In his book, The War Of Art, Steven Pressfield says, "Call it overstatement but I'll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas."
Hitler wanted to be a painter.
Do your art for the sake of attention and adoration and the blank canvas will drive you to destruction.
The blank canvas is your teacher. And your only one. Besides death.
Run away from the lessons of your one true teacher, seeking out charlatans who will sell you an image of having a place among the ranks at the expense of your soul, and you just might destroy the world.
You make the ranks every day you decide to face the blank canvas.
There are two trains in my mind on a collision coarse.
One train says, history is dark, misleading, useless;
Another train says, when I look into the past all I see is immortality.
One day, when these trains finally collide, I might come up with something worthwhile; so worthwhile I might add a significant portion to the excesses of our own time. Excesses that some poor soul one thousand years from now will look back at and agonize, like me, about how preoccupation with it is affecting him. Is it killing him? Or giving him more life than anything he can see, taste, or touch?
I just hope he feels alive, like me, in the agony.
There is a pernicious shadow haunting every single one of us trying to make our way in the world of pleasing an audience; it is that our work must contain some message or have some point to make about the world; it's not so much that we are forced to make our work that way but those who consume it are so deluded by the overbearing need for usefulness that they assume any artistic output that isn't blasting CGI all over a wide screen--the artsy fartsy stuff--must contain some edifying quality. And so they project their own paranoia and suspicion of the author's point of view (which they, in fact, can never know even if the author wanted them to) onto the work; this is egregious. And I know it happens because right now I am more audience member than artist and I commit this sin all the time. So this isn't just another angry rant, it is also a confession.
There is a wonderful essay by Susan Sontag; I'm sure you've heard of it; it's called Against Interpretation. I still have to read it many times again before I can say for sure that I understand it, but my point is you should all read it.
Our efforts to interpret things have ruined our ability to just surrender to our senses. It's ruined everything from scripture, to greek tragedy, to shakespeare, up until our contemporary age.
I'm not saying artists (or audiences) should never hold a point of view--political or otherwise--but if they wanted to tell it to us they have other avenues. I was introduced to Sontag (who was a fiction writer and filmmaker in her own right) because of her apparently incendiary essay in the New Yorker the Tuesday after 9/11 (which I stumbled upon years after its publication since I was seven at the time of the events); she was the only one in that New Yorker feature who wrote something that refused to play into the punditry of American victimhood after the terrorist attacks. You should all read that too. An incendiary essay in the New Yorker is a good way to tell the world what you think and get in trouble for it. Sontag was incredibly political, but she didn't let it cloud the way she read a book or watched a movie or witnessed any other creation.
Here's the truth: I am an amateur. Right now this is a very scary and very stupid foray into the world of writing for me. Writing blog posts; writing short fiction; writing things for myself to perform (my feverishly made and thoughtless podcast). There are things that I plug into my writing because I read them somewhere and I find them curious or fascinating and like any good amateur I am still unable to resist the temptation to show how smart I am. But those references don't really mean anything.
Because I don't want to be useful, I want to be entertaining. The question I want asked (if there is anyone out there who has listened to my podcast) is not "hmmm, what does this say about society?" or worse, "what does this say about the author?" The question I want asked is "What's going to happen?" or "Wasn't that funny?!" or "Oh my god did you see that coming?"
Well, what about stories like, say, The Constant Gardner? Doesn't something like that have a very obvious political message? Interesting point. But I'd venture to say that a) the circumstances in The Constant Gardner really are just how the world works, and so there is nothing "political" about them, and b) those circumstances make for a good story, and c) if John Le Carre thought his twenty two novels were an effective way of relaying polemics against corporate imperialism he wouldn't have spent so much time writing speeches and giving talks and interviews in which it was very clear he was issuing such polemics.
I love essay books. Because I love reading an author's point of view. James Baldwin wrote incredible essays that were very political. Mary Oliver wrote incredible essays that were mostly non-political but also expressed her environmental ideals. And it isn't as if any author could ever completely filter out their opinions in their poems or novels or films--that would just deaden them--and it would be dishonest because the point of writing is to be true to yourself. But if these authors truly cared about their opinions they would just write them out directly (which they do) instead of couching them in the improper form.
