Friday, March 22, 2013

The Enigma of the Manuscript and the Literary Infusion of Self

Oftimes when reading a literary novel, one imbued with symbols, motifs and characters of intriguing design, when we find ourselves utterly engaged by an authorial pen remote in time and place, one wonders about the face behind the literary facade; not that such biographical insight is necessary for appreciating the finer qualities of a literary work, but it provides a contextual framework for the narrative, an explication of the broader landscape within which the writer labored. For the reader who explores the author’s cultural, political and social milieu, who examines the way in which these influences penetrated the given work, their resultant connection with the novel itself is manifestly deeper; subtle nuances and shades of meaning become luminescent where they might have hitherto been dimly missed. This exploration is perhaps more pertinent to particular writers; Dostoyevsky’s passionate expression, for example, consisted of his singular ability to fuse his private dilemmas with those that were raging through the society in which he was a part. Indubitably, a readers appreciation of his complex novels is vastly enhanced by an understanding of the environmental milieu in which he penned them.

When pondering one's own completed work, or laboring over one not yet fully-grown, can one similarly discern the manifestation of self? It is another exercise entirely for a reader, with your biography at hand, to pick through this passage or that and exclaim "Ah yes, so that is what provoked such and such..." or "of course the book represents the fruition of this political interest or that"... in short, broadly meditated thoughts that (without direct authorial explanation) may have little grounding in reality. For the writer, however, the process of self-narrative examination never attains the lucidity of a first-time reader - after years of intertwined words and phrases, of long-spent time in hunched contemplation of this particular scene, of sweaty embattled efforts to render that character luminescent or to resolve the disparate threads into a tight conclusion - our books are as much as part of us as if our skin forms the parchment on which they are printed, as if the first paragraph is transcribed across the curve of shoulder, the script weaving around scapula and vertebrae. So how then do we look askance with critical eye? Perhaps only with an intervening elapse of time....perhaps as the days gather into weeks, and weeks into a month or two, perhaps then the self-inscribed text beings to fade on skin, mottled and smudged with accumulated weathering and the passage of time. Then when we revisit our work it is with a freshened sense of clarity - not quite the virgin perusal but as close as the literary parent can come.

At this point how much of ourselves can we discern among the pages of our self-inscribed work? Are there any discernible threads that can be picked apart as definitive authorial experience? It is an intriguing endeavor (and perhaps not one which might be readily answered) for our selves are indubitably infused within the narrative, sometimes with deliberate and technicolor intent, often in wraith-like wisps barely discernible in the peripheral vision and gone in full-focus. For myself, there is some element, however ephemeral, of the quintessential-me in every formulated character - can it indeed be otherwise? For if we are to be successful in breathing life into the blue-tinged literary character, to resuscitate, revive and restore them to a vivid intimacy with the reader, is not self-immersion a necessary prerequisite to literary visceral reality? Are we not obliged to reside, however briefly, within the innermost parts of each of our characters? Theoretically one could then, like an onion, peel away the outer layers, peering deep within the dark confines of  fictional-soul to the seed that gave that literary persona growth...for this is where the author lives.

The authorial self is often elusive, evident in varying degrees from one novel and one character to another; present, however, in subtle shades of perspective, of expressed attitude and unstudied predispositions; it is present too in the darker-cast shades of the violent oppressor or the fiendish orchestrator of evil intent - the subterranean, knotted dark urges of the primal self that are denied the light of conscious recognition. Often I think this self emerges in passages of heightened tension; the emotional cataclysm of character, the impassioned interludes, the fierceness of narrative  - in short where the intensity lies. For is this not where the writer needs to draw most upon their own wellspring of emotional experience - to extrapolate and imagine an extended literary fervency?
Not that these authorial threads are so readily differentiated from the invented corpus - a writer is after all a masterful fabricator of imagined realities - but it is an interesting exercise to ascertain not only what an unknown reader might surmise to be authorial insertion, and what we ourselves would recognize to be so within our own works. And doubtless subtle infusions would escape our notice after all: unrecognized projections and sublimated desires that emerge in softened gradations; as if these disparate manifestations of us are veiled behind diaphanous layers, recognized by neither self nor reader.

