Archive for March 2011
The case of Charles M. Schulz is a peculiar one, because there are really two faces to Peanuts. There’s the strip itself, which remains one of the most original, arresting, and entertaining works of art of the twentieth century. And then there’s Peanuts the franchise, the source of Vince Guaraldi albums, television specials, and countless other forms of merchandise, some of which are worthwhile, but which also tend to overshadow the deeper qualities of the strip itself. (Hence the response to the well-meaning but somewhat confused Tumblr blog 3eanuts, which gives readers the impression that the original strips need to be altered to bring out their underlying bleakness.) Which is too bad, because Peanuts, at its best, is the greatest contemporary example of how a uniquely personal work of art can enter the dreamlife of millions.
And its impact has been incalculable. I recently picked up a copy of Todd Hignite’s seductive book In the Studio: Conversations with Contemporary Cartoonists, and if there’s a single underlying theme, stated or unstated, it’s the massive influence of Peanuts. For cartoonists like Seth and Chris Ware, not to mention Bill Watterson, Schulz is the artist who transformed the mainstream comic strip into a personal, even autobiographical form, at a time when there were nearly no precedents for such an achievement. Even now, it’s hard to think of another artist who managed to write a daily strip that was so funny and so bleak, so personal and so universal. Given the current splintering of the media landscape, we may never see anything like it ever again.
It’s difficult to understand this now, but during the peak years of the strip—which I’d place from roughly 1960 to 1974, although any attempt to define its golden years before 1980 or so is basically arbitrary—it was read avidly on college campuses by the same people who would go on to devour the likes of Jules Feiffer in the Village Voice. With its use of the jargon of psychoanalysis and philosophy, its depictions of depression and failure, and its relentlessly black humor, it felt like a comic strip for grownups, even as kids went nuts for it as well. And as David Michaelis points out in his invaluable Schulz and Peanuts, its adult fans, like Feiffer, reacted with deep suspicion to the commercialization of strip. How could America’s greatest poet of quiet desperation also be shilling for MetLife?
But the real point is that these two aspects of Schulz’s life shouldn’t be separated. Peanuts was both intensely personal and the biggest marketing phenomenon this side of Disney. It was used to sell cars, insurance, and Easter Egg kits even as the strip itself grew ever sadder and more pessimistic. In some ways, this still feels like the most subversive coup in the history of American popular culture. Not until The Simpsons—which, we’re told, owed much of its early popularity to “all the pretty colors”—was a work of art so ubiquitous and so misunderstood. And both cases speak to the universality of master craftsmanship. For Peanuts and The Simpsons alike, there’s no clear line dividing the popular from the sublime: it’s one seamless work of art.
As with The Simpsons, there’s no denying that Peanuts underwent a decline in its final years, and in particular was never the same after the mid-1980s. But to quibble over the fact that Schulz managed only thirty years of unparalleled excellence is like asking why Beethoven only managed to come up with nine decent symphonies. (Which sounds like something that Lucy might ask Schroeder). Strip by strip, panel by panel, it’s one of the richest bodies of work produced by any American artist, a lens through which the culture of half a century can be glimpsed. As such, it was an essential part of my education, and The Complete Peanuts will be among the first books that my own children will read. I can’t imagine giving them a greater gift.
Like most people, I first caught up with Stephin Merritt, best known as the creative force behind The Magnetic Fields, sometime after the release of 69 Love Songs, which is simply the richest album of pop music released in my lifetime. Since then, I’ve endlessly explored Merritt’s work—including his many side projects, notably Future Bible Heroes, sung by the always charming Claudia Gonson—until his songs have taken up permanent residence in my subconscious. And more than any other contemporary songwriter, Merritt has consistently made his own creative process the secret subject of his music. He exemplifies songwriting as both an art form and a craft, thanks both to his productivity and his remarkable technical skill.
His productivity is perhaps the important thing. Although he’s slowed down a bit since 69 Love Songs, Merritt remains more than capable of cranking things out when necessary, and sometimes it shows—his discography is full of charming but disposable novelty songs. And yet the fact that he’s writing novelty songs at all is striking in itself. I love Arcade Fire, for instance, and yet it’s hard to take them altogether seriously when every song sounds like the second coming of Christ. By contrast, it’s impossible to imagine Merritt coming off as bombastic or sanctimonious. His prevailing mode consists of light, facile irony, and he seems more interested in superficial cleverness than anything else—until, of course, he blindsides you with emotion.
