Monthly Archives: March 2012

On Staying Sane

I have a deep mistrust of self-help and motivational books, videos, speakers, and the like. Don’t get me wrong, I’m every bit as prone to fits of existential angst as the next person. But I’m fundamentally a stoic at heart. I strongly believe that we’re all essentially alone; and we had better damn well be self-reliant and self-fixing, however unfair the world, and however personal a hurt may feel. I worry that anyone who makes a habit of going to hear motivational speakers, or believes that listening to self-help CDs is going to help them, is probably going to remain broken: worse, they’re giving up their freedom of thought.

That notwithstanding, there ARE two books that I occasionally refer to, the first for a chuckle and to get perspective, the second not so much for motivation but rather because it makes me feel sane, since just about every quotation in it reinforces my own philosophy and approach.

Pushcart’s complete “ROTTEN REVIEWS AND REJECTIONS” is an indispensable little volume both for writers and indeed anyone who enjoys seeing self-important people (in this instance, critics and publishers) proved deeply, desperately wrong in their reviews and rejections of great authors and books which went on to become classics. For instance:

OTHELLO (Shakespeare): “Pure melodrama. There is not a touch of characterization that goes below the skin.”   -George Bernard Shaw

WUTHERING HEIGHTS (Emily Bronte): “Here all the faults of Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Bronte) are magnified a thousandfold, and the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read.”  – James Lorimer in the North British Review

CRASH (J.G. Ballard): “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.”   -Rejection letter

THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (Le Carre): “You’re welcome to Le Carre–he hasn’t got any future.”   -Rejection letter

THE TIME MACHINE (H.G. Wells): “It is not interesting enough for the general reader and not thorough enough for the scientific reader.”   -Rejection letter

YOUTH and HEART OF DARKNESS (Conrad): “It would be useless to pretend that they can be very widely read.”    -The Manchester Guardian

The second book is an equally delicious little volume titled, “ZEN GUITAR” by Philip Toshio Sudo, and you don’t have to play guitar to read it, only to have a pulse. The book consists of a number of quotations from famous musicians, followed by a one- or two-page commentary from a Zen perspective by the author, and each one is a gem. Some of my favourite quotations (you’ll have to buy the book for the commentaries) are:

“Music should go right through you, leave some of itself inside you, and take some of you with it when it leaves.”   –Henry Threadgill

“I don’t think you can ever do your best. Doing your best is a process of trying to do your best.”   –Townes Van Zandt

“At the end of a show he’ll leave the stage, and the sirens will be going, and the limousines waiting, and Charlie will walk back to his drumkit and change the position of his drumsticks by two millimetres. Then he’ll look at it. Then if it looks good, he’ll leave… The drums are about to be stripped down and put in the back of a truck, and he cannot leave if he’s got it in his mind that he’s left his sticks in a displeasing way.”   –Keith Richards, on Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts

“You get older…you start having hopes for other people rather than yourself.”   -Bob Dylan

Finally, I have a few favourite volumes of poetry that I read from time to time. Everyone, happy or sad, sick or healthy, in love or not, should read poetry, and good poetry at that (and there’s a lot of really poor poetry out there to turn off the unwary.) My personal favourite collection is THE MENTOR BOOK OF MAJOR BRITISH POETS (ed. Oscar Williams).

Which reminds me, I must buy a new copy of MAJOR BRITISH POETS. My original is just about worn out!

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No Synaesthesia Required

Synaethesia is what happens when your senses get cross-wired (as in hearing a colour) and is usually associated with neurological disorders or hallucinogenic drugs. What I propose to examine here is an applied, metaphorical synaesthesia, and you’ll be pleased to know that neither neurological impairment nor mind-altering substances are required. A simple curiosity and a willingness to experiment will suffice.

In a lifetime of trying to improve my skills in various creative pursuits—decorative painting, photographic composition, guitar, and writing—I’m struck by the convergences, the aspects all the arts seem to have in common. I believe this insight is a valuable one for anyone engaged in an artistic pursuit.

Although ‘Art’ doesn’t lend itself to easy definition, we can discern the discrete building blocks of any art piece enough to name them: texture, tone, movement, light, shadow, contrast, empty space, nuance, bravura, balance, harmony, and so on. These same words can be applied to a number of disciplines, and—once understood in one context—can be equally understood in another. So a pianist who understands, say, texture and movement in music is already equipped to discern those same qualities in a painting or a prose work; and if our pianist (or even someone who understands these terms in the context of music) wants to learn one of these other art forms, he or she will likely find this understanding gives them an edge. Knowing what the component parts are in one medium will make it easier to identify them (or their absence) in another.

