In Art, Failure is Good

PortraitPainting2018

The back of my head as I work diligently to paint my model.

Art is a discipline. Like every other subject worth studying, like every skill worth honing, it’s possible to fail.

For some reason,  the average person treats the arts (take this to mean writing, painting, sculpting etc.) as a a vehicle for their own personal validation. If one bothers to paint, praise is expected no matter the result.

The Italian painters in Florence have no time for such sensitive souls. If a student botches the drawing stage and moves on to paint over the top of it, they accuse that student of “polishing a turd.” Vulgar and harsh, but true. Drawing does all the work and painting gets all of the glory. The artist I studied with these past two weeks revealed to us that each of her paintings went through several rough drafts before she got it right. She’s an award-winning realist oil painter, and she fails all the time. The analogy to the writing process deserves some bearing out, I think: each story goes through multiple drafts, feedback is sought out and absorbed. In the end, the result is a work of art, or something set for the trunk.

Failure.

There’s such a stigma around failure. It’s so painful, but so necessary. I think the confusion is here: we conflate artistic skill with individual creativity. The skills involved in painting, the ability to think three steps ahead, to compose and set the color are tools set to the purpose of the creative vision. There are tools and there are standards, and these things must be learned. What each artist does with these skills is what’s unique.

Criticism is personal because my art isn’t something I can objectively separate myself  from. It’s ironic that this discipline requires a thick skin while demanding that I rip my heart out, splatter it all over a canvas or a page, in order to show others a vision I think is worthwhile.

Now I come to it:, I failed to complete my first portrait from a live model. I don’t feel bad about that. I know more than I did two weeks ago. My brain is exploding with new information: I’ve developed instincts, learned how to solve problems, learned how to be more deliberate with every stroke. I’ve learned how to fail.

And I feel just great about that.

IMG_20180721_101845_079

Stages of the portrait: Drawing, Underpainting, First Pass, Full Color

Art and Writing and Latin, Oh My!

afterBachannal

“After the Bacchanal” 9 x 12 Oil on linen

I’m prepping for an eventful summer full of painting, writing, and Latin translation!

I finished a still life (pictured above) in oils this week, hit 30k on the Fantasy novel (planning for 100k), and secured a Latin teaching position starting this fall that I’ll be prepping for.

Fiction writing is a slow business, but I have some good news to report on that front. I recently signed a contract with The Daily Science Fiction, and have a piece forthcoming this year. Every other story I’ve sent out is being held for consideration, so here I sit. Nothing to do but research for the novel and add to the word count! Wait, write another story, you say? HA!

I’m still reviewing short fiction for Tangent Online, and this May I reviewed Beneath Ceaseless Skies’ May 10th and May 24th stories. That magazine is one of my favorites. I envy people who can weave pretty prose.

I’m still painting, and the gallery is updated with recent works. I’m thinking about selling prints soon, and it’s turning out to be a rather complicated pursuit. This July I will be painting my first full size portrait under the tutelage of an artist who studied in Florence. I am intimidated but eager for the challenge. Excelsior!

In personal news, my children are growing like weeds. I gave them no such permission, the curs. My youngest turned 2 this month, and now I fight a trembling lip whenever I see her baby pictures. I was in a car crash yesterday, and while unhurt, I’m reminded keenly of my mortality.

It all goes by so quickly. Onward in virtue.

What I learned from Ursula K. Le Guin

Some writing books are for beginners, but I found myself hungry for a book about narrative prose that assumed I was already working hard on my craft and needed the next step. Lots of authors write books about writing: they give financial advice, formulas they use to chart plots, etc.

41IhYq9rmqL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_

Thing is, some of that advice didn’t work for me, and I found myself buffeted by a fusillade of opinions I had no ability to judge. It was Ursula K. Le Guin’s book that I found immensely helpful.

When I decided to try to write fiction professionally, I picked up Orson Scott Card’s book and did a write-up on this blog to internalize what I learned. I’d like to do the same for Le Guin’s book here.

So here’s what I learned from Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story :

Rhyme isn’t rhythm; and your prose should sound nice when read aloud. Narrative momentum and pacing are very important to story, and a key way to achieve this is rhythm. Read your writing out loud! Does it sound right? Trust your ear a bit, and if you suspect your own ear then read good writing to get a sense of how a good narrative sounds. Onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, dialect, just write paragraphs practicing these without using a meter or a rhyme, and see how you do.

Grammar is beautiful! Punctuation tells the reader how to hear your writing. Pauses have to be in just the right spots. The wrong choice alters the meaning; punctuation choices should be deliberate.

Don’t be afraid of repetition. Don’t run to the thesaurus all the time; skillful repetition gives power to prose and gives the themes of a story solid ground. Repeat words, images, and phrases to drive a dramatic point home. If writing humor, repetition can be a tool that sets up reader expectations and consistently delivers catharsis over the course of a long work.

