Why I Art

I’ve taken up photography and videography this summer. It’s always interested and awed me, but I never thought I had the eye or creativity to perform as well as all the other awesome photographers around me.

Sure, I used to record silly movies with friends and I got an expensive point-and-shoot camera for high school graduation, but I never showed or recognized any particular aptitude.

But studying story led me to books about screenwriting, which led me to consider visual storytelling and direction. I watched many, many hours of YouTube videos about filmmaking and visual composition.

In short, I got the bug. Then I talked myself (and eventually my wife) into dropping some mad dough on a camera, for a couple of reasons—one being that if I invested into it, I’d keep doing it, keep learning.

And so I carry my camera around, shooting what I see, amid snickers and stares from family and strangers.

This new way of living sparked an interesting discovery this morning. I wondered why. Why do I have so many artistic interests? Though self-doubt blocks me from taking pride in most of them, I argued with myself that my joy and desire come way before the results of the art I produce.

Before I began writing regularly, I already knew why I wanted to. And the rest of the mediums that I dabble in provide the same kinds of benefits that writing does. Maybe it has something to do with a pantheistic or mushy emotional value I place in art, and maybe I’m wrong but this is why I art.

It helps me experience the world better. The locus of this realization was David Foster Wallace, which I admit makes me feel a tad pretentious. But it’s true. Maybe it was just the time in my life that I read him, or maybe he’s a literary deity—or probably, both. But he saw the world well. And I want to do the same thing. I want to have empathy for everyone and learn/feel their stories. I think people are the most important things on the planet, and I believe personal relationships are my ties to people, and those relationships happen only through communication, and our primary way of communication is language. So I write, I learn story.

The other mediums help me see the world in the same way, because (here comes that mushy thing I was talking about) art is a reflection of life, it’s a manifestation of the way someone (or a community) sees the world. So I wish to learn as much as I can about the creation of art for two reasons: (1) to develop taste, to appreciate and understand others’ art better, in order to experience the world more fully; (2) to express my understanding of the world, which has a reciprocal/reflexive effect of making me more aware of the world.

Note: “world” is pretty vague. By it, I mean everything (e.g., physical, metaphysical, epistemological, etc.). So, that’s not better, huh.



And sure, among the many doubts I have is that if I’m switching between writing and music and photography and graphic design that I’ll never master any of them, but the quick, logical argument (the one I’d vehemently argue in a coffeeshop) is that I’m not interested in being a good artist as much as I am in being a good person. And I think art helps me.

What’s Wrong with Perfection

My copy of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (2006) is missing a portion of its back cover and last few pages—like it’d been chow for roaches or pulled across asphalt, at a sharp and insensitive angle.
But I bought it at Goodwill—in a 10 books for $2 deal, where the lady tells me at the register that I’ll pay $2 regardless of how many books I have, so I rush around slow shoppers inspecting wooly sweaters to the back of the store and look under a stack of water-damaged Dave Barry books to find some works of fiction. And so it’s expected that this “#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER,” which has sold something like five million copies, will have a bit of damage. I’m okay with it. All necessary pages are intact. And plus, it gives the book “character,” which some reviews will tell you this book is sorely lacking.
Oh, burn, snap, roasted, etc.
The initial premise is promising: an Ivy League vet-in-training walks right out of his exit exams (because he can’t think about anything but his recently deceased parents) and right into a traveling circus.
The structure is rigidly perfect. It has all of the things you’d expect from a well-crafted (read: well-edited) story. The complications mount throughout the book. The stakes rise. A deadline is introduced. Obstacles are episodically overcome.
Which brings me to my thoughts about the separateness of plot and character. Robert McKee, in his legendary Story, explains that the two are inextricable. They are the same thing, for plot comes out of character and character is developed through the action of the plot. And thus all arguments re the precedence of plot over character or vice versa are vacuous: because they begin from a false dichotomy.
My initial thoughts about the book were mostly technical—which I admit is one reason I read the book: to get better at plotting and structure, but also description and pacing. But the book didn’t hit me in the gut, didn’t make me care or feel. The blame rests on the characters, because I didn’t see humans in this book. I saw tropes, caricatures—depthless understudies who on the night before the big production got the call but hadn’t experienced the far reaches of their character through weeks of preparation.
A couple notes about our main character: (1) The plot device/delivery system of the story is a back-and-forth given by a dreaming, ornery, unsympathetic 90-year-old in an assisted living institution—he relives the main story through dreams while he lives a poor, static story (with a good, Hollywood ending); (2) The main character is flat; even the climax of the story is observation (inaction) by the main character, our hero, our protagonist; he doesn’t act but gets swept up by the crazy world around him—literally, and larger, this is what happens through the story proper.
So back to character v. plot: I wondered how the plot could be so good yet the characters so weak—which many people say about Michael Crichton, right? And for this book, WfE, the characters are as technically perfect as the plot.
They match. They’re congruent.
(Which, hello, the author’s name is in that word, so that’s something.)
But we don’t want perfect characters. We want imperfections, what we call humanity. That’s the source of conflict, real conflict—not what this book is littered with. A stock villain and a stock character cannot offer true conflict, because—it seems to me—true conflict develops off the page, in a reader’s consciousness, her expectation of what will occur. So if what’s expected is what occurs, then that’s the absence of conflict.
So does that mean that situational irony—the discrepancy between what the audience expects and what actually happens, like “The Boy who Cried Wolf”—is the framework of our current storytelling? Irony is central. That’s for sure. But I don’t think we necessarily need situational irony, at least not as brazenly as in the aforementioned fable.
We just need to meet real characters who get motivated by the little ironies that all humans do. And not the same retreaded ones, please. Like adulterous love affairs.

