Thursday, November 29, 2012

Shadow Dimensions: Plato's Cave, Wayang Kulit & the Literary Endeavor

Upon completing a fine novel, the last page regretfully turned and closed, the characters and the landscape they inhabited linger in one's mind like a dancing play of shadows, a vague and nebulous interaction of dusky things. I have been pondering the shadow, on the forms created by the casting of light. A writer directs a focused intensity towards a time and place and creates individuals to occupy it; this setting, this landscape, this world (in Shakespeare's immortal words) is "a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances..." The 'players' of this novel are brilliantly lit upon the boards, but it is their shadowed forms, their imagined selves, our own perception of them due to (or despite of) authorial depiction, that continue to dwell in our minds long after the book is restored to the shelves. Captain Ahab never returned to the Pequod, nor did he plunge to his death in the dark depths, but remains still, restless and vengeful, in my imaginative expanse - frozen in that final tableau of rancorous fury, hurling his harpoon at the white whale: "…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee."

Other novels have also created their own particular shadow dimensions: characters and plot-lines that obstinately refuse to depart from your mind - because they transcend the pages upon which they were transcribed. They speak to a deeper part of ourselves, become anchored in our very flesh and bone, all co-existing in some improbable complicated kinship, adjacent, hovering, there in some hard-to-define fashion, like the literary equivalent of string theory in quantum mechanics. Or an impossibly glittering Gatsby-affair to which all literary 'players' are invited, all taking tea within the confines of your mind! The special books, the ones that speak to your heart, their shadow-world hovers the longest, permeating future thought and speculation, filtering through the porous inter-dimensional membranes to solidify within the familiar world through which we meander. Other books, the ones that came and went, sampled and enjoyed, but did not affect one in a visceral way, their shadowed world dissipates more rapidly like the morning mists after the rising of the sun.

The novelist creates characters (as much as I use the word I do so reluctantly, 'characters' have a two-dimensional aspect that implies archetype devoid of blood and bone) that interact in a dynamic interplay of plot and dialogue. These imagined individuals, for the time of reading, comprise our reality, our alternative vision of things, the story so masterfully woven that it becomes for a time our own internal chronicle. Much like Plato's Allegory of the Cave where the chained prisoners perceive the shadowed projections cast upon the wall and believe it to constitute reality. While writers would hardly liken their readership to those imprisoned and forced to bear witness, their narrative is not unlike the dance of shadows that plays across the walls of our minds.

Novelists create shadow worlds, alternative realities that exist within the cranial confines, which have no material counterpoint in our three-dimensional world. We cast shadows upon the wall for our readers, a reflection of a possible reality, a confluence of imagined people within a particular dynamic. Plato's Cave requires the escapee philosopher to return and educate the prisoners as to the nature of their deception, the shadowed narrative of literature, however, can perhaps be understood with the opposite intent; while the Cave display dupes its viewers, the literary shadowplay ostensibly serves a nobler purpose: to further our understanding of human nature, to examine unacknowledged motivations, to illuminate the deeper elements of ourselves that run like sluggish subterranean rivers through our subconscious.  I say ostensibly because there is a power in print, and has been since Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. Access to literature of all kinds has molded and shaped nations as well as the liberties offered or denied their citizens. While books (and by extension their authorial voices) can sway and influence public opinion one must also approach them with a critical eye, and a firm sense of our own morality. I do not assume a nefarious purpose here, but merely bow my head in wary acknowledgement of its potential.

Perhaps another analogy for the literary shadow-dance is the Indonesian Wayang kulit theater: puppets crafted from buffalo hide and mounted on bamboo sticks are cast in shadow across a white screen. The puppeteer, or dalang, is the backstage genius, akin to the novelist who deftly pulls the strings of their fictionalized individuals to move them through the narrative. The writer draws upon their vocal lexicon, the dalang his vocal skills as he modulates his voice to create suspense and heighten the drama. These Wayang kulit narratives typically derive from the Hindu epics of the Ramayana or Mahabharata, with the inclusions of hero/villain and comedic-relief archetypes vividly recognized within humanity's literary compendium from the epic of Gilgamesh to the works of Shakespeare. The dalang, like the writer, seeks to entertain, and his profession is not for the ineffectual or the faint-of-heart: he is an orator of prodigious memory who must be able to repeat lengthy texts verbatim and simultaneously maintain the ability to improvise entire interludes ranging from ribald jokes to philosophical ruminations. He is a scholar of literature, but also of the political and social climate at a national and local level. The novelist today must work equally hard to engage their audience, producing a compelling narrative that resonates on a multitude of levels with innumerable individuals. The dalang is intimately familiar with the nature and symbolic importance of all his hundred-odd characters, and commands the necessary vocal dexterity to give each it's proper tone and pitch. Just as a writer constructs character-specific action, dialogue and context, the dalang presents each of his figures in stances appropriate to their character and situation.

