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Point - No Small Contrivance

Copyright (c) 2002 J.D. Chapman All Rights Reserved

After writing for five years I'm torn by a dilemma. Well okay, it's somewhat less problematic than having to choose between starvation and cannibalism. I still have plenty of grub in the cauldron to write about. But I realize (not quite an epiphany, but still a watershed thought) that my writing, although true and based upon good and honorable intentions, is starting to reach a formulaic approach and is tending more toward the descriptive at the expense of being exciting. I tend to write too much about the color of the clown's makeup rather than writing about his antics and shenanigans. This style is a result of conscious choices that I make during the creative process. But now that I'm aware of my own style, I have to choose whether or not to purposefully make my writing more exciting.

It boils down quickly to a matter of contrivances. The decision to adopt a contrivance represents a change in attitude toward writing for an audience rather than writing for a philosophy. I notice from the fiction that I have read that authors apply some fairly standard contrivances. In science fiction for example, the contrivance is that certain technologies have been established -- whether that be nanotechnology, time or hyperspace travel, or telepathy. Since readers already accept the contrivance the storyline can develop free from rationalizing the underpinning for what becomes the backdrop for unusual situations.

The general materials -- the building materials if you will -- for a properly conducted non-fiction story (say a well researched historical biography) are characters, a setting (a physical location and a time), the human's complex multi-faceted personalities, fears and intentions, sociological characteristics for the acceptable interaction of human beings in that particular setting, a broader historical underpinning of the setting, a storyline with a beginning, climax, and wrap up, a point of view (both character and editorial), a timeline with sensible causality, and characters reacting to events with foresight and premonition in a manner consistent with their personality. The story is the finished structure, but how it behaves depends upon these constituent materials.

Now we can examine these components and suggest contrivances for each material. A contrivance itself can be of varied construct: the modification can be an expansion, a limitation, or a shift altogether. The building can be made out of wood or concrete, or perhaps it is being built in a harsh environment where the only available material is ice. The material can gradually shift over the course of the storyline. We could start out with a houseboat only to later have it berth into a gambling casino. Or the author could disclose the material gradually to reveal situations at strategic points in the storyline. We might discover while reading that the building has never had any windows. It is possible of course for an author to combine effects of multiple contrivances into his own individual style.

Let's start with the first material: human beings. An author can use any number of contrivances in selecting a human being. The human can have unusual characteristics, crippled or handicapped, young, or exceedingly old. The human might have special capabilities, exceptional strength, talent, or heightened senses. The being does not have to be human -- perhaps the protagonist is an alien, perhaps a different animal, maybe an android, or a combination that's a hybrid creature. The special characteristics of the being could be apparent from the start, change depending on the setting, or be gradually revealed as the story progresses.

Settings play a large role in the development of a story not only because they frame the action, but also because they interact with both the characters and the storyline. Contrivances abound across both dimensions of time and of location. Sometimes a whole story is about a single moment at a specific location. The location can be conventional, a billion light-years distant, or inside of a raindrop. It can be in a large city or out in the middle of nowhere. The location may shift with the storyline or we may gradually discover the location as the plot and characters develop. The time can be in the present, the prehistoric, or billions of years in the future. The time can shift as the story progresses: gradually or abruptly, forward or in reverse, quickly or in slow motion. Maybe the author gently reveals the epoch via the location and the characters.

The characters' complex multi-faceted personalities often determine the course of a story. Of course many aspects play into a character's personality -- some include: intelligence, neuroticism, idealism, aggression, passivity, eroticism, tolerance, friendliness, ambition, sociability, naïveté, coolness, alertness, and introversion. A typical contrivance is to exaggerate a single personality trait. Many times the whole point of a story is to illustrate a change in the character's personality.

Usually a character needs some sort of motivation... perhaps idealism, anger, sorrow or pain alleviation, hunger, greed, lust, longing for attention, or fear. As they often underpin the plot, motivational contrivances are difficult; an author may develop a significant backstory just to elucidate a character's motivation. The effects of "tweaking" a motivation, however, may drive a story toward a very specific outcome. The character only has lust for little boys. He is only angry at Americans. They are afraid of birds. Of course, unusual circumstances could suddenly change a person's motivations: a character could be struck by lightening, injected with a potion, hypnotized, or exposed to Kryptonite.

The interaction of characters is ripe for contrivance. An author can interject misunderstandings, make a character take somebody's advice literally when it was meant figuratively, and play off the impact of cultural differences on communication. Often a story ponders the modification of interaction as characters slowly become friends or drift apart.

The historical underpinning of the setting -- the backstory -- is often a contrivance to justify the motivation of characters, their personalities, their interactions, or the plot. Often the backstory is at the beginning of a story, but the author may describe it gradually or by means of flashbacks.