Park Backwards is Krap and Cheever is a Funny Last Name

John Cheever’s Bullet Park (1967) won the Pulitzer Prize. About which fact, who am I to comment? It was written to introduce the topic, as a fact that might also validate the reading of the novel and give some credible context.

Anyway, here’s what happens: a mysterious dude named Hammer moves into Bullet Park (a suburb of NYC), meets a quiet man named Nailles (who has a son that goes through a depression), and then interacts with Nailles’ son. To inform you of the interaction would be to report the climax of the novel. So that sounds like a really brief, uneventful plot, right? Well, it is. The book’s narrative action isn’t full. But the novel nevertheless persists as a page-turner.

Rather than hooking the reader with its plot, the novel seamlessly introduces and then penetrates practically each character within the course of its reporting of the narrative proper. This is to say that we meet someone and then are told—again let me stress that this telling is consistently seamless—a history about that person, which explains who the character is and usually why they are committing the action at hand.

So I think Cheever really succeeds with the real truth that everyone has a story, rich and unique. But the problem is that none of the characters are good.

In Bullet Park, as in everywhere else the novel’s characters travel, people are fundamentally vapid and materialistic and narcissistic. And that’s only true when the characters actually choose to act. Most of the time, they just go along with whatever decision is easiest, as determined by their environment—like a woman who would make a cuckold of her husband but various odd coincidences prevent her from it. Usually the easiest decision is indecision and acquiescence to an understood way that things should be, like they were before, like we were taught.

Cheever, with two (it could be argued three) characters, investigates depression and a lack of fulfillment with the kind of world he builds, but these characters are either greatly thwarted or miraculously (read: inconclusively) cured.

Now again, the novel, at the micro-/page-to-page-level, is pretty great. Cheever’s a wonderful writer, with real talent for description and quick characterization. And he broaches some terrific techniques—that could be classified as postmodern; like, here’s the first line of the novel: “Paint me a small railroad station then, ten minutes before dark.” This introduction clearly calls one’s attention to the artifice of fiction writing. Again, mid-novel, Cheever begins to comment on the way we talk about traveling, seemingly taking writers to task, or at least calling attention to techniques of storytelling: “We speak of travel—world travel—as if it were the most natural condition. ‘Mr. X,’ we read, ‘then traveled from Boston to Kitzbühel.’ How far this is from the truth!”

But when we step back to inspect the novel from a macro-level, the worldview of Mr. Cheever—a man who lived longer than I have and wrote more than I have—is hopefully, like some of our turns of phrase, “far…from the truth.”

Review: James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain

James Baldwin’s first novel, like most first novels, is considered “semi-autobiographical.” But Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953) should be regarded with as much reverence as you afford anything that holds truth—be it non-fiction or fiction or poetry or scripture.

The structure of the novel is its most remarkable aspect. The action occurs over one overnight session of fervent prayer, wherein we also receive the stories of the main character’s mother, father and aunt, each affected in different ways by their understanding of God and religion, their experiences with racism and family, and their personal discovery; all three (whose sections are titled “[Name]’s Prayer”) are sort of beautifully built through recollections but all reach a pitch of newness and resolve over the course of their prayer.

Even still, John’s realization of his identity—across those very same arenas, i.e., family, society, spirituality, etc.—is the note on which the novel ends, in a properly novelistic thrust of its last line: “’I’m ready,’ John said, ‘I’m coming. I’m on my way.’”

