16 April 2008

Ira Glass on Storytelling - Part 4



This reminds me of the advice to songwriters and musicians to support the song. The song is everything and everything, every element of the music, the words, the accompaniment is in service to the song. A song is not about you, it's not a showcase for your ability on the guitar or drums, it's not a place to showcase you, but to submerge yourself to the song. Beginning songwriters are often admonished they must "generalize the particular," which means that although the seed of every song is you, that it must be constructed or expressed in such a way that it touches others. No one is interested in your particular situation, but if you find those aspects of your life that are resonant with theres or universally with humanity, then you have a work of art, a song. I find this advice useful to nearly every creative activity possible, since genuine creativity always starts with the characteristics of the individual and their experience, creativity must start with what is unique about you, but it also must be bent (or you are lucky your expression naturally are) until it is resonant with humanity.

Much bad poetry is about me, me, me and my woe. If you're writing poetry to express poor poor pitiful me, please try to make it interesting and relevant to someone else if you're going to foist it on others. Otherwise, keep it to yourself. This is not to judge what is good or bad poetry, but a laundry list of your troubles is not a poem, it's not a significant work of art and it's not going to be compelling to anyone but yourself.

Ira Glass on Storytelling - Part 2



Abandoning ideas is one of the most difficult things a creative person can do. It is also one of the most important. I struggle to give up on ideas, since they are like my children. Zen teaches us to avoid clinging to our desires. It's like being fired, you can't move on to greater success or another project unless you leave the present one behind. Getting fired can be the best thing that happens. Killing the lesser idea, killing the lesser job, allows you to move on to the greater one.

I rarely throw away an idea. That is one habit creative writers exhibit, especially songwriters, they keep every scrap of an idea they write down and use them years later in other works. An abandoned idea is not always abandoned, just sleeping or waiting to find the right fit with another idea. Songwriters usually keep notebooks filled with scraps from overheard conversations or ideas that come late at night, at breakfast, in the shower, on the train.

Hitchcock, who said "Drama is life with the dull bits left out." would have agreed with Ira. In television or any form of moving pictures it is important to remain engaged with the viewer. The boring bits need to be left out.

I doubt the same thing is true of games that take place in three dimensional environments. It is not uncommon for a player in a first person shooter to experience a lull in the fighting against the aliens or whatever, or moving from one area to another. There is a lot of choice when, where and how to engage the enemy, and thus create action. The boring bits are integrated into the environment and a 3d video game (really a simulation) is unlike a movie, in that the environment is the narrative. This is like architecture, in which dimensional space is used to manipulate feelings of the person experiencing the space. Moving pictures need to supply a passive subject with constant interest or they will lose interest. But in a game, the player is always making the next move.

Ira Glass on Storytelling - Part 3



This is a very real phenomena where you know you have artistic intuition or what Ira calls taste, but you lack the experience or ability to realize that taste.

He says "do a huge volume of work" which goes against the grain of most rational advice. Why would you want to continue to repeatedly crank out poor quality work, work that does not live up to you vision, your taste? Isn't it a failure to create works that do not live up to your taste? You didn't become a creative person to make bad stuff you became one to make good stuff. I fell into this trap and am still struggling to get out of it. I always felt that I should only do good work otherwise I must be wasting my time. It always bothered me when I couldn't get through a song on the guitar without flubbing a note. I know musicians, even great ones, do this all the time and no one in the audience knows the difference or cares, but I know and I do. This is a kind of perfectionism, which stifles creativity, because it stops you artificially, it stops creativity by making a mountain out of a mole hill. It's always been a bit frightening to think that every artist no matter how great has a lifecycle, that they start out creating "diamonds in the rough" sometimes their most compelling, but technically flawed work, then become successful and do compelling and technically good work, then later in life tend to create highly technically proficient works that have no soul, or the compelling nature of their early, flawed works. It seems like a cruel paradox designed to frustrate the creative person. But I'm getting off the subject.

