The Power of Art

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Many years ago, I was riding a subway in Mexico City when a young man boarded and began declaiming in a loud voice – not shouting but projecting. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to make out everything he was saying but I knew love was involved and the Spanish was very formal. Other passengers looked bemused – especially when he got down on one knee to several young ladies in succession. There was some blushing and a lot of laughter. As it turns out he was an actor performing in a Cervantes festival and he was quoting some love speeches from the play. The power of art to surprise, engage and excite people never ceases to amaze me.

A year or two later I remembered this event as we were preparing for “Freedom to Read” week in Calgary. I suggested that we go about the city and read from banned books in public. No warning would be given – these were to be guerilla readings. The committee agreed and a number of intrepid – and usually nervous – readers were dispatched to C-train stations, public squares and shopping malls. Most of the audience was – like the subway riders – bemused but were polite and mostly engaged by the event.

And that brings us to Julius Caesar and Donald Trump. The Shakespeare in the Park company in NYC has been preforming the Shakespeare classic with Caesar being portrayed remarkably like Donald Trump. It is meant to be satire and as such works quite well. Caesar was a man who claimed to be of the people (though in fact he came from a rich and powerful family) and was riding a popular wave toward the monarchy. Others – those committed to the Republic and democracy (you see where this is going) – did everything they could to thwart his ambitions and his attempts to buy the people with their own money. In the end, they fail in the greatest way possible – by assassinating Caesar, which act lead directly to the end of the Republic and the rise of the Emperors.

The point is, of course, that democracy ultimately fails when the only option people can see is political violence. This is not an incitement to assassinate the President but rather a harsh lesson in what extremism can do to damage society. The central message: never give up on the law.

However, Trump’s followers don’t see that point. Their man is being unjustly portrayed and they are bound to stop it. Several of them have stormed the stage and ranted loudly (and largely unintelligibly as they were yelling not projecting) and were then escorted to jail. In the wake of this, attendance fell – no wait, it rose to its highest levels in years. Good job!

Meanwhile, theatres that produce Shakespeare all across America – none of which have anything to do with this production of Julius Caesar – have been getting death and bomb threats, though no actual violence has occurred. I am almost speechless at the thought of this. It’s as if they think a play is like a movie and appears simultaneously all over the country. Or maybe they just want to teach that Shakespeare guy a lesson. “If we see him, we’ll thrash him.”

Apparently art still has the power to bemuse and engage – but also enrage in an incoherent and ineffectual way.

Do your bit – go to a play this month. And that’s ten minutes.

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Taking Offence

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I have a friend who used to say he didn’t take offence even if it was offered.

What the hell does he know? Everyone these days takes offence at pretty much everything someone else says or does and, what’s more, they demand that the offending person by sufficiently punished. Personally I’m offended – and soon you will be, too.

This morning a man is complaining because his anti-abortion flag was taken down by City Hall. He was offended at this insult – which occurred apparently because so many people were offended by the flag. Meanwhile, on Facebook, someone demanded that people stop talking about Mother’s Day because he had recently lost his mother. And so it goes.

Stephen Colbert recently joked that the only use for Trump’s mouth was as Putin’s cock holster. This offended people on both the right and the left; the former thought it vulgar and an insult to the presidency while the later called it homophobic. Meanwhile, Colbert has apologized (sort of) even though he’s frequently said much worse things about better people. This has not stopped the demands for his firing nor diminished the ratings of his late night show.

Over in Ireland, Stephen Fry was under investigation for blasphemy over remarks he made about some generalized God. Never mind that he was addressing an age old theological problem as to why there is evil in the world. And don’t say free will – that might explain evil people but it hardly explains tsunamis or cancer in 4-year olds. The investigation was dropped when it was discovered there was only one complainant and he wasn’t really offended but thought others might be. How presumptuous! I’m offended that he appropriated other people’s offence for his own purposes.

Which brings us to cultural appropriation, which apparently now means observing, talking about, thinking of or imagining anything that is not directly taken from your own culture. This is not to diminish the real issues of colonialism and the silencing of the voice of the other – which may well be a factor in why some writers and artists do not get the attention they deserve – but to suggest that it is inappropriate to even imagine the other is a crime against… well, I’m not sure who. Some have even suggested that eating ethnic food might be inappropriate (and don’t get me started on the evils of tourism) which I’m sure would come as a big shock – and economic blow – to the Chinese family that sells me noodles.

