Art Class

Art is supposed to make you feel.

That’s it.  There you go, you just got your BA in Art for free.  You’re welcome.

What?  More to the story than just that?

*sigh*

Fine.

Art also needs to make you think.  It needs to make you want to look beneath the surface and find the piece’s message.  It needs to make you want, even, to take those emotions and that message and examine their meaning in your own life and world.

This holds true, by the way, for everything from the greatest works of music and painting and literature to the very least ones.  If it makes you feel, if it is in some way evocative of emotion and experience, it did its job.

For my fellow writers out there, that means your story has to mean something.

That is, by the way, why I despise the books that tend to dominate bestseller lists and bookstore racks — they are generally the shallowest and most meaningless of fluff.  Action-adventure tales, mysteries, romances, thrillers…it is just far too common for these “beach reads” to ignore the imperative to inspire and evoke, and instead focus on simply pandering to the lowest common denominator.

I want to use a bit of an experiment here.  I want to play Art Professor for a moment and set an exercise for the class.  I’m posting a picture of a sculpture below.  Before you read the explanation below that picture, I want you to just to study the piece and see how it makes you feel.  I want you to find what the sculptor was trying to say, and what it means in your own life:

I love sculpture, by the way.  I can sit and stare for a long time at a painting…but I can sit and stare all freaking day at a truly meaningful sculpture.  And, yes, I did exactly that the first time I saw this piece in the Vatican Museum.  I stared and thought.  Thought not just about the story/myth the creator was trying to depict, but also about what he was trying to say.

That serpent, killing the father and his children…it was more than a freaking serpent, I knew.  There is too much emotion in this piece — too much honesty — to be a simple depiction of a myth.  I know what I felt as I stared at it that first time — and the various feelings and memories it has evoked every time I have seen it since — and that is a hell of a lot more than just curiosity at the fate of a Trojan priest at the hands of some god-sent sea serpents.

The piece itself is tucked away at the end of a short hall in the Vatican, given no real explanation or context.  The first time I saw it, I knew nothing of its import or effect.  I knew nothing of the inspiration it was for Michelangelo’s later works; I knew nothing of the shattering effect it had on Renaissance artists when it was dug up and put on display in Rome in 1506; I knew nothing, even, about the fact that it was the statue Pliny the Elder had so powerfully described in a work written two thousand years before (a work I had translated years earlier as part of my study of Roman history).

I just knew it hit me like a ton of bricks.

It is still one of the most powerful pieces of art I have had the privilege to experience.

Now, fellow writers, did you do your class work?  Did you follow the exercise?  Did you study the piece and explore what it meant?

And, for the most important question of all, did you go beyond the exercise and think about how you evoke emotion and feeling in your own work?  Did you think about what those boys were thinking as they died?  What the sea serpents really meant?  What it all really said?

You don’t have to hit the mark, you know.  You don’t have to create a masterpiece. But you do have to try.  You have to try to create an emotional response, or you are just hacking out words.  With a lot of my own work, I am trying to make people think about the forgotten and overlooked parts of life.  Sometimes — okay, oftentimes — I am trying to bring a tear or two.  Occasionally, I even want to make folks laugh.

Oh, the piece itself…it is generally called Laocoon, or more rarely Laocoon and His Sons.  It depicts a story we first hear about in Virgil’s Aeneid* —although there are hints of much earlier versions — and was very likely created not long after that epic poem was written…which puts its creation somewhere in the area of 20 BC – 10 AD.

*Another book I had to read in the original Latin!  Ahem.

Let’s close out with a song, shall we?  Let’s go for meaningful and evocative…the “soundtrack” to the scene where I kill my favorite character. The song that has even more meaning to me from my own life:

Thank You For Your Concern

A few years ago, I wrote a letter to Walmart complaining about some policy or other that was in the news (I honestly don’t remember what it was I wrote about). Their letter back to me — 8 months later — can be boiled down to the five words in the title of this post.

To put it in modern parlance, they ghosted me.

No problem, it’s fucking WallyWorld…could you ever expect anything different?

So, today, I read a news story from my old hometown about fire evacuations.

Wait a second…my parents are in that evac zone!

A call, then.  My dad doesn’t answer, so I try my mom…

“Hi mom, I was just checking…” I say.

“We’re waiting at a restaurant.  Thank you for your concern.”  Click.

