Tag archive for » Stephen King «

The Art of Transition

Monday, 1. December 2014 0:32

As I was listening near the end of an older Stephen King novel (Yes, I am addicted to audio books), I realized that King is, among other things, a master of the transition. He knows when and where to put them and, more importantly, how to make them work so that the reader is moved from one place/time/idea to another seamlessly and unnoticeably. As I think about it, it is one of the things that makes King so very readable (or in my case, listenable).

Whether he/she works in fiction, non-fiction, essay, or poetry, every writer is (hopefully) aware of the transition and the attendant difficulties. The good writer does exactly what King does, move the reader smoothly and effortlessly from one place/time/idea to another. And if those transitions can be made invisible, or at least transparent, so much the better. Anyone who writes seriously knows how difficult that is.

Mulling over King’s ability, it occurred to me that all artists have to deal with transitions. Certainly composers do; they must move the listener from one section of their music to another. Likewise the instrumentalists and vocalists who interpret that music must make those transitions as well. Similarly, all theatre artists (playwrights, directors, actors, set designers, lighting designers) must do the same thing in moving from one scene to another, one stage picture to another, one look to another. And certainly filmmakers (directors, editors) must master transition: not only must the dramatic units transition, but the camera shots must transition as well, and on a much more frequent basis

All this talk of transitions make sense in arts that take place, at least from an audience perspective, in a time sequence, but what of other arts? At first I thought that transition was a function of story or argument, then I realized that it exists in non-narrative art as well.

My own photographic work is an example: most of my recent work is gridded abstract collage. Even though these pieces fall into the category of meditation rather than story images, there must be transition between the pieces in the grid or the overall piece will absolutely fail. Likewise there must be transition between the parts of any visual or plastic composition. While each part may be interesting in itself, those parts must relate to each other and to the composition as a whole to tell the story or complete the meditation. Thus the transitions can make or break any piece art.

Given their importance, a reasonable expectation would be that transitioning would be taught in arts schools of all varieties. My experiences is that it isn’t. And when I read about art technique, I seldom find it mentioned. The single exception is film editing/directing, where it is not only taught, but the methods have names. It is as if once those of us who are not film editors or directors get out of those freshman composition classes, it is presumed that we know all that we need to know about transitions.

And that is not the case. Sometimes we find the piece that we are working on isn’t coming together the way that we want it to, and are not sure where to look to correct the situation. We would do well to look at the transitions, particularly if the work seems inappropriately fragmented or lacking in cohesiveness. In more cases than you’d think, that’s where the problems are, and so that’s the place to start repairs. Perhaps we should even take a little time out to study and learn how to transition better. After all, anything that results in better work is time well spent.

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An Artist’s Passion

Monday, 11. August 2014 0:15

Not long ago someone told me that she admired my passion. Passionate is not a word that I would normally use to describe myself. It seems a bit pretentious; I was pretty sure that passion was something that belonged to other people—probably those who spell art with a capital “A” or who view themselves as Romantic with a capital “R.” Now it’s true that I feel things deeply and believe things strongly, but I also believe in logic and reason and have a very practical nature as well—hardly passionate. But as we talked, I learned that what she meant was that I go all out when I’m interested in something. True. If that’s passion, then I guess I have it.

But if people have passion, what do they do with it? We read “follow your passion” in lots of places. It’s advice given by Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Jim Carrey and any number of other artists. At the same time there are many who give contrary advice. Interestingly much of the contrary advice is given by people who have record of successfully following their own passions, but who then urge others to take a path they consider more practical. Additionally, it seems that they believe that if people follows their passions, they will fail to develop skills because they will simply rely on the passion alone, or they might burn out.

These arguments might be valid if that is what happened, but often it isn’t. What really happens is that when people are really passionate, they not only want to spend time on whatever it is that interests them, they work to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to further their development in that area. So they go to school, apprentice themselves to someone, take internships; in short, they do all they can to make themselves more proficient in the area of interest. And if the passion continues to live, they continue to develop and work—at increasingly higher levels.

