Discovered Alter – A poem

Discovered Altar

I watched as several sparrows gathered on the window ledge, today
Each rapping lightly at the pane, pick-plucking at the screen.
A gathering of birds, brown, their beaks agape, gasping for air.
They appeared to be looking for a way through the glass,
Their heads tilted up, gazing at something on the other side.
On the inside ledge there was an arrangement of dried flowers.
A dozen dark red roses stood bound by a gray and fraying cord, the old leaves
Gold but not shimmering, distinguished in their brittle, textured death.
A small bowl, handmade and glazed, lazed at the foot of the bound corner roses
Cradling crumbled buds of maroon with accents of yellow-gold, like incense,
Like potpourri with no scent.
And in a jar, filled nearly to the curve of the neck and capped in black,
Bits and pieces of how many more roses I could not guess.
These, it appeared, were what the birds were after, fluttering up the glass,
Hopping along the outer ledge, knocking to be let in.
I counted five birds at once, alive and kicking at my window,
And then suddenly they were gone, though your arrangement stayed stock still,
Like the image of your smile, impressed in my memory.
Like the echo of something I hadn’t quite heard.

© T. James Moore, 2013
May not be reproduced without permission

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Why It Doesn’t Matter That All Stories Have Been Told

a windowI used to host a movie group called S.N.I.F.F. Snotty Independent Film Fans. Our once-a-month meetings were for the purpose, among other things, of gathering together to view what my SNIFF friends eventually referred to as a W.A.M – Weird-Ass-Movie. The films I chose were deliberately fringe. I sought story lines that were outside the standard plot, usually featuring unknown or foreign actors, and shot in a way that was fresh and unexpected cinematographically, and/or portrayed the human experience in substantially diverse ways.

Similar to my taste in movies, I also gravitated toward unusual music, particularly singer-songwriters who have a rich talent for lyric writing and an unusual style of singing and composing. I’m thinking of artists like Elliott Smith, Jason Molina, Bill Callahan, Vic Chesnutt and, especially, Will Oldham.

I don’t know exactly where my penchant for fringe came from, though it was enforced in later years by some of my peers. We all knew that person in school who was fashionably different from everyone else. Not only was their style of dress unusual but they had broad knowledge of certain things the rest of us did not. They cited Henry and June and Rumble Fish among their favorite movies. They listened to bands you didn’t hear on the radio and smoked clove cigarettes instead of regular cigarettes, or were vegetarian before the virtues of vegetarianism became widely known.

I won’t deny that some of my initial draw to WAMs (movies as well as music) was influenced by a youthful desire to be fashionable. I liked those odd kids and I wanted to know what they were discovering in their weird-ass pastimes. I didn’t realize that I had always been drawn to this sort of aesthetic. Even as a young child I had somehow crossed paths with movies like The Deer Hunter, Midnight Express, and Taxi Driver – movies that shocked and moved me in ways that standard fare never had. What I learned by delving deeper into the interests of my peers is that the richness I had discovered on my own was a bona fide thing. People actually made art like this all the time.

The other day a fellow writer complained that “it’s too bad all of the stories have been told” but he was going to “write on anyway, whether anyone liked it or not” (I paraphrase). When I heard his lament I knew immediately what he thought he meant. Yes, all stories have been told, this is true. Furthermore each story runs on one of three themes: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself. These facts have been true since very early in mankind’s storytelling efforts.

The thing that this writer doesn’t yet see, and that all writers must remember, is that while there are no new stories to tell, there are always new ways of telling old stories. In fact, the axiom that “no story is so good it can’t be ruined in the telling” exemplifies the critical importance in telling. Telling a story is all that matters, and it has to be told well. That is all.

The point of my interest in fringe movies and music, the WAMs of those genres, is that this is where I find the most original forms of storytelling. I am inspired by these ways of telling things that are otherwise familiar. This phenomenon exists in writing, too. Examples in recent stories I’ve read include “The Drowned Life” by Jeffrey Ford and “Proper Library” by Carolyn Ferrell. Stories that are unusual, unsettling, fresh.

