Archive for the ‘Creative Process’ Category

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!

I Am a Longhand Reactionary

Ever since I purchased my first computer, an Apple IIe in 1984, I have mostly composed using a word processing program. I have taken a 180 degree turn and regressed to the pen and yellow legal pad form of composition.  I made the interesting discovery that the flow of a pen actually aids rather than hinders my flow of thought. I write more freely. The cursive handwriting connects me in some intangible way with the creative process.  The movement of my hand seems to permit prolixity and to prevent censorship of ideas at this stage of the writing. Freedom to entertain any thought is desirable in the first draft.  In later drafts the grammar police and style director can assume control.

Writing in longhand produced another side benefit. In transcribing my handwritten draft into my Word document, I revised and edited as I typed, resulting in a second draft.  The printed effect on the computer screen projects the illusion of a finished draft or print-ready copy–very deceptive impression when it in fact needs more careful reading and rewriting. A draft on a yellow pad gives no such illusion. Scratch-outs, arrows and sloppiness beg for cleaning up and smoothing of sentences and paragraphs. Oversights, defects in tone and voice, lackluster prose, clunky phrases and anachronisms stick out like the thistles and weeds they are. New or better ideas occur while typing the longhand into a Word document.

So I am a throwback to the Middle Ages. Maybe not exactly Heloise bent over her escritoire with quill and parchment, but the ball pen and yellow legal pad serve me as well as it did  for her writing love letters to Abelard. Keyboard pecking or moving a pen across paper is a matter of taste.  Styles sometimes do come back into fashion.  The advantages that I discovered writing a first draft in longhand did change my style of composition. This long-hand writing reactionary likes the benefits she sees in her current work in progress.

From Conception to Realization: Jacob Wherly in Delayed Reaction

There are individuals who from an early age know exactly what they want to do with their lives and pursue it without deviation from their plan. They amaze me. They single-mindedly follow a career path to achieve their goals. They don’t change their college major five times before they finally decide what they really want to do.  They amaze me because I am not one of those people. My character Jacob Wherly is not one of those either.

A large part of the value of a higher education is to discover there are multiple world views other than the one we grew up with by virtue of being born in a particular time, place, culture, or religion.  When we leave the bosom of the family, we discover other ways of thinking and undergo experiences that call into question the givens of birth. Jake follows the norms of his society until an event in later life triggers his awakening.  Young men have always marched off to fight the wars older men claim are necessary. Jake was one of those men who blindly followed the expectations of society. Until age 32, I was one of those who let things happen to me instead of consciously making choices.  Jake wants to instill into the teenage boy Lenny a desire to pursue knowledge and to form a philosophy of life free of the prejudices, xenophobia, and narrow-mindedness into which he was born. He wants Lenny not to delay a genuine spiritual awakening until later life. He prefers that Lenny not have his coming of age at the butt end of a rifle in a jungle as he did in Vietnam.

I created Jake as a counterpoint to the religious fundamentalism that I believe poses today the greatest danger to a democracy. I did not want my novel to be a heavy-handed, vitriolic diatribe against fundamentalists, but to poke fun in a lighter manner at the absurdity of their teachings and the simple-mindedness of their adherents who abdicate their power to think, letting “fancy-pants” preachers who are more showmen than men of God hand them a pre-packaged belief system devoid of logical thought.  To allow demigods to do our thinking for us is to pave the way for a Nazi-like leader who will waste no time undermining the underpinnings of democracy: religious and ethnic toleration, free elections, freedom of speech and the press. This Nazi demigod/haranguer will tell the masses that multiculturalism is a danger; he will preach “fear your neighbor; don’t love your neighbor as yourself. The Other is your Enemy.”

These are a few of the concepts that were operating consciously in my mind when I wrote Delayed Reaction. I wanted to explore what wisdom my generation–people who came of age and had been forged in the furnace of the Vietnam War era and the civil rights movement–could pass on to their grandchildren. It is that leap over one generation where the wisdom is stored and handed down. That communication link between grandparents and grandchildren is where the lessons are told and where they are listened to. Parents are too close to their children to always have the time or the courage to tell them the truth.  Their emotional investment in their children interferes sometimes with communication. In contrast, a grandparent is removed enough to know that the welfare of the world is at stake and not just the success parents usually understand for their children in terms of educational, financial, professional and social achievement.

In Delayed Reaction I created Jacob Wherly as a comic character, a bit of a buffoon, who could evince these themes in a light-hearted manner while serving as a grandfatherly mentor role for Lenny Dickerson. He is the non-conformist juxtaposed against the conformists in a materialistic society. The women in the novel, Shelley and Gloria, do not question their assumptions; and therefore, they do not change. The male characters do grow and develop. I thought this is a refreshing change from the denouement in many of the contemporary novels I have read.  In writing Delayed Reaction I wanted men to be drawn into the story and to identify with the characters.  Although it treats of serious themes, this novel was fun to write and was also meant to be fun to read.  Writers must leave the judgment to the juror–the readers.

Cover Delayed Reaction: Jake Wherly & his Harley Davidson