"I can't think without a pen in my hand!" - Me

"I can't think without a pen in my hand!" - Me

A Friendly Guide to Navigating this BLOG

If you have visited this blog before, you will notice I've made some changes. A Pen in My Hand is going to be dedicated to lighthearted anecdotes and whatever else I feel like writing. I have started another blog for topics that are more serious/spiritual in nature. See the link in the sidebar to visit that blog.

I sincerely hope you find something here worth reading; but if not, take heart. There are about six billion other blogs out there to choose from.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Artist and his Principles: A Metaphor

What follows is an essay I wrote for my graduate class. I share it here because writing it was not just an academic exercise for me. This essay addresses the tension that I feel as a writer striving to balance the marketability of my work with the need to be true to my own deeply held beliefs. In reading Anna Karenina recently, I found myself identifying with Tolstoy, whose work has been criticized (and even despised) by some who did not share or respect his religious convictions. I can't help but believe Tolstoy wrote himself metaphorically into the chapters discussed below. In these chapters I found practical advice and encouragement reaching out to me across centuries and continents -- from one writer to another. That in itself was an experience worth blogging about!

Embedded in the center of Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina is a detailed metaphor of the writer's life.  Through a string of brief scenes in Part V, chapters 10-13, Tolstoy uses a character referred to as "Mikhaylov, the artist" to illuminate the tension the artist (or writer) feels by being forced to simultaneously occupy two realms. These realms could be labeled as the spiritual and the material, or simply as the creative and the pragmatic.  It is in the vast region between the places where his mind and his body dwell that the artist must reconcile matters such as inspiration and execution, criticism and appreciation, conviction and necessity.  This tension both frustrates and fuels the artist.

In these brief pages, Mikhaylov first appears in an argument with his wife over money. He shouts at her and calls her names, then shuts himself into his studio to work. Tolstoy writes, "He never worked with such ardour or so successfully as when things were going badly with him, and especially after a quarrel with his wife. 'Oh dear! If only I could escape somewhere!' he thought as he worked." (p. 467) Mikhaylov then finds a discarded sketch which his young daughter had smudged and in the smudge finds inspiration for a new and much-improved drawing. These details illustrate the dual world of the artist – a world in which the chaos of money troubles and messy children actually cultivates rather than stifles his creative energy. We see that though part of him longs for a solitary life in a painter's loft, the true artist in him knows that his inspiration depends on the very things from which he longs to escape.

Mikhaylov the artist cannot create without inspiration. Inspiration is the key to executing his art successfully. It is clear that Mikhaylov will not paint just anything. This perhaps explains why he is poor. He can paint only what he sees and feels through the eyes of his soul. That is why he is so irritated by Vronsky's use of the word "technique." Tolstoy writes, "[Mikhaylov] often heard the word technique mentioned, and he did not at all understand what was meant by it. He knew it meant mechanical capacity to paint and draw, quite independent of the subject matter. He had often noticed…that technique was contrasted with inner quality, as if it were possible to paint well something that was bad." (p. 472) In his opinion, "the most experienced and technical painter could never paint anything by means of mechanical skill alone, if the outline of the subject matter did not first reveal itself to his mind." (p. 472) Mikhaylov had not just to see something but to see into it before he would even consider painting it.  That is why he was so eager to paint Anna. He didn't just see her beauty and long to capture it. He saw something of her soul, and that was what he wanted to reproduce on canvas. Not being a true artist, Vronsky did not have this second sight.
Thus, when Vronsky sees Mikhaylov's portrait of Anna he sees her "sweetest spiritual expression" (p. 475) for the first time on the canvas, even though it has been apparent in her face all along.

Mikhaylov the artist is at the mercy of, though not defined by, other's criticism. When Mikhaylov enters his studio and views his own paintings, particularly Pilate's Admonition, he is quite satisfied with his work. It seems perfect to him. Then, as he anticipates strangers coming in to view it, he becomes agitated. When Golenishchev, Anna, and Vronsky enter, he knows they are not qualified to judge his art, yet he is filled with self-doubt as they scrutinize his work. Then Golenishchev makes an observation about the figure of Pilate, rightly discerning the character traits Mikhaylov had attempted to portray. This thrills the artist, but not as much as Anna's comment about Christ's expression: "One sees he is sorry for Pilate," she observes. The irony in her statement is the reason she makes it. Far from discerning the deep spiritual truth about Christ which the artist has deliberately communicated, Anna merely "felt that it was the centre of the picture, and that therefore praise of it would be agreeable to the artist." (p. 471) Still, Mikhaylov devours the praise eagerly and allows it to nourish his artistic soul.

Mikhaylov the artist must paint out of his convictions, not to please the consumer. In spite of the fact that he needs to earn money to provide for his family, Mikhaylov must paint what he believes in. To him, interpreting Christ as both deity and humanity is "the highest theme open to art," (p. 473) therefore he paints it. However, this theme does not resonate with every viewer. In fact, some (like Golenishchev) find it repugnant. Fortunately, Mikhaylov also has a gift for portraying lofty truth in the most mundane contexts. It is not Pilate's Admonition that fills his visitors with delight, but a painting of two boys fishing by a stream. Yet even in this simple painting, Mikhaylov has managed to display the duality of matter and spirit, as one boy is preoccupied with the act of fishing while the other has abandoned his pole to gaze dreamily at the water. Though they were turned off by this theme in an overtly religious painting, Anna and Vronsky are irresistibly drawn to it in this relatable context. They decide they must purchase the painting – and thus the artist survives, true to his principles yet palatable to his market.

