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Pilgrimage: Maybe Holy Is Just The Easiest Word to Pronounce, Maybe It’s Just The First Word That Comes to Mind

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It is 5:20am. Laura rides on a train headed in the opposite direction toward Stuttgart, and I ride home toward Tübingen. For the past week, we have been exploring Germany together. We snuck through the holy silence of a monastery, drank beer and ate Wurste in the jubilant expanse of the Botanischer Garten, walked through endless parks with an eye for mischief, sampled every piece of equipment on every playground we passed, trekked to the top of a mountain to explore a Prussian castle, pretended to understand contemporary art in Freiburg, and got lost in the Black Forest.

But she’s got a new adventure to pursue—study abroad in Russia. She will arrive in St. Petersburg this afternoon. There is pain in parting and joy in joining. There are words I am still learning to pronounce and emotions I am still learning have no words. In the week she has been here, we’ve navigated extremely frustrating situations (becoming lost on trains or in downtowns on rainy afternoons) and have come to better terms about what it means to work together, to trust one another even when we’re both fairly clueless. Now there exists an ending, a finale, a closing credits for our small and strange adventure.

But stories do not end. They just fade to black, to be continued imprinted across the screen.

The sun rises above the horizon, first its pink tentacles and then its orange halo, bathing the sky sherbet. There is sadness in parting, but have you ever seen pollution paint the sky so vivid? Have you ever gotten so much cloud stuck on your face, its candy floss sugar won’t scrub free for days? Have you ever kissed someone you love?

You should try this, at least once. It’s like walking into an abandoned church, praying among the pews of teeth, and knowing the meaning of grace. And knowing that grace is just a word for something we cannot yet say. It’s a grunt for the non-verbal secret we can never quietly tell.

Creativity Is a Muscle

“Art is craft, not inspiration.” —Stephen Sondheim

“Sometimes you’re writing to learn how to write a book.” -Julia Fierro

Writer's Group, circa 2011

Writer’s Group, circa 2011

Somewhere in the center of a dark forest stands a cauldron bubbling with black-tar potion. Magic-muse juice percolates within the cast-iron bucket, fumes of inspiration rising toward the night sky. Writers-become-pilgrims trek through this forest every year in search of creativity, the end-all-be-all-cure-all medicine for frustrating writer’s block.

Or perhaps we might imagine creativity in a lighter setting, a golden fluid imbibed by the gods of Olympia. The mind’s ambrosia. Perhaps a secret, clear formula hidden in the storage cache of Dr. Jekyll’s laboratory.

When writers converse about creativity, we tend to mythologize the trait as something almost-unattainable, as something holy—manna falling from Heaven. Words dangling like strings from the fingers of God, alighting like snow on the tongue of a poet or novelist. We tend to engage with hefty, lofty metaphors in order to ensure others that creativity is a sacred attribute.

But creativity is a myth, indeed, if we cannot discuss concretely what we mean when we utter the word. Where does one acquire this magic muse-juice? Give me coordinates, longitude, latitude.

Maybe creativity is not a secret at all.

Creativity is a muscle.

Creativity is a habit that must be cultivated, strengthened through continuous use.

Much like the formal tools of writing—syntax, spelling, grammar, word choice, etc.—one becomes better at using creativity the more one engages with its practice. Practice being the operative term here.

I mean not to malign certain would-be writers, but I have encountered again and again English majors (with creative writing minors) who proclaim their intentions to float into the hallowed halls of author-hood post-graduation without having ever truly written anything. Maybe a story or two, a half-finished manuscript, but nothing more. They harbor the belief that one day, with degree and good juju, they will emerge as writers like a butterfly from a cocoon. Except that they never built a cocoon in the first place.

One must practice a craft in order to learn the craft. Creativity works the same way. I should preface also that “being a writer” doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve published a book or will publish a book; publication is merely process validation for story-slingers, not the goal in and out itself. Writers write. If you write, then you are a writer.