When we paint with words there are standard things we have a very hard time moving away from, and the page is among these most substantial, permanent elements whether it’s made of paper or a digital display. Until we can pipe our stories straight into our brains via microchips we will have the page. What we put on the page is by necessity some aspect of the human experience. We are limited creatures in what we can experience, and thus we are limited in topic. But beyond that there are infinite variations to what we tell. So the goal is not to write a story that has never been told, but to write a story that has never been told in quite that way, individually our own, better because it is ours. It is the fresh in our eyes, the original in our minds that allows us to tell stories that are interesting to others. Interesting because they are told in just such a way.

That, you know, weird-ass way.

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Lucky Versus Good and the Simple Secret to Success

shadow fixLefty Gomez is credited with saying “I’d rather be lucky than good.” When it comes to success as an artist that sentiment may be even more true than it is in baseball. The secret to success as an artist lies within this idea, a secret that isn’t as mysterious and elusive as it first seems.

Every new project an artist undertakes is approached with the same general drive, inspiration and intent as the one before. When the idea comes to us we go for it with the goal of making the best product we know how. When the work is finished and we are happy enough with it, we send it out into the world and there it is judged, loved, hated, and then eventually becomes replaced by the next thing in a cycle that goes on and on forever. Except that sometimes a thing we do sticks, and the resultant stick makes us stand out, perhaps for the rest of our lives.

Naturally we would like everything we do to have this lasting effect, but it doesn’t and we can’t force it to happen no matter how hard we try. What we must do instead is create the best content we can while also creating as much of it as we can. The secret to success is more often quantity combined with quality. With quantity comes a sort of luck. The odds are that with enough effort something will stand out and get you noticed. Often it takes example after example of a certain style before people “get it,” but once that happens years of toil can come to fruition almost over night.

Not that we rely solely on luck. While it may be better to be lucky than good, the artist must still be good at what they do. A whole library of garbage will always be garbage. But a substantial collection of quality work, and a little luck that some of it gets noticed and celebrated, is the most likely scenario for success for today’s creative person.

So often it seems that a young prodigy comes out of nowhere with a single piece of fiction that suddenly takes off and makes them the new hot thing. To believe that some people wake up one day and pen a single story, as though having an innate store of perfect stories in their minds, one to write following another, is a great illusion in the world. No creative person that I am aware of ever created quality work without practice. For every first fiction there are dozens of stories that never made the cut, usually never made the light of day.

The secret is to work fast and work often. Let the stories inside you come together and slip out of you like tears and gasps and great big laughs. There is nothing gained by trying to create one perfect piece. The goal of perfection is deceptive - to assume that perfection can be achieved and should be the goal is to restrict the pathway to success with the briars of a lie. Simply create, prolifically, and let the results of your work lead the way to whatever success may come. None of us are only as good as one thing we do – we are the sum of all of our parts.

Keep working.

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Why Writing Banned Books Should Be Our Goal

pic1It is my sincere desire to write a “banned book.”

This isn’t about sex and drugs, violence, and other taboos of our social conscience. I don’t wish to write a book that’s going to be controversial just because it’s stocked with profanity and behavioral license – everyone does that, and frankly it’s cliché. My idea is to tell stories that contain ideas that are shocking, original, unnerving and uncomfortable, regardless of any depictions of sex and violence and the romantic notion that self-destruction is a desirable outcome. We all seek original ideas, but centering our stories on self-abuse and perversion isn’t very original. There’s got to be something more, something that is controversial, maybe inflammatory, but is at the same time uncommon – and maybe just the thing that needs to be said.

Stories are where our species discovers truths that are both individual and universal, and because of story we’re able to identify things about ourselves that raise our self-awareness and help us evolve as a species. Many great scientific and technological discoveries have been made through story, and it is therefore a guarded and oppressive psychology that seeks to ban these discoveries, denying that our minds go to the places they do, ask the questions they ask. We pretend to protect ourselves from ourselves by rejecting controversy and fringe ideas, failing to see that we should only fear the misuse of our ideas, and not the ideas themselves.

A banned book, by my definition, should be a book of fresh ideas, and it would be the great honor of every writer to write at least one work considered too shocking to print, too fringe to expose to the delicate sensibilities of our better nature. There’s no denying some responsibility in creating such a work – the writer is not encouraged to be crass or unsophisticated. A book of dangerous ideas should be created and treated with reverence, the ideas evaluated ultimately for their edifying characteristics and not their diminishing ones. As with great technologies of healing and social welfare, all things can be used for war – but war for the sake of war is a sin against us all.

