Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Gorey Ways to Be Deflowered

A friend of mine came across this while looking up information about the late, great Edward Gorey. Apparently an early effort, and very silly, but it's fun to know that achieving greatness does not mean an author is immune to silliness. It makes one feel better, rather. It is extraordinary how many possible deflowering situations there are, including By Marimba Player, At Seance, On Cross-Country Bus, In Moroccan Palace, and many, many more.

I first learned about Mr. Gorey's works at age 12 or so when a very erudite student of my father's gave me a copy of Amphigorey. I spent a lot of time trying to puzzle out what was really going on in The Curious Sofa: A Pornographic Work by Ogdred Weary, which really only hints at being pornographic - and does contain such phrases as "well-endowed", which I didn't understand until much, much later.

My greatest regret nowadays is that I did not see the production of Edward Gorey's Dracula, with mind-boggling sets by same, in Massachussetts where I happened to be staying the summer I was sixteen. The starring role was played by Frank Langella, who did a remarkably intense Count in a heartthrob movie version of Dracula: a love story, which of course enthralled me as an adolescent. Nowadays, of course, Mr. Langella is still a very compelling and professional actor, though not quite such a sex symbol.

For the record, one of my favorite Gorey pieces at the moment (they change all the time) is The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel, in which the unfortunate Mr. Earbrass once again goes through the horrific process of creating literature.

A sample:

"Mr Earbrass has been rashly skimming through the early chapters, which he has not looked at for months, and now sees TUH [The Unstrung Harp] for what it is. Dreadful, dreadful, DREADFUL. He must be mad to go on enduring the unexquisite agony of writing when it all turns out drivel. Mad. Why didn’t he become a spy? How does one become one? He will burn the MS. Why is there no fire? Why aren’t there the makings of one? How did he get in the unused room on the third floor?"

You can find it (expensively) in its own volume, ca. 1953; or you can find it just as pleasant to read in the first volume of the Amphigorey series of his collected works. All hail Mr. Gorey!

A few extra things:

- When I googled Mr. Earbrass, I did come across this search result, which struck me as extremely funny:
Mac Forums - View Profile: Mr.Earbrass
Mr.Earbrass has no contact information. Additional Information, Group Memberships. Song Recs: 0. Mr.Earbrass is not a member of any public groups ...

- Lastly, and apropo of nothing: today is the birthday of Honore Balzac. I heard on the radio he used to have a light supper and go to bed at 5 or 6 pm, then wake up at midnight and write for fifteen hours straight, subsisting on cup after cup of strong coffee. (Well, now you know, why aren't you more productive already??)

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Muse as Moment and Place

This morning I went over to Neil Gaiman's blog to see what was up (actually, I was trying to see what his schedule was for WorldCon, but got distracted by the posts, as usual). He wrote an excellent response to a reader who was complaining about George R. R. Martin not cranking out the next book in a series.

Mr. Gaiman replies, very rightly,

"For me, I would rather read a good book, from a contented author. I don't really care what it takes to produce that.

Some writers need a while to charge their batteries, and then write their books very rapidly. Some writers write a page or so every day, rain or shine. Some writers run out of steam, and need to do whatever it is they happen to do until they're ready to write again. Sometimes writers haven't quite got the next book in a series ready in their heads, but they have something else all ready instead, so they write the thing that's ready to go, prompting cries of outrage from people who want to know why the author could possibly write Book X while the fans were waiting for Book Y."

There is much more than that, of course. But hard on the heels of my discussion of the "I Suck" moment and what to do when the writing needs a rest - and how color helps recharge those tired batteries - it made me think a little further about that process. The nice thing about Mr. Gaiman's post is that he describes the fact that writers have lives. People die, the house needs painting, or your pet needs to go to the vet. This is normal. It is easy to think of writers and artists - creative people - as being these lone madmen who drink too much, staying in their little apartment or cabin (or whatever), creating like a rabid monkey, typing or painting away to the detriment of their health and human relationships.*

This vision, of course, made me have to go find Anne Lamott's great essay about Shitty First Drafts, from her book Bird By Bird, and reread it, again:

"People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter...

"Very few writers really know what they are doing until they've done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow. One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, "It's not like you don't have a choice, because you do--you can either type or kill yourself."

Sometimes, I admit (much less often than BC: Before Children), I find myself bounding along like a husky through the snow. But usually it's following a long fallow period, where the ideas have been allowed to grow and mate and become fully-formed, and are now dying to get out.

