Ekphrasis: A Thing Among Things I’ve Gotten Myself Into

Ekphrasis – noun. A literary description of, or comment on, a work of art.

Yeah, I’d never heard of it either, not until I became involved with the Writers of the Mendocino Coast. Last year the Writers hosted a collaborative art show whereby local artists painted pictures and local writers were chosen to write a poem or short story about the paintings. By way of application I submitted work for this year’s production and two days ago I was notified that I have been chosen as one of eighteen writers to participate in the show.

The way this works, as far as I understand it, is that at the July meeting we will gather, writers and artists together, to receive a completed painting from one artist to one writer, wrapped in paper, which the writer will then steal back to their creative abodes where the painting will be unmasked and the writer will compose their ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is a Greek word combining ek “out” with phrasis “to speak,” and so the word literally means to speak out about a piece of visual art. The definition is further understood to mean that which through written word enhances the visual work on a new and profound level. This is to say that the ekphrasis does more than describe the painting. Rather it illumines the visual work in some way that is emotionally, spiritually, and/or aesthetically enlightening.

I am excited about this opportunity. I was accepted on the merit of a poem I wrote recently about an experience I had by the sea. The poem follows:

Des fruits de mer

I knelt beside a tide pool, cold,
the brackish water swirling black,
and studied there a fragile skirt,
a disembodied jelly head.
And I in giving nothing much
toward purchase price of this event,
paid my respects to that great sea,
its living things, as well as dead.

Then at once the abandoned shell
of a red abalone snail
blushed brightly in the dragging surf
and took me near the water’s edge.
This I gathered to carry home.
And there with treasures standing by,
one in the hand, one in the mind,
I thought upon the bounty that
the sea had given me that day –
a shell, the surf, a spray of mist,
salt on my tongue, the sting, the taste.

But best of all, with its great eye,
did judge my worth, no more, no less
than any other passerby,
and blessed with memory instead,
a tattered hood – a jelly, dead.

I don’t really know what the selection process is for the project, but I chose to submit “Des Fruits de Mer” because I thought it was a good example of what art often does: it replicates life. This is what we mean by mimesis, and the irony of art struck me in considering the possibilities of the ekphrasis because of the following. Paintings often depict nature in an attempt to capture something wonderful about the world. By copying the organic world in an image the painter is doing what Stendhal said is the work of the novel: it holds up the mirror to society and records what is there. The painting is not the world, nor is the writing the world, but both are a mimesis of the world. Ekphrasis then is the mimesis of mimesis – a synthetic elevation of a synthetic representation. This epiphany (for me, not necessarily for you) is exciting! What does it say about the creative practice? I think for the student of art, of writing, and/or of life, ekphrasis is an opportunity to dig deep into the art of representation and explore what is both in the world and in the interpretation of the world at the same time. Likewise it is an opportunity to make and understand connections between concrete and abstract impressions, at times dispelling the illusion of mortal life and at others confirming it. Try it for yourself. Choose a random painting, preferably something you are not familiar with, and compose a poem, short story, or an essay about the work that brings the painting to a higher level of aesthetic value. In the process I daresay you will learn more about the creative process and connection with the world than in almost any one lecture or, even, one incredibly interesting blog post!

I will update you all in the coming weeks on the ekphrasis project. I am also waiting for good news on a recent story submission. As for July, and online teaching, expect to see some posts about the exercises we’re doing in class. I anticipate a lot of new discoveries in July, things stimulating and wonderful about the craft of writing. I’ve already discovered a bunch of new stories I can’t wait to share. Stories by Annie Proulx, David Foster Wallace, Louise Erdrich. So many things to learn – it’s good to be a writer, don’t you agree?


Accountable for Knowing

Henry James is often quoted as saying that the writer should strive to be “someone on whom nothing is lost.”  I refer to this notion often, as it does seem true, if presumptuous, that the writer is above all others a person who is never at a loss for understanding, knowledge, or for something to say regarding any topic at any time.  In other words, the writer appears as someone who “knows everything.”

Knowledge, it might be said, is chief among the things a writer should strive for.  But what, exactly, is a writer really accountable for knowing?

As it turns out, writers really do need to know a lot of things other people don’t necessarily have to know.  The volume of understanding required to write at a level anywhere near professional quality takes a lot of study and practice.  Even after years of teaching I am still learning tricks to the writing trade and uncovering errors in my understanding of what makes for successful writing.  For example, I just came to the understanding that no story in the mind can ever be captured on the page exactly as we imagine it in our heads.  This is because the act of writing is alive, and though we have many beautiful and engaging ideas which can be incorporated into a given work, our minds do not regurgitate, word for word or notion by notion, what we think.  Furthermore, writing itself is revising, and once the initial inspiration is expressed on the page it must be rewritten until it is correct – whatever the final story becomes.

