Monday, November 26, 2007

The Future Is Unwritten

Yesterday I went to see the movie Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten. Joe Strummer was a musician and one of the guiding lights of one of my very favorite bands, The Clash. He died in 2002 at the age of 50 from a congenital heart defect.

The Clash were an English punk band formed in 1976, and one of the few bands to break out of the punk blueprint and have a widespread, lasting, and meaningful impact on music and culture. This was in large part due to the talent and charisma of Joe Strummer.

When I was in eighth grade I bought a cassette of the American release of their first album, The Clash, and it would not be an understatement to say my life was changed. I never really belonged to the culture of punk, and had been brought up on a diet of Mozart and the Beatles, but I was instantly blown away by their energy, their hooks, their sound. As I explored further and got older, I realized that, musically, they were ambassadors and experimenters, delving into dub, reggae, balladry, rap and funk in addition to their straightforward rock’n’roll and punk, and to these ears, succeeding spectacularly at all of it (most of the time).

At the time, I just loved it and didn’t think much of it, and my love of the Clash served as a launching into new realms of music, to the Ramones, The Specials, The Talking Heads, The Sex Pistols, and many others. As I got older, though, I found myself wondering just what it was about Joe Strummer’s voice that I loved so much. It was really more of a hoarse croak; he didn’t sing out of tune (that role was relegated to Mick Jones, the other guiding force in the Clash) so much as sing beside the tune and on top of it. I think Joe Strummer had something like a genius of personality. He was able to put his whole creative being into his singing – you couldn’t help but feel him, his integrity, his energy, his anger and his optimism coming through like an electric current. I now think that he’s one of the great rock and roll singers of all time.

The movie was very moving and very thoughtful. It didn’t focus so much on Joe Strummer as a musician, on his influences or on how he and the rest of the band expanded their sound and became successful, creative and diverse band, so much as explore his life and decisions . In that sense, the subtitle The Future is Unwritten is perfect, and watching the movie made me understand with poignancy that life itself is a creative act, starting with the way we think about ourselves and the world around us.

When the Clash disbanded, Strummer went through a difficult period, some ten years or so, and he was clearly depressed and didn’t hide it. He was torn by the desire for success but turned off by the commercialization of his music and his persona (a very moving scene in the film has a friend describing him as breaking down in tears when he realized that the U.S. Armed Forces were using the Clash song "Rock the Casbah" as a rallying cry for the first Iraq war). He was confronted with people’s expectations for him to follow in the Clash’s footsteps and at the same time his own needs to grow and do new things, even as he didn’t know what those things would be. It seems he finally came out of it with the simple act of working, of finding a new band and just doing whatever came naturally without any preconceived notion of what he could or could not do, or with what anybody else expected him to do. He died a happy and productive person in the full flowering of an artistic rebirth.

I’m far from an objective viewer; Joe Strummer has been a hero of mine since I was thirteen. But I heartily recommend this movie to anybody, not just fans. Also, incidentally, the last albums that Strummer recorded and released with his band The Mescaleros are all worthwhile. A much mellower vibe than the Clash, as one would expect, but vital and exciting work, and full of Joe’s inimitable, fractured voice. Of course, if you don’t know the Clash, please go out and listen to London Calling, right away.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

This year, through a convergence of circumstance, poor planning, willful denial and solitude-seeking, I am spending Thanksgiving on my own. And though I will miss family and friends who I have celebrated with in years past, I am nonetheless looking forward to my day. Rest assured that I will be thinking of all of you as I go about my own celebrations (if indeed you were concerned).

I have started the day by reading in bed, always a pleasant activity. I am reading Nancy Farmer's The Land of the Silver Apples, a fantasy taking place in ancient England with a good dose of Viking berserkers. The title comes from a magical poem of Yeats which I am going to put here for you to enjoy. It has a certain air of celebration to it which I think is appropriate.

The Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor,
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name.
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

-William Butler Yeats

I love Thanksgiving because, for me, it is a holiday with a strong spiritual dimension but no specific religious affiliation. I think it is good to remember that the first Thanksgiving, according to tradition, was celebrated by two peoples of differing beliefs. And giving thanks for the good things in your life is something that everybody can do and appreciate. And there are so many good things I am grateful for, Family and friends, life and good health, good food and a comfortable apartment, a wide world full of places to go and things to learn about, the third movement of Beethoven's 'Archduke' piano trio, Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books, a nuthatch descending an oak tree and the dawn chorus, deep oceans and shallow creeks...I could go on forever, never stopping.

Now, I am drinking a cup of green tea (Lemony Gunpowder, it is called!) and will put in an hour or so of writing before turning off my computer. The rest of the day I am indulging in my own feast - but no turkey; I don't see what I could do with an entire bird, and if I just were to get a leg, I would have nothing to stuff. So it will be roast chicken with herbed stuffing, mashed potatoes and brussel sprouts. Wonderful stuff, though I will sorely miss the traditional spinach ring that my Aunt Ellen always makes. The rutabagas, not quite as much.

