On Art: Time and Tactility

I spent this Saturday afternoon at the Art Institute of Chicago, an incredible institution that never fails to inspire jealousy. Not the admiring jealousy inspired by the visual artists I know personally – the ones who found their craft in the visual or tactile realm and who work like demons to improve their skills (and I am jealous of you, one and all, for both your dedication and ability to create something that can be touched) – but something deeper, that revolves around a time when art seemed to mean more.

I always forget how much I adore John Singer Sargent and Ivan Albright. Both seeing the art from a distance, as it’s intended to be seen, and getting up closer than I’m meant to, to look closely at the broad strokes of thick paint and color. When I inspect those, I remember that each stroke was a choice made, a decision on color and thickness and direction. I remember that each of those tiny decisions, strung together, created a miraculous result.

I’m not foolish enough to believe this is only in classical paintings. Digital art is the result of just as many tiny decisions, strokes of a mouse or Wacom tablet. Photography requires painstaking work around composition, light, lenses and structure. In sculpture the placement of chisel to stone is, in general, less observed than the glory of the end result. And in good writing, every sentence takes as much work and effort as every brush-stroke.

All of those, however, are backstage work. Invisible unless you hold it close to your eyes and make yourself remember that human hands were behind this creation. The thick brush-strokes of the painters whom I admire and most envy reveal both the genius which went into the entirety of the composition, as well as into each individual component.

This is, perhaps, no more than some idealized artistic myth. I’m prone to both mythmaking and idolization.

Admittedly, my sister took me to the Institute to particularly see the revamped Arms and Armor exhibit, which she knew was always my favorite as a boy and young man. What red-blooded American boy doesn’t love knights and implements of destruction? The new exhibit remains impressive, and you should go to see it, but for the reasons listed above I am more struck as a grown man by Whistler’s Mother (also here on a limited run) and Sargent’s portrait of Mrs. George Swinton (Elizabeth Ebsworth).

Mrs. George Swinton (Elizabeth Ebsworth), John Singer Sargent, 1897

Mrs. George Swinton (Elizabeth Ebsworth), John Singer Sargent, 1897

Interview: Using Pinterest to Write

Ansel's Pins

Ansel Burch is a writer, performer, creative polymath, and a friend of mine who specializes in re-enactments and professional radio dramas. His use of Pinterest as a way to curate visual representations of the places and people he writes about led me to interview him over the weekend. I’m a big fan of the social media platform, but usually reserve my inspirations in secret boards so as not to tip my hand on projects. Ansel is less concerned with that than I am, which allows others to gain more inspiration from his curating work. You can follow him on Pinterest as captfrobisher, or on Twitter @dndisms.

1. When did you start using Pinterest to organize your inspiration?

Probably about a year ago – I was against it initially, but my wife convinced me that it was a good idea, and I came around eventually. It’s currently the best way online to categorize and keep images for a specific project. Google Images seems to use textual parameters around the articles attached to an image, rather than the image itself; and Pinterest also loads faster on the smartphone, which is my main means of interaction with it.

2. Why do you find Pinterest useful for this?

You and I both work mostly with the written word, which can become very ethereal if you let it. Especially with my radio plays, when you’re writing, there’s sometimes this dream aspect where the characters move from point a to point b with no real description.

But if you have a visual concept you can refer back to, you get a more solid concept of “the rocket is so big, and people have to go from here to here …” You can narrate it more effectively. The characters have to get through the airlock, get around the bulkheads, etc. Getting that concept of where you are visually is so key when your work is mostly verbal and textual.

3. Do your ideas generally lead you to images, or vice versa?

I look through my feeds and pin things to the various projects I already have going on. I’ve not yet been inspired to a new project by Pinterest, but it’s given me a lexicon of imagery to work on for future projects.

4. Where do you start looking for your inspiration online?

My feed is made up by following boards rather than following people. I’ll look for an image that’s iconic for what I’m working on, then investigate what board it was pinned to, and follow that board. Then I investigate the lineage of pinning – looking for where similar images or boards exist, and follow up from there.

5. About how much time a week do you spend researching on the site vs. actively creating?

Probably 2-3 hours a week on the high end, mostly during my train commute. I only focus on it if I’ve got a specific project that I need inspiration for. For example, I may spend some dedicated time to get images of important locations or individuals for a storyline. But it’s mostly what I call distraction work.

Active creation usually takes 10-12 hours a week. Less than I’d like, but more than I can justify given the job situation. I’ll give all that active creation time in a day on a single project, rather than splitting the time between projects, and days of the week are devoted to specific projects – Monday I write the radio scripts, Tuesdays before a game are devoted to the upcoming scenario, etc.

6. Do you have a specific project or board you’re proudest of?

The curation for my constructed world of Tendar is probably my most well-designed board. Lots of architecture and landscape which show people exactly what I’m thinking of. There’s less “creep” of unrelated pins and pictures on this board.

7. What feature of Pinterest do you find most useful?

I honestly enjoy the “recommended for you” feature, which I know we disagree on and which my wife finds creepy. But it really delivers things to you, rather than requiring you to go look for specific images and hunt them down. I find it convenient, though of course it’s not perfect. For example, I wind up with a lot of women’s fashion being delivered to me because of the costume boards I frequent.

The Cover Story

IdolwoodIt hasn’t escaped notice that Famished: The Commons has a different cover style and treatment from the first printing of Famished: The Farm.

