Sunday, August 3, 2014

Creative Hate

“If you love the good thing vitally, enough to give up for it all that one must give up, then you must hate the cheap thing just as hard. I tell you, there is such a thing as creative hate!”
       The speaker is Thea Kronborg, the protagonist of Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark, a prairie-town girl who
s carving out a career as an opera singer. She’s partly based on a real singer Cather knew and admired, but a lot of what she says comes straight out of Cather’s own experience as a prairie-town girl then carving out her own impressive career as a novelist.
       “How can I get much satisfaction out of the enthusiasm of a house,” Thea asks, “that likes her atrociously bad performance at the same time that it pretends to like mine? She’s talking about a rival singer, one who doesnt live up to Thea’s idea of what vocal art ought to be. If they like her, then they ought to hiss me off the stage. We stand for things that are irreconcilable, absolutely.”
      A couple of things have kept this on my mind lately: visiting Cather’s home town in Nebraska a few weeks ago and going to the San Diego Comic Con just last weekend.
       The Cather pilgrimage happened on my 57th birthday. It was fortuitous more than planned—my son had been intending to fly to Chicago for his annual G (as in Godzilla) Fest until he suddenly suggested we make it into a father-son road trip—but it turned out to be a powerful thing. Once I realized we’d be driving within fifty miles of Red Cloud, Nebraska, I decided to Cather it up good: listening to an audiobook of My Antonia (sending Nicky back to his earbuds), reading Five Stories when I wasn’t driving, making reservations at the Cather family home, now a guest house run the Willa Cather Foundation, doing the Cather tour run by selfsame Foundation, even having breakfast at the cafe with the hand-lettered sign in the window reading WE SELL CATHER. It was only two days that I spent immersed in her flat, hard country, her bright-burning ambition, and her spare, perfect art
—but those two days have stayed with me.
       Comic Con was a different sort of pilgrimage. It was my 31st year in a row going to that thing. I was going there when I was just a fan, and I was going there when I was writing seven scripts a month for DC and Marvel; I was going there when I gave up writing the comics themselves to write about their history, and I kept going there when comics were just about the furthest things from my mind. (Lest this sound like some sort of morbid compulsion, I should tell you that the main point of the trip now is to hang out with my friend Joe Filice and his family, with the Con as a pretext and an organizing principle.) Every trip there, whether I like it or not, becomes a journey through my own creative and professional past. 
       And God, did I ever use that creative hate in my past! There were writers I loved, admired, emulated, tried to learn from. But there were other writers I couldnt stand, writers I loved to bitch about and rage at, to satirize and mock (never to their faces, of course). And they were on my mind every bit as much as the writers I loved. Maybe more.
       These werent inept or egregiously bad writers. They were mostly popular or well respected, usually with good reason, but with aesthetics or goals or intended audiences drastically different from mine. They werent doing me any harm. Sometimes I tried to convince myself that they were taking away my audience, or degrading the form to the point that no one would be able to recognize good work, but that was only to justify my hostility. Nor was this about simple jealousy, although that would be easy to assume. I could be very happy for another writers success, even when it was much greater than mine...if it was a writer I liked. It wasnt really even about competitiveness.
       I needed those writers to define myself. I wasnt one of those writers who seems to have been born with a vision of what he must write. I wasnt even very good at knowing who I was as a person, let alone as a writer. I spent a long time working at self-definition. For that I needed mentors, collaborators, and role models, but I also needed people to contrast myself against, people about whom I could say, Im definitely not thatso that must mean Im this. If I was clear on what I didnt want to write, if I made that an anathema that would repel me every time I found myself drifting toward it, then I could stay on my own slowly emerging path.
       I found a lot of people to play that role: novelists, screenwriters, comics writers, and essayists, young writers emerging alongside me, aging veterans, and some who werent around anymore. I even had Thomas Wolfe on the list for a while (So damned self-preoccupied! Too many words! No discipline!), even though though the poor mug had been dead and losing critical favor for decades before I was born.
       And the more rage I could stir up against them, the more focus and energy I could bring to my own work. I nursed what Thea Kronborg calls the contempt that drives you through fire, makes you risk everything and lose everything, makes you a long sight better than you ever knew you could be.”
      Not that I was doing any of this consciously. Like an adolescent who suddenly finds his parents stupid and infuriating, I made up a world view that served my larger purposes—and then threw myself into it with a blind passion. (The whole process of finding myself as a writer was basically an adolescent journey, in fact. I just dragged it on for a decade or so beyond the age of acne.) Of course, if it hadnt been unconscious, it wouldnt have worked. Self awareness is not always our friend.
       Somewhere along the way, that all changed. As I became more comfortable in who I was and what I was doing as a writer, I lost my energy for mocking and complaining about others. Then, at some point (around the time I became a dad, I think) I began to develop a compassion and a feeling of solidarity with everyone else who was pursuing this nerve-wracking career, whether the results were anything I liked or not. And, having lost the need to define myself as Not That Guy, because I finally had a sense of myself as This Guy, I began to appreciate writers I had been unable to like before, even to appreciate them precisely because they broke my personal rules. Thomas Wolfe could churn out some pretty powerful descriptions with all those words.
       I figure were all out there doing our best, trying to do what we think is good or hope other people will like, and theres room in the world for all our different aesthetics and philosophies and abilities. These days I cant even work up the energy to mock the woman who wrote Fifty Shades of Grey. (In fact, I can never remember her name, which itself is different from the old days. Back then I would have had her name seared into my frontal lobe.) I assume shes doing what she loves to do, and lots of people like it because it speaks to something in them, and thats really fine with me. I do what I believe in doing, and people can stop to look at it if they want to. 
      Not that I dont still have strong opinions. Not that I dont get annoyed when a writer I like lets me down, especially if I think its from laziness or self-indulgence (you shouldve heard me when I finished The Goldfinch). Ive just found that anger and judgment take more out of me now than they give back. Our emotional energy is finite, and I need to direct mine where it will do some good. 
       But I do try to catch myself when Im tempted to tell some younger writer to lighten up or to lecture him on having compassion for our ink-stained comrades. Im where I am because I went through the process, and the process, at least for me, required a fair amount of what Willa Cather had the guts to call creative hate.
       Theres something attractive about those feelings, too. Theres a vitality and a potency in that kind of negative intensity that my grown-up acceptance and compassion can never completely replace. I suspect Cather felt the same. Her judgments of younger writers became more measured and philosophical even as the youngsters started making fun of her, but she still let Thea Kronborg have her rage. Even when I feel stupid for some of the arrogant judgments I laid on good writers when I was young and self-obsessed, I can still hear the nobility in Theas call to arms: 
       “You can’t try to do things right and not despise the people who do them wrong. How can I be indifferent? If that doesnt matter, then nothing matters.