Sure, a novel like Go Tell It On The Mountain could be seen as a protest novel, in part (among a multitude of wonderful things). But I love it only because when I read it, I couldn't get a line like "I don't care how many times you change your ways, what's in you is in you and it's got to come out" out of my head; I don't even remember which character said that line.
As an audience member it's best if I just unburden myself from the assumptions I fling onto the author.
Of course, as an author, my constricted imagination can only go so far... obviously what I build will inevitably reflect some perspective on the world that I happen to hold at the time. But that's not the point.
My fiction, if anyone cares, is not about expressing my opinion. I just want to make that clear at the outset, so that there are no misunderstandings when I've actually written a considerable amount of fiction.
I have this blog so that I can tell people what my opinion is. But even then, I don't think I have the amount of craft necessary to let you know the full complexity of what I think when I choose to open my mouth and express an opinion.
Again, I'm an amateur; my opinion isn't really worth anything (yet) but I might as well practice.
Then again maybe I should stop writing and acting all together. Seems much more trouble than it's worth.
I really love this quote from Synthesizing Gravity, a book of non-fiction prose by Kay Ryan
Workshop. In the old days before creative writing programs, a workshop was a place, often a basement, where you sawed or hammered, drilled or planed something. You could not simply workshop something. Now you can, though. You can take something you wrote by yourself to a group and get it workshopped. Sometimes it probably is a lot like getting it hammered. Other writers read your work, give their reactions, and make suggestions for change. A writer might bring a piece back for more workshopping later, even. I have to assume that the writer respects these other writers’ opinions, and that just scares the daylights out of me. It doesn’t matter if their opinions really are respectable; I just think the writer has given up way too much inside. Let’s not share. Really. Go off in your own direction way too far, get lost, test the metal of your work in your own acids. These are experiments you can perform down in that old kind of workshop, where Dad used to hide out from too many other people’s claims on him.
I want to send out the final episode and epilogue of Speaking Into The Fog before Christmas Eve. I get it that this Christmas thing is kind of a thing. And I want to leave people alone for a few days.
What was I thinking? I wrote Instalment six in a sort of fever... the story took a turn in a way that surprised me. I was just figuring this out as I went along. Installments (almost) daily, just whatever I was thinking at the time and the microphone on my phone and some catchy tunes...
Now that I am so close, it feels like the easiest time to give up. Who would care? Who would even notice? I can let myself off the hook...
But it's never about others, it's about the place I get myself to. If I can move myself, I can help others move.
Or maybe I'm just an idiot.
Time Traveler: A Scientist's Personal Mission To Make Time Travel A Reality, by Doctor Ronald L Mallet.
This touching and ambitious autobiography chronicles the life of one of the (still living) pioneers of theoretical physics and time travel theory.
Dr. Mallet's story starts with a childhood need--to reverse the premature death of his father. And ends with discovery and bittersweet beauty.
It made me want to be a theoretical physicist. But my affections did not that way tend... I read a lot of books but could never grasp the science. But it taught me to approach the rest of my life with a sense of wonder and the nerve to explore one's despair--even in the good times; especially in the good times.
True And False, Heresy And Common Sense For The Actor, by David Mamet
I never gave myself full permission to be an actor. And then I read this book... I disagreed with everything. I agreed with everything. But I knew I had to be an actor after reading it. What one agrees with never really matters with a book does it? What matters is the book affirms your place in the world.
And David Mamet knows how to do that. All of his essay books are worth devouring... but I mention this one because it came at such a vulnerable moment in my life. I read it once through standing up in the Barnes and Noble Theatre section. And I haven't looked back sense.
Sure, Mamet has been a bit of a shit show (in his writing) the past few years. But this is a reality of my life I can't just cover up.
How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti
I read this just a few months ago.
It rearranged my molecules. Lifted me out of a crippling indecision.
It is also one of the funniest and most disarmingly honest works of fiction that I have read. The language is simple and striking and always shipped with a humor that could make the most brutal of civilian impulses worth laughing at.