A writer's effort and intent initially is in the production of the material manifestation of an imagined reality - the book itself, a collection of ink-stained pages, a solid three-dimensional construct indubitably a part of the material world (or a combination of bits and binary code for the e-book equivalent); but the writers that are truly great are those whose characters and plots become something more, shadowy inhabitants of our imaginative landscape, with more power in their ethereal immortality within the pulsing crimson warmth of our blood-nourished neurons than they ever possessed as an aggregation of atoms between the covers of a book. Like the dalang, we must seek to cast immortal shadows, not to dupe, deceive, or imprison as served in Plato's Cave, but to elevate and inspire, to scrutinize the human condition in all it's glorious imperfections.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Michelangelo and the Literary Affliction of Self-Forgetting

Michelangelo perceived potential in a rough-hewn block of marble with its textured inclusions, nodules and veins; he envisioned the imprisoned figure within where others were blinded by a blank facade of stone. Writers also see creative possibilities in the drama of a particular time and place, or wrapped around an intriguing event; novels carved from raw material, laboriously scraped and smoothed to a state of polished perfection.

Despite Michelangelo's appellation of Il Divino ('the divine one') by contemporaries, his biographer noted that "his nature was rough and uncouth, his domestic habits incredibly squalid" which served as a singular deterrence to any pupils that might have followed him. This man, this sculptor, this architect, this poet, this engineer, was an artist of the very greatest kind. Is this not a danger to all who become utterly embroiled in their task? Is this affliction of self-forgetting, this disorder of utter absorption that comes at the expense of environmental-mindfulness, this scourge of house-hygiene, common to most engaged artists? Are they not, after all, to some degree or another, enslaved by their muse? A fiercely jealous muse, like the Greek gods of old, who would suffer no competitors?

When buried deep in a scene, when the fictional characters are whispering in my ear, when I am pungently aware of a landscape that exists only in the dark recesses of my mind...mealtimes come and go unnoticed, the ebb and flow of life swirl around in a hubbub of noise and confusion, but I am not there. I have withdrawn into myself, retreated to the shadowy depths where my Golem lives, and where a multitude of worlds await.  Today it is the dark belly of the Parisian catacombs, macabre passageways defined by the polished bones of the dead, where two men wait for me, the yellow pool of lamplight casting spectral shadows across the bone-filled walls. Tomorrow the soft golden warmth of an aristocrat's drawing room, where beautiful women in stiff brocade flirt with their fans, where men in velvet coats, white stockings and buckled shoes, cluster in groups of twos and threes. Where the underlying hum of conversation is interspersed with the tinkle of glasses, the sudden sprinkle of laughter and the lilting strains of the pianoforte. Powdered wigs turn and gossip dwindles as I sidle into the room, conspicuously ill-attired in my rumpled jeans, t-shirt, and sleep-matted hair. "The author..." I hear mutterings, a sniff of disapproval, an eyebrow raised - not all of them are entirely pleased with their literary depiction. Doubtless I am better suited to the company of my cave-dwelling Golem than the early nineteenth century Parisian aristocracy.

