Category Archives: artish

Test Your Vision

This weekend, a friend of mine and I talked about art.

Specifically, we talked about creating art. He’s a straight, cis-male photographer, and at one point I suggested that should he work on shooting nudes, it would be useful to his work overall if he shot men as well as women.

At the time, I didn’t do a great job explaining why. I’ve had some time to think about it now, and a lot of it comes down to this: art demands individual vision. Often, we sharpen the individuality of our vision by doing the things we don’t naturally want to do. They help us learn to see more clearly, and to see things that perhaps we don’t when we work within our comfort zones.

(Likewise, there’s an enormous amount of privilege involved in feeling that, for example, as a straight male, you only need to depict females in your art. That’s another post, for another time.)

In high school, I attended a profoundly rigorous arts magnet as a writing major (I didn’t audition for the dance major Because Reasons, which is also a different post entirely). Even being accepted into the program was no mean feat—but I think it’s fair to say that we all began with a fair amount of natural ability and only the bare minimum of skill.

In the first semester of the first year, we were all required to take a course on the fundamental mechanics of poetry. The course in question required us to learn and work within a number of highly-specific technical forms, from villanelle to sonnet to sestina to haiku.

At the outset, it seemed extremely dry—but it was a requirement, and so on we went.

Over the course of that semester, we learned an incredibly valuable thing: although poetry is expressive, it is also specific. Whether or not we enjoyed working within the strictures of the forms in question (I love writing sonnets and haiku, personally, but could take or leave villanelle), their strictures forced us to make decisions.

As writers, those decisions sharpened us. They honed our ears and our eyes; our senses of rhythm and meaning. They taught us to be specific, but also taught us how to say things by leaving them unsaid.

It was very, very hard work. It forced all of us to learn to take our visions and voices and cram them into someone else’s form, often with an assigned topic (which was inevitably very specific: write a villanelle about a window; write a sonnet to a garbage truck).  We were constantly reading, writing, workshopping, revising, re-workshopping; sometimes to the tune of five poems assigned Monday and due Tuesday, with revisions due Wednesday and further revisions due Thursday (and that’s not counting the reading assignments!).

Not everybody survived that semester in the program. The rate of attrition was high: many more people want to write than want to revise. Writing poetry entirely for your own satisfaction is a totally good and valid thing, but if that’s your only goal and you hate the idea of revision because you feel that poetry is all about feelings and revision somehow betrays the feelings that went into the piece, you’re probably not going to like the workshop process that takes place in that kind of setting.

Basically, it’s not at all about validating your feelings. Instead, it’s about: “Why did you use the word ‘jump’ there?” and “The tense shift in stanza 3 feels unintentional, and seems kind of distracting,” and “The third line in the second stanza is awkward, but I’m not sure what to suggest to fix it because I don’t actually understand what it’s trying to convey.”

At the end of the day, though, the writers that came out of that program were very solid. We entered and won serious competitions; we applied to and won scholarships to extremely competitive colleges and universities. We published. We wrote and wrote and wrote.

We all arrived on day one with ability, but ability wasn’t enough. We also needed skill, and we needed to find our voices as writers (which is far less airy-fairy a process than it sounds: it’s not about woo, it’s about diction, scansion, mechanics, tone, experience…). We gained skill and found our voices in no small part by working within the restrictions of form: just as a ballet dancer begins at the barre, or an equestrian begins in the ring (or even on the leadline).

I entered the program as a writer who was primarily uninterested in poetry. I liked fiction and wanted to hone my ability as a writer of fiction. Ironically, it turned out that I was much, much better at poetry than at fiction—which is to say that although I created breathing characters and wrote beautiful and vivid prose, the mechanics of plot would continue to elude me for quite a while. They still elude me whenever I’m not paying very, very close attention. So much of writing fiction is deciding which moments from your characters’ lives to leave on the cutting-room floor, and (SPOILER ALERT!) you’re going to wind up leaving most of the moments. Ugh.