A plot typically has a beginning, a climax, and a wrap-up. Authors do however contrive plots in different fashions; sometimes the climax can be both at the beginning and again at the very end. Sometimes the author leaves the story unresolved.

Point of view is rich in contrivance. It can be an intensely personal perspective or it can be an outside objective viewpoint. The point of view can shift during the story. An author's editorial point of view can also shift (sometimes abruptly), first using words to condone particular activities and then later to condemn those activities. Some stories have multiple points of view from one character or the views from different characters.

A story has a timeline and causality. An author must take care when contriving changes to a timeline or to causality as a reader can become lost or the story can lose credibility if events and the reaction of characters don't make sense. Still though, scenes can shift in time; causality might be mystical.

Finally an author may contrive how a character reacts to events and shifts in the setting. The character's motivations or personality traits often dictate reactions, but an author may use interventions to indicate that a character is changing his internal perspective or reflecting upon alternative realities. Most people have some kind of foresight or inkling about the future, but a common contrivance is to strip them of this ability. When events are extraordinary, the character reactions may form the underpinning for the remainder of the story.

Where to now? Choose my contrivances, write some stories, and see where my timeline leads.

Counterpoint - The Void

Copyright (c) 2002 J.D. Chapman All Rights Reserved

In my quieter moments, when I am most myself, I attempt to write about "the void". It helps if it is sound-studio muted, more hushed than natural, like when I walk into an empty ice rink. No music playing and absent the zamboni re-icing, I hear the air conditioning whirring and the quiet buzz of the lights. Then my own thinking stands out as an irritant to the background silence. Although the "void" is the emptiness that pervades and is the foundation of everything, it is also the muse itself -- the source of art. When I need to get something creative out of myself I return back to the emptiness and the void. I'm not sure why things work this way... perhaps because the void is always the same: absolute.

But then I'm getting ahead of myself, although at least now I've started to write about it. How can you get a "handle" on it: it's hard to speak to it directly. I can describe the "void" in all its forthrightness, but by itself it doesn't amount to much per se. I can "talk around it" and thereby define it by what I don't say (somehow that seems an appropriate way to go about the task of describing the void). But in one way or another I sense that we define the void more by its interaction with people and things.

In music sometimes, while I'm listening to an especially catchy popular tune I'll notice that the rhythm and melody, instead of building up from a particular motif, are rather built as a counterpoint to that motif. It's almost like the pinstriping on a car where we notice the ornamentation first, only later to admire the classic vehicle. Once in a while the musicians will start by playing the base line of the motif and then come in with the counterpoint on the main guitars. Or maybe the rhythm guitars will play the counterpoint. Then the whole song becomes counterpoint, and the actual foundation melody disappears completely underneath. I've even heard some tunes where they add the motif at the end so your brain notices "Hey, this is the passage that the song has been dancing around". It could be a melody or it could be the rhythm itself. You feel the void as the part of the music that you don't hear with your ears: it is the spaces in-between.

As most every artist knows in his heart, the void is all there is. We size up everything against the void with the void as the bedrock upon which we build. Of course, the work -- the true artistry -- comes from adding on: from building up the layers of presentation, style, and enchantment that present a piece of the soul to an audience. An artist first though gets to know the void intimately. How does he make that acquaintance? Well, often through an unnatural process, drugs, serious trauma, severe meditation. The process requires receptivity to the minute details of everything all at once. It is both quiet and overwhelming all at the same time.

The knowledge -- the unabridged consciousness of the void -- is incompatible with life. It is a gorilla in a world omitting forests. When you are engrossed in the full knowledge of the void you cease all activity, it drains all of your motivation, and you become the object of what you are. When you are completely aware of everything the void undermines the importance of anything else. By removing all values from everything the void leaves us as a bag of atoms reacting to our environment. When you are in such a state it becomes impossible to choose the path that fits in with society -- it maroons you completely to the fringes. Everyone's expectations are just thought waves impinging on your brain. You find yourself in an absurd world created by a civilization and society that doesn't jive with your requirements and desires as an animal. So to continue in your society you forget about the void.

But the artist's aspect of making that visit and holding his soul up to that sapping emptiness leaves a mark upon his work that is the essence of it's impact upon us. The void reflects our souls in the work of the artist; the art again reminds us of the void. It doesn't shout it out, it doesn't dump it in piles around us; if the art forces the void upon us too blatantly we will turn away. Instead it reveals it slowly, subtly, sneaking up, hey, knock knock, the void skitters out there. The artist employs the mechanics of a sunrise, the sky slowly gaining light, the surroundings moving from dark to gray to washed out colors, the clouds turning purple before obtaining an orange or pink fringe, and then finally the morning in full glory. The longer we admire the art the more we gradually become aware of the underlying foundation, the hint that the spirit outreaches the work, it underwrites the work, it is miles beyond the work, and it links all of the works together. After we have stood the inspection long enough we allow a piece of the void to enter our soul and a piece of our soul to slip into the void. We are enriched by the experience.