This is not simply an issue of free speech as some have framed it but something much deeper and concerning. It is a form of cultural isolationism, an ahistorical approach that appeals equally to the xenophobic right and the identity-obsessed left.

But if we actually are one race – the human race – and live on one world, as environmentalists like to say, shouldn’t we all be learning from each other and using our imaginations to make the other us?

But maybe that’s just offensive.

And that’s ten minutes.

Gatekeepers

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The other day, a friend was critical of the arts granting process, objecting to the fact that writers had to have had 2 or more ‘professional’ publications to qualify for a grant, effectively excluding self-published writers no matter how successful they had been at selling their work. He went on to suggest that similar restrictions were not placed on musicians or dancers or painters.

The latter statement is simply not true. Except for occasional special programs to encourage new artists, (Canada Council used to have a category called Explorations grants – I applied unsuccessfully several times when I was starting out), all grants require that artists demonstrate they are professionals or on their way to becoming one. The wording differs but essentially it says you must be making an effort to make art a significant part of your work and livelihood. One of the ways you have historically done that is through professional publications (or performances in a professional venue or showings in a professional gallery).

But, of course, the world is changing. More and more people are self-publishing or, if you prefer, indie publishing. Some of them are quite good. And granting agencies and professional organizations are responding. For example SFWA – the organization representing professional science fiction and fantasy writers – recently changed their membership requirements to include indie publishers, provided they had made an income from their writing equivalent to the minimum advance required for traditional published writers (roughly $3000USD in a single year). In this case they are using the marketplace to establish your professional standards. Given how few indie authors make that, it still represents a significant barrier and keeps the organization ‘professional’ in its mandate.

The Canada Council of the Arts studied ways that it can be more relevant and helpful in the digital age. It is doubtful they will base their qualifications on income but nonetheless they are looking for ways to include professional artists who have been previously excluded. I strongly suggest those interested to provide input in the still on-going consultation process.

But why have qualifications at all? Why not let anyone who claims to be an artist apply and let the chips and grant dollars fall where they may?

Two reasons come to mind. First most professional artists served an apprenticeship, years or sometimes even decades working on their craft – getting rejected and then accepted, taking courses and workshops and finally winning acceptance from the larger community. A lot of them – myself included – resent the fact that all that might have been pointless. We could have just slapped together a document on our first try and then with the click of mouse published it on Amazon. We take some comfort that most of those books don’t get read but take even more in the idea that they aren’t viewed as professional.

For grant agencies there are practical concerns. They already can’t fund all the proposals that do get through the qualification process. Dropping those requirements would lead to flood of applications – almost all of which wouldn’t and, in fact, shouldn’t be funded. The purpose of government grants is to fund people to become self-supporting artists not to support their hobbies or whims. Sorry. And, on top of that, the only way they could judge the quality of someone’s work – without the screening of professional gatekeepers – would be to actually read the self-published books themselves.

Not only would the workload overwhelm the lightly-paid juries, it would probably burn the eyes out of their heads. Because while some self-published work is very good, the vast majority is unreadable drek. Trust me – having read some of the things at the bottom of my own slush pile, I know. Oh, god, how I know.

And that’s a little more than ten minutes.

Write Drunk

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The best advice I ever got as a writer was an off-hand comment Hemingway once made: Write drunk, edit sober. I often use that quote in workshops and on writing panels at conventions.

Of course, like all things in literature, it shouldn’t be taken literally. It is a metaphor for writing without inhibition, with passion and emotion. Hemingway also claimed that writing was easy; just sit at a typewriter and bleed.

I’ve read a lot of well-crafted fiction and I can always tell when the writer hasn’t bled in the process of making it. Restraint in the creative process always carries with it the faint stench of cowardice. As a writer or any other type of artist, you need to take risks – put things out there without censoring your thoughts, words or emotions. Say anything, feel everything – at least in your first draft.