I think, then, that learning builds upon itself. By thinking in terms of these universal qualities, these building blocks, when considering our own created work or that of others, we can more easily spot the strengths and weaknesses of a work, and perhaps with more detachment than might otherwise be the case. If I understand the meaning and importance of empty space in a photograph, I can better recognize its presence or absence in a piece of music; similarly, a poet who understands dynamic can notice its absence in a painting.

It seems to me that many of these concepts work in antonym pairings. A short list follows, and though they may not all transpose equally well to every art form, I think there’s enough applicability here for most of us to find the notion worth exploring.

Static / Dynamic

Light / Dark

Balance / Imbalance

Symmetry / Asymmetry

Smooth / Textured

Balance / Tension // Dynamic balance

Contrast / Equal tones

Focus / Fuzziness

Bravura / Timidity

Spirit / Technique (non-exclusive opposites; used in sense of driving the work)

Empty Space (aka ‘blank space’)




It’s very possible I’m reinventing the wheel here… In which case, well, that’s not unusual for an autodidact, as touched on in my post, “Are We There Yet?’. I do know that academics in the visual arts can get very defensive when scholars from ‘text-based disciplines’ stray into their territory, but since I’m neither an academic nor a critic and have no pretension to either, I offer this up as a dilettante ever eager to embrace anything which will help deepen my understanding of what I’m doing.  Try it for yourself: grab the words from this list and use each as a lens, a filter, when next assessing a piece of music, art, writing, even an essay or article, yours or someone else’s. I think you’ll find them very useful.


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It’s impossible to overstress the importance of a story’s opening. The first few paragraphs—even the first paragraph alone—of a piece of fiction are almost certain to be the deciding factor in whether a reader puts down their money or not. Ditto with an agent or editor, only more so. If those first lines aren’t doing exactly what they should, the reader will simply think, not for me, and move on to the next potential purchase.

The good news is that openings are actually easy: all an author has to do is keep the person reading. That’s all there is to it. Of course, good prose helps—those early paras need to be your best writing, free of typos or infelicities of grammar or syntax. But let’s assume you know how to do that.

For an opening to work, the writer needs to quickly do three things: (i) show that something’s happening; (ii) make the reader care about the outcome; and (iii) convince them that the writer knows what he or she is about, and that the reader’s time will be rewarded if they just keep reading. At the same time, a good writer will also be laying the foundations of scene, setting, and character.

Having something happening doesn’t mean you have to have slam-bang action from the first sentence—in fact, supplying wild action without giving the reader a reason to care is often a guaranteed fail, especially in the hands of young males writing fantasy. What’s needed is to raise a question in the reader’s mind and quickly follow up with a reason to care. If a story* begins,

Jim Conroy sat in the center of the tiny cabin, his worldly belongings arranged neatly on the bone-dry floorboards.  A ritual invocation, perhaps, of a lost order.

this immediately raises a number of questions. Although the reader has no reason yet to care who Jim Conroy is, his action—arranging his wordly belongings neatly before him, and the hint that this is somehow connected to something vanished (a ‘lost order’)—suggests that something is going on, that he’s doing this for a purpose, and is likely to pique the reader’s interest enough to make them start the next paragraph:

A tattered old wallet: the slots which had once held platinum and titanium cards sagged empty, and three one-dollar bills occupied the equally dilated billfold area.

The reader now knows that Conroy was once well-off but has now stumbled on hard times. And as a person of at least average humanity, the reader will by now probably be starting to feel a little sorry for this guy, because, let’s face it, we all fear destitution. But what’s he doing in this tiny cabin, contemplating his belongings, and why? Is he going to kill himself? Jeez. Let’s read on.

His New York driver’s license mocked him from behind a dirty plastic window; the evaporation of his belief in the consensus that made driving possible had been one of the first, and certainly the most sudden, symptoms of his ruin.  The inexplicable corruption of his reading and writing skills had followed shortly after.

Okay, now we know there’s something really weird going on. This Jim Conroy, whoever he is, is obviously in deep trouble, and an empty wallet may be the least of it. There’s a strong suggestion of mental illness, but the cumulative effect of the words ritual, ruin, and corruption, suggest something darker, more eldritch at work. The reader wants more…

A hook, therefore, needn’t be in-your-face drama. Anything that stirs the reader’s curiosity can work. Sometimes just a strong or unique enough narrative voice will do the trick. Take a strong narrative voice and combine that with a couple of well-chosen question seeds, and you can craft a really compelling opening, such as the following from Roger Zelazny’s ‘Isle of the Dead’:

Life is a thing—if you’ll excuse a quick dab of philosophy before you know what kind of picture I’m painting—that reminds me quite a bit of the beaches around Tokyo Bay.

Now, it’s been centuries since I saw that Bay and those beaches, so I could be off quite a bit. But I’m told that it hasn’t changed much, except for the condoms, from the way that I remember it.