So what is it that makes the muse happen? Where do the ideas come from?

I've often thought of ideas as spores. I walk around with the back of my head hanging open like a cargo plane, waiting for things to drift in. Sometimes I can feel them tickling in there when they alight, but I know by now that if I touch them at that stage they'll wilt. So I do the dishes or water the garden or drive to town, with my inner eye turned back there, peeking hopefully at the little sprouts. And eventually, some die, but some begin to get robust enough to deal with me pawing at them, examining them and even elaborating on them. Sometimes, I'll handle an idea thoroughly and then put it back into the cargo area so that other spores will land on it and change it into something beautiful. Sometimes, it meets another nice idea back there and they get together and have a happy marriage.

But they're never right in front of me. They're always in the back, or slightly to the side. They're rather slippery, and delicate, and they don't like being stared at too hard. They prefer being made concrete via my hands. If I talk about them too much, they fade; and if I get partway through making them concrete and then stop, sometimes they grow in the interim. The robust ones will poke me if I ignore them too long. The really delicate, lovely, strange ones will disappear if I don't do something about them right away, because they're too much like dreams, and don't do well in the workaday world.

In every historical discussion inspiration is seen as being, by its nature, beyond the control of the person being inspired. The Greeks, for example, saw inspiration as coming from the muses, creatures born of either Zeus and Mnemosyne (goddess of memory), or of Uranus (the Sky) and Gaia (the Earth). The muses were seen as repositories of all knowledge from the ancient age, who embodied the arts and inspired the creation process with their graces "through remembered and improvised song and stage, writing, traditional music, and dance." [wiki]

Later, the muses may have lost some of their anthropomorphic properties, but inspiration still remained outside the purview of rational, conscious thought:

"In the 18th century John Locke proposed a model of the human mind in which ideas associate or resonate with one another in the mind. In the 19th century, Romantic poets such as Coleridge and Shelley believed that inspiration came to a poet because the poet was attuned to the (divine or mystical) "winds" and because the soul of the poet was able to receive such visions. In the early 20th century, Sigmund Freud located inspiration in the inner psyche of the artist. Carl Gustav Jung's theory of inspiration suggests that an artist is one who was attuned to racial memory, which encoded the archetypes of the human mind." [wiki]

In American society, which is based more than we would like to think in the puritan, or Protestant, work ethic, the idea that something could be so uncontrollable, so beyond the reach of deadlines and time management, is unimaginable. We think that by eating right, by sleeping right, exercising, having good oral hygene, using underarm sprays and meditating, by learning to schedule play-time and carrying our watches and organizers with us everywhere, we can make sure that all the terrifying alternatives are covered and everything will go as scheduled.

Which is true of many things. But other than clearing some time so that you can clear your head, time management simply doesn't apply to inspiration. Eating, unless you're a restaurant critic, is unlikely to bring the muse. Sleeping enough might give you good, inspiring dreams; but then not sleeping enough could do the same thing. The rest of it... well, there is something to be said for the wild-man-in-the-cabin trope. At least he's not wasting valuable cargo space in the back of his head remembering music lessons and mortgage payments.

The back-to-the-land movement in the late 1960s and 1970s saw people clearing space in their lives to make room for the muse. Like the Puritans in the 1600s, the back-to-the-landers were fleeing what they saw as an oppressive society which did not let them live the life they believed in - one free of music lessons and mortgage payments. Unlike the Puritans, however, they did not believe their choices were shaping their entry into Heaven. They went to the country for much more earthly things - to grow their own food, build their own houses, and make the things they lived with. Most of the people who tried it, though, were unfamiliar with the hardships of rural living, and failed crops, leaking roofs, and lack of money to buy supplies eventually drove all but the most resourceful back to the cities.

Still, this movement planted the seeds for the voluntary simplicity movement, a more mature variation on the theme, advocating sustainable living patterns (solar power, homegrown or locally-grown organic food, and fewest possible consumerist items like credit cards and television, which eat up time and encourage spending).

"Some people practice voluntary simplicity to reduce need for purchased goods or services and, by extension, reduce their need to sell their time for money. Some will spend the extra free time helping family or others... Others may spend the extra free time to improve their quality of life, for example pursuing creative activities such as art and crafts...

