Look Away

With Jean-Luc Godard.

I prefer to work, you said, when people are against me. You embraced the struggle and resisted the embrace. They called your work a high energy fusion of jazz and philosophy; you confessed hot emotion, cold truth.

Your work grew in subtlety, complexity; your audience faded back to the diet they knew. Rumors that you had died made financing a challenge and you lamented the loss of doubt in an age with no past. No one knows anyone from before, you said.

You wished more would take the time to discover before they tried to please; to discuss before trying to convince. But it only takes a click these days, to find the previous shot. There’s no unspooling the reel; no moment-by-moment reversal. It takes no time to go back, so time is lost.

For you, the real story always revolved around the twin questions of your obsession: was it possible to tell, and where to begin?

***

Adapted from from Richard Brody’s New Yorker feature An Exile in Paradise: How Jean-Luc Godard disappeared from the headlines and into the movies, reposted last week in honor of Godard, who died on the 13th of this month at the age of ninety-one.  

The Practice

A dying art.

To whom it may concern.

A cover letter.

I know you haven’t listed this skill under “mandatory,” but I want you to know that I am excellent at dying.

Sure, we all will be one day, say the jaded. Agreed, but not everyone practices.  

It’s much more in vogue to practice the opposite–– building, amassing: wealth, armor, safety nets. You get the sense, looking at some photo collections––or rather, at how intricately they are framed––that life is a sort of museum you build against death. I get the museum idea, but I prefer a collaborative approach, where Death and I are partners.

Okay, not exactly partners. Death is the director, curator, and chair of all departments. I make copies. Still, in my last formal review, Death applauded my knack for being “pretty good” and “sometimes accurate” as well as having “a clever knack for misinterpretation.” 

Beaming, I say, “I’ve been practicing!” At the sight of my lips moving, Death promptly exits the room, leaving me to my own devices again––which, as I’ve said, involve practicing. 

You read stories? Once upon a time, as the saying goes, I picked up a pen. “Mightier than the sword!” I announced, imagining myself the noble knight. The costume was terrific. Then I read the job description.

“Dragon slayer?!” Oh, no.

This was one of my first misinterpretations. Sure, I found the dragon, but then I took him home with me, foul breath and all. I understand the logic of basements now––or, as the armory-builders love to call them, “wine cellars”–– but, as you might imagine, I don’t have one. When I started this quest, I didn’t even have a home. Still don’t, but I did what I could with these stones. 

At first there was only a tarp above us to keep out the rain, but gradually we made an A-shaped roof. I meant to find branches, but these were scarce, so I had to use PVC pipe and old tent poles, and let me tell you, I do not relish any journey to the hardware store. My main issue with these places is the abundance of people who seem to know precisely what they are doing. Even with my guard up to a level of maximum defense, I must be giving off a look to invite one after another liege to ask me what I am looking for. When I manage some answer, they will invariably tell me what I really need. 

Of course, I don’t mention the dragon. I just say something like “shed” or “addition” so as not to alarm anybody. I have pretty much accepted that I won’t be getting the security deposit back after this project is done. Point being, every time someone explains to me what I really ought to be doing, I die a little. 

But here’s where the practice comes in! I’m right back to business, back to the dragon lair, where I die a little more every time he breathes, because I have no idea what sort of oral hygiene protocol goes with the proper care and feeding of dragons. The cat, who has made off no shortage of lizard tails, doesn’t know what to make of him, and the feeling seems mutual. They keep what distance can be kept in our small space. It isn’t much.

The cat comes and goes whenever she feels like it, so here I am with this fabled beast, and he’s eaten all my pens. I am writing this in invisible ink. The only thing to do when I get to the end of one of these pages is––what do you think?

Turn, turn, turn. And each time I do, it’s blank. Tell me: how is a knight to meet this challenge except by dying again? Then when I finish the back of the page, it’s rip and toss, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the feeding of dragons is that they are very picky and won’t settle for anything but your last accomplishment, however meager it may seem. He lifts his head, gobbles it up, and goes back to sleep, for a little while. 

I’d love to give you references but given the dragon’s flair for consuming whatever I amass, these may be better procured on a word-of-mouth basis.

In the event that an interview is forthcoming, please disclose your policy regarding emotional support animals. Any limitations when it comes to size? You don’t get this good at dying without a lot of support.  

Hunting Days

Aging writers recollect.

Remember the silence of our thoughts where we would wait, crouched in corners with pens poised to catch them, spectral geometry flickering in the shadows as they flew across our line of sight? They appeared and disappeared like bats, to and from nowhere––and us beckoning, show yourself! Our own thoughts, retreating. The nerve. We would tame them. 

We were young and eager to tie them down, to possess the authority of others who had managed to do so, somehow. Only by evading our pens could they find any haven.

Even a small one would be good, we thought––squirrel-sized, perhaps––anything from beyond the veil. If we could just catch one, we could prove ourselves successful hunters of what moved in the wilds of that other place. We could remove the skin, eat the meat, accumulate proud trophies. Others would envy what we had. But it was no good.