Anyway.

The kinds of decisions imposed by writing formal poetry improved my craft overall, however: they made me better at making music from language, but also better at making decisions about things like plot and character in fiction; better at evoking the specificity of place that makes setting real; better at discerning which details to include and which to leave out. It’s about showing the reader that this isn’t just a burger, but a burger that sizzles on the tongue full of every lingering evening in July; of the faintest smoke of every campfire (always tempered down to coals) breathed back across the sun-warmed grass by a cooling breeze off the iron-scented lake…

In short, I didn’t want to write poetry: but the program forced me to, and it made me better at what I actually wanted to do, which was write fiction (the fact that it made me a rather good poet is kind of a bonus, really).

Having to do things I didn’t want to do as a writer forced me to see and hear things I wouldn’t otherwise have heard or seen. It also helped me figure out what was my voice and what was an echo of other voices that I was simply used to hearing.

~

When we do only the things we want to do, it’s easy to see only the things we want to see. The danger in that is that it very quickly becomes trite: there’s a specific style of imagery very, very commonly created by straight, white men painting, drawing, or shooting women that is downright boring to everyone else. It may be authentic, but it’s also unoriginal. We’ve seen it. Really. Yawn. Even when well-intentionted, it devolves pretty quickly into cheesecake, simply as a function of its ubiquity.

The same can be said for some of the work produced by, for example, gay male artists—but it’s not as common, and I suspect that’s because chances are good that every gay male artist who prefers to depict guys has been asked a million times, “Why don’t you draw [or paint, or shoot] some women?” and heard almost as frequently, “Why do you paint naked men? Nobody wants to see that.”

Moreover, every gay male artist alive in the Western world has been bathed in the female nude essentially his entire life, while all too often the male nude is still an opt-in: without even trying, you can live a long time without seeing the male nude depicted in art[1], but the female nude, depicted in a handful of familiar poses, is everywhere.

  1. Until pretty recently, you could even get through an entire art-school education without being forced to really reckon with the male nude. There’s a whole bunch of posts there, but I’m sure lots of other people whose grasp of history is better than mine have already written them. And none of this even begins to address nonbinary people, or people who live at underrepresented intersections of queerness and race, and so on. Those angles, too, have indubitably been addressed by other writers more effectively than I could address them here.

~

I’m not going to be so prescriptive as to say that art only happens in the places where we are least comfortable. I mean, it does happen there—it just happens in other places, as well.

But when we force ourselves out of our comfort zones as artists, we also learn to understand our comfort zones in ways that allow us to work within them with greater originality and clearer vision.

Working outside of our comfort zones forces us to be more honest about our own vision. Especially where the human nude is concerned, it can move us beyond “I get a thrill out of looking at this.” (Which isn’t, as far as I’m concerned, an invalid impulse: it’s just all too commonly-represented an impulse, and perhaps a bit thin.) It also helps us see our weaknesses—even as they pertain to the work we do within our comfort zones.

I suspect that this is probably all the more true if you’re a straight male visual artist with a lifetime of being bathed in the work of other straight male visual artists[2]. It’s like visiting another part of your home country and realizing that you have an accent: when you step out of your typical milieu, you hear or see the way in which that milieu marks your work. That allows you to make conscious decisions about those markers.

  1. if you’re not sure what I mean, go look at the vast majority of nudes displayed in American museums; the billboards displayed in almost any American city; etc. This post will still be here when you get back.

This is especially true if your particular comfort zone happens to be concurrent with the dominant thread of culture where you live.

By way of analogy, if you’re a country musician who lives in a place where you hear country music in shops and restaurants and on the majority of radio stations, you stand to gain a lot by taking time to listen to other streams of music. If, on the other hand, you’re a classical musician who lives in a place where country is predominant, you’re already gaining a lot of exposure to at least one stream outside of your own (but you should definitely make time to listen to some hip-hop, or Euro-metal, or whatevs!).

