Monday, October 25, 2010

Blog Hiatus

I will be unplugging from blogosphere to prepare my ms to send out.

Good week, everyone.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Get Thee Behind Me, Oh Gimmicks!

I was at a piano teachers' workshop many years ago, eagerly absorbing the wisdom and advice from a master piano teacher I admired greatly. My notebook was filling fast, my mind was challenged, and my coffee was ignored and cooling in the flask.

Teaching piano, like writing, can be a solitary occupation, despite the fact that the job itself requires at least two people to be present. It's solitary in that a teacher has very few opportunities to discuss and argue and share their aha moments.

I felt that aloneness most acutely when I started my own piano studio after spending three years teaching and apprenticing at a community music school. I missed the camaraderie I'd had with my colleagues who were always ready to talk music or teaching or music and teaching and life. I learned as much from our discussions in the kitchen over ramen noodles (kitchen pedagogy sessions as we affectionately call those times) as I did in formal classes.

Back to this particular workshop. The last event on the program was this teacher- extraordinaire teaching a group of children from the piano preparatory department of the music school that hosted the workshop. He engaged the students on stage and the piano teachers in the audience the entire time, and helped the performers make changes to their pieces that immediately made the music better and the children more confident. I was spellbound and so blown away that I was almost in tears.

"Do you have any questions?" He asked as the students left the stage. Hands shot up. He nodded at one person.

"I was wondering about the cardboard boxes that these students had?" Many other teachers nodded enthusiastically. More questions and comments arose about those boxes, about how they would motivate students to practice (huh?) and where they could be ordered.

Anyone who could read my mind at the time would decide I was a total snob. But I was dismayed and almost crushed by what I was hearing. Here was a brilliant person offering us thoughts that he had distilled over years of teaching, and they were interested in the cardboard box? Sure, the boxes were nifty but how, how, how could anyone possibly be more interested in a gimmick than the real thing? *

That was probably the beginning of my intolerance for gimmicks. And now that radar is being trained on fiction.

It's inevitable, I supposed, that any time a lot of people clamor for attention, somebody will resort to gimmicks. And of course, what qualifies as a gimmick is up for interpretation and depends on execution. I wouldn't be surprised if someone calls my work gimmicky (and stabs me in the gushy bit within my chest in the process.) In other words, I am totally aware of the subjectivity of it all.

Even so, I'd like to know: what do you consider the most intolerable gimmick in fiction?

*The more mellow (and hopefully more humble) me now realize that just because most of the comments were on the box didn't mean that it was the thing that made the most impact on the teachers in attendance. Getting older does have its benefits.

A Long Way Down: A Review

A book about four people who went up to a rooftop on New Year's Eve to commit suicide but abandoned the idea and formed an unlikely alliance: Who wants to read a book like that? Wouldn't being in the heads of not one, but four, suicidal people be depressing? And if there is any light-heartedness or humor or cleverness, wouldn't it get old or annoying after a few pages?

That Nick Hornby can avoid these and other pitfalls of a book with this premise makes him a hero-author to me.

I was engaged throughout the book. The writing is authoritative (a novel told in four first-persons point-of-view had better exude authority) without being arrogant. Morality was something that was touched on often, but never with a heavy hand.

When people contemplate suicide and life, they are bound to have many moments of reflection and rumination, yet none of it in the book is announced and treated as Deep Thought Moments. The characters wondered about things, observed the newest unexpected turn of events, and came to certain conclusions, but these moments never felt contrived or overwrought. And while some of the events seemed bizarre, they didn't feel forced.

At the Lit Lab yesterday, the topic was on novel structure and the reinvention of the form. (They are much more articulate over there and you should read the post and the comments.)

I am not convinced that A Long Way Down qualifies as a novel that broke the mold but its form was most definitely the outcome of the story. Because it didn't follow any formula that I recognized, my reading experience was an adventure. I was never quite sure what the next chapter would bring but I didn't care. I did not miss having any idea about where the story would lead; I just wanted to follow it as it unfolded. The anticipation and fulfillment were often very satisfying.

I am going to check out more Hornby books. I don't know what to expect, but I secretly hope each one will dictate the structure and I will continue to be drawn to pursue what comes next.

Any other Hornby fans out there? Detractors?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Why is falling asleep like writing?

Because it has to happen every day, or I am cranky.
Because it is a miracle every time it happens.
Because I don't remember exactly how it happened the night before, but I know it'll happen again, somehow, tonight.
Because I can't force it; I just need to be ready, with my teeth brushed and flossed / mind attentive and butt in chair.
Because it's a gift.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Musicspeak: Bach and Iron Maiden, part IIc

The original post of this series segued from a discussion of one person's definition of art music to whether the definition worked for fiction.

The second post examined the assumptions and provided examples of how labels might be useful.

In the third post
, I asked for your responses to different genres.