This last epiphany removes a tremendous stress from me as a writer.  In our school days we are often taught to think that the ideas in our head can be captured, fully and completely, once we’re “good” at writing.  We come to believe that great writers just write what they think, perfectly expressed and completely understood, from the moment they sit down until the time they are done.  Our writing-goddess Natalie G. asserts the error of this thinking in Writing Down the Bones, however, when she says:

“People often say, ‘I was walking along [or driving, shopping, jogging] and I had this whole poem go through my mind, but when I sat down to write it, I couldn’t get it to come out right.’  I never can either.  Sitting to write is another activity.  Let go of walking or jogging and the poem that was born then in your mind.  This is another moment.  Write another poem.  Perhaps secretly hope something of what you thought a while ago might come out, but let it come out however it does.  Don’t force it . . . Writing is not a McDonald’s hamburger.  The cooking is slow, and in the beginning you are not sure whether a roast or banquet or a lamb chop will be the result” (47-48).

Writing is what writers must know — above all else.  The details of character, setting, plot, and scene are worked out in the effort of writing.  Politics, economy, and science can be learned, where they need to be learned, for the sake of the story.  It is writing that’s the wild card here, the thing hardest to understand and most worth knowing.  In the act of writing all of the story details are added and revised, the thoughts made complete.  It’s not the other way around, not the way we are taught or assume.  The act of writing is itself at once material and ethereal.  The results of writing are physical, visible on the page, bound in books, but if you destroy the only existing copy of the work you will see that it can never be recreated exactly as it was.  In the act of destroying one version a new and remarkably different version naturally takes its place.  Bilbo can lead the dwarves to the halls of Lonely Mountain after the death of Thorin at the hands of trolls. Holden Caulfield can meet an entrepreneur en route to the end of The Catcher in the Rye and become a successful junior businessman. Old Yeller can be made into a story about a canary.

It is in the act of writing that so much more knowledge is peripherally gained.  By writing well — that is, by understanding the subtle elements of this difficult form of communication — one cannot help but learn many other things.  In this way the act of writing is the well-spring of knowledge and all that the writer must know and be accountable for.

Having the Guts to Give It Your All

I realized the other day that I have a very, very bad habit.  I have been subtly aware of this habit for probably almost as long as I’ve had it, and yet it’s only recently that I’ve decided to face it and do something about it.  My habit is laziness, or perhaps our old friend fear, or maybe it’s just my own misunderstanding of where creativity comes from.  In any case, it’s time to go public and it admit what this habit is doing to my work.

Simply stated, I’m not giving my all.

I was reading some interview material from the late (and sincerely great) John Gardner last night, and in this reading he quoted Terry Southern as saying writing must come “out of the old gut and onto the goddamn page,” and regardless of the kind of page, damned or otherwise, it was the part about the “old gut” that caught my attention.  What Southern is saying, I think, is that writing, everything really, should come from the gut, the place of intuition, where truth lives.  It must do this if our work is to be any good because unlike the head, which is rational and seeks to control the writing, and unlike the heart which is sentimental and strives only for cheap relief of emotion, the gut tells us “this is how it really is.”  The gut holds the truth.  The Truth.

Recently I have been paying some attention to my bad habit.  I tend to move between the head and the heart in two particular areas – nay – I dare say in every area of my life.  The two particular areas where I pay the biggest price, however, are chess and writing.  In these practices my habit manifests in the following attitude.  I believe that I have time to “try” something out, knowing the idea is not fully formed, kidding myself that if it fails I will learn and keep the lesson ready for when I finally decide to give my best.  In this time (which has yet to arrive) I will overwhelm my opponent (in chess) and I will devastate my reader (in writing) with the force of my all.

Instead I continue to dance around, heart-and-head, sentiment and reason.  No truth.

The truth in chess, as with writing, is that there are far more opportunities to make mistakes than there are to make brilliant combinations.  By taking a lazy approach to either activity the potential for mistakes grows exponentially.  In chess, at least, the level of ones opponent may be similar to ones own, and with errors being made on both sides of the board neither is likely to have a quick advantage, thus allowing one side recovery if the error is caught in time.  But writing, with the intent of having a wide and varied audience, is like playing chess in a tournament.  All levels are present and only those who are most skilled, and who pay closest attention, will approach victory.

Back to my habit.  There is something inside of me that is disgustingly lazy.  The dream of committing my all to any one project is far more romantic than the practical experience of doing it.  When I get an idea for something I feel it in the gut.  Adrenaline shoots through my chest and stomach, tickles my hips with a lusty urge to make things brilliant and sensual and alive.  My heart beats faster but, at first, it doesn’t get in the way.  My mind stays hazy in the dream of the initial idea, and Truth courses through my body in streams of code.  I make short, cryptic notes that get at the core of the idea, and sometimes they don’t mean anything concrete, but capture some flavor, like licorice tinged matchsticks, and such a notion becomes a world.  But when it comes time to write I have already committed to withholding the deeper emotion, hesitating to share the obscure and torrid realities of my greatest ideas.  I take short cuts.  Simplify my story.  Make it all safe.

That is not writing from the gut.

