spec fiction
the KIS.list: April 2012


In Favor of Youth

In response to my recent post about the maturing of an artist and the awareness of what you're writing/creating about, my brother, Mtume ya Salaam, had this to say (see photos below the jump):

When you were talking below about the levels of art-making, I was wondering why didn't you mention that unnameable something that I'll (mis)name 'the spark of youth'. If you want to actually see it, all you have to do is look at photos of artists in their twenties and then look at photos of them two decades later. Whether they went off the deep end with drugs and self-destruction, or, on the other hand, took great care of their bodies and minds, that wild, 'I can do anything' glow they all seem to carry around matures into something else. Something less wildly, fiercely creative. I'm not saying mature artists can't create awesome art. I'm not sure what I'm saying, honestly. But I do know there seems to be a self-editing process that occurs when we're older. And while that process reflects our growth as artists it also seems to reflect our unwillingness to be fantastically, spectacularly wrong.

Baba once mentioned a quote by a jazz artist that said something like: "When you're young, you're all creativity and no technique. When you're old, you're all technique and no creativity." Beth and I were talking about that the other day in reference to Toni Morrison. About how Toni's books have become increasingly labyrinth-like, to the point where she's written all of the damn _story_ out of the story. I was mentioning Stevie Wonder - how, in his younger days, he would do things with those keyboards that the Moog Corporation certainly never intended. He get everything 'wrong': beats off-kilter, production muddy one minute and then overly bright the next, rambling about God Knows What one second ("Hello, Jesus. Jesus children. Jesus children loves you of America." What, man?!), perfectly lucid the next... etc. etc. Then, in his post-Hotter Than July work, everything became 'perfect'. And so, so boring. Had he become wiser as an artist? More technically gifted? Almost certainly. But he also was no longer willing to record some crazy shit and then leave it in there just because he could. So where does that impulse fit in for an artist?

I remember Rick Rubin talking about his first production, a record named 'It's Yours'. Twenty-five years later, hardcore hip-hop fans like me still listen to that record, in no small part because of the jaw-rattling bass. Years after the fact, Rubin told an interviewer that his (Rubin's) only goal during that production was to "set fire to the speakers." Surely, he exaggerates. There are other elements in the record that required subtlety and diligence. But just as surely, there's some truth there too. I imagine Rubin as a 20-year-old, yelling at the engineer, telling him "More bass! MORE!'" And the engineer was trying to explain (this is true, by the way) that there was already so much bass on the track that it was bleeding out of its own channel and ruining the vocals. "That's your problem," Rick told him. I think they ended up putting null tracks in there just to handle the bass bleed-over. All of that is beyond ridiculous. And yet, these days, Rick produces elegant, slightly boring rock records for grownups and for those unfortunate young people who wish to sound grownup before they actually are. ("And Mama said, 'Take your time, young man. Don't you rush....'")

So, in wrapping up this Great Monologue Written One Foggy Morning When He Really Should Have Been Running, I guess I'm trying to say that youth itself--that inherent and untutored wildness: that willingness (that desire, even) to do whateverthefuckonewants--may be another level of artistry. How to retain it (or some measure of it) might be worth thinking about. Or maybe even the thought is foolish? Maybe, like quarks (or whatever those inconceivably tiny specks of matter are), it's something that cannot be directly observed or even considered because, to observe it is to destroy it. Ah well....

To underscore his point about looking at "photos of artists in their twenties and then look at photos of them two decades later. Whether they went off the deep end with drugs and self-destruction, or, on the other hand, took great care of their bodies and minds, that wild, 'I can do anything' glow they all seem to carry around matures into something else. Something less wildly, fiercely creative," my brother sent me these photos.

But, I wanted to know, what about the middle ground? What about the 40s? Before defeat? After wildness? What about that?

And he said: Forty's a good time. :-) Dare I say a sexy time, even.

This filled me with joy as I am soon to be 40. In the photos I see an interesting nexus between between wisdom, confidence, and continuing daring!


