Saturday, July 18, 2015

Less is More (Sometimes)

“Less is More” is a phrase most often associated with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the Bauhaus school of minimalist design. The earliest use I can find lies buried in Robert Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto.” Doubtless there are others because insofar as paradoxes are concerned, it’s a fairly easy construction: take an idea and put a form of “to be” between it and its opposite. As with many koanish phrases—and one that is self-demonstrating—it has become near and dear to proponents of any artistic craft.

Those who know me understand that it is a problematic phrase for me because I simply don’t believe in it. That is not a mere excuse to be a lazy writer and not edit, but as Dumas pointed out, “all generalizations are dangerous, including this one.” Most often, those who prefer minimalism will use it as a relentless razor, so that like Occam’s little cut-throat, it takes a life of its own beyond its original application.

In defense first: A simple thing is often the hardest to do. Le mot juste is often a difficult thing to find, and crowding it with verbose, often elephantine phrasing spells the death of much good prose. Unless it is about elephants, perhaps.

Additionally, over-doing any artistic endeavor, whether it is painting, writing, music or cooking, often serves as an unconscious cloak of mistakes. And then there is the problem of just leaving your mess around.

Many of the verbal qualifiers that we use in everyday speech are just that when you leave them in writing. Speaking of “just,” I understand it is a dirty word. It lies on a supposed dung heap of phrases along with “I feel that,” “Indications show,”  “Interestingly enough” and a legion of other “hedging” phrases. I disagree. With any maturity and brains a good listener will just glide over the phrases, the same way we barely pay attention to credits in a film. If you want to learn more, simply visit the wonderful Language Log to read about it. And remember, dung can also be valuable compost.

I like to think of these phrases as warming up. They get your tongue and brain moving and words are actually coming out of your mouth which is a good way to begin communicating. Do you start an automobile in gear? Of course you don’t. But once you have shifted from park or neutral, the rest of your thought follows along enough.

Many writers do the same thing, although it may not just be phrases but paragraphs and entire chapters that starts the literary car moving. One very dear friend of mine usually has to write three or four pages of prose to get to the interesting part, but she needed to do that to get there.

The great advantage of writing is, that unlike speech, you can revise it. Another metaphor comes from construction: does a concrete mason leave the forms up? Of course not. They serve their purpose in shaping the liquid material. Once it sets and cures, the forms can be stripped off and discarded.

Kristen Steenbeeke:
This removal of “language forms” is one of the main thing editors can help with in line editing, which is a refining of a writer’s particular style. As I mentioned elsewhere, editors are indispensable to the writer. Like any human relationship you need to find one that understands you because they will perform the miraculous feat of making your thoughts sound better.

Working with an editor is an ongoing process and dialogue. Write your heart out onto the paper in a bloody mess, but when you revise think of what your editor might say. After her work on The Nightingale’s Stone I can often hear Kristen Steenbeeke's sardonic voice: “you’re leaving that in?” I've learned to recognize my own phrases when they stumble across the page thanks to her pointing out previous examples. Writing is art, it is craft, but it is process and the more you write, revise, and pay attention, the easier it is to not “put needless words” in. Or chapters. (But you'll still need them to work on your text once your 'finished'!!)

However—and you knew that was coming—sometimes a mess can irrupt into stories with glory. I suspect that the fascination with minimalism has nothing to do with a priori “value” but is a historical trend that began with the Modernists and continues on to this day—refined in the craft workshops of MFA programs and ateliers of genre fiction.

I have grown to weary to count out how many exceptions I can list when I listen to a writer, editor, or even an agent declare their blessed Rules. Rather, I like to think of them trying to work with established, beloved works of literature.

Even though it stands as one of the most important foundation texts in fantasy, do you think any New York publisher would let The Lord of the Rings stand as written in this day, let alone bother to look at it at all? The Craft People would want the story to move and get rid of all that mucking about in the Shire, the Old Forest, and the Barrowdowns. And yet, as I grow older, that is my favorite part of the book. I don’t want to go to Mordor any more than Frodo does. I want to savor the landscapes, the walking pace, the earthenware jars full of flowers and water in the House of Tom Bombadil.

