Thursday, February 18, 2010

Who is Allowed to Make Art?

Throughout the day, I have been following an ongoing discussion in the comments on Amanda Palmer's blog about the validity of one of her current projects. She's getting a lot of flack for the project because she portrays a person with a disability. I won't go into all of it here, but if you want to check it out, go to her blog (once again, I apologize for not being able to do direct links from within the text of my blog - I'll put the link in a box to the right).

One of the underlying threads of the comments seems to be that Amanda is not allowed or entitled to create nor perform as this character because she is not disabled.

I am an educated, white, middle class, middle-aged woman. By this criteria, I can only create characters who are also educated, white, middle class and middle-aged women and that, any time I step outside of these parameters, I am being disingenuous or disrespectful to other groups of people, or that I am suggesting someone from the other group can not represent themselves.

If artists are restricted to representing only their own group, then most works of fiction would have to be trashed immediately, including my current novel.

I have wrestled with this a lot, especially during my time in grad school. The discussion on Amanda's blog seems to turn on the idea of privilege. The idea being that as a white person, or as an able-bodied person, or as an educated person, I have privilege, and am therefore, not entitled or allowed to create art based on non-white, non-privileged groups. Someone even suggested it would have been okay for her to do this character from the perspective of her own privileged position as a non-disabled person. Hunh? Someone else suggested the problem lay with Amanda performing with a disability she did not have in order to make money. Well, let's strip Daniel Day Lewis of that Oscar for My Left Foot, shall we, since he doesn't have cerebral palsy.

The essential part of being an artist is being able to put yourself in someone else's skin. When someone does it well, it can be stunning. Jeffrey Eugenides is not a hermaphrodite, and yet, Middlesex is an extraordinary novel written from the perspective of a hermaphrodite. In fact, it is so well done, many people insist he is part of the intersexual community, but he isn't. By this same token, Dostoyevsky was not a sociopath, nor George Orwell a talking pig or Virginia Woolf a suicidal WWI veteran suffering from battle fatigue. But they all created these indelible characters because they were amazing artists and writers. They did what artists and writers are supposed to do, make these characters real to us as human beings (even the talking pig) so we care about them, so they matter to us. We cannot dismiss them because we care about them, and we cannot limit writers and artists from creating them just because they are not part of that group.

The flack she's getting reminds me very much of something that happened in my very first creative writing workshop as an undergrad. I wrote a story, first person, teenage male narrator who tries to commit suicide because his girlfriend had an abortion. One of my classmates (he was also one of my best friends throughout college), went off on me about how could I know how this character felt? I wasn't male, I couldn't possibly know what it felt like, etc, etc. He was so venomous in his attack, the professor actually stepped in and stopped his tirade and checked in with me after class to make sure I was okay. I was. I realized what happened was actually a compliment. My friend was uncomfortable because I'd hit too close to home, gotten my character too realistic for him to feel safe. He reacted in the only way he could, to attack my ability to KNOW what it felt like to be in his skin. Basically, I'd done my job as a writer.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

And Here Comes the Self-Doubt

I dropped off Altar with my thesis reader today. Walking away from her office, I felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders. I got the draft done, and it's a good, solid draft. When I finished the first draft last March, I knew there was a lot more I wanted to explore with this story. It wasn't complete to me (despite the fact that my professor insisted I send it to her agent, I knew it wasn't ready to go out into the world. Had she agreed to represent me, I would have been thrilled, but I also would have felt as if I hadn't served my characters well enough). Now the story feels complete. But now, too, my focus needs to shift from the story to the storytelling.

And here's where the self-doubt started creeping in even as I was walking away from her office.

Is the story good? Or have I worked too hard to give it forward movement, increasing levels of complications, and raised the stakes to unrealistic levels? Does it become too plot driven in the last part of the book?

I am worried there are too many moments where I have my characters go somewhere just so something can happen to them, too many times where I haven't found the delineating detail, thin spots when the narrative dissolves into stage directions and moving the furniture around.

I am also worried that I have overthought my inter-sections, those moments when the narrative becomes about history or death to deepen some of the underlying themes of the piece - I worry that these are too obvious a device and should be woven into the narrative more seamlessly.

