Thursday, April 14, 2011

Inspiration Point

I am extremely grateful to have a secondary art form I can fall back on when the writing (and the writering) gets wonky. Photography. It's been a way to keep the creative fires stoked while the writing decides to go off and sulk for some reason. Over the past couple of decades, photography has been the saving grace, keeping me from falling into a long, dark teatime of the soul many, many times. When I finished my undergrad degree and couldn't write a word without a paralyzing sense of futility and worthlessness, photography was how I kept connected to my creative self for the seven years it took to get beyond the destructive words of a couple of professors. Many times, photography has helped me overcome the small blocks that come during any creative project, or shown me the solution to a particular problem by putting it into a different language, a visual one.

This past week was such a time.

After weeks of the novel rolling along just fine, it all came to a crashing halt in the past couple of weeks. Suddenly, the words were not flowing. It was taking me days to write two pages and, worse, I was starting to doubt that I remembered all the things I wanted to do in this draft sufficiently to make this final revision achieve the full vision I had for the novel. It just sucked. Even beyond the thirty minutes it usually sucks. What was getting written was fine, but the experience was as if I was writing the words in my own blood. It was agonizing. I became a horrible, bitchy person, too, snapping at everyone, falling into a dark pit of despair and not knowing how, nor really wanting, to get out.

So I took a day off from writing and went to take pictures. I chose to go to a place I love: Fort Point, the only remaining Civil War-era fort on the West Coast. It figures into my next novel, but it's also such an amazingly evocative place for me (it is, quite literally, right underneath the SF side of the Golden Gate Bridge), I thought, if anything can get me out of my funk, Fort Point can. Only I didn't know Fort Point wasn't open during the week. So I was stuck. And pissed.

But can you see the symbolism here? Here I was, locked out of a place I'd found creatively inspiring, just as I was locked out my novel.

I accepted the challenge the universe was offering me. Okay. Can't photograph inside, I'll see what I can find outside.

My first attempts were not inspiring. I'd wanted to photograph in black and white, but it wasn't working. And my eye wasn't there at all. I could feel it just looking through the viewfinder. I wasn't finding the image. As I said in my post How Do You Know You're A Good Writer, you can feel when you get it right. This is one of the main things photography has taught me because the feedback is so instantaneous in photography. You don't have to read 200 pages of text to know if you've got it right, you can see it immediately. With digital photography, the feedback is even quicker. And it's helped me learn what that moment feels like when I know (or rather, my subconscious knows) it works.

Then I switched to color and the results were a little better.

Then there was the image that's at the top of this post, and I felt things begin to shift. I remembered my interest in patterns and the edges of things.

I started thinking about what was going on with the patterns I was photographing, what made these photos more visually interesting to me than what I'd started out doing that day, and realized I had stumbled on some craft ideas that were applicable to writing:

Juxtaposition works as a way of showing how two disparate objects rub up against each other, the tension comes from the degree of difference between them. For example, black and white creates a much greater sense of contrast than two shades of blue. It's also a way of showing how two objects can be affected in radically different ways by the same process.

The same idea is true in fiction. How sentences, scenes, and chapters are ordered can create radically different effects because of what happens before it and after it. Juxtaposition of characters is also important. Nothing bothers me more in a story (especially TV shows or movies) when story lines are essentially the same - different characters going through the EXACT SAME THING. Shakespeare used subplots to echo the main plot line. There were similarities, yes, but he showed different outcomes through his subplots, the dynamics of each plot were different. Putting too many similar characters together makes a story very bland, although I also have a problem with a lot of contemporary fiction where characters are quirky for the sake of being quirky. So it's a delicate thing. But back to the photography because here was my visual art form showing me something I was forgetting in my novel - the juxtaposition of two characters in a scene.

I also noticed that what makes repetition interesting is when it's broken. It's the unexpected surprise that really makes us aware of the pattern.

And then there was the moment I found a small project, and really felt my inner artist kick in. Many of the bricks on the exterior of the fort have names carved into them, some of them dating back to the 1930's or earlier, so I created an alphabet by finding each sequential letter in the names on the fort's facade. It was a challenge, and I'm sure I looked quite deranged scanning the bricks and saying, "'X', there's an 'X,' I have to remember that." When it was done, and I had found all 26 letters, I felt great.

Which was another lesson for me to remember: if the big project isn't working, give yourself a small assignment. A scene, some dialogue between two characters, a scene written from another character's point of view.