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Lost Hero (a teaser)

Ill be at Comic Con in San Diego in a few weeks, and so will Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson. Among other things, well be trying to call attention to our book in progressLost Hero: The Adventurous and Tragic Life of the Man Who Invented the Comic Book—the story of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, one of the most remarkable and least known founders of the industry that Comic Con was built on. In advance of that, I thought Id share a look at it. Not an excerpt, more of a pitch or a teaser. Let me know if you find it intriguing. 

* 

Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson created the comic book as we know it, discovered the first superhero, envisioned the graphic novel, and transformed the popular culture of America and the world. He also lived one of the most colorful lives of any significant figure in pop-culture history. But until now his name has been little more than a footnote in comics history.
       In the usual origin story, the founders of the comics industry were a gang of Lower East Side schlockmeisters scrambling to survive in the depths of the Depression. Major Wheeler-Nicholson’s background could not have been much more different. His grandfather was a Union Army surgeon who founded a newspaper in Tennessee to help heal the wounds of the Civil War. His mother was a suffragist and journalist who knew Theodore Roosevelt and worked with Military Intelligence in the First World War. The young Major himself was a rising star of the U.S. Cavalry who chased Pancho Villa, commanded the Buffalo Soldiers, rode with the Cossacks in Siberia, played championship polo, revolutionized the use of the machine gun in combat, served as a diplomatic attaché in Paris in 1919, and then lost it all when he stood up to his superiors to fight for racial justice in a segregated army. So he became a writer, and he and the beautiful Swedish aristocrat he had married shuttled between Greenwich Village and a villa in France as he turned his own life into a series of high adventure stories.
       He was, in short, a romantic, old-world hero of a type rapidly vanishing in twentieth-century America. But, as his contemporary F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.”