The question of money also comes up in the writings of these naysayers. There is no question that money is necessary to survive, but to make art to get money is, according to almost every successful artist, exactly the wrong reason to do it. Artists who agree acknowledge that they are not willing do some of the things required to maximize income from their art. This may cause them to make fewer dollars than might otherwise. For example, Terry Border just announced publication of his new book in a blog post, and in that same post explained why he would not provide a link to the book, even though his not doing so cost him money. But making a little less does not necessarily mean that following one’s passion will lead straight to the poorhouse.

One way some finance their passion is by taking a day job (This has been discussed here before). There is certainly nothing wrong with this approach and much to recommend it. It will, however, will give a person less time to spend with that which interests them. For some, this price is not too high: they have sufficient income to live and sufficient time to devote to their real interests. Some are even lucky enough to find a related job, or at least one that is tolerable, which makes life that much better.

It’s difficult to see how any artist could survive without passion. As noted in the last post, “the work is too demanding and never-ending and informs the entire life of the artist.” An artist without passion is at best an artisan and at worst a fraud. So I’m with those who say, “Follow your passion.” My advice for those with passion is to let it loose, follow it, and develop skills and knowledge that help realize that passion. Fail occasionally; learn from that and succeed. Learn even more, and make the art that passion demands.

 

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Chop Wood Carry Water

Sunday, 27. July 2014 22:45

There is a Zen saying, “Before Enlightenment chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment chop wood, carry water.” And, as with any Zen saying, there are multiple interpretations. I have always interpreted it to mean, “You must do the daily work, regardless of any attainments.” Sell your most expensive and most complicated piece, do the daily work; reach another level in overall sales, do daily the work; win a nationally-recognized award, do the daily work; have a piece accessioned into a major permanent collection, do the daily work. Artists do the daily work.

This was reinforced recently by two posts that appeared on Brain Pickings, one about the creative ideas of Ray Bradbury, and one about the creative ideas of Leonard Cohen. These are two radically different artists, but no one can deny that they are/were complex, prolific, and worthy of respect both for their work and for their influence on other artists. In these posts, they both discuss failure; neither man seems to regard failure as a negative thing.

But what—to me—is more interesting is what they have to say about work. In discussing his training in the Montreal School of Poetry Cohen says, “There were no prizes, as I said, no rewards other than the work itself.” Chopping wood and carrying water is its own reward.

Much has been written on the Buddhist notion of work, but it seems to come down to losing oneself in the work and working with “a spirit of joy and magnanimity.” It is considered a significant part of life, so regardless of age or station or the level of enlightenment, attainment, or fame, the real engagement is in the process of work, which is, in the case of the artist, the creative process. Cohen talks about the difficulty of this work; Bradbury talks about the differences between “made work…to keep from being bored,” working for money, and meaningful work, which he calls “true creativity.” He even suggests that we redefine the word work—meaningful work—as love.

Without that love of creative process, very few artists could continue; the work is too demanding and never-ending and informs the entire life of the artist. Cohen says, “We would read each other[‘s] poems. We were passionately involved with poems and our lives were involved with this occupation…” And that involvement has continued. Even though he talks about “hard labor,” Cohen continues with that labor. “So I always had the sense of being in this for keeps, if your health lasts you. And you’re fortunate enough to have the days at your disposal so you can keep on doing this. I never had the sense that there was an end. That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot.”

If you really love the work you’re doing and you are capable of doing it and that work is meaningful, why would you even consider retiring? Most artists are far more interested in the current project or planning the next one than in taking it easy, no matter what age they might be. Remember Stephen King’s retirement? Even the rumor was short-lived.

And so, artists, real artists, do the work. They may garner applause, money, awards, fame, but they do the work and they continue to do the work until they are no longer mentally or physically capable. There is, after all, meaningfulness and renewal in the process of chopping wood and carrying water.

