On writing aesthetics: inferences and implications

Child of God by Cormac McCarthyHere I am recovering from another great Cormac McCarthy novel trying to figure out my take on aesthetics for this week. I finished reading Child of God the other day and I’m still piecing together what exactly it is about his writing I love so much. His style holds an intriguing dichotomy of illustrative scenery that grabs all senses juxtaposed with minimalist storytelling.

When I say minimalist, I mean it in the proper sense; McCarthy’s prose are not at all over-simplified, rather, they are tight and methodical. Every word of action and dialog is intentional, including every word he leaves out forcing the reader to engage. There is no room allowed for flowery superfluous language to gently carry the reader downstream. Such a passive reader would be lost on the first few pages blindly tripping over the gaps.

I had originally thought it was the lush environments and creative word choices I was enamored with. After deeper introspection I realized it was this minimalist technique inducing reader engagement. I like to be challenged as a reader, to connect implied situations to each other and draw conclusions, not once being told what to think.

McCarthy is a genius in this regard. I cared about the pathetic life of Lester Ballard – an uneducated 27-year-old cave-dwelling psychopath – despite his vile behavior and despicable actions. I don’t recall a single redeeming instance in this character’s life, yet I was vested in his day-to-day survival living on the fringe of a rural community.

Not once did McCarthy tell me I am supposed to care about the protagonist, nor did he tell me to hate him. In fact, most of what I learned about the character was indirect. Small details were leaked throughout the novel revealing just how screwed up this guy was, wearing the ill-fitting clothes and stitched-together scalps of his victims while collecting their corpses for his pleasure. Gruesome on every level. Only a few actual violent acts are fully depicted, yet the reader can infer these acts occur frequently at similar magnitude.

She was lying in the floor but she was not dead. She was moving. She seemed to be trying to get up. A thin stream of blood ran across the yellow linoleum rug and seeped away darkly in the wood of the floor. Ballard gripped the rifle and watched her. Die, goddamn you, he said. She did. (p. 119)

He’d long been wearing the underclothes of his female victims but now he took to appearing in their outerwear as well. A gothic doll in illfit clothes, its carmine mouth floating detached and bright in the white landscape. (p. 140)

Perhaps that is the root of McCarthy’s hold over me as a reader – the inherent aesthetic beauty of his writing – the fact that he produced for me subliminal responses on top of the conscious conclusions I was formulating. But there are multiple other levels to appreciate, beautifully crafted sentences and careful word choices to minimalistic story-telling.

Old woods and deep. At one time in the world there were woods that no one owned and these were like them. He passed a windfelled tulip poplar on the mountainside that held aloft in the grip of its roots two stones the size of fieldwagons, great tablets on which was writ only a tale of vanished seas with ancient shells in cameo and fishes etched in lime. Ballard among gothic treeboles, almost jaunty in the outsized clothing he wore, fording drifts of kneedeep snow, going along the south face of a limestone bluff beneath which birds scratching in the bare earth paused to watch. (pp. 127-128)

Was he cognizant of this capability to induce multiple response levels when writing the book forty years ago? Perhaps, I recall a similar reaction to reading The Road. I plan to read more of his work to find out.


Writing Craft: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

I found myself reading a kindred spirit in the writing style of Wells Tower. Tower takes a comprehensive approach to character development and story complexity, with the attitude of a fellow Gen Xer. Well-written subject matter carried a dark subtext, but not usually of some harrowing violence or a macabre scene – though the unusual title story “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” certainly filled that role, following a violent story of Viking invaders with hints of fantasy and speaking in current day vulgarity. These were stories about every day real people living real lives in the face of adversity and challenging interpersonal relationships.