In this, the last post of the series, I am revisiting the question of whether the definition given by John Steinmetz to art music--art music is the type of music that rewards knowledge, experience, and attention. (again, paraphrase mine)--works for fiction.

I don't think it works as well.

The reason is that the language of music is not something we use regularly. I don't argue with my husband in arias. I don't play the piano to my friends over the phone to invite them over
for dinner.
(Hmm, but doesn't that sound like a cool premise for a story?)

But English is something I use all the time. I do argue with my husband in English, and I do invite people to come to dinner by speaking English. People, with the exception of musical geniuses, have a stronger grasp of their primary language than they do the language o
f music. Therefore it is easier to read books that carry deep messages than it is to comprehend musical compositions that do the same thing.

I've read books that are easy to read that have touched me deeply. I have read many that rewarded me only after many hours of mindful reading. Then there are those books that are easy to read and easy to forget, as well as those that are difficult to read but offer no reward. This is probably true of most readers' experiences.

I will say, however, a large majority of the books that made me work hard have been worth the time and effort.

I suspect that this is the case with me because the "difficult" books that I didn't give up on had something that drew me in, even when I preferred to be lazy and give up on them. With whatever little bit that I'd read, I became aware of something deeper, something worthwhile; and I became convinced that a more engaged reading would allow me discover it. And so I was willing to pay my dues. By reading with a great deal more attention, these experiences became much richer.

Some books don't require much attention at all, and not being a brain scientist (Livia, if you are reading this, I'd love to hear you chime in) I can't say if this type of fast, almost skimming type of reading, in fact, doesn't engage as much of the brain, and therefore can leave only minimal impact.

Now before you start protesting, I want to state here that I am fully aware that some writing is smooth and is easy to read because of the skill and talent of the authors. I am *not* making a stand that says all difficult books are good and all easy books are fluff.

Anyway, I am approaching brain-fatigue point for this discussion. I hope you aren't. But if you are, I'd like to make it up to you by sharing these clips of music.

This first one is an example of how musical groups previously considered unrelated can in fact, share a lot of commonality: (Thanks, John, for sharing this link.)

Vivaldi and At Vance

If you've taken piano lessons, you may have played this piece, but I'll bet you've not heard it performed like this:
CPE Bach's Solfegietto

A classically trained violinist and a metal guitarist exhibiting high levels of technique:
Violinist and metal guitarist

Monday, October 11, 2010

Musicspeak: Bach and Iron Maiden, part IIb

Imagine, if you will, that someone I just met finds out I am a writer and asks, "What do you write?"

Some answers:
"I write fiction."

"I write middle-grade and young adult fiction."

"I write research papers on mid-twentieth century analytical philosophers."

"I write romance."

"I write novels based on the characters from Star Wars and Star Trek: Next Generation."

"I write literary novels and short stories."

"I write about people who routinely experience strong premonitions of disasters before they occur."

How did you react? You don't have to tell me if you don't want to, but I'd love to have a sampling of what people think in reaction to these answers.

Some labels are benign: "fiction" for example. But some others carry heavier implications.

But here is the thing, just because I am not interested in reading about people who may be able to predict disasters with their psychic or other powers tells me nothing about the quality of the writing. In my old critique group was a writer whose writing I admired. He prefaced one of his new works sheepishly by telling us it was fan fiction. I didn't know what fan fiction meant at the time, and I didn't understand his attitude. In the same way, another member was always apologetic about her book being a romance. But these writers are good, no matter the genre,
I enjoyed their stories.

So, back to the question of why use labels. I hope this is one answer: labels and categories help define what we do and help us make decisions. And it may even open the channel for further discussion. Say you like philosophy but don't care much for writing that characterizes Continental philosophy, you'd jump all over yourself to talk to this person about analytical philosophy. I wouldn't, but you may.

So what am I trying to say?

I am trying to say that labels are necessary, not adequate, but necessary, and that the main reason they fall short is the people hold many different kinds of opinions and prejudices, carefully examined or otherwise.

I am also trying to say that even though I focused on art music in my original post, I am not making a statement about its worth compared to other types of music. I focused on it because it is the kind of music that gives me joy, engages me mind and soul, and allows me to feel deeply. It expresses something I can relate to; it expresses something bigger than me; it expresses the emotions and lives of people who lived hundreds of years ago. And one reason I am able to reap such wonderful rewards, besides being given an innate attraction to it, is that I've had the privilege of being exposed to outstanding performances and of studying the music. Would I feel this way about this music had I not been given these gifts? Probably not.

I hope you'll tell me what you think, and come back for the next, and last installment of this exploration.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Musicspeak: Bach and Iron Maiden, Part IIa

My musicspeak post last week provoked a lively conversation that has made me think all week. Some of the reactions seem to indicate that the topic has touched on something more than just the discussion of art music.

Here are the unspoken assumptions that underlie the post:
  • that there are different groups of art;
  • that it is meaningful to separate those groups.

