-spirited dancer, Lily.

Challenges of Body & Mind

There is one terrible fact both artists grasp: they are not ready. In their compulsion to achieve greatness, they realize they need to go beyond their former selves. This takes form as acts of self-destruction. They begin to act uncharacteristically, or even act where some of their more less than desirable attribute move to the fore. Andrew breaks up with his girlfriend because she lacks focus and alienates his family because he would rather be dead and famous, even with a short life and a bad death, than wealthy but someone no one ever talks about. Nina disobeys her mother and goes out to clubs and turns to drinking and drugs and even promiscuity. If the old self is not good enough, then the old self must be destroyed.

This only make sense to the maniac. As you may guess, part of their transformation is a journey into madness. Nina has hallucinations, first of herself and later of Lily. When she sees Lily, it takes the form of fantasy because deep down she knows she needs to be more like Lily. While Nina has the formal precision to dance the White Swan, she lacks the frenetic emotionalism and wild abandon to dance the Black Swan, which is exactly how Lily dances. Nina fantasizes about Lily in order to become like Lily or overcome Lily. These fantastic hallucinations move from erotic to a murder scene that takes place only in her head.

Andrew’s insanity is more subtle. His madness takes the place of falling in line with Fletcher’s abuse. He does fight back against a few of his decisions, but never against his methodology or his cruelness, nor for that matter does anyone else in Studio Band. They have all drunk they Kool-Aide. But his mania is such that while running late for an important gig, he is t-boned by a large truck (does Andrew have whiplash?). He should be in the hospital, but insists on playing. As you can imagine, he is not fit to play and performs horrendously. Fletcher tells him that he is done and Andrew attacks him on the stage. He is kicked out of school and stops playing.

Failure & Success

There is much more that can be said about their slide into insanity, but all of this heads towards the final performances for each, so let’s go there. Still, both are not ready, but just a step away – but what a step it is. Here both fail, the dancer and the drummer.

Nina is cast as the White Swan and is prepared to dance both roles. As the White Swan, Nina is being held up by the Prince. She twitches and he drops her. Backstage at the ballet, Nina has a fight with the former ingénue and stabs her. In truth, she mortally wounded herself, but she doesn’t know this yet. She becomes the Black Swan, complete with feathers and wings, and dances like she had never danced before. After this, she realizes she is wounded and takes the stage one last time as the White Swan for the finale, in which the swan dies. Indeed, the White Swan dies and Nina does as well.

After Andrew attacked Fletcher and got expelled, he reported on Fletcher’s cruelty to the school and Fletcher is fired. Andrew runs across Fletcher in a jazz club and they talk, and in the end, Fletcher invites Andrew to play for a band he has put together. Just as Fletcher’s band takes the stage, he tells Andrew that he knew he had him fired. Fletcher then has the band perform a song for which there was no music for the drum. The band not only had the music, but also had it prepared. It was a tremendous failure of a performance.

Andrew leaves the stage and embraces his father, which in his mid means he is embracing failure. He turns back and sits at the drum kit. Fletcher does not see because he is addressing the audience. Andrew starts playing an aggressive Latin double time swing that introduces one of their songs, Caravan. Fletcher storms over and curses at Andrew, who smashes a cymbal that knocks Fletcher in the chin. He retreats.

The band plays Caravan, which ends with another drum solo. Fletcher nods and even smiles. When a cymbal stand starts to fall over, he sets it back aright. Andrew is playing without fear of failure, but mostly without fear of Fletcher, and Fletcher knows it. During the solo, Fletcher seems satisfies as if all of his effort has paid off and he has finally pushed a student farther than they would have gone on their own and into greatness.

In the end, Andrew kills and Nina dies. But both reached that perfection they stove for all along. And the remaining question is Was it worth it? I’m sure if you asked Andrew, he’d say yes, and even a dying Nina seems to think it was worth it, but remember that this all began with two people who had a desire than ran into the realms of obsession and compulsion. Most people do not reside there. Many of you reading this may like to make it as a novelist. Are you going to succeed without this need and craving? Do you have the grit these two seemed to have? And if you knew beforehand that success would only come through such mean mistreatment and a forfeiture of your sanity, would you still pursue it? These are great questions for any struggling, suffering, sacrificing artist. If you haven’t seen these films, you may want to take a look at them. If nothing else, they are entertaining. It doesn’t even bother you if both go deep. In fact, any movie about a drummer you know it will be cymbalic.

