Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Pen is Mightier than the Sword, Indeed

I've been enjoying Twyla Tharp's book, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life.  I think of myself as more of a buckle down and power through woman than a free-spirited inspired type, but I found myself intrigued by many of her ideas.

Yesterday I read her recommendations on improving strengths and weaknesses in writing.  I think I'm pretty strong on dialogue.  World-building and descriptions, not so much.  When I read, I tend to skim through those parts and not slow down to picture the world or savor the descriptions.  I picture characters as existing in a bubble, interacting only with each other.  That's most likely abnormal, but its effect on my writing is that I can hear everything my characters say to each other without being able to focus on anything in their surroundings.  Kiiiind of a problem.

Anyway, Twyla Tharp shares the counsel of sixteenth-century Japanese swordfighter Miyamoto Musashi.  He said:  "Never have a favorite weapon."  She says, "Warriors know they need to enlarge their arsenal of skills in order to avoid becoming predictable to their adversaries.  It's not different when the craft is a creative one, and the stakes are somewhat less than life and death."

So world-building is my set of nunchucks, and I'm off to practice.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Tim's Vermeer

For my birthday a couple of weeks ago, my husband and some good friends humored me by going to the artsy theater to see Tim's Vermeer.  (They double humored me by not going to the conveniently located Indian restaurant right by the theater.  I can enjoy chicken korma, but not on my birthday!)  The documentary follows a brilliant billionaire inventor who spends five years replicating Vermeer's masterpiece The Music Lesson through technology available in Vermeer's lifetime: a camera obscura--a lens, really--and mirrors.  The film is a bit slow but utterly fascinating.  Even if art bores you to tears, Tim Jenison is riveting.  His attention to detail (he builds the room that Vermeer painted, including the virginal and the views outside the window) is beyond obsessive, and he is clearly brilliant.

The documentary tries to debunk Vermeer as artist, claiming that, instead, he was merely an inventor, like Tim Jenison himself.  I have no problem agreeing that Vermeer might have painted in just the manner Tim suggests, but to me, using technology doesn't detract one bit from Vermeer's brilliance as an artist.  His use of light is exquisite, and perhaps he could see it because of the lenses and mirrors he employed.  But his composition, subject matter, and calm balance are all his own.

I remember studying in school how Piet Mondrian--this guy--you know him, he's very popular with the preschool art unit crowd--
was influenced by Vermeer.  And that's one of the primary things I admire in Vermeer: his balanced compositions.  His shapes.  You don't come up with that by randomly arranging a room and then spending a year copying it through a mirror.

I'm a writer, not an artist--even if I had a few delusions about making my own masterpieces while watching the film, before I remembered that I have neither billions, years, nor any patience to speak of--but I keep coming back to that line between technology and art.  Writers use technology every day: word processors to record and the internet for research, of course.  But I've also heard suggestions to use recording devices to hone an ear for dialogue or to video an event and then write down every single gesture people make.  Twyla Tharp even suggests typing out classic novels to learn how the masters did it.

While accurate dialogue and gestures do make a story more lifelike, that story is the heart of the writer's craft.  And Vermeer's painting is the same way.  Whether you interpret The Music Lesson as a commentary on the young woman's virtue or the joys of the arts or a snapshot of class, it tells a story.  And the story is told through much more than the tool of the photographic-like lens.

When I write, I have to remember not to get so hung up on realistic or factual renderings that my story gets lost.  The story matters; everything else is enhancement.  Realism and facts are there to ground my stories, not to take them over.

Tim didn't tell a new story.  Even the impressive copy he made of The Music Lesson is merely a copy.  I would love to see an artist try his technique and see what she learns from it to enhance her art and the stories she wants to tell.  I might read old masters, Austen and Bronte and Shakespeare, and imitate their tools to improve my abilities (again with the patience thing--I'm not sure I'm up to trying Twyla Tharp's advice), but I do it to improve my own abilities.  To tell my own stories.

Now if you have a minute or twenty, I can walk you through ALL of my strong food preferences.  That's a story worth telling, right?  RIGHT?!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Why don't I write contemporary?

Because I just finished reading Eleanor and Park.  

And WOW.  That book brought back all those torrents of Feelings from high school.  John Green is right up there with Rainbow Rowell.  When I read An Abundance of Katherines, I grinned the whole way through because I felt like I was eavesdropping on the clever nerds I hung out with in high school.   There were plenty of nerdy kids in my high school who weren't clever, just out of the social swing of things.  John Green's nerds are very, very clever.

Both those authors nail the high school voice.  And I'm sure there are others who do, as well.  I'm thinking of Stephanie Perkins--her contemporary books don't remind me a bit of my own high school experience, but they're great stories.  But mostly, I kind of find contemporary settings . . . boring.  When I sit down to read, I want something more magical and fantastic than high school or part-time jobs.  I want time travel messing with the universe's fabric or historical settings with perfect details or a murder mystery to solve or some kind of mythological something coming true.

It's quite a feat for a contemporary novel to blow me away.  I'm blown.