Rabid as we were, we didn’t see ourselves this way; we thought we were gentle. But they must have heard us, our pens poised like arrows to fly at them when they dared to run. No wonder they fled. We were starved for what we feared we would forget, but they knew it was worse than that. They knew they had already left us, and they recognized that we were in the stage of those still unwilling to accept the loss, who are willing to do anything to pretend that it is not what it is. 

They would wait until the visions of trophies had left us and we were bald and frail with grief. Then they would come and sit at our feet, on our laps. We would let them build nests where our hair used to be. Okay, we’d tell them, have it your way.

Monster Mash 2: Dr. Blob

What makes him a monster is a matter not of kind, but of degree. The problem with Dr. Blob is that, left unchecked, he has a poor sense of timing, scale, and of the magnitude of his importance.

This is the second installment in the Monster Mash series, in which I profile some of the monsters that may get in the way of creative work. The purpose is to identify the minions working for the Machine (or Resistance, as Steven Pressfield calls it) that can threaten creativity when allowed to go undetected. In part one, I profiled Nothing, the shaggy, one-note solipsist who goes around declaring It’s Nothing! whenever I am trying to do or listen to Something. I am happy to report that he’s been much quieter since I called him out on his shenanigans. 

Today, we move on to another character, Dr. Blob. Dr. Blob is a monster-in-disguise. The disguise is the danger here.  Dr. Blob is a skilled analyst with an impressive C.V. He’s an informed expert, well versed in all technical aspects of craft, structure, literary theories, New Criticism, Old Criticism . . . You name it, he has an opinion, and is happy to share it, along with a phonebook-sized research prospectus, in case you are inclined to doubt the validity of any of what he is saying.

“Egghead Skull” by MattysFlicks on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license

In fact, you are not inclined to doubt the validity of anything he is saying. He knows what he’s talking about. He may even be the best in his many fields. The problem is simply that he doesn’t stop talking. All he can do is analyze, and this means that the people who are trying to create are suddenly thinking about what they are doing, and even if it’s something that once felt like the most natural thing in the world (“Cliché!” announces Blob here, and of course he’s correct), they are now choking and unable to work. 

He’s great when it comes to analyzing the relative advantages and disadvantages of one structure over another, one setting over another, one point-of-view over another, and so on. His expertise is wide-ranging and can be applied to any aspect of a work, at any time: completed, not yet begun, or in-progress.

He is, in fact, an invaluable member of any creative ecosystem. What makes him a monster is a matter not of kind, but of degree. The problem with Dr. Blob is that, left unchecked, he has a poor sense of timing, scale, and of the magnitude of his importance. He was supposed to be on call as an independent contractor, as a consultant whenever needed. But he either didn’t get or didn’t read the initial memo about his duties, so he tends to think of himself as CEO and creator-in-chief of the whole operation. 

He means well, and he wants nothing more than for the work to succeed. But he’s not a creator. He wishes to be, but anything he makes tends to land like a lead balloon (“Another cliché!”), weighed down by too many footnotes, parentheticals, and additional structural tiers. He’ll build so much scaffolding onto a structure-in-progress that no one can see what it’s trying to be. And he makes the little creative sprites (who do actually create great work) get very nervous, because he’s always clicking his pen, tapping it against his clipboard, and announcing the time. Intimidated by his administrative presence, the little sprites go hide in the closet or run down to the park to play on the monkey bars, leaving me alone with Dr. Blob and his endless analysis.

But for all the disaster Dr. Blob can wreak on any project, he is (like many of these monsters) a gentle giant. It is quite possible, come to think of it, that his misunderstanding about his role is a result of my not having delineated its boundaries. 

Fortunately, a simple formal letter, issued as a reminder whenever needed, should be all that is needed to get him out of the way. Dr. Blob is highly receptive to formality and has a high esteem for official mandates.

Something like this should do the trick:

Dear Dr. Blob,
Although your services are extremely valuable to our operation, we are currently undergoing a series of internal restructuring protocols and will need to relocate your office and adjust certain terms of your contract.  Rest assured, your compensation package will not change. As a reward for your exemplary performance, we are upgrading you to an executive-level corner office in a newly remodeled building, with a fine view of the park down the street from our current workspace.  It has wood panels, room for a vast library, numerous filing cabinets, and a lovely swivel chair. Mainly, it affords you space with which to consult with other clients in need of your services. We will contact you from time to time as needed, mainly upon completion of work, and for advice with synopsis, cover letters, reading lists, and the like.  Until then, enjoy your new office and be sure to wave at any sprites if you happen to glimpse them playing on the monkey bars. 

It’s a win-win. Blob gets his own office, and every time he waves at the sprites, they come running back to play here, in the actual workspace, reclaimed from the domineering analyst who means well. Now we can play, discover, and be free to give ourselves over to the process of creating, until the next monster comes rumbling through.