And the effect is a cumulative one. Merritt was especially smart, or fortunate, in conceiving a magnum opus that played to his strengths, which are productivity and understatement. 69 Love Songs manages to seem epic while being composed of the most modest parts imaginable, like a cathedral built out of matchsticks. Maybe a quarter of the songs are throwaways, and even some of the strongest tracks (“The Book of Love,” “Busby Berkeley Dreams,” “Yeah! Oh Yeah!”) feel like clever realizations of a single image or conceit. And yet their very modesty is appealing. Individually, the songs feel tossed off, almost like divertissements, but taken together, they seem as big as all of pop music. (As David Mamet points out, the nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it has to look like a nail.)
Of course, this productivity wouldn’t mean much if it weren’t harnessed to an impressive level of technical skill. Merritt is massively informed about the history of music, and although he never seems to strain, his bag of tricks, both musical and lyrical, is deeper than that of almost any other active songwriter. Part of the fun of listening to his songs is the obvious pleasure he takes in rhyme, genre, song structure, and ironic pastiche. Like the Pet Shop Boys in their classic period, he understands that irony and detachment can be more affecting than simple earnestness. (After spending much of the week listening to 808s & Heartbreak, I can’t help thinking that Merritt could do amazing things with Auto-Tune.) And when he does decide to pull out all the stops—as in “Sweet-Lovin’ Man,” possibly his most underrated song—the result is stunning.
With his recent albums, Merritt has begun to move toward a lusher, more acoustic sound, but I still prefer his earlier work, where the songs sounded like they’d been recorded with a Casio keyboard on the lowest deck of the Titanic. (Get Lost, probably his strongest conventional album, represents an ideal balance between the two extremes.) And he still seems capable of almost anything. If great drama, to quote Mamet once again, consists of people doing extraordinarily moving things in the simplest manner possible, then Merritt isn’t just one of our finest songwriters—he’s one of our best storytellers of any kind.
I don’t think there are any clichés I try to avoid. As soon as I spot a cliché, I go for it. I feel like clichés are the most useful thing in songwriting. They’re the tool on which you build all the rest of the song. Clichés that other people should try to avoid, I suppose, are rhyming “dance” with “romance,” or putting the word “love” at the end of a line and having to rhyme it. That’s about it. If you want to write a love song, you need to not try to write it for a particular person in a particular situation. It needs to be vague, otherwise you’re going to fall into trap after trap of trying to rhyme with somebody’s name. Keep it vague.
Many careers in movies have been cut short too soon, but the death of Jim Henson sometimes feels like the greatest loss of all. It’s especially tragic because Henson died in 1990, just as advances in digital effects—in The Abyss, in Terminator 2, and above all in Jurassic Park—were threatening to make his life’s work seem obsolete, when in fact he was more urgently needed than ever. Despite the occasional gesture in the direction of practical effects by the likes of Guillermo Del Toro, Henson still feels like the last of the great handmade magicians. As David Thomson points out:
Jim Henson’s early death was all the harder to take in that he worked with the odd, the personal, the wild, and the homemade, and flourished in the last age before the computer. It’s therefore very important that Henson was not just the entrepreneur and the visionary, but often the hand in the glove, the voice, and the tall man bent double, putting on a show.
As you can tell from the cake topper at my wedding, I’ve always been a Henson fan (although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I appreciate the Muppets on a much deeper level than you), but his achievement was recently underlined for me by the museum exhibition Jim Henson’s Fantastic World, which I’ve seen twice. The first time was at the Smithsonian in the fall of 2008. It was a stressful time for me—I’d just parted ways with my first agent, had to scrap an entire novel, and was working on a second without a lot to show for it—but the Henson exhibition was a vivid reminder of why I’d taken these risks in the first place. Seeing it again at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry a few months ago, when I was in a much better place professionally, only served to reassure me that I’m still on the right track.