Love to all,

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Once and Future King

Certain subjects of legend and myth are mined over and over again by writers, and none more so than the cycle of tales referred to as the "Matter of Britai"n, or more commonly the Legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, of which countless works have been written. I've read many of them over the years (a large portion of them are books for younger audiences, a field in which I read heavily), and many are excellent. Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon and Jane Yolen's short trilogy about Merlin comprising Hobby, Passager and Merlin come especially to mind.

I've just finished reading T.H. White's The Once and Future King, and I feel somewhat stunned in its wake. It has been a long time since I've been quite so enraptured and rewarded by a book, by something so pleasurable yet so challenging and full of riches of all kinds (possibly not since Moby Dick). It certainly stands as one of the greatest works in the Arthurian vein, and one of the great fantasy novels, if not one of the great novels, period. It is full of high and low humor, a startling variety of language, wonderful passages of natural history, unpredictably anachronistic references in future and past directions, endless insights into human and social nature, and finally, timeless storytelling of legends made real, sometimes painfully so. I often found myself amazed that so many different approaches to the narrative were so effective and seamless; one would have thought the effect somewhat disorienting or jarring.

The full work is made up of four shorter novels that are usually published together. The first one, The Sword in the Stone, is about young Arthur's boyhood and education at the hands of Merlyn the wizard. This book is the easiest to read and the most engaging, and certainly the most comical, but it is no farce nor simple fantasy. It is an episodic bildungsroman; if nothing else just read it with an ear for language and an imaginative eye on natural history. The book is full of old english words having to do with ancient sports such as falconry and jousting, and my head rings with them even if I barely understand what they mean. And the series of captivating passages where Arthur (or young Wart as he is called) is changed into a perch, a merlin, an ant, a goose (a particularly beautiful scene) and a badger as part of his education are richly poetic, the characterizaton of the animals he interacts with imaginative, moving, perfect.

The following three books follow the more 'mature' part of the legend, and are definitely grimmer and more serious works, though not mirthless by any stretch. The Queen of Air and Darkness is about Arthur's early years building his new society and the troubled Orkney brothers (Gawaine, Gaheris, Gareth and Agravaine) and their mother Morgause, who is also Arthur's half-sister and seduces him to bear his only child Mordred. The Ill-Made Knight is about Lancelot and Guenever and their troubled romance. Lancelot here is a remarkably complex and fleshed out character, mercilessly portrayed yet with great compassion, and the passage depicting his ultimately aborted attempt to remake his life with Elaine and their child Galahad is especially moving. Finally, Candle in the Wind is the shortest book, and brings about the inevitable conclusion set in motion by Arthur's seduction by Morgause and the affair between Lancelot and Guenever, and is also a surprisingly successful evaluation of the human troubles with government and violence.

The entire series makes a work of deep and complicated layers of all the stuff of human experience, ultimately troubled and difficult yet leavened with beauty and compassion and kindness and humor and the grand spectacle of the world; an illuminating, comprehensive and puzzling novel that I will return to again. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Some Thoughts on Writing and Rewriting

(Engraving by Barry Moser)
I'm in the midst of the most productive and enjoyable stretch of writing I've ever had, and it's very exciting. Considering that I spent most of the last year making no progress, and doing nothing at all writing-wise except for a brief hash at a third draft last Winter, it feels great to take some big, positive steps forward. Even better, it's great to find myself in a steady rhythm, working daily and enjoying myself. It's hard work and there are miles to go, but right now I'm moving along.

I'm currently working through the third draft of my novel, provisionally titled The Vampire of Castle Esterhazey. In reading the interviews and essays of other writers, I've ascertained that there are nearly as many ways of revising and rewriting as there are writers. Some rewrite from scratch, paying little or no attention to previous drafts. Some pore over the text with a comb, spending more time tweaking than they ever did writing the earlier draft in the first place. And of course the decisions people make are wildly divergent: some engage in wholesale restructuring, some add characters, some change point of view, some just add judicious filler here and there to flesh out character, setting or atmosphere. I guess it depends on what you feel the text requires, and what you're capable of doing.

Anyway, I'm not sure that an entire rewrite wouldn't be the best approach, but I can't bring myself to do that after working so hard on the earlier drafts. I am doing a substantial amount of new writing, though. I've introduced a couple new ideas, mostly to give my main character, Claude, more motivation and a more active role in his own destiny. Also, I've tried to heighten the tension and feeling of danger at the very beginning of the book, partly through a prologue that introduces the main bad guy, who hadn't show up until nearly half-way through the earlier draft, right at the start. I've also replaced scenes that I thought were clumsy or didn't make sense or had bothered me for various reasons. All these new passages often force me to substantially rewrite other scenes and to carefully search for paradoxes and inconsistencies in plot or language. Kind of a potpourri of approaches, but I do think this draft is a significant improvement.

One of the down sides of all this is losing scenes or passages that you loved, that just don't make sense anymore in the flow of the story, or that you just can't find a place for. I have one waking dream that Claude has where he imagines himself as a wolf, running through the forest, that I like as much as anything I've ever written. But now, I don't know where to put it, and I'm afraid I'll have to ditch it.

