Tag Archives: art

Make it new


“That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes

We’ve all been there. We want to create something groundbreaking, something new and fresh. And we imagine that to do so we must start from scratch and create something never seen before. Forget genre! Forget tropes! Let’s make something truly original.

Problem is, it’s impossible to create something no one has ever seen before. Everyone gets their ideas from someone else. Stephen King learned from H.P. Lovecraft, who imitated Edgar Alan Poe, who got one of his best ideas (“The Raven”) from Charles Dickens. And so on. The work of every writer has a lineage, born out of a tradition. Step one in mastering the craft of writing, then, is to learn that tradition and make it your own.

What we call tradition is a set of conventions handed down — and embraced — because they work. As evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller put it, “A ‘tradition’ is just an innovation that’s been peer-reviewed. One that replicates, generation after generation.”

The reason these conventions work for us is because they are based on who we are. Carl Jung observed recurring personality types that he referred to as archetypal figures, which include: mother, father, child, devil, god, wise old man, wise old woman, the trickster, and the hero. Jung rejected the blank slate theory of human psychological development, knowing that evolutionary pressures formed our bodies and personalities.

As beings with a long-established nature, we find ourselves confronting situations that are also long-established and recurring. Jung described these archetypal events as birth, death, separation from parents, initiation, marriage, and the union of opposites.

Underlying the superficial changes we experience is a timeless reality that repeatedly manifests itself in a set number of ways. That’s why there are only so many possible plots.

Joseph Campbell, who wrote “The Hero With A Thousand Faces,” used the term “monomyth” to describe the hero’s journey, a plot that appears all over the world. All cultures, he wrote, create their own traditions, including their own stories to express their experience with the unchanging reality behind human existence.

And that’s what we want to do. Tradition is not an obstacle to creativity, but a springboard. When we interpret our experience in the light of tradition, we reveal to our readers, and ourselves, the mystic union of the past and present. In the words of T. S. Eliot, we must uncover the “point of intersection of the timeless with time.” That endeavor, says Eliot, is “the occupation of the saint.”

The challenge, as Ezra Pound put it, is to “Make it new.” Somehow, we must honestly recognize, and then relate, our insights, our pain, our love, our hate, to the timeless truth of the human condition. That’s the vital component that keeps the tradition alive — us.

Two Million Wondrous Nature Illustrations Put Online by The Biodiversity Heritage Library

Owl

Check out the gorgeous nature images now online courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library. This is part of an effort to raise awareness of the sad plight of wildlife. Wild animals now face a threat unparalleled in Earth’s history:

Are we truly in the midst of a human-caused sixth mass extinction, an era of “biological annihilation”? Many scientists and popular science writers say yes, using terms like “Holocene” or “Anthropocene” to describe what follows the Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Triassic, and Cretaceous periods. Peter Brannen, author of extinction history The Ends of the Earth has found at least one scientist who thinks the concept is “junk.” But Brannen quotes some alarming statistics. Chilling, even. “Until very recently,” he writes, “all vertebrate life on the planet was wildlife. But astoundingly, today wildlife accounts for only 3 percent of earth’s land animals; human beings, our livestock, and our pets take up the remaining 97 percent of the biomass… almost half of the earth’s land has been converted into farmland.”

We need the wild. Maybe this project will make people appreciate it more.

Alan Alda and E.O. Wilson Talk on Creativity

E. O. Wilson is one of the most important and influential scientists of our age. His work on the deep foundations of human nature and behavior has inspired many in the arts and sciences – just to name one example, the fruitful new discipline called evolutionary psychology is impacting many areas, including marketing, politics, and education. His latest book, The Origins of Creativity, promises new insights into the creative process.

In the video linked above, Alan Alda interviews E. O. Wilson about the dynamics between the individual and society that inspire creativity:

Alan Alda: The campfire was the place that drew them. Maybe it was just the pleasure of looking at the flames, maybe it was to compete, maybe it was actually toasting marshmallows… but they told stories. That sounds to me like a tremendous engine for empathy.
E.O. Wilson: The important thing is to see what the groups really were when they gathered around the firelight as opposed to the sunlight, and to know what they were really saying, and what was talked about all around.
A.A.: During the day it was mostly workaday things: what are we going to eat, how are we going to get it.
E.O.W.: But what they were doing by the firelight—talking and singing and story-telling—was what made us human.
A.A.: Creativity is tied in with empathy. One way of looking at it is that originality is a group experience, as solitary as it might seem. How do you feel about that?
E.O.W.: The creative process tends to be an individual endeavor, but it often comes about when a very small group—often just two people or three people, are together and they’re toying with a problem. But there has to be a proper apportion of credit within the society that did this individual work.

The thrust of Wilson’s life work is that the division between the arts and sciences are neither natural nor helpful. His latest work promises new pathways between the two, a venture guaranteed to generate lively conversations and further discoveries.

It’s not about you

Richard Pryor

Photo of Richard Pryor by Alan Light

Last week’s Quote of the Day by George Bernard Shaw got me to thinking about the dark forces behind the creative process. I believe every artist tries to work out unresolved issues in their lives through their art. Tom Petty, Robin Williams, David Sedaris, and Stephen King, just to name a few, sought redemption from childhood pain in their work. Would the sparks between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler have been so believable had Margaret Mitchell not been abandoned by her first husband? I doubt it.

And yet, the best artists don’t just shake their fists at a cruel, unjust world; they create something that breathes and moves. Their pain drives them to create art that inspires people. The focus of great art is not the author but the audience.