 According to Paolo Giovio, Michelangelo was by nature a solitary and melancholy person, bizzarro e fantastico, who "withdrew himself from the company of men." One of the qualities most admired by his contemporaries was his impassioned style, his ability to create awe-inspiring grandeur, terribilità: an intensity of expression in stone, the curl and clench of musculature, the throb and pulse of tendon all frozen in the white purity of Carrara marble. But so vividly vital beneath the mantle of ice that it seems one hot breath will restore them to blood and bone. As Michelangelo liberated his magnificent figures from their white prisons of stone, so writers conjure landscapes and  personalities from the fabric of historical accounts. Like alchemists they will take the mundane base metal of life and transmute it into a gleaming precious nugget of literary gold. The room is cluttered, the person disheveled, the laundry awaits, the dinner hour grows near...but the writer cannot quite return to the bustle of things, for a thread yet connects him to his otherworld, the lingering tendril of a thought that has not quite reached its natural conclusion, the promise of something yet unfulfilled, the lure of the literary landscapes beckons yet with all its possibilities...

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

In Gratitude for the Books

What a thing it is when a child learns to read! When they first associate letter and sound, when they tentatively string the phonemes together and a stumbling word emerges - a word they have utilized in speech for years past, a word that is already imbued with meaning in their heretofore circumscribed world.
And it is at this moment, as understanding dawns, in that magical instant when stapled rectangles of ink-darkened paper become something more; the hitherto strange and alien cipher relinquishes its meaning and innumerable universes open up like petals of a night flower to the immensity of the stars.

The child's world, which has been long embellished with obscure and mysterious symbols, adorning road signs and cereal boxes, becomes something transcendent; and instead of one life, one path (the fate that awaits non-readers) the child becomes an early traveler. Venturing through time and space, learning, absorbing, and wondering; the realization that an immensity of meaningful worlds are encapsulated between the tattered covers of  novels. Books are imbued with magic; they contain the transformative power to incite revolution, to sway and influence: a conveyance of alternative perspective, a vehicle of many truths, the physical manifestation of intense thought.

It is my opinion that the truly great writers are indubitably voracious readers; it is in that subtle dynamic interplay between written narrative and sensory reception. A writer's words are exhaled from the page in a delicate mist, a gossamer tendril of another world that envelops the reader in an imaginative cocoon. The voice of the writer is a whisper in our head, transcending time and space, with literary skill that lingers in our imagination like the fading echo of an exquisitely haunting musical phrase. The words hum and resonate with a vibrancy of something alive, shifting and morphing into something greater than the sum of their parts. The simple sequence of letters is cognitively transformed into the imaginative painting which arcs across the inside of our minds.

One forms bonds with paper-born characters, in a fabricated world interwoven with words and threaded together by thoughts. They emerge from the hazy mists of our mental landscape like a hallucinogenic phantasm, more vibrantly alive than one would have thought possible, and with whom we feel and fear, their heartbeat our own. It is a feat born of magic indeed! Taking the geometric linearity of letters, the sharp punctuation of line, the unequivocal rigidity of consensual alphabetic form and evoking an ethereal landscape within the confines of mind; from stark unvarying form to poetic ether. This is the dazzling beauty of language into which the child is ushered.

It is a powerful thing to be a reader. We are presented with numerous gifts of perspective: visualizing the familiar in strange new ways, and broadening our understanding of that which we have little experience.  While our bodies are confined and constrained, destined to occupy a limited physical space, our consciousness soars upwards in the vast expanse where all things are possible;  the murmured narrative of each new book sighs secrets, discloses thoughts and ideas in the hushed darkness of our minds that we too have entertained. There is a vague recognition of things dimly perceived that only now with this writer, with this book, have been brought into bright relief. One is seized by a thought, captured by an image painted in words, and the connective wisp is established between writer and reader like conversations passed between us in the dark. For we are not merely passive receptacles of the phrase, but we engage with the books that we read, our very selves are altered, our perspective enhanced in a multitude of subtle ways. Victor Hugo declared that "to learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark." To light that flame for a child, to engender and nourish the sparks that will enable their own limitless explorations... what could be a greater gift?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Acts of Literary Madness: Thinking Outside the Wok

Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, a prolific Spanish writer and epicure, declared: “To begin cooking duck at one in the morning is one of the finest acts of madness that can be undertaken by a human being who is not mad.” Pondering on the manner in which writing permeates life, my thoughts are drawn to culinary things and the similarity between the literary craft and gastronomic endeavor.