You probably won’t enjoy everything you hear when you go off on a musical adventure. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed that you won’t—musical styles are very much like different languages, and often you have to listen for quite a while before suddenly something in your brain goes, “Oh! This is music!” and starts to enjoy them, or at least appreciate them as more than “just noise.” But you might come away with a better understanding of what ingredients you find compelling in the music that you do like, and over time you’ll broaden your ear in a way that will help you figure out which parts of your musician’s voice are yours and which are, in fact, actually the voices of, say, Shania Twain or Garth Brooks.

~

None of this should be taken to mean that straight guys should never make images of women: just that straight guys who step outside of the comfort zone of making images of women are, I suspect, very likely to end up making better, more original images of women.

Likewise, this isn’t to say that male heterosexual sexuality has no place in art: it does. It’s just that we, the entire world, have already seen an awful lot of it, and it’s much more interesting if an artist has something original—and honest—to say about it.

Which brings me to the last point I couldn’t figure out how to express. Too often, we try to be original by, you know, trying to be original. Which, in turn, almost always results in “just doing the opposite of the thing that you see all the time.” It’s very much like shouting, “TRY TO RELAX!” at someone who’s having a panic attack: frequently ineffective, and often entirely counterproductive.

Back to the aforementioned library of familiar poses featuring women seen through the eyes of heterosexual men: none of this means that nobody should ever draw, paint, or photograph those poses again. Just that it would be nice to see them done with honesty and clarity of intent (even if the intent is, in fact, “Hehheh, boobies!” … if I’m to set myself up as an arbiter, I’d rather see an honest, “Hehheh, boobies!” than “Hehheh, boobies!” dressed up as “The Womanly Virtue of Patience” or whatever the heck).

Sometimes part of figuring out how to be original is reacting against what’s already been done. That’s fine. Sometimes work that reacts against what’s already been done is, in fact, a kind of blunt instrument for intentional commentary, and that’s also fine.

In the end, though, there’s so much territory beyond all that: in the end, I suspect the most original works are generally works that never involved any thought of originality. They are simply clear, and honest, and present.

 

Countdown

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that nothing is ever final until the curtain rises on opening night–and even then, it’s still not final.

This is a comforting thought, since circumstances have conspired to make tomorrow’s tech run the first time that the tandem hammock trio gets to actually be a tandem hammock trio! We’ve worked separately and in various pairings up to this point, but not all together because–honestly, I’m not sure why.

This morning, I worked out the drop sequence I’m doing–a variation from the one the girls are doing, since they didn’t get a chance to teach it to me and we didn’t have video I could work from, but if I don’t completely hose it up, the audience is unlikely to notice 😛

Tonight’s a literal walk-through rehearsal: the apparatuses are in the theater, but we won’t be because life in the arts is, shall we say, a little chaotic sometimes. I’m honestly okay with that: we got up at 4 this morning for a 3.5-hour newscast gig, and even though I managed to reclaim most of my lost sleep this afternoon (and, in my dreams, revisit pets of yore and rehearse in a really bizarre space), I’m still a little tired and totallu okay with not dangling from dangerous objects tonight 😉

The news should always be this much fun!

^^That’s my kind of news crew 😀

Last night, instead of staying home and hiding from trick-or-treaters, I went to Handstands class and Acro 2. Both went remarkably well. I got to play on hand-balancing blocks, which I’ve been wanting to do forever, and a pair of those hand-balancing frames that look a little like pommel-horse grips sans pommel-horse. I’m finally regaining a really solid handstand, so that’s awesome. I definitely want to incorporate hand-balancing into my skill-set.

Anyway, tomorrow we’re finally in the theater for real (I got a preview as a function of doing the morning show!), and Friday we open. Saturday is just about sold out, which is awesome.

Oh, andI also know how to find my way out of the theater now, which is surprisingly complicated 😛

Monday Madness: In Which I Am Amazed 

All my choreography worked today. Regarding which:

YAAAAAAAASSSSSSSSSS! 