One assumption no
t present in my post:
  • that some art forms are better than others.
Let me examine these assumptions. The assertion that there are different types of art is not disputed. How we group different types of art is where the disagreement starts. This is when
we look a
t established labels and exclaim: what do Rembrandt and Kandinsky, or a Vivaldi concerto and the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra have in common?

Here was when I found John Steinmetz's definition helpful. Unfortunately, I left out an important part. And it's this:

Art music requires the listener to pay attention

Experience and knowledge, yes, but paying attention is an even more important aspect.

Let me back up a little and address the question of why it is meaningful to have labels. Why not just say: here is a whole slew of music, enjoy? My take is that there is simply too much available, and without some sort of a classification system, we'd feel lost. Sure labels can lead us astray, but they are a convenient and often helpful way for us to navigate our lives.

And maybe it's not possible for humans not to label. Just think for a moment all the ways we categorize things and people in our lives. These categories are likely inexact or inadequate in some ways, and they can result in all sorts of meaningless and even harmful generalities. But is it really possible that we don't mentally separate foods into healthy/unhealthy, or people as those you trust your children with and those you don't?

Here is another example of why I use labels. When someone asks me what kind of musician I am, I tell them I am a pianist and an orchestral percussionist. In their minds, they know that by percussion, I mean instruments such as these:


and yes, this:

and am likely to perform in a venue like this:

standing around with these fellow percussionists:

They would probably not conjure up this image:

or ask me where I usually gig, which they may if I had just said I was a percussionist. (Nope, can't play the drum set at all. Maybe I'll take lessons one day. But it will have to come after lessons in jazz singing and bass guitar.)

I am sure you already some responses to what I've written so far and I'd love to hear them. And please come back for the continuation of this exploration. Tomorrow, I'd like to invite you to imagine some scenarios with me, to discover the responses you may have to different answers to this question:

"So, what do you write?"

Thursday, October 7, 2010

It's Alive!

I started writing a post to follow up on my musicspeak post last week. It took me quite a bit longer than I expected, but it was a good exercise that made me think harder about and dig deeper into the subject of genres and labels and assumptions. I'm letting that post mull for a bit.

In place of a follow-up to last week's post, this is a follow-up to Monday's post, in which I wondered if writing had killed reading for me.

I am happy to report that reading is still very much alive!

Yesterday at the library while I was checking out books for my kidlets (Sid Fleishman and Gary Paulsen and Linda Sue Park, delish;) I picked up A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby on a whim.

So far, I find myself at times delighted and at other times, thoughtful and somber.
It's a story about the New Year's eve when four people meet on a rooftop, each intending to jump to their deaths. Not the most uplifting topic, but Hornby manages to, so far at least, make me smile even as I am confronted with the cruel things in life that cause people pain and despair enough to make them consider suicide.

I have never read any of his other books but have heard good things about them. I find Hornby's writing is so unforced, and his observations so acute
that I am convinced that underneath the humor and the seemingly casual treatment of people and their lives, is a thoughtful author who carefully scrutinizes his surroundings and ideas. And that, is a good draw for me.

Oh great, I meant this as a light-hearted post. Don't know why my thoughts keep wandering around unlight-hearted things. But I will rectify that. Here is a sentence from the book I hope you find as cool as I did:

If she hadn't tried to kill me, I'd be dead, no question.

Aqua fortis and Domey Malasarn both mentioned in the comments section last week about how, when they come across a book that captures them, they pause and study, to find out how the author did it. I, however, am feeling rather like I've just found a beautiful feast and just want to eat and leave the thinking about the recipes till later.

My offering to you today: food analogies, a surprising sentence, and a promise I will have that post up, soon.

Addendum: I realize I highlighted a book about suicide in a post titled "It's Alive!" Hmmm.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Did writing kill reading for me?

I finished reading two books that have been published recently. They were both well-written and I can't really find fault with much. But the entire time I was reading, I was very aware of writerly things the authors did. For example, in both these books, each adventure follows at the
heel of another, probably because of the oft-given advice to keep the tension high, don't let the story sag! In fact, increase the stakes with each obstacle! And sure enough, in both books, not only do the troubles come one after another, the stakes are increased each time.

Then there is another advice: show, don't tell, the emotions and
motivations of the protagonists. And in these books, I watch characters break out in sweat or clench their teeth; and hear about their hearts in their throats or their muscles screaming in agony, with slight variations about how the pain or fear feels.

The problem isn't with the writing advice. I like an unrelenting adventure story as much as my 9-year old daughter. I have nothing against being shown and not told a person's emotions (but only to an extent; Brian's post yesterday hit the nail on the head for me.) And I most definitely am interested in what the characters are thinking and how they make decisions.

So then, why have these recent reading experiences been so much more about noticing what the authors are trying to do then absorbing the stories they want to share?

My question, to those of you who write, are these:
  • Does the awareness of craft take you out of a story?
  • If so, does it happen in every book?
  • And if it happens only sometimes, can you determine what factor causes this type of reading?