And, ultimately, the big lesson of the day for me was about giving up the illusion of control in the creative process. I'd been trying to control my novel too tightly, and it was rebelling. I'm dealing with a pissed off fourteen-year old narrator, sometimes my novel takes on that personna, and I have to remember that when I'm dealing with it.

There is an adage that lots of writers like to repeat about discipline and the necessity of showing up every day. While I agree with that, I also believe it's more important to honor the way you want to write. For me, when I try to adhere to a strict, every day writing schedule, my writer shuts down. I have to let my writer guide me, trust that she knows what she's doing and, if she says she needs a break, to take that break even when it's frustrating or doesn't make sense. Thank goodness I have a second art form that makes it possible for me to be creative and figure things out while in the act of creation.

And the last thing I learned. When you're really stuck, steal someone else's artwork and make it your own:

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What Do You Want?

Home-schooled teen and I finished our discussions about The Aeneid yesterday. I've talked about HST before - she's the youngest daughter of a friend of mine who decided that, after watching her two older children graduate from high school without a passion for learning (or basic knowledge of science, which is my friend's field), she was going to take matters into her own hands. I offered to take on HST's literature class, an offer that was met with a great deal of enthusiasm since it's not my friend's area of expertise. HST and I started out reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy, then went several thousand years back in time to Gilgamesh and The Odyssey, both of which I've talked about in previous posts for their surprisingly "modernist" story-telling as well as my unabashed passion for The Odyssey. HST decided we should move on to The Aeneid and has since requested that we read The Inferno next.

I must admit, when HST asked to read The Aeneid, I wasn't overjoyed. I'd somehow managed to not have read it for the entirety of my literary life including an integrated Western canon-based Lit/History/and Rhetoric program during my first semester in college. We read The Odyssey, The Inferno, The Oresteia, Utopia, Richard II, and Plutarch, Euripides, Suetonius, Machiavelli, and, of course, Virgil. I know this because a friend of mine and I created a literary journal for our program and made the cover out of a photocopy of the spines of all the books we read (or were supposed to have). Despite this, I somehow missed reading The Aeneid, although I remember our classroom discussions about the death of Dido very well.

So, HST and I embarked on Virgil's master epic, a literary work that is, without much argument, the single most influential work in all of Western literature. Although Dante is the best known example of Virgil's influence, Shakespeare also borrowed heavily from him (I'm reading Henry V right now as I tutor an AP English student, reading these two texts in tandem has made it very clear how much the Bard borrowed from The Aeneid - the motif of fire, the struggle of a leader coming to terms with the inner desires versus the public responsibilities, the promise of a foreign bride who, though the ultimate prize of a war, is nothing more than a pawn in the masculine game of nation-building), as did Tennyson and George Bernard Shaw (his Arms and the Man is a direct reference to Aeneas). Virgil's battle scenes are a model for Tolkien and have probably influenced filmmakers as well with their blow-by-blow action that freely floats from one face to the next (with some pretty gory deaths, like warrior who's head and neck is split in two by a sword) and then homes in on one particular glorious battle, like the one between Pallas and Turnus - action, action, action, and then close-up. Even Harry Potter ends with a battle scene like this between Harry and Voldemort - and I do not doubt JK Rowling knows her Aeneid - she makes references to it throughout the series including the brother/sister Death Eater duo Amycus and Allecto - Amycus was a poisoner in The Aeneid and Allecto is the fury Juno sends down to inflame the Latins to war against the Trojans).

Anyway, we embarked. We read. We discussed. And, yesterday, we concluded, which leads me to share these thoughts.

First, some history about The Aeneid for those of you reading this who may not be familiar with it. Virgil was commissioned by the emperor Augustus to write a national epic for Rome somewhere around 29 B.C.E. Virgil was already a well-respected poet, having published two previous collections of work that were both popular and well-received. In The Aeneid, Virgil created the foundational myth for the Roman Empire, a way to explain the empire's greatness as having been pre-ordained by the gods. The basic plot is that a prince of Troy, Aeneas, escapes from the burning embers of that doomed city with the remnants of the Trojan people. His destiny is to found a new Troy in Italy. His mother, Venus, tells him this. In fact, there's a wonderful scene when Aeneas is recounting the fall of Troy where Venus pulls back the veil that shields the gods from mortal eyes and shows her son the gods themselves, Neptune, Juno and Minerva, tearing apart the walls of the city with their bare hands. And don't forget, Venus herself was the cause of the Trojan war because she bribed Paris (Priam's son) with Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, if he would chose Venus as the fairest of the goddesses (Paris got this honor because, at the wedding of Achilles' parents, Thetis (who was a sea nymph) and Pelleus, Eris (goddess of discord) rolls a golden apple into the midst of the banqueting gods declaring that the apple should go to the fairest of the goddesses. Juno, Venus, and Minerva jump on the apple and then ask Jupiter to decide. Faced with choosing between his wife, his war goddess daughter, and the goddess of love (who in Roman myth is also his daughter), he defers to a human, Paris, to make the choice). So Virgil shows how the entire Trojan War was just a set-up for the ultimate founding of Rome.

