10.05.2004

The Creative Block: Mary Helen Stefaniak, Harlan Ellison, Don Webb, Fellini

I spent a few minutes chatting with Mary Helen Stefaniak after her reading last Thursday. We discussed a few of her bad reviews that showed the reviewers' lack of actually reading the novel. (Every time I thought she'd made a mistake, I'd reread to find that not only did the author say the right thing, she said it admirably. I'll demonstrate this kind of reviewer folly soon--from the Washington Post, no less.)

But this prompted her to say, "You shouldn't read reviews, anyway--good or bad." [quotes are faked approximations for dramatic effect only]

"Really?" I said. "Why?"

"You don't want to be influenced on your next novel. If someone says your work is too complex, you don't want to force the narrative into a simplistic something it's not supposed to be."

I wasn't sure if I agreed entirely--assuming the writer had some control over how such criticisms affected him--but it raises a good point. I asked if she'd seen Fellini's 8 1/2, and she laughed and said she had.

Criticism is the principle to apply after the creative process has taken its course through to the end of a story. Some people call this switching the editor (or critic) on and off. While this is important to keep in mind, I don't think one should ever fully turn either the creator or the editor-critic destroyer off. A story's mythical "soul" can be revised out if the creator isn't there to inform the aesthetics. And if you leave the creator burbling without the destroyer's presence in the distant background, you're likely ramble or circle the woods lost.

The creative block comes from giving the destroyer too much power--What a stupid idea for a story, or That story doesn't have a shred of heart or intellect in it, or...--so that you never get around to the process of creating. If you have too much destroyer, you need to tell it to take a hike, get lost, scram. You are free to write utter crap. Leslie What had a great article on writer's block in the SFWA Bulletin--highy recommended.

Another creativity-liberation method I found useful was reading Harlan Ellison. While Ellison may use words to destroy, his artistic method is pure free-wheeling imagination let loose [the creator] to be reined in [the destroyer] to make the story come together .

Don Webb can also rein in a story, especially in his professional publications, but much of his small press work just lets imagination flap at full throttle--cobbled with a last-second ending. I can't explain how freeing it is to read his work. You don't ask: Where are you going with this? It doesn't matter. Okay, so it isn't going to be remembered--big deal. Let's just see where it takes us. Let's just enjoy the fleeting sense of wonder.

Perhaps the most obvious example is "Brother B___ His Story" from the Chris Drumm [email] chapbook The Bestseller and Other Tales, copies of which you can probably still order for $5 [although the site hasn't been updated in years, the information is still accurate, last I checked].

B___ drives a streetsweeper on his routine in the shapes of various calligraphy letters, making up his own alphabet. The story minutely details the routine of his life for three+ pages and ends thus:

On the day of the accident B___ was struck by divine madness. B___ conceived a new character with flowing graceful arcs. He drove his sweeper across Avondale Elementary School lot and into one of the temporary classrooms in back. He destroyed the classroom, seven elementary schoolchildren, his sweeper and himself. B___ was 47 and will be remembered a long time in our city.

Would I give this a good review if I were reviewing it? Probably not. But it's a liberator of your creativity to shuck off the destroyer long enough to create. It empowers the creator.

Fellini's 8 1/2 had similar troubles. The director is hounded by his producers to produce, by his mistress to love and give a job to her husband, by his wife to love and make his art more accurate to real life if he's going to use real life, by his critic to produce something more meaningful, by the church to produce something with accurate religious themes, by the media to produce something without religious themes, by actors to give them jobs and tell them what to do, and by women to produce works of love, etc. Ironically, the film is all about Fellini's love, even if it isn't depicted in terms that would make anyone swoon in romantic ecstasy. One of Fellini's real life confidantes tells the audience of Fellini's wisdom: "Love, sex, marriage, and friendship are four things that have nothing to do with each other." Yet every character in the movie mixes these together and places high expectations on the director, so that his progress is stymied.

It is only by saying--on with the show!--that Fellini breaks through these expectations to produce a work of art. The flaws are a part of what makes the art art. There's plenty of irony in all these criticisms: in stating them, they become no longer valid. The weaknesses are now strengths.

I'm reminded of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain"--just remembered from watching Little Black Book, a movie with all the charm of an episode of Friends or any other sitcom that thrives on silly misunderstandings that don't need to happen (read "charm" with ironic inflection). Simon sings, "You're so vain, I bet you think this song is about you." But if someone really thought the song was about them, they couldn't be too vain because they'd have a modicum of humility enough to acknowledge the criticism.

Likewise, the criticism of using or not using religion and the criticism of movies without love are simultaneously acknowledged by showing that the director as a boy being punished for his erotic fantasy for a hefty woman dancer, which tamps down his demonstration of love for women. He critiques religion in this regard yet continues to reconcile with and show respect for religion. It is a curious complexity that only achieves realism through seemingly contradictory but truly understandable coexisting oppositions. When embracing the creator/destroyer complexity of who he is, of what the story is--the creative blocked by too much destroyer--the director is able to celebrate with his new understanding--a consolidation of it all into one happy melee of life's divine madness.

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