A Muse, a Genius, a Daemon

24 03 2009

My friend Candice embedded this link in FB a few weeks ago, I believe–and another friend, Tamara, linked to it yesterday. I finally got around watching it today.

I’m still processing the implications, but it brought tears to my eyes. I love that it acknowledges the drudgery of the the creative process–and the notion that showing up every day, and going through the motions, does count for something, as you wait for your muse, your genius, your daemon to visit, in all its energizing, powerful, transcendent capriciousness.

My post on creative chaos
also ties into this notion–in a way, it’s a variation. What I call chaos–the muse of fire–is what she calls the genius or the daemon.

Death of the Professional Writer Greatly Exaggerated?

14 03 2009

My mum forwarded me this sad little eulogy to the era of the professional writer. The argument would appear to be that as we move from print culture to other forms of entertainment, the place for professional writers will be swept aside in the democratizing freedom of the internet (which democratization itself, the article concedes, is a good thing). Suddenly, with blogs and other venues, where people are willing to do for free what others were once paid to do, writing as a profession will soon be gone in the way of the dodo or the typesetter.

There’s a lot of truth to this observation, I agree. I’ve been thinking such thoughts and wondering about such questions myself over the last while as I agonize over my next steps.

Moreover, there’s a lot of this going around these days–downturns and cutbacks have meant that a flagging industry will be streamlining further, and will possibly begin to initiate whatever transformations it will require, to survive and meet drastically changing demands, all the sooner.

In addition, there has been a profound shift in our culture. For one thing, people have less use for paper. It’s bulky, it feels wasteful when employed for single use purposes and it is starting to feel less relevant to us as we transition to other formats. Similarly, reading is a slower undertaking, and given the choice, many will choose to play video games, watch t.v. or avail themselves of all the other entertaiments available to us.

And yet, this eulogizing reminds me a little of the outcry that came about when printing first emerged as a new technology. People denounced the new medium, feeling that it took the personality out of books, made them cheap and valueless, and also represented a death knell to all the copyists who had previously been surviving on their skill in creating beautifully-penned and illuminated manuscripts.

Admittedly, some of those copyists–those who didn’t take to typesetting, one might speculate–might not have done too well in the new environment. But yet, the printing press ushered in a period of rising literacy, as books became affordable and the needs of society changed to accommodate the new, widespread availability of information.

It’s not a perfect parallel, but there are similarities. The situation now is more complex, which is also why I would argue that it’s not as hopeless as some claim. It’s about adaptation and change. Society and individuals will adapt to the new circumstances. Things will shift around. And when the dust settles, a new situation will emerge–one that is not necessarily devoid of hope for the professional writer. As I say, it’s about adaptation. After all, could those denouncing the printing press have ever anticipated bound and printed books in the grocery store, or the fact that almost anyone walking by said books could read their covers at a glance? It ushered in a change, but the full repercussions of that change could never have been anticipated. And admittedly, the copyists lost their jobs, and yet, the era of typesetters began. Those copyist able to put their literacy to good use and learn to typset no doubt did well enough by the transition, as the demand for books grew and printing presses began churning them out.

So, here are some of my reasons for thinking that reports of the professional writer’s death may be exaggerated:

–I would guess that with the internet, people might actually be reading more now than they have been in recent years. Articles, ideas, information, are all just a few clicks away–and available on the go, via laptops, phones and pagers. Much of it, at this point, is admittedly supplied by enthusiastic hobbyists (*ahem*) who don’t expect remuneration, but are, instead, glad to share their meticulously acquired knowledge with others. Still, I suspect that as thing settle, there will be a growing demand for gatekeepers–people who ensure some baseline quality control and levels of accuracy, particularly in the case of non-fiction. This was previously the role of the publisher. The new gatekeepers might be different–and the information might be regulated in other ways. But it’s likely that people will start requiring accuracy and things like small subscriptions to wiki-based knowledge databases, in which the facts are actually verified, will become valid (it’s a model that’s already in place–and people are willing to pay for the time saved in having ready-made, reliable information compiled for them). At that point, it becomes worth it to pay people to write those entries and check those facts.