My upcoming grown-ass semi-professional dance piece is a ballet/modern hybrid piece to Antony and the Johnsons’ cover of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and the opening looks exactly as I visualized it—and it’s beautiful. 

I was surprised by that. Maybe I shouldn’t be, but sometimes you suddenly make something beautiful, and it catches you off guard. 

The rest is coming along nicely. The opening 35 seconds set a high bar(re). 

Speaking of high barres, my coupé balances in class tonight were surprisingly good, though even the top barres in the studio where Monday class takes place are lower than is ideal for me. I think I’ve been over-correcting. 

This class is at the school location in one of the two two larger studios. I’m guessing the top barre is optimized for students between 5′ and 5’3″. At 5’8″ with short arms, I have to do funky things to reach the barre when I’m on relèvé. The portable barres are even lower, though. The bottom barre, meanwhile, is optimized for cracking your knees when doing turns.

Speaking of turns, mine were meh today. I don’t actually have the faintest idea why, either.

Anyway, I’m cooked, so to bed with me. 

Eventually you’ll get to see my “Heaven’s Door” dance, but probably not ’til it’s complete.

Lyra Photos! 

Chiaroscuro

The Story of My Newest Superpower

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Writing Problems: On Killing Your Darlings

First, though, a couple of updates:

  1. First, I’m feeling a little better than I did yesterday, in part because I finally slept last night (for thirteen hours, in fact) and in part because B. and I went to an evening ballet class.
  2. Second, I started writing up class notes, but haven’t finished them, so I may or may not get around to posting them. It’s funny — long ago, when this was mostly a bike blog, I used to feel intense misgivings about going off-piste like that. I suppose it was, in reality, mostly because I was still running from my own mental illness and from my own past. That’s an interesting thing to think about.

Okay, so: on to writing.

There’s a certain incantation well-known to writers, central to the craft of writing, attributed to everyone under the sun (though apparently it originated with Arthur Quiller-Couch), and apparently the title of a movie that I’ve never seen: “Kill your darlings.”

I’m not going to try to explain what it means. Other people have done that fast better than I could right now, and it seems likely that some of them are out there on the innertubes somewhere. (Google amongst yourselves; I’m feeling a little verklempt.)

Instead, I’m going to kvetch about the difficulty I’m having with it right now.

Back in November, I made a huge foray into the complicated waters of Strangers In The Land — and then I got stuck.

The work started to feel unwieldy, like an oversized chainsaw, and I couldn’t figure out why.

Just as it’s a good idea, when a chainsaw feels unwieldy, to perhaps put it down for a while, it can be good to walk away from a piece of fiction for a time when it gets really, really impassible.

This is one of the reasons I’m working on more than one project most of the time — at the moment, Strangers, which has proven to be much, much harder to write than I imagined, and a fantasy trilogy, which has proven to be much, much easier than I imagined even though it involves a very long story arc and a whole lot of world-building and mythopoetic creativity and so forth*.

*To be honest, I think those things make it easier, since they feel like a game — it’s all a giant game of make-believe set in a world that I have come to love intimately and tenderly even as I continue to do terrible things to it and its inhabitants. The biggest challenge is just figuring out what to include in the final work and what to leave on the cutting room floor.

The fantasy work, which bears the sad overall working title of The Tales of Kirnan, though the individual elements have less-awful ones (Calderon, A Song In Time Of War, A Far Green Country), is easy to tell because, for all the complexity of its setting, it’s a fairly simple story about a war.

For the most part, it hews (intentionally) to the conventions of the genre: indeed, it evolved out of a kind of joking attempt to put my love of really complex, layered stories aside and write a simple good-versus-evil, swords-and-sorcery romp. It has grown since then (apparently, I can’t keep myself from badding up at least some of my good guys or exploring the motivations of my bad guys at least a bit), but it’s still reasonably straightforward, all things considered.