Of course, throwing everything on the page doesn’t mean it has to stay there. Editing sober is as important as writing drunk. Then you have to exercise your craft, your understanding of what belongs and what is excess. Not everything we write when we write a story needs to be in that particular tale. It may not belong anywhere in your published work. But if you don’t tell your secrets even to your first draft, your work will always have the feeling of contrivance rather than creation. Well-crafted sentences are good – unless they are boring.

Frankly, creation is a messy business.

But how do you do it? How do you turn off the inner editor and let it all hang out? Practice is the best answer I can give you. Keep trying to write as if no one is reading and after a while you may get the hang of it. Write fast is another solution. Thomas Wolfe was known to write 10,000 words a day on occasion. By hand. No wonder he died young.

Hemingway himself was more restrained. According to his own records, he ranged from 500 to 2000 words a day – also mostly by hand when he was doing first drafts – at least on the days he was writing at all. He went for weeks or even months at a time without putting pen to paper, sometimes arguing that he had to let things ferment until the writing demanded to be done. But even when he was writing, he was only going at it for a couple of hours each day – always stopping when it was going well and he knew what was coming next.

Scott Fitzgerald took another tack. He suffered. He struggled. And when he put it down on paper, it was all filtered through that pain. Sylvia Plath was said to have taken the same approach.

Of course, it might not wise to follow the advice of these writers too closely. They all died young – Hemingway was about my age when he ended it all. The rest didn’t even come close.

Still, no guts no glory. If you are not willing to suffer for your work, you can hardly expect readers to respond with anything more than superficial emotion.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go check on my supply of bourbon.

And, that’s ten minutes.

Write Off (and On)

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I’ve been writing since I was about 15. Not every day of course, not even every year. Still, it is the one artistic thing I’ve ever been good at. I actually failed art in school. Can you imagine that? Who fails art? Me. I was a little better with music but only because musical notation is a lot like math. I can read music; I just can’t play it.

I tried. Saxophone of all things, because it would be foolish to take up an instrument where it was easy to fail. No one blames you when you fail to master the saxophone. Though it’s not like the bagpipes where they actually thank you when you give them up. A few years ago I bought another saxophone thinking I might do better at 50 than I did at fifteen. Not so much – but it is nice to look at.

Sax

On tour with Silver Donald Cameron

But writing was something I could do – well, not really well for the first fifteen years I was doing it. I’m not big on keeping memorabilia but I do happen to have a play I wrote when I was in Grade 11. To call it crap is an insult to sewage. I also have a notebook with my first short story and pages of really bad poetry. Of the three forms – poetry, play and short story – the prose was the best. Not good mind you but better than the other two.

Yet, strangely it was the theatre that got me writing in a serious way back in the late 80s. I wrote a number of plays – about 20 – and some of them even got professionally produced. I would have liked to be a successful playwright – theatre parties are such fun – but I suspect that my motivation was focused on the wrong things.

Instead, for better or worse, I settled on prose fiction and most notably on science fiction. I have written some fantasy, a mystery or two and even some literary fiction – and published some of what I wrote – but if I’ve learned anything about writing over the years, it is that it is better – for me, at least – to pick one thing and try to do it well.

You might think by now I would have developed my work habits to the point where writing was something I did every day or at least every week. Not so. I have over the last thirty years or so gone long stretches where I didn’t write at all. I think my biggest gap was when I first moved to Ottawa in 2002; I didn’t write a word of fiction for over 18 months.

In recent years, I’ve spent so much time editing and publishing other people’s work that I barely have time to write at all. Saturday was an exception. I invited my writing group over to have a day-long write-off. We all get together and write (and chat and snack). It can be productive but for me, not always. The last few, I snuck off and did some publishing work instead.

Fortunately I had brainstormed a story a couple of weeks ago – come up with most of it in 20 minutes in a coffee shop while waiting for a meeting. Brainstorming is a technique I teach but have failed to use myself recently. Duh. So I actually wrote – over 2000 words. It felt pretty good. Think I’ll do it again over Easter. Because I can.

And that’s ten minutes.

Regarding Taste

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The Romans would say: De gustibus non est disputandum. The French might shrug and murmur: À chaque, son gout. In English, we might argue: To each their own or more cuttingly, there’s no accounting for taste.