My biggest concern is that I have strained the narrative in some way by pushing it to completion in order to meet the deadline, that I didn't let the next moment in the book surface in an organic way, and that intellectual decision-making will show and weaken the storytelling.

All these things, sitting in my head. So I've spent the day just surfing around on the web, letting things come up by chance, not even thinking about what I'm doing, just killing time. I've found some fun links - like a great performance by two FAO Schwartz employees on the big piano that leaves the scene in Big in the dust ( And, in the course of noddling around, I have started to come across things that could be useful - like the family tree of the Greek Gods, which has led me to looking up Thanatos, the grandson of Chaos, child of Night (Nyx) and Darkness (Erebus), and twin brother of Hypnos (Sleep). Good stuff, that. And that's led me to looking up Thanatos and coming across a really great site about grieving and...well, it's the serendipitous finding of information I didn't have time for while I was working to deadline coming back again.

So I guess I'll be gearing up for the third round of revisions. Which I knew I would be doing before I start querying agents. And which I want to be doing because I want the storytelling to be as good as my story.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Necessity of Cognitive Dissonance

I've been working very diligently on finishing up the novel so I can meet my February 16th deadline. Yesterday was a phenomenal day with 20 pages written. It was also a weird day because I had to do something very strange - write the ending scenes before I got there.

It's the benefit of working on a second draft. I know where I'm going, I know what my ending is, I have the ending already written and it just needed tweeking to make everything line up with the changes in the draft. And...I wasn't going to do what I did with the first draft which was get to the point where it had to be done so I just cut and paste what's already written and call it done. The ending has pretty much stayed the same since Altar was a short story called "Choice." Most of the action has stayed the same, though the subtext has changed radically. So I wrote out the ending, knowing what I know now about the characters and the dynamics.

One of the reasons I did this was because the novel was meandering and threatening to go off on strange tangents - and I simply don't have the time to do this. I could feel the tangents gathering, but I think they were largely being built out of fear and a slightly sick need to self-sabotage when things are going well. So I wrote the ending to remind the novel where it's supposed to end up. Anything that doesn't get me there is not necessary to the novel right now. My task over the next couple of days is to write the scenes that link this final section to the part I was writing before. Fingers crossed, it will work.

As I write, I've been thinking about cognitive dissonance, the ability of a person to usefully lie to themselves in order to get something done. I think I read it in Jonah Lehrer, but I can't remember if it was on his blog, The Frontal Cortex, or in his book, Proust Was A Neuroscientist. And I may have completely scewed the meaning in my head, but the theory I'm thinking about says that having the ability to lie to oneself about one's abilities is apparently partly responsible for the success of athletes and artists. You lie to yourself, or distance yourself, from thinking about how difficult or impossible your task is. If you're a runner, stopping to think about how difficult it will be for you to beat 25 other people to win a race basically ensures defeat. Instead, athletes practice visualization, they train hard, they get themselves into a state where they are convinced they are the fastest or the strongest or in the best shape.

The same is true about being an artist. I have to put aside the thought that this novel, which has totally consumed me for the past couple of months and on which I have spent thousands of hours over the past decade since its inception, will never have a wider audience than my immediate family, friends, and thesis reader. At times, when the writing is going well, it's easy to do. But right now I'm stuck in what a friend of mine calls the Eeyore Place of a novel under construction. It happens to just about everyone even after they've got several books published and are doing very well for themselves.

(I refer you here to Neil Gaiman's pep talk for NaNoWriMo writers:
The last novel I wrote, when I got three-quarters of the way through I called my agent. I told her how stupid I felt writing something no-one would ever want to read, how thin the characters were, how pointless the plot. I strongly suggested that I was ready to abandon this book and write something else instead, or perhaps I could take up a new life as a landscape gardener, bank-robber, short-order cook or marine biologist. And instead of sympathising or agreeing with me, or blasting me forward with a wave of enthusiasm---or even arguing with me---she simply said, suspiciously cheerfully, "Oh, you're at that part of the book, are you?"

I was shocked. "You mean I've done this before?"

"You don't remember?"

"Not really."

"Oh yes," she said. "You do this every time you write a novel. But so do all my other clients."

I didn't even get to feel unique in my despair.

So I put down the phone and drove down to the coffee house in which I was writing the book, filled my pen and carried on writing.

One word after another

It happens to the best of us.