"Advertising is criticised for encouraging a consumerist mentality. Many advocates of voluntary simplicity tend to agree that cutting out, or cutting down on, television viewing is a key ingredient in simple living. Some see the Internet, podcasting, community radio or pirate radio as viable alternatives." [wiki]

Unlike the desire in the 1960s to escape Baby Boom America, the new movement is a much more pragmatic desire to remake how we do things. The idea that one can take a breath and step outside the rat-race, take away all the extra parts of one's life - the things one doesn't really need but are paying for because of a perceived lifestyle definition - is not a new one. Epicurus, a philosopher of the fourth century, pointed out that troubles entailed by maintaining an extravagant lifestyle tend to outweigh the pleasure of partaking in it. Henry David Thoreau (another man in a cabin!), was famous for his desire to find a quiet place to write books, where he lived like a hermit (with weekly visits from his mother, who brought him goodies to eat).

Sometimes, though, we are simply tied to the life we have wrought. Not all of us can drop everything and go off to Walden to live alone in a cabin. Many of us have children, and must provide a place for them to live, and food for them to eat. Uprooting everything for a dream is not a simple thing. However, making time to think is not the lazy pursuit we are taught to believe. That mental space-clearing, the opening of the cargo hold and the time for the spores to take hold, is actually sacrament. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Many writers and artists I've spoken to have said that giving the muse a chance to speak is their secret to productivity - in other words, making that moment every day for her to come in and then sticking to whatever comes. One man I knew, a potter, said to my father once, "I've made a deal with myself. I have to go down to the studio every day, and put my hands in the clay. Then, if I don't want to make anything, I can wash my hands and go back to the house. But usually, by the time I've gotten my hands in there, I might as well throw a pot or two." Cory Doctorow said, at Viable Paradise, that you need to make a time every day to write. You don't have to get heroic - 500 or 1,000 words each day will do - but you need to put fingers to keyboard every day. And just like my potter friend, you might find yourself writing a story or two.

Sometimes, though, like Neil Gaiman says, the house just needs to be painted. And then that's your work time, 'cause while you're watching that color spread with the roller, your brain is just going to keep collecting the spores, keep turning the ideas over and looking for worms underneath. So when you go back to the easel or the keyboard, you'll be ready.

"To have laughed often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition;
To know that one life has breathed easier because you have lived;
This is to have succeeded."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson


*Until they leave for Africa to become gun-runners.


I did not realize I had published the previous post, "Drunk on Color:" I wasn't finished editing it!! All fixed now - many apologies for unpolished and confusing writing!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Drunk On Color

"Imagine, if you will," he said, "that we are not in a dank and mossy crypt, but in a room of gold... that warm rays make the air softer and yellower than butter; that you breathe not this base, black, wet mist, but a sparkling bronze infusion that has been mellowed by its constant reverberation within walls of pure gold." He sucked in his breath. "The light of this room would be just that shade that we are told arises sometmes against the clouds beyond the bay, making the world gold the way it is said happens once in a... every... well... sometimes. My plan, you see," he said in pain, writhing internally, "is to build a golden room in a high place, and post watchmen to watch the clouds. When they turn gold, and the light sprays upon the city, the room will be open. The light will stuff the chamber. Then the doors will seal shut. And the goldenness will be trapped forever...

"You can bathe in the light, drink in the air, run your hands along the smooth walls. Even in the pit and trough of night, the golden room will be brightly boiling. And it will be ours."

- Mark Helprin, Winter's Tale

My writing group has a term for that period every writer goes through in phases: the "I Suck" phase, where you can't imagine anyone would ever want to read what you've written. It's difficult to get anything done during this phase because you are so self-critical; it's hard to edit things when you can't see the merit in it.

During these phases I retreat into making things. I find that a certain amount of physical creativity keeps me alive, keeps me full of interest in the world around me, and makes me more able to write. I come back to the keyboard refreshed, with new stimulus to inspire my descriptions. And my favorite kind of making things pretty much always involves the mixing, blending, and juxtaposition of color.

Knitting, for example. I must stay away from yarn stores, because the intensity of all that color makes me lose some portion of my reason, and I find myself buying hundreds of dollars worth of yarn. And, though I love knitting - capturing all that color into something I or my loved ones can wear, it's never quite as beautiful as the raw yarn. The transformation removes some random quality of the way the colors overlap and interact, and I'm left with some nice item which is merely an echo of that original glowing dream.