Leonardo de Vinci's innovative technique (one he defined as sfumato or 'smoke') suggests an intriguing parallel: this consisted of applying a multitude of translucent glazes to the surface of the Mona Lisa, gradually accumulating thirty sheer layers, each most likely delicately applied with the sensitive tip of his finger. In this manner de Vinci softened lines and color gradations until it seemed the entire composition lay behind a film of smoke. Perhaps our work is similarly veiled, retaining a certain inscrutability in the process of bringing to literary life…for with the birth of the narrative landscape and the characters that inhabit it (in all their quotidian angst and fervor) it becomes something independent of ourselves. And while a reader might announce with pontificating definitiveness: “this theme arises from this authorial experience…” the novel itself remains darkly cloaked, the manifestations of self often an enigma to author as well as to those who peruse our work. And should this not be so? Otherwise would not every novel that emerges from our feverish brains be tediously similar? For our subtle infiltration of a given work is often highly contextual: dependent not only upon fine-spun emotional threads but the circumstances of a moment that provoked them; which is perhaps what makes the exploration of our own completed manuscript (a modicum of time-generated distance required) such an intriguing endeavor – like Dr. Livingstone we are pushing through the tangled literary jungle of the self, exploring a thick and heady frontier that potentially yields startling insight to ourselves as well as our engaged readership­­.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Mental Repose, Evolving Creativity and the Literary Dynamism of Group Exchange

We write: laboring with furrowed brow over the formulations of phrase, the long tangled weave of plot and the requisite tightening of narrative resolution; it is a work in which all physical and cerebral effort are directed to task - the muscular discomfort of hunched keyboard-time, breath held and released as the plot waxes and wanes or as characters cooperate or otherwise, the spiraling pressure that begins behind the eyes, the weariness of time spent with minimal word expenditure of dubious satisfaction; the cascading neural network sparks, lights and fades as synaptic connections are crossed and the electrochemical stimulus patterns and reiterates thought and intent. It is a hard-focused endeavor, and as of late I have been pondering the necessity of the literary respite.

Restful repose of the mental kind is not only critical for the phrase-crafter, but has (according to University of California physical anthropologist Katerina Semendeferi) played a significant role in the prehistoric evolution of the innovative mind. In a recent article of Scientific American she delineates clear correlations between increased brain size and complexity (particularly in the prefrontal cortex which appears to orchestrate thought and action to accomplish goals)  and spurred levels of creativity. Scanned studies of ancient hominid braincases and the examination of our nearest living evolutionary relatives (chimpanzees and bonobos) depict a selective disposition, generally speaking, for larger brain size - with our australopithecine kin (Australopithecus afarensis dating to approximately 3 million years ago) possessing a cranial capacity of approximately 450 cubic centimeters to Homo sapiens' 1330 cubic centimeters. This relatively spacious expanse of convoluted gray matter comprised wider inter-neural gaps that enabled a proliferation of axons and dendrites - in other words a more complicated connective framework.

However, it is contemporary psychological studies that cast intriguing insight into the manner in which bigger, more complicated brains spur creativity. Cognitive scientist Liane Gabora of the University of British Columbia has conducted studies of creative individuals to find that they are exemplary daydreamers; when confronting an issue they initally allow their minds to wander, facilitating a languid free-association in which one thought or memory spontaneously conjures up another. This process encourages analogies and gives rise to thoughts that approach the subject from disparate perspectives; until upon settling on a vague idea of resolution (perhaps plot development for the modern writer and the most efficient mechanism of stripping meat from the bone for Australopithecus afarensis) they then switch to a more analytic mode of thought, focusing particularly on the most relevant properties.

Neither Australopithecus afarensis, nor the literary-inclined Homo sapiens could afford to linger in the free-associative state in which one nebulous thought triggered the meandering arrival of another (our chopper-wielding ancestor susceptible to attack and starvation, the latter similarly vulnerable to the ceaselessly blank page on which nothing was ever inscribed). Productivity is dependent upon our default neural state: the analytic mode. A critical feature of the innovative brain was the ability to rapidly switch from one mode to the other by subtle alterations of dopamine concentration and other neurotransmitters. Enjoying a remarkable surfeit of neurons is not enough: mental repose and the free-association that accompanies it are critical for breaking free of the cognitive rut.

Another fascinating feature of the creative human brain consists of the cultural ratcheting process in which creative insights and technological innovations arising from the insights of previous generations are passed on; a cumulative acquisition of understood things. For the writer: literary concepts are built upon, refined, and re-examined; indubitably we learn and hone our craft from the narrative examples of what went before. Chaucer inspired Shakespeare, who in turn continued to influence the writings of numerous others subsequently. There are, of course, a countless array of literary greats in the narrative pantheon, all of whom combine innovative threads of their own in subtle company with those of their forebears. Harold Bloom coined the phrase "anxiety of influence" to describe the effect on modern writers of our literary precursors (the canonical giants I am assuming); whether we admire, deride or are intimidated by them we indubitably read them. Fragments, turns of phrase, luminescent depictions of character, particular world perspectives and methods of transcribing it, infiltrate our own writing mind and however unconsciously influence the turn of our own pen.

