Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Here You Start

Here you start here with this, keep working on this here and ah, that's done now how about this right next to that, work this angle, feather across to the corner, maybe a little darker something different here, maybe a borderline, okay, and now another another shape another texture another kind of line over here, moving in, moving out, moving around, but patiently (breath and line following the music as you focus down), this one light so this one darker here, okay work around the corner, and then swoop out over to the left and now there's field which wants to become... what? something you haven't done yet, the only rule, perhaps switch pens yes that will do, extending expanding exploring, moment to moment a world emerging from under to the point of the pen on the plane of the paper absent-minded, just one thing and then the next and the next until it's time to move on.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Somewhere Different Now

Now I don't mind saying, I believe in the waiting
In the visions of grandeur, and the random encounter
I'm not on fire, not burned out,
Just somewhere different now

- Tylan Greenstein (of Girlyman)

I'll tell you what, for the last three months I've been listening to essentially nothing else but Girlyman. I haven't gotten slammed quite so hard by a musical group since Counting Crows came out with August and Everything After in 1993. I've got about twenty of their songs on my iPod, and I've got a Girlyman station on Pandora, and my ears have not been so delectated in ever so long.

I've been in a different space with my artwork, too. Aside from doing whole series of Saturday morning encaustic panels of the kind I wrote about recently, I've been doing a set of sort of meticulous line drawings, using pen and ink on textured watercolor paper. I've been thinking a lot about Paul Klee's remark that "the essence of drawing is the line exploring space," and trying to explore drawing with that in mind. One implication of such a conception is that pre-planning is sort of against the rules. You proceed by putting the point of the pen down onto the paper and then pushing it forward according to whatever internal imperative presents itself as you proceed. The overall composition will ultimately be determined as a series of decisions made in process. In this way of working, it's important NOT to know where you're going. What you wind up with is something, well, different. Here's an example of one I've just completed:

The thing to see here (click on the picture for a larger view) is how each part is connected to the other through visual design logic which was arrived at in process, as opposed to being determined in advance. I started on the left, about a quarter of the way in, worked back to the left edge, and then added one section at a time, moving from left to right. I had two ideas in mind: first, to keep inventing new ways for the pen to work; and second, not to fall back on things I had already done before, either in this drawing or the ones I had done leading up to it. It goes back to Klee's dictum: "The essence of drawing is the line exploring space." I had that notion specifically in mind as I worked on this. It's really an incrementalist approach rooted in an act of faith in "the random encounter." This is a method of working I've been drawn to, both in writing and art, for some time now. It's a process I am using right now in the development of this post, which began at a point, with a quoted lyric, and is building itself around several related ideas which that lyric (as in many other Girlyman songs) both embodies and suggests.

I happened to run across a slide show on the subject of writing the other day and was arrested by this slide:

I can understand why people would be drawn to this way of thinking and working. It has a long history of pedagogy behind it, and it appears on the surface to be only common sense. But from the point of view I've been espousing today, it looks, as a matter of practicality and productivity, entirely backwards. Who sits down to ask herself, "What do I want my writing to do? Today I think I'll protest an injustice. No, on second thought, I think I'll describe nature's beauty." I can't work that way. I wouldn't WANT to work that way. I don't know any working writers who work that way.

What I would rather do, what I find both more enjoyable and ultimately more satisfying, is to sit down and write, and in the process of writing figure out what it is that I want to say. It's precisely because I don't know where I'm going that I find my way to places I would not have expected to get to. (I had a talk with Darin, a friend and colleague who is a musician, the other day, and he was saying his process of composition is much the same. It doesn't begin with a grand unifying vision; it begins with him _playing_ on the guitar, and then, when he finds a lick he likes, writing it down.) I'm not saying that that's the ONLY way to travel. Certainly there are some situations in which it is perhaps efficient to knock out a piece of writing (or a work of art, or a song) for a utilitarian purpose according to a predetermined plan. But where's the fun in that? And why is it that the narrow, un-playful vision of writing so dominates the experience of students in school? It's no wonder kids arrive at a spot where they think they are no good at writing, and claim that they hate to do it.

Another new space: I'm hip-deep in George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series. I've completed The Game of Thrones and am midway through A Clash of Kings. I'm reading in great hourlong gulps. I haven't been this drunk on words in a very long time. Martin is being compared, with ample justification, to J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K Rowling, Patrick O'Brian. (I'd add Dorothy Dunnett to the list, but nobody I know has read her, sad to say.) He's a fantasy writer for adults. His story, set in the fictional world of Westeros, is multifaceted and many-layered and character-driven and deeply satisfying right down the syllables themselves. Even purely descriptive passages having to do with food or dress have a kind of saturated richness:

Of food there was plenty. The war had not touched the fabled bounty of Highgarden. While singers sang and tumblers tumbled, they began with pears poached in wine, and went on to tiny savory fish rolled in salt and cooked crisp, and capons stuffed with onions and mushrooms. There were great loaves of brown bread, mounds of turnips and sweetcorn and pease, immense hams and roast geese and trenchers dripping full of venison stewed with beer and barley. For the sweet, Lord Caswell’s servants brought down trays of pastries from his castle kitchens, cream swans and spun-sugar unicorns, lemon cakes in the shape of roses, spiced honey biscuits and blackberry tarts, apple crisps and wheels of buttery cheese.

As a writer Martin is good with people, he's good with settings, he's got a great ear for dialogue. He works his characters into situations where they tear into each other with words as efficiently as they do with axes and swords. Although there's plenty of that going on as well. Anyway, the guy clearly loves telling tales, and he's very good at it. I'm glad to have found my way to his work.

Those of you who have been paying attention will, if you are still with me (bless you) may be moved at this point, to object that this post has evolved, or devolved, despite itself, into something that reads, in retrospect, suspiciously like a thesis essay, complete with a controlling theme and three concrete examples. And all I can say is, well, yes, that's how it turned out, because that's what it wanted to become. But it didn't start out that way. It's a happy little surprise, abounding, as life so often does, in irony: starting out somewhere different, and winding up at home.