Similarly, the pastels section in the art store grabs me. I want to have it, to dive in it and swim through it the way Scrooge McDuck swims through his money. Color, to me, is riches. I want to surround myself with it, lay it next to itself, play in it. It is a gastronomic experience of the eyes, like eating. It has flavor and timbre; each color is a note in a riotous and elegant orchestra of beauty.

So when I make something, color is a big part of the making. But, similarly, I am caught by it in the everyday world. In the grocery store, for example, I buy tangerines when they are in season not only because I love their flavor, but because they are presented in big, shining orange heaps, sometimes with wonderfully crackly dark green leaves mixed in. And the heritage tomato booth at the Farmer's Market draws me like an addict to her dealer. Somehow, the color and the flavor become mixed in my perception so that the depth of the fragrance mingles with the richness of color and incites me to salivation, both physically and mentally.

Another place I absorb color's juicy goodness is fabric stores, especially really good stores with imported fabrics. Tweeds, especially, get me, with their subtle flecks of color; or the deep intensity of the velvets. Iridescent fabrics and deep, changing furs and the liquid brilliance of good satin. And the trim: thin strips of fluttering color to edge your sewing, bobbling tassels and piping and the thin, gauzy brilliance of translucent ribbon.

Color has always been symbolic, and very culturally driven: from the Victorian construct of the meaning of roses, to the colors people have been allowed to wear (as in the Sumptuary Laws of Elizabethan England and earlier), to the colors worn traditionally for rituals such as marriage and mourning. In Western culture, for example, black symbolizes darkness and the unknown, and death is nowadays associated with the extinguishing of light. In Asia, on the other hand, white is the color for mourning, either to symbolize enlightenment, winding-sheets, bones, the leaching of joy, or perhaps some other point of view I'm not familiar with: but interestingly, there is evidence that until recently, white was a mourning color in Western society, as well.

The sumptuary laws of Rome defined exactly who could wear the Tyrian purple dye, and how much. The Victorians believed that yellow roses symbolized jealousy (though my father gave my mother yellow roses when I was born. I doubt that was the understood symbolism between them). In America, a bride wearing a red dress would traditionally be frowned upon as a hussy; but in China, Japan, and Korea it is a traditional bridal color, symbolizing good luck and auspiciousness. And with this influence entering Western society (along with the decrease in popularity of virginal brides), the red wedding dress has become all the rage.

So the cultural definitions of the meaning of color are constantly changing. Until quite recently, men's clothing was much more on the model of male birds: the more colorful ones were more successfully showing their desirability. And less than eighty years ago, pink was considered a masculine color.

One of the greatest contributions the early Modernist painters made to art was to break with tradition, painting not in the accepted colors of nature but in the colors of feelings, of nuance, and of mood. Who, for example, has a green line down the middle of their face? Or the idea that you can sprinkle together wildly varying colors which have nothing to do with the subject at hand - and still end up with an image that is recognizable, even full of light and beauty. So perhaps my knitter's obsession with flecked yarns is not simply an addiction, but is rooted in a deeper artistic vision: that of the greater beauty of delicately trembling variety.

Everywhere I look, there is something to drink in. The seasons themselves aid me in my color addiction, changing ordinary things subtlely each month so that I cannot stop looking. The oak trees around my house, for example, are covered with a type of fast-acting moss, which interacts with water over the course of minutes to transform from dull, dry-looking brown stuff into glowing green fairy-carpet. When it rains hard, I go outside to look: I can't help it.

Big Sur, one of my favorite places to visit, is largely attractive to me because of the varied carpet of plants which grow on the roadside: sage brush, Indian paintbrush, yellow lupine, yarrow, iceplant reddened by salt, and any number of others which I can't name but which add to the mixture in rich but imperceptible ways.

Similarly, there is an ever-changing panoply of plants along the road where I live - sage, sticky monkey flower, yarrow, succulents and ferns - which has a completely different flavor, a milder, more delicate spice. And both change, depending on when you visit. Right now we are drenched in orange and blue, the color simply licking at your eyeballs, as the pastures explode with purple lupine and California poppies. When this happens, which is not quite as often as I would like - certainly not every year - I try to go and sit, at least once in the season, in the middle of one of these seas of color and just keep my eyes open until I'm full. There are so many things to see around us: the electrical fizz of the California sky against the edges of things; the phosphorescence of the right kinds of geraniums (the Mediterranean kind, not the English kind). And every country has a different light, making the colors wash over you all over again.

