Archive for the ‘Creative Process’ Category

Writers’ Retreats

Open any distinguished literary magazine to the classified section and the number of advertisements for writers’ retreats are remarkable, some at rather exotic locations like Tuscany, a Greek Island, or Andalucia. Supposedly, a writer whether experiencing the spurious writer’s block or not, may need a vacation from the ordinary routine for inspiration. Apparently, the ambience of a get-away from it all provides the lubricant to oil the gears of creativity again, causing me to wonder what happened to the artist’s garret, the cramped quarters in a rotten borough that gave birth to some great works of literature.

In times past a quiet corner in a greasy spoon cafe provided enough fuel to fire the imagination. All that was required to write were a table, a pad of yellow paper, and a stubby pencil with a useable eraser at the end. The compulsion to write no matter what the environment was sufficient. Nowadays the pursuit responds to commercialism as so many other endeavors in contemporary life. The cyclist needs a proper suit, helmet, and shoes to ride a technologically up-to-date ten-speed bicycle. Every sport needs its high quality equipment for success, so why not writing. Writers are encouraged to invest in writers’ conferences and the still more expensive retreats. Hire the services of an editor or professional critiquer. Purchase computer software to grammar and spellcheck. Register for a course on how to write the blockbuster novel. Spend, spend, spend.

I am fortunate to actually live in a writer’s retreat–a log house abutting a national forest in northwest Montana. Born in Chicago, raised watching urban sprawl spread around me in a village outside the city, I now spend my golden years removed from traffic and commercialism.  I toyed with the idea once of hosting a writers’ retreat here in the tranquility of the mountains, but something in my nature resisted the effort to plan such an enterprise. Besides, conducting a writer’s retreat would deflect from my own writing. Consequently, I decided that my energy was best spent in actually writing more.

Although I have beautiful surroundings in which to write and ample solitude for reflection, neither are together or alone, the magic pill for prolific writing. A determined writer can produce volumes in a dump. A motivated writer can screen out distractions while the television blares in the background. I don’t fall in the latter category, for I require solitude and the only sound I find conducive is contemplative music to my taste. The retreat is into the writer’s head, that special place where imagination dwells, where the images become words, sentences, paragraphs, and extend into infinity. The imagination in not finite nor is the human will. It is the will to create anytime, anyplace, anyhow that gets that brain child born into the light of day. The stillpoint of creation resides in the compulsion to write no matter what the circumstances. Virginia Woolf famously demanded a room of her own. Where that room is, how the writer creates that room, is up to him or her alone.  Anyone who successfully writes has retreated into that private space wherever it may be, beautiful or ugly, near or far. However, it is not necessarily a physical place but the intangible domain of the imagination, which can be activated anywhere.

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Straitjacket of Ideology

Because it is a system of thought that runs on one track, an ideology subverts clarity of thought, blocks creativity, and substitutes a fixed idea for the generation of a multitude of ideas for the sake of adherence to one over-riding theory. Reality is interpreted to fit that ideology. The scientific method is scuttled in the process.  Ideology is a set of doctrines on which to base political, economic, and other policy. It produces a constricted, narrow view of a diverse world. In that way, it squelches creativity and distorts and misinterprets reality.  Instead of viewing the world in all its diversity, the ideologue attempts to pour infinity into a finite, single test tube against which he measures whether something is right or wrong, suitable or unsuitable for implementation.  Only the solution that the ideology prescribes is permitted. Examination of the unique characteristics of a particular problem is not undertaken because ideology has predetermined the way to solve it. Viable alternatives are not considered nor even admitted to be worthy of discussion. Debate is stunted or turned into a shouting match of insult and invective. For the ideological mind there is only one way to skin a cat.

In the words of Václev Havel, the Czech playwright and president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992 and then of the Czech Republic from 1993-2002, ideology is a straitjacket. If that is so, then the ideologue is a madman, worthy of a padded cell. Havel articulated well the dangers of ideology under communism, describing ideology as a specious way of relating to the world. Consequently, ideological politicians easily lose their moral compass. The health, education, and welfare of individuals are sacrificed to an ideological imperative. Havel eloquently argued for politics as a moral profession, although he suffered no illusions about how easy it is for disreputable people to make politics disreputable. In his essay “Politics, Morality, and Civility,” he writes that the disreputable ones are willing “to gain the favor of a confused electorate by offering a colorful range of attractive nonsense.”