Vol. 77, What Am I Writing?

The blinders we operate with in life are also present in our artwork. One of my favorite quotes is "When the matter is ready, the form will come." It is maddening of course, if the form you are trying to create--a movie, a play, a novel, a relationship, a housing situation, a lifestyle--does not come to fruition, what does that say about you. Are you not really ready for it? Are you throwing up invisible blockages? Is there something emotional, spiritual, psychological in the matter that you have not yet mastered?

I thought about this, once again, recently in conversation with my father. We were talking writing about his projects and mine. It is profound how many levels artmaking works on. There is the immediate level: it requires presence, focus, time, attention, application of skills, imagination, a willingness to improvise, surrender, create. You have to build up certain skills, mental processes, habits, and experiences to excel in this area. This is the part that practice beings fluency. This is the part that mastery elevates to the level of magnificence. The creative impulse.

Then there is the level of ideas and ingenuity. The novelty and originality of what's being created. Its presentation, its ability to capture imagination, emotion, spark laughter, express wit. The brains, intelligence, brilliance of the thing. This is a bit more innate, but this too can change over time, as the artmaker becomes more wise, so too can the work.

There is the personality of the thing. The character of the artist or the character of the characters/expression that readers/viewers/listeners will respond to, reflect upon, accept or reject.

And finally there is the heart of the matter, the unspoken truths that are being communicated through the work. This truth may be hidden under many layers of history, habit, dishonesty, shame, lack of awareness and fear. There are stories that we are tell to handle our own pain, to find our way through the labyrinth of confusion, hurt, dissatisfaction, terror. When we are in the clutches of our burdens, we can confuse depth with dismay. A "serious" story may actually be a "pitiful" story. We may overplay our hand in an effort to make the world feel the realness of what we're trying to express.

Art can reveal so much about the art maker. It reveals the artist's perspective on the world, the artist's beliefs and fears, and the artist's view of self. When I was getting my MFA, poet Eloise Klein Healy led a workshop about "Aboutness." As a pre-workshop assignment, she challenged us to review our work from the past few years and note the themes and topics. When I did the assignment, I discovered I had a repeated theme of unhappy—often oppressed—female characters whose stories ended with death—either the character committed suicide, was consumed, or killed to save herself.

And even with that realization years ago, I never thought that I wrote about loneliness. But the first book review of my short story collection is out from Publishers Weekly. The review ends with the following sentence:

Salaam’s unusual settings and lonely characters will call to readers who hunger for sex, identity, or just a place to belong.

It made me think about myself: Am I obsessed with loneliness? Am I lonely? What do non-lonely characters do and think about? This is great fodder for character and story-building! It is also an lens through which to view my work. Having collected work from the past two decades into Ancient, Ancient, I've noticed a shift in my character's journeys. My aboutness is changing.

Now that I have arrived to a point where there is a clear transition, burdens have been laid to rest and a new person has emerged, a person who is looking back at the life that has been lived and seeing it with new eyes, I can begin to ask, what stories am I really telling? This is not about the characters, the materials, the plot, the details--this is larger than that. What have I been afraid to tell? What have I been overstating? What have I been ignoring or hiding? What have I not been celebrating? What have I been glorifying? What does it mean to tell a true story? Who are these characters that I have created, and now that I am new within myself are they no longer of any use to me? Or can I open them up, and honor them for who they are and allow them to be new to themselves too?

These are the questions I am asking and hoping to answer these days. A novel that needs a rewrite demands that those big questions be answered. Those old characters set in a city that has completely transformed are now at the hand of a new writer. What shall we create together?

As I stand on the brink of a new wave of discovery, I look forward to the next two decades. To witnessing the discovery in my work as I continue to discover more profound and freer levels of myself. I am excited to be continuing the ever-evolving journey of becoming new with myself as an artist, as a writer, and as a person.

Be well. Be love(d).

Kiini Ibura Salaam