We should seek to write books worthy of being banned because these are the only books deserving of a place within any literary canon. A book worthy of being banned is one worthy of being immortalized. The taboos we adorn our works with, sexual, violent, blasphemous, and shocking, should be vehicles of greater ideas only, and not the ideas themselves. At the heart of controversy should be the question, “is this where we are headed?” and if so “is it where we want to go?”

And so we must write to find the idea that is beyond the pale of the initial inspiration. From titillation we seek connection; from anger we seek to eliminate pain. Our taboos mask our need for love; they are substitutions for the healthy thing we need most. If by expressing taboo we manage to achieve understanding and meaning and perhaps unveil an insight that is ahead of our current time, then, like it or not, we are advancing as a species. This is so often what great literature strives to do. When the watchdogs of our parental society are rattled we must look to see what has flustered them so, and therein find the fire that continues to yield the greater virtue of our proud and unusual species.

 

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When the Engine Stalls, Row!

no parking2A long time ago I had friend who owned an old white Subaru hatchback, a four-cylinder hunk of engineering marvel with bald tires and an engine as gutless as Punxsutawney Phil upon seeing his shadow six weeks too soon for an early spring. In the (mostly) flat lands of the Bay Area it was a splendid junker for getting to places not so far away. For longer road trips, such as the one I often made to see my parents in the California Sierras, it was less ideally suited.

A few days before we made the trip, my friend alleged that there was a misfire in the number three cylinder. When it began to act up, he said, all he had to do was unplug the cylinder wire from the offending cylinder and continue on. I thought little of it.

The day we left for the hills it was beautifully sunny. A perfect road trip day. We flew out of the Bay (on all four cylinders) and began the gradual ascent up I-80 toward the distant ridges of northeastern California. The trip was going well. We forgot about any cylinder issues and allowed the road to open before us with the promise of the journey to come.

For those unfamiliar with the I-80 corridor, it’s a long black ribbon of generally hot, flat roadway through a good deal of agricultural valley before lifting into the dry, grassy foothills around places like Auburn, Colfax, and Grass Valley. But once you begin the climb, it is an unrelenting elevation gain that does not peak until cresting at seven thousand feet at Donner Pass (known for the infamous Donner Party) somewhere near the border town of Truckee. We were barely on the pouty lower lip of the Auburn climb when my travel companion decided to stop and check the Subaru’s mighty little engine. Naturally it seemed to him that the number three was acting up. He pulled the wire and off we went.

The special thing about this time of living, two boys, barely twenty, is that we knew nothing about life, about the struggle to survive, or to accomplish things that only become important later. In our naiveté everything was an adventure, a challenge we had already succumbed to but did so without expectation that we would have ever been able to succeed. We were not defeated by spite, we were defeated by blissful ignorance. Life is the greatest pastime when we are young. Things are mostly funny.

When the dogged and belabored engine showed no gusto for climbing the gradual hills outside of Auburn the moment became temporarily embarrassing. Every other car on the road was flying past us. I doubt we were going over thirty mph. Imagine what a wiser adult might think in such a position. Am I going to make it? Am I going to cause an accident? Am I going to get stuck on the pass like the Donners of yore? But with the pedal floored and the car gasping to make the climb we did the only thing we could do. We rolled down our windows and pretended to row.

Other drivers laughed as the passed by. We rowed with all of our might and laughed and waved, making friends with dozens of others for brief moments as they hurtled past, probably grateful they were not in our predicament, but perhaps appreciating that we weren’t worried, that in fact we were going to be all right in the end because we had spirit, and we had enthusiasm, and we were creative . . .

This is what the writing life can be like. Often in the beginning we are running on fewer cylinders, with an engine that seems somehow too tired or is otherwise deficient. More often than not we worry about making the climb, about reaching the destination. We worry about dying on the hill.

But if we roll down the windows and row, if we laugh and wave, come to terms with the process and enjoy that we are living through this journey, we will arrive no worse for wear. At the end of the journey we will have a story to tell.

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Outline Your Book Or Suffer In Revision Hell

25777_366224582299_4542941_nI’m about to do it again.

I don’t know why anyone would bother writing a book-length manuscript when they could write and potentially publish a dozen short stories with the same or less effort. Short stories are quick, and act as evidence that one has the capacity for writing fiction in the first place. If a short story is the single-focused brainchild of a few weeks dedicated work, a book is a commitment to raising the child to adulthood. Yet here I am, about to write my fourth book.

