Friday, May 31, 2013

I'm Only Happy When I'm Not

It is old news that artists are often driven by unhappiness and unfulfillment, and that their art is frequently an attempt to give shape to some kind of beauty that they feel lacking in their actual lives. This inevitably raises the question as to the degree to which art is dependent on unhappiness. This was one of the central questions I addressed in Bluebird, through the vehicle of the poet Thomas Fairchild's seemingly perpetual spiritual suffering and the way in which his poetic art, and therefore the fulfillment of his vocation as a poet, seemed not only to thrive, but actually to depend, on his unfulfillment as a person.
Of course, I would not have chosen to write an entire novel on such a topic if it were not deeply personal and relevant to me. Though I have had, and continue to have, many things in my life for which I feel immensely grateful and blessed, and which do bring me great amounts of happiness, whatever happiness I have has always found itself in tense coexistence with a deep, roiling unhappiness and a sense of profound longing and unfulfillment. This is something that I have felt at least throughout my adult life, perhaps longer. I have always seen my art, whether in the form of fiction, poetry, or music, as being inspired and driven by this unhappiness. I have been less productive in happier periods of my life, and more productive in less happy periods.
So what does this mean? That artists are doomed to unhappy, perhaps even tragic, lives, and that this unhappiness is a necessary requirement for the fulfillment of their calling? I don't know. Perhaps only a certain kind of artist requires the fuel of suffering in order to create art. Perhaps other artists create out of a sense of happiness. But to me, this question is hardly relevant, because either way I find myself to be the type of artist whose art is fueled by unhappiness. I think for this reason I have a certain fear of happiness, since it would presumably detract from my vocation as an artist. (Although I tell myself wryly that this is hardly anything to worry about.)
Although I don't think this term exhaustively describes all of my writing, I am, among other things, a tragedian. The reasons for this don't have anything to do with having lived a tragic life, because in general my life has been very good. This is a trait I can see having existed in myself since childhood, which in my memory was quite happy indeed. I think I was, as they say, born this way. I have come to think of my role as a tragic poet as a special calling or vocation, one that is equal parts fearful and wonderful.
Thomas Fairchild feels himself to be a sacrifice, his suffering apparently necessary in order to fulfill his destiny as a great poet. Ironically, his fulfillment seems to require his unfulfillment. Or rather, in order to fulfill his highest destiny, to be the greatest version of himself, he must sacrifice a life that might have been happier, more comfortable, and more content. He must sacrifice something good in order to attain the best... the best for himself, and for the world. And true sacrifice means sacrificing something good. As his friend Aurora says, "It's not a sacrifice if you don't feel sad about it."
Ultimately, the sacrifice Thomas must make, if he is to fulfill his destiny, is his own happiness. But what, we might well ask, could be better than our own happiness? Perhaps that is a question well worth asking. Perhaps, as Thomas himself says, happiness is not just an emotion. Perhaps it is a state of being... the fulfillment of one's own being, which does not always take the form that we might imagine. The fulfillment of one's being does not always equal the fulfillment of one's desires, dreams, and wishes. Like all those who face the choice of sacrificing themselves for a higher good, it comes down to deciding whether one would be happier choosing oneself over the greater good, or the greater good over oneself. It comes down, in other words, to realizing that true happiness does not consist in getting what one wants as much as it does in realizing and accepting that one's existence has meaning and significance--and therefore fulfillment--only in loving relationship to others, and to the world.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Bluebirds Fly

Yesterday I finally finished editing the manuscript of The Bluebird of Happiness. When I completed the novel last August, I felt a sense of elation and euphoria, almost up there with the day my daughter was born. This joy was primarily due to my sense of accomplishment after decades of dreaming and writing--an accomplishment which, as I noted at the time, did not merely consist in the completion of my first novel, but also in what I viscerally felt to be the grandeur and the beauty and the profundity of the particular story that I had just told, far surpassing anything I had previously written and, indeed, far surpassing anything I thought I had been capable of writing.

I had quite a different emotional response yesterday when I once again reached the end of the text. Reading the completed work carefully and in its entirety for the first time since composing it, and after a gap of several months, I was able to approach, as closely as I ever could, the experience of a reader. Therefore, rather than experiencing the feelings of passion and inspiration that drove me to write it and the feelings of elation I had upon its successful completion, I was able simply to experience my emotional response to the story itself.

I was pleased to discover that the story still moved me every bit as much as when I wrote it. Upon reaching the end of the novel yesterday afternoon, in contrast to the euphoria I felt the first time, I felt heartache and melancholy for the remainder of the evening. I wanted to return my attention to preparations for my next novel and companion piece to Bluebird, "Rainbow", which has been fueled by its own passion and inspiration, but I just couldn't get in the mood. I was too depressed.

It remains to be seen how my revisiting Bluebird will affect the new novel, but I suspect that the tragedy of the first story, having been refreshed in my heart and mind, may serve as dark and fertile soil for the bright flowers of the second story. "Rainbow" is neither a sequel nor a prequel, but simply a related tale that focuses on Martin Lane, Thomas Fairchild's best male friend.

