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Tortured Artist: Fact or Myth?

A songwriter friend insists he does his best work after suffering a personal setback or a painful experience. Having endured a divorce in the past year, I cannot say the same is true for me. I wrote my first novel, Small Change, when I was married and reasonably content. Since my divorce my daily writing output has dropped precipitously (except during the annual National Novel Writing Month competition).

My personal situation got me thinking about the idea of the tortured artist. This theory holds that authentic art—whether in literature, music or painting—must spring from the well of personal pain and suffering.

The tortured artist idea is the subject of much debate. Christopher Zara, who wrote a book about it, defended the concept in a post in The Huffington Post. “It’s my belief that all great art comes from pain,” Zara wrote. “Van Gogh painted The Starry Night while in emotional torment, Lennon and McCartney forged their creative partnership following the death of their respective mothers, Milton penned Paradise Lost after losing his wife, his daughter, his eyesight.”

Zara explained the basis of his opinion. “Art is a reflection of humanity and humanity’s greatest virtue is its ability to overcome adversity.” Van Gogh, he pointed out, suffered from anxiety, absinthe addiction, and seizures, but his suffering gave him insight, and that insight, in turn, gave the world a new kind of art called Post Impressionist.”

Not everyone shares Zara’s view. Jeff Tweedy, leader of the brilliant alt-rock band Wilco, termed the idea of the tortured artist a “damaging mythology.” Tweedy said the concept impeded his battles with addiction, anxiety, and depression. “I look at it as, the part of me that was able to create, managed to create in spite of the problems I was having, almost as if that was the only healthy part of me,” Tweedy said. “That’s the part of me that I feel like, getting healthier, I’ve been able to nurture.”

What do the scientists have to say about the idea of the tortured artist? An article in Brain World magazine published in August of 2012 posed the question, Do you have to be crazy to be creative? Contessa Schexnayder interviewed scientists and psychologists who had conducted research in this area.

She cited recent study conducted by Professor Fredrik Ullén at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet’s Department of Women’s and Children’s Health, that looked to dopamine D2 receptors in the brain. The study found that many healthy and highly creative individuals had a similar dopamine system as those who suffered from schizophrenia. “Many studies have shown that high amounts of dopamine D2 receptors are responsible for divergent thoughts, which could possibly explain the link between creative people and mental illness,” she wrote. “Highly creative individuals—like many who suffer from schizophrenia—are able to think in more imaginative ways and see unusual and uncommon connections. They can create and associate ideas that most of us are unable to connect. These creative connections are often seen in those who suffer from certain mental illnesses.”

Dr. James Kauffman, a psychologist at the University of California, San Bernadino, conducted a study focused on eminent writers and creators. Dr. Kauffman found that poets, in particular female poets, were more likely to suffer from mental illness than politicians, actresses, artists, and journalists.

“A lot of writing has healthy positive effects,” says Dr. Kaufman. “It’s very good for you emotionally and even physically. But one of the things that makes this so healthy is the presence of a narrative, and the continuous writing schedules. And poetry tends not to follow the same schedule, and tends not be as narrative-driven.”

What do I think? I believe creative thought and expression is inspired by the sum total of an individual’s life experiences: the highest joys and the deepest pains and the range of emotions in between. I also believe it takes time for an individual to process pain. I believe it is critical for a writer to give it time to put intense emotional experiences into perspective, which allows a writer to gain a greater understand the source of the pain and how it impacted their behavior.

What do you think of the idea of the tortured artist?

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Author Spotlight: Michael Chabon

Simply put, Michael Chabon is a writer’s writer. When I read his work, there are passages on every page that make me want to stand up and applaud. His gifts are prodigious. Reading popular fiction is like enjoying a snack compared to Michael Chabon’s novels, which are full seven-course meals that leave the reader fully sated.

Born in Washington D.C. in 1963, Chabon burst onto the literary scene with his 1988 “coming of age” novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. It was much more than a coming of age novel. It explored the relationship between a distant, but powerful father and his confused post-college son, in which the father provided everything but love and understanding. It delved into sexual identity and the main character’s confusion about his sexual orientation. The main character skirted the line between the post-graduate world and the murky terrain of low-life criminals. And the prose was typical Chabon—brilliant and compelling.

There followed a five-year period in which Chabon worked on a novel that was never published. Fountain City was planned as the follow-up to his debut novel. It was the story of an architect who dreamed of building the perfect baseball park in Miami. Working under deadline pressure, Chabon eventually abandoned the project, then turned around and finished his second novel, Wonder Boys, in an astonishing seven months.

Wonder Boys, published in 1995, focuses on college professor and doomed author Grady Tripp (played by Michael Douglas in the movie). Tripp is laboring over a weighty manuscript that he cannot seem to get into shape for publication. Meanwhile he is having an affair with the wife of a senior official at the college where he works. And he is mentoring a troubled young student.

Chabon’s third novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavaler & Clay, saw the author at the peak of his powers. Published in 2000, the novel won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for literature. The story builds on Chabon’s fascination with comic books as it follows two cousins who meet during the throes of the Depression in the late 1930s, but lose touch during World War II. Comic books provide a backdrop for a dark story in which each man struggles to find his soul in a world that is at once welcoming and hostile.

He next published The Yiddish Policemen’s Union in 2007. This is a fine novel that works both as a hardboiled detective story and as a commentary on geopolitics in the Mideast. Set in a fictional Jewish post-war settlement in Alaska, the novel centers on a down-and-out detective who must solve a complex murder.

Chabon’s literary influences include many noted writers of the 20th Century, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Raymond Chandler, John Updike, Philip Roth, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

His new novel, Telegraph Avenue, can take its place among his best work. Writing in the New York Times, Jennifer Egan (herself a Pulitzer Prize winner), said of Telegraph Avenue, “The novel is equally a tribute to the cinematic style of Quentin Tarrantino, whose films its characters study and discuss, and whose preoccupations pepper its pages: Kung Fu, cinematic allusions and the blaxploitation films of the 1970s; and an interest in the African-American characters and experience.”

It centers on two business partners and dreamers, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, who operate a used record store called Brokeland Records, in a section of Oakland that borders Berkeley, a hodgepodge of cultures and ethnicities and political beliefs. The store is threatened by a megamall development (including a used record store) proposed by a former NFL star named Gibson “G Bad” Goode, sort of a cross between Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. Meanwhile Archy faces major problems on the home front as his teen-age son whom he hasn’t acknowledged returns from Texas to the surprise of his wife, seven months pregnant. Gwen Shanks has problems of her own as the midwife practice she shares with Nat’s wife, Aviva Roth-Jaffe, faces a lawsuit and possible revocation of hospital privileges from a birth gone wrong. As if that’s not enough, Archy’s wayward dad, blaxploitation film star Luther Stallings, is back in town after a stint in prison and is looking to shake down a prominent Oakland City Councilman who is the key to the development deal.

In one passage, the reader sees Archy at his lowest: “Archy was tired of Nat, and he was tired of Gwen and her pregnancy, with all the unsuspected depths of his insufficiency that it threatened to reveal. He was tired of Brokeland, and of black people, and of white people, and of all their schemes and grudges, their frontings, hustles, and corruptions. Most of all, he was tired of being a holdout, a sole survivor, the last coconut hanging on the last palm tree on the last little atoll in the path of the great wave of late-modern capitalism, waiting to be hammered flat.”

Telegraph Avenue  is pure Chabon—robust, scintillating and thoroughly satisfying—but I will review it soon on this blog.

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How Much Back Story is Too Much?

Respected literary agent and blogger Rachelle Gardner discussed in a post how much “back story” is appropriate to include in a work of fiction. Her conclusion? Less than a paragraph. This view is echoed by many agents and publishers.

Fifty years ago, authors liberally used back story as a means to introduce the reader to the characters and their motivations in a novel. Today, back story is something to be avoided. Why? First, let’s define back story. Back story is everything that has happened before the story begins. It includes the characters’ history, events, upbringing, and major life milestones.

The problem with back story is the reader doesn’t need to know all of the mundane details of a character’s life—especially when presented in a multi-page info dump. It is considered bad writing because it takes the reader out of the story. The reader only needs to know those details pertinent to the story and those details must be told in a manner that heightens the inherent tension and conflict of the novel.

This presents the writer with a dilemma. How does the writer set up the story, reveal the character’s hopes, dreams and fears, without delving into the character’s past? There are ways to do it without making it sound like back story. Visualize delivering back story through a sprinkler rather than a firehose. Giving to the reader all at once will knock the reader over with the sheer force of the water, but sprinkling it throughout with deft droplet in dialogue and action scenes is an effective technique..

Let’s say your main character is a man who has failed at every business he has attempted, but still dreams of untold riches. His wife knows differently and the gap between his dreams and reality is a source of tension in their marriage. Now the writer can spend pages chronicling the man’s business woes, but that would bore the reader. How about a dialogue scene that would read something like this:

Man [sitting at laptop]: Honey, come here. Check out my latest business plan. This one can’t miss.

Wife: Sure, I’ve heard that before.

