The next creative renaissance

I watched the film “Genius” yesterday, which follows the relationship between famed editor (as much as an editor can be noticed) Maxwell Perkins and literary great Thomas Wolfe. I enjoyed the movie, more for Colin Firth’s overall performance and the sheer energy of Jude Law’s manic frenzy than for the story itself. The Hemingway and Fitzgerald cameos added a sprinkle of intrigue, though the script suffers a bit from introducing a gun and then never using it. That’s not a metaphor, by the way.

I was thinking about the art, music, architecture and literature being created in the generation of this movie. How big players like Hemingway and Picasso would gather in salons in Paris and drink and create and live an artist’s destructive, thrilling life. When will the next creative renaissance take place? Has it happened, and I missed it? Or is it happening now, in the craft beer markets of Portland or the or the El Sistema classrooms of Venezuela or the guerilla performances of Russian punk rock protesters?

Maxwell Perkins had the gift of recognizing the genius of writers who would resonate through a century, and the power of helping them succeed, but how many among us have the clarity and foresight to do the same with our contemporaries?

How’s that for a Monday morning musing.

Let the boring girls get lucky for once

buffy-homecomingI read an article recently on the topic of luck. More specifically, how we tend to under-represent the influence of luck on our own successes, tending to attribute them wholly to our own hard work and perseverance and downplaying the factors over which we have no control.

Then, when watching a dancing movie, High Strung, I was caught up in this topic again.

You see, dancing movies (and other similar feel-good sports or competition movies) often follow the tale of an underdog, overlooked because of socioeconomic factors or other constraining demographics, who gets the chance to have all of his/her dreams come true (and, of course, find love). How lucky the leads are.

But today I wasn’t focusing on the bitchy prima ballerina (why can’t the best dancer be nice for once… or at least vaguely polite), or the POC best friend (who could be amazing if she just tried a little harder and dropped her attitude/stopped partying), or even the innocent, girl-next-door beauty overwhelmed by the “big city” and the higher expectations of her demanding (but secretly supportive) teachers. No. Today I was thinking about the other dozen girls in that ballet class. The ones who’ve been at the ballet school for years, who are always on time for class, who are never kicked out of class, who don’t sleep with their choreographers or party on the eve of significant auditions, who choose healthy, supportive relationships, and who work hard every day for their dreams and thus have never needed a redemptive montage. You know. The unlucky girls.

Where are their moments in the spotlight? Where are their kisses on stage? Where are their contracts and scholarships and standing ovations?

Look, I know their stories are boring. But a part of me craves their successes instead. In the Buffy vs. Cordelia Homecoming episode, where there was a tie for homecoming queen, and **spoilers** neither Buffy nor Cordelia were the winners… that was somehow satisfying. Thinking, “those other girls must’ve run excellent campaigns; good for them.” It’s so believable. And hopeful.

Sometimes the hard-working actors in the background should win, whether or not we’re cheering for them. Let’s let the boring girls get lucky for once.

Writing on a theme

I tend to begin blindly. That is, I write and let the start of the story flow from the first passing whim. From there,  if I like what I’ve begun, I continue with a story more thoughtfully constructed–with characters and plot moving toward planned moments and, eventually, a conclusion.

If there is a theme in the writing that springs from this process, it is discovered rather than expressed. In some cases, this discovery is unwelcome. I find that I’m promoting a viewpoint in which I don’t believe, and I have to rethink the message. But that is all the work of editing. Rarely, if ever, have I begun writing with a theme (or a moral, or a message) in mind and let the story come out of that exploration. The reason, in all its patheticness, is probably that I’ve never had an issue, a position, a commitment to an idea unpopular, controversial or important enough to be the sole fuel of my writing. Until recently.

In the last few months, I’ve been thinking deeply about compassion. The power of it. The perceived weakness of it.

When I was growing up, I was frequently called “sensitive” and it had a meaning that carried the heavy deficiencies of fragility and naivety. My mother told me recently that her greatest fear for me – once my personality began to develop – was that I would be debilitated by my “sensitivity,” that I would be unable to function for my feeling for others, and that I would choose partners who were broken and bad for me, because I could see the good in them through the damage. What’s a parent to do when a child that should be happy for herself, hurts for others?