–We have always loved story. Good, well-told narrative has compelled us. Sure, people are watching t.v. and playing games more these days. But multi-level, narrative-based video games and award-winning, compelling films and t.v. shows don’t write themselves. People talk about lax standards–even the article linked above mentioned something about intellectual entropy. Hey–just because something is different and adapted to the period in which it is created, doesn’t make it worse. Try renting a season of Dexter, or any of the other well-made shows out there. It’s tightly-written and amazingly well done. Play through Okami. Pick up some graphic novels. These are all story. They are ways of engaging with narrative. And not a one of them sprang, fully-formed from the brow of Zeus. They were all written by people. People who were paid to do it.

–There is still demand for books, even if they are in e-format. Having discovered how uneven the quality of free e-books can be very quickly made me ready to pay money for ones that had been selected and vetted by editors, from e publishers I trust. I don’t imagine I’m alone in my willingness to do that. As an aside, I will admit to being annoyed when the ebook is priced the same as the print copy (any good arguments for that, anyone?), considering it costs a fraction of the price to sell as it does to print, bind, distribute etc. the print versions. I do feel that e books should be considerably cheaper–and can be. The margins can remain the same for the publishers and the royalties the same for writers (or can even go up a little) and the reader can still get a deal out of it, with a cheaper cover price for the eformat. The epublishers get this, while the print publishers who are starting to offer eformat books are slower to catch on. But the demand is there–and with good ereaders like Stanza and devices like the Kindle, I can only see it increasing. I have over a hundred books on my ipod. I can whip it out anytime and read it–even in low light, because the screen is lit. I like print books better, but find myself turning to my ipod for reading more and more often these days instead of lugging around print copies.

I suspect there are many other ways in which the role of the professional writer will morph to suit the changing demands of readers–ways I could not begin to anticipate. But, I have little doubt that the roles of fact-gatherer, ready to compile and distribute accurate information; of discerning, skillful observer who is able to phrase things in precisely the way we wish we could and who thereby expands our perception of the world; of storysmith and insightful visionary, whose narratives are impossible to abandon once we begin them–all these roles will still be required by society, as they always have been in the past.

The professional writer is dead. Long live the professional writer, say I.

House of Spirits: The New Musical?

17 02 2009

Intriguing… Though more Brechtean than Lloyd-Webberesque, from the sounds of it. I’ll be most curious to read the reviews. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/17/theater/17spir.html?th&emc=th

Schroeder’s Beethoven

14 01 2009

Apparently, the musical fragments that would often be poised above Schroeder’s head as he played, in the Peanuts comic strip were far more intentional than I previously suspected (I did figure they were random). Charles M. Schultz was an avid fan of Classical music and there’s a new exhibition up, celebrating his portrayal of it through the years, in Peanuts.

In the eyes of Schultz, those excerpts actually served as part of the dialogue, adding facets and nuance to the comic. Not that it was particularly lacking nuance in the first place… A lot of really strange stuff going on in there (the dysfunctional relationship between Charlie and Lucy, as seen with the football versus the advice stand, for instance. Why did Charlie keep coming back for more?! Then there were those slightly monstrous aspects, like the kite-eating tree, which always reminded me of those evil trees around the Witch’s castle in the Wizard of Oz).

The NYT Article

You Tube Symphony Orchestra

12 01 2009

Calling all Classical musicians… YouTube seems to have launched the equivalent of American Idol for Classical musicians with its YouTube Symphony Orchestra. A rather interesting, collaborative concept in music, I’m really curious to see what emerges. So often the original intention kind of fizzles out but there are all sorts of other serendipitous and often extraordinary results with such initiatives and undertakings. It’ll be interesting to see whether that happens with this one.

I like this project all the more for it being not altogether motivated by commercial interests. Hopefully it will help add relevance to classical music by enhancing its presence within the online community. I’ll certainly be following its progress and seeing what comes of it!

The NYT article.

Mediating Chaos: The tension underlying creativity

10 01 2009

The notion of chaos has really be intriguing me lately—perhaps in part because I have felt so blocked, creatively, of late. I have felt stagnant and held still. And suddenly, the motif of chaos has been rearing its head in all sorts of different contexts.