The pervading culture today often seems to be one of  onward-haste, with convenient shortcuts provided for those who are not inclined towards stove-top labor: frozen meals, just-add-water monstrosities, as well as all things prepackaged, prewashed, and precut that have severed our connection to the greens as well as the earth from which they have sprung. I  receive a weekly organic food-box and routinely shake plumply satisfied grubs from dirt-garnished roots. The vegetables are raw not only literally, but figuratively; they emerge from the soil refreshingly unabashed with blemishes on proud display. There is none of the homogeneous perfection of their neatly-arrayed supermarket cousins, sleek and pristine in their waxy spit and polish; the organic heirloom tomatoes are often hideously swollen and corpulent beneath their multi-hued skin. Our literary works are also fiercely independent products of our own particular mental soil.

This trend towards culinary convenience and the eclipse of genuine cooking produces dishes that are not only lamentably lacking in taste and nutrition, but often conceal an alarming admixture of chemical compounds and flavor injectors that none would selectively choose to consume. A dedicated writer, like the vigilant cook, eschews expediency that exists at the expense of quality. In order to fashion a masterpiece, whether it be kitchen-derived or of the literary kind, the instigator must commit themselves to the process regardless of the required duration; one must take their time, move with deliberate intent, and savor the journey.

A few years ago I acquired a wok. Due to the rapid stir-fry process that suffers no delay once begun, the wok-chef, like the novelist, must be utterly organized before commencing. The vegetables and meats must be julienned, diced, or trimmed, and assembled with the precision of a military operation. The garlic, ginger, and onion form the vanguard and are situated wok-side for imminent deployment. The vegetables comprise the main body of the infantry, the meat stews in marinade, and the combination of sauces: oyster, sherry and otherwise, are poised to bring up the rear.

The culinary quest, for the wok-chef, is the pursuit of wok hei, or the 'breath of the wok', the much-coveted but elusive and particular piquancy that infuses dishes stir-fried in a wok. Like any consummation devoutly to be wished, one must invest the requisite time and effort. It begins with patina, and an obsession with its accumulation; this essentially is the darkly-mottled tarnish that forms in the wok itself, the by-product of residual oils, the richly-savory reward for culinary perseverance which, with each subsequent cooking, augments and enhances the flavor of the resultant dish. The patina-burnished wok, wickedly hot, infuses the quick-tossed food with vital energy, a tantalizing aroma, and ultimately the succulent deliciousness that characterizes wok hei. The consumer of stir-fry, as well as the reader of novels, relies upon the deft hand and sustained dedication of the chef and writer to their respective tasks. The novelist seeks to similarly tantalize the reader, to lure them with the 'breath of the novel', the promise of engage their senses and satisfy their linguistic appetite.

While the wok-chef must proceed swiftly once the stir-fry begins, the novelist has more time. The literary wok hei can essentially be defined as the confluence of necessary things in the production of a particular fictional work: invested time, a dedication to craft and an ever self-critical eye to narrative-improvement. It is obtained through a dogged, indefatigable refusal to surrender, having burned the white flag in preference to waving it. Like the much-relished meal, it is a product of labor, of determined deliberate intent, of time squeezed from the tightness of daily routine, and a vigilant appreciation of the fundamental sensation of things. I have not, as of yet, risen in the small hours to prepare duck as Montalbán suggests but can readily imagine myself doing so. For the writer who seeks the hard-won endorsement of literary wok hei must rub sleep from the eye and rise to the task. For could one not equally say that the labor of years, the fabrication of an alternative landscape peopled with imagined characters, the manuscript, the story, is also a fine act of madness?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Writing Imperative: Vocation or Necessity?

Is writing a deliberately chosen and adopted vocation, worn and discarded like an article of clothing, or instead does literary composition not choose us so much as it consumes us? Is it a desire or a necessity? Or, like many things, is it something more nebulous that cannot be neatly defined in one category or another? Something more complicated. The writing imperative morphs to each particular host, and is manifested in equally disparate ways. Every wordsmith has a unique relationship to their own persistent muse, and attends to her hue and cry in a distinctly individual fashion.

