Why do people do art?
Want the quickest way for most people to emit a derisive snort? Tell them you’re an artist.
I got to thinking about this the other day when my writer friend Susan Gabriel posted about what art means to her. She said, “WE MUST–women and men alike–claim and protect whatever creative talents we have, or we run the risk of not recovering.” Pretty passionate. But why is she so? Writing hasn’t made her rich (I don’t think so, at least). It won’t make her thinner or healthier or have better cholesterol numbers or a bigger house. It sure doesn’t impress most people in society—being an artist doesn’t do that, unless you’re a very famous one. People wiggle their finger in their ear when they hear you declare you’re an artist. They privately (or maybe not so privately) say you should get a real job.
There’s a scene in Entertaining Welsey Shaw where protagonist Daniel Ferreira, tries to explain to his father how and why he wants to become a professional writer after college, It’s a conversation many have had, with its attendant frustrations After all, what kind of a job is that? What do you do? Who do you do it for? How do you know anyone is going to pay you? After all, “artist” is not exactly a job you “:get.” There’s no application to fill, no ads to answer, no interviews, no objective skill requirements.
Sounds like a scam.
Daniel’s parents, both retired civil servants who’ve moved on to a nicer home in wealthier climes, try to steer him to their idea of an “artistic” job. They know someone whose son recently started writing copy for a trash-talking radio show host who’s about to go national. This other kid’s doing well. He just bought a sportscar.
But people have not only bothered to be artists—they’ve died for the privilege. A privilege that includes no health benefits, no pension, no IRA and odds of being recognized that are about the same as the odds you’ll be struck by lightning.
It can’t just be ego. People forget egos take a HUGE beating in art. Many artists need the big heads they have, because, like a piñata, people are going to take many swings at it during your career.
The year 1752 might yield a clue.
That’s when Augustus III, king of Poland, acquired Raphael’s Sistine Madonna for the art gallery in Dresden (where it still hangs). Auggie was so moved by the work that he famously ordered, “Make room for the great Raphael!” when the painting was brought into the room and positioned in the sunlight. He and his retinue then spent hours just staring at it. (The cherubs that adorn the bottom of the painting are better-known in this day and age, gracing many refrigerator magnets and T-shirts.)
Imagine this man of wealth and privilege brought to his knees by the scrapings of pigment on canvas. Others had bowed before him, but he bowed before “the great Raphael.”
Or there’s Pope Julius II urging, threatening and finally pleading with Michelangelo to finish his own Sistine masterpiece. For all his power on earth, the pope’s time is limited, and he knows that. That’s one limitation art does not face.
Mighty Russian prince Nicholas Galitzin is remembered today as the guy who commissioned the last five string quartets—widely considered the greatest in history—by Beethoven. I googled him just now and the Beethoven quartets are the first thing that came up. He doesn’t even have his own separate entry in Wikipedia…were it not for Beethoven, Nick would likely be forgotten.
Then there’s the Archduke Rudolph. Known by various fancy titles, Archduke and Prince Imperial of Austria, Prince Royal of Hungary and Bohemia, Cardinal, an Archbishop of Olomouc, and a member of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine, today he’s remembered solely as one of Beethoven’s important patrons. To him was dedicated, among other masterworks, the Piano Trio that bears his name. Many times he and Beethoven would have volcanic fights and the composer would storm off—but it was always the archduke who worried about repairing relations. Perhaps he sensed who in the long run was the most important.
Stephen Sondheim once observed that the only two things that we pass on after we die are children and art. He might have mentioned political and other kinds of philosophy and all-around learnedness, as well as bodies of scientific knowledge, but it could be argued that those too are a form of art.
After all, Rockefeller is gone, but Rockefeller Center remains. William Randolph Hearst died decades ago, but people still flock to Julia Morgan’s masterpiece at San Simeon. And maybe we’re all hoping for a little bit of that. Immortality. Or at least a passing thought, a nod of recognition, from the future. Is it a coincidence so many artists are agnostic or atheist? Perhaps they’re seeking immortality some other way.
Formulas aren’t a good thing (unless you’re this guy). That’s my opinion, anyway.
I was recently reading a book that claims to understand how our brains are “wired” for certain “types” of stories, and of course the point is if you write a story with these components people will love it, will not be able to put it down, and you will be a hit.
This book claims a scientific precision for its techniques. For example, to “hook” a reader you must plunk an interesting and relatable character into a “rapildy unraveling situation,” or RUS. “What draws us into a story and keeps us there,” the author says, “is the firing of our dopamine neurons, signaling that intriguing information is on its way.”
Okay, I’m with you that far, but I feel this book has a pretty narrow idea of what is intriguing, or how to reveal that to readers, and how rapidly it should be done. You’re supposed to show Interesting People, doing Interesting Things, but their world unravels and they are Plunged Into Chaos. And this must happen quickly.