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Talent is Not Enough

Sunday, 9. February 2014 23:34

In talking with a former student about a paying gig she had just booked, I mentioned her talent, among other things. She replied, “Talent is nothing if you weren’t taught how to access it and use it.” She’s right, of course, but I had never thought about it in exactly those terms.

Those who teach in the arts beyond the secondary level are aware that talent by itself is not enough. This often comes as a surprise to our students, who have been told since they were able to perform in whatever art they excel how talented they were and how that would insure success as they grew to adulthood. They were misinformed, although probably with the best intentions.

Parents, with few exceptions, have no frame of reference for talent. They know only that their progeny excel at some art or the other and that praise is being heaped on their child by teachers and friends, and so, because they are proud, they join the party. The problem comes when the child develops the expectation of success based on the responses they have garnered in the past. At the very least, they need to memorize that disclaimer that comes on all investment portfolios: “past performance does not guarantee future results.” It doesn’t.

So the children go to high school and join a small pool of other talented peers and form their own clique, the members of which get all the leads in the plays, win all the art prizes, and continue to impress parents and friends. All are encouraged to continue developing their art.

Then they get to college, where they are in class with 25 others who are equally talented, and they begin to realize that they may not be all that special after all. This notion comes home with a vengeance when they realize that they and the other 25 members of their class are really the underclass, that there are three more years of equally talented and more experienced artists ahead of them, and on top of that are the smaller percentage of those who are graduate students. It should be obvious that no matter how much talent each individual has, the rewards are fewer than the number of people in the room, so, if they are to excel, they will have to learn to access and use the talent they have and then go beyond that.

Still, it takes some counseling and convincing to persuade these students that talent is not enough. Not only must they learn how to use their talents, they must combine that with a willingness to work. Stephen King was exactly right when he said, “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” King is not the only person who has voiced this opinion. One can read similar quotations by people as diverse as Andrew Carnegie, Irving Stone, Aleister Crowley, Lou Holtz, Émile Zola, and Kurt Vonnegut.

And sometimes even talent and hard work are not enough. Success, however, you define it, is elusive, and for some seems to remain just out of reach. And although there are no guarantees, there is no question that we have a far better chance with talent and hard work than with either alone. And there is no question that the art we produce will be better than if we tried to rely on talent alone.

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Ruts and Routines

Monday, 30. September 2013 0:28

Routine is both comfortable and comforting. There is security in knowing that you will do the same things in the same order and for more-or-less the same duration every work-day. There is reassurance in knowing that this weekend will follow a pattern much like last weekend and very much like next weekend. Routine makes everything stable.

Many of us have a tendency to fall easily into routines. One of the strengths of the routine is that we don’t have to think about it. No concerns about what to do next—we look at the clock or the calendar and we know. If it’s the right time and day to work on our art, we do that. If it’s time to eat, we do that. And so on. I rather like routines for all of those reasons mentioned, but I have a friend who reminds me that doing things always the same means not that I’m in a routine, but in a rut.

But then, ruts are comforting too, and ruts are really comfortable, and easy. You really have to think about nothing. Just put the wheels into the grooves in the road and you don’t even have to steer. And since you are a creature of habit, you don’t have to think about speed either—you’ll go along at the same tempo you used the last time you went this way.

We all pretty much agree that ruts are bad, but a rut is simply a routine that’s gone on long enough to make it a practiced thing without any conscious alternatives. It’s that no conscious alternatives thing that’s not so good. That prevents us from seeing new possibilities, from exploring other methods, from developing new ways of thinking. It’s comfortable, and, because it amounts to autopilot, we tell ourselves, it leaves us more time for creativity.

Or does it? I have been working on a very large project for weeks now. Because I’ve learned to take my own advice, I work on it every day. This has resulted in plodding along, working every evening—sometimes just a little; other times for a longer period. Unfortunately, I am in the not-so-creative, preparatory part of the project. It’s work. I slogged onward, unknowingly losing interest every day. Then the deadline of another project suddenly interfered, forcing me to alter my routine. The results were wonderful! The second project got finished on time, and that energized me so I was able to go back to the larger project with fresh eyes. Suddenly I began to see possibilities that had been invisible before.