*
Two forces drove Wheeler-Nicholson lifelong: a belief in his own glittering destiny, nurtured in him by his powerful mother, and a terror of ending up like his father, broke, alone, and drinking himself to death. So he dreamed, he fought, and he overreached. He sacrificed his Cavalry career to a heroic but doomed crusade to reform the Army from within. Then, when he reinvented himself as a pulp-fiction writer and military historian, he found quickly that it wasn’t enough. He wanted to matter, to change the world. Perhaps to compensate for the shattering of his own visions of personal heroism, he made it his new mission to bring high culture to the masses and to make classic heroism relevant to the twentieth century.
       He founded the company that would become DC Comics, published the first true comic book, and pioneered the adaptation of serious novels into graphic form. He personally recruited and mentored the pioneer generation of comics artists, writers, and editors. He discovered the young Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, taught them how to tell a graphic story, and, alone in the publishing world, encouraged their odd idea for a “Superman.” Then, just as their hero was poised to zoom into print—turning the new art form into a national craze, establishing the template for every superhero since, and creating the first youth-targeted industry in pop-culture history—his company was stolen from him in a back-room bankruptcy maneuver by that aforementioned gang of Lower East Side schlockmeisters.
       Even then the old Major had a last chance to remain at the helm of the medium he had created, but his own big dreams and tragic pride brought him down. He would not, or could not, make the compromises required by modern American business. He fought to keep everything and ended up with nothing. The men who took the business from him, who went on to build it into a corporate giant, took credit for what he had done and recast him in the stories they told at the bar and in the boardroom as a buffoon and a blowhard.
       “The Old Man” returned quietly to the writer’s life and never tried to tell his side of the story. Unlike others in comics history who were eager to alert the world to their victimization, his old Anglo-Saxon code made his loss a source of shame to be buried and nursed in silenced. At the end of the 1940s, he took one last stab at the big time, teaching himself chemistry and developing patents for new paints that attracted significant Wall Street capital. But the wounds he had suffered were too deep, and at the last minute, to the shock and outrage of his children, he could not bring himself to sign a deal.    

       The Major was buried in 1965 in a grave that would not bear a headstone for another forty-five years. The legend of the fortune he had allowed to slip away shaped his family’s self-understanding for two generations to come. In the years after he died, comic books arrived at their first acceptability as subjects of scholarship, and the first amateur historians began to piece together the history of the field. Historians, fans, and a new generation of writers and artists launched campaigns on behalf of comics’ creative pioneers—most famously Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the writer and artist of Superman—to restore the credit and rights that had been stolen from them by the same gang who had stolen the business from Wheeler-Nicholson. But even to the people who drove those campaigns, the Major continued to be nothing but a fragmentary, slightly ridiculous figure who flitted inconsequentially through the story of the industry’s first years.
       That story was incomplete, though, not only factually but thematically. Because the natures of the comic book industry, the icon of the superhero, and the artistic capacity of the graphic novel cannot adequately be explained by the usual “born spontaneously of immigrant fantasies and Depression desperation” narrative. Those vital fantasies were the driving forces of the new field, but the comics were able to capture a mass audience and survive their historical moment because they were also given form by another body of ideas, ideas brought by a man who had traveled the world in service of an ideal of heroism then fading into twilight. Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was the missing link of pop-culture evolution, essential to the story but lost to time. 



