Monday, July 30, 2012

Let Me Preface This By Saying...

I am writing this note mainly for family and friends who may read the opus currently under production in my secret laboratory:

"The following is a work of fiction -- not autobiography, not biography, not history, not a personal journal or diary -- but fiction, plain and simple."

For those who have forgotten, fiction means that it is completely made up.

The reason I feel the need to stress this is that, like any writer, I am drawing upon real life to find the ingredients for this concoction. People who know me will notice specific autobiographical details in the two main male characters, but this in no way means that either of them is "really" me. They are not me; they are fictional characters. I have put something of myself in them to make them more real, more believable, and therefore more powerful as characters. But that just means that they have some of their creator's DNA. Each is his own unique and independent person.

Also, perhaps even more troubling, certain of my family and friends may be quite surprised to notice little bits of themselves in a given character, or perhaps a certain situation or event will seem remarkably similar to some real situation or event involving you and me.

If this happens, don't be alarmed. None of the characters is "really" you, and none of the situations or events in the book are meant to be dramatized re-creations of anything that happened in real life. To be completely accurate, I should say that the events in the book are not directly about events in real life; that is, it is not fictionalized autobiography. But the entire story is certainly about real life, and it is in some sense specifically about my life.

What I mean is that I am taking my entire life experience, my philosophy and my feelings, and am transforming them into art. It is about real life in the way that any novel is, and it is about my own life in the way that any writer's work is. The characters, situations, and events are not real, but they naturally bear some resemblance to real life, and naturally they even bear some resemblance to the real life that this author has lived. And yes, in some cases, I even take specific details from real life and real people and turn them into details of fictional life and fictional people. That is what writers do. The reasons for what details get included may not always be clear, even to the author. But inspiration leads where it may. So, if you see some tiny fragment of yourself or your life in my story, don't read too much into it; just feel flattered (I hope) that some exceedingly small part of you or your life ended up in a classic work of literature (well, a boy can dream, can't he?).

Writers are always told to "write what you know". In one sense this is unavoidable; in another sense it is impossible. It is unavoidable if you take "what you know" to include literally all of your experience, which most emphatically does not mean only what you have personally, directly experienced. I wouldn't want family and friends to think that I have done everything my characters have done, or that I share all of their views and sentiments. They are all other people to me, and I am reporting what they have done and said and thought, not what I have done and said and thought.

The mantra "write what you know" is impossible in the sense that you will be severely limited in what you can write if this is taken to mean only what you have directly experienced. Writers rarely actually do that; they research, they observe, they imagine, whatever it takes to fill in the blanks that are not supplied, and in some cases, cannot be supplied, by their actual lived experience.

While we're on that topic, I should also warn my more sensitive readers that this is not a G-rated novel. If it were a movie it would very definitely be R-rated. Any serious writer writing about real life in a serious way cannot sugarcoat reality; it must be shown as it is. That is the only way to make it real and effective and powerful -- that is, if one is writing a serious realistic novel with any aspiration toward literary quality and significance. My characters use the "f word", they drink too much, they take drugs, they engage in sexual practices that some would consider perverse, they condemn traditional religion. All of this is not there to be sensational or shocking. The Bible, after all, contains descriptions of behavior that would be considered quite shocking and repulsive by anyone's standards. All of these behaviors on the part of my characters are part and parcel of the story and its philosophical and moral meaning. Every word is there for a reason, even every "f word". As Martin Luther said, the devil is God's devil.

In comparison to a lot of what is out there, my book is actually quite tame in terms of behavior. Like I said, I am not in it for shock value or cheap sensationalism. I only put in what needs to be there in order to tell the story to its fullest power. But I do feel that, to many readers (not necessarily the more "sensitive" ones mentioned above, but perhaps especially to the most worldly among us) my book might be considered rather shocking in a way quite different from what people usually think of when they think of something shocking.

It would be very difficult, as well as undesirable, to attempt to explain what I mean without having you read the story itself. But suffice it to say that the shock I foresee, for at least some readers, lies not in superficial details of the story but in its underlying philosophy, and the hopefully powerful way in which that philosophy is expressed, which will make it all the more troubling for those who do not understand it. It is neither left nor right, far from conventional yet equally distant from what is commonly regarded as countercultural, and will no doubt seem strange and incomprehensible to many. I only barely understand it myself. It is a powerful new vision for me, and, like much else about this story, is not something I planned or even imagined prior to writing. It is something I am discovering as I continue to unravel the story and gradually realize where it's taking me.