Ultimately, though I'm warming to the revising process, the original round of writing and inspiration is the more enjoyable, and the new passages I'm working on come much more readily and smoothly than the parts that I'm revising. Of course, it's great when I can dump a large stretch of the old draft into the new with only minimal change, as that gives me the sense that I am making quick progress.

I've made the mistake of loudly advertising to friends and family my goals and objectives in the past, making me feel foolish when I don't follow through with them. Apparently, I'm not going to stop this habit. I plan on finishing my third draft by the end of the year, and then work on getting some readers for it and submitting it to publishers and/or agents.


P.S. The following quote is the most helpful single piece of advice I've ever come across for anybody engaged in a creative enterprise. It's from an interview with Barry Moser, a wonderful artist and writer (check out his illustrations for Moby Dick).

"The most important advice I can give anyone--and forgive me if this seems glib--is to work. Work. Work. Work. Everyday, at the same time, for as long as you can take it--work, work, work.You can't depend on talent. I've taught for over thirty years and never met an untalented student. Talent is as common as house dust, and--in the long run--about as valuable. But nothing is as valuable as the habit of work, and work has to become a habit.

I advise anyone to listen to music. Listen to Bach's Art of the Fugue and The Goldberg Variations. Listen to them over and over, everyday, day after day until you begin to sense, if not understand, what Bach is up to. Then implement what you intuit from your listening into your own work. I don't care if you don't like classical music, or if you feel that it has nothing to do with what you do. Do it. It is invaluable. Let the music fill your mind. Let it flow over you and into you until you are aware of nothing else. Bach and others of his ilk will teach you form and structure and rhythm and all sorts of things you've never imagined, especially about the unexpected element--if you will only listen.

What else? Experiment and fail. Move on. Always keep in motion and finish the job, even if it's not exactly what you hoped it would be or not as good as it could be. The fact is that it will never be as good as it could be, and that's okay because it's all part of the never-ending, self-perpetuating growth process--and failure is the foundation of that process. I've done over two hundred books and not one of them is perfect. But I'll tell you this: I would rather have the two hundred and fifty-six imperfect books that mark the vectors of my journey through my art form than to have one perfect book that marks nothing but its own perfect self.

More I can't advise, except (as corny and prosaic as it may seem) to put love first in your life: love of your work, and of other people, and of yourself, and of whatever things of the spirit move you. Have fun and maintain a fierce sense of humor. There are few things so serious or important that they can't be laughed at, or even poked a little fun at.

And lastly, a short litany of dos and don'ts:
Avoid the cute, corny and obvious in your work.
Read Ben Shahn's The Shape of Content--a few times.
Don't be afraid to do better work than you already do.
Bathe and brush your teeth before an interview.
Never underestimate the value of luck.
Practice safe sex.
Don't do heavy drugs.
Don't get drunk and drive a car.
Get plenty of sleep.
Eat your greens. "

-Barry Moser

Monday, November 05, 2007

Word to Your Mahler

Yesterday my orchestra, the Arlington Philharmonic, performed our Fall concert. We always close this performance, full bore, with a big symphony. This time we did a symphony by Kallinikov (No. 1 in G minor), that I had never heard before, or even heard of. Somebody mentioned that it was a popular symphony with youth orchestras, which may be true, but it was nonetheless challenging for our players. However, Kallinikov's #1 is not the subtlest of symphonies, allowing us to hash through its often long-winded and grandiose gestures effectively. I don't really mean to disrespect either the symphony, which certainly has some stirring passages, or our players, who are always spirited and committed, but I must admit that this symphony is just not one my favorites.

We also played a series of five songs by Gustav Mahler scored for orchestra and voice based on poems by Freidrich Ruckert. Our voice was supplied by the wonderful young soprano Dana Schnitzer. I've never performed orchestral lieder like this before, and it was a great pleasure to do so and to learn these wonderful songs. The songs are not really linked, and as such are all quite distinct musically and textually. "Ich atmet einen linden Duft" ("I breated a gentle fragrance") is spacious and surreal, "Un Mitternacht" ("At Midnight") is powerful and heavy, searching and challenging. Best of all is the moving "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" ("I am lost to the World"), a slow, restful song about death, about moving past the living world into a realm of peace and serenity, a subject that brought out the best in Mahler. (It also is a theme that the great mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt-Leiberson excelled at, and there is a great recording of these pieces, though just with piano accompaniment, with her at the helm). Playing these pieces with a talent like Dana's was a real pleasure, and I found the experience quite moving.

Though I often complain about my orchestra, about having to go to rehearsal when I'd rather go home and vegetate, about our often gloriously amateur performances, about feeling unprepared because of my unwillingness to practice adequately, it has always been an enjoyable and rewarding part of my life, and of my week, and has only grown so over the years. Yesterday, while playing the last movement of the Kallinikov (not my favorite piece) for a very small crowd (Pats - Colts game on the tube) I realized how much I was enjoying myself, and how much I was putting into my playing, how focused I was (at least until I started thinking about how much I was enjoying myself...) even as I was faking it through some of the more challenging figures...well, I don't really know where I'm going with this, but God Bless Music. Writing and storytelling may have taken over my more worldly aspirations and much of my creative energies of late, but music is is...