Sunday, June 1, 2014

Coast to Coast in 100 Years

On May 15, 1915, a caravan of five automobiles containing publicity agents, a film crew, and miscellaneous merchants of cars and car products set out from New York City with one long, linear mission: to travel the length of the new Lincoln Highway, through forests and deserts, over mountains and rivers, to San Francisco on the far edge of the nation. Before this highway (which had first been conceived of by some of the men in those cars), there had been no designated, passable auto route across the United States.
     There were no federal roads then, and not that many state roads, so this was a private-sector enterprise. A bunch of businessmen with stakes in the future of auto travel—guys who sold radiators or spark plugs or rubber tires—formed the Lincoln Highway Association to encourage local businesses and governments to improve certain lengths of road that, when all hooked together, would form a twisty but clear line from Times Square to Lincoln Park. (Lincoln Park was hardly San Francisco’s equivalent of Times Square, being a grassy hilltop surrounded by a golf course on the far side of the city, doing service not long before that as a cemetery, so I assume they chose it for the “Lincoln” part.)

     The vision of these men was for a smooth, safe ribbon of rock and concrete all the way, but they were willing to settle for dirt roads through the trackless wastes of the West, as long as the cars of the time could get from one end of the other without breaking an axle or sinking into the sand. It proved to be a very popular idea among people who ran hotels and restaurants in smaller cities and towns across the middle of the country, as well as ambitious men who were thinking of jumping into the very profitable automobile craze, and pretty soon those roads were being worked on.
      The idea and the approximate route of this highway had been announced in 1913, so the Lincoln Highway Association celebrated its centennial last year, with speeches and car shows and fireworks and all that. But as I read about it, I couldn’t help feeling that if I were were going to commemorate the moment when the highway came into being (if, mind you), I’d celebrate the moment when people proved they could actually traverse its whole route.        
     There is an argument for dating that too in 1913. A group of intrepid members of this L.H.A. had pushed their way by automobile all the way across the country even before the project had been officially announced, to prove it could be done, block out a plausible route, and attract some reporters to the launching ceremony. But their cars had to be hauled out of ditches and mud several times by mules, and a few times they had to go far off what would eventually be the actual route because there was no way to get through where they wanted to—and therefore I’d call their effort an impressive one on its merits but not the inauguration of anything you would call a highway.
      So the day I would celebrate (like I say, if) would be the one when that caravan full of highway boosters and filmmakers finally arrived at Lincoln Park (after stopping at the Panama-Pacific Exposition then dominating the city, which made it an even better publicity stunt), August 25, 1915.

      (If you do the math, you’ll see that no one was trying to prove anything yet about the speed of car travel. The caravan covered roughly 3,300 miles in 102 days, so about 32 miles a day. A strong hiker with good boots could almost have beaten them. It must be remembered, though, that they spent much of the voyage giving speeches at Rotary Club meetings, shaking the hands of hoteliers and tire dealers, and shooting scenes for their planned promotional movie. They assured people that the trip neednt actually take more than two weeks, which made it only about four times slower than the train.)
      No one would claim that their trip was a historical turning point, but it does work as a symbol of some major changes then coming to America. Most obviously, it stands at the beginning of the age of the automobile. But it also represents a new force for turning the sprawling states into a single nation, and a further opening of the vast American interior, beyond what the ribbons of the railroads had done, giving every turnout along every road the chance to compete for tourists and residents with every other wannabe town and city.

     And it shows the birth of a new sort of American boosterism, and with it a way of launching and organizing new industries—businesses, publicists, and consumers collaborating to create a spiraling energy of trendiness and profitability—that’s shaped much of our business culture straight into the age of personal technology. There were no robber barons in the highway-building business. The highway system would make an awful lot of money for the companies that built cars, made their parts, forged steel, vulcanized latex, and distilled gasoline, but their profits were indirect. In the actual making of the roads, the people who made the immediate money were gravel-quarry owners, asphalt mixers, bridge builders, and the adventurers who thought opening a gas station would be more rewarding than selling horse feed.
     There’s personal symbolism for me in that highway, too. I’ve participated in the general affection for Route 66, but really, it doesn’t touch me much. It wound, after all, from Chicago to L.A., from one city I find impressive and interesting to another with which I’m weirdly fascinated, but neither of them feels like my city. San Francisco is my city, literally, and New York is the one I’ve carried a torch for since I was a teenager, the one I keep writing about, keep going back to, keep wondering if I should have moved to before I got too old.