This is only one example. I am sure you have a few books on your shelf that have wonderfully long, irrelevant, over-written, distracting stretches of writing in them. They are precious and we writers buy them with great pain.

Be careful, is all I suggest. Remember that while "Less is More" may be apt, "More is More" remains tautologically correct as well.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Forth and Back

At sunset on the sparsely peopled runs, the upper car decks are empty—the best place to be alone. I evaded the man by retreating here.

“You look like you’ve had a long day,” he said. He had a beer and a round face.
“I haven’t, but thank you for noticing.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—“
“—we seldom do.”

I do not know if he was nice or not. I cannot know this. I only know my heart no longer desires the trouble of finding out.

I came here to be alone.

Upon a time the ferry was just the ampersand between here and there. In the land of the dead, Charon ferries you across Styx only once. But for the living, we cross and recross. I suspect that like Washington State Ferries, life does not have a beginning or an end. The Puget Sound is like Lethe: we often forget who we are, where we are, when we are.

For this reason I try to stay away from the commuter hours—when lots of people are doing something very similar. They come from the same bank, or financial firm, a construction company, or other office. Depending on the time of day they either drink coffee or get a round of beers in the galley. They sit and talk about work or children. I learn what they do by wearing silenced headphones and listening to them. I know where their children are going to college. There is gossip, some of it complaining of gossip. They flavor these conversations with the bitterness of coffee and hops. These are the measures of a journey.

For those unused to these waters and lands—who come to simply ride the ferry back and forth—the novelty of the repetition affords a certain beauty and allure. The tourists wander and gawk. They come from places without water, perhaps. I especially like the large groups of women dressed in carousels of color. They drift on the deck considering, murmuring approval or dissent. Their anklets tintinnabulate. Americans wear baseball caps whose bills, like the roving eyes of flounders, travel around their heads in different points depending on their age.

I watch the seagulls ride the currents of air that waft off the superstructure. Does this even make them happy? For me, happiness requires its binary opposite to be understood. I do my best to reject this formula. The birds simply fly and are.

The ferries are not so much about the outside, although they sail there. It is the kind of outside they float through: an iteration and specifically, between two places. The ferry moves between a rock and a hard place. It shuttles between the Devil and the Puget Sound, which is also deep and blue.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Standing Under Time

Time, as something we fall through like a haze of cottonwood fluzz, does not exist. 'Time' is a convenient name that we ascribe to an ontological experience. To say even that this experience “shapes” us gives the name a certain agency that is questionable, if not dangerous. But language such as I have used is not very interesting. It lacks context. Time as the flow of water will do nicely, since it is the metaphor Heraclitus offers us.

The Nightingale’s Stone
is an important book for me because it describes occasions wherein I “stood under” Being and Time through heartbreak. It is often all too easy to describe past experiences of Love as illusions. This is nonsense. The fever and confustication that Love causes makes nearly everyone an unreliable narrator—if you believe in absolute truth—because none of our narratives can be trusted. That river, Time? Too much of it passes under the bridge we are standing on.

If you pick up the book, you will notice that my conversations with Anton take place in the present. Or at least what passes for it in words, which means I used the present tense. My description of what brought me there was all in past tense. The reason was simple: the subject of narrative concerns what was. The act of narration concerns what is. Like all simple things, I have not figured it out.

All writers must face Time. I do not mean narrative time, or nonlinear vs. linear time, but the words I choose to describe those times. If I am alone, which I am as I write this, and there was a time when I was not alone, how do I accurately treat that experience?

What if the place where I was coupled—and single—is the same place? What if it is a moving place? The place ‘moves through Time,’ but it obviously moves in space because it is a Washington State Ferry. This adds a further dimension: that of iteration, because the Washington State Ferries lack bow and stern. They simply have “ends.” They go back and forth. It is interesting that in English, one begins with the return, but from where?

