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Marcel Proust & the Power of a Cookie

mad

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

BSWL

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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Job #1 For Creative Writers

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As an author, you may feel as if you have many things you must accomplish when you sit down and write a story. But with all things, we need priorities. There is one thing all Creative Writers must do before they try to do anything else. First and foremost, tell a story. If you are a Creative Writer, you are a story teller first and foremost. This goes for novels and short stories alike. This seems as if it is so obvious it shouldn’t need to be said. But guess what? It does.

Some people get it in their head that their story needs to be about something. And while things like theme could add to a story, it is never more important than the story. I hate it when someone asks a writer what their story is about, and they go to discuss the themes and principles they are trying to get across. No! when someone asks you what your story is about, tell them what it’s about, not what it’s about. I hope that’s clear.

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I’m Lagging Behind On My NaNoWriMo Project!

lag

I’ve been a part of the National Novel Writing Month since 2011, and I’ve won every time. In case you don’t know, the purpose of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words of the first draft of a novel in 30 days. I usually crush it, done often by Thanksgiving. But I am so woefully behind. I might not make it this year (I will make it, don’t worry). Maybe you’re a bit behind, too. And if you aren’t now, you will be. Here’s my advice for myself, and I hope it helps you, as well.

No Stress

I may not win at NaNo, and you may not win. Big deal, right? There’s no prize, no money. So why do it? To say I did it. And if I don’t make it, will they send people out to my place to beat me up? No, so why worry about something so arbitrary as 50,000 words in 30 days?

Find Ways To Relax

One way to destress is to relax. I like to listen to music when I write. I don’t think about things like word count or hours put in until I’m done for the day. If I get stuck, I watch TV, and something usually pops in my head before too long. Stress will wreck any writer, especially one who tries this crazy contest where you don’t even get anything for winning.

Read Past NaNo Wins

All of my past NaNo projects not only hit the 50K in 30 days mark, they went on to be published novels. My last year’s project is done and will be launched at the beginning of December (I’ll let you know all about it when it happens). You can read your old stuff and either say, “Wow, I’m a good writer,” or, “Wow, I’m much better now than I was then.” Either way, you come out feeling good about yourself now.

Try The Big Picture

A lot of NaNoers win, but then drop it. What’s more important, hitting the 50K or finishing and publishing your novel? You can do both, and try for it. But if December comes and you’re less then 50K, keep on writing anyway. No novel is done after the first draft and most are not even a first draft at 50K words. Win or lose NaNo, just finish your novel and get it out there in the world.

This has been a brief article, but I need to get back to my novel, BOSS. I’ll let you know all about it next year or the year after when I get it published.

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Keys To Success

keys

All of us have some sort of aspirations for our Creative Writing careers. Success is different for each of us. While we may realize that triumph does not come about merely by well wishing, too many times we act as if it will. True victory in life, regardless of how we define it, will only come about by focus and dedication.

Like A Dog On A Bone

Have you ever seen a dog chew on a bone? He knows it’ll be a long and difficult process, but I have never seen focus in my life more than a dog on a bone. When I see that a dog has a bone, nothing can distract him from his task at hand. Even time does not weary him. You cannot take it from him, and after trying once, you’ll know not to try again. Not only will the dog win that tug-of-war, you could receive a war wound from this. You don’t even want to pet a dog when he’s working over a bone.

If we are going to find success in life, we needed to be as focused as a dog on a bone. Some people strive for success, but give up when the meticulousness of achievement wears down on them, but not a dog. Certain folk desire achievement, but strangely will let others take it from them. They don’t have the dog on a bone mentality. And just like a dog doesn’t like to be petted when he as a bone, we need to be weary of friends when it comes to our accomplishments. Our loved ones can be the one thing that can derail our victory train, and only if we let them. We don’t want to hurt our loved ones, and yet we will allow them to hurt us by blocking us from achieving ultimate victory in life.

Like A Gazelle Being Hunted

Sometimes you can define something by looking at its opposite. Success is not failing. Life is a pass/fail exam. So to do the things that keep you from failing will be in line with carrying out what you need for success. This is important because some people feel as if they can still fall just short of their aspirations and still be considered successful. That’s like saying you can strike out in baseball but think of it as a home run because you were close. If you strike out, you are out. No one in archery misses he target and yells, “Bulls eye!”

From the Bible, the sixth chapter from the book of Proverbs deals with the need to be industrious and productive. In the fifth verse, Solomon says, “Deliver yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter.” For a gazelle, success is not getting killed. Failure is not acceptable. Close enough and almost there still leave you as a trophy head on someone’s wall and steak dinners for the family. Run toward success, but also run away from failure. Run as if failure cannot be acceptable. Succeed or die! This is the only path to victory.

Going To The Mattresses

We have all heard the phrase “go to the mat,” especially when it is someone telling us how committed they are to some goal or project. They are willing to “go to the mat,” in other words, do what ever it takes to accomplish what they want. The phrase has grown threadbare and means little today, but its origins should breathe new life into the power of this claim.

It comes from the 1972 movie, “The Godfather,” and actually the phrase is “go to the mattresses.” Clemenza tells Pauly to see a guy downtown about picking up a bunch of mattresses (about 25 of them) because “Sonny is ready to go to the mattresses over this thing.” To go to the mattresses is gangster slang from this time meaning to go to all out war with a rival gang. These mobsters would have several rooms with nothing but mattresses covering the floor. These were for the soldiers in this makeshift barracks of sorts. If you are at war with another gangster, you are either on the street to kill someone or sleeping.