I think I was born with prose inside me; words etched on the whiteness of bone, on the gentle curve of polished rib, tiny punctilious script hidden in the stretch of muscle and tendon, words careering in a slippery cascade alongside the globules of haemoglobin-rich blood. As well as delivering oxygen to essential organs, it also delivers the words to the tongue, or to the keyboard-nimble fingers that fly and flutter across the keys. And this supply of prose is equally necessary to the health and well-being of my mental self as the delivery of oxygen is to my physical self.  While amino acids provide the building blocks of proteins, critical for physical functioning, words represent the individual components required for the construction of an equally compelling narrative.

As in my previous musing, my thoughts dwell on anatomy: the complexities of neural stimulation that accompanies the writing process, and now on the very source of the urge itself. Where else is there to look but into the depths of ourselves? One ponders on the age-long ruminations of the seat of the soul, the ghost in the machine; Descartes dualism and the mind-body problem to which it gave rise. Are mental perambulations the product of synaptic firing and neural connective pathways? Are we indeed the chemical and electrical sum of our parts? And if so (an explanation to which I personally tend) what is the molecular differentiation that proclaims us writers? Not just an inclination towards a thing: for many of us writing is not a casual dabble but a feverish compulsion. A visceral volcanic necessity. Many literary composers start in their very early youth, compiling diaries, scribbling short stories - in short acquiring the habit of making sense of their world through the expression of words. Is there not a comfort in that? For to write it is to, in some way, define it, label it, share it, and ultimately understand it.

Sallust, the Roman historian and writer of 60BCE, alleged: 'necessity makes even the timid brave.' And writers are among the bravest individuals I know - to work painstakingly, laboring for years through the self-doubt and criticism, to remain undaunted in face of increasingly formidable publishing odds, to produce at the end of it all: a stack of paper. A manuscript that pulses with a heartbeat of its own, a distillation of life, an intense physical manifestation of thought. To the ultimate end of publication of one kind or another, where it is surveyed by critical eyes, doubtless assessed by many and found deficient, hopefully inspiring and touching a few.  A necessity borne of blood and bone, the novel for the writer, is expelled as a hard-flung thing. It is of us, but it is also for us, a step along the way in our ever forward progression to further comprehend ourselves and our world.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Flaubert, Writing and the Discovery of Self

Gustave Flaubert declared that 'the art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.' I tend to agree with this appraisal: as we write, neuroimaging of the brain conveys the associated complexity of activated circuitry: chemical intensification across synaptic pathways which flare, flash and flicker across the gray matter that dwells in convoluted snugness within the protective shell of cranium.

Naturally, neural flare-ups are part and parcel of the mammalian brain, but the key, however (as a humble writer and neuro-dilettante understands it) is repetition, intensity and breadth. Repetition of particular practices solidify learning pathways in the brain; imagine these connection of neurons as Frost's tangled pathways through snowy woods, the roads less-traveled are also the roads less remembered. When we engage in the creative exercise of piecing together prose, pondering word choice and mulling over plot development, we are utilizing and stimulating a wide array of neurons across the cerebral cortex. Countless skill sets typical of higher-process thinking are engaged: the transfer and accumulation of knowledge, judgement, critical analysis, induction, deduction, prior-knowledge evaluation for prediction... and of course it goes on. Essentially, not only are we nourishing our brains, enabling the formation of new dendritic pathways and facilitating synaptic connection, but with repetition we are strengthening those pathways; converting Frost's muddied dirt path, obscured by tangled undergrowth, into a mental highway. It is this ability to recognize and activate information stored in memory circuits throughout the brain's cerebral cortex that is critical to creative insight.

Writing is typically defined as a solitary process, a lonely engagement of one. It is in fact a dynamic action in which the writer engages the self.  Writing for Gustave Flaubert was a torturous progression; he believed in, and pursued the principle of finding le mot juste (the right word), which he considered an essential prerequisite for quality prose. Unlike his peers (Balzac and Zola for example), Flaubert was not prolifically published, and it was not uncommon for him to labor for a week over a single page. His most famous work, Madame Bovary scandalized the reading public of 1856, however it gradually became apparent that this novel was the beginning of something new: the scrupulously truthful portraiture of life. The French writer's painstaking devotion to his craft, the nurturing of synaptic connections, and the cultivation and utilization of these numerous high-process skill sets (that are now understood to be by-products and prerequisites for the literary endeavor) enabled Flaubert's masterpiece.

