Changing the Subject: It’s Art and It’s Arduous

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Reading an advance copy of Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age, by essayist and literary critic Sven Birkerts, who directs the Bennington Writing Seminars and edits the literary journal AGNI. The book from Graywolf is due for release Oct. 6.

It’s offers an erudite meander around the social and cultural implications of the digital age. In the collection’s opening essay, “On or About,” Birkerts suggests that, in a world with too much information and suspect filters, we should safeguard our inner selves from the onslaught by turning from the “full embrace of our networks and reconnect to the one-on-one circuitry of art.” He says, “Art serves the soul not least by demanding and creating attention.”

While the essay winds over some well-worn trails of the obvious or subjective, the essay contained a kernel of insight that’s helpful to me as a novelist. I’ve written one book. It took me four or five years to finish it and self-publish. There are many reasons I chose to focus my creative attention on this one, long narrative project, but, as is probably the case with many writers who finish a first novel, I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a sustained piece of prose, wanted to experience the process and decide if there was any hope I could master the form. I needed to assess if ultimately I could create art in that medium and then continue to produce long-form fiction. My self-answer remains equivocal.

Relating a moment of epiphany, Birkerts put his finger on one of my deepest fears — “Works of art are feats of concentration.” And then a moment later he added the thought, “Imagination is the instrument of concentration.” My fear is about how deeply I have to imagine to concentrate a long story, how disorienting it is to go in and out of the fictive dream to function in daily life. My second novel has been stalled at the half-way point for several years, can’t get it to go, have lost the spark and can’t release into the level of concentration needed to reach completion. On some level, I fear the blurring of my inside/outside life. As a beginning novelist, I’m afraid of  “going down in the diving bell,” as teacher/writer Alan Heathcock, author of the story collection Volt, also from Graywolf, recently described in an online post about the act of immersing fully into his writing.

I recognized my fear of going deep in Birkert’s insightful comment, understand the implications for reader engagement, and that helps me understand this block. I know from reading novelist John Steinbeck’s A Life in Letters that after the fevered writing of Grapes of Wrath, he was sick in bed for weeks and in a letter to his editor Pascal Covici, said “I think I worked myself past the danger point on that book.”

I’m not pretending my freshman efforts equal the concentration of literary masters. But, I do know what it feels like to be fully immersed in the process of creation, to follow the imagination into disturbing places and attempt to capture and shape the experience. For me, there’s this illustration: a difficult, disturbing piece of writing from my novel Adrift in the Sound:

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An after-work crowd, mostly men in dark work clothes, stuffed the Twisted Owl, where a haze of blue smoke hovered above the bar. Lizette looked for Fisher, scanning faces in the bar mirror, hoping she’d find him sitting in tonight with the house band.

She took her time pushing to the bar, consciously breathing through her mouth, guarding her nose against the smell of sweat and wet wool. She knew the longer it took to get a pitcher of beer and find a place to squeeze in, the longer she’d be warm. She wanted to stake out a spot to hear the band, maybe talk to Fisher about the Dogs, get his advice on how to get back into the house, brushing a memory wisp of Rocket aside like a tendril.

She bought a pitcher, the barkeep tossing her a “what’s up” nod, and pulled out of the body press. She staked out a table, setting two glasses next to the pitcher as bait. It wasn’t long before a barrel-chested young guy sat down, probably a dock worker on his way home. Marvin Gaye blasted “Let’s Get It On” from the juke box, but loud laughter and pool clatter made it hard to hear him. She poured a glass of beer, handed it to him as he lounged in the spindly wooden chair. She tried to follow what he was saying, smile at the right times, but felt out of sync.

She undid a button on her flannel shirt and bent over to dig in her bag, knowing the man’s gaze would follow down her chest. She sat up, leaned back, grinned. He touched her thigh, signed her to dance. He clutched her to him, smelling of axel grease and BO. She gagged and warbled softly against his shoulder, feeling his hands slipping below her waistband. She moved in closer, wrapping her thin frame onto his body. She started sweating from the contact, feeling sure she’d have a warm place to sleep tonight. Peeking over his shoulder, she saw a man watching them. It took a second but she placed him. The counter clerk at the Pequod who shooed her for panhandling. He caught her eye and smiled, pushed toward her in the crowd.

Then a tall, bearded man cut in, easing the chubby guy out. He squeezed her roughly to him, making it hard for her to breathe. Pressed against his chest, she couldn’t read his face, but didn’t like the feel of him, rough and hard edged. She was suffocating, his big hand on her ass, ramming her pelvis against his groin. She could feel the lump of his cock and tried to pull away, but he held her around the waist and jammed her head harder against his shoulder, almost lifting her from the floor. Lizette struggled, but the man had her arms pinned in a wrestler’s hug. She started screaming and a big commotion broke out by the tavern’s front door. Her voice got mixed into the anxious sounds and drowned out by the jukebox.