I don't have an answer about the best way to get through this Eeyore Place, just that it involves a lot of cups of tea and an almost inhuman ability to lie to myself about how good the book is even though I feel like it's total crap.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sometimes Stories Just Do That

I've begun the long continuous climb to the climax of the novel - it's all uphill from here for Matt, no more light spots, just one tough thing after another, which makes it slow going for me. As I wrote last time, I write from my body and when my characters feel things, so do I.

This morning, I sat down to write and the novel had a little surprise in store for me. The scene I'm working on is supposed to end with Matt and Ray getting arrested. Well, I'm working on it and Ray's being all remorseful and stuff, not as dark as he usually is, and then, my brain says, maybe they don't get arrested. And I think about it and think a little more.

Mostly my thinking was considering how the novel changes if this plot turn doesn't occur. If I can take it out and the novel doesn't change, then, yes, taking it out is the right decision. But, if it does change the novel significantly, than it shouldn't be taken out, the novel needs it.

I think I know what changed to bring this about. In the first draft of the novel, there's about 100 pages of what I call Matt wandering around in search of a plot, and I needed something really big to give the plot enough forward momentum to bring things to a head. With the front part of the novel now carrying more dramatic weight, I don't need this scene to be as big. A lot of the information that was in this scene has already been dealt with. But there is still a reason for the arrest, so I've decided to leave it in. Only Matt gets arrested, though, Ray escapes, and Matt's arrest is really Ray trying to save him from something else. Which I like very much. Matt sees it as betrayal, but he has to make a decision to ask Ray for help later. Actually works very nicely, I think.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Pondering the Roots of Procrastination

I am completely procrastinating right now, and I have been for a couple of days, which is not a good thing when I need to have the second draft of the novel to my professor on the 16th, but there you have it. I sit down to write in the morning and think, oh, I want to write at night, then at night, oh, I'm really tired, I'll be better in the morning. I think I'm trying not to get this scene written.


Because after this, things get really bad for Matt, and he's already in so much pain. I think I may be trying to keep him from hurting. Or me. When the writing is flowing, I write from deep within my body. I feel what my characters feel. I cry when they cry, and even when they're trying very hard not to (which is what Matt's doing right now). It is as exhilarating as it is exhausting, as excruciating as it is exciting.

So I think I'm trying to postpone the inevitable - that things are going to get worse before they get better.

There may also be a little bit of fear in here that I won't do Matt justice when I write the ending, even though I have what I think will be the final paragraph already written. It's sitting at the end of the Word document, and I am simply filling in the pages in between, and it is a beautiful final image for the novel. And heartbreaking.

Anyway...I will get over this moment. I have to. There is no other option.

Two interesting things have happened this week, the way interesting things happen when I am fully engaged in writing. I'll start with the second, which happened tonight.

I was listening to Terry Gross interview Colin Firth about his role in A Single Man, and they were talking about the scene where he receives the phone call telling him his partner is dead. Firth said that his character was stoic and observing all the social protocols instead of becoming hysterical or crying because this was his way of keeping himself living in the moment before he got the phone call. If he were to start crying, that would be an acknowledgement of the death.

I realized this was why it is so important for me to have Matt not cry until the end of the novel. It has become increasingly difficult to keep him from breaking down, but I think it's important that he doesn't because he hasn't fully accepted Denny's death. As much as he wants to believe that he's accepted it, it isn't until the end that he really takes it in and lets it become real.

The other interesting thing was a bit more intense and happened at the beginning of me working on this current scene. I wrote a pretty emotional scene between Matt and his mother, Rachelle. The next scene has Matt being woken up in the early morning by his girlfriend, Monica, coming into his room. I needed to indicate it was early morning, so I had him look at the clock. The first time that popped into my head was 2:15, but that was too specific a time, so I changed it to 2:18, then thought, I wonder what verse Matthew 2:18 is.

"Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not."

In the much of the first draft, Matt's mother was named 'Rachel,' but I changed it to Rachelle.

For me, the bizarre part of this is that I knew this passage because of a Peanuts comic I read years ago. It's one of the only New Testament verses I know, but I had no idea where it was in the Bible, and would not have been able to find it if I looked for it.

These things do just happen.

And now, I am off to make Matt's life awful.