Basically, the book says, you have to hook ’em with your first page. Your first sentence, really. That’s what you have to do, it says, or people will find your story dull or, worse, non-existent. (Somebody tell Virginia Woolf. Apparently she screwed up To The Lighthouse. Big time. What an idiot she clearly was.)
The book gives an example: “Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride.”
In that first sentence, the author of this book says, we learn whose story it is (Joel Campbell’s), what‘s happening (he’s on a bus, which somehow will trigger a murder), and what’s at stake (Joel’s life, someone else’s life, and who knows what else?) It’s all so scientific, almost expressible as an equation: I=ws+wh+was/fs. I’ll have to ask Sheldon Cooper to check my math.
Well, all fine and good. That’s one way of starting a story. But I can think of plenty of other great writers who begin very differently, who don’t worry about whose story it is yet, or what’s at stake, etc. Some writers set a scene. Some start with lots of backstory about a character, so we learn how they got here. As Laura Miller points out in a Salon article I read about the same time as the book, “A character and a conflict are one of the most reliable ways to lure the reader further into the story, but a setting, if skillfully evoked, can do the job, too: David Copperfield’s cold stepfather, Jane Eyre’s stifled pride, the glittering ballrooms of Tolstoy’s Russia, the threat posed to Middle-earth.”
Let’s take another example, the opening three lines, which I’ve talked about before, from Susan Gabriel’s novel The Secret Life of Wildflower : There are two things I’m afraid of. One is dying young. The other is Johnny Monroe.
Great approach to an opening. I love it. But it’s far from the only way to go. She could have started with an autobiographical introduction of the character, or a diary excerpt, or a description of Appalachia where the story takes place, or many another way. What bothers me is that because of all the “how-to” books and websites, many authors and wanna-be authors are starting their novels with obligatory, even contrived, first-line hooks. Some of these are terrific. Some—many—turn out to be gimmicks.
Roger Ebert’s review of Pulp Fiction stands out to me particularly for one comment he made: “The screenplay, by Tarantino and Roger Avary, is so well-written in a scruffy, fanzine way that you want to rub noses in it – the noses of those zombie writers who take ‘screenwriting’ classes that teach them the formulas for ‘hit films.'” Indeed, whether you loved or loathed Tarentino’s movie, you have to admit, it did not follow any formulas, though it inspired a slew of imitators.
Recently one of the big publishing houses held a contest. You were to enter your first sentence and the title of your novel. The best first sentence/title would be contacted and would receive help to moving the novel or novel-in-genesis toward completion and publication, complete with publicity, cover design, editing, and so on.
But they were judging it—looking for their next Harry Potter/Hunger Games/Twilight/Fifty Shades of Grey—based on one sentence.
You know why this is silly, don’t you? You’re going to get a lot of GREAT openings, which degenerate into muck. (Actually, the contest was promoed that way, but when you got to the actual site it turned out that while most of the weight would be on that holy first sentence, up to the first three sentences were actually permitted.)
Just to show I can in fact play this game, I entered. I typed the first three sentences from a novella I once wrote that I hope someday to turn into a full-length novel, called Death Among The Living: “I first met Death at my friend Robert’s house. Robert Hedlund—yes, the famous bass player from the band ‘Notable Haligonians’—died at the tender age of 36. An aneurism, Death told me.” Hope they enjoy it. Doesn’t tell them (or you) beans about the rest of the story, though.
I suspect one reason the first page and particularly the first sentence have taken on such a paramount importance lately is that there are almost no more bookstores—in the U.S. at least—where you can browse through books, sampling as much or as little as you want. Now you can only get a taste from the online sample, and as I wrote about recently, Amazon and others are providing only the first few pages—and sometimes just the first page or a fraction thereof—from which you must decide to buy a 480-page novel.
But this solution to the very real problem of the inability to browse or listen, ironically the very opposite of what the Internet gate-keepers promised us, is a simplistic one that can very easily be gamed, and is. (Check the number of Amazon and Goodreads reviews that say, This started out great, but really went down hill after the first chapter. What happened?)
Formulas and gimmicks inexorably lead to the death of art, and a lot of art forms are in intensive care or dead right now because of this slavish adherence to them, ways of making people notice, as if we were all trained seals. The way of making people notice is to do something different. I don’t want all my books to start out with one-line hooks any more than I want all my symphonies to start out with da-da-da-duuum, even though it worked great for Beethoven—once. If we’re all in agreement, as the saying goes, then only one of us is doing the thinking.
Quentin Tarantino, I think, would agree.
I was recently reading a novel that takes place in the present day and a character called directory assistance to get information.
In another recent novel, someone went to the library to do basic research. He also asked someone to check out the meanings of some words, and this person called his secretary in his office, where she cracked a dictionary.
Another character in another recent novel pulled out a map to find a location—the kind you have to fold up afterwards. (I can never manage to do that properly.) In another story, a character who was a writer had a typewriter and stacks of paper on his desk.