The more I write this story, the more I feel that I have been blessed with something original and profound. It is something which only began fully revealing itself once I started writing the story earlier this month, rather than during the previous 13 years of imagining and planning, and feels more like a gift than an invention. I look forward to the remainder of this journey and the treasures I will continue to discover along the way, and I look forward all the more to sharing those treasures with you.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Explorations


In setting out to explore the unknown and the strange, I did not seek to abandon my homeland.

I had already been exiled from my homeland; it had become a place no longer to be found except on old maps of consciousness.

Far from an abandonment, my searching is a quest to return to my homeland, to discover it still miraculously existing somewhere among the million stars.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why Symbolist Poetry?

In attempting to give an answer to the above question, I am actually attempting to answer two distinct but related questions: "Why write symbolist poetry?" and "Why read symbolist poetry?".

I first want to make clear that I in no way look down on poetry that is more straightforward and easier to digest. Much, if not most, of the greatest poetry ever written has taken a form that, while often dense and challenging, is at least more or less clear in its meaning. Symbolism, in the sense I am using the word, is a modern development that arose in the 19th century, and which has been criticized, then and now, as obscurantist, elitist, or, worst of all, gibberish with no real meaning, only a flashy show of words.

I did not always write this type of poetry. In fact, when I first started writing poetry, at the age of 18 (1989, if you're keeping track), it was as far from symbolism as one could imagine. The verse I wrote at that time was mainly in the form of song lyrics, and tended to be very straightforward, obvious, and deliberately simple, even at times childlike in its simplicity. Song lyrics by nature tend to be simpler and more direct than poetry that is written primarily to be read. Reading allows more mental space for dense, complex, difficult writing that the reader may take time and effort to interpret and experience deeply, far more so than the quickly passing words to a song. This is exactly a large part of the pleasure that many readers take in reading challenging poetry and prose, and nowhere is this pleasure greater than in poetry, which is the most intense form of language out there.

My verse writing began to evolve in 1997, when, under new inspirations and influences, and in a dawning awareness of my vocation as a poet, I began to more finely craft my poems and create lines that were denser and more complex in syntax and imagery, and poems that were more nuanced and subtle in meaning. My move toward all-out symbolism, however, began in 2008, based upon new readings that helped me more fully understand what symbolism is about.

All language is symbolic; words symbolize ideas, which themselves symbolize things, whether those things are concrete objects or abstract entities (whether abstract entities actually exist outside of our ideas has been a matter of philosophical debate for centuries, and a topic too large to get into here; suffice it to say that they at least exist in the human mind).

Since language is symbolic by nature, poetry is of course symbolic too. One thing that poetry does is take the inherent symbolism of language and use it to its fullest potential. It does this in large part by taking full advantage of the inherent ambiguity of words. It has been said by many philosophers that words cannot fully capture reality. This turns out to be not only a weakness but also a strength of language. It allows words to be imprecise, which in turn allows them to be ambiguous. And ambiguity, though often seen as a disadvantage (especially in practical situations where maximum clarity is needed), can be a very powerful tool. It allows language to be more flexible. It also allows words to resonate with unspoken and often only dimly understood, yet deeply affecting, meanings.

This last quality is the power of suggestion, which simply means that words often say more than they say. This suggestive quality of language has many uses, from flirting to literature. One thing symbolist poets try to do is to bring out the full suggestiveness of words, so that the poem will have many possible layers of meaning. These layers of meaning are not randomly juxtaposed but intricately interrelated, and are discovered by means of intuition rather than logic. Some would say that poetry of this type accesses a logic that is deeper than logic, the sort of logic that we experience in our dreams. It doesn't make sense, and yet, deep down, it does.

The way to access this deeper logic is by not only transcending conventional waking logic, but also transcending empirical waking observation. In other words, symbolist poetry attempts to see reality the way we see it in dreams. Dreams often seem confused and confusing, but they access deep, hidden truths that cannot be expressed in the simplified language of logical thought or seen in the clear light of day. In order to see the stars, the sun must first go down, and this is what happens when we dream. The bright light of conscious, rational thought, imposing its own valid but limited understanding on the world, has set, our minds are overtaken by the dark night of sleep and unconsciousness, and the celestial lights that are known as dreams appear.