 

 

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The Hardest Thing To Learn In Creative Writing

voice

To be an author, and I mean a good one, takes a lot of hard work and training. The true Creative Writers needs to learn how to develop great characters and wonderful story lines, and how to blend them into a magnificent plot. An author needs to know how to make his people come alive, not only with a genuine and unique personality, but by an individualized speech pattern and vocabulary. And finally, we know how to blend the plot and people in the story with an appealing interaction and effective dialogue. And after all of this, there is still one more thing, and it may be the most difficult thing to get down – the narrative voice.

Voice Is Everywhere

This is how you tell the story, or more to the point, how it sounds. All artists have this distinctiveness about them. That’s why if you’ve studied art, and you should, you can not only distinguish schools, but also artists. In painting, we know what it means to be an Impressionist or a Surrealist, and we know the difference between a Van Gogh and a Renoir and a Monet, or a Picasso or a Brach or Duchamp. In classical music, we know what makes one piece Baroque and another Romantic, and what Bach sounds like as apposed to Vivaldi, or what distinguishes Brahms from Wagner.

It’s the same with great authors. Let’s face it, writers are well read. There is no way around that. And when I say well read, I do not mean in poplit, like Rowling or Brown. I mean the classics, the universally agreed upon greats. The well-read writer will know how Dickens sounds differently from Austen. The great author will recognize the sad music made by the French and the Russians, and how Hugo resonates differently from Tolstoy, Dumas from Chekhov, and Stendhal from Dostoyevsky. The one trained in both reading and writing will fall in love with the Midwestern Minimalism of Hemingway, the New England melancholy of Fitzgerald, and the Southern gothic dread in Faulkner. It’s all there, just like the music lover can distinguish Beethoven from Bartok and the aesthete knows his Rembrandt from his Raphael.

Voice Is Everything

Your voice as an author is what makes your writing sound like your writing and no one else’s. That is the consistent plague of poplit, it has so little individualistic voice to it that it all blends together into one car wreck and train derailment of words and utterances. And now it’s about time I got to the secret for developing a devastating voice as an author. If you’re a Creative Writer, then you are accustomed to disappointments by now. I cannot say this or that makes a voice that is all your own. Was Mozart’s voice determined by using a B-flat in a given piece and not a C-sharp, or a half note here and not a whole note? The long answer is “yes, if” and the short answer is “no, but.”

Everything goes into creating a given author’s voice. It’s our vocabulary and use of vernacular, our word length and sentence length, what punctuation we use or don’t use, and so much more. Our voice is shaped by the times and places where we set our pieces, the themes and subject matter we address, and the overall kind of story we are trying to tell. That is one of the many things that make it so difficult the define voice in so many words, and all the more difficult to teach how to accomplish it. Maybe the best I can do is advise that we as writers be mindful of how everything contributes to voice, either distinctive or bland. With that, be mindful of every choice you make and think of not only how it affects that particular work, but how it contributes to your voice. You may have to edit with just voice in mind like you should for character’s dialogue. I think I have a fair idea of my Creative Writing voice, how I’ve shaped it and where it’s going, but truth be told – voice is something you work on every day you write until that day you write no longer.

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Outline Everything

 outline

I have found that there are two kinds of writers, plotters and pantsers. Plotters outline everything. Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants. They may have some idea of where the story goes, or they may have nothing other than an idea and a character or two. They really wing it. They admit that they don’t know how the story will end.

I’ve heard pantsers say that they can’t outline because it will take away all of the creativity and spontaneity of writing. Of course, this is complete piffle. As a committed plotter, let me assure you that outlining does not take away any of the creativity – in fact, it multiplies it.

Let’s just call it what it is: pantsers don’t know how to outline because they haven’t been taught. And they haven’t been taught how to outline because they haven’t been taught how to write. They haven’t been taught how to write because they never took the time and trouble to learn the discipline of composition.

