Tag Archives: Inspiration

Life is a rough draft

A few weeks ago, I posted about my surprise at the fact I am now writing a novel. The result of a New Year’s resolution, I wrote and revised 30 pages fairly quickly.  Since then, the focus of the story, and even the main character, has completely changed.

In the time since the last post about the novel, I attended a workshop, perused several books related to novel-writing, read parts of over a dozen books and two dozen articles online for source material.

For the record, I recommend The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the
Story Beneath the Surface, by Donald Maas. I chose this text at a time when I felt bored with what I was writing. I realized that instead of writing the scenes that excited me, I had become caught up in stringing together the scenes, trying to shape the plot. I felt that I was tied up in the surface, and from this location, started to hear the voices that say “What makes you think you can write a novel, anyway?”

I realized that I am not a plotter. While I like knowing, vaguely, where I am going with the story, the excitement I feel for writing a novel is most vibrant when writing the scenes with the most emotion. In my journal I like to write around the character, to gain a deeper understanding, free writing thoughts about her and her relationships, her profound memories.

The story, as it is taking shape, is now focused on a different character than before. The setting is still the same, but now more concise in the amount of time it covers: roughly 1942 to 1954, in Mexico City, D.F. The characters are expatriates from Europe, who escaped the turmoil of the war to land in Mexico (some, by way of NYC). The main character is originally from northern Spain, lived in Paris as part of the surrealist community of artists and writers, and now finds herself as the “glue” holding together the small expatriate group of friends living in tenement-style housing in Mexico City.

The “so what” of the story is her self-realization; not earth-shattering as an idea, but the rich detail of her experiences and of her memories of Spain and Paris,  combined with complicated relationships with the men in her life, will enrich the story.So will the evolution of her friendships with two (artist/expatriate) women, which will slowly uncover her greatest fears and the barriers she has allowed to form that keep her from fulfilment as an artist.

Woven in: interactions with Mexican artists and writers, and the complicated artstic environment at a time when Mexico (at a national level) struggles to create a national identiy, elevating yet inevitably trivializing the “indio”; a schism between mestizo, indio, and euro that subtly influences her relationships with local artists, and her own self identity. Over time, she will distance herself from the old ties to Paris and the surrealists, particularly those who play into the notion of “woman as muse” vs. artist in her own right. She will identify the sources of her own inspiration as an artist.

This is a very long way to say, sometimes when working on a HUGE project, it is necessary to step back, reconsider the focus, reconnect with the source of inspiration.

Ask: “What is most exciting to you in this work?” This matters.

I realized that my first attempt (focusing on a character loosely based on Leonora Carrington) did not have as much potential for inner conflict; the character was somewhat terse, steady, wise. I felt that I was lured into biography (her life is fascinating enough as it is without being fictionalized). The second attempt tried to encompass a triad of main characters/artists, with changing points of view, but I realized that could get confusing, and might short change each character.

This new attempt–well, we’ll have to see. Only a few loose and freely sketched scenes exist at this moment. But just in the past week, I have been able to sit down and write several pages at a time, feeling the enjoyment of writing. I think that is what it is all about, as I learn how to write a novel.

Jorge Luis Borges said that “writing is nothing but a guided dream.” There is joy in dreaming.

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Poetic Imagination vs. Fantasy

I have been thinking about imagination as compared to fantasy, for several reasons. I am reading the French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard– systematically reading each of his books related to the imagination.

I have also engaged in conversation recently with a friend and colleague who does not consider himself in the least imaginative; he is an Accountant, who believes that artists create from a mysterious source of talent, and that he could never create a work of art. He asked me, “Isn’t writing poetry an escape? Isn’t that why you do it?”

In our conversations, I clarified that I do not see poetry (reading or writing it) as an escape from reality. In my experience, poetry is reality. However, I appreciate the opportunity to think in more depth on this topic; why read and write poetry?

I do not have a tidy answer to this question. As a related digression (slash, smokescreen) consider the following passages as a brief illustration of the difference between imagination and fantasy.