What am I thinking?

I’ll tell you what I’m thinking – I don’t know – except that this story, this book-long tale of my imagination, will not let me focus on anything else. The first book in the series (which may never see the light the of day), has turned out to be backstory. I’m not exactly thrilled that things turned out this way, but these things happen, and at least with the back-story out of the way the real story can now be told.

T.E. Lawrence reminds us that “(a)ll the revision in the world will not save a bad first draft: for the architecture of the thing comes, or fails to come, in the first conception, and revision only affects the detail and ornament, alas!” So with all due respect to Anne Lamott we must consider the risks of a poor drafting in the first place. Following that, one must realize that all the work done on a piece of writing may end up being little more than practice, or perhaps the fleshing out of backstory so that the real story can be told. This realization may occur after more than a year working on a project, and the conclusion can be upsetting. As with any catastrophe it may take some time to come to terms with the aftermath. When I wrote about a million words a few years back I concluded that, upon reaching the million word benchmark, one should write a million more. There are a number of ways to do this. One of them is through revision of a very poor first draft, just be sure to understand the perils of this approach.

One way to avoid writing a poor first draft, and thus having to revise permanently, is to write an outline. An outline does a number of things: it introduces the sequence of events for ease of drafting chapters; it introduces characters and helps identify the proper protagonist; it may inform appropriate point-of-view. By outlining the entire story one knows the end toward which one is writing, how the story impacts the protagonist, approximately how long the story will be, weaknesses in the plot; and is a useful tool for writing the all important synopsis which, whether self-publishing or soliciting agents and editors, is a useful exercise.

An outline takes pressure off of the revision process because it reduces or eliminates errors that can otherwise be made in blind drafting. By knowing where the story is going from the outset the writer is better informed of the story and less likely to create tangents which may end up being cut wholesale in the latter revision process. So while making an outline may seem an unnecessary drag to getting on with the writing, consider it akin to reading the rules before playing a new game. The enjoyment of the activity is greatly enhanced by understanding what you are doing from the outset.

 

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Before Art, Imagination

girabaldi

Imagination is the innate tool of discovery and invention that our species is reliant on to solve problems, engage meaning, and advance as life forms on our planet. When we speak in terms of the divine, as so often we do in the arts, we are engaging our imagination to see not only god, but all of creation.

As with any tool, imagination can be misused or neglected. To say that one has a “lack of imagination” is not to imply that a person has less quantity of imagination – imagination is not measured in grams nor grains - but it is to say that one has failed to develop or exercise the imagination to any degree of usefulness.

It goes without saying that the artist cannot thrive without imagination, after all in order for art to exist it must first be imagined, but the question might be asked whether each of us nurtures our minds enough to allow imagination to remain fertile.

In the adult world it seems more often than not that we settle into allowing others to imagine for us. Television, the greatest mind-suck invention of all, is filled with stories brought to us by those who work hard using their imaginations to keep the rest of us tuned in. Forget the fact that the act of watching television reduces our intellectual self-determination on many levels and suffice to say that if one is not creating the imaginative experience then likely one is the target of the experience (and in some cases even the victim).

For the writer and artist it is imperative to keep the imagination active at a childlike level; that is, with a newness of perspective and an absence of fear that is similar to a child’s. We must attempt to not know the things we think we know, and consciously choose to see all things anew. The act of practicing this consciousness is naturally political. Our race is wired to compete and to control. We are led by other people who have an agenda, and who want us all to think in certain ways, to accept and believe certain things so that we can be controlled and manipulated for their gain. This is not unlike the goal of the artist, who wishes through her art to influence her audience. We are a species both desirous of having influence and of being influenced. Once the individual becomes aware of this fact the matter is a political one and the conscientious person is naturally drawn to resist authority.

Picasso called the act of painting an “instrument of war.” The declaration of war in this case is against complaisance, tyranny, and sloth, not only of outside individuals and governments, but of the internal laziness and vapidity that our race is at times disposed to.

Without art and meaningful ideas there is only the void. But even the void is merely an excuse to give up. The creative person is tasked with reaffirming life’s aesthetic. In our imagination lies the salvation of our humanity and a connection to our sense of the divine. The artist is not only privileged in his position – he is the messiah.

 

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