While I’m not privy to all details, my understanding is that the excellent Shane Tyree was unavailable for this cover. While this would normally disappoint me – I’m quite a fan of Shane’s work – it did open another opportunity to work with Amber Clark of Stopped Motion Photography (also available on Twitter as @stoppedmotion and on Facebook.)

Amber and I worked closely together to create a wonderful and disturbing set of photos for my 2011 web serial, Idolwood. A sample of that work appears to the left, and you can see why I found it easy to work with Amber. She is an artist, a professional, and someone I am proud to call my friend.

Amber has not only created the cover for Famished: The Commons, she has kindly re-shot the cover for Famished: The Farm. So those of you who really, really want a matchy-matchy set of covers could always pick up a new copy of the first book. Not that I’m, y’know, recommending that or anything.


Only Half The Truth: II of III.

In my last post, I talked about my own motto: “Write what you’re passionate to know more about.”

I discussed the characters of my Idolwood series – but what happened when Apocalypse Ink approached me to turn Vorare into the FAMISHED novels?

First, I established the protagonist’s interests more fully. In my original concept, Gordon Velander was a teaching assistant focused on Medieval History, because at the time, that was what I knew most about. As I developed the dossiers for the character, I realized he was more of a Classical type. I had taken a Latin word as my original title, and Gordon would be embarking on an odyssey of his own – so I broke out my Homeric epics and took myself to task.

By the same token, I saw he’d be pushed to a practical path by his (absent) father. What practical careers was I interested in? Well … chef, which wouldn’t fly, for obvious reasons. And architecture, which I might have gone into were it not for a total lack of interest in the practicalities of mathematics and measurements. Architecture it was!

That’s where I first learned of Renzo Piano. Where I became more aware of Frank Gehry’s influence on my beloved hometown of Chicago. Where the full sweep of modern architecture became apparent to me.

I reached beyond his Catholic upbringing – for a man who lives with demons under his skin, he remains religious – and encountered the work of Rob Bell and Aruna Roy. And since he was a teacher living in Wisconsin in 2011, of course I learned more about Scott Walker’s anti-intellectual crusade.

In terms of FAMISHED: THE FARM, I had to do some further research for my antagonists, and place them in areas I remained interested in. I’m fortunate to have an elderly neighbor who grew up on a farm and spent most of his life as a short-haul trucker, and was able to interview him about daily life in both areas. The dynamics of cult behavior have always fascinated me, and I made use of that interest to develop the Gentleman Ghouls more fully, while learning more about the psychology of Jonestown and The Family.

While writing FAMISHED: THE COMMONS, there were other interests to consider. What is the state of elder care today? What does the world look like to a second-generation immigrant? How did the first American colonists survive and thrive? Is the hardcore punk scene still relevant?

All of these are questions that continued to interest me. In writing, I found a way to continue learning – at least, learning about those things I remained passionate about.

Find something you're passionate about, and stay tremendously interested in. - Julia Child

But what about the things you couldn’t care less about? (See mathematics and measurements, above.) How does a writer deal with those elements?

Part III of III will appear shortly.

Only Half The Truth: I of III.

Growing up a middle-class white suburban male to parents who wanted only the best for their children, I was sheltered.

I’ve never been proud of that, but it’s the truth.

As such, the standard advice to writers acted as a chain around my neck.

“Write what you know,” we are admonished. But what do I know about excitement?

I’ve never been in a fight. Never been in an accident. Never broken a law, only rarely disobeyed. Never been divorced, arrested, discriminated against.

As such, early in my career I focused on writing fantasy. Fantasy I knew. I loved the history and trappings of the European middle ages and Renaissance, the threadbare backdrop against which most fantasy is based.

None of my fantasy work got published. (Of course, none of it should have been.)

When I began writing horror set in the modern world, I realized “Write what you know” is only half the truth.

While writing the Idolwood series for The Edge of Propinquity, I knew I’d need main characters who were different from the protagonist of Vorare.

Gordon had a lot in common with me, naturally. It made him easier to write. But for Idolwood I’d need characters who were more worldly, less intellectual. The magic system of Idolwood required them to be obsessed by some routine or collection – to have something which pushed their buttons in a way that demanded their energy and time. Having three sheltered scholars who focused on books and fantasies would be … well, not unbearable in the right hands, but I’ve never claimed to be Umberto Eco.

So they had to have deep knowledge of things that drove them. I knew those things would have to be things I could push myself to learn more about. Things I was interested in, if not applying to my own life, at least theoretically of interest to me.

I developed my own saying then:

Write what you are passionate to know more about.

“Write what you’re passionate to know more about.”

For Idolwood, I picked three things: Bodybuilding, gardening, and the stock market. I pored over muscle magazines and horticultural websites. I wrote dozens of full workout schedules, the kind only hardcore muscleheads would love. I got my hands dirty with celery root and cilantro, studied the planting schedules for my region, spent hours weeding through the raised beds my wife had created. While I was on the treadmill I watched nothing but CNBC – Mad Money, Power Lunch, The Closing Bell.

Those three characters – Alexei Pajari, Edie Allaway, and Grey Jordan – were my most fully rounded creations yet.

My antagonists got the treatment, too. The art of doll-making, the tradition of “handles”, and the S&M subculture were things I could wrap my attention around with little difficulty. The Hanged Man and Gamine were not as well rounded as the protagonists – the blame for which lies on me – but they were still much more well-realized than any of my fantasy cutouts.

Next up: How this affected the writing of FAMISHED: THE FARM.

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