Cities, with their muted greys and sombre, sooty brick, hold a peculiar fascination in the romance of the grit, but after living in some very industrial cities I can truly say I don't miss the oppressive lack of color. Although in the east end of London, sometimes, the brilliant green glow of London Fields against the sooty backdrop of the rest of Hackney used to make my mood rise and my eyes dazzle.

Interestingly, the science of color tends to look the same no matter if you are coming at it from biology, computers, or painting; the structures are similar, if the specific results are different. For example, mixing colored light is what's known as additive color: you start with blackness, and add light to get a color. Mixing pigments is subtractive color - you start with a white reflective surface and add things which absorb some of the light (subtract it), changing what is reflected, in order to make color. When you mix all additive colors together (mix light together), you will end up with white; when you mix all subtractive colors together, you get... well, a dull grey - but in theory, you'll end up with black.

Computers use additive color, mixing red, green and blue to create, if not every color in the universe, then at least millions of them (which for our eyes is close enough, most of the time; the human eye can distinguish about 10 million separate colors). By adding no colors, you can get black; by adding red, green, and blue (RGB) in equal amounts, you can begin to approach white. The more of all three colors you add, the more pastel the colors.

Pigment, on the other hand, works quite differently. The traditional color wheel shows red, yellow, and blue as primaries, which, by mixing any two equally, creates the secondary colors orange, green, and violet. But as anyone who has tried mixing fire-engine red with blue can tell you, these colors in actuality don't work that well. So for color printers, the inks are actually cyan (turquoise), Magenta (pinky red), and Yellow (and black, to make things get dark, because the pigments for printers tend to be somewhat transparent and let the light through).

Our nervous system, on the other hand, "derives color by comparing the responses to light from the [three] types of cone photoreceptors in the eye [as opposed to rods, which distinguish only dark and light]. These cone photoreceptors are sensitive to different portions of the visible spectrum. For humans, the visible spectrum ranges approximately from 380 to 740 nm, and there are normally three types of cones. The visible range and number of cone types differ between species." [wiki]

Long ago, before the dinosaurs, our early fish-like ancestors had trichromatic vision (three cone receptors). For some reason, this was lost it in the time of the dinosaurs, and then later, regained by a few primates, in an act of complete Darwinian fluke. This explains why primates are the only mammals who have trichromatic vision - it is a trait mostly found in birds and reptiles (dinosaur descendents). Even then, it's mostly old-world primates who are trichromatic; for new-world monkeys, only some females (depending on individual inheritance rather than species) are trichromatic. All the males of most species, and many of the females, are dichromatic, meaning they only have two kinds of cone cells. This is because two kinds of cone designation are passed down on the X chromosome, so the males can only ever have those two, while females who have a double helping, so to speak, of cone types actually end up able to inherit all three.

Eggs: Green or Red?
For the monkeys, this has been shown to make for an evolutionary advantage, since the color-blind monkeys can't see fruit so well, and so therefore, not being distracted, tend to concentrate on other foods (such as certain kinds of leaves) which are noticeable by their shape; these foods, combined with the fruit found by the color-sighted monkeys, ensure that the group as a whole has a much broader diet than it would otherwise.

There seems to be a very interesting possibility that more cone types actually exist, because most genetic color-blindness is based on a mutation of the X chromosome's color receptor genes. In other words, they shift to a type of cone that doesn't perceive color the way it is supposed to. Theoretically, this could mean that both the monkeys and color-blind people, then, could have a type of cone which perceives something else - something which hasn't been measured.

Perhaps there is, then, some higher purpose, some evolutionary advantage, to those of us who get drunk on color. My children have a book by Leo Lionni called Frederick, about a mouse who doesn't help with the work all summer, harvesting and storing and preparing for winter. When the other mice complain, he says he is storing up all the color, the sounds and smells of the warm weather. When winter comes and all the food they have gathered is running low, he then begins to recite to them his poems, which warm the mice and fill them with the poems' evocation of flowers, sunshine, the color of fresh berries, and so on. So, in a very real sense, he was doing his work as well.

On this basis, I would like to think that my attraction to color is not merely some form of magpie consumerism, but a hoarding of beauty which I can then play back in my writing - bit by bit, during the dark times, the moments of I Suck-ness: those periods when things have gone dull and flavorless. All hail those piled-up tangerines!