She heard snatches of angry yelling, Shot! Fucker’s are shot! The crowd rushed the door. The man turned her loose and moved with the crowd. She slipped to the side wall and threaded her way to the window, angling a spot that looked onto the street. A man was lying on the ground, his legs twisted, blood from his gut running thin across the rain wet sidewalk. Another man staggered to the window, leaning against the glass where she stood and laid his hand on the pane, blood leaking through his fingers, smearing the window. Lizette turned and pushed back to her table, got her bag and headed for the rear door, pausing for an instant to catch her breath. The knob turned. The door swung out. She looked over her shoulder and up and down the alley to make sure it was clear. She stepped outside, deciding on the long way to the next street to avoid the crowd on the corner. She heard sirens in the distance. The buildings felt close and slimy, boarded up windows and doors looking blindly into the darkness. She moved toward the streetlight at the end, rain sprinkling in the glow.

He shoved her into a doorway from behind, black overcoat, humped like a whale, breathing the smell of hot fish guts onto the back of her neck. He ripped her loose jeans down. She screamed Help! He pulled her sideways and hit her open-handed, full force on the side of her face. Stunned, she shook it off and put her arms up. A bone crack, then a jab to her side took her breath away. Flattened against a metal door, hips pulled out, an unholy fire exploded inside her. Sirens coming closer. Then cold and greasy moss on the pavement against her cheek. She puked scrambled eggs and hash browns. Before she blacked out, she saw a dog lapping vomit and then felt it licking her bare thighs, its tongue warm and comforting.

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Ripening Persimmons

Yi Gao — artist and storyteller

Gently squeeze to see

if fruit yields using a firmly

placed thumb. Astringent

types are yielding when ripe.

Non-astringent varieties

go either way, but note

size and color of each exotic

piece. Place in brown paper

bag with an off-gassing banana,

crumple or nestle together

in a deeply rounded bowl

for a couple of days and long

nights, nesting, entwined. Eat

strawberries while you wait,

sip champagne, embrace, slip

 into our luscious sweetness

♦    Kate Campbell

Note: Scientists in California and Japan have discovered how to sex persimmon trees. Male trees code for a very small piece of RNA that acts as “molecular scissors,” cutting down gene expression to create a female tree. But, the experts say RNA scissors can be “fickle,” and this may help explain why “dioecious” plants that are genetically one sex can also function as another.

Keeping Art Alive — Hokusai

I’m not much for game playing. I always got picked last in girl’s basketball games. But, since friends were doing it, I reluctantly joined an art game — Keeping Art Alive. Instead of dropped shoulders and high pick-and-rolls, players got an artist’s name, checked out their work, reported back to the group. It’s not a game like Monopoly where you buy four houses and get a hotel or Scrabble where oryx puts you in the winner’s circle. This game sounded easy enough.

The rules are like the old TV show “Mission Impossible,” where you get an assignment and decide if you want to accept it or act like you’re blow drying your hair — can’t hear, don’t care. But, I found after agreeing to play that I got some hot creative ideas and fluffed up my art appreciation style. I guess the point of the game is the chance to amaze friends and family, as well as yourself — and in the process, Keep Art Alive.

Here’s my artistic game piece: Katsushika Hokusai. Yes, what you think you see happening, is … ahem … happening.

The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, Hokusai 1820 wood block pring

I learned that some years before Japanese artist Hokusai’s death in 1849 at the age of 89, he reportedly said: “At the age of five years I had the habit of sketching things. At the age of fifty I had produced a large number of pictures, but for all that, none of them had any merit until the age of seventy.

“At seventy-three finally I learned something about the true nature of things, birds, animals, insects, fish, the grasses and the trees. So at the age of eighty years I will have made some progress, at ninety I will have penetrated the deepest significance of things, at a hundred I will make real wonders and at a hundred and ten, every point, every line, will have a life of its own.”

Although Hokusai did not reach 110, his vision has endured and 165 years after his death his art is continually being adapted by contemporary artists — notably tattoos, photos, movies and graphic arts, including posters and clothing and other textiles. That’s particularly evident in modern iterations of “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” created when Hokusai was 60 years old.

Examples of Hokusai’s imagery in contemporary culture





I ran across Hokusai recently while writing a flash fiction piece (once you know, you know) that ended in the stealing of an ivory netsuke, which Hokusai created, but in wood-block carvings, as far as I can tell. Netsuke are erotic images or sculptures, produced for hundreds of years by both Chinese and Japanese artists. They’re sometimes called “pillow art.” Intended I suppose to give girls ideas, as if we don’t have plenty of our own.

But, I think what the art game players want is to highlight that art history is part of understanding our culture. Buying a pair of jeans with an image on the pockets may be cool, but chances are the purchaser has no idea of the fascinating history behind them. Hang a shower curtain in a bathroom with an Asian motif? Looks good, but the decorator probably doesn’t realize the orgins and rich history of the graphic design.

I guess since I now know more about this master Japanese artist and the art forms he worked in than before, I’ve won the satisfaction of helping “Keep Art Alive.” That feels awesome.