When everything falls apart (your brain an empty sponge inside your head on top of your body) you can look around and see art in the joint pattern of brickwork, in the way a woman does her hair, in the fabrics of the furniture, and in the joints of the building materials. When our state of mind allows a process of non-judgmental observation we can use all of our senses. Thoughts interfere with perception; we are most aware when we have the least to worry over. We best soak in the art without cogitation -- the less brain, the better to enjoy it. Higher sensitivities allow us to appreciate art as the epitomization of flat nothingness.

Ah, but to be mused into the frame of mind to create art is another matter altogether. It requires the creator to be part technician, part karmic balancer, and part prophet. This odd combination produces an intense state of mind. The artist's material demands a technician to understand its capabilities and to think ahead to judge the ramifications of how to manipulate the paint, the notes, or the words. Of course the skill of being a technician comes from a great deal of experience -- we learn how the marble will crack only after breaking a few pieces. A person will fail to achieve art though by technical savvy alone. The moods and inquiries of the future audience requires a prophet to smoothly transfer their feelings to the development of the expressive piece. The artist needs to shore up the banks of the stream to allow the spiritual waters to wend smoothly down to the pooling lake. And the inevitable emotions that arise from the act of creation requires the karmic balance to harmonize the feelings of parenting, frustrations from near successes, and the ultimate loss of creative control to the material itself.

Although the karmic and prophecy skills are the most arduous to develop, after a while they root into second nature and the creative process settles down to simply technique, to a proven style. Most often a non-artist focuses on the spiritual effects of the artwork. When an artist watches another artist however, we focus on his technique and style -- we make the assumption that they are balancing their karma and prophecy. The style itself holds sway to an artist, even though the initial development of that style relies upon a deep understanding of the physical, the spiritual, and the sociological.

After all that the artist still needs the "stand-back" skill: he needs to be able to clear his brain and be aware of his feelings as a non-judgmental outside observer. Just the same as if he were a non-artist consumer reviewing his work for the first time. Attaining unbiased self-reviewing requires a complex shift; an artist may certainly employ the elements of separation and time as an aid to objectivity. Many times however, the artist needs to step back into his creativity and move the physical again. Often this desire to be objective and then to be spiritually sensitive -- to alternate between the discoverer and the sublime creator (and to do this switching with enough rapidity to devote sufficient time to creation) -- places a unique stress upon the artist. It is like trying to learn how to play the card game of bridge while at the same time competing in a tournament. It can be another force to drive the artist to drugs and to drinking.

Of course for some of the more skilled and schizophrenic artists, this point-counterpoint can be simultaneous. As a writer such an artist reads his own words at the same time that he writes them, in his mind taking the perspective of the uninitiated. As a painter the artist feels the imprint of his work even as he applies the paint strokes. Even a performer such as an ice dancer observes her body from an outside vantage, as she plies her balance from her steel blade through to the ice. For an artist the balance between creation and observation, the point and the counterpoint, plays a critical role in how the art unfolds. This is a dynamic relationship -- at times the artist may be overwhelmed by creative forces and may produce free of self-criticism. At other times observational powers will prevail and the artist may move slowly and carefully across his expressive terrain, or may be hamstrung completely by his overwhelming self-awareness.

Then after roughing in the whole creative work the artist goes back to remove the edges, to make the work "flat," not in the sense of being boring or tedious but rather to remove imperfections. Once when I was sitting empty-brained in a conference room, I looked up at one of the wall sconces and noticed that one of the shades was slightly torn. This was in a hotel where everything else was perfect. But then I realized that if everything is perfect and nothing stands out, then nothing is noticeable. We need and keep our imperfections to avoid the chasm of nothingness. But the artist removes all imperfections for the opposite reason: he wants to reveal the void in all its clarity.

In a sense then, a natural tendency to restore things to order drives the artist. But first this requires creating disarray out of the nothingness. Then the discord can slowly be resolved, emerging into legitimate things to do, matters to accomplish. We must pick up material and put it back into place. After all, after everything is back in order we recognize the futility of daily life. For the most part stuff is already in order; survival requires us to actually do very little. So we spend inordinate amounts of time, effort, and seriousness polishing that last screw, perfecting that last note, entertaining ourselves, and extending our lives one more day in a universe that really doesn't care. Creating art.