I Can’t Do That…

Two meanders and an afterword loosely connected by theme.

I Can’t Bring Myself to Do That

At the annual AML Conference a couple of weeks ago there were several papers and presentations that looked at moral and aesthetic boundaries and how they are approached and understood by different artists. The first hour featured looks at portrayals of Christ in visual arts, and analyzed where artists drew their moral and aesthetic lines (no pun intended).

The subject was Christ in Gethsemane. One piece depicted Jesus sprawled face-down on the ground, clutching the dirt with agonized fingers; another piece featured a Jesus kneeling amid flowers and trees, gazing into heaven with a calm visage, his hands clasped in prayer. One was starkly monochromatic and offered little detail beyond the foregrounded figure; the other was painted in warm tones and featured richly realized details.

I was personally drawn to the starker drawing that emphasized the depth of suffering as Jesus took the sins of the world upon himself. It was precisely the stark, non-idealized depiction of the most difficult task ever undertaken that gave it power for me. To imagine Jesus, the greatest of all, driven to the dirt from the agony brought on by the unimaginable immensity of the task was humbling and powerful.

The other was nice, but bland in precisely the same way so much of our art about Jesus is. Warm, soft, and beatific. Calm and controlled and very central European. Beautifully detailed and speaking of tremendous effort and reverence and devotion by the artist. Idyllic to the point of unreality. For me.

Which revealed me as a huge, flaming hypocrite.

Maybe not a hypocrite per se, but close enough for arguments’ sake. I could never bring myself to do that sort of thing, which was a real part of my engagement with the first piece—the fact that the artist went somewhere profound that I have been unwilling to do myself. The artist went straight at it and didn’t flinch, and in the process gave me a hook (prod, goad) to think more deeply on the process as well as the result. By expressing the powerful, but personally uncomfortable, the artist enabled me to consider in ways I might not have, otherwise.

I am a notorious weenie when it comes to putting words in the mouth of God in (semi) realistic scenes. I have no problem creating god-like beings and letting them spout a vast agglomeration of scriptural, historical, and completely made-up words, but making actual deity (as I conceive it) a character and putting words in his mouth feels disrespectful to me.

I admire the one artist’s presentation at least partly because I am unwilling to go there. Or at least have been—I’m starting to rethink where I draw the line in my own work.

Sort of the way one artist depicts the agony of Gethsemane in brutal terms, while another depicts it as a distance and in neutral terms. One gives you a stark image expressing his devotion; the other suggests the theme and leaves the infusion of meaning to your own devotion. Not because of a bland, heartless, or correlated faith, but precisely because those things are too important to be treated casually.

Both indicative of powerful testimony and reverence, but starting from very different places about where the line between deep devotion and disrespect is drawn. Zeffirelli vs. Gibson. Too much of either and it all becomes background noise; but the change-up draws both mind and spirit in an invitation to new and unfamiliar (and useful) considerations.

In that variety of views, techniques, approaches, and aesthetic boundaries we see the need for many eyes and many artists. And I see the danger of interpreting too much of moral intent from my ideas of the politeness of the artist’s depiction.

I Don’t Have the Skills to Do That

As an editor, publisher, critic, contest judge, *and* author I end up in some very weird emotional places. I see myself as author first, and as such I am constantly analyzing, deconstructing, comparing, and looking for techniques to steal. It’s one of the hazards of being a writer in the early stages of developing your craft—you become intensely aware of your own limitations.

While reading through an anthology of Scott Bronson’s short fiction that I will be releasing through ArcPoint Media in the next week or two, I found my ego shriveling into a hard little stone. This guy is good. His language is easy and natural, his character relationships earthy and honest, his situations odd and interesting, and his pace brisk and engaging.

But it was his ability to create powerful emotional engagement that so thoroughly dessicated my ego. Bronson is good at that. Very good. He finds the difficult and powerful with seeming effortlessness, then examines and abuses and ultimately affirms my best hopes about what are often our least noble reactions. It’s what (my idea of) the very best fiction does—it explores the intimately emotional with power, grace, and humility.

As a publisher, it’s exactly what I want—good stories that should sell copies. As an author, it revealed to me in very clear terms exactly how limited my own talent is. At one point while reading, I sat back and shook my head and said (out loud), “I just can’t *do* that.”

And it’s true. My stories tend to focus around ideas and discoveries more than characters and emotions. I’m so anxious to avoid the maudlin, trivial, or overblown that I pull back too far into the detached—which makes it that much harder for readers to engage. I’ve worked for so many years to create an invisible writing style that I’ve ended up with a neutral one, instead. And now it’s so ingrained I don’t know how to overcome it.

Being able to articulate the limit isn’t enough, because it’s not just a matter of technique (or at least not solely so). It’s a matter of viewpoint, of the eyes that I see the world through. I just can’t do what Scott Bronson (or Eric Samuelson, among others) does so consistently—because I don’t see the world with eyes that can detect the emotional core of a character, and thus my mind cannot articulate what my eyes cannot perceive.