Hold on…

Did my own mother just ghost me?!?!

Holy shit, has my life come down to this?!

Uhhh…

Look, I’m a writer.  Words and motivations and twists are a part of every thought I have, every single day.  But nowhere in those thoughts did I get ghosted by my own mother!

Crap, I knew my family didn’t necessarily like the kind of stuff I write here, but that there is some dark comedy…even for the black sheep of the clan.

On the other hand — to turn this post into a writing bit — can we, as writers, ever overestimate the impact of family relationships?

One of my favorite thought-exercises on this comes from British history.  To set the scene, Richard, Duke of Aquitaine (who we would later call Richard the Lionheart) rebelled against his aging, failing father in order to seize power.  Richard won.  He won, but his own father’s last words to him still resonate, even today, “God grant that I live long enough to have my revenge on you.”

Henry didn’t…live long enough, that is.

It is not, however, those words that truly illustrate the power of the familial relationshipS.  No, that power comes from a scene that came after Henry’s death.  It took a while, but once Richard arrived at the family crypt at the abbey of Fontevraud, history tells us that he went in alone to be with his father’s corpse…

What went through his mind?  What was he thinking?

Henry II had been the most feared warrior and king of his age.  Of Henry it had been said, “it is hard to wrest the club from Hercules’ hand.”

Richard had wrested that club…from his very own father.

What did he think, standing in that crypt, alone with his father’s body?

Was he ashamed?  Afraid?  Angry?  Did he dream of surpassing the deeds of the man an entire continent feared?  Did he question himself?

Yeah, crap like that is why we write.  We write to explore situations and dynamics.  We write so we can try to find the universal truths in the lives and actions of others.

We write, to be bluntly honest, so we can have our fun with situations like that.

We write even if we get ghosted by our moms…

The Black Dog Comes

You live with it long enough, you start to feel it coming.

It starts with impatience, with an inability to be understanding…or to give a shit.  Empathy goes out the window when that dog begins to howl.

After the irritation comes the desire to get away.  Not the “head off to the Caribbean for some sun and sand” type of get away, but the “fuck everyone — I hate humans, and I don’t want to see a single damned person” type of get away.

Everything gets to you.

Drop the bread for your sandwich?  Freak out about it and get pissed.

Get stuck behind an RV doing its best to accelerate up a hill?  Decide it is the world out to screw you.

Run low on cream cheese for your morning bagel?

Well, you get the picture.

It’s the loss of control, of course.  I hate not being in control.  It not only makes me feel powerless, it is creates a powerful sense of victimization.  That’s why, by the way, the most effective form of torture/interrogation isn’t pain and abuse, it is taking away all control.

The sounds, then — the feelings — of that black dog approaching on its hunt…that is the very definition of the loss of control.

When you can hear it coming…

When you hear it coming, sometimes you can head it off.  Sometimes you can write — or hike, or love, or whatever — your way through the initial stages and avoid the worst of it.  Sometimes.

Other times?

Other times you fuck up and try to hide from it.  The worst is when you try to numb it.  The chemicals — the drugs, the booze — they’re all just escape.  They’re nothing more than a way to hide from the braying hound in the numbness they bring.

But that numbness — beyond all the ancillary problems it brings — comes at a cost.  Go out to a bar for a social beer?  Or share whiskey with a handful of locals, all bitching about the unseasonably hot weather and the never-ending tourist parade?

Nope, not now.  Not When you hear the howling.

No, talking to others, especially those not close to you, is the last thing in the world you want.  Others are outside…others are uncomfortable…others are just another thing out of your control.

I’ve been pretty freaking open on this blog about a lot of things.  I’ve been, probably, too open (certainly, my family feels that way).  But never before have I posted words like this.

Oh, I’ve written with the clouds building. I’ve written tens of thousands of words, in fact.  Hell, I’ve written some of my best (fiction) stuff.

Never before, however, have I written about me when I can hear the howls…

The howling draws close…

The howling, it’s right outside the door…

{Musical Note — every single character I create has a theme song. This song, this character, however… Of all the characters I’ve created over the years, this is far and away my favorite…both the character and the song.}

Faith, and the Loss Thereof

Okay, so I think I’m over my fit of temper from the last post.

