Wednesday, February 22, 2006

what's for dinner? "Hamlet" or "MacBeth"?

I dislike the word "journey" to describe a narrative experience. "'War and Peace' took me on such a journey!" I hate it even more when it's used to describe a life experience:

Reporter: How did you feel after your husband set fire to your house and all your children got roasted alive?

Mother: Well, I tell myself that life is a journey...

Yeah. A journey to hell!

I feel the same way when people say, "Everything happens for a reason." Lord, I hate that.

Reporter: How did you feel when you lost all your money, got fired and developed a brain tumor?

Interviewee: Well, I just tell myself that everything happens for a reason.

Yeah. The reason: God hates you. I don't think I can ever square myself with "Everything happens for a reason." It's not because I'm an atheist, although that does make things simpler for me. My simple retort (which I would never actually say in real life -- I don't want to offend) is, "No, everything DOESN'T happen for a reason," or, more accurately, "Yes, everything DOES happen for a reason, which can be traced back to the Big Bang. You lost all your money because the billiard ball of your life got hit by another billiard ball which got hit by a third billiard ball which, if you go back enough balls, got hit by the pool cue called 'the Big Bang.'"

Even if I was a believer, I would think, "Yup. Everything happens for a reason. So what? The reason might be that God has decreed that you suffer, in order to serve some 'greater' purpose." I think when people say, "Everything happens for a reason," they mean, "Everything happens for a reason that will ultimately work out for my own good," and why should that be, in a theistic or non-theistic world? Does the universe exist to serve you?

Despite all this, I often feel like I must make peace with "journey", because how else can one describe certain experiences? Having grappled with this for some time, I present to you an alternative. But it's one that may leave you unimpressed. Still, it's worth discussing, because if it DOES leave you unimpressed, you may learn something useful about yourself, your attitudes towards art, and your attitudes towards ... food.

Why food? Because my replacement for journey is "meal." "King Lear" is a five-course meal, containing a lot of roughage and many bitter dishes -- but if you spoon off the top layer of the rancid pudding, there's a delicate creamy center underneath. One bite of it will make you weep. On the other hand, "Gilligan's Island" is a Twinky. No, not even a Twinky. It's a Twinky knock-off -- a Yummy or a Twinkle-doo.

I suspect many would balk at comparing great works of literature to food. Why is this? Is it because they consider this a comparison between the sublime and the banal? If so, are they over-valuing art or under-valuing food -- or both? Is it because dinner is ephemeral while art is ever-lasting? (Wow, what a can of worms! IS art ever-lasting? IS every production of "Taming of the Shrew" somehow part of a platonic whole? Or is each one a rose that eventually wilts and dies? A similar rose may take its place -- but this new rose IS a New Rose. And what of rereads? Is "The Great Gatsby" the same book this year as it was last year? How can it be when I have changed? Of food: is this Thanksgiving's apple pie the same as last Thanksgiving's apple pie?)

I like the "meal" metaphor, because it captures what I think art does best. Food and art are great catalysts for sensation. One could argue that food rarely touches the intellect. I don't care, because I have a bias against intellectual art. So I'd say that if a story primarily makes you think (rather than feel), it's like a meal that is historically interesting (the eel's eye they ate in the Middle Ages) but doesn't taste very good.

Perhaps the biggest objection is that food -- no matter how luscious -- is prepared by humans, and is limited by the boundaries of human minds, hearts and hands. Whereas art is spiritual. (Or is food spiritual, too? "We thank thee, Lord, for this dinner...") As an atheist, I can't see art as spiritual. Nothing is spiritual to me, because there is no such thing as spirit (unless "spirit" is simply a metaphor for something more ordinary, like "heartfelt" -- I have to be careful, because when I tell people "I'm not a 'spiritual person,' they often assume I'm claiming that I'm a sort of cold Mr. Spock-like character. I actually DO have feelings. I just don't think they come from the astral plane.) To me, art is either an accidental process (i.e. a beautiful, found object) or a human construction -- or, usually, a combination of the two. Much like a good meal.

And like a good meal, great art is greater than the sum of its parts. I will pour all my love into this stew, hoping that when you eat a spoonful, you will feel warm and loved and peaceful -- but the surprise is that you may feel much more. My carrots may be cooked just so, causing you to recall a scene from your youth. Much the same thing happened to Proust's hero in "A Search for Lost Time." He bit into a Madeleine and triggered several thousand pages of memories.

write like you speak

I've been debating "informal" writing with some members of an online forum. We're all fans of writing that reads like casual conversation, but we differ on how best to achieve it (or, more causally, “how to best achieve it”). A popular view -- and one that sounds logical -- is that one should write "the way one speaks."

If "write like you speak" means "don't don an unnatural, writerly voice when you put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard)", then I agree. In general, you should use your speaking vocabulary when you write, not some souped-up vocabulary, peppered with highfalutin' words. More accurately, you should use the vocabulary you WOULD use, if you were better at thinking of the right word at the right time.