Try some self-editing that removes all adverbs: Figure out what your bad habits are. A first draft is always terrible, reading like a surreal fever dream on the second pass. So deliberately practice wording things in different ways. Are you using adverbs or adjectives as a crutch? Using superlatives too often? “She’s very pretty and so nice!” is weaker than “her eyelashes caught the light as she helped the child off the ground, dusting his jacket while telling him he was brave for not crying over a scraped knee.”

Imitation isn’t plagiarism. Imitate great writers in order to learn. Artists and musicians copy the masters, so writers should too. Just remember that imitation is for practice, and an essential learning tool! If you show it to someone else, say the piece is “in the manner of so and so” and that’s fine.

The book is full of exercises and assignments that can be completed on your own or with a peer group. I’ve done a few of them twice, three times, and learned something new every time. I’m still a “baby writer” in the sense that my latest work is better than my earlier stuff (as is natural), and I’m just starting to break into publishing after a few years of hard work and several failed attempts. The hard work is paying off! One of my short stories was recorded for an episode of Starship Sofa last year, and I have a few short pieces forthcoming with other outlets. (Hopefully published this year!)

This book is going to be a staple of my writing diet. I can’t recommend it enough!

The Essential Christianity of A Wrinkle in Time

513hgSybYgL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_
Madeleine L’Engle’s Christian faith informed her imagination. It was the lens through which she saw the world and wondered, and it was this sense of wonder that led her to contemplate Einstein’s theories. In her Newberry Medal acceptance speech she stated:

“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth…The extraordinary, the marvelous thing about Genesis is not how unscientific it is, but how amazingly accurate it is. How could the ancient Israelites have known the exact order of an evolution that wasn’t to be formulated for thousands of years? Here is a truth that cuts across barriers of time and space.”

Scientists can indeed prove now that the celestial stars that make up our expanding universe existed before the formation of the providentially hospitable rock we call our home planet. The earth is full of terrors as well as wonders, and so in A Wrinkle in Time the problem of evil takes on the appearance of a shadow that threatens to darken the globe. Mrs Whatsit assures the child protagonists that great fighters came right from our little planet, all lights by which to see by. Who are these lights?

“Jesus!” Charles Wallace said. “Why of course, Jesus!”

“Of course!” Mrs Whatsit said. “Go on, Charles, love. There were others.”

The others listed by the children are: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Bach, Pasteur, Madame Curie, Einstein, Schweitzer, Gandhi, Buddha, Beethoven, Rembrandt and St. Francis.

L’Engle’s faith was not considered pure enough by some. A Wrinkle in Time was banned in some schools because Jesus is named next to other philosophers, scientists, and artists as if he is equal to them, a blasphemy. I do not think this is the case at all; by naming Jesus first perhaps L’Engle is signaling that if the man made God is the Truth, then every person who contributes in any way to human knowledge is a participation in this first Truth. It’s also possible that she’s being a good liberal: her instinct as a Christian to name Jesus as a luminary is probably because most people could agree that he was a good man who preached the Golden Rule.

For today’s modern reader, the mention of Jesus at all is a bit too overt. There appears to be an unspoken consensus that religion doesn’t belong in material meant for children. (I’m not sure where this puts other Newberry winners of the past that are about the life of Buddha, or deal with Hinduism.)  Ava DuVernay’s cinematic adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time omits the Christianity in the book completely, for instance.

Existential retellings of stories with strong religious elements usually fall flat for me. This is because they refuse to contend with or represent a major piece of the puzzle that is the story we all love in the first place. The film Troy (2004) fell into this trap: no pagan gods show up. The result was certainly an entertaining movie, but not one that accurately represented the Iliad of Homer at all.  “What god was it then set them together in bitter collision?” the poet asks in the opening lines of the epic. The gods meddle and manipulate the humans and start the war in the first place.

I suppose we modernists are uncomfortable with unseen truths. For instance, were I to state that as a Christian I believe in the human soul, I might be scoffed at. What if I were to state that all humans had rights? I’d get no blowback for that, because our current culture has reached a consensus on that subject. This is a truth we all acknowledge even though human rights do not have mass or occupy space. How do we know we’re not just making it all up?

Our belief in rights might be looked upon as skeptically by future historians as we do the tales of Apollo and Athena and Zeus. Not being able to understand the faith that informs the imagination of a writer or poet isn’t an excuse to omit it. The human experience is vast and wide and diverse, and that diversity includes that of religious experience.

It’s dishonest to pretend that it does not exist; to treat it as if it is disposable.

I’ll close this with more from L’Engle’s acceptance speech, where she speaks glowingly of this diversity in the human family and the importance of including all of it in children’s literature.

 “What a child does not realize until he is grown is that in responding to fantasy, fairy tale, and myth he is responding to what Erich Fromm calls the one universal language, the one and only language in the world that cuts across all barriers of time, place, race, and culture. Many Newberry books are from this realm, beginning with Dr. Dolittle; books on Hindu myth, Chinese folklore, the life of Buddah, tales of American Indians, books that lead our children beyond all boundaries and into the one language of all mankind.”

Let’s not censor any part of the universal language of humanity. How could we be so arrogant?