Err…

Well…

I think I’m willing to work through it, anyway…and that’s almost as good, isn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong, I still think WordPress has achieved an entirely new level of moronicity* with their changes, but I’m going to try and struggle through.  And, yeah, some of that willingness to struggle is the ubercompetitive pride that I usually try to hide: I ain’t gonna let any other sonofabitchasswagon beat me! The less said about that side of my personality, the better.

*Why am I a sci-fi/fantasy writer?  Because I freaking LOVE to make up words!

Ahem.

So, where does that intro lead me?

Not into the following post, as a matter of a fact.

I, err…

Look, when the hell have I ever planned one of these posts?!  Yeah, yeah…I come in with an idea of what I want to talk about, but that original idea generally lasts about as long as a Twinkie at a table of 7th graders.  Once I start hitting the keys — once the words start to flow — that original plan is nothing more than a barely remembered aftertaste…

There’s been a conspiracy of late.  No, not THAT conspiracy!  No Satan-worshipping pedophile deep-state resistance for me, thank you very much.  No, this conspiracy is worse.  It’s a conspiracy of those I love, and those I read, and the world itself.  It is a conspiracy to remind of that which I no longer am; of that which I have left behind.

I just finished a new fantasy series that really put the capstone onto this “conspiracy.”  The first two books in the trilogy were good.  Good, but not Tolkien/Jordan/Martin good.  Just good.  They were also pretty basic, with not a lot of undercurrent and subtext to go with the plot and characters.  Then the third book…the third book went and pulled the rest of the clubs out of the bag.

Oh, the message wasn’t what you would call subtle…not even close, in fact.  This was CS Lewis-style allegorical fantasy, rather than Tolkien-style high fantasy.*

*If you don’t know the differing views and philosophies those two close friends brought to their respective works, you should probably go back and study more…

The backdrop for this is that I used to be a Christian.  I still consider something of a Christian, although I am far, far closer to a Deist than to any of the **intentionally skipping controversial comments here** flavors of “Christianity” that so dominate the US today.

So what got me to thinking about this?

That third book.  I copied out and emailed to myself several quotes from that book, but I’m only going to use here the first of those.  Mainly because it was the one that got me to thinking, but also because it is the one that I think has the most to say to modern US-style Christianity (note — I’m editing the quote here to be more general, but book details are at the end of this post):

“Because that’s not how it works. Faithful people suffer and evil people prosper all the time[…]you must know that is true. Besides, if our actions are driven only by reward or punishment—eternal or otherwise—then they are motivated by greed and selfishness, not faith or love. That is where so many people go wrong, even those who say they believe in [God]. They obey because they think it will make their lives better, rather than themselves. And that is very much the wrong reason.”

Why am I not a Christian?  Two reasons I’ll give you — and a third I will keep to myself, thank you very much.

The first, and primary, of those is that US-style Christianity is all about fear and punishment and force.  Do this or go to hell.  Live like this or go to hell.  Believe this or go to hell.

That there is some Kool-Aid-drinking, mind-control bullshit…especially when fed to children.  If a “god” loved me so much he would send me to Hell for even questioning, I’m quite happy to play for another team.

The second of the reasons is that Christians — mostly, but not exclusively, US-style — can’t leave well enough alone.  They can’t let anyone else get on with their life if that life conflicts with their own prejudices and intolerance.  And, yes, this second reason is basically a subset of the first…

But every so often my own prejudices and snap-judgments get challenged.  Every so often you talk to, or listen to, or read, that person who can iterate something different.  The best stories, by the way, can iterate something different.  Oh, it doesn’t have to be religion — arguable, shouldn’t be — but it has to be something meaningful.

Why do Joe Haldeman and Ursula LeGuin and Robert Heinlein and George Orwell still resonate as sci-fi writers?  Because they wrote far more than they wrote.  Their words were about more than plot and character, their words were about the freaking world…about life, and all the bullshit that goes with it.

I’m not going to hold James Islington up in that company — his books were good, but nothing near that good — but he gets all the credit in the world for making me think and question my usual knee-jerk dismissal of “message” writing.

My rule on this, by the way, is if the writer is someone with whom I would like to sit down and have a drink and talk through what they wrote. The list of such writers is pretty stinking small, but Islington (and his message) has made his way onto it.

Well done, sir.

**Note — The specific book in question is “The Light of All That Falls” from the Licanius Trilogy by James Islington.