So for us, for the writers aspiring, our primary concern should be simply to write; for it is in the very act of creative composition that we stimulate our gray matter, enabling connections and pathways that were hitherto lost in the foliage. In this process of active engagement we discover facets of ourselves, illuminated during the process of searching, as we attempt to define and understand with ever greater lucidity. It can be a mental struggle: to convert the airy ether of emotional response to the black and white solidity of language which often seems inherently inadequate to the task. So we tax our brains, imagining the most complex of circumstances, detailing subtle character attributes, all portrayed against a fictional landscape where the reader can feel the warmth of the sun and the bite of the wind. And our brains grow further complex like some cocooned creature of alien birth, breathing silently in the blood-nourished darkness. And with the sweat-sheened effort of writing, we gain a glimmer of understanding of who we are and from whence we have come.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Passion of Giverny: An Ode to Monet

"Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment." Claude Monet's perpetual preoccupation was the hue and intensity of pigment, the texture and shape of it molded upon his canvas. My obsession is of a similar sort, although I am a dealer and trader of words, a merchant of the linguistic phrase, my canvas a literary one...but perhaps no less artistic. I am painting a novel after all. Each scene a picture portrayed within the confines of the reader's mind, brought vividly and pungently to life with a few selective adjectives...with a unique coupling of words that resonate long after the sentence has ended. At least that is the objective. The hope. That the words will linger and echo. That they will precipitate a sensory cascade within the mind of another.

In Giverny Monet created and tended his splendid gardens, then proceeded to paint them from every particular angle in the early gilded light of morning when all was infused with bright possibility, to the dim huskiness of twilight when colors deepened, saturated with a darker maturity of the coming night. Monet painted. The endeavor, however, was far more all-consuming than the simple coupling of subject and verb suggest; it comprised the essential meaning of his life, the element which contributed a vibrant awareness, a joyful obsession that, quite simply, made him happy. Humble fellow artist though I may be, I presume to understand his simple happiness in the pursuit of a creative obsession.

I cannot see beauty in the world around me but muse and wonder: how can I express that? How can I put into words that silent wonder, that moment of speechless appreciation of the utter beauty of things, that must, if we are to pursue this particular endeavor, be translated. Words that somehow approximate and convey the immensity of reverence, the unfathomable recognition for the beauty that exists all around us in small and quiet things. Lying on the grass under the sun-filtered trees, I gaze up at  the fragile underside of leaves, veins delicately traced in light and shade, some lit to an impossible brilliancy of verdant green, others cast into darker shadow. Comprising in its entirety numerous subtle shades of malachite, lime, and patchwork of olive; shifting, moving, swaying with the gentle rustle of wind through the branches, a golden patchwork of light falls like discarded lace on the ground. And there echoing through my mind is my insistent muse, my demanding muse, my editor-in-the-making who clamors: Write this! Write this! 

For like other mere mortals, I struggle with that incessant need to record for posterity. Make this moment eternal. Capture in words the luminescent beauty of nature that is there for a moment and then gone, leaves lit to incandescent jade, then gone, dark and obscure as the sun dies beyond the horizon. A pressure to memorialize. Common to all writers perhaps? To be utterly honest, and I feel that within the confines of my blog complete veracity is indeed mandated - Monet is not my favorite painter. I am less of an Impressionism appreciator than a realism advocate. I admire Carravagio and van Dyck. Perhaps it is because their masterpieces are more easily translated for a humble wordsmith such as myself - tortured torsos depicted in painstaking can perceive the sweaty sheen of muscle strained, the agonized rolling of the whites of the eyes...