If I had my way, people who have never studied Creative Writing shouldn’t write or call themselves a writer. You’re not a tuba player simply because you own a tuba or your mommy thinks you’re the best tuba player ever. Like anything else, you have to put in the wrench time. Learning is hard work, regardless of the subject. Creative Writing is something that takes a lifetime to learn and longer to master what you have learned.

Those who have taken multiple Creative Writing classes and have learned the basics know the value of outlining, even the necessity of it. Stories have structure. But more than that, composition is always more of an art than a science. Some people have studied the structure of stories, but still know nothing about who to write a great story.

It’s Not That Bad

An outline for a novel can be done on a Word document or on index cards or on a white markerboard. How you outline and how much you outline is up to you, but please, do something! I truly think that pantsers do some outlining, but maybe they don’t write it all down. I had a pantser tell me once that writing a novel was like playing music, and while I like to read the music on the page to see what notes to play he liked to play jazz. Even jazz musicians read music – it’s called a chart. It has time and tempo, key and chord changes. No one plays notes willy-nilly. Jazz improvisors follow an outline, and in some way, so do pantsers. I’m sure of it.

Instead of music, think of your novel as a university term paper, or more to the point, an advanced degree thesis or even a doctoral dissertation. No one writes a term paper without an outline of some kind. You are writing a creative dissertation and it needs to be organized and based upon some kind of structure. And like all good papers, you build everything around the thesis. The introduction builds to the thesis and the closing wraps things up after the thesis has been proven by the body of the paper. The setting for our story is the introduction and it all leads to the thesis – or in other words, the conflict. All things lead to the climax, the resolution of the conflict, and the denouement takes out of it and into our The End.

The body of our creative thesis is the rising action of our story. Everything that is a part of the rising action needs to help or hinder our hero from achieving or not achieving what he wanted but could not get that set up the conflict. This achieving or not is the conflict. The rising action is the hardest part of the novel to write. We need to know what happens between Once upon a time and They all lived happily ever after. This requires preparation and organization. It requires an outline.

Welcome To The Machine

Stated in the most tedious terms, novel writing is a series of making and correcting mistakes. That’s why writing is re-writing. It may be impossible to come up with a perfect manuscript, but merely one you can live with. Anything that cuts down on the errors should be eagerly pursued. Making an outline for your novel will give you much less to edit out. And there is no better preventative for the dreaded Writer’s Block than the slightly less dreaded novel outline. All of this preparing and organizing tends to fix problems before they begin.

Outlining helps us avoid all of the bad stuff and do all of the good stuff. It gives our novel direction and somewhere to go. We have a definite point A and point B and we know how to get to one from another even if it’s not a straight line. And if we consider the final product, all of the things we like in a really good novel can’t be done by pantsing, but only by plotting. Speaking for myself, my outlines give a better story because it gives me better characters. All of those wonderful sparkles of literary fiction certainly cannot be achieved without an outline, such as portends and symbolism.

I’ve heard people cry against outlining because they cannot be creative or spontaneous if they are following an outline. From my experience, an outline feeds my creativity and is the course of constant surprises. Remember that Creative Writing is almost an organic, living and breathing entity, something that does not so much come out of us but through us from – somewhere. We will still be startled by this we discover as we write, even with an outline, or said better, because of our outline. Some novels are non-chronological. I don’t see how a personal pull this off without some preparation. And on top of that, I don’t always writing chronologically even if the story is. I may skip around, chapter 1 today, 2 tomorrow, and then chapter 5 the next. I could not do that if it was a slave to chapter due to pantsing.

Here’s my secret: I get me ideas for my novels from my dreams – I really do. I write down the basics the following morning and let it sit. I decide what to write and pick two dates, one to begin outlining and another to start writing. I’ll spend six to eighth months preparing and organizing and two to three months drafting. I’ll look through my original notes and set out the road story, then I’ll make a list of potential characters like you see at the beginning of a play. I return to the story and break things into scenes and go back to the characters and flesh them out more. This ping-pong game allows me to develop story alongside my characters. No only do outline give me a cleaner first draft, but a novel where the story and the characters were developed side by side, and I think everything is the better for it.

I hope this advice helps you as it has helped me. And keeping in line with the title of this article, I outlined this post before I did anything else.

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