There are two sides to the chaotic: the positive, creative and procreative aspect and the negative, destructive, violent and dark aspect. I’m mostly going to be talking about the positive side of it in this post.

See, the thought that recently came to me was that creativity is like a conduit into the chaotic. It breaks us out of the stagnation of routine and the everyday (order). It keeps us fresh and alive. Of course, if that conduit gets too wide, then the chaotic does turn destructive. Those too caught up in the wilderness, the lack of structure, the anarchy of the chaotic can all too easily lose themselves to it. That’s how I can see many artists, musicians, writers and innovators moving into madness, substance abuse and so on. Their creative conduit into the chaotic was so wide that they lost themselves to the potency of the anarchy. Some were frightened by it, some wanted to lose themselves to it, some simply couldn’t reconcile the power of the chaotic coursing through them with the everyday, the structure of life in mainstream society.

As a slight digression, I think children are directly tapped into that chaotic element. They don’t see the need for order and structure (though they are comforted by it, and consistency in routine helps lull and soothe them) because they are so recently emerged from the chaotically unformed. The process of socialization is a process of providing kids with the tools they need, on the one hand to navigate the structures of society, but also to see the patterns and structures in life itself. Just as children’s visual cognition creates chairs and tables and toys out of lines and colour and shadow, and their ears begin to hear words and pitch and tone where before it was just sound (a process of ordering the chaos), at the social level, they are also learning to make patterns and predictable rules out of the chaos around them. This sort of pattern recognition and grasp of how things work allows them to learn and discern when it’s safe to cross the road, for instance.

So, it occurs to me that life is all about holding that balance between order (safe but boring) and chaos. Most of our great—and many of our not-so-great—stories are about the predictability of order and the everyday being disrupted by one or several unpredictable/chaotic elements. A young man, crossing a field, finds a severed human ear in a park; a young girl raised in Africa must brave the challenges of an American high school; a man enters prison in order to rescue his brother from death row. They’re all part of the archetypal journey—the call to adventure, answered, and the crossing of the first threshold, into the other world. In each case the person’s life is changed. Nothing is the same again, as the everyday devolves into something altogether different.

That’s the chaotic–or at least a fragment of it, thrown into the everyday. Suddenly, those predictable rules don’t apply, or no longer apply in a consistent way. New rules must be learned if the hero wants to survive and be successful in his or her quest.

For many of the rest of us, the chaotic is a little less wild. We greet it via our different creative outlets and hobbies—gardening, quilting, painting, woodwork and so on. Or, we encounter it through children and the energy, movement and antidote to stagnation and the everyday that they embody.

If the chaos gets overwhelming, we begin to feel things slipping out of our grasps and our control over our everyday structures start to waver in ways we often find unpleasant and destabilizing. The destructive side of chaos, in the case of wars and social anarchy, is one of the extreme manifestations of this. Suddenly, all the rules we previously understood are gone, and we have to find new ones, and quickly, if we want to survive.

On the other hand, if we don’t have enough creative/positive chaos in our lives—enough outlets—then we can sometimes turn to other facets of the destructive side of the chaotic. Drug and alcohol abuse as well as other forms of destructive behaviour often emerge in such cases—it’s a refuge from the mundane. Sometimes it begins as something apparently benign or fun—a few social drinks to loosen up (and don’t get me wrong—in many cases, it stays that way). But as with that artistic conduit, chaos can be a dangerous thing, and the conduit can begin to widen without volition. Before you know it, it’s flooding in and turning everything upside down—reaching out beyond the safe boundaries you thought you’d established and wreaking widespread havoc in your life.

A’course, I don’t want havoc. I just want a teensy, tiny little conduit into the chaotic—a slim little cable that can supply me with a decorous feed of creative chaos that I can shape into something that entertains me while I work on it. Barring that, a Muse of Fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention would not go too far amiss either. I’m taking applications. Please include resume and a cover letter describing relevant experience.

Dangerous Roads

9 01 2009

The photos start relatively tame, but keep scrolling and you get to some rather more extreme ones. Some of these roads really are nutso! Yeesh!