Safe to say this book is the reason I am being so bold as to write this on-the-fly-podcast, who's final installment will come within a day. And I have never written for myself before.
It is another book that seemed to affirm my place in the world.
I almost swore I would never make book lists.... there are just too many books, too many authors that hold a special place in my heart. And often I will be so sure that one book is my favorite or one author is my favorite because their work just happens to have extra resonance in that specific period of my life.
But in retrospect, it is these books that are the ones which have led (so far) to epochal shifts in who I am. Into decisions that I made to act a certain way or take a certain path.
It is the books not that comfort or pleasure you or get you excited by a new insight or way of looking at the world (though that is always important too) which are truly life changing. It is the ones that get you to actually act.
I can say for certain that these three books have done that for me.
I could not see the end when I started, because I started with nothing. Just a need. A need to create.
But now the finish line is so clear it's as if this story wrote itself.
I know it's not perfect.
I know I could have used a better mic.
I know I could polish a lot; cut a bit. Refine.
I know I could have cleaned up some of the diction. A lot of the diction.
But the goal was to not stop. And I haven't stopped.
And trust me,
This installment, and the two (or three) that will come after it, are going to blow your mind.
If I write them.
Which I will. Because I've gotten this far. And I ain't turning back, even though I have to push myself harder than ever.
Enjoy Speaking Into The Fog Installment Six: In which the universe councils me in my despair... and the terror becomes all too real...
It's a game changer. Or at least, the one that comes just before the game changer. Isn't it always so hard to tell? Between the goal and the assist?
A double play is one whole in of itself. Separate the two outs and it isn't the same play.
And the crowd doesn't cheer nearly as hard.
Call it youthful arrogance but I do think there has to be an eternal value placed on what we do whenever we crawl like little wretches out of bed to face the glowing screen or wait to enter our stage from the wings.
There are artists for whom my respect is so great, I would eviscerate myself into particles of sand if it meant that it would help their works echo through the oceans of time.
Don’t take my word for it I like being alive :)
But you know something? I just want to say,
Sometimes my best work is the sincere emails I send to better artists.
I hate reading, because I want my writing to be that good. I hate going to the cinema and the theater, because I want my acting to be that good. The word; the voice. They still hold so much power; they can change the face of one life and that one life can change the face of history. See I was born a fanatic. When something strikes through my bones and makes my heart burst out of my chest shrieking like a mandrake, I can’t help but proclaim,
This is the truth.
It is inexplicable and unmistakable.
And when I’m able to look back at my so far brief and so far long life, it is moments where I’ve experienced this which make even the most horrible and despairing moments of my life seem like what they in fact are… footnotes in the epic story of a beautiful time spent on earth.
Actors; writers; those who direct and design and research and find the talent that is all too hidden in the crevices of a cold cruel world… these are my people. People who’ve helped me up and people whom I want to help up.
People whom I’ve hurt. People who’ve hurt me.
It’s all for the work, in the end, it really is.
To do our best with it as we do our best with each other.
The work matters. Death is real.
But the work matters.
If it helps you carry on, still that quiver of loneliness in your bone marrow, or quell the despair just enough to do what you need to do please know that if you have a hint in your heart that this letter was written especially for you;
you’re right. It was written for you.
Maybe it is all just youthful arrogance.
But like the fanatic, who always holds a secret doubt, I must continue to believe in the truth;
it’s the only way I’ll find home every night.
Five good minutes. That's all John Patrick Shanley needs, to know that a play is good.
When I set out to write this podcast before I knew what I was doing--writing out the scripts and recording them the day of--that's what I set out looking for. Five good minutes.
With this fourth installment of my podcast Speaking Into The Fog, now released, I will be at close to seventy minutes done with this story. My cap is at one hundred and eighty.
I don't know what the hell I'm doing.
I'm just giving my version of the answer to the question which is the first sentence in Shanley's play, Doubt, the best play written by an American to date.
What do you do when you're not sure? Asks Father Flynn
The fuck I want. That's what.
I'm just chasing those five good minutes.
And I think I'm getting closer.