But Monet, favorite or otherwise, teaches us an incalculable lesson: discover your passion, cultivate it, protect it, examine it in all the varying illuminations...and, most importantly, enable the joy. The pain will be there but only from the frustrations of inadequacy, the feeling that the exquisite beauty cannot be captured, in pigment nor in words...but humans strive onwards, struggle to reach a plateau of self-perceived perfection. For myself, if I can succeed in describing the way light caresses the leaves of trees as it dances in light and shadow across the mossy ground, if I can approach in words what Monet managed in paint, well then I would be joyful indeed.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Creative Receptiveness and the Dark Solitude of Night

I am plagued by recurring insomnia, and often find myself wandering dim hallways and rooms in the velvet solitude of night. It is a rare thing these days to really encounter quiet; we are perpetually assaulted by the clamor and clatter of a frenzied life, the subdued hum of mechanical things, the blare and blast of commodities packaged and televised, the strident demand of those seeking your attention - from the general pandemonium of children to the shrill voice of phone and text.

 So I rather relish the quiescent shadows of night, where shapes loom indistinguishable, where the utter stillness can take on an ominous aspect. The late hours, or the small hours if one stays up long enough, are rich with possibility and stimulate latent imaginative pathways...perhaps it is the relative obscureness of familiar things, where contours are shrouded and masked, where pale lunar radiance moves in strange and unexpected ways, sending intermittent shafts of shadow and light through soft curtains or across the woodgrain of floor. Perhaps it is the monochromatic palette, where the resplendence of color is muted into varying shades of black and gray.

There is an inherent peace where one's mind can venture forth, unfettered by the continual interruption of quotidian babble which diverts and distracts from musings of a lengthier sort.  And when one is wanting to mentally pursue the incandescent muse as she flits through ones mind, leaving a faint trail of phosphorescence in her wake, it is quite magnificent to be able to give full rein to the inclination. It is often in this semi-somnolent state of drowsy, the night wind whispering darkly rustling secrets in the leaves beyond the window, when dreams still linger in the shadows of the mind, when things are not what they seem, it is then that aspects of my novel, literary threads that I have been following like Theseus in the Minotaur's maze, come into greater relief. There is a half-profile of my heroine, a furtive glance over the rounded paleness of  cheek and chin, a half-crouched urchin, more dirt than flesh, a pickpocket...a child of the sewers and fetid backalleys. A proud man is there too - perhaps a sailor, robust and weather-stained with salt-encrusted hair. A corrupt politician, with a sharply versatile intellect of devious intent...they appear and are gone in the dark shadows of my mind.

The world, at night, is a fragmented version of itself, where the brilliant intrusion of sound and color are excised, leaving only a silent landscape of shadowed greys. It is a muted place. A haunted place. But a place where writers, perhaps, have unrestrained access to the deeper creative possibilities of self. A place where the barrier between realities are blurred, where our alert consciousness (and perhaps our propensity for self-critique of a negative sort) is muffled and softened...a realm inhabited by our fictional friends who whisper on the wind if we are inclined to listen.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Patience, Tenacity and the Mental Seedling

Novel writing, in most cases, is a labor and time-intensive pursuit, with countless hours of frustrated musings over word choice, plot intricacies and character development. Not only is it necessary to carve out writing-time, often intermittently available as family needs and financial obligations allow, but once you sit, fingertips poised, in front of the computer, the cursor blinking rhythmically on the screen, it is also a matter of maximizing the efficacy of that golden moment seized.

I have come to the conclusion that it is a matter of trust. Of self-trust. The novel, like a seedling, germinates within the rich mental earth; establishing itself with  delicate root-tendrils that burrow through the neural cortex with ethereal intricacy. Then it is purely a matter of nourishment, sun and water for seedlings...and patience and tenacity for writing. Often one talks of the literary muse and the inspiration that accompanies it like some kind of celestial grace that endows the writer with elevated abilities, elegant prose delivered with enviable ease. Alas, that muse is a stranger to me - much as I would give to make her acquaintance. (I will adhere to the Greek tradition and proclaim her a she of three).

So regardless of whether the writer has twenty minutes snatched from the obligations of routine and necessity, or whether they are so fortunate as to have a half-day set aside for the creative endeavor, or (blissful thought!) the leisure of a writing day all to one's self (for Virginia it was a room, but today, perhaps it is time) the key, I believe, is simple perseverance. For the humble mortals of us, the muse is a capricious companion that cannot, ultimately, be relied upon. She might flit through our minds with gossamer rapidity, briefly illuminating a suggestion that, like the seedling, might become something fine. But she will not condescend to write the novel. I cannot imagine her undertaking a labor of sweat (or would she delicately perspire?) and regardless of how talented and prolific one might be, certainly, the work of a novel does, at times, require a Herculean effort from us all?