      As if that weren’t enough, my mother grew up along the Lincoln Highway—in Rawlins, Wyoming in the 1920s and ‘30s, near the highest point of the route, where the highway itself was both the main street and the way out of town. I think it was in her reminiscences that I first heard the phrase “Lincoln Highway.” In any case, I know it was in her reminiscences that I first understood what highways meant to people growing up in the towns of the American interior. 
      (Come to think of it, my dad lived just a few blocks from the Lincoln Highway too, when he was very young, although on the far western end of it, as it passed along Foothill Boulevard in Oakland, where it wouldnt really have had the lustre of a transcontinental highway. Still, its intriguing to think of my parents connected by a road, a thousand miles apart, when they were little children.)
     If I were to do something to acknowledge the centennial of the first of those great highways (and I
’m still clinging to if, but barely), I would set out from Times Square on May 15 of next year and travel for the next 102 days along what remains of the original route, studying its history and immersing myself in the towns it helped bring into existence.          
      And if I were to try to justify the trip to myself and have a chance of covering the costs, I’d write a book about it. Not just a historical tour of the highway—there are already a couple of those, and they’re good—but some way of using the journey as a lens through which to consider how the past hundred years of cars, business, growth, and mobility have shaped the country. And through that to understand a bit better how I, as the son of a daughter of that highway, have been shaped by it too.     
      That gives me nearly a year to figure out whether this is a clever idea or a crazy one. Either way, I’m probably going to do it.


Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Sights of Music

May brings two of my favorite cinematic and musical experiences: on the 3rd, Mark Cantor’s latest installment of Giants of Jazz on Film, and from the 29th through June 1st, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
       They seem like an odd pair at first. Cantor’s collection of old performance footage is clearly about the music, with a visual augmentation—only people who already love Lester Young’s music would have much interest in watching him play. The silents are, or would seem to be, all about the images, with a musical augmentation. But the more I see of both (Cantor two or three times a year for the past ten years, the silents three or four days of full immersion every year for about the same span) the more I see how they speak to me in the same way.
Some of the films Cantor screens were created as cinema, others are simple records of musicians playing. There are musical interludes made for Hollywood movies, “soundies” made for the weird visual Panoram jukeboxes of the ‘40s, and straight concert or TV performances. The most cinematic can be visually brilliant (track down Jammin’ the Blues from 1944), but even the simplest can be visually fascinating—the eyes and body language of a great musician in mid-solo, the shared glances and minuscule clues shared by band mates, the occasional glimpse of the crowd (an auditorium full of hip Danes listening to Bill Evans in 1966).
        Silent movies have always depended on music to work. After their first few years, every movie theater included some kind of music—piano, organ, or, in the big city picture palaces, a full orchestra. The movies were made in the awareness that they would be playing to music, and it didn’t take long for the studios to start sending out scores with their film canisters so musicians could play what the producers imagined as the aural half of their creation.
       In the age of sound, most silent movies have been issued with recorded musical tracks, but the S. F. Silent Film Festival only uses live music—by the warm and delicate Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, the subtly startling Matti Bye Ensemble, the gymnastically multi-instrumental Stephen Horne, and others equally distinctalmost always newly composed by the musicians. In doing so, theyve turned silent films into experiences as musical as they are visual.
       Both the jazz clips and the silent features explore the interplay of image and sound, liberated from the word. Between them, they say things that words never could.
       Mark Cantor’s show this Saturday is called “Broadway to Hollywood and All That Jazz”—music written for stage shows and movies by the Gershwin brothers, Rodgers and Hart, and the usual suspects by great jazz musicians and singers. He isn’t announcing which jazz musicians and singers, but his collection is vast and his taste is as broad as it is good. (Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan are almost guaranteed, and Im hoping for a Lennie Tristano.)
       I’m especially happy with the SFSFF this year. For two years they’ve scheduled it at the same time as the San Diego Comic Con, which meant that I missed most of the Con those years (no big deal), but also that my friend Joe Filice—who had been my regular companion and source of strength on many twelve-hour days of movie after movie—couldn’t come, because he had family plans centering on the Con. This year the silents are in May, Comic Con is in July, and all is well with the world.
       The silent festivals schedule leads off with a solid crowd pleaser, Valentino in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, then jumps to China at the brink of World War II for The Song of the Fisherman, starring one of my heartthrobs, Wang Renmei. Then comes Midnight Madness, one of those high-speed, high-passion melodramas that Hollywood got so good at right before the switch to sound, then some artful Swedish bleakness with The Parson’s Widow, then Dolores Del Rio glowing supernally in Ramona, and then what looks to be a truly bizarre piece of Soviet science fiction called Cosmic Voyage. Which concludes Day Two and leaves only twelve more movies. I’m going to be tired, sore, and happy.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Poetic IronYee