Aside from Henson’s commitment to character and storytelling, which I already knew, I was left with two big takeaways from the exhibition. The first was the breadth of Henson’s talent and experience. He wasn’t just a puppeteer, but a gifted graphic artist, animator, cartoonist, experimental filmmaker, and jack of all arts and crafts, which is exactly what a good puppeteer needs to be. Looking at his sketches, drawings, and scripts leaves you stunned by his curiosity and enthusiasm regarding every element of the creative process. Long before his death, he was already exploring computer animation, and if he had lived, it’s likely that he would have brought about the fusion of CGI with practical effects promised by Jurassic Park and sadly neglected ever since.
The second remarkable thing about Henson was his perseverance. It’s startling to realize that by the time The Muppet Show premiered in 1976, Henson had already been working hard as a puppeteer for more than twenty years. Even the ephemera of his early career—like the series of short commercials he did for Wilkins Coffee, or his turn as the La Choy Dragon—have incredible humor and charm. And it was that extended apprenticeship, the years of dedication to building characters and figuring out how to make them live, that made Sesame Street possible when the time came. Jim Henson did what few artists in any medium have ever done: he willed an entire art form into existence, or at least into the mainstream. And of his example, as David Thomson concludes, “we are in urgent need of young artists taking it up all over the world.”
I don’t know exactly where ideas come from, but when I’m working well ideas just appear. I’ve heard other people say similar things—so it’s one of the ways I know there’s help and guidance out there. It’s just a matter of our figuring out how to receive the ideas or information that are waiting to be heard.
Here’s a gratifying moment: with my third published novelette, “Kawataro,” I’ve finally made the cover of Analog. It feels pretty good. (Not sure if this issue is on newsstands yet, but I’ll let you know when you can pick up a copy at your local Barnes & Noble or Borders—assuming that one still exists.)
Today’s quote of the day comes from a fascinating interview with the poet Gary Snyder, which I came across yesterday after seeing it mentioned in Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein’s stimulating book Sparks of Genius. The part of the interview that caught my eye goes as follows:
Say you wanted to be a poet, and you saw a man that you recognized as a master mechanic or a great cook. You would do better, for yourself as a poet, to study under that man than to study under another poet who was not a master, that you didn’t recognize as a master.
Snyder goes on to give a specific example:
I use the term master mechanic because I know a master mechanic, Rod Coburn. Whenever I spend any time with him, I learn something from him…About everything. But I see it in terms of my craft as a poet. I learn about my craft as a poet. I learn about what it really takes to be a craftsman, what it really means to be committed, what it really means to work.
Which struck me for a number of reasons. As a writer, I’ve always been conscious of the fact that much of what I’ve learned about the creative process comes from the work of nonliterary artists. Regular readers of this blog know how much I’ve learned about writing and editing from David Mamet and Walter Murch. My approach to my own work owes as much to The Mystery of Picasso or the video games of Shigeru Miyamoto as to John Gardner’s Art of Fiction. More recently, Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat, with its detailed descriptions of the lyricist’s craft, has been an endless source of instruction and encouragement.
The point of all this, I think, is that it’s easy to get caught up in the conventions of the craft—whether it’s fiction, poetry, art, or something else entirely—that you know best. Studying other forms of art is one way, and perhaps the best, of knocking yourself out of your usual assumptions. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. I recently came across an interview with cartoonist Daniel Clowes in which he explained how his work in film (including Ghost World and Art School Confidential) has influenced the way he plans his comics:
To me, the most useful experience in working in “the film industry” has been watching and learning the editing process. You can write whatever you want and try to film whatever you want, but the whole thing really happens in that editing room. How do you edit comics? If you do them in a certain way, the standard way, it’s basically impossible. That’s what led me to this approach of breaking my stories into segments that all have a beginning and end on one, two, three pages. This makes it much easier to shift things around, to rearrange parts of the story sequence.
And the best way to put lessons from other media to work, as Snyder points out, is to study the masters. This week, if time permits, I’m going to be talking about a handful of artists in other media—music, comics, film, and television—that have influenced the way I approach my own writing.
Interviewer: How much of your writing is based on personal experience?
Faulkner: I can’t say. I never counted up. Because “how much” is not important. A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination—any two of which, at times any one of which—can supply the lack of the others. With me, a story usually begins with a single idea or memory or mental picture. The writing of the story is simply a matter of working up to that moment, to explain why it happened or what it caused to follow. A writer is trying to create believable people in credible moving situations in the most moving way he can. Obviously he must use as one of his tools the environment which he knows.
By [narrative] grammar, I mean the rather lazy stock-in-trade of mainstream realist fiction: the cinematic sweep, followed by the selection of small, telling details (“It was a large room, filled almost entirely by rows of antique computers; there was an odd smell of aftershave and bacon”); the careful mixing of dynamic and habitual detail (“At one of the computers, a man was unhurriedly eating a spring roll; traffic noise pierced the thick, sealed windows; an ambulance yelped by”); the preference for the concrete over the abstract (“She was twenty-nine, but still went home every evening to her mom’s ground-floor apartment in Queens, which doubled by day as a yoga studio”); vivid brevity of character-sketching (“Bob wore a bright-yellow T-shirt that read ‘Got Beer?,’ and had a small mole on his upper lip”); plenty of homely “filler” (“She ordered a beer and a sandwich, sat down at the table, and opened her computer”); more or less orderly access to consciousness and memory (“He lay on the bed and thought with shame of everything that had happened that day”); lucid but allowably lyrical sentences (“From the window, he watched the streetlights flicker on, in amber hesitations”). And this does not even touch on the small change of fictional narrative: how strange it is, when you think about it, that thousands of novels are published every year, in which characters all have different names (whereas, in real life, doesn’t one always have at least three friends named John, and another three named Elizabeth?), or in which characters quizzically “raise an eyebrow,” and angrily “knit their brows,” or just express themselves in quotation marks and single adverbs (“‘You know that’s not fair,’ he said, whiningly”). At this level of convention, there is a shorter distance than one would imagine between, say, Harriet the Spy and Disgrace.
[Umberto] Eco is a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac.
Perhaps because I just saw Sneakers again, I’ve been playing a lot with anagrams, especially for the titles of my own novels. Kamera, may it rest in peace, never had much of an anagram to its credit (A Maker is the best I could do), but one of the nice things about The Icon Thief is that its title provides a secret clue to the debt I owe one of my favorite writers. Hint: Eco thief.
Foucault’s Pendulum, by the Italian semiotician Umberto Eco, is probably the novel, for better or worse, that has influenced me more than any other. I say “for better or worse” because it’s far from clear that its influence has been a good thing. I first read Foucault’s Pendulum, along with The Name of the Rose, when I was thirteen years old, which was just the right age for me to be completely blown away by Eco’s intelligence, ingenuity, erudition, and above all his way of engaging a world of ideas through the mystery and conspiracy genres. When I was a teenager—and this hasn’t changed much—I wanted to know something about everything, and Eco, more than any other author I had read up to that point, had seemingly managed to weave the entire world into a single book. (It’s only as I’m writing this now that it strikes me as appropriate that his translator is named William Weaver.)
The trouble, of course, is that the vision of the world expressed in Foucault’s Pendulum isn’t nearly as complete as I had once believed. There are no truly persuasive characters in the novel—merely vehicles for astonishing conversations, which, as Salman Rushdie points out, are “entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word.” For Eco, it’s idea, idea, idea, which is great when you’re thirteen and craving intellectual structures, even satirical ones, but not so much when you’re thirty and trying to write real novels. It wasn’t until a year or two later, when I first began to read John Fowles, that I began to see how massive erudition could be conjoined with genuine plots, characters, prose, and formal invention. But the damage had already been done. For the rest of my life, I’d be more comfortable writing about ideas than human beings, and it’s only recently that I’ve begun to move gingerly in the other direction.
And yet even that isn’t the whole truth. The fact remains that Foucault’s Pendulum has given me more pleasure than just about any other novel. My original copy, which still sits on my bookshelf, is flaking and falling apart, but if there were a fire in my apartment right now, it’s one of the first ten things I would save from the flames. Eco turned me on to Borges (his master), the cabalists, and The Golden Bough. The Icon Thief, with its elaborate verbal conspiracies, would be unthinkable without his influence. And Eco himself remains the perfect intellectual. In some ways, I still wish I’d discovered him after Fowles—my entire inner life, not to mention my writing, would have been immeasurably different as a result. But it’s also possible that Eco simply encouraged an artistic tendency that was already there, and showed me its greatest possible realization, as well as its limitations. I don’t think I’ll ever move beyond him. But perhaps, very gradually, I can become something else.
I’ve only ever wanted two jobs. My first dream job, which occupied my imagination roughly from the ages of six to ten, was, of course, paleontologist. (Even today, I can still remember the approximate dates of the Mesozoic Era, a fact that came in handy at a recent trivia contest.) When I was ten, though, it suddenly occurred to me that it might be even more fun to be a novelist. I could still write about dinosaurs—although a certain novel released that same year beat me to the punch—and just about everything else. At the time, like most kids, I was curious about a lot of things, and the immediate appeal of being a writer was that it would give me an excuse to learn about whatever I wanted.
Twenty years later, that’s still a big part of why I want to write for a living. What didn’t come until more recently was a love for the writing process itself. Early on, writing was pretty much just a pretext for following my interests wherever they led me, and it’s only in the past ten years that I’ve begun to find the actual mechanics of writing deeply interesting. At some point, the writer’s tool kit of plot, language, character, and theme became as absorbing a subject as those external topics—Marcel Duchamp, Russia, the art world, the Rosicrucians, to name only those involved in The Icon Thief—that I used fiction as an opportunity to explore. And the realization that I also love writing for its own sake is one of the most significant discoveries of my life.
Writing fiction, as I see it, is the greatest game in the world. Other authors may approach it differently, but for me, it’s a chance to construct something beautiful and elegant that didn’t exist before. It’s the same impulse, I imagine, that leads people to build ships in bottles or construct crossword puzzles (something that I’ve also tried, with less success), but extended over a much longer period of time. Writing a novel still strikes me as just about the most challenging thing that an artist can do on his or her own. It requires both massive sustained organization and the ability to recognize fleeting moments of inspiration. It draws on all parts of the brain. And it has tested me in ways that I couldn’t have imagined when I began writing for a living.
This love of structure and artifice is the main reason why I’ve thrown my lot in with the novel, rather than nonfiction. Narrative nonfiction or journalism is, in some ways, a superior excuse to explore the world, but with it comes a certain responsibility to the facts that doesn’t quite fit with my conception of writing as a great game. I try to make my novels as accurate as possible, but there are times when I prefer a convincing impossibility, as long as it’s elegant and surprising and not too far removed from the truth. At some point, I may try my hand at nonfiction, but for now, I’m sticking with the novel. As any writer will tell you, being a novelist is quite hard enough.
The only reason for being a professional writer is that you can’t help it.
What does a writer need to know? If you’re a novelist, the answer is: almost everything. One of the most daunting things about writing a novel is the amount of information it needs to contain, at least in order to meet the standards of contemporary realism—architectural details, descriptions of weather and clothing, mundane details about jobs and lifestyles that the writer will rarely know firsthand, and just the names of countless things, both unusual and commonplace. And all of this is merely background noise compared to the difficult work of constructing believable characters and relationships, not to mention the education and experience required to write clear, accessible, descriptive prose.
So how is a writer supposed to learn all this? Certainly not by going to class. It’s acquired, rather, by writing a lot, which is to say endlessly, and by engaging the world for years through the peculiar lens of fiction, in which everything is potential material, and experiences accrue in the form of words and ideas rather than merely piling up over time. It’s also acquired by talking to a wide variety of people, reading good books, and especially by exposing oneself to as many different kinds of art as possible. And as writers love to point out, none of this can be easily taught. A writer’s mind is always going to be a product of countless misguided experiments, to the point where one wonders if it might be easier, as Mamet suggests, just to skip school altogether and head straight for the starving artist stage.
