POST #13. CREATIVITY & CONVENTIONS: a diversion

Evan, a friend and fellow writer, posted the following on his blog, oldnewsisgoodnews.wordpress.com :

“As a writer, I find that the relationship between a lead and a follow in dancing is much like the relationship between an author and his readers. A technically good dancer uses correct steps the way that a technically good writer uses correct punctuation.

Almost more important as punctuation, though, a good writer uses smoothly flowing syntax that matches and adds to the tone of his chapter, article, or essay. In the same way, a good dancer needs a good sense of beat and needs to follow the tempo of the song. A dancer who does not keep with the rhythm of a song will most likely find that his partner is confused and not very happy.

Many writers will try to create their own syntax and dialects, and sometimes these variations from the norm are legible – even enjoyable – if they are not too strange and different. But then you have the authors like Charlotte Bronte who throw servants speaking complete gibberish into books and expect complete comprehension from their readers. (If you have never read Wuthering Heights, avoid it like the plague. The servant Joseph will give you a headache, even without the help of all the other characters.)

Unfortunately for everybody, dancers can also contract a strain of “Joseph disease.” Sometimes a dancer will try to create his own rhythm that is completely out of synch with the band. (Quite possibly because he is rhythm-deaf, so to speak.) But even if a dancer isn’t Mr. Ain’t-Got-Rhythm, he may become over-confident and try to do too much, which will often end just as messily.

But syntax isn’t just about keeping up a certain rhythm. Your punctuation and grammar need to flow together smoothly and sensibly – a semicolon should knit together two inseparable clauses and a period should be followed by a capitalized word and a completely new sentence. In swing dance, a good lead will follow up certain spins with a second spin, if only to transition the dancers’ hands back into a comfortable position. Or the lead will allow for a rock step directly after a spin to help transition back into basic steps. (Other forms of social dancing have their own ways of helping get into rhythm before a significant change in dance step. Contra dancing has its balance step, which almost acts the way a period might in a novel or a newspaper article.)

Much of this is particularly important for the lead, who, like the writer, is dictating what happens. But the follow needs to be equally aware of what’s going on so as not to misread a comma as a period or a semicolon as an exclamation mark.”

He’d found parts of shadow hard to read, because Xeno changed tenses from one sentence to the next, and changed thoughts in mid-sentence, sometimes in mid-word, the opposite of “smoothly flowing syntax”. His constructive criticism led me to re-read the manuscript, and he was right. But while he was right, I wasn’t really wrong. Though Xeno was smart and perceptive, he was psychologically damaged and uneducated. (see POST#9. THE STRANGER) When he describes  disturbing events in his past, he often relives them as he speaks, slipping into the present tense until his anxiety subsides, returning to the past tense as he distanced himself from the traumatic memories. (as I’m doing now, creating my own syntax and dialect, slipping into present tense because Xeno is so close to my heart.) Similarly, because Xeno perceives the hidden dynamics underlying observable behavior, he changes his train of thought abruptly, because he sees simultaneous layers of reality. From a broader perspective, Xeno’s life often slams into him like a hurricane, so that he’s only able to make sense of things after they happen, sometimes long after they happen. The entire story is structured in that way. In the horse, Xeno hears men shouting “Lacuna,” hears a slithering noise as something bumps into the horse, and watches the Old Man trying to conceal his own terror. Only later, outside Agamemnon’s tent, does  Xeno (and through him, the reader) realize he was hearing and feeling the death of the Laocoon Priests as they were devoured by giant serpents sent by the gods. In the same vein, we’re introduced to Xeno’s grotesque grandfather and passive-aggressive father through passages in non-linear dream language, but we don’t learn enough to make sense of that language, and Xeno’s tortured past,  until much later in the story. The book is not an easy read because of the way it’s structured, but I couldn’t tell my story any other way. I hope it wasn’t infected (or at least not too infected) with “Joseph’s disease.”

Evan’s point is nonetheless well taken, and brings up a controversy that extends beyond writing to all of the arts. A writer can work within conventional forms of language and structure and still be very creative. Dickens comes most readily to mind. Mozart was the master of classical composition because he created such beautiful music within the conventions of 18th century Viennese classicism. Norman Rockwell touched the hearts of many by using conventional techniques to paint conventional America in a unique and creative way. However, adherence to convention can stifle creativity and lead to empty formalism passing for art. The history of the arts is rife with examples of creative people who threw off the chains of conventionality and expressed themselves in new forms. William Faulkner turned the english language on its head, but won a Nobel Prize in the process. (You somehow absorb Falukner’s meanings without fully understanding his language.) Beethoven mastered Mozart’s Viennese style, and then flouted it’s conventions, moving, almost forcing western music into the Romantic era. Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps sparked a riot in the concert hall that spilled out into the streets, but it marked the demise of Romanticism in western music. Monet and the Impressionists were reviled by the 19th century French salons, but they developed a visual language that still touches us today. Of course, art without rules can lead to charlatanism, the artistic equivalent of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

The analogy between author/writer and lead/follow in social dancing illustrates the issue in a concise way. Social dancing is beautiful to watch when well done, and when many couples are on the floor, it has an appeal even if some couples aren’t as good as others. There’s a group feeling about it, it’s interactive, it’s … well … social. But one has to learn the steps, the spins, be able to move with the music’s rhythm, and, of course, learn how to lead and/or follow. Evan jokingly describes himself as a “grammar nazi” and, from his description of social dancing’s spins, rock steps, and transitions, he must be good at both. The two seem to go together, in that they involve structure, accepted rules, and conventional expectations. I however, was never good at social dancing, even though I was considered a good dancer in my young adulthood, the late 60s and 70s. The 60s upheaval was, among other things, a rebellion against conventionality, and its music was acid rock (electrified and unstructured, including feedback, traditionally thought of as disturbance) and soul music (black music, whose sensuality was ramped up with electrified instruments and social militancy). With this music came a dance “form” (for want of a better word) that had no rules. It came from the torso and worked its way up to the arms and head and down to the feet, which, unencumbered by formal dance steps, had only to stay on the floor (courtesy of Sir Isaac Newton) and keep dancers from falling. I would put my “social” self (insurance investigator, law student, lawyer) aside, so that it didn’t get in the way, and let my body react directly to the music, believing that the body intuitively knew its own language. They didn’t teach this at the Arthur Murray or Fred Astaire studios, because it couldn’t be taught.

The difference between the two approaches to dance, or any art, is partially one of personality. My dad loved Bach and Mozart, creativity within structure, but his painting and sculpture was abstract, and sought to let inner forces come out. That’s a puzzle I’ll never solve. My mom was a talented but conventional painter of stills, landscapes, and a few portraits, and I think she feared the beast within. The first time I heard Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps, primal cave dwellers howled at me through the music, and I realized that some hidden part of me understood their language. That’s how I danced (back when I had knees) and how I want to write fiction, touching dark recesses in the reader so I can speak with intuitive elements that we conceal under our “social” selves. The difference is also one of purpose and function. When I wrote legal briefs, I wrote within rigidly enforced conventions, doing everything Evan suggested. I tried to lead judges towards my client’s position, and convince them that I was following the dictates of the law, all within the conventional structure of formal language. But that wasn’t really me. When I spoke directly to jurors, I tried to bypass their “social” selves and the court’s formalism, and get them to look at things differently. I wrote shadow partially the way I danced, partially the way I wrote legal briefs, hoping to slip beneath the readers’ “social” selves and convey feelings that are difficult to describe with conventional language, while leading them to see a parallel between ancient and contemporary political mythology.