The stories all fit the slice of life style I studied in college twenty-plus years ago, though much more developed and filled out. The darkest element was what was not written; the ambiguity. The stories ended with little-to-no closure after setting up tense scenes, elaborate intertwining storylines, and characters the reader can easily become vested in. For example, in the story “On the Show” we are left wondering if the perpetrator of an awful child-molestation act at a carnival is caught during the on-going police investigation. While the story follows the momentary lives of several characters at the carnival, his identity is casually revealed near the end as he thinks about his wife and daughter following a cattle competition he had just hosted:

But he doesn’t care for the pointless velocity of the carnival amusements. Looking out at the whirling skyline of the fair, he can’t help thinking about all the earth you could move, all the beef you could haul with so much fuel and good steal. He thinks, too, of last night, of the boy in the Honeypot, and feels a pleasant ache, like being rasped on the back of the sternum with a jeweler’s file. There’s a want in him to take a stroll around, but he pushes it down. (Nook Ed., p. 148)

With exception to the title story, I found myself struggling to accept the stories’ endings; I wasn’t ready to finish when they did. The lush prose and witty language made for compelling page turning, but the endings left too much unresolved.

I did something I don’t normally do when I write a book response or review: I read some online reviews by other readers to see how they responded as I work my way through my own takeaways. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned was loved by many readers though a handful disliked the lack of closure displaying the same feelings I had when I finally put the book down. Going back to my original point, it’s what wasn’t written that caught my attention. It was intentional to create discomfort, depicting the uncertainty of the real world. Not everything has a clean ending, or an ending at all, as we move through time and space interacting with each other.

As far as writing craft goes, it’s difficult for me to find specific focus on what I may have gained from Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned as I did from other recent books this year. His writing style shares many craft elements to my own. I will say this, though, it gave me a new respect for taking chances, particularly leaving stories intentionally open-ended. And it has spurred a new thought-process worth considering in forcing the reader to make connections and draw conclusions. I’m sure a few readers were put off for this reason, but I embraced it the trust and confidence Tower put on me.

Writing Craft: The Delicate Prey by Paul Bowles

Dark subjects driven by the dark psychology of the characters rooted in a common thread of loneliness. The short stories of The Delicate Prey are best described as “messed up” as someone noted in a short review I spotted on Good Reads. Artfully written bringing early twentieth century Latin America to life, contrasting the natural beauty of the land with the less-than-desirable living conditions of the locals.

An element of racism exists among those of Spanish descent toward the native people – known simply as Indians – adding to the tensions and demeanor of the characters, providing a sense of entitlement for some to act upon their ill intentions. In the first story, “At Paso Rojo,” an upper-class woman, Chalía, and her sister, visit their brother’s ranch after their mother has died. Chalía makes a game of emotionally manipulating and injuring a young Indian man who works for her brother. The specific root of behavior is not apparent beyond her open discrimination toward the Indians, though we learn of lying and deceptive behaviors through the story, and her desire to control others. The following passage paints a vivid portrait of Chalía’s diabolical nature.

Something dark lying in the road ahead of her made her stop walking. It did not move….as she drew near, she knew it was Roberto. She touched his arm with her foot. He did not respond. She leaned over and put her hand on his chest. He was breathing deeply, and the smell of liquor was almost overpowering. She straightened and kicked him lightly in the head. There was a tiny groan from far within. This also, she said to herself, would have to be done quickly. She felt wonderfully light and powerful as she slowly maneuvered his body with her feet to the right-hand side of the road. There was a small cliff there, about twenty feet high. When she got him to the edge, she waited a while, looking at his features in the moonlight. His mouth was open a little, and the white teeth peeked out from behind the lips. She smoothed his forehead a few times and with a gentle push rolled him over the edge. He fell very heavily, making a strange animal sound as he hit. (P. 18)

 “The Scorpion” was probably one of the strangest stories I read, and the most thought provoking. Two sons had left their elderly mother to live in a cave they dug out of clay for an undetermined length of time. She was left to survive with a bare minimum of supplies, her dreams, and her memories. Surrounded by scorpions in the walls and constant dripping water, she adapts to her solitude.

There were many things about this life that the old woman liked. She was no longer obliged to argue and fight with her sons to make them carry wood to the charcoal oven. She was free to move about at night and look for food. She could eat everything she found without having to share it. And she owed no one any debt of thanks for the things she had in her life. (P. 103)

Finally, one of her sons arrives to retrieve her, he seems surprised that either she is still there or alive; she refuses to leave at first. We don’t know why he is there for her, but it is clear their relationship is not good as she is not even sure of his identity.