The City of Words by Alberto Manguel

27 12 2008

I’m reading City of Words right now, by Alberto Manguel—it’s one of the Massey Lectures. The one from last year—this year was Margaret Atwood’s timely talk on debt, which doesn’t necessarily interest me much, unless someone tells me something about it that piques my curiosity.

I really like some of Manguel’s concepts and imagery, but am getting a little frustrated with his presentation. His writing doesn’t strike me as all that organized. It meanders somewhat, which I tend to dislike in non-fiction particularly. I love good, evocative non-fiction, certainly, but I feel like, for my tastes, it should actually have some purpose, and that should be clear from relatively early on. So, his second chapter, “The Tablets of Gilgamesh” is somewhat interesting, talking about the notion of the Other, but he only really gets to his core point 2/3rds or 3/4ths of the way through the chapter (before that it really does meander through anecdote and example).

Far too late, in my opinion. I feel like he ought to have begun with the evocation, then moved into some version of his overall point, before returning to the idea of the evocation. It would have required some skill, I admit, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

Writing for publication is about skill and structure and being able to convey your point, evocatively but also skillfully. That’s what communication is about, really. And it’s ironic, because certainly the first chapter of his book is a paean to communication via the written word. Ironically, it is rather opaque in its prose, for all that it poetically celebrates writing and narrative. I also found 3 or 4 typos/grammatical/stylistic errors in 27 pages. It feels like he got the final draft to the publisher at the very last moment and they chucked it into the workflow and printed the books up because they no longer had time to do up proofs. Wacky!

I did, however, enjoy many of the ideas that it dealt with, including the metaphor of Cassandra. He talks of how the most important truth-tellers (Manguel cites Alfred Döblin’s Berlin, Alexanderplatz) are able to speak this deeper, and often horrifying or unwelcome truth via fiction—and yet, because it is fiction, people are able to dismiss it as mere story. And so, like Cassandra, such visionaries are often met with disbelief and disdain.

NaNoWriMo Formula for Success

25 10 2008

Well, it’s rather foolhardy, given all else that’s going on, but at least on this side of the timing, I’m looking forward to the challenge–so, I’m going to enter NaNoWriMo again this year and try to cross that 50K mark once more. If I succeed, it will be my third year of completing the challenge: write 50,000 words in a month.

Since I also have classes, readings and exam prep to contend with, it should be rather an interesting month!

Fortunately, this year, I have come up with a winning strategy, which I will now share with any other NaNoWriMo intrepids out there:

1) Come up with a brilliant premise
2) Develop it and add complications enough to sustain 50-100K words (I’ll have to write only half, if I want to actually complete a publishable novel)
3) Write 50K words of it in one month.

How could I lose with such a brilliant plan under my hat? 😀 Yeah, if only it were that easy. Oh yes, and it begins Nov. 1st, so I have exactly one week to come up with the story premise and outline. Between now and then, I also have an essay, a mid-term and an application to complete. *gulp*

It should be an interesting five weeks.

"Guantanamo North"–landmark ruling sets a potentially troubling precedent

26 09 2008

My friend Rob’s new book, _Guantanamo North: Terrorism and the Administration of Justice in Canada_, which was only just released, has been getting some exposure lately because of the recent ruling on terrorism. It’s a disturbing landmark case, and it strikes me that the release of his book could hardly be more timely.

The questions raised by these developments are complex and problematic, though I suppose in many ways, it boils down to the old dichotomy between safety for the many (or at least, measures that provide the *appearance* of safety, even if they’re not actually as effective as one might hope) and liberty/civil rights (and its curtailment, be it for all, or for certain targeted demographic groups).

There have been times when we could have the luxury of both relative safety and relative liberty, here in North America. I suppose for me part of the question is–to what extent is its current curtailment a bid for increased power and consolidation of power (which could be for many reasons–deterrent, the show of a strong front to potential terrorists, etc. as well as for the usual, evil reasons we often associate with such moves to consolidate power) and to what extent is it truly justified as one of the only ways to protect the citizenry? Which, of course, just scratches the surface.

Here are some news articles about the ruling. It’s great, at least, to see that Rob gets a mention in the coverage:




And some links to the publisher’s page, and a direct, frames-removed link to Rob’s book: