The Art or the Artist?

“John Wayne was no actor.”

Yes, that’s what she said! While working a crossword puzzle, my wife had asked me about Academy Award winners from the ‘60s, and I’d suggested the Duke. My response was met with the above inflammatory statement. (John Wayne wasn’t the answer to the puzzle, but in fact, he did win an Oscar in 1969 for True Grit.)

But my wife’s comment got me to thinking. No doubt many would agree with her. After all, John Wayne pretty much played the same role in all of his movies. When he portrayed Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, he played the title character “as a gunfighter.” Does that mean Wayne wasn’t really an actor? How about George C. Scott? Both actors had millions of fans. People watched their movies to see how each actor adapted his latest role to his unique personality. Both had an electric presence that energized every character they portrayed.

But there are polar opposites that are equally enjoyable to watch. Consider Christian Bale, or Meryl Streep, or Dustin Hoffman. Their talent lies in adapting themselves to the role. These actors dissolve into the personality of the character they portray. While watching them, you see Batman, Sophie Zawistowski, or Benjamin Braddock. The character being portrayed is so vivid, you don’t see the actor.

The elegant Fred Astaire was said to have vanished into the fluidity of his dance moves. James Cagney, on the other hand, with his bouncy, stiff-legged leaps and sprints, brought a prizefighter’s moves to the dance floor. One made you see the dance, the other made you see him. And both pulled in large — and appreciative — audiences.

Certain writers display similar approaches to their craft. Whenever I read The Grapes of Wrath, or Tortilla Flat, I’m carried away by the story, the characterization, and the beauty of the language. Those are the things I feel when I read a John Steinbeck piece. However, when I read Robert E. Howard, I see his fiery personality illuminating the action, whether the story is about Conan, King Kull, or Solomon Kane. And the same goes for The Call of the Wild and The Sea-Wolf — you know you’re seeing Jack London, or aspects of him, on every page.

Piet Mondrian once declared that “The position of the artist is humble. He is essentially a channel.” There’s discipline in that approach, one that Meryl Streep, Fred Astaire, and John Steinbeck could agree on. The artist must get out of the way so the art can live.

But the other approach, that of George C. Scott, Robert E. Howard, and Jack London, also produces good art. John Lennon put it this way: “If being an egomaniac means I believe in what I do and in my art or music, then in that respect you can call me that… I believe in what I do, and I’ll say it.”

Writer and mystic Thomas Merton once suggested an intriguing compromise between the two extremes: “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” Yes.

The Magic of Place

Earlier this month, Julie and I took a 15-mile e-bike journey across the Sonoran Desert north of Phoenix. Our guide knew the area well. He informed us that broken pottery littered the area. The Hohokom people who lived here for thousands of years believed shattering old pots would release the spirit of the departed artists who made them. While we searched for shards, our guide cautioned us to keep our eyes open for rattlesnakes, Sonoran toads, and spiny lizards. A pack of coyotes shadowed us for much of the journey, yipping to each other as they slinked just out of sight behind the brittle bush and ironwood trees.

A light rain dampened our little trek, but quickly blew east in time to catch the last rays of the setting sun and give us this little arc of a rainbow on the distant horizon. A line from H. R. Wakefield’s “He Cometh and He Passeth By” echoed in memory:

“Arizona is a moon-dim region, very lovely in its way, and stark and old, an ancient, lonely land. One is brought up against the vast enigmas of time and space and eternity.

I felt that.

My DMR Books blog interview

I was pleasantly surprised and honored when D.M. Ritzlin of DMR Books asked if he could interview me as part of his series of author profiles. We covered my writing background, the literary and philosophical influences on my fiction, and works in progress.

It’s now online at Independent Author Spotlight: M.C. Tuggle.

A Tree Amid the Wood

A Tree Amid the Wood

I am delighted to announce my story “A Tree Amid the Wood” is featured in the latest edition of Little Blue Marble, which publishes fiction, non-fiction, and poetry focusing on ecology.

Franklin Pratt lives in a special house of his own design. It is a living thing that senses and responds to its owner’s needs by growing rooms as needed and reflecting the owner’s emotional state with bioluminescent blossoms. Once it’s mass-produced, Franklin’s invention can provide housing for millions and help heal the environment.

But since his stroke, Franklin is unable to share his creation with the world. He feels he’s a prisoner in his own home and distrusts Carrie Masada, the woman who supervises his team of caretakers. Franklin fears she only wants to steal the secret of his house.

And he’s right. Carrie wants Franklin’s secret. But why?

