Friday, January 22, 2010

Story Prompt

By Judith A. Ross for Talking Writing

Here we are in Barcelona. The photo is by Akos Szilvasi, a photographer who lives and works in Cambridge, Mass. Akos was born in Hungary and has also lived in Germany. (You can enlarge the photo by clicking on the image above.)

A U.S. resident for twenty years, he is still struggling to figure us out. For example, why all the fuss about health care -- isn't that a human right?

But let's forget politics for a moment and enjoy the street scene above. Who are these people? Where are they going? What are they thinking?

Okay, all of you fiction writers out there, tell us a story!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Why Read Fiction?

By Carol Dorf for Talking Writing

Very Short Stories 
We wait in the car. My middle-school daughter picks up a book I've left on the back seat and starts reading "Bad Manners" from Microfictions by Ana Maria Shua: "If your chicken champignon takes off, leaving a trail of sauce on the tablecloth in its wake, don't blame your guests. You can't expect such an exquisite dish to tolerate your table manners." This is the entire story, and the punchline of a joke as well. My daughter reads several more of these stories aloud. I ask her what she thinks of them. She says, "Some are funny, some are disturbing, and all very, very strange."

The End of Fiction
Last year, 7th grade. It's back to school night. The English teacher, Ms. No, tells the parents the students won't be reading fiction in class because the academic reading skills students need to develop are found in nonfiction. They are permitted to read fiction for their Accelerated Reader program, where every book is assigned point values and students answer a set of questions to prove that they have understood a book. In this system, Jane Austen's Persuasion (19) is worth less points than J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (44).

What they read for class is a short series of persuasive essays mostly about the potential damages caused by drugs or vandalism.

Over the course of the year, they never have the opportunity to discuss a novel with their classmates, and if they choose to read all nonfiction that is just fine.

Death in Fiction 
Recently, a friend in my daughter's book group sold the girls on reading Going Bovine by Libba Bray, a book in which a 16-year-old boy with mad cow disease takes a road trip with strange companions in search of a cure. Most of the adults saw the book as a trip through the character's consciousness, while most of the girls saw it as an actual journey, perhaps with some magic to smooth over the rough parts.

Reading Going Bovine brought to mind Passage by Connie Willis, a sea journey through the consciousness of a dying woman. In both of these books, the reader keeps hoping for the dying main character to solve the mystery and find a cure. Each complication in the plot prevents success. As in Orpheus' journey to the underworld, these characters cannot find a way back to the world of the living. By the end of the story, the reader accepts the inevitability of death.

What we learn from fiction is to live in someone else's world. The extreme case of this is when the main character is dying, but many books (think of Sara Gruen's Water For Elephants or Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or  Virginia Woolf's Orlando) take us away from our comfort zone. How many of us have actually spent time talking to a 93-year-old circus performer, a teen with Asperger's, or a person who changes both time periods and gender? We meet them as readers.

I feel a bit sad to be rewriting this old argument for the pleasures of reading, but given the functional approach to education our children are living with, returning to some of the basic pleasures of reading is essential. We all crave story and to understand the lives of others. I hope next year the children in that teacher's class will spend time arguing over a story, trying to get their friends to read their favorites.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Painting Over Mistakes on a Still-Wet Canvas

"Have You Forgotten Their Wet, Sleepy Fragrance?" by Erik Hansen

By Judith A. Ross for Talking Writing

There are no shortcuts to well-executed art – be it painting, writing, music, or photography. The artist must be well-grounded in and attentive to every step of the process.

In their book, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles and Ted Orlando write, “Even talent is rarely distinguishable, over the long run, from perseverance and lots of hard work.”

Knowing one’s craft and putting in the hours of work may not reap commercial benefits, but it can result in work that has both quality and depth. According to Bayles and Orlando:
“The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. One of the basic and difficult lessons that every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential. X-rays of famous paintings reveal that even master artists sometimes made basic mid-course corrections (or deleted really dumb mistakes) by overpainting the still-wet canvas.”
In an environment where new media provides numerous opportunities for experimentation and self-promotion, it is especially crucial that artists and writers be well steeped in the basics of their craft.

The ability to first recognize mistakes and then edit and correct one's own work will make the difference between experiments that take others to new and exciting places and ones that leave them mired waist-deep in muck.

Nowhere is this tension more clearly illustrated than in the new online literary magazine, Electric Literature (EL). Some of EL’s experiments are more successful than others.

For example, EL recently delivered to its readers a short story by Rick Moody over Twitter. While the piece may never have made it into traditional print, it wasn’t meant to.

Instead, Moody crafted a story that fit into the new context. Two people meet online and then the ensuing May-December romance is described from each of their perspectives through a series of 140-character tweets sent out every ten minutes over three days.

While the format was difficult to follow, I continued to think about the story long after the final tweet. As one reviewer noted, these two could have been real people sending messages about a real encounter to anyone willing to read them.

Moody didn’t just dash this off, it was a carefully calculated experiment. In an interview with PBS Newshour, he explains how the story took shape, noting that it took as long to write as a traditional short story.

The EL blog, on the other hand, seems to feature writers who are trying to improvise complicated jazz riffs before they can successfully play a basic scale. These folks don’t yet know how to self-edit the way that Moody does. And this is where some outside editorial advice and shaping would help the writers and their readers.

The title of one blogged story, “Jeffrey, Vincent, Jeffrey and Vincent’s Father and the Woman in the Photograph” is a preview of run-on sentences and dense paragraphs that suffocate rather than enliven. The liberal use of the four-letter word for excrement was another turn-off.

This isn’t literature, electric or otherwise, but rather the kind of self-conscious, stream-of-conscious, navel-gazing more appropriate for a personal blog rather than an online magazine.

Other parts of EL’s site also strike me as work that should have been painted over while the canvas was still wet – starting with the artwork on the homepage.

Judgments about art and literature are subjective, of course. Even so, the more you develop your “chops” in any particular discipline, the better your work will be. Take the photograph now posted on this site.

Erik Hansen has been a commercial photographer for many years. Everything he learned during those years informs his art – as does his knowledge of history, politics, film, literature, and a whole bunch of other stuff.

I happened to be in his studio when he was developing the image at the top of this post. He builds a model and then with lighting and other techniques brings the small-scale scene to life. He does not digitally manipulate his images: The magic happens before he clicks the shutter.

There may have been one or two happy accidents in making this image, but only a skilled photographer would be able to create and then capture the elements that make it so evocative – such as the funnels of light, the shine on the water, and the textures of the land on either side.

And that’s just the technical portion of his work. The ideas behind his photographs inspire viewers to superimpose their own stories over these imaginary landscapes.

That intent wrapped up in photographic expertise is what transforms this shot into a work of art. Erik not only enjoys every step of his process, he has practiced each one many, many times. As a result, he can make images that soar.