“Back and forth” seems to call for the present tense. There is an implied immediacy, and since the present is actually timeless, going back and forth in present tense reflects how some ontological truth that lies beneath our fragile conceptual framework of space, time and causality. If I describe my lover’s infidelity in present tense, it throws the reader into the immanence of that sorrow.

That is one facet you may choose. Another facet is that my lover is long gone—an interesting temporal collision. His last lies, and what I had to return to him liberated me. I was miserable, but am now grateful for it. Have you noticed that Time often hinges on that conjunction ‘but?’

Or should I mix times? Should I add a future tense? Thinking back to when I had some inkling of how happy I would be when he was no longer in my life? Would I do this all again? Or would the ferry be something truly different, if only for this chronological epiphany? How would Heraclitus describe the Puget Sound?

Rules? Useless in this case. I have to write it out and then read it out loud, for the ear is often the best judge of how the heart philosophizes.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Welcome to the Family

Oscar and Trudi von Hippe: from The Shadow Well
Siblings are strange beings. Like many members of our immediate family, we have no choice in our relationship to them. As such, it often seems like the relationship is defined in terms of absolutes. Either we are inextricably bound to them, or we sunder ourselves from them utterly.

But that is not always easy to do.

This illustration is from the forthcoming novel The Shadow Well, and this is David's interpretation of Trudi von Hippe and her brother Oscar. The climax of the novel occurs during a masked party in celebration of Trudi's birthday, but Oscar had designs of his own.

Oscar is being facetious here, for he had little desire to welcome anyone to his family, for that would mean parting with a portion of the von Hippes' wealth. And his sister.

If you are curious about her veil, I would recommend re-reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Minister's Black Veil." The points of connection are general, but very important. As for her eyes? Well, you'll have to read The Shadow Well.

(Look for more of these previews of the novel, due out this October.)

Friday, June 5, 2015

Asymmetric Reflections

On any given day I am given to reflection. The past seems to consist of nothing but whirling fragments of time, and polished upon their surfaces are images of beauty. The edges are sharp with disappointment. The future is a shifting conglomeration of speculation containing protean shapes made from causal assumptions, desires and cynical reproaches. The present is not fleeting. It simply is.

But some days seem especially fraught with reflections.

Being a Gemini, I am particularly sensitive to issues of reflection, of symmetry. Psychological studies too numerous to name in a blog posting assert that human beings are drawn to symmetry, but while the dream of mathematics makes symmetry possible in that cold, a priori universe, existence is anything but symmetric.

What tree have you ever seen that is truly symmetric? A Japanese maple is a perfect example of a tree that would be hideous if it were symmetrical, and that is why it so perfectly suits the artwork and spirit of its namesake. In Japan the aesthetic of wabi-sabi reveals and revels in mutability. There is no perfection, only glorious mutability.

I have grown this way and that. I have been restrained, pruned, truncated. In other ways I have been allowed to grow, to flourish but sometimes the dead branches remain upon me for far too long. Eros and the Desire for Eros have been among the sharpest of pruning shears.

And yet through the years, the blades have dulled and rusted. As a catalyst for change, for art, they now lay upon the ground—nearby, for I can still see them, still remember how they cut me—but they are no longer dangerous. I keep growing. While Eros may cut, Agape waters, and Philia is the sunshine I need to flourish.

I am alone in the warm sunlight of the dawn. The mountain remains intricate with memory, but the sea of my desire is calm. I am free to love the wider world.

Monday, June 1, 2015

We are here in your garden

We are lions-toothy leaves and eyes watching you hate us

Crow black, rat grey, dandelion yellow

We will remain.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Flying Dreamer

The ballistics of sleep have thrown me above the forest.

I wear a thick leather collar around my neck. It is old, worn, and I know it was around someone else’s neck.  I cannot tell, but I think if I could bite it, the leather would taste of sea salt: a mixture hinting of weeds, fish and what the low tide reveals. My collar is attached to a long thin chain, made of some metal, as light as smoke and as strong as time.  The chain descends into the trees and I cannot see if I have been tethered or tangled there. 

I realize that the distinction is important. I glide downward.

(A preview of the "Sleep" suite from Hyperborea.)