Through these chapters on Mikhaylov and his painting, Tolstoy gives the reader a glimpse at what was certainly his own experience as a writer. First, Tolstoy's work bears witness to the fact that he did not attempt to write without inspiration. He saw humanity with a second sight that penetrated to the matters of soul and spirit, and it is the spiritual condition of men and women that he lays bare in his characters. Tolstoy also wrote without undue regard to criticism, though he took it to heart. Through Mikhaylov, Tolstoy reveals that it is far more painful to have one's work misinterpreted than merely disliked. Liking or not liking is a matter of taste, but if misunderstanding is possible then the writer feels he has failed in his work. Finally, in the same spirit as Mikhaylov, Tolstoy wrote from his conscience and convictions, with an aim to tell the truth – not to please his market. His writing was laced with religious themes and the spiritual principles in which he firmly believed. Surely it was Tolstoy, the artist, speaking through Mikhaylov when he said, "I could not paint a Christ whom I had not in my soul." (p. 472

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Books and Promises

In the summer of 1985, when I was fourteen years old, I caught a terrible cold. It was the week of our family vacation at Long Beach Island, New Jersey. Stuck in a rented house with neither television nor radio, I had literally nothing to do but lie there feeling miserable while everyone else was on the beach having a wonderful time.

After a few days, my father came up to my room carrying a white paper bag from the corner drug store. In it, he promised, was something that would make me feel better.

I reached into the bag expecting to find medicine. Instead, to my surprise, I pulled out a book. It was a fat paperback, maybe three inches thick, with the homeliest boy I'd ever seen painted on the front cover. David Copperfield, it said, by Charles Dickens. I flipped through the pages, letting them fan rapidly off my thumb. There were no pictures. And the print was very small.

"It's a classic," my dad said, as if that meant anything to me.

If my father had given me that book in any other setting, I would probably never have read it. But given nothing but the peeling paint on the ceiling to compete for my attention, I decided to read. And I kept reading day after day, week after week, until I came to the end.

I remember the moment vividly. It was 2:00 a.m., and I was babysitting for some friends of my parents. As I read the final pages, tears poured down my cheeks, and my nose ran shamelessly. I couldn’t bear that I was alone. Such words, such happenings were meant to be shared. I decided to call my mother.

My mother answered the phone and was instantly thrown into a panic. The combination of the late hour and my sobs filled her imagination with horrors. Oblivious to this, I started to read her Dora's deathbed scene, in which she entrusts her young husband to the care of dear Agnes – the woman who had loved David in secret all along. Agnes descended the stairs, hand upraised to heaven, indicating Dora's death.  It was simply the most beautiful thing I had ever read.

Through reading David Copperfield, I became fascinated with people. The characters in the story consumed me and knit themselves into my heart. They became the archetypes for all the other people I would meet in my life. Through the novel, I came to understand that there were weak but well-intentioned people, like Clara and Mr. Micawber; selfish, manipulative people, like the Murdstones and Steerforth; unimpressive but good people, like Daniel and Ham; trapped people fighting their own hearts, like Annie; people who create their own problems, like Mrs. Gummidge and Em'ly; strong, redemptive people like Betsey, Peggotty, and Agnes. As I read (and re-read) David Copperfield, I formulated an idea in my mind of the kinds of people I could respect – and the kind of person I wanted to become.

Thanks to David Copperfield, I also became enamored with words – so much so, that it has ruined all other forms of art for me. It was with words, not pictures, that Dickens breathed life into his characters and made them living souls. For example, one cannot read these words without conjuring not just a mental picture but a kindred sympathy with young David, face to face with the Aunt who had rejected him at birth – his sole fault being his gender:

Not having as yet finished my own breakfast, I attempted to hide my confusion by proceeding with it; but my knife tumbled over my fork, my fork tripped up my knife, I chipped bits of bacon a surprising height into the air instead of cutting them for my own eating, and choked myself with my tea, which persisted in going the wrong way instead of the right one, until I gave in altogether, and sat blushing under my aunt's close scrutiny.

It is that connection with souls through words that has stayed with me. To this day, when I visit a museum, I wander around feeling restless and bored until I happen to find a glass case in which are displayed journals or letters. Then I pore over the faded strokes of ink or lead in a tireless attempt to decipher meaning. Here, in their words, I find a connection with the people of the past -- not in their clothing, tools, or trinkets.

Young Copperfield's aunt once told him, "It's in vain to recall the past, unless it works some influence upon the present." That is why today that tattered copy of David Copperfield is preserved in a glass shadow box in my office. Like a framed muse, it hangs over the desk where I hammer away at my first attempt at a book – which is, ironically, a memoir. As I begin writing my life story, I hear the echo of Dickens' young narrator: "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show." I relate to this statement on a whole new level now. On the days I find myself blocked, unable to string five words together, I fondly recall Mr. Dick, brought to a standstill in the writing of his Memorial by the unwelcome intrusion of Charles the First's head, which "had been constantly getting into it, and was there now."

To this day, when I pass out copies of David Copperfield to my high school students and hear their groans as they eyeball the cover, binding, and typeface, I make them a promise. I tell them that if they will bear with me to the end of this book, they will never be the same. So far, no student has proved me wrong.