I suppose this is what revision is for (though you can’t revise in chess unless you’re playing the computer).  With good revision I think it’s true that the truth can sort of be put into something that isn’t true to begin with.  But I don’t think this is the best practice.  When Natalie G. tells us to move our hand without stopping, to do it thoughtlessly while being specific, she is talking about writing from the gut.  She is giving us the recipe for getting at the truth.

I don’t know about you but I am way overdue in telling the stories that are in my gut.  My head and my heart have had their time, and maybe this was a necessary step in my development as a writer.  I don’t know whether Bob Dillon or E.R. Burroughs or Henry Miller ever had a time when they were stuck in the head and the heart, but I doubt it.  They got right to the gut and they stayed there.

I hope from now on we can all find the courage to go beyond the consciousness of our ideas and let them loose from the source of our intuition.  This means telling the truth about the things we, as human beings, try to hide.  Our real thoughts and feelings about love and sex, our friends and family, our neighbors and God.  It means telling the truth about ourselves.  In the end it may indeed be that the page is damned.  All of the evidence in a story worth sharing is there.  The condemned indict themselves.  But this is why fiction has value, because it illuminates life as life really is.  Even in genre fiction, good genre fiction, the truth is laid out to tell us something about the hidden truths of our existence.

And it all comes from the gut.  The place where Truth lives.

Feedback Rejections! (An editor responds)

I knew going into the writing life that eventually I would want to try and publish, and I knew also that getting published was difficult and that rejection was part of the process.  A lot of rejection.  A lot.  I mean it.

I didn’t know how much a lot of rejection was (I still don’t) even though I had heard that so-and-so famous writer got rejected ### of times before being published, or that famous novel TITLE GOES HERE was harshly shot down ### times before finding a home and infamy in the annals of literary successes.  For my part I have been rejected, oh let’s say my liberal estimation is thirty times — ever.  That’s not “a lot” I don’t think.  That’s quite reasonable actually, if you consider that every unpublished writer in the world is so much clover in the field, and even if one is born with four leaves it takes a mighty long time – or a stroke of luck – to get discovered quickly.

This is not to say that every single rejection is easy to accept just because it’s one of a relative few.  No, every rejection is a disorienting smack in the chops.  Every rejection feels like all rejection, and in the hours after that dull, dim letter crosses your desk the pursuit of writing feels hopeless and completely void of meaning.

One of my first rejections came from a magazine called “Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine.”  I knew very little about the publishing world back then and what I received when that rejection letter came in was the now-familiar form response letting me know that the magazine editors appreciated the chance to read my stuff and thanks for submitting but this isn’t right for us at this time, etc.  But unlike the other letters I was getting there was something else.  In the lower section of the page, below the short-and-to-the-point form copy of the rejection, was a handwritten comment.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the rarest of rejections.  An actual, helpful, critical response from a real live person.  In this case the person was none other than Zimmer Bradley herself!  In my naivete all I saw was a rejection, and though I was impressed that a real live celebrity author took the time to comment on my work (and send along an autograph via the signed comment) I took for granted that this sort of thing was the norm.

A few years later I submitted another story to another mag, not so famous, and when the inevitable rejection came once again there was an editorial comment attached.  With so few attempts and so little experience in the time of my efforts I continued to assume that this was normal.  But it isn’t . . .

This week I received a rejection, and once again it came with an editorial comment.  I knew this one was coming.  Not the rejection necessarily, but the editorial should the piece get rejected.  Yes, I finally realized (a while ago) that any response one might get from a potential publisher is nothing less than pixie dust, liquid gold, diamonds and rubies, dragon scales, and sometimes even the Crown Jewels.  When I saw in the submission guidelines that this publication offered feedback on rejections I submitted to them just for the sake of their response.  I didn’t even care whether the story was a fit.  Someone who knew the biz was going to tell me something that I couldn’t see for myself – and I was going to benefit from it.  Here’s what they said (parenthetical additions are mine):

“I liked the voice and the sense of detail, but the initial focus on description, for example of the (such and such) and of the appearances of (character 1) and especially (character 2), made the pace feel slower there than I needed at the opening of the tale.”

That’s it, nothing more specific about what worked and what did not, but oh the nectar contained in this tiny flower!  Here’s what I took from these comments:

1) The editor liked the voice of the story.  Hey!  I can live with that.  Voice is critical and to have that component down is something to be proud of – this guy is a professional after all and that’s a compliment to me.

2) Successful use of detail.  Ok!  I suspected that I had a good description of things going on: setting, mood, the things that make the story materialize off the page, and this confirmed it.  Score.

3) Looks like I got myself in trouble with too much detail early on, however, spending too many precious words on set up that didn’t need to happen.  The story got off to a slow start and for short fiction that’s a mistake.  My use of detail in this case was a boon and a bust.

The good news?  I now have a good idea about how to revise this story and get it a little closer to success.  Coincidentally this story is the same one that elicited the unexpected comments of the editor following Zimmer Bradley.  I like to think, with a little more work, I might have a winner here.

In conclusion, every rejection is a chance to get better.  You never know when the next one might come with a valuable editorial clue about how to improve your work.  Take heart when this happens.  So rare is this in the publishing world that, truly, it is the next best thing to acceptance.