As a would-be artist, it can be very frustrating to confront your limitations. The effort tends to be hard on the ego, and can make it hard to imagine ever writing again.

…But I Can Do That

And yet. It is in the variety of approaches and viewpoints and delivery vehicles that we create a vibrant and complex art capable of reaching a diverse audience. I can’t draw at all, but if I did it’s unlikely I could draw Christ in Gethsemane as a stark, agonized figure—though I think Scott Bronson could do it with style and grace (and has done so, with words, in his novel, “The Agitated Heart,” coming soon from ArcPoint Media).

As an author it becomes very easy to see your own gaps of talent, to identify the admirable in others and despair at its relative lack in your own work. We seek to be Miltons and Shakespeares, and in so doing sometimes fail to recognize how successfully we cover much of the same ground by somewhat different means.

And yet some stories could only ever come from our own minds, some viewpoints could only ever arise from our own eyes. Perhaps lacking in some vital ways, but still uniquely our own and capable of reaching some readers that might see your own voice (which seems ordinary and weak to you) as powerful and unique and vibrant.

I just can’t do some things. But I can do others. All that remains is to see if there’s a market for it. It’s all any of us can do in the end, and it’s the least all of us should do (in my opinion).

One thing is certain—the unwritten word (undrawn portrayal; unproduced play) can’t be appreciated (or rejected) by anyone.

This entry was posted in Community Voices, Personal Narratives, Storytelling and Community, The Writer's Desk. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to I Can’t Do That…

  1. Wm says:

    I can very much relate, Scott. I’m finding that there are two ways where the writing flow is difficult — the first is where I’m trying to do something that I’m just not equipped to do; the second is where I’m pushing at the edge of my ability, but I’m within the zone fo what I am equipped to do. When I had only written three or four stories, I thought that they were the same thing. Now I’m beginning to discover that the first sort of difficult is like banging your head repeatedly against a wall; whereas, the second is more like walking through thick mud or rock climbing.

    I suppose part of finding one’s voice as an author is to get to a place where you can focus on the second and aren’t distracted by attempts and desires to muck about with the first.

  2. This is a very important statement, Scott. We have different talents. Another Scott won the UVU novel award this year, (Scott Hatch), and it is remarkable. All of us who judged the manuscript said, “I can’t write like that.” So you are not alone! Seems like we have a collection of amazing “Scotts.” I am eager to read Bronson’s work. Thank you for your support of Mormon literature all these years!

  3. J. Scott Bronson says:

    Those are some very kind words, Scott – thank you very much.

    Thinking about your insightful rumination about voice and discovering it, I had a memory flash that I haven’t thought about for a long time.

    I submitted my first full-length play for consideration to the first Playwright, Director, Actor (PDA) Workshop at BYU thirty years ago and it was accepted. Each play in the workshop had a table read with every other playwright, and all the directors and actors and faculty of the workshop in attendence, after which there was a critique session. I don’t remember much about WHAT was said, because (1) it was a long time ago and (2) there was a LOT said (it was almost as if they were chomping at the bit to tear into that thing).

    I sat in numb silence as they all offered me their versions of what I’d written. (It was on this day that I learned the best tactic for receiving critiques of my writing is to simply listen and comment only when asked a direct question and never defend my writing, only explain when asked to do so.)

    After a while, one of the faculty supervisors – Charles Whitman – jumped into the fray and said (with an incredulous smile), “Are you listening to yourselves? You’re all trying to recreate Scott’s play in your own images. Can we all agree that what we have here is a rough-hewn play by a young man with a unique, interesting and exciting new voice? I mean, have you ever read a play like this before? Then, let’s try to give him observations and suggestions on how to improve the play without destroying his voice.”

    Call it luck or a blessing or whatever you imagine it is that places support and understanding in our way, but I wonder what would have happened if that had not been said on my behalf. Because, in that moment, I learned that I had to trust myself when it came to giving voice to my thoughts and feelings. In that moment, I learned that the WAY I see things is unique simply because no one else is me.

    Sometimes I don’t trust my voice and other times I despair that it just might be the only thing I’ve got going for me and of course it’s not enough. I chide myself for having a pretty measly vocabulary and no capacity whatsoever for framing a story before I begin it. There are a host of things that I kinda, sorta work at improving sometimes even though I’ll be fifty-five in a couple months and I am obviously past my prime.

    I admit, it’s kind of nice knowing that people like you share my dilemna because it confirms that I’m not alone in the world. I marvel at your ability to produce complex and interesting ideas and worlds from mundane events or discoveries in the real world. Your talent for quick and penetrating analysis boggles my mind.

    I take comfort, solace and encouragement from the fact that we all have, and we all lack.

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