My love and concern for nature has inspired a number of my posts and published stories, so while honored by this acceptance, I am especially pleased my story promotes a cause I believe in deeply. The title comes from one of Ezra Pound’s early poems, “The Tree“:

I stood still and was a tree amid the wood,
Knowing the truth of things unseen before;
Of Daphne and the laurel bough
And that god-feasting couple old
That grew elm-oak amid the wold.
‘Twas not until the gods had been
Kindly entreated, and been brought within
Unto the hearth of their heart’s home
That they might do this wonder thing;
Nathless I have been a tree amid the wood
And many a new thing understood
That was rank folly to my head before.

 As in Pound’s lovely poem, my story explores how love of the natural world is the essential foundation for understanding, connecting, and caring — in other words, for becoming fully human.

Creative Borrowing

In my post Writing with Creative Constraints, I confessed the following:

“In the past couple of months, I’ve broken through writer’s block by writing stories for themed anthologies or contests. In other words, I was out of ideas, so I followed the lead of someone else. “

Confession? Nothing to feel guilty about. After all, nothing new under the sun, right? Besides, since there are only seven basic stories, every work of fiction is only a variation or combination of them. So creative borrowing is simply what we writers do. Look at Star Wars. It’s just another space opera/fantasy/western/World War II/heroic quest tale.

Even the best look to other authors for inspiration. Take William Shakespeare, for example. The Cultural Tutor has compiled the source materials for all 38 of the Bard’s plays, from All’s Well That Ends Well to Titus Andronicus. So recycle those borrowed ideas with abandon, but don’t forget to infuse your creation with your own special style .

Writing with Creative Constraints

Dashiel Carrera, author of The Deer, has some great advice for beating writer’s block: Realize that every work of art requires constraints of some kind:

For writers, it may be the case that the magic of creative constraints doesn’t lie in the constraints themselves but in the ways in which they counteract some deleterious impulse. The creative constraint may also be a means of helping writers understand the wants and needs of a particular project. Certainly for the five projects in this collection—spanning the genres of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction—creative constraints elucidated the shifting boundaries that circumscribed the writing process, and revealed a path forward.

This reminds me of one of my favorite aphorisms from Marcus Aurelius: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” I firmly believe this. In the past couple of months, I’ve broken through writer’s block by writing stories for themed anthologies or contests. In other words, I was out of ideas, so I followed the lead of someone else. Too much freedom can get in your way, blinding you to possibilities.

The result? I’ve signed a contract with one publisher, and have submitted two additional manuscripts to other venues, pieces I believe are some of the best work I’ve ever done. (One, by the way, was sent to another publisher rather than the one who proposed the theme. Just another example of how writers find inspiration where they can!)

Creative constraints are everywhere, not just in themes mandated by publishers. The genre you write in imposes its own unique constraints, requiring you to invent fresh ways to work within or around them. A worthy challenge sharpens your craft, makes you approach your project in unexpected and original ways. And of course the form you choose (poetry, essay, novel, etc.) also provides creative constraints. As Robert Frost once put it, writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. Obstacles bring out the best in us.

Quote of the day

History and Literature

“The act of writing this book made it clear to me that history, folklore and fiction are actually more similar than they are different. Each uses storytelling as a means of reckoning with the world, of processing trauma—both individually and collectively—and of finding one’s place. At the same time, these stories, whether fictional or factual, bind us to something greater, some shared understanding of where we have come from, of who we are, and of who we might become. “

Emma Seckel

The Quarter(ly) Myths, Fables, and Folklore

I’m thrilled to announce that Quarter Press has released the second volume of The Quarter(ly) Journal. It offers fantastical poetry, fiction, comics, and art by award-winning authors and artists, and includes my story “An Alignment of Wood and Water.”

Zach Benson is a master carpenter who builds special projects for special clients along the North Carolina coast. He returns to a client’s house to handle a complaint, something he absolutely dreads having to do. The disgruntled client is a newcomer to the area who lives in an isolated bungalow on Pamlico Sound. She’s a novice witch who claims Zach did not make a witching floor according to her specifications.

As Zach inspects the floor’s enchanted shapes of ash, oak, and cedar, a mysterious figure shows up outside. It takes Zach a while to get his nerve up, but he decides to confront the intruder.

It’s a scary/fun story featuring a creepy familiar, a dreamy shoreline, blue-collar stoicism, and a magical showdown. It also includes my thoughts on malignant do-gooderism. Please check it out! Quarter(ly) Journal is now available at Amazon.

The Quarter(ly) Myths, Fables, and Folklore

Adventures and mishaps in science fiction, fantasy, and mystery

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