When I saw ugliness and injustice being imposed on those around me, I was not supposed to be appalled by it. My happiness was a condition of my calm, clean life. Others had less of everything – food, love, stability, comfort – so I had better be happy! (Like any loving beings, my parents wanted to give me all the good, and fix or shield me from all the bad. They wanted me to be blissful, and who could dare fault them for that?)

But I felt as much of the unfairness of my privilege as is possible, and I understood the inconsistency and horror of being told to feel blessed by the luck of my draw. Why must I always be joyful by comparison? Why shouldn’t I be devastated by the inequality of my lot, just because I had the more enviable share? Why should I be branded with the back-handed “sensitive,” when that emotional sensibility is a symptom of desirable traits like sincerity, empathy, and kindness?

There was a large part of me that went unacknowledged. A toughness, or rather, a resilience. People who cry (or should I say, women, particularly young women, who cry) don’t get the benefit of being believed strong. My family feared I would be crippled by my emotions, but emotions are not a weakness. Not necessarily. Emotions can provide drive and purpose, especially when born out of compassion. Compassion. There it is. The most powerful force in the world.

There is so much I want to say about compassion. How it is the most underrated and essential personality trait. How it differs starkly from “synonyms” like mercy and charity. How it could be the only thing besides religious bribery and familial guilt that makes someone into a good person…

And so, for the first time, I have a theme worth expressing in my writing.

Something new

I was away in Australia for a few weeks, readers. That was neato. I made some detailed notes, and I’m planning on trying my hand at travel writing in a more robust way now that I’ve gone somewhere of interest. 

In other news, I’m posting this while on the bus. Ain’t technology grand? Someone just walked on smelling deeply of skunk, which I find strange for February in a metropolitan area. Anyway…

I’m going to try something new tonight. I’m going to listen to an audiobook. I’ve been read to before by live humans, but this is something different. Why now, you ask? Well, I’m flagging in my running again and listening to mysteries is apparently a real boost. (I just haven’t been able to get into season 2 of “Zombies Run.”)

Wish me luck!

SL

The fraught experience of reading Ayn Rand

The Fountainhead was one of a stack of books that my parents gave me as a high school graduation gift. Its fellows were 1984, Me Talk Pretty One Day, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird among others. I’ve always been a passionate reader, but this gift was meant to help round out my library and my way of thinking about the world.

So I read The Fountainhead that summer and then Atlas Shrugged soon after. I enjoyed them, and not because I believe capitalism is the answer to all of society’s problems or because Ayn Rand is the best writer in the world (that 30 page manifesto voiced by John Galt, while impressive, is a challenge to power through for even the most determined of readers). No, on first reading I enjoyed them for some reasons that I will detail below, perhaps the first of which is I hadn’t yet learned that reading Ayn Rand was a political statement.

I went to a pretty liberal university. Liberal, politically. Of the two major universities in my city, mine has a certain reputation for being the home of hippies and hipsters, which made it a great place to protest things or buy hemp products but a difficult place to read Ayn Rand.

I was a 17-year old freshman, educated but sheltered. It took me a while to learn not to talk about Rand at all. Forget actually talking about the content of her argument, somehow even mentioning you’d read her books was off-limits. It was a strange experience. I hadn’t known Rand was associated with extreme-right Republicans, spouting selective snippets of her novels to explain why greed is good. I hadn’t known her books were second on the corporate asshole reading list and first on the liberal feminist list of books to vilify. (Let’s be clear here that I am a liberal feminist. But it’s in university that many of us first learn to look upon the baked-in injustices and institutional prejudices to which we were previously completely blind, and so on my first reading of these novels, I skated over the disastrous consent issues in the rape-fantasy scenes with a vague sense of discomfort, not yet able to fully conceptualize the implications and dangers of Rand’s message.)

Though people hear The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged and think of angry, white, privileged, middle-aged men who have a lot of money and zero compassion, I had the chance to read the books without those associations.

