Author Archives: Mark Stevens

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield: A Review

Review by Mark Stevens

the-war-of-art_for Mark Stevens postResistance is invisible, internal, implacable, impersonal, infallible and insidious.

Resistance, as Steven Pressfield points out in The War of Art, never sleeps.

“Henry Fonda was still throwing up before each stage performance, even when he was seventy-five,” writes Pressfield. “In other words, fear doesn’t go away. The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.”

If you don’t know it, The War of Art is a must-read. (Of course, reading it might be an act of resistance in itself. You should be writing, don’t you know.)

The War of Art breaks down the interaction with your art. It encourages you to picture yourself as a soldier in the fight against, what else? Resistance.

Pressfield first defines the enemy (resistance), then encourages you to fight by “turning pro” and finally, in the third section, he shows you how to find inspiration in the “higher realm.”

The battle, Pressfield asserts, involves dedication and daily action. Some of his arguments have too many biblical metaphors for my tastes but the essence of his argument is hard to refute: get busy, show up, do the work, stick to it, make it routine, make it a habit, don’t give in.

You will understand the creative process a bit better—and even understand why you feel compelled to tell stories and to produce art.

• “The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome.”

• “When we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set in motion by which, inevitably, and infallibly heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose.”

• “What I call Professionalism someone else might call the Artist’s Code or the Warrior’s Way. It’s an attitude of egolessness and service.”

Pressfield’s most convincing point, at least to me, is that if we have something to say, we are obligated to say it.

We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to the world. He calls creating art a private insurrection.

“As artists and professionals it is our obligation to enact our own internal revolution, a private insurrection inside our own skulls. In this uprising we free ourselves from the tyranny of consumer culture. We overthrow the programming of advertising, movies, video games, magazines, TV and MTV by which we have been hypnotized from the cradle. We unplug ourselves from the grid by recognizing that we will never cure our restlessness by contributing our disposable income to the bottom line of Bullshit, Inc., but only by doing our work.”

The War of Art delivers a blow against resistance and will get you fired up. It’s a battle out there. Strike a blow, if you can, every day.

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Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

What’s Your Reason for Writing?

By Mark Stevens

No doubt soon you’ll be walking around your house knee-deep in royalty checks.

At some point, you’ll probably stop reading the reviews.

Even the good ones.

Yawn. Another rave.

Until then, why are you on this ride? Are you driven? Just because? Is it art to you?

Or commerce?

I watched two documentaries recently.

One was “Finding Vivian Maier” about a unique street photographer whose work has exploded after her death. Vivian Maier was completely overlooked during her lifetime. She never promoted her work. Her possessions and an enormous stash of her photographs (the negatives) were bought—cheaply—at an auction of stuff in Chicago. The stash included uncashed social security checks. She wasn’t in it for the money. Clearly. Now, the world is studying her work. And marveling.

I highly recommend the film (which itself is very well put together).

The other documentary was about famous back-up singers. Is that an oxymoron? Probably. That’s the point. They are back-up singers. If you like music, “20 Feet from Stardom” is must-see. The portraits are fascinating—Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer. And others. They probably sang on hundreds of songs you know by heart. They sing the key licks, the little juicy bits you hum along with.

Also recommended.

Talent? By the truckload.

Artists? In every way, shape and form.

Some try to step up to the limelight, become the lead. Others hang back on purpose. They are fine with the shadows, but every bit as integral to the lead singer (and the act) but fine with the supporting role. They are, in fact, highly sought-after artists in their supporting roles.

Is there a heartbreak? Yes. Dashed hopes? Yes. But the overall message is they are in it for the moment—the expression. Every one of them had (has) pride in their accomplishments.

Moral of the story?

With Vivian Maier, she followed nobody’s script and nobody’s expectations for what constituted a “good” photograph. She took pictures of small moments, odd people, strange situations and left her view of the world for the rest of us to enjoy.

With the back-up singers, they were told what words to sing, what notes to hit. They brought their skills to the studio or the live stage and accepted (in varying degrees) their roles.

What’s your reason for writing? Are you okay with doing it—just because?

Are you doing your own thing? Listening to your own voice? Or are you a back-up, following someone else’s vision and script?

(I think there is good in both approaches.)

Me? I hope I do a little of both.

Reilly_The Enlisted Men's ClubFinal note: A bit of blatant self-promotion for my pal Gary Reilly, whom I’ve written about before. Gary wrote 25 novels with no encouragement from “the industry.” He died in 2011 and left those 25 novels behind, just because. His sixth posthumous book launches at 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 14 at the Tattered Cover in Denver. The Enlisted Men’s Club is the first of his Vietnam-era novels following the publication of five comic novels about a Denver taxi driver (including two Colorado Book Award nominees). The tone of the war-era novel, of course, is very different. But the mark of the artist is the same. An artist at work. Just because.

 

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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

Getting the Details Right

By Mark Stevens

If I had to pick a favorite prose stylist, it might be John Updike.

(I don’t have to pick, do I?)

Some think his stuff is over-written. I happen to think he was a poet whether he was writing fiction or criticism. Or poetry.

In fact, Updike published eight volumes of poetry in addition to everything else—novels, short stories, and reams of art and literary criticism. Updike died at age 76 and, one of many fascinating tidbits I gleaned from reading Adam Begley’s new biography of the man (Updike), he even wrote his last poem about four weeks before he died.

Prolific? To say the least. David Foster Wallace once asked: “Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?” (I’ve seen that quote without attribution, too. Was it Wallace?)

Updike wrote three hours a day come hell or high water. He was widely hailed for his style and for his ability to elevate ordinary days and ordinary feelings, layered with human depth. He was jaded, wicked, heartfelt, crude, raunchy. And elegant, too.