What all these situations have in common is that they ignore the seismic technological and social changes that have taken place in the last five or six years. I’ve noticed that in novels and movies, and on television shows, characters are still doing things, to a large extent, the “old fashioned” way.
They’re hanging out in bookstores. Listening to vinyl records. While of course people do these things in real life, I note an absence in modern fiction of Googling, of using iPhone apps, of downloading music and movies from the Internet. There are some exceptions—The Big Bang Theory features electronic devices because it’s about the kind of people who use them—but our fiction is considerably stuck in the 20th century. People still watch, en mass, the local news. On regular TVs. They look up numbers in phone books. I haven’t seen a phone book in seven years. They read traditional books and find them in libraries. They are out of reach when traveling, or so their answering machines tell us. You know, the kind with little cassettes in them that beep after the greeting.
It’s interesting that fiction for the most part has not kept up with the times in which we live. People texting in line, people texting period, people swiping their fingers across their iPads and iPhones, people swiping their money cards at checkouts, people forsaking books and magazines for online material…it occurs in our fiction today, but still fairly uncommon. In the recent movie The Perks of Being A Wallflower, the main character, who wants to be a writer, uses an old fashioned typewriter. Now, it’s partly symbolic—typewriter and ribbon and paper mean literary; computers are for spreadsheets and business and schoolwork, but that’s precisely my point: gadgets just don’t have romanticisms attached to them. They’re sterile.
In a lot of the recent fiction I’ve read, characters struggle to find information or get into arguments about something that can be checked on a smartphone in seconds. As I speculated a while back, a world filled with instant information will be harder on the novelist, because so many plots hinge on something being unknown. If everybody can be tracked, if every fact can be found, if every piece of data is instantly available, fiction suddenly will require much larger suspensions of disbelief. My friend Susan Gabriel says she likes to write stories about secrets. Well, secrets are going to get harder and harder to have. Imagine how boring the Indiana Jones movies would be if Indy had a smartphone. (“No need to decode the ancient scrolls, Indy. This app figured it out already!”)
Sometimes it’s better not to have the whole world at your fingertips. Discovering it is far more interesting. And it’s more romantic to say “Here’s looking at you kid,” than it is to snap a picture of it on a phone.
My friend Susan Gabriel has a problem: she hears voices.
In her most recent blog post, Where I Got The Idea For My Latest Novel, the author of Seeking Sara Summers says she was lying in bed one morning eleven years ago (!) when she heard a voice announce itself as the idea for her next novel.
She says she’d just been out visiting her family cemetery in the southern Appalachian mountains. (Note: I’m envious of that. My family cemetery is in Bensalem Pennsylvania, between a strip mall and another strip mall.) The next morning at 4 am she heard a young girl’s voice say, There are two things I’m afraid of. One is dying young. The other is Johnny Monroe.
Interesting opening, I think. Time to start sharpening pencils.
Her story reminded me of the time I was sitting at my desk in a television newsroom in San Francisco. I had been thinking about celebrities and the lives they lead, how they are both enviable and unenviable, when I heard a voice too. It was my executive producer saying, “Grabowski, are you going to take your dinner break or not?” The evening crunch, pounding out stories and editing video for the 11pm broadcast, would start soon. Last chance to grab a burger.
But before that, I’d heard another voice. That voice said: An anonymous writer gets to know a famous actress. Both are unhappy. She craves anonymity. He craves recognition. They think their respective lacks are the reasons for their unhappiness. Both are wrong. I opened the email on my computer and typed out the thought, then sent it to myself for safekeeping.
It wasn’t the first time I’d gotten an idea like that. Usually time passes, I look at it again and decide it was stupid. This time when I got back from dinner I reread the email and still liked the idea. The next day same thing. A week later, two weeks later, and so far so good.
I heard a voice just like Susan, and acted on it too. I wonder how many other writers hear them.
Susan is right that you have to tend to these voices as soon as they present themselves. She says, ” I…wanted to go back to sleep. Who wouldn’t, at 4 o’clock in the morning? For a time, I debated whether or not to get up. I ultimately decided that if I didn’t claim this moment, the ‘voice’ might find someone else to write her story.”
So true. Those voices never present themselves when it’s convenient to you. They always start talking when you’re in the shower. Or driving down the freeway. Or lying in bed. My desk is often covered in Post-It notes from ideas I get as I’m trying to fall asleep. I wouldn’t be surprised if Susan is the same way. But her efforts have clearly paid off. The tough-to-please Kirkus Review has raved about this book, by the way: A quietly powerful story, at times harrowing but ultimately a joy to read. — Starred review, for “books of remarkable merit.”
What are you waiting for, the Academy Award-winning movie directed by Terrence Malick? Well, so am I, but read the book now. If you love your digital devices it’s available on Kindle, too.