Baldwin was a great writer, and his skills are on display throughout the book, which reminds me—maybe because I read him first, or because Baldwin, writing in the fifties, couldn’t avoid being influenced by him—of Faulkner (or even Toni Morrison). However, some of the book became a trudge. But this isn’t to discourage its reading. I can’t quite explain why—except to hazard a guess: I’ve read much like this book—books that, I imagine, influenced it and books that have almost certainly been influenced by it.

The beauty of the book for me is in its attempt to formulate words (mostly metaphorical and vivid) that communicate characters’ explorations of faith, and the events surrounding and forcing those explorations. The language is simple, elegant and clear throughout; the characters interestingly complex; the structure intriguingly compelling; but the action was sometimes stiff.

Here’s what I can say: Baldwin sometimes seems to settle (and this is weird if most of the events are indeed autobiographical) for the easy event, but his characters’ reflection on the event is always difficult and brilliant.

Read it—if you’re American.

Mr. Waugh Makes Us Laugh

Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One (1948) shares a young British poet’s hapless situation in Hollywood. Dennis Barlow penned his one successful volume while serving in the war, but inspiration isn’t so easy to come by these days. So he works at Happier Hunting Ground, a pet cemetery.

The novel is about death, in more ways than animals. The first character who speaks dies shortly thereafter. Sir Francis—like Dennis, a transplanted Englishman—was abruptly fired from a studio and then hangs himself. So Dennis, left to take care of his friend’s corpse, goes to a real cemetery, Whispering Glades, where he is entranced by the production, the commercialization (and capitalization) of the dead. He hopes, at first, to take some of their more successful innovations back to Happier Hunting Ground.

But he falls in love with a cosmetician at Whispering Glades, and here’s our love story—full of deceit, envy, another man and death.

The novel delivers a few laughs, maybe like one out-loud guffaw a chapter (for this reader). And it attempts to comment on capitalism and death and materialism, but alas in this progressive age, these ideas have mostly been subsumed in our monolithic cultural attitude—not reckoned with, just dismissed as something purportedly dealt with, and because it (the knowledge of our materialism) is everywhere, we can easily recognize it. And in Mr. Waugh’s way, to apply the materialism to such a bleak subject (a loved one’s death), that comical distance allows us to view the point from afar, without any personal investment or feeling, so we can laugh at these characters because they share nothing with us readers.

But that is the way of satire, sometimes, I guess. However, there are plenty of reasons to read this book. It’s short, funny, and spattered with inspections of the artistic temperament (because, as you’ll recall, our protagonist is a poet).

Make No Mistake, This is Mostly a Good Thing

Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays (2006) by David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

The book is an assortment of essays (10), which were written for different publications (e.g., Harper’s, Rolling Stone, Gourmet, etc.), the earliest published in 1992.

I know you’re wondering already—because my wife asked, and she never asks—about the title. It is the title of an essay that was written for Gourmet magazine in 2005, wherein DFW details his visit to the Maine Lobster Festival, an essay that eventually begins raising ethical and philosophical questions about animal cruelty and the relationship between morality and aesthetics.

Let that sink in for a moment and you’ll have a decent idea of the abilities of the author, who finds life and meaning everywhere through a simply stated but maddeningly demanding-to-practice formula: he pays attention. And this is generally regarded as his greatest, most transcendental skill. Past the surface, past the first meaning, deep into any given object that enters his comprehensive gaze, DFW perceives significance in it all. Cultural, relational, personal, emotional, spiritual, whatever—it’s all there.

The real joy and fortune for readers is his power to communicate. He applies the same attention he gives the world to his writing. And because of that, the voice and verve of each piece resonate. Something is built in even the shortest essay that compels you to continue as if you’re in a real conversation. DFW transfers the capacity to pay attention to the reader, which provokes the careful thinking about the topic at hand that accompanies all good writing.

The content of the collection ranges from John McCain’s candidacy campaign in 1999 to book reviews of a biography and dictionary of usage to the rise and impact of political radio to an elegant response to 9/11.

Editorially, I think it was a bad decision to begin the book with an essay about his reporting from the Adult Video News Awards, but I am admittedly a prude who lives in the South. Even still, I didn’t find much structurally or rhetorically appealing about the piece.