Reading Havel’s essays and letters has caused me to think long about the pitfall of ideology not only as it relates to politics but also how it relates to creativity and artistic pursuits. It is no coincidence that the artist in a society is often the dissident.  The dissident is the person who speaks against the prevailing belief and who will no longer tolerate public lies. He wishes to rip off society’s blindfold.  When the majority of the population has become numb to truth, the dissenting artist strives to awaken deadened sensibilities and to encourage people to no longer accept injustice. The dissident refuses to accept ideology as the end and be-all of public discussion and staunchly insists on seeing the individual human being and not a homogenous conglomerate. A society or a political party boxed into one way of thinking is so impaired and its creativity so atrophied that it is incapable of problem-solving.  Through individual responsibility and freedom of expression, the artist breaks the mold and opens new vistas. The strength of democracy depends on indivisibility of the body politic, that is, in perceiving that an injustice suffered by one member of society is an affront to the rights of everyone and must be resisted. The power of the powerless resides in their numbers organized to protest against the abuse of power. The artist first galvanizes this sleeping giant to rise up and demand good governance. Ideology excludes; whereas, creative thought seeks to expand and to include. No individual is denied his freedom, dignity, or inalienable rights without protest from the rest of society, for ultimately no citizen is immune from an autocratic regime.

But the artist, too, can be captive to ideological thinking.  The adoption of one style or technique to the exclusion of new methods and approaches will ultimately stifle creativity and cement his art into a rigid, unchanging mold, for he has embraced a set of artistic precepts so thoroughly that the generation of new ideas is blocked. His works will be recognizable for their predictability and monotony. The elements of surprise, mystery, adventure, and experimentation are missing. Because the artist has become numb to diversity and the multitudinous facets of reality, his art is dull and does not direct the human condition. One-dimensional thinking is the pitfall of both art and politics. Thus, an inept novelist creates one-dimensional characters. The adept artist realizes that multiple dimensions exist for exploration in this wonderful universe and that solutions to problems are not bi-polar, presenting an either-or situation. Idealogues like to delineate two choices–their way or the highway.

Ideology is the asylum where madmen go to spin their wheels, where anger and argument rampage, and where nothing gets solved. As the twenty-first century progresses, let us strip off the straitjacket of ideology whether in an artistic ism such as dadaism, cubism, impressionism and post-modernism or in monorail constructions like capitalism, communism, conservatism, liberalism, authoritarianism, or even absurdism.

The Moral Imagination

The use of an adjective like moral to modify imagination, suggests that the opposite construct, an immoral imagination, exists. Plenty authors, of course, have written about immoral behavior; yet even in depiction of horrific acts, an author is reflecting on man as the moral animal. Implicit is the assumption that a moral standard exists to which fictional characters conform to or deviate from to a lesser or greater extent. The very exercise of the imagination is a moral act; for what does it entail to imagine–to imagine anything at all?

The noun from which the verb derives is image–a picture in the creator’s mind, a vision of something or someone other than himself. The effort to enter into the consciousness of another individual, to try to walk in his shoes, and to inhabit his body involves a psychic and spiritual union with a fictional character that is a moral act–the very essence of morality.  Imagination of the other–the not-self–has a spiritual dimension.  Differences dissolve when we imagine another human being as prone to the same vices and virtues as we are. We start to see men and women of other races, nationalities, or circumstances as sharing the same interests. In this regard writing fiction, indeed the pursuit of any art form, is a moral act. Art is vivifying and ennobling, both for the artist and the audience, because vision broadens beyond the myopic self.

Art, then, is close to, or borders on, the religious experience, which artists have been known to regard as a religious calling, such as that of a priest, putting imagination in the service of revealing moral truths. Justly, then, the words moral and imagination inextricably are a bound pair, practically the two words in conjunction are a redundancy; similarly the term immoral imagination is an oxymoron.  A moral vision entails a search for values. In the process particular types of human conduct are either viewed as desirable or undesirable, producing either peace or conflict. Without the ability to imagine, the task cannot be attempted. The individual remains in a circumscribed shell, a prisoner of his own ego, and fearful of anyone who does not look like or behave like him.

This quote from A Course in Miracles describes how exercise of the moral imagination defines the spiritual path: “When you meet anyone, remember it is a holy encounter. As you see him, you will see yourself. As you treat him you treat yourself. As you think of him you will think of yourself.” It sounds a lot like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In every encounter with his characters, a writer is seeing himself, treating that character as he would himself, and thinking of that character as himself. Otherwise the character does not come alive on the page, nor can that character come alive to the reader who partakes of that moral imagination. With good reason a voracious reader expands his moral imagination too.