One dark day he looked up to see one of her sons standing in the doorway. She could not remember which one it was, but she thought it was the one who had ridden the horse down the dry river bed and nearly been killed. She looked at his hand to see if it was out of shape. It was not that son. (P. 103)

We never learn the names of the old woman nor her son, not even the anonymous old man who sits outside the cave occasionally without any interaction. Her closest interaction with another person is built on isolation:

One old man used to come from the village on his way down to the valley, and sit on a rock just distant enough from the cave for her to recognize him. She knew he was aware of her presence in the cave there, and although she probably did not know this, she disliked him for not giving some sign that he knew she was there. (P. 103)

We can only surmise the reason the old woman was sent to live in a cave by her two resentful sons far outside of town was that it was intended to be her tomb. What we do learn is implied through actions and the bitter dialogue; the specifics about their estrangement are clear. It’s best summed up in this exchange at the close of the story as the son leads his mother out of the cave and the surprised old man sitting nearby says “good-bye”:

“Who is that?” said her son.
“I don’t know.”
Her son looked back at her darkly.
“You’re lying,” he said. (P. 106)

Interestingly, the story “The Fourth Day Out from Santa Cruz” paints a dark portrait of loneliness and despondency not unlike the other stories, but with a happy ending, as happy as one could expect in the circumstances. A young man named Ramón signed on to the crew of a ship, working in the scullery.

Except for the orders they gave him in the kitchen, the sailors behaved as if he did not exist. They covered his bunk with dirty clothes, and lay on it, smoking, at night when he wanted to sleep. They failed to include him in any conversation, and so far no one had even made an allusion, however deprecatory, to his existence. (P. 106-107)

During a stopover in a port town, Ramón searches for the crew after he has finished cleaning the kitchen, hours after the crew had left the ship. He finds a group of them in a café. The following scene captures the anguish and anger Ramón confronts as it continues to build to a climax:

Ramón turned around and sat down suddenly at a small table. The waiter came an served him, but he scarcely noticed what he was drinking. He was watching the table with the six men from his ship. Like one fascinated, he let his eyes follow each gesture: the filling of the little glasses, the tossing down the liquor, the back of the hand wiping the mouth. And he listened to their words punctuated by loud laughter. Resentment began to swell in him; he felt that if he sat still any longer he would explode. Pushing back his chair, he jumped up and strode dramatically out into the street. No one noticed his exit. (P. 108)

As Ramón continues to find ways draw the sailors’ attention to no avail, he sees an opportunity during their fourth day out at sea. A tired bird far from land is desperate to land on the ship’s deck, but the gawking crew scares it from doing so. As they place bets on the bird’s fate, Ramón brings out the ship’s mascot, a large cat, and trains the cat’s focus on the bird to attempt to catch it. The sailors are impressed.

In a situation that appeared to be leading to some type of violent act of Ramón’s doing was cleverly displayed by the cat attempting to catch the bird without success. Yet, Ramón is awarded with the acceptance from his crewmates he craved.

At noonday meal they talked about it. After some argument the bets were paid. One of the oilers went to his cabin and brought out a bottle of cognac and a set of little glasses which he put in front of him and filled, one after the other.
“Have some?” he said to Ramón.

Art & Fear hit home

I wrote this response to Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland in January 2012 as part of my MFA Writing studies. Reading through it tonight I felt it was worth sharing on the blog. It’s quite autobiographical and contains a few lessons in self-awareness and self-acceptance that anyone in a creative field must work through and overcome.

* * * 

Art & Fear is a fascinating book touching on several points throughout my professional and personal life. It has stirred up many thoughts and emotions, evoking memories of my artistic roots and where I find myself now, questioning my seemingly unorthodox path from aspiring artist to corporate communicator.

I have always been involved in the arts. Before I was ten I had already decided I would be an artist when I grew up. By the time I was in college I already had several years experience in making art: played guitar in rock bands, painted with oils, wrote short stories, wrote and performed at poetry slams, and shot, developed, and printed black and white 35 mm film. These passionate endeavors led to my pursuit of a BFA as a Fine Art major with the predetermined career path to become a professional artist.

