Which Artwork Should You Be Creating?

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles & Ted Orland

This was the first of three pieces of advice that I’ve encountered recently on the topic of artistic creation. They’ve conspired to accumulate and in synergistic fashion approach the same question, albeit from different angles. I suspect that they will be equally valuable to other writers and artists, but as you’ll see, even knowing these things, doesn’t mean that we will always and reliably follow them – external prompting helps.

Now, I could almost quote every other sentence of Art & Fear, but rather than doing that, I recommend that you buy yourself a copy. I can guarantee you’ll read and then re-read it, particularly if, like me, you’ve never been to art school or equivalently taken a degree in creative writing. This book can in part form a surrogate for that missed experience. The book explains what it is to be an artist (in whatever medium – paint, musical notes, words), and how to continue to create art in the face of doubts and external indifference.

The second piece of advice was given by the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín, in an interview with the Guardian. When asked, what advice would he give a young writer, he answered:

Finish everything you start. Often, you don’t know where you’re going for a while; then halfway through, something comes and you know. If you abandon things, you never find that out.

If it’s true for writing, it’ll almost certainly be true for other artistic disciplines as well. That’s two pieces of worthy advice then, but without personal intervention they are easy enough to ignore.

In a recent post, Anyone For Some Innovative Fiction?, I mentioned a piece of work that I was going to submit to a writing competition, with the brief of “innovative fiction”. As of now this story is just over 9000 words in length. But in no way was it conceived as a whole. In fact, it all sprung from a tiny idea based on a piece of grammatical wordplay, nothing more than a single sentence. This pun only forms a small part of the finished story, but without it the rest of the story would never have emerged. However, it took four different stories before it finally found a natural and finished home. Colm Tóibín was right.

I say it’s finished, but that’s no longer true. The story was finished, then submitted, put aside, finally hands washed and back to the keyboard to commence the next project. A project which has been stewing in my mind for some time, and which I believed to be the perfect one, my own single perfect pot.

What’s strange is that in that being so open-minded as to avoid, for the most part, conventional narrative prose, I had become quite closed as to the larger possibilities of the work – an artistic myopia. Feedback on this work, graciously provided by Mark Nelkin of BeautifulOrange, suggested that the story could easily be extended into a novella or novel. My immediate reaction was somewhat sceptical, allowing only that perhaps a novella could be a possibility. Perhaps.

He was right though, as within a week I had two sides of A4 of jotted ideas for new plot lines and the elaboration of existing ones, not to mention a host of innovative narrative structures and devices. Certainly enough new ideas to fill out, at the very least, a short novel. And with Colm Tóibín’s advice having held true thus far, I can hardly begin to ignore it now. Nor will I ignore Bayles & Orland; I’ll write many stories and explore many ideas, rather than fixating on creating a single, perfect one.

If anyone wants to read the aforementioned innovative fiction, just send me a message here or simply “like” this post if you have contact info on your blog/gravatar profile, and I’ll be in touch. Thanks!

The Secret Life of a Bookmark

What happens when you place a bookmark between the pages of a book? Surely the answer is that it waits faithfully for your return, at the place you left it, ready to indicate to you the page at which you should resume your reading. But does it?

Despite appearances to the contrary, a bookmark left in a book is not stationary, but in fact is moving closer to the front with each passing day, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, page by page. Furthermore, the greater the complexity and depth of the fictional universe, the more complex the narrative and more numerous the characters, the faster does this invisible journey occur, as the previously-read facts slip from our memory. Take this to its conclusion, and if you leave the bookmark alone for long enough, then there’ll be nothing for it but to restart reading from the very beginning of book.

It must have happened to us all, the physical corpus of the bookmark remained exactly where you left it, but when you opened the book at the indicated position, everything printed there seemed foreign and unfamiliar. It’s as if on selecting the bookmark you create a secondary and shared consciousness that exists between you and it. The bookmark, previously inanimate, is now animated by this communal soul, and it’s this spirit that is really marking your progress through the book. Perhaps it’s a three-way split, a biblio-trinity of you, the bookmark and the front cover, which cover exerts an irresistible pull over the the bookmark and inexorably drags it forward.

Given the depth of this relationship that we form – one which forges a spiritual bond with us, becoming nothing less than a surrogate for memory, our emissary in the world of the novel – it is strange that we often show remarkably little care when choosing it: a recent receipt from the supermarket, a used train ticket, a postcard received just that morning. Occasionally we might deign to use a beautiful piece of leather expressly designed for the task, such as this Medieval owl design from the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Medieval owl bookmark

Medieval owl bookmark from the Bodleian Library shop, Oxford

This is the usual way of things then, and in spite of our haphazard selection, it always seems to turn out fine. Return to the book frequently enough, and it will have slipped back only a few words, a paragraph at most. Within this margin of error, the bookmark has behaved as expected. More or less.

If we allow, however, the possibility of this reverse motion, what’s to say it can’t go the other way? It certainly seems like it’s a necessary corollary. If so, how? Under what circumstances could this happen?

Imagine now, that class of books that are essentially plot-driven rehashes of already extant novels, the trashy thrillers, crime or romance novels of the world. In any given sentence there will be no revelatory prose that’s worth reading for it’s own sake as a piece of miniature poetry, the characters are carbon copies of others we have already encountered, and the book could almost be reduced to a précis of the plot. For such a book, any discussions you might happen to hear that reveal the plot developments would be transmitted to the bookmark, any reviews you read, cultural references, parodies, affectionate or otherwise, would increase yours and the bookmark’s knowledge of the book. In response, the bookmark would begin to inch its way toward the back of the book. Hear enough, and you won’t have to actually read a single word.

In Italo Calvino’s categorisation, humorously outlined in If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, these would be the Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written or Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too.

So, the next time you’re reading a novel – perhaps whilst sitting in bed and you happen to notice that it’s late and therefore time to go to sleep – and you gently insert a bookmark and put the book to one side, just remember that while you might be sleeping, the bookmark isn’t, and is instead diligently making its way back to the front. Where it stops when you wake, is a secret between the two of you.

Who Should Write Poetry? (How Vaughan Williams Might Have Responded)

The English classical composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was a great supporter of English folk music, systematically transcribing its pieces so that they would be preserved for the enrichment of future generations. Although part of the musical elite, he was far from being a musical elitist and believed that everybody should make their own music, no matter how simple, as long it were truly their own.

I think I feel the same way about poetry. There is absolutely no need to leave this to the professionals (although I do aspire to join that group), no need to wait deferentially for their elegantly expressed, finely constructed words to be delivered to us. No, it’s within all of us to express our thoughts, feelings and observations in verse, whether that’s a sonnet, haiku or plain blank. If you don’t capture the experience of your local life and history, then who will? Just as there is a great tradition in folk music, so should there be in poetry.

That being said, it shouldn’t be taken as a license to write lazily or sloppily, nor as an excuse to put forth insufficient effort. Just because the poem might be “simple”, doesn’t mean that it need be bad. I can’t know for sure that Vaughan Williams would agree with this application of his words to poetry, but I am hopeful.

For those regrettably unfamiliar with his music, might I suggest one of my favourites of his as a starter – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The piece is in one part, but split across two videos here.

Like a YouTube mash-up before the internet age, this piece is genius reworking genius. Thomas Tallis is the master Renaissance composer, who wrote the 40-part motet Spem in Alium. Truly a staggering musical achievement, this piece is particularly sensational live, so you should immediately snap-up any opportunity that comes your way to see this in concert.

One of Tallis’ many other compositions is the theme Why Fum’th in Fight. Vaughan Williams took this haunting melody and transmuted already-glittering material into a precious object.

Now that you’ve heard these gems, it’s time to create your own works of beauty, and to do so true to yourself. Why not begin by writing your own fantasia, but in this case, based on a favourite line of verse.

Hail to the Haiku

Today is National Haiku Poetry Day in the US, an occasion on which to celebrate all things wonderful about haiku, particularly that written in English. The day is organised by The Haiku Foundation, so why not get involved by downloading their free haiku app and put a delightful selection of poetry in your hands, which you can take with you (almost) everywhere you go!

To give you a taste of what to expect, one of my favourites in the app, though I haven’t yet read them all, is this hard-hitting and stunning haiku by Raymond Roseliep. Enjoy!

the space
between the deer
and the shot

Review: The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani

Some authors seem to have a few principal obsessions, which they repeatedly examine in their novels. In the case of Diego Marani, author of New Finnish Grammar, these obsessions are language and identity. Luckily there are readers who share these obsessions, and I count myself in their number. In his enjoyable new novel, The Last of the Vostyachs, Marani once again explores the relationship between the Finnish language and the national identity of the Finnish people. Given this thematic similarity, it only seems natural, if not unavoidable, to review Vostyachs by making some reference to New Finnish Grammar.

The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani

The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani (Dedalus)

If the underlying theme in the two books is the same, the presentation is certainly different; Vostyachs is in many ways a straightforward crime novel. Ivan, a mute, is the last of the Vostyachs and hence the last remaining (potential) speaker of his language. He is encouraged to speak once again by the academic Olga Pavlovna, who has discovered that in Ivan’s language lies a host of treasures. Contacting her old colleague and previous collaborator, Prof. Jarmo Aurtova, she reveals her exciting discovery, and in a classic set-up delivers her linguistic charge to the care of this villain.

Aurtova, it is revealed, is an adulterer, a serial womaniser and a ruthlessly-ambitious personality, which are perhaps not the best characteristics for someone taking sole care of a bewildered man unused to the city and the ways of its people. For Ivan constitutes evidence of a link between the Finnic and Eskimo-Aleut languages, possibly even those spoken by Native Americans, all of which sits in direct contradiction to Aurtova’s painstakingly-constructed theory of Finnish linguistic development. It rapidly becomes clear to the reader that the obliteration of his thesis is untenable to Aurtova and, no matter what the cost, even murder, he will not allow his work, his obsession, to be disrupted. Whether or not he is successful in his quest for self-glorification I leave for you to discover.