Symbolist poetry attempts to speak to us in the language of dreams, which is the language of the unconscious mind, following strange and mysterious logics that we only barely understand, if at all. When reading a symbolist poem, it is almost beside the point to focus too hard on trying to interpret it, as though it were a puzzle that needed to be (or could be) solved. The symbolist poet wishes his poem to remain a mystery, although one that still provides knowledge and truth. The truth contained in the poem can be best accessed by not making too much of an effort to find it, but instead allowing glimpses of it to appear, unbidden, as you read and take in the images and words. Just as attempting to see the stars by turning on bright lights is self-defeating, so too is attempting to understand a symbolist poem by working out a rational system of definite interpretations. The meaning of a symbolist poem, like that of a dream, is like a faint star that you can only see obliquely out of the corner of your eye, which seems to disappear when you look directly at it.

Symbolist poets work on the assumption that ultimate truth lies beyond our capability to fully capture in words and rational thought, and that this ultimate truth of things can only be suggested. We get, not a full and clear picture of it, but only fleeting impressions, those brief snatches of otherworldly music and dim traces of ethereal light that haunt the deepest, darkest recesses of the mind, hinting at something marvelous and wonderful which we can never fully perceive in this earthly life. The symbolist poem is an assertion, and a reminder, that there is far more to reality than meets the eye.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Passion and Devastation of Writing

In the first six days, I have written over 7000 words, so I'm averaging over 1000 words per day. At this rate it would take maybe two months to complete, which would mean by the end of the summer. Of course, there's no guarantee that this pace will continue. I'm grateful to have gotten off to a great start, but I know that the middle section could be tougher going.

My writing these days is animated by a passion that makes me feel like I am in love. I think that perhaps such feelings of passion arise any time we find ourselves close to something that our souls long for, something that most deeply fulfills our being, whether it be in relationship with others or in the work we do or in the simple enjoyment of things. But I think also that the passion I am experiencing is further intensified by the nature of the work I am producing, as I have never really felt this way before when writing anything else. This story, more so than anything else I've written, is intended as a deeply serious and, I hope, profound, work of art, something that, while it may not make any bestseller lists, I like to dream might prove itself to be an enduring contribution to literature. I wouldn't dare to say, nor would it be seemly for me to say, that it is in fact a great work of literature. I'm just saying that this is the hope I have for it, and the way I envision it. I have many other ideas for stories and novels, and if I am blessed with the time on this earth to write them all, and if I am further blessed with even a minor literary reputation either during or after my lifetime, I do believe that this first novel of mine will always remain thought of as one of my most important works. Note I am simply saying one of "my" most important (like a personal best), not necessarily one of the most important in all of world literature.

The reason for this is that this story is, I have come to realize since starting to write it in earnest, something like a distillation of my soul. I feel it has at least the potential to be one of my greatest personal achievements because I am, as they say, pouring my soul into it, in a way and to a degree that I never have before. In the writing of this novel, I am focusing on my highest ideals of beauty and truth, and attempting to express them in the best and most powerful and most beautiful way that I am capable of doing, according to such gifts and talents as I have. I am looking at life, and writing about life, in the largest possible way, with a view toward ultimate meaning.

I am doing all this through earthly, imperfect, and real characters. Among many other things, I am attempting to show the coexistence in human life of vulgarity and sacredness, despair and ecstasy, and I choose to do this through characters who are not necessarily role models or heroes, who don't always do or say or think admirable things, but whose souls nevertheless hunger for the good, the true, and the beautiful. I believe their very imperfections and flaws will make their encounters with goodness, truth, and beauty all that much more real and powerful. These characters become more real to me, fuller and richer human beings, the more I write them. I feel, as many writers do, that I am discovering them more than I am actually creating them. It is great fun to write about them, as though they are actual living friends. I know, too, for that reason, that I will be sad to say goodbye to them at the end.

But I think there will be something even more difficult about coming to the end of this novel. Even though I say this is a serious and hopefully profound work, it is far from being thoroughly serious in its tone. I only hope it is half as fun for others to read as it is for me to write. I am filling it with all the passion for life that I am capable of feeling, which comes out in ways both playful and mournful. But despite all the fun along the way, I know that the end, at least for me as the writer, will be emotionally devastating. Not because of any overt tragedy--no one dies, I can reveal that much--but just because the sheer weight of the story, the reality of the characters and their souls, will make the beauty and truth I wish to convey, the profundity of life which it is my aim to express as clearly and powerfully as I can, fall heavy on my heart. It is something I can sense from here, near the beginning, but I know I will not feel its full effect until I actually reach the end. It is by no means a tearjerker, and I am not one who likes easy sentimentalism. In fact, the ending is not highly dramatic at all. If anything, it is quite understated. But the most beautiful and the most profound things often have the effect of devastating us, in a very good and healthy way. It is an effect as joyous as it is melancholy, and it feels like a strange, wondrous mixture of both. To me, that is the ultimate passion for life that we can feel... like fire, it lights us up, but also lays us waste. It is something that breaks us open.

