Saturday, January 29, 2011

New Tools, Old Mind

I enjoyed the article in the LA Times on Sunday, Jan 28 on David Hockney and how he uses iPAD to help him paint some of his works.  As noted on the comments, he has always been open to new methods, being a pioneer of the kinds of collage paintings where every unit of the painting is a photograph, but its predominant color contributes to a larger picture.  Here is one of his iPAD productions to give you an idea of how miraculous this process can be.  It's scary to use new tools, and it's important to accept the risk.  I am pursuing an MFA in creative writing largely to introduce myself to the greatest variety of tools I can.  I am reading constantly, and when I write, I try to put into practice ways of writing I've run into in my assigned reading. But I also feel I need to use the electronic tools more creatively, following in Hockney's footsteps figuratively.  I find it inspiring to view a painting like this and realize it started as pixels.  I hope some of my explorations may approach this level of successful practice in a new form.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

For the love of sentences

When I had barely begun as a creative writer, I was lucky enough to take a class with Verlyn Klinkenborg. He focused our attention on sentences. Every week he harvested sentences from all of our submitted papers and handed out a sheet entitled "some sentences." It would more appropriately have been entitled, "some sentence disasters." Each class period, we revised these mistakes into clear, useful sentences and discussed why the earlier versions were confusing, unclear, and grammatically incorrect. It was eye-opening to me. I had taught first year writing seminars at my college holistically, as I was taught, emphasizing essay structure and ignoring sentences. Now I was caught by sentences, their simplicity and complexity, by how some people could write a whole page sentence that I could understand easily, by the way that others stuck to the simplest forms of sentence.
A new book by Stanley Fish explores sentences and argues convincingly for writers to pay attention to them. Here is one of Fish's favorite sentences: "And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities that we call meaning." He cites Anthony Burgess's novel Enderby Outside. I like the way this sentence portrays words, sentences, and meanings.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

David Hockney Views a Lane

As I've started observing, collecting, and savoring details from my daily life to use in my writing, I have become more and more interested to read what others say about how they relate to their environments. David Hockney, the British artist, lived in Hollywood from 1978-2005 and I've enjoyed much of his art reacting to that experience. But then he returned to Yorkshire. In an article in the New York Times, Carol Kino records how he described the scene to her as they approached a group of trees along a narrow country lane. "As we drew close to the trees, he fretted over the sun’s position. “The lighting is made for going the other way,” he complained. Then he slowed down so we had time to appreciate each tree individually, and began issuing orders about how to look.

“Watch!” he called out. “The ash tree now comes in — look at the shape of it! And now then on the right, another tree. There’s a point where each one stands on its own. There. Now. It’s surrounded by sky. Now the next one, and it stands on its own. You see?” It was as though he were giving director’s notes. " He told Kino he had seen this area many times and wanted to make a painting of it, but could not yet get it to work since he had to synthesize many perspectives into one. He said he hadn't yet figured out how to do it, but he would.

It's a new idea to me to take in an experience repeatedly and consider how to synthesize it. I like this concept a lot, and I'm thinking over how I'll use it in my writing. I haven't yet figured out how to do it, but I will.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Spiral Ceiling on its Way

Hi friends,
This is the cover of my almost-ready book, a memoir about how I overcame bias and barriers to become an American DNA Scientist studying aging, all the while being married with children to love and care for. The book will be released this spring, and I'll announce it and tell you how you can find out more and order a copy if you wish. I've published a text book on genetics before, in fact I describe in Spiral Ceiling how I filled the time after my first husband died suddenly of a heart attack with writing the text book in the evenings after my son was in bed. But the release of this memoir is much more exciting to me, and I hope a lot of you will want to take a look at it and ask me questions about what happened in my life. Stay tuned for more details as they become available.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

American and Chinese Risk Tolerance; Writers' Risk

Two things this week resonated with my understanding about risk taking in the US and in China or among Chinese Americans today. First, I read an article in The New York Times for Sunday, January 16 about Architects Finding Dream Jobs in China. In part, it read, "The American mentality is, 'if it's never been done before, then you shouldn't do it. It's all about risk, risk, risk. The Chinese have a kind of fearlessess about building.' " The article described buildings in China with holes through them, with a five story park underneath the building, etc. When my husband and I were in Shanghai in 2005, we were astonished at the remarkable large buildings everywhere, with architecture that was far beyond anything we had seen in the US, so this attitude rang true to me.
Then there is a new book by Amy Chua about Chinese American parenting. She claims Americans are unwilling to expect very high achievement from their children, don't want to risk losing their affection, and thus don't insist that their children work at their activities enough to allow real achievement. Again the theme of risk, now in a very different context, but still saying Americans are adverse to risk.
Writers cannot really abjure risk. Writing is inherently risky and the scarier the places in a writer's soul that she explores in writing, usually the stronger the writing that results. So we need to buck this trend, or pretend to be Chinese American and learn to take these risks. Revel in the danger and enjoy the good writing that results.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Being a Writer

In the Feb, 2011 issue of The Writer, Charles Baxter discussed some of his insights into literary writing. Asked "How do you think new writers are best developed?" he answered, "I really don't know. They're good observers; they read; they don't mind solitude; they remember what people said and did; they're interested in ideas; they try to notice everything; they always feel slightly outside, looking in."

I identify with this list of qualities and attributes, but I see that most of these items are not things you can easily develop or train. Perhaps memory can be trained; some of my writing classes have increased my enjoyment of certain kinds of memories that I had previously repressed. Maybe good observation can be stimulated. Natalie Goldberg's walking meditation seemed extraneous at first, but I can easily recall the smell of the desert earth in Sedona where I had her class, the soft lavender color of the sage flowers, the industry of the many ants, the cracked, tired looking feet of the young woman walking in front of me. Slowing down to look can be taught, it seems.

But reading for enjoyment doesn't seem all that malleable. Neither does comfort with solitude or an outsider view. I wonder, then, if teaching writing is more of an opportunity or a release of a desire than an actual discipline. What do writing teachers teach? Is it just permission to be yourself?