When learning about writing—whether that means taking a creative writing course, interning at a publishing house, or reading blog posts like this one—one becomes aware only of the craft’s silhouette. This is akin to reading the autobiography of Michael Jordan in preparation to become a basketball player; a more playful analogy—a man reading the Kama Sutra so that he may become a master lover without ever having had sexual intercourse. Learning craft from a source outside yourself is merely supplementary education: writing will teach you to write better. Editing others’ stories, that’s even better.

Often, the first novel you will write is only going to be practice. Maybe you’ll get lucky and publish the novel, but this will be still practice for the next. I was about eleven or twelve when I decided I want to become a writer. On that day I sat down at a computer and wrote a book. Took about a year. A horrible, short, badly-plotted, cliché book, but hey, I was twelve! I forced my mother and fifth grade teacher to read said book, and looking back I can imagine their horror at the violence and pessimism of the story. A year later, I was bored with the manuscript, as children may be, so I wrote something longer, more complex. Still childish, but nevertheless, book-length. Ninety-thousand words or so. In about two years.

This trend of writing sloppy manuscripts continued throughout my adolescence. I was singularly determined to be published before the age of sixteen, and of course I’m overjoyed that I was not published. During that time, however, I learned about craft; I learned about characterization; I learned about the economy of words. I even learned to write query letters and write a decent synopsis. Although at the time my purpose was only to publish these stories, I realize now that these experiments informed my later writing. Even now, I recognize that I am still building up toward something better, a story more precise and beautiful than anything I could create now.

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A collection of lovely notebooks from my teenage years.

Around the age of sixteen, after having penned six or seven bad novels, I began The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County (which was, I should mention, my first foray into realistic fiction after a string of fantasy and super-transgressive noir-crime). This novel too was a sloppy mess, and I spent about two years editing and re-writing before I began sending it out to publishers.

Three years later, I finally got the “yes.”

The above anecdote is not designed to brag on my adolescent ambitions, but only to provide a point. One must write to learn to write. Of course I took a few classes and workshops during these teen years; I scribbled notes while listening to panels at book conventions. But the experiences of story-telling, the ritual of always working on something new, created a habit of writing: now I write almost every day, clocking in particular hours of writing or editing to get the work done. Since writing The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, I have written three other manuscripts (two of which are serviceable and that I’m currently whipping into shape). Through this, I mean to infer, I’m still writing. I’m doing work.

Naturally I still encounter “writer’s block” or a lack of inspiration, but that doesn’t stop me from getting my work done. Like a runner straining through the pain on his final lap, a writer can be creative without feeling any special inspiration. Therefore, the myth of creativity and the muse, of stories-come-God—I don’t buy it, not one bit.

Writing is hard work. Yes, it is an incredible fun, eye-opening, soul-searching experience, but at the same time, it’s work. The writer must first practice his free throws before he becomes Michael Jordan; for the record, I’m still trying. For the record, I’m still on the community court  throwing free throws. Dear aspiring writer: you are too.

There is no secret to creativity, then. There is only sweat.

You want muse-juice? Drink some coffee, some green tea. Chew gum. Crack your knuckles. Then get to work.

(Oh, yea, and if you want to learn more about the book I am using as an example, click here to read a synopsis. You can also read a preview here! The novel drops in November 2015)

Praying at the Altar of Democracy

AMERICAN_FREEDOM_by_rtrev               There exists often in our ideas of government and law a virtue of holiness. The notion of democracy as institutionally supreme, the notion of three branches of government, the notion of political parties, and notion of neo-liberalism enjoy a sacred place in our political culture. Because these notions seem unchangeable and in some cases ingrained in our Constitution (a holy text), one must grapple arduously to imagine anything new. While there may exist no ready alternative to democracy, surely there may reside in the recesses of our imaginations avenues through which we might improve democracy. I do not mean to propose anything specifically but rather elucidate the flexibility of our political culture. Although many American citizens remain dubious of the effectiveness of our current system, it offers us the chance to constantly desecrate the altar of the status quo. But not for long.