Man: No this one’s a winner.

Wife: Look, I’ve had it. We both know that every half-baked idea you’ve hatched turns out to be a rotten egg.

The dialogue could continue in this vein as the man’s wife points out each one of his business failures. This way of letting in the back story is superior to exposition because it also reveals much about the couple and the underlying tensions in their relationship. It also speaks about a man who doesn’t give up on his dreams, and creates a degree of sympathy in the reader.

Another effective strategy for divulging back story is to wait until the time is right. Don’t tell the reader the main character can’t swim until his friend is drowning and it’s up to the character to save him.

When I was working on my first novel, Small Change, the original version of the story started when the main character was 10 years old. I couldn’t get the voice to work, so I chopped out the first four chapters and began the story when he was 14 years old. My first thought was that I lost a lot of essential back story, but when I finished the manuscript, I found I didn’t lose much at all. I was able to weave the important attributes of the main character and the essential family history into other scenes.

It’s essential for the author to know the back story, but she must be careful in how much and when to reveal these details to the reader.

What is your view on back story? Is it ever appropriate?

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Writers’ Group Publishes Short Story Collection

Writers’ groups help their members turn their stories into work that is publishable, or at least passable. The writers’ group to which I belong took that a step further—we published a collection of our members’ short stories. The book, available at www.amazon.com, is called, 13 Stories from the West Hartford Fiction Writers’ Group 2012.

The short story collection was the brainchild of Lida Boynick, who had heard about a local poetry group that had published an anthology. She raised the idea at our group’s monthly meeting and all of us enthusiastically received it. Why not? We had a trove of great material from which to select the best stories. We thought we could crank it out in a matter of months. How wrong we were.

Participants in a project that involves multiple writers should think about:

  • Leadership. The old saw, “when everybody is in charge, nobody is in charge” applies to group projects like this. We appointed Lida to lead our effort. She was the right choice as she handled her duties with tact and aplomb.
  • Organization. Key decisions must be made. How many stories to include? Which stories? What are the criteria? We put together a small subcommittee that drafted a set of criteria and circulated it to the group at large. We meet regularly and assigned various tasks to group members.
  • Quality Control. We insisted every story must have gone through the workshop process at a monthly meeting. We made one exception for an accomplished writer in the group who had been unable to attend meetings due to a scheduling conflict. We agreed her story had to go through the same process as the rest: assignment to an editor on the committee. Every story was reviewed by a committee member and sent to the author with changes.
  • Book Structure. Where would we place the stories? The stories covered a number of genres and we had to come up with the right mix of story length, genre, etc.

The group reserved the right to reject any story that did not meet a publishable standard. Luckily, there were no close calls.

The 13 stories reflect the diversity of our group. Our authors included a lawyer, a retired truck driver, and a teacher, and covered a wide range of ages and life experiences. The collection spans many genres, including mystery, romance science fiction, and fantasy.

My story was called, Solid Gold. It was a tribute to the golden age of radio in the 1960s, when two rival radio stations (WDRC and WPOP) ruled the airwaves in the Hartford region. It explores themes of reality versus illusion, escapism, and the place of rock and roll in people’s lives.

Read Solid Gold

Check out the short story anthology and leave a review.

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What Makes a Good Book Cover-Part II

Since I published my novel, Small Change, through Amazon.com I have received a lot of compliments from my writer friends on the cover design. The praise is misplaced for I had little to do with the cover design. I was fortunate to work with a friend who is a talented designer, Greg Reese of West Hartford, Connecticut, who was really the brains behind the cover.

Here was the process. Greg and I had lunch and I explained what the book was about. We reviewed some of my ideas for what I wanted the cover to convey. Since many of the dramatic scenes in the story took place at a lakeside resort, I wanted to feature the lake on the cover. There was a dock located between the cottages of the two families in the novel, the Sykowskis and the Crandales. My original concept was to have the main character, John Sykowski, sitting on the dock looking out at the lake, with his friend, Rebekka Crandale, standing behind him with her back to him. It would be dusk and the figures would be shadowy. This reflects a key moment in the story when Rebekka asks John if he loves her and John tells her that he does not.

Greg and I discussed typography and art work. One basic question Greg asked was whether I envisioned a drawing or a photograph or some other type of image. After discussing it, we agreed a photograph would work best. Greg asked me to send him three book covers that were similar in concept to what we had in mind. I did a quick Google search and sent Greg three images.

Based on our discussion, Greg came up with nine basic designs. We narrowed it down to two, but we needed a specific photograph to make them work. I called my son-in-law, Brian Marzi, a budding artist who enjoys photography. Brian took more than 200 photographs at a lake in Ohio, Twin Lakes, located in the Twin Lakes section of Kent, Ohio. He brought one of his friends who looked close to the age John would have been to pose for pictures on the dock.

As soon as we saw the photograph of the young man sitting on the dock with his back to the camera, looking out at the lake, we knew we had the shot we wanted. It spoke to so many elements in the story: the water representing surface truths but hiding secrets, the dock as both a unifying and dividing line, the young man who is gazing out at his future, the trees and the clouds representing the horizon of his life.

Our only remaining issue was the typography. One design had the title in white with a black border. It was stark and basic, reflecting the tone of the work, but the other design, with the title in red, drew the reader in. We ultimately decided on the red lettering with my name in black on the next line.

The image displays well on the Amazon page, which is a must for e-book covers.

So here are some key lessons learned:

  • Use a professional graphic designer.
  • Meet with your designer and explain the concept and your vision.
  • Make sure you and your designer are on the same page in terms of the basic cover concept.
  • Be frank with your designer. If a design doesn’t work for you, speak up. Your designer will appreciate the feedback.
  • Ask for several options working within the basic design. For me, there was a cover design I didn’t choose that I really liked, but everyone else thought the design we selected was superior (and they were right).
  • Just as you cannot hurry the creative writing process, don’t rush the design process. Design professionals know what they are doing. Don’t put undue pressure on them.
  • As is the case with editing, ultimately you are the boss—not that this was ever an issue for me since we were totally in synch.

An attractive book cover is essential for a self-published author. Be sure to put in the effort to ensure your book cover attracts readers.

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Author Spotlight: Anne Tyler

This is the first in an occasional series of articles on authors I admire.

Anne Tyler, who recently published her 19th novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye, is one of the most prolific and respected authors of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. Best known for her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Breathing Lessons, (1988) and Pulitzer finalist, The Accidental Tourist (1985), both of which were made into movies, Tyler writes with uncommon depth and uncanny perceptiveness about families and the struggle for individual identity within the whole of the nuclear family.

In a profile on Tyler that included a rare interview with her, Jessica Strawser of Writer’s Digest wrote: “Her books are about families and the complications therein—marital discourse, sibling rivalry, resentment, and underneath it all, love. Tyler’s eccentric and endearing characters are so intensely real, so thoroughly developed, they come to life on the page—both for her as she writes and for the reader, who suddenly can see a bit of his own mother, father, brother or even self in their blurted-out words, their unspoken impulses, their mistakes, and with any luck, their moments of triumph.”

Read Anne Tyler’s Tips on Creating Strong (Yet Flawed) Characters in Writer’s Digest

Her unique style is on display in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which Tyler considers her finest work. In a review of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in her book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, fellow author and literature professor Jane Smiley wrote of Tyler’s style: “Tyler is subtle and retiring as an author. Her style is precise and insightful, her incidents are full of interest and psychological weight, and her structure works to lay bare the workings of the family.”

Although I found Dinner a satisfying work, my favorite Anne Tyler novels are Earthly Possessions (1977) and The Ladder of Years (1995). The two novels explore similar terrain—a  mother who is unappreciated by her family and has lost her sense of self. In both cases, the main character leaves her family, which in the hands of a less skilled writer, could come across as an act of selfishness, but in these two works it evokes empathy in the reader. In Earthly Possessions, Charlotte Emory decides to leave her husband. She goes to the bank to withdraw some money and is kidnapped. She decides during her ordeal that she doesn’t want to return to her family and actually begins to like her kidnappers. In The Ladder of Years, Delia Grinstead walks off the beach during a family vacation in Delaware and simply begins a new life without her family. Her long journey culminates in self-discovery.

As an author Tyler doesn’t follow trends or write big, grandiose novels. Her subject matter is the every-day travails of families and individuals. She once said that, “there aren’t enough quiet, gentle, basically good people in a novel,” words that are anathema to most agents and publishers. And yet there are few authors who can match the consistent high quality of her work.

In the Writer’s Digest interview, Tyler said she doesn’t think of her audience while she is writing a novel. “I’ve learned that it is best not to think about readers while I’m writing. I just try to sink into the world I’m describing. But at the very end, of course, I have to think about readers. I read my final draft pretending I’m someone else, just to make sure that what I’ve written makes sense from outside,” she said.

Tyler was born in Minneapolis but grew up in North Carolina. She graduated from Duke University at the age of 19 and completed her graduate work at Columbia University in Russian studies. She lives in Baltimore, where many of her works are set.

What is your favorite Anne Tyler novel and why?

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