Attending the Festival of Faith and Writing has obviously given me more thoughts than I can possibly handle in a lifetime. This may seem like hyperbole, but as poet Geoffrey Nutter, one of the Festival speakers, pointed out using the words of T. S. Eliot: “Human beings can not bare that much reality.”
And that’s what I got today. A lot of reality.
But I think more than that too, because it wasn’t so obvious or so conclusive. As Nutter talked about the “radical uncertainty” of his poetry, I began to get glimpses of images that will probably tumble around in my head for a very long time. The reader (and writer for that matter) are meant to grapple with the words. Most of us know this. It’s an old idea.
But spawning from this wrestling, which is a decidedly sweaty metaphor, springs a “joyful spontaneity” for those involved. This is another term for faith, I’d argue. “It takes faith to suspend our need for resolution,” says Nutter. Just as it takes strength to suspend our desire to wrestle the text into submission, which, if comprised of true images rather than mere deductions, shouldn’t be possible at the point of the final period.
Nutter uses the distinction between photorealist paintings and interpretive forms of art to illustrate. At best, the photorealist painter creates a brain stimulation – a how-did-he-do-that conundrum. But a photorealist painting is not how a human sees the world. It’s how a camera sees the world. And I’d even go so far as to say all they are creating is a boxed reflection of something. It’s conclusive. There is no joyful spontaneity. No uncertainty.
Then there are other painters who reveal to us what they see rather than what a machine sees, and these are alight with uncertainties and possibilities.
And that leads us to poetry and all of good art. In another lecture from which Geoffrey Nutter’s was strangely reflective, Scott Cairns says that many people try to read poetry and get to the poet’s meaning. This takes us down a stray path. It’s similar to how many people read Scripture – we look for the one true interpretation of the text thinking that once we have found that, we’ll have found truth.
But there is not one interpretation. The Bible is endless meaning-making. Endless energy of interpretations. And reading it puts us into an endless state of becoming. This is what makes the greatest prose and poetry great; they begin to approach Scripture’s uncanny ability to strike the reader with new revelations at every read.
The act of reading is a “coming to terms,” as Cairns puts it. “But they are not conclusive terms. Rather, provisional glimpses.” This is what uncertainty is, and it’s a more lifelike awareness than stale resolution. “We go to the difficult and the strange when we want to really feel,” says Nutter.
And he takes this idea of uncertainty much further. Doubt (or uncertainty), Nutter argues, is the beginning of imagination. There is a sense of uncertainty in the image, and that’s why they resonate. Not so with ideas (conclusions, deductions, resolutions). Ideas have much less power; you can argue or disagree with them.
But images are smarter than ideas. While with ideas there is only comprehension or certainty, images lead to apprehension – and that can be both clear and ambiguous…at the same time. And that’s poetry: words that oblige you to be a part of the meaning-making…
In this way poetry is smarter than intelligence.
Geoffrey Nutter illustrates this point chillingly: “Certainty is what a soldier needs to go into battle. But uncertainty is what society needs to avoid putting him there in the first place.”
But Nutter still takes this progression a step further: Doubt is perhaps the beginning of imagination. Imagination, then, is the beginning of morality or empathy.
The poet evokes a passage from the Gospel that has been one of the most intriguing moments of Jesus’ life to anyone who’s read it. John 8:4-9. I’ll just write it out rather than try to explain it.
“and they said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such a woman. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
No one knows what Jesus wrote there in the sand that shamed the crowd enough to leave the woman alone, but whatever it was it left them speechless. Perhaps whatever it was that slowly appeared in the sand with Jesus’ finger caused the people to imagine what it would be like to be that woman. So certain a moment ago that she deserved death, they now had the imagination to be uncertain. “Life must begin and end with uncertainty,” says Nutter.
Perhaps this was the moment when imagination was born.
Start traveling down that road and you’ll come to realize what T. S. Eliot meant.
When I was a student I used to scoff at putting the date on papers.
It was a few extra seconds of my time that I needed for stressing about the first line of the assignment. It was a line of markings on a document otherwise unblemished by numerical figures – a compliance with the rules of academic paper form, making it uglier than it already was. And, I confess, I didn’t always know what the date was, and I didn’t bother to check.