Despite many Americans acknowledging the imperfection of American democracy, one experiences too a staunch defense of its principles. Defenders of the Constitution, for example, speak with the rhetoric of fervent missionaries; for many, democracy is no political system but rather a religion. In the same way that many religious sects misrepresent and contort the meaning of sacred texts, so too do groups of citizens warp the Constitution in their favor. This, of course, can be a positive attribute of our laws and amendments, the extent to which they can be interpreted. This power lies in the Supreme Court, but problematically, many American citizens inform their political views based on mis-readings of the Constitution. In the face of change, they shout down dissenters in favor of democratic salvation.

Take, for example, the right to free speech. Americans enjoy the ability to say or write anything, with the exception of libel and “treason in words?” In the age of the internet, however, one experiences a new phenomenon of the anonymous commenter, which has helped create an online vocabulary of vitriol and insults. This reliance on the freedom of speech has continued to gain traction, the idea that one should be allowed to say anything: this includes, however, threats of violence, murder, and rape. In the wake of the highly publicized #Gamergate, for example, internet commenters frequently threatened the life and livelihood of feminist game critic Anita Sarkeesian.  When certain websites suggested curbing these violent comments, many claimed that this would become censorship. For many, any infringement on free speech is the barring of free speech altogether. I don’t mean to talk especially about free speech, but rather use this as an example in which the Bill of Rights becomes unclear. Does the right to free speech trump the right to safety? We encounter the same predicament in public in the form of street harassment: does a man have the right to scream across the street and inform her he wants to sexually assault her until she bleeds? (Yes, I know, drastic examples, but they happen every day both in public and online).

In what ways, then, are we ignoring paths through which we might improve democracy? In another thread of thought, in what ways have we already deviated from the ideal of democracy? In 2014, a study from Princeton and North Western revealed that the political system of the United States is more oligarchy than democracy due to the significant impact that individual business interest groups have on policy change (Source: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=9354310). Through rampant funding of politicians and funds, businesses have ensured that the power of American politics belong to the elite.  If economic elites, then, control the government, what does that say of our democratic system? When defending the democratic ideals of the United States, this defense becomes arduous when one considers the unfair role that money plays in the political culture.

We often forget as Americans that democracy is not a solely American enterprise, but instead that democracy has become the most widely used form of government in the world; there exist, then, various incarnations of democracy, all of which arose post-Independence. This also means, perhaps, that the ideas espoused in newer constitutions might in fact be better.

This essay, after all, is not to suggest specific change, which would require more evidence and support, but rather to plant an idea—we are not perfect. Democracy is not holy. The United States Constitution is no sacred text. Just as our laws were written by men, they can be unwritten by men (and women and those who don’t identify with either gender). In order to truly envision a radical new America, we must stop praying at the altar of democracy. We must smash the idols. We must revise the holy book.

Pilgrimage: The Big Sleep

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Today classes start back at Tübingen University after a one-week break after a preparatory German course. To call this course arduous would be a disservice to true labor the world over, however, though I did find the course incredibly helpful.  But now I begin tomorrow in earnest, begin a new semester of university at a new school, new country, in a new language, with a new culture to overcome. A tall order, no?

But today I would like to praise the benefit of my long break, or rather my “big sleep.” I have been in academic hibernation for some time now, though I find my time outside of the classroom just as instructional as my time inside the classroom. I have been, after all, working dilligently on a new novel and many poetic projects. Once I arrived overseas, I began helping to orchestrate poetry events back home in Charleston. I have been anything but idle.

I do enjoy my time off. It allows me to delve face-first into things I would otherwise never experience. I have been able to make tremendous progress writing not one, but two books; I have done a first edit of one book and managed and almost-complete first draft of another. In the meanwhile, I have been building a Twitter/Facebook/blog following in anticipation of the release of The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County. Recently I decided to take up drawing, learning how to draw even simple things, which up until now has been beyond me.

I am feeling optimistic. Although a tidal wave of business approaches, I hope to continue writing and working with conviction, with a sense that I will accomplish much in the coming months. At the same time, I wish not to spend all my time with paper and pen in hand. I take advantage of this opportunity to live, to be free in cities I’ve never visited before, to speak with interesting people. These interactions will almost surely translate to new material in short stories and novels to come.