And here's the problem with "write like you speak," assuming this means "talk into a tape recorder and then transcribe the speech, verbatim, onto paper." When you speak, you you're extemporizing. On the fly, you lack the time necessarily to choose strong words and to order your thoughts. For instance, I say "he let the keys fall," but if I had a minute to revise, I would realize that "he dropped the keys" was stronger. It still sounds informal. I MIGHT have said "dropped." It just didn't occur to me as I was speaking.

Trying to get this point across -- and to sneak in some other problems I have with transcribed speech -- I went overboard and posted this transcription:

I dis... I don't agree. Because. Um. Hold on ... Um. If you write like you speak, you'll -- you know -- get all these ums and uhs and false starts and stuff in there. In your writing. You know what I mean? You know? And you'll be redundant and keep saying the same thing over and over. The goal ... I think ... is not to ... um ... write like you speak, because... Well... people -- when you speak, people don't have to follow each and every word, you know, because you use body language and inflection and there's a lot of redundancy, but when you read, you, you know, you read all the words. And words are all there are. The goal should be to give the ILLUSION of writing like you speak without actually writing like you speak. Which is hard work.

My opponents pointed out that I was stacking the deck. We can take it for granted that ANY writer will edit out the stammers. Which leaves us with the following:

I don't agree. If you write like you speak, you'll get all these ums and uhs and false starts and stuff in there. And you'll be redundant and keep saying the same thing over and over. The goal is not to write like you speak, because people don't have to follow each and every word. You use body language and inflection and there's a lot of redundancy, but when you read, you read all the words. And words are all there are. The goal should be to give the ILLUSION of writing like you speak without actually writing like you speak. Which is hard work.

Pretty talky and causal -- but weak. It's filled with boring (un-evocative) "to be"* verbs, needless repetition, and disordered thoughts. I rewrote it, trying to fix these problems. But maybe I pushed it too far away from casual:

I disagree. If you write like you speak, you'll have to slip a bunch ums, uhs and false starts between words and sentences. And you'll repeat yourself. Repetition helps speech, because conversations are full of distractions (the jukebox in the bar, the sneeze, the cough). But readers read every word. And words are all they read. Speech has two sidekicks: body language and inflection. When you write, shoot for the ILLUSION of "writing like you speak" without actually writing like you speak. It's tough to pull off. You'll have to work at it.

My final re-write (which would NOT be my final one in "real life") was an attempt to inject some talkiness back into it:

You're wrong. If you write like you speak, you'll have to slip a bunch ums, uhs and false starts between words and sentences, and you'll repeat yourself over and over. I don't mind repeating myself when I'm talking, because conversations are full of distractions -- like the sneezes, coughs and jukeboxes in bars. But when I write, I assume readers read every word. And ALL they read are words. They don't get the "sidekicks" that usually tag along with my words when I'm talking -- body language and inflection. When you write, you should shoot for the ILLUSION of "writing like you speak" without ACTUALLY writing like you speak. It's tough to pull off, so you'll have to work at it.

The trouble with transcribing speech is that, when we speak, we don't have time to compose phrases and sentences that utilize the power tools of writing: active-voice, rich (evocative) word choice, metaphor, etc.

After I write a first draft (which might be a transcription of my speech from a tape -- or some other loose, brainstormy, get-in-on-paper technique), I scan my text several times, looking for specific problems and solving them via rewrites. Here are some of the things I look for:

Passive-voiced sentences and sentences that don't have a clear agent -- someONE should be doing someTHING. That formal voice, which we're wisely trying to avoid, is often signaled by passive language: "Democracy has been foisted on voters." WHO is doing the foisting? WHO is doing WHAT to WHOM? I literally go through each sentence and ask myself that. There has to be a clear MOTIVATOR and that MOTIVATOR has to be motivating SOMETHING. This is the way humans naturally view the word -- people/objects doing things to people/objects -- so it's the most natural, forceful, evocative way to write.

Verb choice. If you get too fancy -- "he confabulated" -- it won't sound conversational. But within the realm of natural speech, there are many verbs one MIGHT use, and they come in distinct, powerful flavors: he jumped, he ran, she dodged, I gulped...

Appeal to the senses. We have five of them. And it's through them that we experience the world. When I speak, I tend to forget about some of them, but I like to go through my prose and see if there's a way to cram in sensual data: "the argument left a sour taste in my mouth," "her skirt was the color of a grasshopper," "he hissed at me," "I rubbed the sore spot on my nose..."

Metaphors for abstractions. "I was so busy that I hardly noticed her absence, but it gradually wore on me." Can you really FEEL this? Maybe I should add something like: "I was so busy that I hardly noticed her absence, but it gradually wore on me. I felt like grass that had been beaten down by the sun for too long, brittle and brown." You have to be careful here, because if you get too clever (or too "poetic"), it won't sound conversational. But we do use tropes in our everyday speech, and they can really help make abstract writing more accessible.