Senator Leland Yee carved out a niche for himself as one of the nations leading legislative opponents of violent video games. It was a useful cause for him throughout his career. His original base of support was among first- and second-generation Chinese-Americans in San Francisco and its suburbs, very concerned with their childrens futures and distrustful of the larger popular cultures chaotic and hedonistic sides. As he worked to make a California-wide name for himself, building up to a run for Secretary of State, it fit well with both nanny-state liberalism and social conservatism, one of the few trans-party issues an American politician can find these days.       
       Its also an issue with no strong opposition. The game community has never been able to mount an effective, broad-scale defense of its more violent products. Partly thats because its corporate leaders and legal representatives chose early on to stick with a defensive position reminiscent of Big Tobacco in its cigarettes dont cause cancer days, insisting that video games never have any effect of any kind on anyones behavior; its a position thats worked well enough in court over the years, but it prevents them from making any plausible claims about the positive effects of games and makes it essentially impossible for them to function as members of a larger society, collaborating on discussions of social, psychological, and moral issues. I think its partly a cultural issue, too: the traits that lead people to become passionate gamers (like, say, a love of mastering systems of invariant rules in order to achieve clear-cut victories) are not the traits that lead people into political activity, which is always about distasteful compromise and partial success. 
       Whatever the reason, video games are one of those things—like pornography and gambling for most of their histories, like distilling liquor at the end of World War I—that are hated by a minority and enjoyed by a majority but produce hardly any political champions willing to fight for them publicly. Which makes them a fine tool for ambitious politicians with a talent for on-camera moral earnestness but little to offer in terms of the nuts and bolts of governance.
       Yee was also a loud advocate of gun control. Thats a position with a very strong political opposition, but its also a fairly safe one for a California Democrat, and it worked well with his anti-video-game bills to enhance his image as a protector of children and families.
       Im using the past tense, of course, because Senator Yee was recently arrested by the FBI for conspiring to sell illegal weapons across international borders. More specifically, for conspiring with Chinese gangsters and New Jersey mafiosi, whom he knew to be murderers and drug dealers, to sell billions of dollars worth of machine guns and portable rocket launchers to Muslim guerrillas in North Africa and the Philippines.
       Which, really, is about as vile as an act of official corruption is likely to get. Almost worthy of the villain in a video game.    
       Now, I do want to honor the sacred American journalistic tradition of pretending to think that the accused might be innocent until a jury pronounces him guilty. And I do want to add that the transaction never actually took place, that the New Jersey mafiosi were in fact undercover FBI agents, and that the whole deal was concocted as part of a sting. But you know that the FBI doesnt go arresting prominent elected officials unless it has a very strong case. And Yees connections to the Chinatown mobs and willingness to do anything for campaign contributions are known from other sources. I could add allegedly to several of the following sentences, but it would feel disingenuous.
       One of the more illuminating moments in the very long FBI complaint comes when Yee tells his new Mafia friend, Im a gun-lover, and says he wishes he could live the life of the gangster. Im not offended that a public officials private values are very different from his public positions; the idea that a legislator should vote from his own heart of hearts rather than from what his constituents want runs counter to the whole idea of representative democracy. Nor am I personally appalled that someone loves guns or envies criminals. Love and fantasy are complex matters, and Im not sure any of us can be pure in heart without a great deal of repression. 
       But I am struck by what appears to be another case of something that Ive seen over and over again in writing about the cultural histories of media and violence. In condemning something, we amplify its glamor. In demonizing any aspect of the human imagination, we give it more power in our own minds. Its often the moral watchdog who becomes more pruriently obsessed with the very taboo hes watching against.
       Im hesitant to make too much of this psychologizing. This could all be simple political cynicism on Yees part: tell parents whose votes hes courting and the thug hes trying to cut a deal with that he shares their values, whatever they may happen to be. Indeed, the one character trait that emerges from every story about Yee is that he was so consumed by a passion to advance politically that he would do just about anything for votes and campaign cash.
       Still, I do think theres a larger truth revealed here, whatever the individual circumstances may be. We are a nation in which guns, money, and power are infernally interwoven. We are also a culture shot through with a fascination for violence. Even when we abhor it in reality and work to eliminate it from daily life, it holds a place in our art and imagination that it wont surrender easily; in fact, the harder we try to eliminate from reality, the more powerful it can become in fantasy. 
       And we are a species that has never once, anywhere, been able to will away our own animal nature—not through indoctrination, education, or legislation. The more we try to make ourselves believe that our own violence is something simple and removable, the more perversely ironic will be its reminders that it is anything but.