Writing the date on academic papers had a logical, up front purpose. Now – not having academic papers anymore – I’ve found myself marking my writing journal with the date. (It’s not a daily journal, just an idea vat). I’ve begun scribbling six ugly numbers and breaking them up into pairs with sharp dashes at the top of pages. And I don’t know why I never did this before.
It’s a beautiful thing, really. It’s an acceptance that I am a speck in history, and all I get right now is six (or eight if I’m feeling long-winded) numbers and two dashes for 24 hours before they change.
Now that I’m on this train of thought, I think it goes deeper than that…
Recording the date on my journal entry, regardless of the substance beneath it, is an understanding of a longer past and a longer future in which events are connected. It’s the dotted line between days regardless of how much they are separated – connecting them, but also spreading them out. Respectfully regarding their distance, yet desperately holding hands.
And (and this is really quite a thought) recording the date is maybe hopefully a sign of hopefulness.
When I take the time to consciously mark the date on a tangible piece of paper, I’m hoping that a pair of eyes (not necessarily mine) will retrace my steps and come across that entry and see that date I don’t know how far into the future, and therefore be transported back into that time with me as I write. Maybe it’s a selfish hope that anything I write in a journal will ever be read by anyone but me. But it could also be another sort of hopefulness in a world gone mad with digital code and utterly ephemeral instantly-received-instantly-deleted messages.
It’s a cry for something that lasts and has more in common with my grandfather’s sepia photographs than it does with an email.
Perhaps a great problem I had with recording the date on papers before stemmed from a desire to avoid thinking about the future. Or perhaps is was an act of refusal to ever look back into the past to be faced with who I was. Maybe it was that I had no real understanding of any other reality but the sudden present.
And maybe I’m over-thinking this. But that’s what this is all about, isn’t it?
…Thinking until one day you come back and see those thoughts tattooed with some distant date, and you start thinking through them all over again like old friends catching up.
The literature of China Mieville has become recognizable to many fantasy fans as the icon of the strange, often dark, wave of avant-garde fiction popularly branded “New Weird” or “Slipstream.” Historically, the broad term (weird fiction) is most often associated with H. P. Lovecraft, and if you’re familiar with his work, you might get an idea of how this category of fiction deserved these names. If you’re not, well, you’re probably a much saner person for it.
Seeing as how sanity doesn’t alway describe me, I was enthralled by the last Mieville book I read: The Scar. It’s a curious blend of Slipstream fiction (Slipstream usually combines elements of fantasy, science fiction, and horror) and Steampunk era speculative fiction that, like its companion novel, Perdido Street Station, refuses to be pigeon-holed into a specific category. With Perdido, I felt like the novel got under my skin with a greater use of horror than anything else, but The Scar is a more balanced piece.
Simply put, it was one of the greatest adventure stories I’ve ever read. Fascinating at it’s slowest points, terrifying at its multiple climaxes, massively grotesque; The Scar is a concoction that can’t be explained easily. I took to avoiding reading it in public places where people might ask me about the book. Not because I was ashamed, but because the inconvenience of trying to describe what it was about to anyone who has little experience with speculative fiction got tiresome. There’s nothing adequate to compare it to.
Mieville’s ability to create impossible settings and cityscapes leaves images in my mind that can never be erased. They’re just too dang impressive. In The Scar a ship on its way back to the city in which Perdido takes place get’s commandeered by pirates and assimilated into another city – Armada, the floating cityscape of ships that moves slowly across the seas, plundering and growing. The author has built an entire culture around Armada, and I could have read hundreds of pages worth of sheer explanation. By the end of the book, the city itself has become a believable character, and despite its dubious moral system, you’re rooting for it anyway.
What makes the book New Weird? Even after immersing yourself in the genre, it’s hard to pinpoint what might fall under the label. It’s difficult to capture and assess levels of imagination, but New Weird strives to embrace a higher tier of imagination, pulling itself further away from a recognizable universe and the usual fantasy tropes. The New Weird author kicks down some boundaries that would never be visible to others.