There follows a two-page—two pages!—passage of descriptive reminiscence and philosophizing in which Zelazny slowly reinforces his metaphor, eventually tying it up with the narrator’s present predicament. This strategy—hijacking the reader at the get-go and taking them on a detour via two pages of descriptive matter after just two introductory paras—has to be one of the ballsiest in the history of science fiction.

Why does it work? Because in those two brief, introductory paras, Zelazny has both hit you with a first-person narrative voice as confident as any Greek tragedist and planted a couple of hooks so powerful (a narrator centuries old, and the sly but purposeful mention of condoms) that you’ll almost certainly stick around to hear him out.

A reader’s attention is a fragile thing in the first page or two of a story; once further into the book, by which time you’ll have hopefully convinced them that you know where you’re going and have the skills to make the trip worthwhile, the reader is less easily thrown and will cut you more slack for digression, picture-painting, windy philosophizing, and the like: but at the beginning, your job is simply to snag the reader’s attention and lead them unresisting into your world.


*Taken from my own short story, “Appalachian Fall.”


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Are We There Yet?

Well, no.

One of the harder things for writers is how to gauge their own progress. Unlike, say, an engineer or a lawyer, most creative people—artists, writers, musicians—are at least partly, often entirely, self-taught. This makes it hard for them to see how far they’ve come, because unlike someone following a structured, guided learning trajectory with distinct modules, tests, and progress markers leading to a final graduation, many creative people have no such waypoints or benchmarks, only a lifelong continuum of developing craft.

To make things more vexing, most of us find that the more we learn, the more we realize we still don’t know—or, to put it another way, the larger one’s knowledge base, the greater one’s vision of the whole. The result is that we can be quite accomplished, and yet feel very insecure about our skills. To quote Sir Edwin Landseer, the great 19th-century British artist, “If people only knew as much about painting as I do, they would never buy my pictures.”  The target is receding all the time.

This issue came home to me several years ago, when I was a full-time decorative (aka ‘faux’) painter and wood finisher. I’d been plying my trade for fifteen years, and had risen to the top of my field, yet I would worry myself sick over every job, still traumatized, no doubt, by a screw-up very early on in my career. Fortunately, two near-simultaneous events ended my chronic insecurity.

The first of these came one day when I was trying to solve a technical problem to do with a specific wood dyeing application. The literature wasn’t helping me, so I started calling various manufacturers’ technical departments, and even got to talk to some chemists. Before long, I realized there was nobody out there with an answer: in my own, self-guided learning and research over the years, I’d become an expert in the field without knowing it.

The second epiphany came over a beer with another decorative painter, someone I’d been semi-mentoring. When I confessed to her that I approached every job with the fear that I’d screw it up, she cracked up laughing. “How long is it since you had a job go wrong?” she said. In truth, it had been at least a decade.

With regard to writing, it’s tempting to say that professional publication is the diploma, the graduation, the marker of attainment. I think that’s largely true, but not entirely. For one thing, you have to actively submit work; yet many people write for years, even becoming quite skilled, without ever submitting a story. It’s also possible—especially in today’s chaotic publishing environment—that the market just isn’t receptive, however solid your craft. In the case of my own nonfiction book, “Aegean Dream,” publishers felt it was way over length and didn’t fit the typical travel/settling memoir formula (find a ruin in Mediterranean country x, fix it up, live happily ever after); instead, I’d written a long (135k words) book which, despite a good deal of humour, had a plot arc more reminiscent of a Greek Tragedy. Happily, readers don’t give a damn: the book has been seeing steadily rising sales for several weeks, and is frequently #1 in both the Greek Nonfiction and Greek Travel categories in Amazon UK’s Kindle section. And not one person has complained about either the length or the lack of happily-ever-after.

It’s important, therefore, to look back at the road traveled and note just how far you’ve come. For writers, a good critique group is invaluable in that regard: you’ll see others progress, and they’ll be able to gauge your own development. As your own skills grow, you’ll likely become pickier in your reading; or you’ll be reading away and, in a burst of admiration, realize how much skill it took the author to achieve to a certain effect or pull off a particular scene (in the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,“Mediocrity knows nothing more than itself, but talent always recognizes genius.”) . These are all signs of progress. And although we should never become cocky or overly confident, it’s important to understand that needless self-doubt and timidity can and will hold you back.

It’s also true that learning has a clear and quasi-universal timeline (this is why we have two-year and four-year colleges). As a rule of thumb, I’d say that any reasonably intelligent person, given moderate talent and a willingness to apply themselves, can become competent at something (the ‘journeyman’ level) in three to five years, expert in eight or ten, and attain mastery in fifteen. And the icing on the cake is that people who are self-taught, though they may spin their wheels more than those in a structured learning environment, tend to innovate, often finding unique ways around problems and discovering new techniques on the way.

So yeah, maybe you are there and you just didn’t know it. Only now you can glimpse just how far there is still to go.


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