I stated before that Thomas Fairchild, Bluebird's protagonist, is an antihero. This is true, but he is still ultimately a sympathetic character, and in a sense that perhaps only fiction authors can understand, he is almost like my own dear son. I feel that I sent him off to a terrible fate, but I also went and experienced every bit of his suffering with him. And in so doing, like the gods to whom Thomas often refers, I made him, and myself, suffer in order to produce something beautiful and noble and rare... and to reveal Thomas, and his soul, as something beautiful and noble and rare. I did not intend for this to happen, and did not recognize the fact until long after I had told his tale, but I can see now that, in the nobility of his suffering, Thomas Fairchild becomes, no longer an antihero, but simply a hero.

I am proud of him, and proud to be his creator. Sometimes our characters teach us things even as we create them. Some people think writers write to impart knowledge they already have. But more often than not, writers write to discover knowledge, in a desperate search for some truth or goodness, some beauty or wisdom, that they sense must be out there. Their writing is frequently an attempt to make sense of their own lives, to save themselves from hopelessness, to find their way home from their lost wanderings in the wilderness of life. And sometimes, their characters--yes, their imaginary friends--can show them the way.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Rainbows and Glitter and Sehnsucht, Oh My!

Well, if my lament back in February about losing inspiration was a sort of inadvertent prayer, then somebody up there must not only like me, but also have quite a sense of humor. For it was literally the very next day that I received the initial spark of inspiration that led to the conception of "Rainbow", and while in the midst of excited pre-production for that novel, I suddenly and unexpectedly received another flash of inspiration, this one for the story erstwhile referred to as "V", which I then poured out in a month's time as the novella Angels Are Lonely on the Earth. And to top it all off, since finishing that work on Thursday, my inspiration for "Rainbow", which I hardly thought about during that entire month while busily writing another story, has returned with a vengeance. Like the old saying has it, when it rains, it pours!

One of the most humorous aspects of all this, to me, is that the initial spark that set off "Rainbow" was a line from the movie Hello, Dolly!, of all things (who would have thought?). I'll tell more about that at a later date.

This interruption and dislocation of one inspiration by another, only to have the first inspiration fully return once the interloper has passed, may seem a bit odd, but in hindsight it kind of makes sense. The story that became Angels had been developing since September, and in a way I think it was something that I needed to get out of my system first. I think I had to process a lot of dark stuff via the therapy of writing Angels, and I believe it was truly cathartic because since completing it I have been feeling pretty good about life.

Now that that storm has passed, however, the freshly washed air and rays of sunshine are giving more impetus than ever to the formation of "Rainbow" (apropos, eh?). It's really strange to me how that inspiration has not only so quickly and easily returned as though nothing ever happened, but feels stronger than ever, as if it has been newly energized.

I've already alluded to this before, but I find it interesting to compare and contrast the inspiration of "Rainbow" with that of Bluebird. My current inspiration is similar in that it feels very powerful, like a great storm is gathering and will soon be let loose, and in that it feels like something grand and wondrous and strange is haunting me and insisting that I give it concrete form and shape.

What is different is that the passion that fueled Bluebird was painful and tragic, though beautifully so (and was still every bit a real passion, with all the excitement that word suggests), while the new passion I am feeling is bright and expansive. In 2012, I felt more like Thomas Fairchild, the tragic (anti)hero and suffering poet, so I wrote The Bluebird of Happiness; in 2013, I feel more like Martin Lane, the outwardly plain but inwardly colorful artist who begins to see a clearer picture of his own identity and to express it more fully, so I am planning to write "Rainbow" (again, that is only a working title, as I have not yet decided on the novel's actual title).

In short, whereas Bluebird was a tragedy, "Rainbow" is more of a comedy. I don't mean that it is a humorous tale (though there will undoubtedly be much humor in it, as there was in Bluebird), but in the sense that opposes tragedy, i.e., a story with a happy ending. However, just as my tragedies are tempered by glimmers of hope and affirmation of life, this comedy will be tempered by sadness and longing. I tend to like my stories more gray than black and white.

And I think "Rainbow" will be very gray indeed because I do not intend to explain everything about who and what Martin Lane is. At the beginning, he will appear mysterious and difficult to know, but at the end, even after much has been revealed about him and his life, and mostly from his own first-person point of view, I think he will seem even more mysterious. This is because what is revealed about him will only add to the mystery and ambiguity and multidimensional, seemingly paradoxical complexity of Martin Lane. I hope that the end of the tale will leave readers regarding him with a sense of wonder ("who is this Martin Lane anyway?").

In some sense I feel that I fall in love with my major characters. I tend to use that phrase somewhat differently than most people use it. In common usage, to be "in love" with someone implies sexual attraction and at least the prospect of sexual relationship. I tend to use it in a more purely emotional and spiritual sense, something more along the lines of feeling tremendous passion and excitement inspired by a particular person, combined with a deep fascination with that person and a strong desire to know them. Some psychologists have theorized that such feelings have no necessary connection to sexuality or sexual orientation, a theory with which I tend to agree. This kind of passion is very much at the heart of both Bluebird and "Rainbow", both being stories that deal in large part with exploring the various ways in which people can feel emotionally passionate or even platonically romantic love toward each other apart from sexual expression, and how that passion can inspire artistic creativity.