This is a helpful broadening of ideas for any writer. Perhaps that aspect that New Weird and speculative fiction contains at its heart – the thing that most defines it – is the ability to press readers out of their comfort zones. Mieville himself touches on this point in an interview about his novel, Railsea.
“In an ideal world you’d hope you’re pushing readers enjoyably out of comfort zones with all sorts of things.”
As much as I dislike bland categorizations, they’re necessary for many reasons, and a book might cross over into multiple territories and tread several different waters, but at the end of the day we give it a label (that’s not to say people don’t argue endlessly and pointlessly). And New Weird was a label people invented for books they simply couldn’t classify, giving it an almost-joke name and setting people who read it up for failure in coffee shops.
I was reminded of a subtle little grammar rule today, and it inadvertently sparked a whole line of strange thoughts. It’s a rule I often forget, and I hope that by writing this I will be able to internalize it. But, also, I had a thought about application that I wanted to share for the fun of it.
The difference between Might and May:
We use ‘may’ to say that something is possible, in fact, that it’s more possible than a circumstance in which ‘might’ is the correct term. Small difference.
The website, English Grammar Secrets, sheds some light on the difference, noting that we rarely speak this difference when talking normally:
We use ‘might’ to suggest a small possibility of something. Often we read that ‘might’ suggests a smaller possibility than ‘may.’ There is, in fact, little difference and ‘might’ is more usual than ‘may’ in spoken English.
I got to wondering what would happen if our spoken English language was keener on this subtle detail? How would that change the way we heard people’s responses? Would the press jump down politician’s throats for using the less committal ‘might’ instead of a slightly more stalwart ‘may’? How could this have ramifications for the way we as a society enable ourselves to read between the lines?
A few weeks ago, I heard an old professor of mine hypothesizing that the English language was rapidly heading down the path of shaking off grammar rules like apostrophes. After all, the possessive and un-gendered pronoun ‘their’ has already almost completely replaced ‘his or her’ in writing. And entirely in speech. The professor argued that that was not a bad thing, it was only natural for any language to shift and transform for convenience’s sake.
Well, I suppose I agree. Language is entirely arbitrary, and what use is it if not for convenience?
But I have to wonder what other nuances we might (or may?) loose in the process of the slow English transformation. What have we already lost? It does appear that all the transformations I’ve considered so far tend toward the simplification of our language, spoken and written.
But I suppose I should never discount the ingrained human proficiency for subterfuge and misdirect. How will our language continue to grow in complexity even as we shrug some complications off? It’s hard to imagine English without the apostrophe, and I don’t (or dont) suppose it will happen in my lifetime, but at the same time most of us have already gotten used to the shorthand of texting language, which happened faster than I would have bet.
This is both a simplification and and complication of English rules. Shorthand is a form of simplifying, but I’ll never forget the response one of my teacher friends received from a high school girl about text punctuation. It went something like this: “You can’t use periods when texting,” she said. “Ever! That means you’re upset!”
There’s probably more truth to that for some than for others, (otherwise my dad is always angry. But he’s just finishing his dang sentences!) but I have noticed “punctuational flare” taking over for absent voice inflection in any sort of instant messaging method. It adds a world of complexity to interpret, and not just for angsty teens.
These are obviously free thoughts, and based on absolutely zero research other than causal observation (the best kind of research), but I don’t think these are somethings people consider everyday. Where is our language going, and is it all that bad or childish? It’s certainly not unnatural. As you can see with this post, informal writing has become more stream of consciousness than ever before.
I wonder where that will end up taking us? I’d love to hear opinions, or denunciations if you’re a die hard English-grammar-as-it-was-taught-to-you fan, because I think as long as we change with our eyes open, we’re in good shape.
Having finished the third installment and halfway point of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series, I feel I should look back through the books and record my thoughts. (I think this is a good place to do it, because my understanding is that the second half of the series was written long after the first three). There are few fantasy books that have the same moral and philosophical horsepower, so the temptation to reflect is just too great.
The Farthest Shore (#3) is not as atmospheric and charming as A Wizard Of Earthsea, but neither is it as dark as the second book, The Tombs of Atuan. It lies somewhere in the middle. More adventurous, perhaps, than its successors, but the adventure is not the purpose of the book. Le Guin is often vague on details, and there’s hardly the suspense you’d normally associate with a fantasy like this. Rather, the focus is on the discussions of the characters and the sum total of their experiences that lead to a feeling more of spiritual/mental journeying than of physical, though I don’t think an allegorical hypothesis of the book would hold much weight.
There is great movement of thought and belief that in a way mirrors the movements of Sparrowhawk and Arren across the world of Earthsea, and this is probably a turnoff for some. I’d be willing to say that The Farthest Shore is a bit more of an indulgence of thought than her other two, and I liked it better when the adventure meant a bit more than just a vessel for those thoughts. Even more of a turnoff since the philosophy was beginning to turn stale toward the end of the book in my opinion. After all, humanism can only get you so far, and when read in light of C. S. Lewis, Earthsea began to pale by the third book.
Why is that? In A Wizard Of Earthsea, main character and magician Sparrowhawk (a.k.a Ged) learns his art and battles against his own pride, which is personified by shadow. Presiding over the book is the theme of light and dark – particularly as equal and opposing forces – but there is a good deal of wisdom here, and I could almost ignore the dualism by taking a Christian perspective throughout. The light and dark motif manages to remain fresh even with the dualistic, ying-yang coupling at the book’s conclusion:
“Light and darkness met, and joined, and were one.”
But it’s disturbing to think that Ged defeated the darkness (ostensibly his own pride) by absorbing it into himself, and from here on in the series Ged never really shows his old propensity toward pride, which is probably unrealistic and makes him less interesting.
Here I realized that simply disregarding the dualistic, humanistic values wasn’t possible, and it shouldn’t have been how I read the tales of Earthsea. I wanted to trap the themes I liked – the ones that fit with my worldview – and extract them and pin them up on my bulletin like dried out butterfly wings. Classic Christian denial. I suspect Le Guin would’ve liked to hit me, and I’d deserve it. Instead, I started taking the books as a whole (I had to go back through them), and I found them more difficult to enjoy, yet more interesting to dialogue with.
Fist off, I think it’s important to read these books in tandem with Lewis’ Narnia series and probably even Pullman’s The Golden Compass. They lead to interesting discussions for both sides, and they help me articulate why I like one philosophy over another. But that’s not to say the humanistic side is entirely bad. In fact, Le Guin says a lot that needs to be said. Particularly in The Tombs Of Atuan and The Farthest Shore she presents a critique of religion that is not just fair; I’d agree with most of it.
The way she sees religion in Atuan is troubling and dark, and the priestess Tenar is saved by Sparrowhawk who says to her at the end,
“You were the vessel of evil. The evil is poured out. It is done. It is buried in its own tomb. You were never made for cruelty and darkness; you were made to hold light, as a lamp burning holds and gives it light.”
Brought out of the Platonic cave of religious darkness, Tanar’s escape is from the ignorance and cruelty of her religion. In that case, I must agree that this series offers a critique of what religion often is, but not what it was designed to be. Whether that was Le Guin’s intention or not, I don’t know.
This is interesting to think about especially since Le Guin has some things to say that direct us towards hope and are often neglected by Christianity since we are so bogged down by our ruminations on total depravity. Tinged with humanism that it is, I don’t think the books’ redemptive qualities should be ignored. There’s a lot of hope, and none of it lies in the upper floors of the tower of Babel.
Still, The Farthest Shore presents an interesting problem for Christians. The major theme is living a life full of color and accepting death when it comes. Easy for Christians to say with heaven around the corner and all, but the book makes it clear that Le Guin believes death the great anti-climax. End of the line. Not that I share the sentiment, it’s still an important thought. Sometimes we’re too focused on The Last Battle perfect ending, forgetting about all the rest. And The Farthest Shore’s answer to death is not hedonism, which is especially relieving.
The series’ hope is a down to earth hope, and there it remains, but that’s good for some thought. And as a critique of religion, it’s appears gentle and, to some degrees, necessary. Or at least not unreasonable. The wisdom of Earthsea is a human sort of wisdom, and I read it with discernment, but Le Guin’s style of writing is beautiful and her thoughts are worth pondering. As a fantasy, this represents some very powerful literature.
I have a tendency to get stuck in my characters’ thoughts and actions so often that I forget to see through their eyes. The world in which a character lives – whether fictional or historical – has a broadening or shrinking effect on the way readers see that world. The author can use both to his or her advantage. As narrator, we decide where we want our reader’s to be looking, but we also want to give them a sense of the background – a fuller picture of what world they’ve arrived at for the duration of the story.
I’ve said this in so many words before, but in similar posts I’ve stopped at trying to capture the broader importance of world building for fantasy. That only goes so far, and it would be a tad ironic to ask you to think only about world building through the lens of one of my wide gestures.
Art. Unless you’re an artist, this usually gets overlooked. I, for one, have spent so much time trying to create a believable, utilitarian medieval city in Brisha that I sometimes forget about art. Yes, architecture is part of this package and is usually one of the first things a person notices when entering any city be it Baltimore or Brisha.
Architecture also demands attention for fantasy authors who build cities (China Mieville is one of the best city architects I’ve ever encountered in literature), but it’s sometimes hard for fantasy authors to dial their attention down from the grandiose to what hangs on the walls. Who are the famous painters of the age, and what does their art tell us about that country/city/empire?
It takes knowledge of history to organize your own believable accounts. Artists have always been one of the most important parts of Earth’s history and cultures, and there are many things about Earth that fantasy worlds mirror. Steven Erikson is especially good at including the artist (as well as the historian), and it adds lots of texture to his Malazan Empire.
In a recent interview, he said that “…there are themes that are running through the trilogy which relate to how civilizations destroy themselves, and one of the themes I’m advancing is that the various forms of art have to be destroyed first — the meaning of art, if you will…you often see how art in the past is a reflection of the health of a particular civilization.”
And that civilization – your civilization – can benefit from the power of art over it because you can do almost anything with that in mind.
A few years ago, a friend and I got this idea in our heads that we’d write a story in portions back and forth to each other. One story. He’d start. We got technical and planned on sharing a Google document, each of us using a different color. “See where it goes,” we thought. “Oh, and you can’t change what the other person wrote or degrade him to his face.” Good rule.
Off we went to write the first collaborative National Book Award winner…
…He never started.
About a month later, I remembered our brilliant idea and wrote a few paragraphs about a guy on a train in a suede suit holding a brief case handcuffed to his wrist. Some woman started flirting with him (I was hoping my friend wouldn’t talk too much about her during his session because I wanted to make her an infamous con artist intent on stealing the brief case. And maybe his jacket for some extra spite).
Well, that scheme got a little sidetracked when I saw the next portion my friend sent me. The man in the suede suite (a different color now) had pulled a gun on my infamous con artist who, rather obstinately, claimed to be the mother of four and an obsessive gardener to boot. I got the six-paragraph story back with train cops bursting in to find the madman in an oddly deep philosophical debate with the woman about the ethics of train robberies.
I was more than a little tempted to bring in Nancy Drew and various Boxcar Kids to sort everything out. Scooby could make a surprise cameo in the sequel if I didn’t like where that one went either.
I realized collaborative fiction is a little worse than playing a game of telephone with preschoolers. It’s not easy to salvage a story that swings so far from your idea of where things should properly go. This was especially true in my case, since I was clearly taking the National Book Award more seriously than my friend. Our collaborative writing career was probably over. (I think one of us came back a few weeks later and concluded our epic adventure with cow-snatching aliens disguised as train robbers). Everyone died. Thanks for reading.
The crazy thing is, authors actually do this. And sometimes it really works! If you’ve ever read Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, you know what I mean. The seamlessness of their style and humor is extremely entertaining. Like all partnerships, collaborative writing needs to be taken seriously and probably be planned out (preferably not in a Google doc).
It was an interesting experiment while it lasted, but I learned how selfish I am as a writer sometimes – how set I am in my ways. I immediately wanted to control the project, and I began taking it entirely too seriously before my dreams were crushed.
I sometime wonder if that’s not dissimilar to what it’s like to have an editor. Apart from the micro-edits, I worry occasionally about what said editor might want to do to my stories or how he or she might wish to change my characters. I’m sure he or she would never sabotage the plot so much as to turn my perfect train con-woman scene into a guns out philosophy duel, but I don’t have to worry about that at this stage. Right now, as I try to get there, my writing remains blissfully my own. But I don’t suppose there’s any harm in bracing myself for a future editor to come along with the red pen.
I’ve never been quite sure how to realistically imagine the writer’s relationship with the editor. I’ve heard so many different accounts that cover a broad range of emotions from gratitude to whatever the mother of four might have felt toward the man wearing suede.
I’m no expert, but I think there’s a skill to sharing your work, whether it’s to collaborate on the first draft or the fifth. Or even just to share by reading to others who took no part in the writing process, but turn the story in their minds and, therefore, change it. I have a hunch that there’s a learned skill to exposing your writing to others and having the grace to allow them to make it better.
…I should wind up here before the philosophy leads to revolvers.
“Learning to detect the difference between quitting a tactic and quitting a dream.” These are wise words you don’t hear often. There’s a fine line here that’s to be followed by careful consideration and prayer, but there’s wisdom in this post.
Originally posted on Kristen Lamb's Blog:
Ah, the New Year is upon us. Most of our resolutions revolve around grabbing hold with a death-grip and vowing to never let go. When it comes to losing weight, getting out of debt, or discovering if our closets actually have floors? This is a good plan. Yet, when it comes to our careers? Never giving up might keep us from ever succeeding.
Want to know the secret to success? Quitting. Yes, you heard me correctly. And, if you’re a creative professional, it is in your interest to learn to get really good at quitting. Maybe you’ve felt like a loser or a failure, that your dream to make a living with your art was a fool’s errand.
Ignore that junk and understand…
Winners Quit All the Time
I posit this thought; if we ever hope to achieve anything remarkable…
View original 1,297 more words
Might it be a little like reinventing the wheel? Am I attempting to fix something not broken? After all, literature is full of amazing heroes and triumphant knights, supermen, dragon-slayers, battle-scared soldiers, protectors, avengers.
Sometimes they fall out of favor. Have you ever read one of those “knights in shining armor” stories, and by the end you wanted nothing more than to punch the hero’s perfect face right in his perfect teeth? We don’t see many Prince Charmings anymore. They’ve all been hit soundly off their horses and have slinked away to the dirty bars where the dragons they’ve battled are waiting for them with a mug of skunked ale.
Many times movements in literature seem to come as the result of people becoming aware of the archetypes and wanting to change them. No book is written in the vacuum of its own story – separated from the history of other stories that are similar. In some ways, everything we write is a response to the other stories we’ve assimilated. They shape us and words that come from us. And as we recognize the stereotypes and turn them on their golden heads, so we have thrown the perfect heroes off their pedestals and onto the streets with the crooks.
And many of them have become the crooks. A lot of fantasy seems to fall into one of these two categories: bland, flawless Hero or dubious Antihero – Spiderman or Deadpool. And occasionally we find ourselves more enamored with the bad guy just for fun (ie. they are making a Venom movie). But I want to escape the stereotypes and the spin-offs and create a rare kind of protagonist. The flawed, but essentially good person. The hero who’s shadows haunt him or her – who’s recorded flaws are not just there to avoid the “flat character” category, but who’s still cheered for by an audience captivated by his or her goodness.
This is a rare thing, but the best stories stay with us because of these people. They are the stories in which the hero has to defeat the evil, but also the evil in himself or herself. They are those who grow and change. Who love. And their flaws are always an intricate part of events; the great chasm that almost defeats them.
Consider all the protagonists in literature who have made you truly believe in goodness and who (though they are fictional) are real enough to become our role models and make us better after the book is back on the shelf.
And as writers, we think to ourselves, “How can I create that?” Because these types of heroes are a rare phenomenon. And if I do anything right in my writing career I hope I will have created at least one.