There were obvious flaws in her philosophy. I could see them with only a bit of effort. The most major, in my opinion, was: yeah it’s great if everyone just works as hard as they can and the most talented win out… but for that system to truly work, everyone would have to start on equal footing and receive equal access to opportunities (obviously a far, far cry from any human society I can think of and unthinkable in Rand’s “self first” ideology). However, I thought Rand made some good points – and I will intentionally say “Rand” instead of “Rand’s characters” since there seems to be no difference. Here’s a random sampling, from my memory:

  • She thought everyone should work their hardest at whatever they do and everyone who is willing to work should have a job
  • She thought the people who are the best should be rewarded regardless of their connections
  • She thought people should make their own decisions and not rely on advertising or popular opinion, only on reason and fact
  • She thought quality shouldn’t be sacrificed in the name of placating people’s feelings
  • She was a little mixed on women… but she wrote certain female characters equal to their male counterparts in power, intelligence and business acumen, which is pretty good for the decades in which she was writing
  • She thought women should be in control of their own bodies
  • She thought religion was harmful and “holy men” were frauds; same with public relations people
  • She thought people shouldn’t be afraid of something new (and that we shouldn’t fall back into a certain behavior simply because that’s how something has always been done)
  • She thought architecture should suit its surroundings
  • She thought people should be passionate about what they do and what they believe
  • She was completely opposed to war, calling it the second-greatest evil humankind can perpetuate

In fact, I doubt she’d think very highly of any of the politicians who I’ve recently heard quote her novels and who use her name as a Republican secret handshake. Is money the only interest they actually share with Rand? If we put aside the typical American political-right positions on foreign policy, religion, public relations, and women’s health, money seems to be the only thing that remains. And who knows if Rand’s love of capitalism would have held out in today’s world? Her mid twentieth-century vision of capitalism had a purity to it. The formula was basically: hard work = more money. To my knowledge, it didn’t conceive of hedge funds or securities trading or David Li’s Gaussian copula formula.

By all accounts Ayn Rand was a smart, opinionated woman who wasn’t afraid to tell powerful people that they were destroying the world. I doubt she would look at the current presidential candidates (regardless of party) and give any of them a thumbs up because they sort of adhere to some portion of her philosophy. She’d probably be their most vocal critic.

I am definitely left-of-centre, politically. I should add, Canadian left-of-centre, to clarify to my American readers why I don’t use the term “Democrat.”

Anyway, I’m thankful for the “socialist” benefits that allow me to live a healthy, educated life. I believe pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps is ridiculous, and that those who have lots should give a shit about those who have nothing. I think there should be a basic human imperative to help others, and if I have to sacrifice a chunk of what I earn to ensure that all of my neighbors can have access to food, housing, education, healthcare, employment, and a decent standard of living, I will do that without complaint. It seems obvious to me that a community, city, or country where the least fortunate residents are given access to these fundamental needs will be a place that breeds happiness, collaboration, and kindness. And maybe even wealth.

(This is not to say that Canada does a great job at this, especially when it comes to supporting and creating opportunities for our aboriginal population, but we are better than some.)

I say all this not to try to encourage you politically one way or another – to each his/her own – but to prove something about people who read Rand as opposed to people who use her books as self-promoting dogma.

There’s no way Rand and I would be on the same page politically, but that doesn’t mean her ideas are worthless, or that my time reading her books was wasted. Reading The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged (more than once, I should mention), helped me think critically about my government, about capitalism, and about how we define value, for the first time. I don’t have to agree with the message to enjoy the books, and in fact my belief in my own positions was formulated and strengthened through understanding Rand’s contrary arguments.

It comes down to this: I had the singular experience of reading a highly politicized author while being blissfully unaware of her significance. In the years after exploring her ideas, the reading of them hasn’t spoiled my compassion or increased my greed. Rather, the reading of her ideas has brought as much, if not more, value to my way of reasoning and thinking critically as any other books I have read.

NaNoWriMo abridged

While experiencing the busiest autumn in recent memory, I decided not to do NaNoWriMo.

It’s strange how guilty I felt about that decision. Though my reasoning was 100% based on health and sanity, I was still disappointed in myself. It’s ridiculous, because unless I gave up sleep and exercise altogether, I was not going to be successful in the first ten days of NaNoWriMo. I had three galas within a week (including one I helped plan) and the launch of several big projects at work.

But still… I like participating. I like carving out a more-than-average amount of time for writing. I like seeing what ungainly monster emerges in the rush and bustle of 1600 words per day. So now that the blaze of obligation has chilled in anticipation of winter, I’m committing to an abridged version.  On November 15, I’ll be having my own, half-sized NaNoWriMo journey. Same number of  words-per-day, just for half the time.

Happy November, friends.