Strangers, meanwhile, is not. It’s set in the real world, which is messy, and involves characters with more or less ordinary problems, which are also messy.

That in and of itself perhaps isn’t a huge challenge. I mean, I just described every work of realistic fiction ever, yes?

The problem is figuring out how to tell the story, which cuts, in some ways, very close to the bone.

And this is where killing my darlings comes in.

I love Phineas (Narrator Number 2 in this tangled skein of words). I love writing as Phineas, probably because in many ways Phineas — an effusive, restless dancer; wildly impractical; essentially romantic — is a lot like the parts of me I like best. I love his voice and his energy — and yet, the more I’ve tried to work my way out of this Gordian Knot of my own creation, the more I’ve come to feel like I can’t use him as a narrator to tell this story.

He is critical to the story itself — the story is, in part, his story — but trying to tell it in his voice isn’t working. Increasingly, it seems like the answer is to cut the knot: return to my original approach, in which Toby — far more sober and uncertain — tells the story for both of them.

This is hard.

~

First, as I said, I love writing as Phineas. It is often effortless, and an unalloyed pleasure — but characters have lives of their own, and Phineas refuses to approach the darkness at the heart of his own story. When I try to take him there, the wellspring of his voice runs dry.

For a while, I saw that as a failure of craft; since then, I’ve realized it’s not. It’s a central part of his character. He has spent nearly half his life doing everything in his power to avoid thinking about What Happened, and while he’s arguably the more successful of the two main characters in the world’s narrow sense, he’s also the more troubled, even though I didn’t want him to be**.

**I really wanted to shake up that convention, because in some ways it’s all too much like a romance novel — this story too easily could turn into “beautiful, feminine, troubled ballet dancer is rescued from his demons by ordinary, conventionally-masculine, brooding Knight in Flannel Trousers.” Then again, that’s very nearly the story of my own life, and besides, the rescuing is mutual.

I suppose that, because he’s in some ways a transcription of myself, I wanted him to be unbroken, resilient, in a way that I haven’t been.

Maybe it’s more honest to write him as he apparently is; as he has created himself: resilient in so many senses of the word, strong in so many senses, but ultimately brittle and fragile in critical ways and rushing headlong towards a crash.

~

Second, excising Phineas as a narrator means leaving some of the best writing I’ve done in years on the cutting-room floor.

That’s hard. People who don’t write think writing is easy, but good writing is hard. Good writing forces us to ruthlessly destroy things of great beauty when they don’t ultimately serve the purpose of the work. Forget the moon — the pen’s a harsh mistress.

I effing love the passages where Phineas rambles about dancing; I love his exchanges with the irrepressible and abrasive Antonio Garibaldi (who reminds him, at one point, that, “…There’s more than one way to work on your turnout.”). I kind of love how unaware he sometimes is of his own vulnerability: but that’s part of what makes him so freaking hard to write, when it comes down to brass tacks. He is unaware of his own vulnerability because he’s willfully blind to it, which means I can’t get his voice around the hard parts.

If I can’t make him do that, he can’t narrate, no matter how much he wants to talk about Company Class or the dynamics of I Travesti or anything else. If I was a better writer, I might be able to do it: to somehow justify the lacuna that must inevitably surround that revelation; to let Toby enter and pass through that purifying fire before Phineas recounts his end in things.

I don’t think I’m up to that task yet, though. Writing this kind of novel is hard, y’all.

Dropping Phineas’ narration also means losing almost half the content of the novel as it stands and relying on a narrator who is more consistent but also, frankly, not very exciting. Good narrators, of course, don’t have to be exciting — in fact, sometimes the best narrators are those who are more or less observers in their own stories … something that Toby certainly is at first.

It’s just harder to write an interesting story about a boring guy; about someone whose life is so neatly circumscribed. Phineas becomes a catalyst in Toby’s carefully-constructed world of placid certainty, but anyone who has watched a chemical reaction knows that the part before you add the catalyst can be pretty boring.