The obvious lesson is to avoid ruts, and perhaps even routines. Unfortunately, the latter may not be possible, particularly for those who have day jobs or other obligations. Perhaps a better alternative would be to change our approach: instead of telling ourselves that we should work at our art every day or week or whatever, perhaps we should, in addition, set goals. For example, instead of writing for a set time every day, Stephen King writes 2000 words; he does not stop until he has reached his goal. Some days that takes a rather short amount of time; others require a longer period. Another thing we can learn from observing King is that he gives his work a high priority, meaning that he may have to have adjust some other aspect of his life when things are moving slowly. Many of us do it the other way around, and short our artistic work when life intervenes.

Like many artists previously discussed here, I am a great believer in discipline.  However, when discipline becomes a routine which then develops into a rut, we must find a way to break out of that rut and renew ourselves. Our work will only benefit.

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Becoming Your Own Critic

Monday, 29. April 2013 0:54

Last week I quoted Georgia O’Keefe saying, “I have already settled it for myself so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free.” I then suggested that we all do likewise and free ourselves from depending upon criticism to tell us whether our art was any good or not. But now we have to figure out a way to do that.

Stephen King says that the way to settle it is to have a “trusted reader,” someone who will tell you the truth about your work and upon whose judgment you can depend. Having this feedback then allows you to ignore everyone else; you and your reader know that it’s good, so you can then send the work out into the world. Having a trusted reader is a good idea. Finding such a person is a bit more problematic. King happens to be married to his trusted reader, a solution not necessarily available to everyone.

Since reader implies written art, it might be better to change this person’s title; since this person is offering feedback only to you, the term “personal critic” might be a good choice.

The personal critic has to satisfy a long list of criteria. He/She has to be someone whom you respect, who knows something about art, whose judgment you trust, who is willing to take the time to look at your art and give you an honest, unbiased opinion, and who is able to articulate that opinion. It’s difficult to find a single person who can fulfill all these criteria. And even if you do find such a person, you must then constantly be asking that person to evaluate your art and supply feedback. That’s a lot to ask and can sometimes put a strain on a relationship.

Another choice is to become your own critic. This is more difficult, of course, because you have to essentially become two people: the artist and the critic. You have be able to separate yourself completely from your work so you can evaluate it impartially. That means that you can no longer defend parts of your work that you really like or protect certain things because they are especially meaningful. It means that you look at your work with fresh, objective eyes.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s almost the same procedure that you use for editing that was discussed a while back. The only difference is one of degree. To be a self-critic, you have to be even more removed from the creative process and the ownership of the work. You must be willing to acknowledge weaknesses, to highlight flaws, to target inconsistencies. You have to be able to look at the overall piece and evaluate its worth. You must be willing to declare the whole project a failure if necessary. You must be ruthless.

And you do that exactly the same way you became your own editor. Wait until the work is complete; edit. Put the work away for a while again—the longer the better. Then approach the work as though it were not your own; that may mean pretending someone else did it. As silly as that may sound, it works. You say to yourself, “If someone I don’t know brought this to me and asked for an honest critique, what would I say? Take notes on your answer. Put the notes and the work away again. After a time look again at the work in the light of the notes.

Initially it takes enormous time and energy to do this, but as you practice this procedure, it becomes easier and more automatic. And so long as you are honest with yourself, it should be successful.  And if you are successful, you will no longer be dependent on those who offer your praise or criticism. You, like O’Keefe, will have the matter settled for yourself.

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Dealing with Criticism

Sunday, 21. April 2013 22:36

All of us have experienced criticism, sometimes positive sometimes negative. (By criticism, I do not necessarily mean only negative comments, but rather a judgment about the quality or value of our work by someone else.) Sometime we have sought out such judgment; other times it has appeared unbidden. Occasionally, we read it in print or on a web site. Then we are faced with a decision: what do we do with that criticism once we hear it?

