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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, February 01, 2007

writing as art

Robert McKee says that film is now the most powerful storytelling medium there is. I daresay he's right. A good movie, making use of two senses--sight and sound--can be a powerful, engrossing experience. But a movie makes use of more than two senses, for a movie is scripted, which means that it embodies a story, and a story makes use of the part of our mind that is not directly sensual. It is purely mental. Let's call it the imagination.

But movies have many limitations, and they're not equally effective at telling all kinds of story. In fact, there tends to be a relatively small range of stories that can be effectively told in a movie. Then there are budgetary limitations, plus the fact that filmmaking is a communal activity, which can make a production suffer if the different parts of the community aren't pulling together. Not everyone is equally talented.

And what about that script--the underlying blueprint of a movie? No movie is any better than its script. The script represents the ceiling of quality that a movie can attain, and past which it cannot go. The best filmmakers are simply those able to realize the full potential of a script.

So sound and image, for all their potential power, are boring if the story is no good. The mental dimension, the imagination, trumps the senses in terms of its power to captivate us and move us.

Film therefore may be the most powerful story medium for certain types of stories, but for many other types the printed word remains best, and I think always will.

I believe that much (or all) of the power of any work of art comes from the awakening power of experiencing the detailed presence of the artist's mind. In a painting, every point on the canvas has received the artist's attention and skill. In "The Hay Wain" by John Constable the subject is the horse-drawn wagon piled with hay, but Constable lavished just as much attention on every other element of the picture. Look at the reflections in the water; look at the summer foliage; look at the sky. Wherever we look we discover the artist's attention; we see with his eye.

Each point on the canvas has been visited by the artist's mind. And at each point the artist has used technique to reveal evidence of his passing, to turn that point into service of the whole--his vision for the picture. Looking at a well-made picture has a gentle but strong awakening effect; our minds wake up and enter a state of aesthetic enjoyment. In my experience, this state of aesthetic enjoyment is similar to the quality of wakefulness that arises in mindfulness meditation. When we see evidence of loving attention, mind recognizes itself and wakes up. Not unlike what happens when we walk into a room in which someone has taken the trouble to dust the furniture and vacuum the floor and plump the cushions: it becomes inviting and wakeful.

The art of writing works in the same way. When we read a work of artistic writing, whether fiction, poetry, or nonfiction, we know that each word is a token of the attention of the writer: the footprints of the author's thought. If this has been done carefully, skillfully, lovingly, the aesthetic effect occurs: waking up and engagement with the work.

This to me provides a concrete reason why good writing is economical and avoids cliches. Excess words are a sign either of carelessness or lack of skill on the part of the writer: both symptoms of a lowered level of mindfulness. Cliches are unoriginal ideas and expressions, the sign of a writer too lazy to take the trouble to express his own experience or thoughts in a direct, honest way. Again, sign of a lowered level of attention.

To be a true artist means to be true to the art: to work toward its highest intrinsic expression. The failures of quality in writing and in all art arise from chasing values other than those of the art-form itself: paying bills, having a "career", being popular, finishing something. The best artists suffer--but their work doesn't, and the the world, each of us, is the richer for it.

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