I hope you’ll try the game — get together with friends, create an art history challenge, draw artists’ names out of a hat or randomly online, everybody does some exploring and returns to the playing table to roll the dice.

The original print by Katsushika Hokusai

Bathing suit available on Etsy.com

The shower curtain can be ordered online

Think this game is silly? Click the link and find out why this company desperately needed to hire an art history major.

Flattened

FullSizeRender (10)This morning I’m fighting off a bit of depression, going over things that aren’t working in my life. If I work on it, the list gets very long and the load of dissatisfaction gets heavy, too heavy to bear. But then I bounce back, well, claw might be a better word. Kinda like crawling hand-over-hand on slender vines while dangling off the side of a cliff. I glance down at the rocks and the sliver of water and keep pulling, think what a mess I’d make if I let go.

But, before my surgery, right after Christmas, I had an amazing experience that helped put the perils of the abyss in perspective. I’d been running around filled with the need to do this and that for the holidays — clean, socialize, plan, wrap, visit, love, catch up, worry, intensely practice yoga, kiss, hug, dance, sing, sometimes brushing my teeth. Sleeping little, accomplishing less.

Two days before I went back to work in January, I went to bed, mind whirling, and found I couldn’t get back up. It was like a lead weight impressed me down on the bed. My mind began whirling. I was hallucinating wide awake, aware that it was happening, but helpless to make it stop. I checked the bedside clock, considered calling 911. I’d never want to disturb the dispatchers at an ungodly hour. Just seems too presumptuous. It felt like I’d lost my grip on sanity. The experience continued with increasing vividness.

FullSizeRender (9)I clearly saw my sons, everyone in the family — my grandchildren, my nieces and nephews, my siblings, my friends, co-workers, myself.

I realized everyone was growing and changing as I looked deeply into all our lives. It became joyful and reassuring, kaleidoscopic, voyeuristic, but I also realized there is still much work for all of us to do, that it’s getting done despite my impatience and meddling. I saw that everyone is handling their own life business very well, thank you.

I tried to shut down, go to sleep pinned to the bed as I was, unable to lift arms or legs. So I envisioned a warm and healing white light focused on my body. I often do this visualization during the meditation practice at the end of yoga workouts for relaxation and as a self-healing practice.

Then from the left side of my mind came an intense white light, pure and strong, over-powering in its brightness. I stepped closer to it, to its infinite power, looked for its source, for the energy behind the emanation, but could not penetrate the overpowering light, could not see beyond the engulfing brightness, and was afraid. I stepped back from this pure light and it gradually faded. Alone in the dark of my room I slept deeply, woke up feeling rested.

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I don’t understand this experience. I’ve never felt like that before. I’ve tried to explain it to myself — fear and stress from having breast cancer and facing surgery, lack of sleep, too much yoga, over stimulation from the holidays, overwork to make the holidays special, worry, anxiety, anger, disappointment.

What I clearly saw is all everyone growing into better lives, better selves, transforming in beautiful ways — even me. It was reassuring to see and understand. I saw my work as a writer, characters I need to know, stories I need to tell, feelings I need to express.

It’s a lot of work, my work, and I’m growing and changing too. I felt washed with knowledge and amazement, cleansed with a deep understanding that everything is fine, working just as God has planned for me, our family, you, our world.

Say what you will about this experience. I don’t feel fit to judge it. I can only report truthfully what happened and be amazed. When you have a moment to talk, I’m here waiting. Love you.

P.S. Four months have passed since I saw the light. Went to the oncologist last week. She said, “You’re cancer free.” They caught it early through a routine mammogram.

Baryshnikov’s Feet

Baryshnikov feet

Earth’s mass is 6.580 sextillion tons
and we cling to it like lint, endlessly
revolving. But some, they pull away,
unravel for an instant from this
spinning orb and lift with muscled
feet and thickened toes, defying mass
Mikhail rises for us, slides, sweeps,
soars, knobby toes extended en plein air.
Arched feet settle in fifth position. Slide
to second. Plié, Relevé, again
annie-leibovitz

Going Vertical

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“Going Vertical” my cover story on vertical urban landscapes with San Francisco plant maestro David Brenner, founder of Habitat Horticulture, is online at California Bountiful magazine with shots by talented Bay Area photographer Paolo Vescia. This is indoor gardening on a whole new angle.

Here are some scouting shots I took before the big guys showed up

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Four Literary Questions

Janet Fitch's Blog

This question was posed for me by a reader on my Goodreads page. For me, the best questions are the ones that make me think more deeply about the issues involved. This was a good one:
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 “What makes a great story/book? There are so many writers out there, but only a few get any acclaim, and some of the best posthumously. It is a herd mentality that snowballs into popularity?”
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The questioner is actually asking four separate questions here.
1. What makes a great story?
2. What makes a great book?
3. Why do only a few books get acclaim?
4. Is it a herd mentality that snowballs a book into popularity.
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I answered them in order–but Number 2 is the one that interests me most.
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1. A great story is one which satisfies the question it raises in the beginning. It can be a…

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