You've got to do a lot work. You've got to do a lot of copying. Many commercial artists spent hours _tracing_ the figures in comic books to train their hand and eye, to get the proportions right until they could draw them on their own. Copying for a creative person is like training wheels, but they don't often tell you that. They don't want you to think of them singing for a cover band, tracing figures in a comic book, copying a painting. There are dangers in all of this, since you can just create a lot of bad work and never learn anything. Or you can start copying and keep copying and never learn to do anything that comes out of you and your influences.

I've been afraid over the years to do a lot of work. I thought it was best for me to create a small number of really good works, by studying and calculating and then making that one great work and showing it. This hasn't worked out too well since it doesn't give you the opportunity to practice. It's difficult for me to accept that I'm going to essentially throw good ideas away. That I have this great idea nobody's ever had for a photograph or a story, but that if I create it now, I lack the skills to make it live up to my vision. It frustrates me to know that perhaps later, with more experience, I might be able to do better, to make it live up to the vision, but by that time it's already out in the wild and I can't take it back. When you're still practicing, a lot of good intuitions are going to create works that don't live up to your expectations or vision and that's sad, but that is the reality of being creative, that it requires destruction and abandonment, that it requires this period of practice when great ideas fall short of what they could have been. It is part of the paradox. Because for some artists, their early works no matter how flawed may actually turn out to have the greatest success over time and later works no matter how polished and practiced do not move people as much as the flawed but moving ones. That's perhaps something to cling to, that you early works no matter how far short they fall from your vision or technical mastery, may be compelling and moving.

I tend to quit when I reach that point of frustration that my intuition or ideas are solid but the realization and the skills required are lacking. Sometimes it is just a matter of hitting your head against a brick wall until you find the right form of expression. I spent years trying to capture life experiences in poems, stories and songs until I realized I was trying to cram square pegs into round holes. The experiences were brief, intense intuitions about the natural environment, which fit perfectly with the size, form and intention of haiku. All the other forms didn't fit, they were too long, demanded to much explication and metaphor. The haiku allowed me to do what I had always wanted to do, recreate the experience for others, not describe it, not say what it was like through metaphor, but for the reader to actually re-experience what I had experienced.

There is a balance to achieve. There is a successful watercolor artist who started out with good ambition and intuition for painting. He spent a couple of years painting up a storm, making thousands of water color images, but when he attended shows, he could tell his paintings were missing something the other watercolor artist's paintings had. His were good. The other artists thought he had talent, but in reality his paintings, even after two years of exhausting work, were mediocre. He attended university classes in painting and art theory and afterward, his paintings improved technically, but more importantly, in the ideas they expressed. He devised a new method and visual language within watercolor technique based on what he had learned about painting, design and art theory at the university, applying them to his paintings. He became a success both artistically and financially.

To get good at something creative you need to do a lot of work, practice, but you also need to know when to stop and think, evaluate what you are doing. You have to practice, since it is hard to create art works when you lack the necessary skills to create them, but you do not need to become a virtuoso to create lasting art works. Art is about the compelling nature of the work not the technical mastery.

Ira Glass on Storytelling - Part 1



I found this series of talks by Ira Glass very helpful. My high school English class also emphasized the essay paragraph and really never taught story telling. I somehow absorbed by osmosis that anecdotes were something to be avoided, but I agree with him that anecdote is the seed of the story. It's not a story yet. As Ira says, next must come an explanation of why you're spending time reading this anecdote, which he calls the "moment of reflection."

In this example, he takes advantage of the dual meaning possible in the events of the anecdote. Waking up to a quiet house might mean a pleasant Sunday morning or might mean the house is too quiet, abnormally quiet, with ensuing consequences. The example is setup well for a suspense story...it remains to be seen whether this anecdote followed by reflection is applicable to other types of stories. I suspect it is.

It's always been an obstacle to my writing, that I find material I know is compelling, but get stuck attempting to discover the story within it. For a long time, I tried to turn some significant life experiences into songs, Western poems and stories, but despite these experiences being compelling, there never seemed to be enough there to make a complete song, poem or story, until I rediscovered haiku. Immediately I recognized that I didn't need to write more lines, that what I had was perfectly sized for haiku. Not only that, but the intense, personal experiences involving intuitions about nature were the stuff of haiku.

It was also important for me to accept that whether or not the haiku were "correct" or great art did not matter to me, what mattered was the haiku for perfectly expressed what I was trying to express and what I was being compelled to express. I was satisfied that I was able to express, realize and convey my experience with fidelity and satisfaction without any regard to external requirements, such as "needing" to write down the experience in a Western poetic form because it was the only "legitimate" way. I don't care so much if they are "good" as much as I care that they represent and communicate my experiences accurately and effectively in a way that is satisfying. I can't get them out of my mind move on until then.


15 April 2008

01 April 2008

Fresh or Cooked?

In recent years tomato sauce was in the nutrition news. It turns out that cooking tomatoes makes Lycopene more available than in fresh tomatoes.

This went against the prevailing grain of nutritional thinking, which said that fresh was always better. Nutritionists argued that cooking reduced the amount of vitamins in food. They backed this up with scientific studies showing that cooking vegetables (or fruits like tomatoes) does reduce the amount of vitamins. An obsession developed over "keeping as much of the vitamins" in your food as possible. Steaming was touted as a way to avoid "losing" the vitamins into the cooking water. The typical English way of preparing vegetables was dammed as washing away nutrition. New technologies were advanced in an attempt to retain as much of the nutrients (known ones) as possible. Some radical eaters adopted entirely raw diets hoping to not lose a single molecule of nutrition. The trouble with this view, was that it overlooks the reality cooking can make certain nutrients available that are not available in fresh foods.

Why bring this up? I've been reading Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food (well, actually I read it in two days and lent it out and haven't seen it since). I had thought of this before reading his book, but I was reminded of this "paper vs. plastic" debate brought about by nutritionism and of the importance of culture to eating. The question is, how do we decide what to eat, fresh or cooked? It seems to me that food culture provides the answer to this question. A cuisine or food way develops over a long period of time to satisfy the nutritional requirements, the survival, of a people. Embodied in this food way must be the right balance between fresh and cooked.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the cooking and crushing involved in the canning process makes the Lycopene in tomatoes more available than fresh, since canned crushed tomatoes are frequently the base of pasta sauces. Because Lycopene is fat-soluble, serving cooked and crushed tomatoes in an oil-rich sauce is thought to make the nutrient more available.

If we look at Italian cuisine, we are probably going to find an optimal balance of fresh versus cooked tomatoes, otherwise the people eating according to the Italian food ways would likely be very sick. That the cuisine offers a lot of cooked tomato sauces attests to the nutritional value of sometimes cooking away those vitamins. Here is a food way that encapsulates nutritional knowledge that food science took centuries to get around to counting and measuring. Ignoring the wisdom inherent in Italian food ways is another example of nutritionism and the reductionist view of nutrition, which only considers the parts we can count and measure. It ignores what our senses, our taste and smell can tell us.

The reality is that cooking foods makes available nutritional elements unavailable in fresh food, and very like fresh food contains higher levels of other nutritional elements than after cooking. The right answer is a balance between them. We really do not know yet what nutrients are made more available by cooking, combining or processing foods. Food traditions are a good way to make the decision, given that nutritional science is still in its infancy. We can make use of hundreds or thousands of years of food tradition to answer this vexing question: fresh or cooked?

Blowing on the spark

Blowing on
the spark inflames--
a haiku.
-sek, Mar 2008

Hybrid rose

Hybrid rose--
blue sky without rain.
-sek, Feb 2008

Tomato Seeds

I don't need
a tomato
that rides
well,
a transcontinental
traveler.

I just need
a tomato
grown from
grandmother's
seeds.

I don't need
a tomato
perfectly
round,
a spherical
aberration.

I just need
a tomato
grown from
grandmother's
seeds.

I don't need
a tomato
blessed by
the grower's
association.

I just need
a tomato
grown from
grandmother's
seeds.
-sek, Mar 2008