Stand-up comic Tiffany Haddish learned this lesson from none other than Richard Pryor when she was performing at the Laugh Factory Comedy Camp:

I was on the stage telling jokes and he says, “Stop! Stop! What are you doing?” I said, “I’m telling a joke,” and he says, “No, you’re not!” He said, “Look, people don’t come to comedy shows because they want to hear about your problems, or politics or religion. They come to have fun, so when you’re on stage, you need to be having fun. If you’re having fun, the audience is having fun.” And then as I got older I started realizing, “Oh man, I’m trying to do this in everything in life because once I started having fun onstage, you know, people were nice to me. People were kind; it was easier to move forward.”

As George Bernard Shaw advised, “Be a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” Tiffany Haddish was lucky enough to learn this from one of the comic greats. The same lesson applies to writers.

Want to be more successful? Try thinking about death

New Orleans New Orleans cemetery

A study published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology finds that thinking about the worst that could happen, including death, energizes athletes, as well anyone striving to improve their “performance-related activities”:

Study co-leader Uri Lifshin of the University of Arizona told Medical News Today: “Terror management theory talks about striving for self-esteem and why we want to accomplish things in our lives and be successful. Everybody has their own thing in which they invest that is their legacy and symbolic immortality.”

“Your subconscious tries to find ways to defeat death, to make death not a problem, and the solution is self-esteem. Self-esteem gives you a feeling that you’re part of something bigger, that you have a chance for immortality, that you have meaning, that you’re not just a sack of meat.”

There’s a fire inside every artist that drives him to complete that special piece, to create a thing of beauty and meaning that will survive him and tell people of a future time that he once lived. And mattered.

A memento mori works as a severe yet effective motivator. Focusing on mastering oneself in the face of oblivion is a discipline that enables us to live more, not less. The Bushido code of the Japanese samurai reflected the same strategy for optimizing one’s efforts: “One who is supposed to be a warrior considers it his foremost concern to keep death in mind at all times, every day and every night, from the morning of New Year’s Day through the night of New Year’s Eve.”

Gotta go. I have a novel to finish.

New Words, New Worlds

sunrise

Novelist and teacher M. Thomas Gammarino experienced an epiphany when he taught two courses in the same semester, one on science fiction, and another in modernism. Gammarino expected the two genres to clash, but happily discovered they supplemented each other. The reason, he explains in this Omni article, is that all art aims to enable us to see the world more intently by presenting it in unfamiliar and challenging ways:

In his 1917 essay “Art as Device,” Russian formalist poet Viktor Shlovky gave us the term ostranenie to describe the primary function of art. The term is usually translated as “defamiliarization,” though it literally means “strange-making.” The job of art, in other words, is to renew our eyes by making the familiar appear strange. Other modernists had— or would— put forth variations on this idea, from Mallarmé’s “Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu” (purify the words of the tribe) to Ezra Pound’s “Make it new,” and modernist critics regularly invoke this idea to illuminate the sorts of linguistic experiments writers like Gertrude Stein and James Joyce were up to.

I heartily agree. Both fantasy and sci-fi renew one’s sense of wonder in ways literary fiction cannot. That’s not to say literary fiction is incapable of reawakening the awe we felt as a child discovering our shiny, new world. Energetic, evocative writing in any genre helps us re-imagine the world around us, forcing us to see it anew. But literary fiction tends to focus on the inner world, while fantasy and sci-fi direct us toward the outer world — or even toward new, imagined worlds. Speculative fiction always goes big, reminding us of our role in society, the world, and the universe itself.

That’s what makes fantasy and sci-fi such powerful springboards for the imagination.

Quote of the day

Raymond Chandler

“There are two kinds of truth: the truth that lights the way and the truth that warms the heart. The first of these is science, and the second is art. Neither is independent of the other or more important than the other. Without art science would be as useless as a pair of high forceps in the hands of a plumber. Without science art would become a crude mess of folklore and emotional quackery. The truth of art keeps science from becoming inhuman, and the truth of science keeps art from becoming ridiculous.” – Raymond Chandler

4 Lessons from Star Wars

Star Wars

Alice Osborn writes: “Star Wars is more than shoot ‘em bad guys with laser guns and escaping in fast spacecraft—it’s about 4 fundamental life lessons.” Alice discusses those lessons in her latest blog post, which I highly recommend.

Almost 40 years after it blasted its way into movie theaters and popular culture, Star Wars still commands our attention. There’s good reason for that. In crafting Luke Skywalker’s grand adventure, George Lucas took Joseph Campbell’s heroic myth, added memorable characters and innovative special effects, and produced a cinematic classic that tells a timeless tale. Lucas managed to “Make it New!”

Ezra Pound’s battle cry not only inspired the Modernists who explored radical techniques to convey their ideas, but also describes the maddening challenge all artists wrestle with, to take what already exists, whether paint, bronze, or words, and shape those elements into something both meaningful and worthwhile of our attention.

Part of that challenge is to work within a living tradition and keeping “it” alive by adapting it to present-day needs and concerns. The artist’s goal is to select and rearrange timeless insights and conventions and make them into something a new generation wants to enjoy and claim as its own. Timeless messages, such as Campbell’s heroic myth, have endured over generations because they speak to the human condition, something that does not change even as the conditions in which it exists does change, sometimes dramatically. It takes artistic vision to perceive those enduring patterns and make them interesting. It also takes hard work. But when it all comes together, it’s a beautiful thing to behold. No wonder we keep going back to classics such as Star Wars.