Aeneas travels with his refugee population, gets shipwrecked in Carthage, shacks up with the queen of Carthage (Dido) and then leaves her a year later when the gods send Mercury to remind him that Carthage isn't the city he's meant to found. He leaves, Dido commits suicide. Aeneas sails on, has a few more adventures, and then his father's ghost asks him to come for a visit in the underworld, which Aeneas, the dutiful son, does aided by the Cumaen Sybil. Anchises, Aeneas's father, reminds him, once again, of his future, showing Aeneas the future souls of Roman leaders who are waiting to be born including Cesar, Augustus, and the doomed Marcellus (he was Augustus' nephew and chosen successor who died very young - the story is, when Virgil first read The Aeneid to Augustus and his sister, Octavia, she fainted as he talked about the tragedy of her son's early death). Aeneas sails on, lands in Italy, presents himself to Latinus, king of the Latins, gets offered Latinus' daughter, Lavinia, who, whoops, was already engaged to Turnus. War breaks out between the Latins and the Trojans - Virgil essentially refights the Trojan War in order for the Trojans to finally be victorious, which they are. Aeneas kills Turnus, wins Lavinia, and the Latin and Trojan people are united under the leadership of Aeneas, but, because of a deal Jupiter works out with Juno so she'll stop delaying Aeneas' destiny to found the Roman people, the Latins get to keep their name, their language, etc, and the name of the Trojan people dies instead.

Structurally, Virgil modeled his epic after BOTH The Iliad and The Odyssey. Both of Homer's epics are 24 books, The Aeneid is 12. The first half of The Aeneid is modeled on The Odyssey, with Aeneas wandering while he searches for a new home, being "held" by a woman (with Juno's help), and visiting the underworld. Aeneas even visits some of the same places Odysseus (or Ulysses, as the Romans called him), actually rescuing a stranded Greek Odysseus left behind on the Cyclops' island. The second six books, with their focus on war, is modeled after The Iliad.

Most modern readers prefer the first six books - the tragic love story, the adventures, the glorious visit to the underworld (in and of itself, the best-known section of The Aeneid, and rightly so. It's magnificent. HST and I spent a couple of weeks on Book VI alone), and find the endless repetition of names and battle scenes in the second half both confusing and boring. And I definitely approached Book VII with trepidation, having detested The Iliad when I read it in high school. I have to say, I found the second half of The Aeneid glorious. Virgil's tone and words beat out a rhythm as relentless as a war drum. His passages that read like a soccer announcer calling a game as he lists the names of who slayed whom and are followed by the action coming to a halt as two worthy adversaries face each other, are stunning. A model of how to build tension and modulate pacing to create a heightened effect.

(as an aside here, while I was reading this section, I listened to a radio program about dehumanization - the way in which turning an "enemy" group into animals (like rats or cockroaches) or making them less-than-human makes it easier to kill another human being and allows the genocides and atrocities of our modern era to continue. It struck me that both the Greeks and the Romans found it an honor to face a strong enemy. They did not take death lightly - they recognized what it meant to take a life, even in war, and took no honor in killing the weak. Glory in war, making a name for oneself, was the goal of every warrior. Odysseus, adrift in the ocean after leaving Calypso, laments that he could not die on the battlefield so he could have died in a way worth remembering. In The Aeneid, the woman warrior, Camilla, is taunted that her death will not bring the glory that killing a male warrior would (this despite the notches on her war belt). The contrast between the modern need to make an enemy weak, to turn them into an animal, in order to kill them versus the ancient desire to face an enemy who was your equal and prove your strength, was profound to me.)

Ultimately, though, I have to say I am not enamored of The Aeneid. Virgil is a masterful writer. His imagery in Book VI is beautiful. His command of his subject and his ability to not only tell a good story, but also fulfill a much more didactic purpose, is extraordinary. But the epic leaves me cold, and I think I know why.