But today is the last day of utter freedom. I have finished writing almost 2,00 words today, though I intend perhaps to write more. Then I will take a bottle of champagne to the park and drink cheap mimosas in the warm tickle of sunlight with friends. I will speak German and look toward the sky. I will finish whatever book I’m currently reading with frantic helplessness as the plot kidnaps my consciousness. I will write, yes, but more importantly I will live. I will wake tomorrow at dawn with a new initiative, a broad, fresh band of obstacles to overcome.

Poem: “Puddle Jumpers”

New poem. Check it out.

Leave thoughts below.

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“Proletariat Love” – Derek Berry

Check out this love poem recorded for National Poetry Month.

 

 

Filmed in front of the glorious Cologne Cathedral. Leave your thoughts below.

 

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National Poetry Month Poem #2: “Jack Bellamy”

#‎NationalPoetryMonth‬ 2/30. This persona piece follows the fictional narrative of an older gay man arrested on charges of sodomy during the 1960s and subjected to electric shock therapy to aid in his conversion.

“According to the American Psychiatric Association, until 1974 homosexuality was a mental illness. Freud had alluded to homosexuality numerous times in his writings, and had concluded that paranoia and homosexuality were inseparable. Other psychiatrists wrote copiously on the subject, and homosexuality was “treated” on a wide basis. There was little or no suggestion within the psychiatric community that homosexuality might be conceptualized as anything other than a mental illness that needed to be treated.” – PHIL HICKEY

 

National Poetry Month Poem #1: “Canines”

Check out my first poem video for National Poetry Month’s 30-for-30 challenge. The poem is called “Canines” and depicts the author’s struggles with body image and self-acceptance through the lens of monstrosity.

Enjoy and share your thoughts below.

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Pilgrimage: Stuttgart 21 Project; History Is Under Construction

 

Scaffolding rises around the obelisk, frames of metal bars spider-webbed to provide support for the crumbling monument. Seated below on a patch of iridescent green grass, I tilt my head to better discern the meaning and image depicted on the grotesque statue above. The recent attempts to fix the statue, likely after wear from weather, obfuscate my view of the statue itself, whether that be a person or animal or tomato with glasses (no one knows at this point). In this way, one can often obscure history through the revisions we make in the present.

In Germany this year, one witnesses an era of reinvention, whether that be for better or worse. One sees construction cranes as often as buttered pretzels. With each skyline marred by the machinery of renovation, it seems as if the entire country is receiving a face lift.

One of the largest renovation projects in Germany today is called Stuttgart 21, which is a joint initiative between the state of Baden-Württemberg, the federal government, and the Deutsch Bahn (DB) to expand railroads through the state as well as build a state-of-the-art Hauptbahnhof (fancy German word for main train station). When one stands in today’s Hauptbahnhof, its massiveness is undercut by the intense renovation going on outside its walls; to even reach the main train platforms, one must travel through a specially-designed temporary walkway, which offers a glimpse of the massive destruction and reconstruction of the train station.

For many outsiders, the construction project seems like a non-issue; when I first heard about the project from my grandparents, I simply shrugged my shoulders and mumbled, “Cool,” in the same way someone might react to any calamity removed from their personal experiences. Due to the immense costs of the project, however, many people are incredibly unhappy with the idea, especially since the project has exceeded his budget by more than €2 billion euro as of 2013 (source: http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/berlin-alarmed-at-cost-overruns-of-stuttgart-21-station-project-a-880112.html). In fact, the project has received critical backlash ever since the idea’s inception in the mid 1980’s.

In 2010, the German government began in earnest to move forward with the building project, though since then they have encountered major delays and budgetary underestimations. At this point, several critics wonder whether the dream of a futuristic train station will ever truly become reality. The misanalysis of budget have risen questions among Berlin politicians concerning from where  future funds will come.