The nourishment of our creative brain, however, does not depend solely on cultural ratcheting and the cumulative accomplishments of our predecessors - it is also a matter of social interaction (yes, we must intermittently emerge from our literary cave blinking in the unaccustomed glare of the social spotlight). To elaborate upon this theme for a writer predisposed to solitary scribblings, I turn to behavioral primatologist Lewis Dean's experimental puzzle box that comprised three sequential and incrementally difficult levels. This puzzle was presented to a group of capucin monkeys, chimpanzees, and nursery school children. Of the nonhuman primates one of 55 reached level 3 after 30 experimental hours, whereas 15 of the 35 children had completed the hardest level after two and a half hours. The vital distinction between the two groups consisted in the collaborative nature of the human endeavor; the children, in the process of tackling the challenge, talked amongst themselves, offered mutual encouragement, and shared successful techniques.

Archaeological evidence of innovation is similarly demonstrable within larger groups, or clustered settlements that engaged in frequent interaction. In fact scientists now believe that this final cognitive push for cultural ratcheting was born of demographics - the larger the hunter and gathering band the greater the likelihood that one member will generate an idea that could advance a technology. When population density reaches a certain point we see a correlating spike in evidence of creativity: the emergence of complex technological recipes for lightweight stone blades for projectile weapons; cooking silcrete to a specific temperature to improve its flaking qualities; glues comprised of plant gum utilized to adhere point to shaft, and woven bedding manufactured from leaves of the Crypotocarya woodii tree renowned for its natural insecticides effective against disease-borne mosquitoes. Innovations borne of one or few and rapidly disseminated to an appreciative collective.

In a modern age of jostling, teeming, bustling proximity, where writers seek a self-imposed solitude to work on their pain-staking craft it is an intriguing exercise to ponder on the elements that have been prehistorically integral to innovation promotion. Ironically the very attributes which have been definitively associated with writers (that is writing itself coupled with isolation) can also be better honored in the breach than the observance insofar as the innovative brain is concerned: not writing, relaxing the frenetic burst of neural storms, indulging in a languid array of thought-streams, a leisurely succession of languishing musings that enable free-associative idea-connections. And intermittently eschewing literary aloofness for social exchanges that actively spur human creativity; albeit prudently and selectively chosen networks that support, nourish and stimulate the intellectual self. And of course reiterating the critical imperative to read widely and voraciously, to examine and dwell long upon the masters that comprise our literary heritage - for thence will the process of cultural ratcheting benefit our own particular works - as ours may be of interest to those to come. These are things we know: rest, converse, and read - but their palpable benefit to creatives (writers and otherwise) has, with this recent delving into the prehistoric stirrings of innovative accomplishment, acquired a new and most palpable imperative - a strategy acquired and honed over millions of years, and one which may prove useful indeed to us over the course of our brief and flickering lifetime.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Fate of the Manuscript, Authenticity of Voice and the Literary Heart of the Matter

Pondering the fate of a manuscript: the fluid extension of a much-belabored theme, an extended thought-experiment given life and breath by literary actors traversing the constructed stage. They are borne of us these narrative musings, a manifestation of accumulated understandings, a unique perspective on the quintessential elements of being human. For each of us carry our individual stories etched and inscribed in the frailty of bone and skin - or buried beneath, keeping dark turbulent company with other best-forgottens, the experiences of a life made manifest in dendritic pathways that illuminate the neural network like branched lightening beneath a brooding cloudmass.

Some few of us choose the vocation of writer, or perhaps the vocation chooses us....either way we endeavor to translate this sequence of emotive experiences, squeezing ephemeral wisps into the rigid concreteness of black and white verbiage. These penned narratives are partially our own, but also accrue from our freely-sprung imaginings....a thought given wing. Writers immerse themselves into a fabricated reality, an alternative universe populated by characters made dear by a mental cohabitation that often lasts for years - and even after they have departed from the close confines of mind, after they have taken poignant leave-taking in all published finality, they still remain a vital part of the one that brought them into existence; the parental pen.

But for those authors grappling with innumerable questions of publication, of dancing the convoluted route of query, synopsis, and SASE, for those contemplating alternative avenues - grasping the literary self-publishing bull by the horns and hoisting on the authorial back the exhausting burden of marketing, the fine-print caveats of Amazonian proportion, the electronic frontier, issues of the pre-buy page is perhaps as much an endeavor as the original penning itself. So what is one to do? One who desires, above all else, to string words together, to weave and fabricate a magnificent mirage, one which, like the sultry siren-song, lures the reader ever onwards willingly, passionately, following the word trail to its final conclusion -although one that leads not to foul end (Greek mythological version) but one that enables the reader, like Odysseus, an eventual escape upon novel-completion; they emerge from the reverie, the mists of the literary mirage disperse, and they move on -until, vulnerable to another strain, they are again caught in a narrative - another heart-song heard on another literary voyage.

