I met an icon last night.
I was at an art gallery and got to chatting with Shepard Fairey. You know his art, even if you don’t know you know. He worked with the Sex Pistols on their posters, designed the Obama “Hope” poster and most famously (at least in my book) is responsible
Anyway, we were at an event for my daughter’s kindergarten, that was hosted by Fairey and his wife in their gallery. So naturally the talk turned to art. I told him about how I had thought I wanted to be a visual artist when I was in college, but that my work lacked any real artistic instinct. I could render an image, but after years of that I finally asked the question my mom had been posing all my life – what’s the point in drawing like a photograph? Art is about interpretation. Color, form, shape, shadow. You have to bring something to reality, something more than reality, to make art.
Needless to say, I was not telling Shepard anything he didn’t already know, and we didn’t chat very long, but the conversation brought my head back to this idea I’ve playing with lately. What makes literature, as an art, good? Metaphorically it’s still about color, form, shape and shadow, but unlike visual arts, there’s a lot more room for spot-on rendering. So you might think this was the reason I was drawn to writing as an art form. You’d be wrong.
As much as I struggled with letting go of reality with my paintings and drawings, I have no such hang-ups with my stories. The first story I ever published was a coming of age story told from the perspective of an apple. The novel I’m working on now is set on an ostrich farm, which lends itself to all kinds of unusual imagery. I’m keeping it solidly rooted in reality, and it’s a very human story about a young girl dealing with the loss of her grandfather, but the setting gives it a whimsical, fun, ALMOST magical feel.
I don’t know why I feel free to push boundaries with my writing that I never could break free of with my painting. Maybe it’s that I feel more anonymous. A story is told by a narrator, which gives a step of removal that to me has always felt like a buffer of safety. Then there’s the “it’s fiction,” forcefield. I can be as offensive as I want, as raunchy, or prim, or whatever, and if anyone has a problem with it I can just say “hey, it’s fiction, if you don’t like it, don’t read it.”
In any case, I’m really embracing this idea of loose rendering. The key, I think, is to figure out what you really want to say, and then let everything else just fall where it may. Who knows, maybe my ostriches will be singing, sock-wearing, modern dancers by the time I’m done with them. As long as my main character has the journey I want to her to have, the rest is artistic window dressing.
Good news! The arm has healed enough that I am no longer hunting and pecking. Yes, my arm aches a bit at the end of a work day, but it’s so good to be typing for real again, I hardly even care.
(Go, go gadget fingers!)
During my hiatus, I’ve been thinking a lot about styles of fiction. I’ve been reading “The Sense of An Ending,” by Julian Barnes, and it falls into a sub-genre that I call couldn’t-possibly-be fiction. That is to say, it’s so convincingly told that I often find myself checking the cover again to see if perhaps I missed the part where it says “memoir.” I felt the same way about “Middlesex.”
This is in contrast to books I internally categorize as minstrel fiction. I used to be really into these types of stories, particularly the ones by Tom Robins, who is a master of this sub-genre. Theses stories are fantastical and fun. They often have inanimate objects with opinions, and waitresses on great journeys. My absolute favorite was “Jitterbug Perfume.”
Minstrel fiction still holds a big ‘ol place in my heart because the stories always seem to me like tales you might hear around a camp fire, stories like my family tells. They always have a solid objective. They’ll make you laugh. They are not subtle. In fact, at least when my family tells them, they are often exaggerated to make a point. (Why be accurate when you can be passionate?)
Couldn’t-possibly-be fiction still only holds a sliver of my heart. Its abiding characteristics are an undeniable realism, comical self awareness, and the feeling of complete honesty. These are not stories told around a camp fire so much as they are glimpses into what it means to be human. They make you laugh AND cry. They are usually written with impeccable prose, but often have no obvious point and tend to ramble. These are the books I read because I feel I should. And I do usually enjoy them, just not as much as their fantastical counterparts.
And that’s the part I’ve been going around on in my head. If these couldn’t-possibly-be fiction books are so great, why do I fall so much harder for the minstrel fiction? It’s a style thing, right? I like a good yarn. Nothing wrong with that, but there is a line. I don’t usually care for bodice ripping (which is about 180 from couldn’t-possibly-be fiction on this little internal spectrum of mine), but I do love a good Jack Reacher novel now and then. So I guess I fall in the middle.
The reason I’ve been contemplating all this is that I’m nearing the end of a draft of my novel. (Sweet.) I know I’ll have at least one more pass to make on it after this, but it’s feeling good. Good enough that I might even let some trusted folks read it soon. It’s a yarn, no doubt, but I also hope to tell it with grace and style. That is to say, I want the prose to be beautiful, but I also want it to be a page turner. Am I asking too much? I don’t think so. The million dollar question is: Can I pull it off?