But I don’t want to get bogged down in the specifics of the project itself, but would instead like to highlight its politics. In the wake of the final announcement that the Stuttgart train station project would indeed move forward, German citizens flooded the street to protest. What begins as a peaceful though passionate protest becomes later  a violent clash between protestors and police; the police responded by shooting water cannons at the protesters. On one particular day (1 October 2010), the police helped protest construction crews as they cut down several trees in the Schlossgarten (very near the train station) in order to make room for the renovations. In the protest and subsequent backlash from police, more than a hundred people ended up injured. It is important, here, to note the incredible panache of German protestors standing up for what they believe. They marched against the renovations, citing the ever-climbing budget and the imminent destruction of both nature and culture. Because the project will include new rail lines through Baden-Württemberg’s countryside, one assumes that several more trees will fall before the project’s completion.

Because I cannot describe so well in words the spectacle of the protests, I will include a few pictures below (culled from the internet):

 

(Alex Domanski/Reuters)

(Alex Domanski/Reuters)

Policemen use water canons to remove protestors from a park next to the Stuttgart train station

Policemen use water canons to remove protestors from a park next to the Stuttgart train station

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Polizei räumt Schlosspark

Policemen remove protestors from a park next to the Stuttgart train station

 

What interests me most about the Stuttgart 21 project is the ways in which both sides of an argument construct their narrative. On one hand, Angela Merkl and other proponents speak triumphantly of a doorway into the future, of the grand and efficient railway systems Germany will enjoy in just a few years. In the eyes of the proponents, no one is really destroying anything, but rather one is building a better future. Meanwhile, the opponents construct a narrative of wasteful spending and unnecessary destruction.

“Building the future” seems to be a good term for the ambitions of the project, but what I think is more appropriate is the term “building the past.” We write the future’s history in the present. Depending on what stories we tell about our motivations, our values, and our dreams, we manage to influence how history will view us. We shape the biases of tomorrow when we spin the right story.

The question, then, remains:  is the Stuttgart 21 project truly helpful or more harmful? Will the project ever be completed, and more importantly, will those who protested be thankful for new facilities or remain resentful of the destruction and waste the project has yielded? Which side will claim victory in the hallowed halls of history?

 

The Autonomy of Public Space and Art Museums

When visiting the Kunst Museum in Stuttgart today, I encountered the art of Joseph Kosuth, an American conceptual artist who came to prominence in the 1960s. Much of his art questions the value and restrictions of art, expressed through neon letterings, physical books, and copy-printed definitions of words such as “meaning” or  “idea.” Today at the museum, I spent an insane amount of time trying to translate the text of six books at wooden desks, each under a clock indicating different times. This piece creates an interesting thematic comment on the effect of time, how the time and space in which a text is read changes the meaning of the text. All of Kosuth’s art installations evoke a similar form of communication, asking the audience to react or comment upon his ideas.

For this reason, I scrawled  a stick figure in pencil on the blank wall of the art museum next to one of Kosuth’s installations. The guard there (a kind older woman) asked me what I was doing. I told her that I was claiming this space as my own or rather inviting the question of ownership. She didn’t stop me, though I’m sure they will wash away the stick man I drew under Kosuth’s neon message.

Visual Space Has Essentially No Owner.

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This piece struck me for some reason. He questions, within the context of a gallery, the sanctity of the gallery. Where art exhibits express that the viewer should not touch or disturb the art, one must also confront the relationship of viewer and art. One view of art, anyways, insists that art cannot exist without the viewer’s eye, since sight itself evokes an image. Without an eye to perceive the art, the art cannot truly exist. This is, of course, debatable. In the same way, art might mean nothing without people to comment upon the art. What does a painting or installation mean without an audience?

If visual space has no owner and the “art museum” is a space for art, then does not the evocation of this idea invite people to draw on the walls? To perform trumpet in the halls of the art museum? To dance, to become art or make art themselves? To reclaim the spaces we have deemed holy, not only the streets but the museums, the galleries? If art must exist in galleries, then why ask the gate-keepers for permission? Why not thrust your voice into the conversation, for the sake of being heard? Claim not ownership but autonomy, because no one’s really stopping you.

And when an a museum guard taps you on the shoulder to ask what the hell you’re doing, answer, “Art.”

She might smile and comment, “I was wondering when someone would finally try that.”

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