Each novel is a product of our allotted time; the duration of which depends upon numerous extraneous obligations that define our lives - excepted are those oh-so fortunate few that make their living at this extraordinary endeavor. The time constraint sits heavily upon me. I have, by some marvelous achievement, obtained a quiet hour in which to work - so, fingertips poised, cursor blinking, the seedling waits in the dark. Waits for some dim illumination that pale green leaves might uncurl themselves and swelling buds might burst into bloom. So even if, within that narrow band of snatched-time, I formulate a single phrase that possesses something within it - something alive - then that is a progress that I am delighted with. In an era of instant-gratification and headlong-onward rush, the writer, I believe, must practice a patience with production and  a tenacity with the craft, however slow-moving that process might be. The novel is there waiting, as surely as the well-watered seed will grow into a tree - it is just a matter of time, trust and tenacity.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Verbiage Disorder: Method in the Madness?

Phrases perpetually run through my mind; some streak through the darkness in a comet-cascade of light, brilliantly illuminating literary possibilities, terminal ends shrouded in darkness...the beginnings of something, the suggestion of something; like genetic introns that were long maligned as mere redundant code. I am sure this is an affliction common to writers - the verbiage disorder. Symptom: an obsessive preoccupation with words and how they can be manipulated, combined and associated to best express an improvised schematic.

Other phrases tease with the glimmerings of something, but never really materialize... subsiding into the mental depths with barely a ripple marring the surface, remaining obscure despite my best conscious efforts to examine them, turn them over in my mind, with the intent of utilizing them to best effect. But at times, it seems, when one approaches these dim utterances one must do so on the sly, stealthily from a dark corner as if one must seize them unawares; for caught in the full glare of light they can evaporate into nothingness. Isolated words, like individual amino acids in the formation of proteins, are imbued with potential. Some can be teased into existence and others remain stubbornly elusive.

In the solitary endeavor that is writing, it is easy to misunderstand, particularly if you are of medical leanings, anxious to prescribe, to cure, to rehabilitate. For we must appear to be quite mad - muttering under one's breath, considering phrases, rejecting them, tasting and savoring the sounds of words as they are formulated on the tongue, as they are expelled in breath. For Shakespeare has set us a precedent (as have many others) for the poetic expression of voice and I stubbornly maintain the most impossible of standards and aspirations for myself. The words strung together need to express something exquisite - the breath of life - the infusion of humanity...these are simply ink on a page after all. With the right words we create in our reader's minds something more - something three-dimensional and breathing that simply enthralls.

Often it is the simplest of impressions that can be the most powerful; Hemmingway referred to the smell of 'swept dust, wineglass rings and coffee spoons' in a morning cafe, and despite none of these items typically stimulating the olfactory apparatus, one can imagine this scene so vividly -the early light streamed through opaque windows and cast pale golden squares across rumpled tablecloths stained with coffee spills; dust motes (the unswept ones) are caught, held and gilded in the sunlight; the very air seems infused with a heavy fatigue: of revelers departed, of conversations faded, of the diminishment of things. And for the aproned man, who now wearily washes coffee cups behind the counter, there is the languid notion of having seen it all, done it all and still being confronted with the dawn necessity of rising to the task yet again. A winebar that does double duty as a coffeeshop - catering to the late and early trade. Sisyphusian labor. All of these literary extensions run through my mind in response to Hemmingway's incandescent phrase, a coupling of seemingly commonplace words that together invoke magic of some kind or another - magic that stops the breath in my throat and makes my fingers itch. And I want, more than anything, to write, to attempt to capture just a little bit of that magic, to weave the story, create a scene, that evokes so much more than the simple words themselves are able to express.

It is an unceasing matter this writing thing. It haunts my sleepless moments. My characters (who have yet to be fully formulated) hover in my mind like translucent ghosts, gossamer promises of what can be if I can harness the magic of that incandescent phrase. So I mutter to myself, a hopeless victim of the verbiage disorder, with less method than madness I fear - but in utter awe of the transformative lucidity of language.