These thoughts struck me yesterday when I was adding a couple of books to my Goodreads account. Some of them were new acquisitions and another was an older book I’ve just started to read because the author, whose other books I’ve admired, recently died. I thought it was time to explore one of his few novels that I hadn’t yet read. What I noticed was that the book had middling reviews on Goodreads – or rather it had wildly divergent reviews gaining almost as many one star ratings as five.

Was it a case of you either love it or you hate it or was there something else at play? Certainly, it has been shown that nothing more negatively affects a book’s rating on mass reading sites than for it to win a major award or otherwise be subject to public approval. A positive review in The New York Times might do the trick.

There are, after all, hordes of trolls who are never happy unless they are crapping on what other people do or love. Or perhaps it is the response of the high school student who comes to hate novels because too many teachers have told them they are ‘good for them.’ What more damning praise could an author ever ask for?

To me, taste is indeed as the Romans, French and English all agree: an unaccountable and individual thing. Our language is full of such expressions. One man’s meat is another’s poison. Your trash is my treasure. We acknowledge it and yet grow rancorous when someone disagrees with us about this being the best book ever written and that being the most incredible film of the year.

Taste is not a matter for elites – read it to make yourself a better person or, better yet, read it to see just how stupid and without perception you are – nor for democracy. Popular is not a measure of quality simply of, well, popularity. Some popular things are, of course, of the highest quality and some things are ignored because they deserve nothing better.

And who is to say which is which? History perhaps decides what has lasting value – or perhaps not. It is estimated that only 10% of every film ever made still exists today. Recently a cache of old silent movies were discovered frozen in Dawson City, Yukon. Of the hundreds recovered only a few existed in other prints. For many of the rest, there wasn’t even a list somewhere or a newspaper article archived in a dusty vault to record their existence.

Besides who has time to wait on history? I know what I like and need neither the experts nor the masses to tell me if I’m right or wrong. I guess what is really driving this blog is all the reading I’m doing as a publisher. Some of the things I like I realize others might not find to their taste; things I reject, many might love. But as the publisher who pays the tab, whose taste should I obey if not my own?

And that’s ten minutes.

 

Bowie

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David Bowie died yesterday at the age of 69; another icon of our collective youth has passed into the void about which he sang so eloquently. I was never a huge fan of Bowie but was always aware of his music and his transformations. Even if you didn’t listen to his music you could see it reflected in the work of others – talking back to him or following along.

Tributes are flowing in from around the world – fans, fellow artists, even politicians are talking about what the man and his music meant to them. Everyone seems to be able to find something in his music. He explored science fiction and sex, politics and love. It was an impressive body of work.

But what impresses me most is not how David Bowie lived but how he died.

Most people were unaware of his on-going fights with illness. After suffering a heart attack in 2004, he became somewhat reclusive, focusing on his art and his family. Perhaps he began even then to think about what the last days would look like.

Clearly he had no intention of simply fading away. After nearly a decade away from the music scene he released a new album in 2011 to critical acclaim. Another was released last Friday, on his 69th birthday. Two days later he was dead. He had to have known the end was coming, even as he recorded his last songs.

A lot of people, faced with illness or death, become closed in, smaller. They disengage from the world. They focus on the end to come instead of the life still left to them. Some turn to the consolations of religion – the hope for a life to come.

Maybe there is a life to come – though I don’t think so. But even if there is, it is another life, not a life of the body or the senses but a life of… well, who can say? No-one has reported back.

Perhaps it would be better to believe there is only this life – the one we are living right now.

I’m not a big believer in spirituality (I honestly go blank when people bring it up) or meditation. But I do believe in living as if this were my last moment. It may seem bleak but it’s not. Though it’s not always easy. The past creeps in; the future looms large but in the end, what does one do but put one foot in front of the other? Whenever I feel like nothing is worth doing, I think of when I will be able to do nothing at all. It helps.

We all face our own demons. I’m sure Bowie had his. But he chose to wrestle with them to the very end. Maybe the best way to remember him is not to grieve at his death but marvel at his life.

And that’s ten minutes.