And yet it’s also true that the best, most convenient place for getting much of this necessary experience is a university town. Cardinal Newman said it best:
You cannot have the best of every kind of knowledge everywhere; you must go to some great city or emporium for it…It is the place to which a thousand schools make contributions; in which the intellect may safely range and speculate, sure to find its equal in some antagonist activity, and its judge in the tribunal of truth.
Which is to say that not every writer needs to go to college, but that he or she probably needs to go near a college.
When I think about my own education, I’m reminded of the phrase that Watson used to describe Holmes’s knowledge of anatomy: “Accurate, but unsystematic.” I went to a good school, but had trouble deciding on a major, and ended up in Classics largely because it promised to give me a little of everything—art, history, literature, philosophy, linguistics, poetics, philology, archaeology, comparative religion, all built on the foundations of two difficult languages. Looking back, I’m not quite sure what it gave me, aside from a Latinate regard for grammar that hasn’t always been to my advantage. And partly as a result of my own personality, I’ve ended knowing something about a lot of things, but nothing in depth.
And yet I don’t think I’d change any of my educational choices—unless it were to make them less systematic. In college, I met a lot of interesting people, cultivated habits of thought that have served me fairly well, and made some productive mistakes. And it’s the mistakes that have been the most fruitful. I think there’s something to be said for screwing up repeatedly in your twenties, and if anything, I was too careful. Part of me wishes I’d started writing seriously right after college, rather than looking for a real job. If that were the case, I might still be sleeping on an air mattress in Queens, but I’d probably be a better writer than I am now. As Proust points out, it’s hard to acquire wisdom without making mistakes. And in the end, in order to be really useful, a writer’s education needs to be a bit of a mess.
The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
The AV Club has a terrific, if massively long, interview today with the author Sarah Vowell, who rather charmingly seems capable of talking for hours on end in perfectly formed paragraphs. Halfway through the interview, which focuses on her new book Unfamiliar Fishes, Vowell offers up one of the most striking descriptions I’ve ever seen of a writer’s mind works:
When I went to Hawaii, I had never seen a banyan tree before. A banyan tree is this tree that starts with one trunk, and then when the branches branch off, little tendrils sprout off the branches and eventually grow down to the ground and take root and become another trunk, and more and more branches and tendrils develop off of that, so each banyan tree becomes its own monster-looking forest. And when I first saw one of those trees, I thought, “That is how I think.” Little thoughts just sprout off and drip down and take root, and then they end up supporting more and more tendrils of thought, until it all coheres into one thing, but it’s still rickety-looking and spooky.
Obviously this has particular meaning in the context of Vowell’s own work, which is notably digressive, but it applies to many other writers as well. There’s a certain kind of ragpicker’s brain that tends to be drawn to writing for a living—it’s one of the few acceptable excuses for spending one’s life as a generalist—so “rickety-looking and spooky” seems as appropriate a way as any of describing a writer’s mind. Vowell continues:
I always found that when I was a college student and researching my papers always the night before—and this was before the Internet—I’d be in the library and I’d find one thing, and see something else and want to follow that, which now is how the Internet has taught us to think, to click on link after link after link. But there is something inherent in research that fosters that way of thinking, and then there’s this other interesting thing, and that builds and builds. When I’m writing, I have all these index cards, and I sit on my living-room rug and move them around until they make sense.
Which is something to which I can certainly relate—playing solitaire with index cards is basically what I do for a living. (And yes, the rug is the only place where this works.) I can also relate to Vowell’s description of how easy it is to get distracted while researching a paper in college, which is probably why I became a writer and not any kind of serious academic. But between this interview and Mamet’s advice for aspiring playwrights (and ping-pong players) to drop out of school, I’ve recently begun to wonder how useful conventional education is for writers, or whether a writer needs to go to school at all. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking a bit more about this, and about what kind of education, if any, a writer needs.
My best friend, Jonathan Katz, was for a number of years the kid Ping-Pong champion of New York State. And when he was twelve or thirteen he wandered into Marty Reisman’s Ping-Pong parlor in New York City. Reisman was then the U.S. champion in table tennis and a genius, an absolute genius. Jonathan asked him, “What do I have to do to play table tennis like you?”
Reisman said, “First, drop out of school.”
That would be my advice to aspiring playwrights.
—David Mamet, to Playboy