This story, at least as I envision it in my head and heart, does that to me, and my hope is that I will be successful in translating that vision into writing... like all art, it is a communication and a sharing of what truth or beauty one has seen, and the artist's greatness lies in his ability to communicate his vision from his own mind and heart and soul to that of another human being as fully and powerfully as possible. I have seen, and continue to see, something beautiful and devastating, and my passionate quest right now is to try and make you see the same thing. It is something that cannot be summed up in a sentence, but will take at least about 200 pages or so of fictional storytelling to explain, and that can only be explained in the exact form which this novel finally takes.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Artistic Inspiration, When It Happens

There is a novel that has been gestating in my head for many years now, going through many changes and mutations while still on the drawing board (and through occasional attempts at actually writing it). One thing it has lacked until very recently, however, is a profound sense of inspiration, the kind that brings both great clarity and urgent motivation. I am experienced and practical enough as a writer to know that one can't always rely on inspiration to get writing done, but for a major, long-term project like a novel, it certainly helps. Looking back, I'm not sure why I have stuck with this story idea as long as I have. There have in fact been times when I abandoned it altogether, but somehow it always ended up resurfacing after some new spark of an idea cast a fresh light on the material. It is almost as though the story keeps insisting that I write it, even when I don't fully want to.

This novel, though, I am happy to say, has really come together for me both conceptually and emotionally in the last couple of months. In the past, I had a large number of ideas about the characters, their personalities, motivations, stories, and relationships, but there was always some crucial element that was missing. It was as though the story had no real center, but was rather like a fairly formless nebula spinning around in the dark recesses of my imagination.

However, about two months ago, in a way very indirectly related to a major change in my life circumstances (more like a long chain reaction than a direct cause, and by no means about that real life event), I happened upon a simple yet strong central idea for the novel. In one sense, it already had a central idea, but one that was abstract and merely philosophical. What really animated it was a concrete central idea, a new and clear conception both of the main character and of his primary, motivating conflict, in very specific and particular terms, something that made the philosophical premise immediate, human, and real. Suddenly, like a new sun appearing in the midst of the nebula, light was cast on the whole region and the clouds began to form into clearly defined planets and moons, an ordered system brought out of primeval chaos.

So, for the last two months, in between and during many hectic changes in my life, I have been secretly, busily organizing all of my myriad ideas for the story, selecting the best ideas from the many years of imagining and conceptualizing, while continually dreaming up (sometimes literally) new ideas to add to the mix. I have finally come to a place where it feels like the story is more or less there, just waiting for me to write it. I have to stress again that I do not believe this is a necessary condition in order to write a novel or any other major work--but it is of course very welcome and provides great motivation and direction, and might be just the kick I needed to actually get started writing it in earnest.

To top things off, yesterday, on a mundane Monday morning at work, entirely without intending or expecting to, I conceived the final scene of the novel. It simply occurred to me, unbidden, so suddenly and naturally, in a way that made it seem, as artistic inspiration so often does, as though it was given to me from an external source, rather than being the product of my own effort.

This idea was very simple, yet it struck me as quite poignant, and a perfect way to close the novel. Like many of my favorite endings, it is understated, subtle, yet quietly powerful. I know I run the risk of sounding like I am praising my own work, but I speak only of the idea's effect on me as it presented itself to my mind. It genuinely made my heart ache, and that was evidence that I had stumbled upon something good. I just thought, "Yes... that's it." It is so obvious in hindsight, an image that serves as a concise summation of the novel's theme and its very title. Like any artist with inspiration, I only hope I can do it justice in the finished product, which means, if I am successful, that it will make your heart ache too.

I am happy to say that this morning I began the task of setting words to paper (or screen, as the case may be). I normally don't publicly discuss my ongoing writing process, but blogging about a large-scale project such as this may help to keep me accountable to my work. I know it will most likely be a long haul, but the journey has at last begun.