Bachelard’s Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement, is one of his texts that deals with each of the four elements as a phenomenological exploration of the imagination. He shares the following passage from Rilke, which he calls a “very pure document from the point of view of the dynamic imagination . . .”:

Then there was a street. We were going down it together, keeping step, close to each other. Her arm was lying across my shoulders.
The street was wide, with the emptiness of morning, a boulevard slight downhill, sloping just so much as would be needed to take the little bit of weight from a child’s step. She walked as if little wings were on her feet . . .

The sensation, Bachelard points out, is “lightness”, which is an essential characteristic of flight as experienced in dream.

He points out examples, as well, of writers who do not manage to capture the essential sensation of flight. The writer creates a fantastical experience of flying in a dream. This passage from a writer, Jean-Paul:

This flight, in which I am sometimes climbing and sometimes rising straight up with my arms beating like oars, is a real air and ether bath for the brain, voluptuous and restful–if it were not for the fact that the too rapid strokes of my arms in my dream make me feel dizzy and lead me to fear brain congestion. Truly happy, exalted in body and spirit . . . etc.

In this passage, the writer attempts to convey a story about an event, i.e. a rationalized dream of flying. Frankly, this writer is “trying too hard”; he seems to have a thesis or end in mind, rather than re-experiencing a sublime experience.

I see a difference between imagination, and an intentional escape from reality, or an intentional attempt to create a fantastical world, as in Fantasy and Science Fiction.

I love Science Fiction, however I have no illusions about it; I read it to escape. The best Science Fiction makes you think differently about society as a whole, and about our own part in creating the future society. There is often a thesis. I now feel lukewarm about Fantasy, however, as a child, Fantasy stories were food for a hungry imagination. Perhaps reading Fantasy primes the mind in some way? I will make sure not to denigrate Fantasy.

As in Fantasy, a poem exists within a particular context, in which the images relate in their own “system”, if you will.

But Fantasy exists in a world that will never be (Science Fiction exists in a world that could well be, so, look out!).

Poetry doesn’t need a thesis, and the best poetry doesn’t lead you into an imaginary world just to leave you there, stranded. The best poetry is rooted in real experiences, with enough tempting images to lead you deeper into an idiosyncratic understanding of the Real.

Poetry says:

Celebrate and develop your idiosyncratic mind, your unique perceptions of the world around you.

Have the courage to let the reader manage their own journey, but give enough substance to sustain them as they go. Don’t expect them to arrive where you want them to; do point them in the direction of something intriguing that intrigues you.

Where does poetry come from?

This may seem like a silly question: poets write poetry. But there happen to be different philosophical perspectives about the source of poetry. One idea proposed (and embodied) by William Blake is that poetry is “dictation” from an outside source. Later (in the 1950’s and 60’s) poet Jack Spicer elaborated upon this idea in the following excerpt from his Vancouver Letters:

I think that the first kind of hint that one has as a poet, after having written poems for a while and struggled with them, a poem comes through in just about one-eighth the time that the poem usually does and you say “Well, gee, it’s going to be much easier if I can just have this happen very often.” And so then you write 17 or 18 different things which are just what you are thinking about at the particular moment and are lousy. It isn’t simply the matter of getting a fast take. Its something else. But the fast take is a good sign that you’re hooked up to some source of power, some source of energy.[1965]

I gather from Spicer a reverence for an unkown outside source from where he received “energy”, and at energized times the poetry flows unhindered. I think we’re back to the question of inspiration (and, for poets, it behooves us to wonder where inspiration comes from). Inspiration may feel like an outside entity. I feel cautious about placing my hopes on an outisde, objectified entity, because it places me at the mercy or whim of this outside force. Or, if I make a mistake and am not reverent enough . . . what then?

I do believe that as an artist or poet you learn more and more every day about the circumstances, states of mind, and general state of physiological comfort (or discomfort) during which the work flows. And ultimately, it comes down to doing the work. The more time you put in, the more likely you will have work you like, and the more naturally the work flows.