Phineas is a character whose life is full of tangible things happening; Toby’s life is far more internal. Generally, Phineas makes things happen, while things happen to Toby (a dilemma that is reflected in their ways of dealing with the same trauma: Phineas runs — a strategy reflected even in his career with a dance company that spends much of its time, more than half of every year, on tour — while Toby stands still; Phineas uses all his power never to think of it while Toby ponders it endlessly, but can’t seem to work it out).

In the past, I haven’t often found this hard to do — heck, I’ve all but written out the original main character of Kirnan because he was, frankly, kind of a boring one-dimensional goody-goody — but this time I’m really struggling with it.

Which, I suppose, is probably evidence in favor of the decision. I love Phineas too much and stand too close to him to really use him well as a narrator. He can’t tell his own story in his own voice. Not yet.

So there you have it. Phineas (as a narrator) must die so that Phineas (as a character) can live. Feh.

Anyway, that’s it for now. Having made this decision, I’m starting to see my way clear plot-wise, so I guess I’ll go strike while the iron is hot.

À bientôt, mes amis.

Ballet Changes Us

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Ballet does strange things to your body.
As a kid, I looked at my sister’s Barbie dolls’ feet and thought, “Nobody has feet like that.”
Now? I have them.

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Then, there’s this. The weird little dip caused by hyperextending the ankle.
I first noticed it on David Hallberg’s beautiful legs. Since I basically didn’t have ankles, I concluded mine could never look like that. Now, they do.
Also, now I have ankles. And beautiful* legs. (*Sometimes!)

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Here’s another thing.
The dip at the top of the thigh. Sometimes cyclists have it, but it’s endemic among dancers.
Even I have it now.
Along with inside-out knees.

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Often, in the morning, I marvel at the architecture of my own feet,
with their marvelous bridges of sinew and bone.
This would all be so much navel-gazing, if it weren’t so hard-won.
For so long, I hated this body so much,
because it had betrayed me,
because it had failed me,
because it did not seem to be mine.

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But ballet has a way of re-creating us in its own image…
…And, strangely enough, when I look at what it has made of this body, what I see — is, finally, myself.

Captions are up now!

You guys, I know this is super hard to read. I’m having captioning issues, so I’ll fix it in the morning.

À bientôt, mes amis!

“Nature’s Greatest,” Eh?

(Inspired by my love of cephalopods and this Slate article by Eric Grundhauser.)

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Danseur Ignoble: Back on the Bus

There’s something deeply satisfying about the long, golden light of an October morning at this latitude.

I live in Kentucky now, but I’m a Yankee by birth and long heritage (one of my maternal great aunts has been known to make noises about “those Mayflower upstarts;” her side of the family — Québécois, Métis, and Iroquois with deep pre-Mayflower roots in this continent — still only half-jokingly regards the English as a bunch of arrivistes). New England suffuses my blood; informs my bones — and here, now, briefly, this glorious light reminds me of home.

The memory of bones runs long and deep.

It’s good, also, to be back in the rhythm of my normal routine, heading to Monday class.  It’s good to be wearing one of those ridiculous outfits in which we arrive at class on cool mornings; good to be stuffing apples in my face as quickly as possible between busses.

Curiously, even though part of me has been bathing itself in chagrin, selectively recalling all the worst parts of my audition (seriously, sometimes my brain is like an obnoxious roommate who won’t turn off the TV), another part of me feels significantly more confident as a dancer simply because I got up there yesterday and tried (okay, the one really precise and gorgeous turn that Denis caught on video doesn’t hurt, either).

I suppose in part it’s a function of suddenly having this very concrete goal — I am making a dance, and I know it will be a good one once I nail down the choreography.  It will force me to home my technique to a degree that probably should seem daunting, but doesn’t.

And even if it isn’t selected for this performance, I will keep working on it, finish it, and bring it somewhere; do something with it.

Anyway, I’m almost to class, so that’s it for now.

More later.

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