In this poem, I see Flannery O’Connor as a writer who exemplifies the moral imagination at work:       

           Intelligently Holy

Flannery O’Connor in her journal writes

            I want to be intelligently holy

As if intelligence and holiness comprise

            an oxymoron in her mind.

The mindlessness of holiness does exist,

            for the mystic adept in practice

Of emptying makes room for entry in

            of the Holy of Holies who bathes in

Light—enlightens, sanctifies, and delights.

To offer one’s work, one’s art, one’s pain

            in God’s praise is very Catholic,

Which she is before ever she writes a line,

            praying to create catholic stories—

Catholic in the Latin sense that they’ll hold

            universal truths of the human soul,

Being at its core, religious fiction—the kind

            that redeems, the kind that makes holy

Even the Misfit gunning down a grandmother.

Originality

In the realm of the literary arts, does anything as pristine and undiluted as originality exist? The word original is most commonly understood to mean not derived from something else. Often a novelist in the process of writing his opus magnum sedulously refuses to read someone else’s novel for fear he will be unconsciously influenced by another writer’s ideas or style. I say “phooey” on that fear. Of course, I am influenced consciously or unconsciously by everything I have ever read. It works like osmosis. I learned to write a complex sentence by patterning my sentence on someone else’s syntax. So what?

Influences play subtly or blatantly in writing. Great novels and poems are replete with literary allusions, references to Greek mythology, and universal symbols that countless other writers have used; yet each writer employs these borrowings from his predecessors in unique ways if his work is considered fresh. I staunchly subscribe to the position that the best way for a writer to improve and to grow in his style and vision is to read widely in the recognized great books of the world and to draw unabashedly upon literary tradition. Good books fertilize the imagination. Cross-pollination can create a brighter, stronger strain of flower. T.S. Eliot wrote about the necessity for the writer to cultivate what he called the historical sense, which “compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” This historical sense combines with the writer’s consciousness of his contemporary scene to transcend the merely personal, enabling a fusion of his personal experience with a knowledge of the past. This fusion of past and present, according to T.S. Eliot, is the alchemy that renders the art timeless.

Therefore, it is hardly a slur for a work to be described as derivative or traditional. The study of comparative literature involves the identification of influences and cross-currents among cultures, so that the meaning of originality as complete freedom from outside influence or inspiration is a false construct. Instead of fear that reading other books will cause other writers’ ideas to creep into our “original” work, we should embrace them.  Wide exposure to the literary heritage of the world and a knowledge of history will only enhance the individual artist’s work. Imbued with the past, the individual talent can transmute his personal experience into art that transcends time and place. T.S. Eliot terms this depersonalization–the extinction of personality necessary to present a fresh insight into the universal human condition.

 

Cats and Writing

The unobtrusive presence of a cat is conducive to writing. They respect the long periods of silence and intense concentration their owners require for composition. A cat has been an ever-present muse in my writing room. However, if neglect extends to not refilling her bowl for a long time, she will gently remind the writer by walking back and forth across the computer keyboard.

Molly, my rag dolly, born a cradle Mormon in Utah, converted to Catholicism upon my adoption 3/28/13

Molly, my rag dolly, born a cradle Mormon in Utah, converted to Catholicism upon my adoption 3/28/13

My long-held supposition that cats are the preferred pet of most writers needed evidence. I set out to test this hypothesis. Selecting authors I like, I began my research into whether they were also cat lovers.

The first writer I selected was Anne Rice. Lo and behold, she is the proud owner of a furry white cat. Next I selected Joyce Carol Oates. My suspicions were confirmed there too. She owns a lovely cat Cherie, the subject of her children’s book. With Daniel Halpern she edited the anthology The Sophisticated Cat: A Gathering of Stories, Poems and Miscellaneous Writings about Cats. Oates, one of the most prolific writers,  attributed her legendary productivity to cats, stating “I write so much because my cat sits on my lap. She purrs so I don’t want to get up.” May Sarton, best known for her journals, wrote twenty novels and seventeen poetry books. She lived with her cat Bramble by the sea in York, Maine. Her novel The Fur Person attests to her affinity with cats. I have written elsewhere how I regret that Sarton’s novels are not more widely read. Sarton said, “Time spent with cats is never wasted.” I have to concur.