I take a point from Jack Spicer’s reflection on dictation about “hooking up to a source of energy”–I consider this source to be partly the energy that naturally exists in the universe (which is abundant and continually at work on us whether we know it) and partly energy that we free up within ourselves, however we find a way to do it.

For me, sticking to a routine in my daily life is helpful. Yoga in the morning, running in the woods on the weekends. Painting helps the poetry, poetry feeds the painting. Lots and lots of omnivorous reading, listening to Great Lectures series on a variety of topics during my commute. Peace and quiet when not at work (as much as possible). As much as possible to slow down, and become more aware of my surroundings, with a childlike sense of curiosity and wonder. The childlike sense of wonder is essential, and even subversive.

 

George Oppen: The Pursuit of Clarity

George Oppen: The Pursuit of Clarity
“Truth is also the pursuit of it.”–George Oppen

More than anything, the best advice there is for aspiring poets is to read. Read, read, read. Read poetry dissimilar to your own, pick up one end of a daisy chain of poets and follow the links to poetry movements, poets whose work will eventually influence your own.

George Oppen (1908-1984) is generally known for his association with the Objectivist group, Modernist poets who collaborated starting in the 1930’s and were influenced by Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.

Williams’ effort to write in an “American” vernacular is significant, and created openings for poets like Oppen to express ideas that prior to 1920 would not have been expressed. Williams (as contrasted with T.S. Eliot) preferred a colloquial voice and spare, open style with a natural rhythm, with the intention to take poetry “out of the classroom”. Oppen and his contemporaries like Luis Zukofsky and, later, Lorine Niedecker share the philosophy of “looking clearly at the world”. Their work is sincere, intelligent, approachable, honest, but also demonstrates inventiveness that inspired later groups of poets.

(As a parallel in visual art, I suggest studying  Cy Twombly’s work; though he was not a contemporary of these poets the philosophy, style, and approach is similar, as is his allusion to ancient history, expressed with modern sensibility; analogies such as this lead to deeper understanding.)

Oppen’s published work (written between 1934 and 1978) is fiercely individual, human, and skeptical of the values and structures in place during his time. My interpretation of his work is that he is constantly aware and accepting of an overarching unity or “original state of being” while “present in the immediate world”. I see a tension in his work between collaboration and solitary reflection, individual and political/communal, and above all a meta-cognitive awareness (and critique—including self-critique) of conventional reality.

From: Of Being Numerous (1968):

1

There are things

We live among ‘and to see them

Is to know ourselves’.

 

Occurrence, a part

Of an infinite series,

 

The sad marvels;

Of this was told

A tale of our wickedness.

It is not our wickedness.

 

‘You remember that old town we went to, and we sat in the

ruined window, and we tried to imagine that we belonged to

those times—It is dead and it is not dead, and you cannot

imagine either its life or its death; the earth speaks and the sala-

mander speaks, the Spring comes and only obscures it—‘

 

7

 

Obsessed, bewildered

 

By the shipwreck

Of the singular

 

We have chosen the meaning

Of being numerous.

 

17

 

The roots of words

Dim in the subways

 

There is madness in the number

Of the living

‘A state of matter’

There is nobody here but us chickens

 

Anti-ontology—

 

He wants to say

His life is real,

No one can say why

 

It is not easy to speak

 

A ferocious mumbling, in public

Of rootless speech

 

32

 

Only that it should be beautiful,

Only that it should be beautiful,

 

O, beautiful

 

Red green blue—the wet lips

Laughing

 

Or the curl of the white shell

 

And the beauty of women, the perfect tendons

Under the skin, the perfect life

 

That can twist in a flood

Of desire

 

Not truth but each other

 

The bright, bright skin, her hands wavering

In her incredible need

 

(and on, there are 40 sections total)

From George Oppen: New Collected Poems, 2008; ed. Michael Davidson.

In short, read! Find the poets who opened new paths, so that now you can write freely. Write in context of the poets who came before, and write Yourself. Oppen’s sincerity, humility, and intelligence is personally inspiring to me. I hope that you will read his work. Coming soon, I will write about a very different poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, one of my uber-inspiring influences.

Enjoy!