Saturday, March 1, 2014

Keep Thinking about Pollyanna

Among Richard Diebenkorns papers when he died, someone found a sheet of paper labeled Notes to myself on beginning a painting. There were ten of those notes:

1. Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.

2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued—except as stimulus for further moves.

3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.

4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.


5. Dont discover a subject—of any kind.

6. Somehow dont be bored—but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.

7. Mistakes cant be erased but they move you from your present position.

8. Keep thinking about Pollyanna.

9. Tolerate chaos.

10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

I almost want to say I wish I’d seen this when I was in the worst of my confusion about The Undressing of America, but honestly, I probably wouldn’t have known what to do with it. My usual experience with advice is that it crystallizes what I’ve already experienced more than it points to a new path. But that crystallizing helps me remember what I learned next time I hit a similar mess.
       When I first read the list, it was the line about the destructive power of boredom that jumped out at me—because I bogged down in boredom so often in writing the earlier version of the book, but I always thought my response should be to whip up new enthusiasm for what I was doing or just slog through it and assume I’d fix it in rewrite. Which got me nowhere. Nothing could really change until the boredom grew so deep and so infuriating that I burned down the whole damned thing and started over.
       And destruction, of course, can be the first step of creation. It opened me to abandoning all my original positions, welcoming uncertainty and chaos, making mobilizing mistakes in the search for I didn’t know what.     
       The one note I dismissed as silliness at first was the one about Pollyanna—but it was the line I kept coming back to, and now I think I’m starting to get it. In fact, I’m discovering that the “glad game” is almost essential to taking all this on. I wasted a lot of emotional energy getting mad at myself for heading off in the wrong direction, not seeing that I’d hit a wall, and staying stuck for so many months. But I can find things to be glad of: glad to have wandered in the wrong direction, because it took me off my safe, familiar turf; glad to have been forced to throw out a whole book, because it made me braver; glad that I had that long period of non-production, because it turns out to have been a chrysalis. 
       So a fine painter and a fictional eleven-year-old girl discovered the same principle, which I’m learning now: when I’m glad about the paths I went down, even the ones that were most frustrating at the time, then I have the courage to plunge down new paths again.