But he couldn’t rely purely on his imagination. One thing Begley makes clear in his lengthy and highly enjoyable portrait is that John Updike believed in research. Nearly thirty years after he started writing for The New Yorker magazine, after worldwide success and a Pulitzer Prize (the first of two), John Updike still believed in getting the details right.

Stevens_rabbitrichPreparing to to write the third book in his “Rabbit” tetralogy (Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest), Updike decided to give his hero Harry Angstrom a new job, running a Toyota dealership in Pennsylvania. For the most part, Updike drew stories from the people and situations that were close at hand—either right down the street or at least familiar social circles. (His critics hate this about him.) As such, he knew nothing about car dealerships.

Updike, writes Begley, “rolled up his sleeves and went to work.” He hired help to untangle the “arcane protocols” of automobile finances and the corporate structure of a dealership—how salesmen are compensated, how many support staff work in the back office, and paperwork involved in importing cars and more. He visited dealerships in the Boston area. “He aimed for, and achieved, a degree of detail so convincing that the publisher felt obliged to append to the legal boilerplate on the copyright page a specific disclaimer: ‘No actual Toyota agency in southeastern Pennsylvania is known to the author or in any way depicted herein.’ ”

Credibility.

As George Saunders talks about (see this March 4 post by Mark), it’s about making the moments on the page “undeniable.” Even with his flashy style and a vocabulary that seemed like it knew no bounds, Updike started with getting the details right.

Rabbit is Rich, by the way, won another Pulitzer.

Final thought: I wish I had the kind of time a full-time writer would have to do this kind of research, but I recently spent a full day driving around Rio Blanco County with Deputy Sheriff John Scott. We drove for hours talking about life and crime around Meeker and upriver toward the Flat Tops Wilderness. I left with a fresh load of powerful details and many ways to (try and) give my new story another chance to be undeniable.
Stevens_Deputy John Scott (800x600)
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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014.

Those Little Bells

By Mark Stevens

(This blog is a note to self. Thanks for letting me share.)

I recently read a New Yorker profile of the writer Lydia Davis and I felt as if I’d entered a very calm, clear space.

It’s a long piece, by Dana Goodyear, but it’s behind a paywall at the New Yorker web site so I thought I’d highlight one major point here. I highly recommend that you track down a copy (March 17, 2014).

Lydia Davis is a very-short-story writer. The New Yorker piece calls her “one of the most original minds in American fiction today.” There much to be gleaned from reading the entire profile.

Davis is 66 years old now and still writes regularly. She’s inspired by unlikely vignettes she encounters throughout the day. Unlikely and unusual. You get the impression her writing mind never shuts down.

Since this blog can’t cover everything, here’s one bit that stuck with me: Lydia Davis thinks about every word.

Yeah, sure, whatever. Writers think about every word—don’t we?

Not on the Davis scale.

Lydia Davis is after precision in the words like…

(Actually, I’m afraid to write a metaphor right about now.)

For Davis, there are no throwaways.

“A little bell goes off in my head first,” she says. “I know something’s wrong here.”

Demonstrating her point for Goodyear, Davis read an image from a published novel:

“A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.”

Spot the issue?

“I thought about that,” says Davis. “You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.”

Davis concludes: “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison.”

I thought to myself: yikes.

Yes, high standards. Not surprising for a woman who was once married to master stylist Paul Auster and, to mention many other accomplishments in her long writing career, translated Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way from French to English. (Some critics lashed Davis for her preference for “obscure cognates” over than going with “flashier English renderings.”)

It’s the old lesson: every word counts. Every word has meaning. Every word carries weight.

Do everything you can to avoid ringing those little bells.

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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014.

Scrub Your Mindscape Clean … by Mark Stevens

This post was previously published on August 6, 2013

Skip the tips.

Forget everything you’ve learned.

Put down your copy of 100 Fabulous Secrets to Better Writing Now!

Move away from the stack of books you slowly acquired ever since you first had the thought that you might want to write fiction. (Spoiler alert: all those books pretty much all say the same thing. They are as repetitive as magazines about how to swing a golf club. Or how to diet.)

That’s right.

Forget it all.

Put it aside, shove it to the back of your brain or, even better, scrub the whole mindscape clean. Lesson-free, worry-free, anxiety-proofed. Silence the inner coach.

Oh yeah, one more thing: don’t even think about your favorite author or some writing style you’d like to emulate.

There. Got it?

Now, tell me a story. Only, pretend I’m in a soundproof room and you’re going to have to slide me pages under the door as the story unfolds—as you write it down. In your writing voice. With your words.

Okay, there you go.

Here’s what I want: I want to know your character—inside and out. And, well, it would be pretty cool if something actually, you know, happened.

There must be a reason this is a story and not just an account of some random, meaningless day. Or week. Or series of connected events.

My point? My point is sometimes you have to get back to basics. And those basics are:

1. See clearly.
2. Describe honestly.
3. Keep things moving.

Sometimes (drum roll, please) you just have to write.

And write some more.

(Of ALL the writing advice you’ve received over the years, isn’t that the most common refrain? “Write every day.” “Keep on writing.” “Write, write, write.” “Write a million words.” Or some such variation. Has one writing coach or respected elder of the writing community ever suggested that you think more or suck your thumb harder? Didn’t think so.)

And after you’ve written, have some other readers check what you’ve written, to see if they get the story you’re trying to tell.

That’s it.

Your voice, your words, your damn story.

It’s bound to be one of a kind.

But if you do need a jump-start or if you’re looking for that one magical moment of inspiration, come to Colorado Gold, RMFW’s massively brilliant three-day conference in September in Denver.

For more information about the conference, visit the RMFW website.

I can promise you one thing: you won’t starve for advice.

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Mark Stevens is the President of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.