Artists from almost every discipline have commented on critics and criticism, artists as diverse as Aristotle and Virginia Woolf, Andy Warhol and Stephen King, W. A. Mozart and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Most of the comments are not very complimentary. Some involve the comparison of the act of criticism to the act of creation; criticism does not fare well. Others argue that only by creating work equal to or better than that being evaluated can someone be qualified to criticize. Some have offered advice on how to deal with both critics and criticism. Almost to a person, they tell you to ignore it; some will also tell you to never read or listen to it in the first place. This, of course, is almost impossible to do.

Artists, as most of us know, are riddled with self-doubt (a topic on which I have written previously, here, for example) and crave some sort of approval of our work from outside. This lack of confidence unfortunately forms the framework which underlies our dealing with criticism. Because we are unsure of ourselves, we grasp at positive criticism or any response to our work that reinforces what we ourselves think of it. If, on the other hand, we are dealt negative criticism, it can be devastating. Sometimes we take it personally. Other times we let it feed our insecurity and discourage us, which can then lead to a downward spiral in our self-esteem, which, in turn, can negatively impact our work.

Criticism can be useful, at least in one sense. Thoughtful criticism can be useful to help people decide how to spend their time and their money—and that can range from buying a movie ticket to purchasing a multi-thousand dollar sculpture. That is a far different thing from an artist listening to a critic and moving forward based on that criticism. Yes, performing with respect to criticism is a very practical approach if you are in school and the critic is your instructor. Otherwise, if you listen to criticism, you may find yourself modifying your work to deal with that criticism instead of listening to yourself. This may lead you to make a more marketable piece, but it certainly will make the work less honest, and perhaps less your own.

Georgia O’Keefe had it figured out. She said, “I have already settled it for myself so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free.” Rather than listening to the voice of others, we have to be our own critics, evaluating our work for ourselves, determining what is good and what could be improved and where to cut and where to enhance. No matter how much we hunger for approval and appreciation, once we have established ourselves as our own judges—settled it for ourselves—the words of others will impact us far less. And in that less-dependent atmosphere, we too can be free—to develop our art.

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Respect Your Audience

Sunday, 17. March 2013 23:25

A reader commenting on last week’s post cited the negative side of making the work match the movie in the artist’s head, and, in at least one case, re-working a published project once the technology became available. What is key here is the idea of re-working, re-doing, or modifying. When I wrote the original post, I was not thinking of work that had already been made public, but rather a work that existed nowhere except in the artist’s imagination. When the artifact already exists in the world, and the artist capitalizes on new technology or decides to modify that artifact for whatever reason, we have a completely different situation.

George Lucas decided that not only was he would use new technology to modify the original Star Wars trilogy in 1997, he would do so with a great deal of publicity and major re-release. If Lucas had done what other director/producers have done, he would have issued a “director’s cut” or “ultimate edition” on DVD when he found the technology, such as he did in 2004. This would have caused much less backlash. This is also the traditional way to make such changes in the cutting or modification of a movie.

Stephen King used a quieter approach when he rewrote parts of The Gunslinger, the first novel in The Dark Tower series. He modified the work, and the new edition was published—fairly quietly and with a full explanation from the author. Those who chose could pick up a copy of the rewritten work; those who were not interested could reread the copies they already had in their possession.

Lucas’ error, at least in my opinion, was concentrating on how he, the artist, felt about what had been and should have been created and ignoring the relationship between the audience and the artifact. Such a relationship develops, sometimes quite rapidly, and exists quite apart from any relationship the artist has with the artifact.