*"To be" is a useful, indispensable verb. Still, you should avoid it when you can, because it doesn’t conjure up an image. "He is hungry" isn't a bad sentence, but note that "is" doesn't make you see anything. In the best sentences, verbs contribute to the image: "he sidesteps the turd." If must use "to be," make sure the other parts of your sentence are arresting.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

around the corner

A painting comes to a stop where the canvas meets the frame. But my favorite paintings convince me that they extend beyond their edges. Paintings are static. Yet the great one's suggest movement. I love de Chirico's "Melencholy and Mystery of a Street", because I can "see" around the corner. The painting is bigger than what's shown on the canvas. It suggests a world beyond itself. It also suggests movement. It's clear the image can't hold as it is for long. It's about to tip over into something else.

Though I also love Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase," the painting's movement is too literal to thrill me (the painting thrills me for other reasons). To thrill, a painting must perform the impossible (move, extend beyond the canvas) via suggestion, not exposition. When a painting performs magic obliquely, I feel I've been touched by something powerful and mysterious. Paintings aren't supposed to move and extend -- so I am surprised. I can't be surprised by Duchamp's "Nude," because it's screaming, "Look! Movement!"

You can't smell paintings, yet Carreno de Miranda's "La Monstrua Desnuda" emits an odor; I can feel the scorched grass in Wyth's "Christina's World"; I can hear the metallic creak of Ernst's "Elephant"'; Rodin's sculptures turn me on. Painting is primarily visual. If it's going to surprise me, it must touch some part of me besides my eyes.

Novels can't feed me, so I was shocked by this spoon George Orwell shoved in my face:

The frankfurter had a rubber skin, of course, and my temporary teeth weren’t much of a fit. I had to do a kind of sawing movement before I could get my teeth through the skin. And then suddenly—pop! The thing burst in my mouth like a rotten pear. A sort of horrible soft stuff was oozing all over my tongue. But the taste! For a moment I just couldn’t believe it. Then I rolled my tongue round it again and had another try. It was FISH! A sausage, a thing calling itself a frankfurter, filled with fish! I got up and walked straight out without touching my coffee. God knows what that might have tasted of.

Outside the newsboy shoved the Standard into my face and yelled, ‘Legs! ‘Orrible revelations! All the winners! Legs! Legs!’ I was still rolling the stuff round my tongue, wondering where I could spit it out. I remembered a bit I’d read in the paper somewhere about these food-factories in Germany where everything’s made out of something else. Ersatz, they call it. I remembered reading that THEY were making sausages out of fish, and fish, no doubt, out of something different. It gave me the feeling that I’d bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of. That’s the way we’re going nowadays. Everything slick and streamlined, everything made out of something else. Celluloid, rubber, chromium-steel everywhere, arc-lamps blazing all night, glass roofs over your head, radios all playing the same tune, no vegetation left, everything cemented over, mock-turtles grazing under the neutral fruit-trees. But when you come down to brass tacks and get your teeth into something solid, a sausage for instance, that’s what you get. Rotten fish in a rubber skin. Bombs of filth bursting inside your mouth." -- "Coming Up for Air"

As a writer, it's easy for Orwell to saw off the top of his hero's head and reveal what's inside: "I remembered a bit I read in the paper…" How would this work in movie? Movies can't convey character's thoughts, can they? Yet I knew exactly what the germaphobic Howard Hughs was thinking when he stared at the men's room doorknob in Scorsese's "The Aviator." I more than knew! I felt what he felt. I squirmed in my seat, wondering how I would get out of the room without touching the knob. How splendidly viral! And how much more effective than the usual film technique for conveying thoughts -- the cinematic equivalent of "Nude Descending a Staircase" -- the voice over. Or (worse!) the psychologically-false line of dialogue, awkwardly plopping some exposition in my lap.

The stage is similar to the canvas. There is true movement, but actors can't be seen once they exit outside of a little box. So it's amazing when, like a film, a play manages to "cut" from one locale to another. Like the voice-over and the Descending Nude, shifting flats around is the crude. It's mechanical, not magical. I'd rather hear an actor proclaim -- with great conviction -- "Up here is Main Street. Way back there is the railway station; tracks go that way. Polish Town's across the tracks, and some Canuck families. Over there is the Congregational Church; across the street's the Presbyterian. Methodist and Unitarian are over there. Baptist is down the holla' by the river. Catholic Church is over beyond the tracks. Here's the town hall and the Post Office combined; jail's in the basement." That is from Thorton Wilder's "Our Town," and it's usually performed on a bare stage.

Once, I heard a radio play in which the hero said, "Jesus Christ. Look at the size of that ship!" A radio play made me see! And it did so by mere suggestion. The ship's specific size was never stated. But my mind immediately conjured up an ocean liner eight times the size of the Titanic.