If success for us is just a little “it would be nice to” kind of fantasy, we will not succeed. Achieving our goals or not is the difference between eating and being eaten. It is winning and losing a war. All of these phrases have to do with survival. Human achievement is unique to people of dedication, and we need to keep it. We should all want something we can focus upon. If we have no dreams, no aspirations in this life, if we are not noted for accomplishments, but merely eat and sleep, nothing more, then we might as well be animals since this I how they exist. Dreams make us human and reaching them keeps us truly alive in every sense of the word.

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Your Muse Is Dead!

Someone had to say it, so I did. You’re Muse is dead, and so is mine. All of the anger and denial in the world cannot change that fact. You may feel as if the grieving process is setting in, but for those who are in mourning, my advice is to get over it, and as quickly as possible. This may be a terrible thing to say to one in sorrow for the loss of a love done, but the truth is not so much that you’re Muse is dead. More to the point, she never really existed.

The Trouble With Muses

We are all familiar with the Classical Muses. They were nine spirit-being sisters that belonged to the Greek Pantheon. It was their responsibility to provide direct and immediate divine inspiration for all artists. Ancient writers, such as Homer and Virgil, as well as ones closer to our times, like Milton and Joyce, appealed to the Muse to help them compose.

The Muse has become a symbol today for whatever inspires a writer. This could be something as broad as observing some interaction between folks that gives the writer an idea for a story. Or it could be a conversation overheard that the author feels may be reworked and put into the next novel.

There is another use for the figure of the Muse and that is to have her stand for motivation, and that is just sad. Many writers, including yours truly, have used a lack of inspiration as an excuse not to write. “I can’t write today. I’m just not inspired.” Does that sound familiar?

This excuse does not work in any other professional field, so writers should not be so especially privileged to avail themselves to it. Never has a lawyer failed to appear in court because he did not feel like practicing law that day. You’ll never hear of construction workers sitting about waiting to be inspired. And there has never been a teacher who missed class because of teacher’s block.

Writer’s block is another example of people blaming the absence of a Muse for their lack of productivity. When you get down to it, writer’s block is nothing more than attempting to write a perfect first draft. There’s no such thing as a perfect one-hundredth draft, so a perfect first draft is an ontological impossibility.

It was this drive for a perfect first draft that made me edit fiercely as I wrote. It took me almost four years to finish the initial draft, and then another four years to rewrite it properly, even though I’m sure it could still use some work. I would spend days on a paragraph and weeks on a page, all to make it flawless before I move on.

This mindset carried over into my second novel. I suffered from writer’s block for five months. It wasn’t because I didn’t know what came in the next scene. I was compelled to get it perfect the first time, and my Muse didn’t rescue me! There’s a surefire way to conquer writer’s block, and that is to get over your self and write. We need to give ourselves permission to write badly, as long as we commit ourselves to editing enormously.

Dedication Over Inspiration

Instead of waiting for the words to mystically come to you from above the bright blue, maybe writers should just hunker down and write. You are not going to feel Inspired to write every day outside of a self-governing motivation that is arises from your commitment to being a writer.

If you only sat down to compose when you felt this bit of Inspiration, then not only would you not write every day, but it’ll be at different times and different days. That also means you would have to write while in the shower or while driving or even while you are sleeping, because Inspiration may come at any time and under any circumstance.

If taking over the world is your measure for success, then it is time we went to the garage and pulled out a certain tool needed to accomplish this: the Ladder of Success. Notice that it is not the Elevator or the Escalator of Success. It’s also not Star Trek’s Transporter of Success, nor is it Doctor Who’s Tardis of Success. It’s a Ladder.

A Ladder only works because you climb it slowly one wrung at a time. You climb it by pulling yourself upward. That is how success is accomplished – slowly, one step at a time, and by our hard effort. No one pulls you up, and no one pushes you up. You are on your own. You may receive some help now and then, but basically, no one will make you successful but you.

Climbing the Ladder of Success means setting goals. Some people climb the Ladder of Success only to find out too late they set it against the wrong wall. You need to know what you are trying to accomplish. You need a clearly defined meaning of Success.

Setting goals means you must establish priorities. These are the means by which you accomplish your goal. The college student who strives for a 4.0 GPA will not be out every night with friends, but with his textbooks. He won’t be hanging out eating pizza, but hanging tough digesting the course material. He will be out of his dorm room, but not out on the town, but studying in the library.

The creative writer has his definition of success, and knows there must be effort put into platform building, online social media networking, and marketing designs. But all of this is unpulled taffy if the writer is not committed to the craft of writing to the point of writing every day.

So your Muse is dead. Big deal, she never existed anyway. Or maybe this can be said another way. Maybe your Muse is not dead, but alive. Maybe she exists in you because she is a living part of you. Best said, she is you. Creative writers who are committed to success realize that they are their own Muse.

Where do you get your Inspiration to write. what do you do when you need to write but you don’t feel Inspired? I would love to know. Let me know in the Comment section below. I would also like to encourage you to Share or Tweet this if you liked this. Maybe your friends will enjoy it, too.

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