The harsh reality hit shortly after graduation. Within a few months it became clear that digital media was replacing the traditional methods at a rapid rate. The local freelance creative job market was intensely competitive. Having found I was adept at using Photoshop I launched my career as a digital photo-retoucher building off my traditional education in painting and photography. Not quite the fine artist pursuit, but it satisfied my creative urges and paid the bills. Digital graphic design soon followed as I continued to expand my capabilities, eventually leading to web design and development.

It was never easy; I found myself stopping some of my much beloved creative disciplines, particularly writing and music, to focus my energies on becoming the best digital artist possible with no formal training in new media. Fortunately, in recent years writing has made a surprising re-entry in my life, now playing a dominant part of my profession.

Early in the book, the authors of Art & Fear explain the grim reality that ninety-eight percent of graduates with art degrees are set up to fail. A lack of preparation and education on the business of artmaking tends to be a problem in the art schools – it certainly was when I was a student. Art is an accepted profession in our country, but not an accepted occupation. As Bayles and Orland vividly point out, “if ninety-eight percent of our medical students were no longer practicing medicine five years after graduation, there would be a Senate investigation.” (11). I know too many such art grads who have failed in their artistic careers soon after college. Talented individuals who did not know how to make a living as artists, who did not know the right people at the right times, who did not know how to apply their talents and skills to a tangential profession outside of their comfort zone. Looking back it seems I was one of the fortunate few.

So here I am fifteen years later, as a web designer, as a business writer, as a professional communicator, I have never once deviated from the creative path I set out on in my teens. But I cannot call myself an artist. I have not primed a hand-stretched canvas or pressed an intaglio print in several years, but the knowledge of color, texture, form, composition, and storytelling is carried with me in the communication work I produce today. Writing a strategy requires a great deal of creative thinking, in both the over-arching concepts and the tactics to implement it. Creating a website is a multidisciplinary task involving skills in writing, design, user experience, and technology. Why should these sorts of works disqualify me from being an artist? I never technically quit; I evolved.

However, Bayles and Orland do write, “For most artists, making good art depends upon making lots of art, and any device that carries the first brushstroke to the next blank canvas has tangible, practical value.” (61) Any device … has tangible, practical value caught my attention, as in the medium and method do not matter as long as the artistic intent is there. Have I been an artist all along?

I have found myself in this gray area throughout my career. When I am asked what I studied in school, my answer is naturally fine art, and I get the funny look. How did I get here from there? Did I throw away my education and sell out? Of course not, I applied everything from my fine arts education to become what I am today, whatever that label might be.

Ultimately, what this book instilled in me was self-acceptance. I understand where I came from is not so unique; many aspiring artists have traveled this path. I am getting over the fear of calling myself an artist, a writer, or any other creative title. As long as I am true to myself, in my corporate communication job, or in my revitalized interest of becoming a professional writer, no one can take that away from me despite his or her level of acceptance or understanding. And I can live with that.

Carver’s realism in fiction

I don’t often find myself holding such deep empathy for characters as I did while reading a selection of Raymond Carver’s stories in Cathedral. The man was brilliant at capturing the human condition with stripped-down language and few words. He animated the ordinary and mundane; uninteresting people suddenly become complicated and intriguing characters on the page fueled by such strong emotions as loneliness, resentment, and grief.

As suspense continued to climb through each story, I kept wondering what a particular character was going to do next. In the story “Preservation,” I was waiting for the wife to snap in response to her depressed husband who spent three months on the couch after losing his job. I really thought at one point she was contemplating violence, yet, it’s never once suggested in the words on the page. Anger and frustration are portrayed through her actions and observations of her husband’s despondency, but it’s between the lines and paragraph breaks where her violent thoughts reside.

The underlying emotions and mental states in Carver’s stories are incredibly real, yet only touched upon in the words themselves, if at all, like the clichéd iceberg analogy I won’t bother to recite, you’ve heard it more than once. Likewise, I found similar empathetic responses in other stories, particularly the heavy grief-weighted sadness of “A Small, Good Thing.” It would not surprise me if this story had a reputation of drawing tears from readers. The fright of two parents coping with their severely injured child in the hospital and the unknown outcome is not an easy one to portray. This story left me in a somber mood; there was a lot to rationalize and digest.

So now, my self-imposed challenge is to accomplish at least half this reaction from readers of my own stories.