Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Break This Commandment. Please.

I forget the age I was at--probably somewhere in the middle of high school--where the received wisdom in creative writing classes bade us to write what we know, a wisdom that seems as persistent as the rent collector in a cheap rooming house.

Over the years since I heard that wisdom, my irritation to it has grown in steady degrees to the point of outburst if not outright explosion.

My last explosion is bordering on being ten years old, dating back to the time when the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference was still being held at the now defunct and moldy Miramar Hotel. A dedicated writer had spent some time researching the racial phenomenon associated with Rosa Parks, ably abetted by the Rev. King, Rev. Abernathy, and a large, diverse cadre of modern American heroes. The writer I have in mind had as her protagonist a young black woman, torn by conventions, racial hatred, bigotry, and an intense desire for a better life. The work was set upon by the black caucus, demanding to know how the writer, a white woman, could possibly relate to the trials of being black in Southern United States.

I'm happy to report that there was a happy ending here. My explosion was intense and pointed. "How dare you bring bigotry in here?" I demanded. "You guys are here because you're writers, not because you're black. If we follow your dictum, Captain Nemo wouldnever have gone twenty thousand leagues under the sea, Tarzan would never have made it to Mars, and Becky Sharp would never have had voice because she was created by a man. I should never be able to write anything with a woman it in, nor in any other way stretch my imagination."

The happy ending came a year later when the same author read from the same project and this time was set upon by a white writer/critic, only to be shouted down by what used to be the black caucus but which was more properly the writing caucus.

I was reminded of this incident and its attendant fall-out because of the attack on Ken Burns, the filmmaker who is about to go public with his study of World War II. The attack came from Latino and Native American dissidents who are irked that Burns's take on World War II does not coincide with theirs, which is to say they do not feel sufficiently represented, which is to say that democracy does work by presenting a sampling and, indeed, a motion picture is by most accounts a collaborative effort. But look at the possibilities for mischief were Burns to bring in a diversity of ethnic approaches. Sometimes balance defeats art. Sometimes balance defeats the ambition for individual efforts. Sometimes a call for balance is best seen as sour grapes.

I for one am content living with the fact that I did not like Burns's take in his study of jazz, but I am also grateful for his having made it.

The thing I like a good deal about the writing of books, essays, and short fiction is that the writer is the one with the vision; editors and publishers are the silent collaborators, working to help the author give the clearest possible articulation to the author's vision.

Write What You Know! What absurdity! If the writer wrote what he or she knew, there would be no discovery, no perspective, no changing horizon; everything would be of equal importance and intensity, which is to say boring.

One of my current preoccupations with photography has to do with my excitement at the sight of quotidian things, ordinary things, viewed from remarkable perspectives, miracles of the ordinary I might not have otherwise seen. A remarkable photographer known to me only as pod, a man with an extraordinary eye, was awakened from a pleasant sleep recently by some clangorous activity outside his window. He took to the streets with his camera and, to assuage his foul mood, began looking for, finding, and photographing ordinary things that brightened his sensitivity to the joys of the world. A continent away--pod lives in Sydney--I see these images and am transformed to a sensitivity to the miracles inherent in the small things. To judge from the other comments on pod's blog site, I was not alone in my celebration.

You have two choices: find out exactly where pod lives and make noises outside his window if you do not fully appreciate his images; that or go take your own images.

Think about it. And don't be afraid to examine your intent while you are making noises or taking your own images. We take images to capture them as a record of our time here, analyzing what we see and what has meaning to us. We make noise outside pod's window if we are jealous of his eye, if we are rendered inchoate by our own feelings, or we simply can't stand to see anyone make an effective use of his imagination.

Toward the approaching end of his life, Leonardo da Vinci made a series of sketches related to the movement water, stunning sketches that were amazingly prescient of the way water is moving or is in fact not moving over our planet today. He closed his eyes and saw. Galileo closed his eyes and saw. Quantum leap forward: Charles Darwin closed his eyes and saw a greater truth than the great truth he thought he believed.

Think about it, and don't be afraid to examine your intent.

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