For much of the book there are thought-provoking exchanges between Olga and Jarmo, culminating in an amusing, but tense, scene of seduction and counter-seduction. In one such conversation, Olga, saddened by the thought of the loss of a language, tells Aurtova, “And with each one that dies, a little truth dies with it.” Unmoved he replies that, “…the contrary is true: the fewer there are left, the more we’re moving towards the truth, towards the pure language which contains them all.” Somehow these deliberations are sharpened by the knowledge that we are reading a translated piece of literature, and indeed, one that has only been translated into a limited number of languages.

While there are many healthy ways to appreciate language, Aurtova is a fanatic, believing in the superiority of some languages over others. More than that, he is an unprincipled opportunist, who in the end has abandoned the scientific method once it no longer suits his interests. And so for all of the linguistics and talk of fricative laterals with a labiovelar appendix, Vostyachs is a thriller, full of narrative tension. Perhaps because of that the book somehow feels a little less profound or original than Grammar; where that book was mournful and subdued, Vostyachs is tense and unsettling, though there is much humour to be had too. The ending could not be described as an utterly happy one, but it is uplifting, spiritual even, and I can say that, without revealing anything of the plot, language (or the power of language) emerges the winner.

And we the reading public are winners too, as aside from the merits of Grammar and Vostyachs purely as stories, it is good that Marani keeps providing us with these entertaining opportunities to think about language, and all of the things that go with it. Grazie mille Diego!

The Book Collector and his Tools

In Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s fascinating novel The Dumas Club, the book collector Fargas sits among his treasured collection of antique books, which are now distributed as a secondary carpet atop many rugs, as if the long-ago pulped trees were trying to grow anew. Trapped by difficult financial circumstances he is forced to gradually plunder this rich forest and sell off his famous collection book by book, though mercifully not page by page.

The Dumas Club by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

A literary noir fiction, perfect for all true booklovers.

Faced with the alternatives of divesting a large quantity of books of low value, or a few volumes of great value, he chooses thus:

“I have to sell one book each time. And not just any one. The sacrifice has to ensure that the rest are safe for another six months… It’s my tribute to the Minotaur.”

But not just the most valuable in commercial terms, it is his favourites that must be sacrificed:

“My hands? What you mean is my soul burns in the torments of hell. I thought I’d explained… The book to be sacrificed can never be one to which I am indifferent. What meaning would this painful act have otherwise? A sordid transaction determined by market forces, several cheap ones instead of a single expensive one…”

Any bibliophile can surely understand his point of view, even if we might not agree. And then, even if we did agree in principle, acting in accordance might still not be possible.

However, with all his books spread out over large areas of floorspace, how was Fargas to know where each book could be found? A collector of his obsessiveness had surely constructed an intricate mental map, to be navigated at will and containing every salient fact and a few others besides, but what are the rest of us to do? Or how would we know the monetary value (literary value being something entirely other) of our entire collection, for example, if pressed to provide such an answer for insurance purposes?

We need not approach the task unequipped. A friend pointed me to the iOS app Book Crawler, from Chiisai App Solutions, which for only $1.99 will help you catalogue your literary treasures.

To add a new book to your inventory, the easiest method is to point your iPhone’s camera at the barcode/ISBN number and let Book Crawler retrieve the other information for you. The only thing that remains is to type in the price that you paid for the particular edition. After that, you can add additional tags and categories to further refine your organisation, if you so wish.

There are other features to the app such as sharing your collections with others and linking to Goodreads, though I personally don’t use them. For me, it’s all about the ease of cataloguing. However, as quick and easy as the app makes it, the initial documenting of all your books is still going to take a few hours (this is still orders-of-magnitude faster than doing things manually), and I don’t think there’s any escaping that fact. Once it’s out of the way though, every additional purchase is easily accommodated in a matter of seconds. For those with children, perhaps this is a perfect means of exchanging pocket money for odd-jobs, or, for all of us, why not treat this, not as a chore, but as an opportunity to revisit those half-forgotten books that surely languish on all of our bookshelves. Or stand for a few moments and allow yourself the pleasure of remembering the time and place that you first read a favourite book.

But however you choose to do it, and whether your collection of books is large or small, I hope that you are never faced with the same scenario as Fargas; may your books only leave your hands willingly.

Note: In the interests of disclosure, I have no connection to the developers of Book Crawler. The software is also available for the iPad and Mac OS X , but as I’ve only used the iPhone version, I can’t comment on their suitability or any differences that might exist between them and the iPhone manifestation. As ever, caveat emptor.

The Waste Land Found

Is it still found poetry if you find a whole verse of an existing poem?

The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot

Found poetry at London’s South Bank


The river sweats
Oil and tar
The barges drift
With the turning tide
Red sails
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.
The barges wash
Drifting logs
Down Greenwich reach
Past the Isle of Dogs.

From The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot

For anyone who wishes to see this first-hand, the paving stone can be found on the South Bank of the River Thames, roughly halfway between the London Eye and Hungerford Bridge.