Women writers may have a predictable proclivity for cats, but what about male writers?  Certainly, T.S. Eliot is well-known for his fondness for the feline as evidenced in his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, basis of the Broadway hit musical Cats.  I was pleasantly surprised to learn that a macho man like Ernest Hemingway owned twenty-three cats. I expected the avid hunter to be a diehard dog lover. On the contrary, he respected highly cats and is quoted as saying: “A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.” Hemingway called cats “purr factories” and “love sponges.” Another prolific writer, Stephen King, is a cat owner whose cat Clovis fingered in his screenplay Sleepwalkers, continuing the role cats have played in his work since the unforgettable cat Church in Pet Sematary.  My delight was unbounded when I discovered that Neil Gaiman (I much admired his American Gods)  is the owner of not just one but several cats. The prolificness of these writers and the presence of cats in their lives must be correlated.

In Memoriam Nutmeg, my beloved calico 1998-2013

In Memoriam Nutmeg, my beloved calico 1998-2013

Clearly, cats have served both as muse for writers and as characters in their writings. I have also used them in my work, first in the creation of Odette, the Persian cat in my novel Gerontion and the Maiden. She is the pet of main female character Felicia, a young ambitious woman who marries a rich, much older man for security. I have Felicia give this analysis of the cat’s personality:

The cat slinked into her lap and she stroked Odette’s long cream-colored coat. The pudgy feline purred smoothly like a fine-tuned motor in a just audible murmur. Felicia appreciated the cat’s satisfaction, poise and control—qualities she not only admired in animals but also in people. Not surprising cats were revered as sacred in some ancient cultures. Unlike the slobbering manner of dogs, they carried themselves with considerable dignity. And in their fashion faithful. They demanded affection without cloying, and in return, conferred respect. Odette required space in the same way Felicia set parameters on friendships.

Now as the Persian nestled against her stomach and accepted her attention, Felicia appreciated once more her pet’s uncanny intelligence. Odette understood her moods, only imposing her presence when she knew her mistress was completely relaxed, taking the cue from Felicia’s position curled up on the sofa with the tea cup. Her habits were imprinted on the cat’s brain. At the appointed time she awaited Felicia’s arrival home from work, poised upon the windowsill watching for her. When it was time for bed, all Felicia needed to do was whistle and Odette leapt into bed, settling into the small of her back as she lay on her stomach. The cat’s eyes shone like runway lights, guiding Felicia to the bathroom at night. Understandable that men preferred dogs. A good match, the dog governed by a need to serve and man to receive undivided attention. But woman desired a clean, unobtrusive, undemanding but comfortable companion, or at least, Felicia was one woman who did.

“Odette, sweetheart, you’re woman’s best friend,” she murmured to the contented feline. “More stable and kind than either a man or a woman. I don’t get your cast-off toms, do I?”

Cats assume a major role in my novel Delayed Reaction.  The hero in the novel owns seven cats. Jake, an aging Vietnam veteran, names them for key players during that period of American history: Ho Chin Minh, a grey-pointed Siamese; Madame Nhu, a fluffy, cream-colored Persian; Melvin Lard Butt, a black Manx; Kiss-Ass Kissinger, a tortoise-shell with white patch over one eye; Miss Saigon, a tawny Burmese with black paws; Wacky-Macky McNamara, an orange tabby; and Buddha, a three-legged grey tiger.  Cats are the catalyst for a drastic change in Jake’s outlook on life and trigger a series of events in which he becomes the mentor and friend to a teenaged boy.

Cats have traits that account for this compatibility with the writing life and writers’ fondness for them. They are solitary, independent creatures just like their owners. They are discriminating and do not suffer fools gladly, preferring to isolate themselves instead of socializing with nincompoops. Prolific writers are ones who are content to spend long hours alone. Solitude does not bother them. In school writers are rarely voted most popular. Popularity is not their goal nor is a cat concerned if it is liked or disliked. If anything a cat likes to rub against the leg of a person who dislikes him. Similarly, a writer will not shy from offending those of contrary opinions or debunking the majority viewpoint for the sake of opening up a larger vision of the world. Cats are nonchalant.  Cats are low maintenance. They have dignity and a quiet intelligence. Their respect must be gained. The fawning, licking, rambunctiousness, yapping and sycophancy of dogs are not conducive to the writing life or the typical writer’s personality.  A cat, I conclude, is the pet that prolific writers pick for company in the solitary art of writing.  Molly has been curled up on my desk while I wrote this disquisition on cats and writing. I’ll sign off with a long mee-ee-ee-ow-ow-ow.

Muse and Rag Dolly Molly on Writer's Desk

Muse and Rag Dolly Molly on Writer’s Desk

Musings on Muses

Probably because the Greeks depicted sources of artistic inspiration as women, male authors throughout the ages often invoked a female muse. In Greek mythology each of the nine daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus presided over a different art or science.  In twentieth century literary criticism Robert Graves in The White Goddess enthroned the divine origin of poetry in the feminine.  Poets have held in reverence a dark lady to whom they owe their inspiration and to whom they dedicate their literary efforts.  In fact, for much of literary history, outside of the purported Sappho of the Isle of Lesbos, female poets, if they existed, worked in obscurity. In recognition of this, the appearance of Anne Bradstreet in colonial America provided such a surprise that when her poetry was first published in England her work was titled The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America in reference to the female muses of Greek mythology.

It is right that I should muse upon woman as muse for man.  As I muse, interesting derivations of the word muse occur to me. Amusement means something that entertains or amuses, conveying the sense to give delight.  The verb muse means to ponder or reflect at length, to be absorbed in thought. A museum is a place ostensibly where the visitor can browse and muse at length upon the interesting objects collected. Originally, a museum was a place where the muses were worshipped.  An element of worship, adoration even of the virgin,  is present in the male poet’s invocation of his muse. Music is another derivation of the root word muse, and none more conducive in its harmonious aspects to a reflective frame of mind. What more than music can entertain, delight, amuse, and make the mind muse on things unseen.

Nine Greek Muses

Musing further on the subject of the muses, I scratch my head, wondering if women writers have ever invoked a dark male muse, a shadowy perhaps unobtainable lord, whom they identified as the source of their literary outpourings. I can think of no woman writer, but if my readers can think of one, I would be glad to hear about her. I rather think the woman writer has looked to herself to provide her  muse or at least a nebulous feminine mystique.  In other instances, the muse is her mother or her foremothers, maybe her grandmother or some ancient family matriarch.  Traditionally, in the case of the male writer, the muse remained eternally out-of-reach.  With modern women writers who look to the goddess within or a foremother, the muse seems much more accessible and realizable, being a woman also. I don’t see a man providing a muse in the traditional literary sense to a woman writer, although a male muse is possible for a male writer, as for example, with Shakespeare who was thought to have composed his sonnets with a male lover in mind.

Maybe the whole concept of a muse is sexist and dated. Yet writers, both male and female, still use the device to invoke the muse, calling up whatever spirit they wish as the source of their poetic inspiration.

The Revision Stage

Before

Although in my younger days I preached the necessity of rewriting after the euphoria of finishing a first draft, I did not go tripping lightly to undertake that chore. I went dragging my feet and procrastinating. Some attitudes do change with age and I have experienced an attitude adjustment over the years toward revising, editing and proofreading. No longer is it the necessary, but onerous stage. I jump into revision with more gusto as if I were cleaning out messy closets, jumbled with old clothes and shoes I haven’t worn in years, dumping them gleefully into a trash bag. I feel the same zeal throwing out wrong words, lackluster prose, awkward construction, straightening and polishing all my verbal disarray as I do with discarding the junk in the closet.  Closets need rearranging and so do sentences and paragraphs,  scenes and sections of dialogue. This is no longer work for me but play.

The tapes of our mothers play in our head long after they have died. This one, A place for everything and everything in its place, plays for me whenever I clean out the closet or finish revising a piece of writing. Some tasks we do because we have to and some tasks because we love to do them. The transition from disliking revision to loving it was subtle, unconscious, built up through time and habit just as my awareness grew as I aged that I had absorbed the repeated refrains of my mother until they no longer rang like the stale wisdom of my elders.

After

As I revise my latest novel, The Wheels of Being, I marvel at how revision has now become my favorite stage in the writing process. I am on a search and destroy mission to root out any weak element. Aha, I found a clunky word!  Kill it. This is a muddled passage. Clarify. Expand. Smooth.  This is worn out; this has a hole in it. Trash or patch, which one? I am really enjoying this stage. After all these years, am I finally practicing what I preach? It seems so. Even better, I am thoroughly enjoying it. It feels like a walk in the woods or riding a bike. It’s fun!