However, I routinely teach two of the essays from this collection: “A View from Mrs. Thompson’s,” DFW’s Midwestern coverage of 9/11, and “Consider the Lobster.” I also include passages from “Authority and American Usage,” the sixty page treatise on the importance of writing, which uses The Dictionary of Modern American Usage as its topical locus. (And this essay changed and constructed all sorts of conceptual approaches to and beliefs about composition for me.) All three pieces present the unlikely benefits of cynicism if it can be coupled with kindness, a kindness that manifests in really close attention. Maybe respect would be a better word, rather than kindness, and maybe skepticism, rather than cynicism, but when put together, they (whichever it is) equal the critical eye. DFW shows you how to respect something by demonstratively respecting the objects of his writing. A multitude can be learned here, but I’d like to point out more clearly two things:

1) To write about something well, we must look at it closely. And only considering something important enough to be looked at closely will enable us to write about it well. This is the respect. We must respect things to know them, which, if true, makes automatic respect a prerequisite to getting to know something (or someone), as if respect is the attractive impetus that calls young men to pay attention to young and pretty women. But it’s the idea that all young women are attractive, the operating under the assumption that all things demand respect already by virtue of their existence, their being a part of our world.

2) From the careful inspection of small and seemingly singular things comes really significant understandings of larger things. The first section of “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” is titled Synecdoche, which means that the part is used (or can be substituted) for the whole, like DNA. It reminds me of a Pirsig quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain, or in the petals of a flower.” Whatever you think of as ultimate truth can be found in any object of this world. We must only look at it close enough to see. And writing, for some of us, can serve as our microscope or window, or even as our eyes.

Glengarry Glen Ross

OK, so it doesn’t take a salesman to say that Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) is a wonderful picture. It receives that exact kind of verbally old-school praise because it’s a classically good movie—based on a David Mamet play (1984), for which he won the Pulitzer and a Tony.

Salesmen are trying to peddle land deals. Yeah, they’re crooked, but it’s totally the chain of yelling with the true enemies offstage, only discussed with disdain or deference, like a little brother threatening to summon mom. The group desires leads for new clients. Overnight the office is burgled, and there’s a mystery. But I’m all 90s cynic, like “big whoop,” “plot schmot” and all that.

The movie is dialogue, spans about fifteen hours and only has men. (I mean, really, women say nothing in person, except for one Asian hostess making a throwaway comment about the paucity of diners in the restaurant). But two of the men, the most sympathetic (Jack Lemmon’s eyes!), are motivated by women, one a sick daughter, the other a smart wife.

Alec Baldwin gives one speech. Ed Harris does a decent job, with Alan Arkin playing off of him (in like a you think he [Arkin] is an idiot kind of way), until it is Arkin’s time to actually become a 3D character. Kevin Spacey was totally detestable: his character was snide, sure, but man I think anyone could do that role too, but it is Kevin Spacey, sharing the screen with 5 other A-listers. Maybe there just wasn’t the room, with Lemmon (my goodness, he’s really something!) and Pacino.

Thankfully, the force of Pacino was tempered. His character was seen early, but only referred to during the second act, not seen. Then he shows up with an absolutely wonderful monologue, which begins, “All train compartments smell vaguely of shit.” He gets the other sympathetic (practically mute because totally rapt with the Pac-man) character to sign a deal with the monologue; it’s really a mystifying and hypnotic piece of work, the dialogue and delivery.

GGR is short and filled with cursing—you just wish it were longer.

Two of the characters suffer so completely (the two men moved by the women in their families) in an office. Lemmon and Pacino were perfectly casted. And then there’s this terribly sad dude who shows up, the one to whom Pacino sold, playing this incredibly timid and self-conscious and worried husband who’s been tricked into making a purchase, and he cannot even trust himself (but doesn’t listen to himself about it, rather his wife [“my wife told me not to talk to you”]; he just wants to please—it is so sad!). But he was perfect, because hardly any man in Hollywood, especially now that PSH is gone, would open himself like Jonathan Pryce did. He just laid himself bare, but still, Lemmon eclipsed him.

There is something here though with movie stars. Spacey and Baldwin played assholes, and I cannot imagine them doing anything else. Arkin and Harris played sufficiently, bending themselves to the script, earning some credibility. Lemmon and Pacino stole their scenes—the best scene has them together. That’s all understandable and expected. And those are six actors whose careers have had incredible longevities, but Pryce, man that guy did well, because he’s a bit guy. He was able to open himself up because the audience didn’t need anything from him that was based on expectation. But also he’s a great actor. And I am tempted now to eulogize, to write some elegiac jeremiad about the loss of PSH, but we all feel it, I know.