This is a lesson I learned not long ago. A collector of my work is also a person that I have to see fairly frequently in connection with my day job. One of my images hangs in his office, so I see it every time I visit. And every time I see it, I wince because I matted it “incorrectly.” Yes, it’s a detail; but to me, an important detail—something that was a “make it work” decision that doesn’t quite work anymore— for me. Finally I told him that I was thinking about re-matting it for him. He quickly informed me that I might see things that he didn’t, but that not only was he satisfied with the presentation, he actively liked it and would not appreciate my tampering with it. This made me re-think the whole idea. I can certainly modify matting for future prints of this particular piece, but I will probably leave his alone. It is, after all, his. He paid for it. He sees it every day and has feelings about it. I, on the other hand, see it only once in a while and in a completely different mental/emotional context.

If the piece in question is still in our imaginations, we can delay or modify or anything we want. If, however, the piece in question is in someone else’s possession or has been widely disseminated, we might want to be careful about modifying it. Just as the makers have a special relationship to the art they are making, so do the audience and collectors of those same pieces. The audience/collector relationship is very different, however. Someone sees something in our work that resonates, and decides that he/she has to own the piece in order to have that experience on a daily basis. Then that relationship further develops over time, and sometimes becomes just as passionate as that of the artist. And we, as artists need to be respectful of that relationship: it’s the very reason that we have an audience.

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Truth: A Necessity for Good Art

Sunday, 7. October 2012 23:40

Not long ago, a friend sent me a link to a YouTube video entitled “Why I Do Theatre,” which is a brief talk by Patsy Rodenburg. It is a must-see for anyone involved in theatre. Actually, it is a must-see for anyone who makes any kind of art. Rodenburg has packed so many ideas into this six and three-quarter minute video that it will likely become a source for several other posts. But her main point is that she does theatre because theatre allows actors (and playwrights) to tell the truth, whether the audience likes it or not, and that is worth doing.

Not only do actors and playwrights get to tell the truth, but so do painters, and poets, and photographers, and dancers, and sculptors, and writers. So do we all in the arts, if we are brave enough to not care whether the audience likes us or not, and actually put the truth as we know it on the paper, into the sculpting medium, on the stage, on the dance floor, into the film, on the canvas, into the music.

This seems obvious for photojournalists— at least the good ones—as any display of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs will attest. This is also true of their counterparts who work with words. But what about the rest of us who deal in works of drama, or fiction, or non-realism? How do we present the truth? The answer, of course, is that we wrap it up inside our fiction or whatever it is that we create and present it to our audience and hope that they see it.

This is the case with the actress that Rodenburg discusses who “made a sound” that was bitterly truthful and impactful—in a production of a fictional 2400-year-old tragedy. It does not matter that a play (or any art work) is fictional; it matters that the emotions and feeling and ideas that it contains are truthful and portrayed in a way that communicates that truth.

This idea of presenting the truth inside a fiction has been put forward by all sorts of artists from Stephen King to Pablo Picasso. King said Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” Picasso’s statement is a little more complex: “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.

Aside from the problem of developing the techniques to persuade others of the truthfulness of our work, there are two problems in putting truth into what we do as artists. One has already been mentioned; it is the knowledge that if we are truthful, some in our audience may not like us. Many artists equate being liked with sales and so will do nearly anything to make that happen. Perhaps they have forgotten why they got into art in the first place. Or, as I have said before, perhaps they just have not found their tribes yet. It seems to me that for the serious artist, being appreciated is far superior to being liked.

The second problem is that in order to put the truth into our work, we have to recognize the truth, and that can be very uncomfortable. Sometimes, we have to recognize the truth in ourselves, and to integrate that into our work we may have to expose ourselves. That can be even more uncomfortable. It can cause a disquiet that many of us would rather do without. But then again, I can’t think of anyone I know who became a serious artist because he/she thought it would be comfortable.

Art does not have to embody the truth, but probably all meaningful art does in one way or another. Some think that truth is one of the things that makes good art good. But incorporating truth in our work may not be the easiest thing we ever do. As Hazel Dooney points out, “Art is not truth. But it is more powerful when it is based on truth, especially the truths we find most discomforting.

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