So, in light of that, my current passion I can describe at least in part as feeling that I am "in love" with an imaginary young man named Martin Lane. Perhaps fiction authors are crazy in some sense because we imagine these vast and complex imaginary worlds and the wonderfully complex imaginary people that inhabit them and their often bizarrely complex imaginary lives, and we come to feel real feelings toward these imaginary people (it's sort of a truism that fiction writers often feel like their characters are their children). But we hope that our readers, too, are just crazy enough to believe these wild and vivid fantasies that we tell them, at least for a time, and to fall in love with our characters just as we have.

But more to the point, by falling in love with a person, imaginary or otherwise, we fall in love with life, and with the world. When my daughter was born I felt that I was in love. The world seemed rose-colored. There is much symbolism in my stories, some more obvious and some more subtle, and it is no coincidence that Martin Lane wears rose-colored glasses. As he says of himself in Bluebird, "I'm like crazily in love, with everyone and everything."

I have caught something of Martin's all-encompassing passion, and I hope that my readers will find it equally contagious. Because ultimately it's not really about Martin so much as he is about, and points us toward, the beauty and grandeur of life and of the world we live in; and even more it is about Martin pointing us, as many fictional characters do, toward the mirror, and seeing the beauty and nobility of ourselves.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Angels Are Lonely on the Earth

I have completed my 39,000-word novella Angels Are Lonely on the Earth. It was composed in another burst of inspiration from April 8 to May 9. Although certain elements of the story had been in my head for years, it began to emerge in more definite form last September, at which time I thought of it as a radical reimagining of an existing story concept whose title began with V. In hindsight, of course, it was really an entirely new story concept, though I did not separate it out from "V-----" until this year.
Inspiration often happens at the oddest moments. What may now be seen as the main idea of the story occurred to me in a flash the morning of November 2 as I was walking from my car to my workplace. And it was on the morning of April 4, while I was still lying in bed, that the title came to me, together with a related question uttered by the protagonist near the end of the story, both of which provided the final spark of inspiration.

The story is set in St. Louis, where I currently live, about a hundred years hence. The reasons for the futuristic setting are not science fictional; i.e., they do not relate to advances in science or technology, or even to changes in society. The reason for the choice of time period has mainly to do with the fact that the protagonist, Andrew Gordon, is a fan of the poetry of Thomas Fairchild, the protagonist of The Bluebird of Happiness. Thomas and his work are referenced throughout the story, and have a significant influence on Andrew's life and thought. In this way, I have written a related story that is not actually a sequel.

Angels also references a short story I completed in 2009 called "The Strange Case of Richard Arthurs", borrowing a mysterious outer space phenomenon from that tale as a plot element. This phenomenon, together with the strange effects it produces in human beings, might lead some readers to regard Angels as a science fiction story; personally, I do not consider this story to be SF. The difference has to do with emphasis, or what the story is mainly about. I would hate for non-SF fans to miss out on the story, which I think is simply a human drama, because of a misconception. (Having been a lifelong science fiction fan, it is certainly not antipathy to the genre that causes me to assert this story's non-SF status. At the very least, I would say that if it is SF, it is not merely SF; and I would also say that if it is SF, it is SF of a more literary type as opposed to standard genre fiction.)

As was the case in Bluebird, there is much reference to philosophy, poetry, and classical music, and there are a number of passages that relate, or show, the protagonist's dreams and visions. I am certain that many readers will think the story, having something of an epic feel to it, easily could have been expanded into a full-blown novel; but I am satisfied with the concise and often poetic nature of my storytelling, and prefer to leave much to the reader's imagination. I consider myself to be primarily a poet who sometimes writes prose fiction, which at its best may be thought of as a form of poetry. I also think of myself as a mythmaker, and a good myth is always suggestive, evocative, and ultimately mysterious. As Andrew Gordon learns, poetry and myths and dreams point us toward the ineffable, rather than attempting to spell out that which may not be uttered.

The story is a tragedy, but I think it is ultimately a hopeful one. That is not as oxymoronic as it might sound, for, as one character suggests, tragedy as an art is actually about hope. It is a celebration, not of death, but of life, and affirms not life's defeat but its victory.

It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword, and just as brave knights battle dragons, so too do writers often battle their own dragons. With this story more than any other, I feel that I have done battle with the dragon of nihilism and despair. I do not mean this in a grandiose sense of battling them for all humanity, but only for myself, and perhaps also for at least some of my readers. The story is more personal for me than I would like people to understand, and it is a story I feel I needed to write in order that I might not be overcome by a particular kind of darkness. It appears at times that those dragons were sent to slay me; but I think that really I have been sent to slay them. In the ongoing war of light against darkness, I like to think that this little tale constitutes a small but significant victory.