Given this persistent, almost viral, desire to write above all else, to feel the imperative physically manifest in fidgeting fingers and distracted mind, to be perpetually occupied with plot and character, with another place and another time - it is less a curse or a blessing than a primal drive, an instinct or a physical attribute assigned at birth. Just as we are endowed with hair that is red or black or yellow, with skin that is ivory, dark or we are an eventual product of our past environment and our particular combination in the genetic reshuffle. So we write - passionately, obsessively, frantically without respite or reason. It is an imperative that can not and will not be constrained or denied - not for those of us who are truly and gloriously infected.

But there is always that hanging question - to what end? Our literary babies must be forced into shape before they are deemed acceptable by conventional publishing standards. Spit and polish in copious supply. Stand straight Private! Uniform starched and ironed to perfection if you please. Drills performed to professional exactitude. I have, I fear, always harbored a general tendency to rebellion and cannot imagine blind obedience, revamping to order, or writing to dictates or demographics. Try as I might - and the very thought of attempting such fills me with horror. It seems a form of prostitution. Not that I harbor any such abhorrence to those willingly entering such a profession, but it does seem to denote a fairly cavalier exchange of cash for simulated passion. Life is simply too brief to relinquish passion. And what constitutes ecstasy for a writer? It is the authenticity of voice. It is the unbridled joy of giving literary wing to the inner narrative, of transcribing the imaginative weave and whirl of a world that moves us, of a cast of characters that somehow illuminate and plumb the emotional depths that define us all. It is the ability to write what is in our heart, to give literary voice to the song that reverberates deep inside.

For, like the parent that gave them life, my narrative characters obdurately refuse to follow literary formula or publishing dictates to ensure demographic success - they are unconventional because my voice is a unique one. As is yours. So you must write what compels, for to be true to thyself - that is all. It is, I firmly believe, a matter of the authentic voice, and when a writer finds his or her voice, envisions their own transcendentally luminescent muse, she must be welcomed and nourished - for she, in the dark recesses of the writing-mind, is a deep and fruitful source of tales to be spun. To produce to demand, to twist and scrunch in painful conformation, is to sacrifice her on the altar of mainstream publishing expectations. Certainly if one's authentic narrative voice coincides harmoniously with mainstream literary demand then by all means follow her crooked finger and produce accordingly....but for those of us whose offspring are of a more contorted sort, of hunched physiognomy or dubious countenance, whose manuscripts are less easily placed or deemed of little literary worth due to a lack of genre trend-strength or other somesuch trivialities, recognizing and valuing the authentic voice is not an easy task: oft-undermined by our threaded self-doubt and the multitude of rejection letters.

The heart of the matter for us all is happiness. Are we not all endowed with the inalienable right in the pursuit of it? For writers I propose that the route to such literary satisfaction is a devout and true adherence to our own particular internal muse, our own authentic voice. And if, like Hugo, it demands a chapter detailing the lush undergrowth of Valjean's garden front, or a copious collection of pages to describe the agonized procession of convict carts, then woe betide those of us who ignore it! I advocate a gloriously resplendent declaration of our own particular narrative prose - not to be defined or ordered or managed by business-interest, but standing proudly as an ardent affirmation of our own authenticity.

For if a writer loses that, what is left? Will the muse still whisper in one's ear after being excised and denied to render a manuscript appropriate? (I am not referring to the much-appreciated editorial aid that every novel benefits from - polishing and refining the native tongue rather than warping it) One must write what is in one's heart with utter disregard for anything else; for then it will resound with veracity, with a strong emotive voice, with the ringing authenticity of a narrative deeply felt in the writing of it. And then happiness follows - to have crafted well - one can then rest deep in the satisfied slumber of a narrative artfully done. It is, of course, a damnably difficult rock-strewn path - one must not only find one's authentic voice, but must then trust it implicitly despite detractors (for there will be many), despite publishing obstacles (guaranteed), despite the skeptical eyebrow raise of those dearest, despite economic imperatives otherwise, despite the intermittent despair, disgust and self-plagued doubt - I say persist! Persist and publish - one way or another. And then in return for your devotion, your muse in turn will also be true.

So write your digressions, spin out a chapter or two of intricate backstory, or in convoluted description of tangled garden foliage, follow your imperative, moderate and tweak with a trusted editorial source - and then when all is said and done throw your arms up in celebratory exaltation and give your story flight.