Aeneas is never at risk for losing what he desires.

In The Odyssey, by contrast, Odysseus' happy homecoming is ALWAYS in doubt. Not only does he have to survive a war, he also contends with homicidal monsters, a vengeful god, TWO goddesses that want to keep him as their boy toys, and a houseful of suitors who would like nothing more than for him to be killed in front of Penelope so she'll finally have proof her husband isn't coming home for dinner ever again. Even though we're pretty sure Odysseus will survive all his trials, Odysseus doesn't know it. The risk of his death, or the death of his son, at the hands of 120 suitors is real to him, so it becomes real to us, the reader.

In The Aeneid, we know Aeneas will succeed. Virgil has taken great pains to make sure we know Aeneas will succeed. The gods tell him his future over and over again. Venus and Mercury both tell him he needs to leave Troy and Carthage, respectively, because it is his destiny to found another city in Italy. Aeneas is shown the pageant of Roman heroes in the underworld. The river god, Tiber, tells Aeneas his son, Ascanius, will found another city, Alba, along his banks thirty years after the war is over. In Book 8, Aeneas goes to Pallanteum to ask for help from King Evander, and the king shows him his city, essentially giving him a tour of what will become Rome, pointing out a grove his people believe is favored by some god (this will be the future site of Jupiter's temple in Rome) and other places that will become famous Roman landmarks. In the same book, Venus has Vulcan create armor for Aeneas to wear including a shield which shows scenes from the Roman history (history to the readers/future for Aeneas) to come. Aeneas does not know what the scenes portray, but he knows he is hoisting his future as he raises his shield. And we, the readers, know it, too. The entire book is predicated on the conceit that Rome, and Roman supremacy, is inevitable. There is no tension. There is no fear that Ascanius will die like Pallas (as there was fear that Telemachus might be killed in the battle with the suitors) - he can't, he's going to found Alba and his descendant will be Romulus who will be the founder of Rome. There is no fear Aeneas won't succeed or will succumb to any inner desire on his part to do something contrary to his destiny. He won't. Even Juno eventually yields to the inevitability of Aeneas' fate. There simply is no risk, no danger, that Aeneas will lose the thing he desires.

It is this that makes The Aeneid, as technically brilliant as it is, ultimately unsatisfying for me. It's a lesson, too, as I move forward in my own novel, to remember how powerful the threat of a character NOT getting what they want is. It's the question I come back to again and again as I write drafts of query letters for Altar. What does Matt want? Up until this week, I kept answering that question by saying he wants his brother back. Which was unsatisfying. He can't have his brother back. His brother is dead. He knows he can't have his brother back. So I knew that wasn't the right answer.

Last night, in a workshop I'm taking from a really brilliant teacher (here's his website:, we talked about connecting and disconnecting, desire and the intensity of wanting something. Then, as usually happens when I take a class with Matthew, he gave us an exercise that was so perfectly attuned to the scene I'd been struggling with in my novel yesterday, it was as if he'd been sitting on my shoulder the whole time and said, "Hey, I've got exactly what you need." I got it. And I got what Matt (my character) wants more than anything. He wants connection. It's why Denny's death affects him so deeply - Denny was his connection to the world and, especially, to his family. It's why his girlfriend becomes so important to him (she's the first person he connects with in his entire life who wasn't part of his life when Denny was alive - she's his lifeline into a post-Denny world). And why, when he's standing in his mom's bedroom trying to do something for her and she keeps shutting him down, he is wounded. And there, in fifteen minutes of a writing exercise, was the answer to the essential question of my query, the lack of which has been preventing me from writing a satisfying query letter. What does Matt want? He wants connection. What keeps him from getting what he wants? He has to learn how to connect without Denny. (Okay, that's a little weak yet, but it's in the book, I just have to come up with a snappy, unique way of saying it).

I guess, in summing up, I want to say, this is why we read. Because the things we read can explain our own work (and our own minds - there are things I realized about myself and what, within myself, created this novel) to us, can lead us to think about what we are doing and how we are doing it. When I write about conflict, I can draw on this model of pacing from Virgil now. Bam, bam, bam, exhale.

So now, HST and I are taking a short break from the classics to read some short stories, and then we're going to hell with Virgil as our guide.

(P.S. I also want to give a shout-out to my friend, Traci Chee, who's putting up some really great posts from the other end of literary time at I'm Traci Chee and This is My Blog)