 

In Which I Feel Sorry For Myself: Confessions of an Art Student

I’ve been feeling sorry for myself lately, so I decided to take stock of my artistic progress since first attending the Academy of Realist art in 2012.IMG_20171117_190511

In 2012, I didn’t know the difference between comparative and one-to-one measurement. I stood in front of the human figure like a dunce. I drew lines and promptly erased them. A teacher had to literally take my hand and show me how to make what’s called an airplane stroke with a pencil across my paper.

It was clear to me that being the best artist in the room my whole life didn’t mean much when put in a class full of realist masters. There were times in isolation when I’d cry due to my frustration.

So now it’s 2018. I’ve done four drawings in graphite after the style of Charles Bargue. I’ve learned what shadow shapes are, how to find and key in the darkest dark of the shadows before progressing. I know how to turn the form, i.e, to make it look like it isn’t defined by a flat, cartoonish line. I can spot a bedbug line and blend it into the receding midtones. I know that reflected light is always darker than it seems, and to render it last.

I can make a value scale.

I painted my first still life this past summer. I know how to transfer a drawing to a canvas, how to isolate color and match it in paint. I started my first charcoal cast this year. It’s slow going, but I am learning a new medium and there are some curves.

20171118_150220

I haven’t won any awards. I haven’t sold anything (yet?) and I’m not featured in art magazines. I haven’t gone to art shows or tried to get work put up in galleries. I haven’t painted a cover to a Science Fiction novel (personal goal!), or done anyone’s portrait. Looking ahead is good for direction, but it can also be daunting. I have so much more to do.

If my measuring stick is my own progress, then I’ve come quite a way. It’s like climbing a hill: look down, and see how small the road is. 2012 Becky is there, and she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. 2018 Becky is a like a hiker that wouldn’t die in the woods right away.

The thing about art is that you’re never done learning. So I’ll cry if I need to. I’ll break more pencils, drop a palette face-down, bump the charcoal drawing and watch in horror as the darks dust off. Excellence is important, and the rules point to it. A blunder isn’t a revolution, so this is about internalizing the rules so that they become innate. How else will I paint what I want to?

_taken-by=devendrastudio

Follow my toil @devendrastudio (instagram)

I picked up a poem by Sappho in the original Greek the other day. I found that I couldn’t read it very smoothly. I’d forgotten, you see, some very important grammatical constructions. So I’ve been doing some grammar drills to get that knowledge back.

How else will I enjoy the poetry?

Rendezvous with Rama: The Limits of Human Arrogance

SPACE
The POV of a novel always sets the tone, and the omniscient All Knowing Voice of Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (RwR) is of the liberal enlightenment. Before you read on, know this: I use “liberal” as a descriptive term, not as a pejorative, and certainly not in reference to American Democrats. A liberal is merely someone who believes in rights.

Rights-based philosophy has its troubles. It erases the cultural lines that differentiate us in the hope of avoiding greater evils (violence). The characters of RwR aren’t real people, they’re bundles of attributes and peculiarities that are all subsumed into the greater mission of science and discovery. It’s possible that Clarke is just not good at characterization, so maybe this impersonal voice says more about him as a writer. The exchanges between Commander Norton and Laura Ernst, for instance, are painfully awkward and terrible. Readers are shown what Norton thinks of lady astronauts: they’re too distracting, on account of their boobs floating about in low gravity. (Go ahead, giggle like a 13 year old.) It’s perhaps a blessing that for the rest of the book, Clarke doesn’t feel the need to make the reader privy to Norton’s other thoughts.

The big idea carries the narrative, not the people in it. People are ants in the grand scheme of things. Humanity is constantly befuddled by the wonder of the cosmos and plagued by questions that go unanswered. The ship dubbed Rama doesn’t appear to be altered by human presence. It’s just passing through, defying Newtonian physics in a tantalizing way.

So what do I think? Well, I won’t read the sequels. I’ve heard that they’re terrible anyway. I don’t really want to read on, since the stakes aren’t personal enough. I don’t much care to know where all of those characters end up. The book ends without answering big questions, because sometimes there aren’t answers. I am ok with that. The limits of human understanding are mystery enough. Science is better off when it passively observes in order to learn, but our enlightenment mode of thinking can make us arrogant. Rights-based language has given us much, but it’s fundamentally a language of power. We’re more likely to ask, What power do I have over things in nature? instead of What should I do to preserve things in nature? 

The All Knowing Voice seems to think, with some certainty, that contact with intelligent life outside of Earth is inevitable. It lacks humility. The act of study only illuminates our ignorance, and so we ought to remain optimistic yet humble. The real question to ask is this: Are we stewards of or mere subjects of the universe? Clarke might be uncomfortable with the responsibility of stewardship.

What would have happened, for instance, if the Raman’s in this book were refugees? I think the story would have been more bleak. But Clarke makes it clear that they are wise and advanced, almost godlike, and that therefore they could care less for humanity. Our solar system is their gas station. Humans are off the hook: in this book, we aren’t the adults in the room.

Will we only respect an alien race if it’s more powerful than we are?