Artists Who Inspire Me to Write

I take my inspiration from many places, though few things send stories and passages rolling out of my brain like sound and sight. Today I want to talk a little about images, specifically the work of three artists: Arthur Rackham, Michael Whelan, and John Bauer.

Arthur Rackham

In the United States, Rackham is best known for his illustrations of Richard Wager’s Ring cycle. For those of you not familiar, that’s the one with Ride of the Valkyries in it. For those even less familiar, it’s the song old cartoons commonly played over dogfight scenes. Rackham didn’t do any plates for the particular opera the song is from, but now you know basically what I mean: The pictures to accompany music like that.

Rackham used a method unique to himself to create the blended, muddy colors over his gritty, realistic lines. The level of detail in his work is astounding, especially when you take into account how personalized his style was.

Something about Rackham’s grungy, earthy art holds a great deal of majesty for me. It is fantastic but not garishly colored; it seems so much more real and tangible. As a slight nod to Rackham, the hero of my current project has the same absurdly curly blond hair as Siegfried in the above Wagner plate.

Michael Whelan

Whelan may not be an old master like Rackham, but his work has affected me all the same. You may recognize his style from scifi and fantasy covers. I know that’s where I first saw anything he did, being fourteen and having no real admitted interest in art.

If Rackham is my subdued but majestic inspiration, Whelan is my extravagant and fantastic inspiration.

Whelan’s greatest strength, to me, is in conveying a sense of place. He illustrates some of the strangest, most gorgeous landscapes in a way that, for the barest moment, transports me.

Around two thirds of my current story takes place in a world that is not our own, and even when I don’t intend to I feel I must be siphoning off some of Whelan’s imagery, pulling out choice snatches of sight from memories of earmarked covers of books I bought for the pretty picture.

John Bauer

To the casual observer, Bauer’s work looks a lot like Rackham’s. His colors are earthy and washy and his lines are fairly detailed. However, Bauer’s work has a softer, loopier feel than Rackham’s gritty illustrations. It’s not as realistic, it’s much simpler. Lots of curly, wavy lines.

Above all, I appreciate Bauer’s depiction of natural things. The shapes strike a good balance between realism and stylized loopiness, and the combination just draws me in.

I know a few writers follow me, so I’m wondering: What images, if any, stir inspiration in you?

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Get Me Out of Here

As a kid, my reading was almost entirely fantastical. If the setting wasn’t some far-away invented place, it was another time or another planet or some supernaturally-tinted vision of our own world. I didn’t like to read Beverly Cleary and other writers who primarily worked in the mundane world. I remember holing up in my treehouse like a brown recluse spider, reading through The Lord of the Rings and being quietly blown away by Eowyn’s big I’ll Cut You spiel to the Witch King.

But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.

The same feeling, the same nameless Something came over me many times while reading many stories, but I couldn’t identify or articulate it for years and years. It dangled just out of reach in the heat haze. I came to realize as I grew older that this was the feeling of new and unexpected experiences, however vicarious, making their impression on my developing brain. It was the distant tingling of seeing things and people and acts I had never imagined could exist, things that I had no access to in my backward hometown. To have a forceful and charismatic personality was a distant ideal, and I had up to that point seen no broad swath of country that did not closely match the pattern of pine tree-pine tree-WalMart-pine tree-factory farm-pine tree-church-pine tree-pine tree-cemetery.

Reading what I read could take me at any time to a place that wasn’t where I was, and show me people entirely unlike the people I knew. It opened me up to the possibility that amazing experiences and places and people did exist, and that not everyone had to be crazy or boring. It was an incredibly freeing revelation each and every time, even though I wasn’t aware that I was having it.

I am a huge supporter of escapist fiction. For kids, for adults, for whoever. We are all trapped within one circumstance or another that we wish to escape at some point, and often we are given no opportunity to escape it in any sufficiently quick way. We may never fully escape some situations and circumstances. If we allow our minds to drift to somewhere better, to see better people, maybe we can take away more than comfort and a few hours killed. And even if that’s all we get, I still can’t find disagreement with Tolkien on the subject.

Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!

For Banned Book Week, I’m Giving Harry Potter Another Chance

When the first Harry Potter book was released stateside, I was twelve years old. Now, for the sake of having some social context for those of you who were born into a world with a different New York City skyline than I was, Harry Potter caused some ugliness in several parts of America back in the day. I grew up in the ass-end of Mississippi and Harry goddamn Potter was some kind of bombshell to the isolated Southern Baptist world in which I lived. Reading for pleasure, especially reading fantastic fiction for pleasure, wasn’t exactly in vogue among young people. I know book people like to puff up how much more kids read during their time in the halls of their middle school, but for me being an avid reader was a social wasteland. You just didn’t do it, partly due to isolation from sources of new material and partly due to the artificial isolation from the outside world that comes with building a community on religious fundamentalism. Phillip K. Dick, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, Ray Bradbury, they all had no foothold in that world outside the black trunk in my treehouse. Their pop culture saturation wasn’t great enough in the early 90s to seep through the many layers of parental screening and ingrained fear of change that lay heavy over the rural communities of southwestern Mississippi.

Harry Potter, though, was different. It was nowhere, and then seemingly everywhere. Immediately. All over the bookstores and libraries stationed, in any direction, upwards of eighteen miles away. Displayed proudly at all three Wal-Marts within an hour’s drive. All over the news our parents watched every night. Most importantly, it was discussed with great excitement in every middle school classroom full of kids bused in from towns with bookstores and libraries and more than one church. The simple saturation of it, the incredible presence it had, helped it to infiltrate the community. It had reached the same level of saturation as the harmless Hansen kids, something possibly deviant but so widely spread and accepted that policing it was difficult for any parent who didn’t straight up keep their kids chained to a lawnmower in the shed.

Once the book broke through the surface of my community, every kid I knew was in love with it, and dear God did adults hate it. My parents didn’t exactly care, but the parents of my friends readily fell into the furor surrounding the book’s supposed ability to summon Yog Sosoth. Or something.

I, much to my own surprise, didn’t care for the book. I didn’t dislike it or think it was bad, it just didn’t speak to me in the same way it did to every other kid. To this day, I can’t adequately explain why I could read the pages and recognize that the prose was good and the story was simple but effective and still not care.

As a result, I totally missed growing up alongside Harry and the gang, something many of my age peers look back on with a nerdy fondness. Now, at the beginning of Banned Books Week, I find myself recalling the kid/adult schism that the books created in my hometown as I sat in total indifference to them.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that on Monday a grown-ass man will walk out of my local library with a copy of the first book and walk briskly home to try to discover what he missed when he was twelve.

Imagine, Envision, Interpret! For Your Own Sake!

*My* Captain Ahab always looked like Abe Lincoln. I can’t say why…

When I was still in grade school I spent about as much time reading and breaking down works of fiction as I did forcing myself to learn algebra or collecting bugs for my natural science lessons, and I think that did me a lot of good. We were encouraged to examine characters’ motives and what I would later learn was called subtext, and our interpretations were rarely called wrong. It was a strangely egalitarian, individualistic way of teaching literature and I attribute my continued love of reading in part to it.

It wasn’t until I started middle school that I discovered that very few people in Southern Mississippi are taught literature in this way, or that early. Many new friends I made had never read Moby Dick, or The Count of Monte Cristo, or any of the other old people books I’d grown up reading and picking apart every summer. More surprisingly, what they did read in class was not so much up for discussion as it was pre-packaged with the interpretations from the instructor’s copy of the textbook. It seemed like a very boring way to learn about a book. Or anything, really.

Years later, I find myself wondering if our capacity for interpretation and imagination is slowly being smothered out of us. There is a much greater emphasis now on being ‘right’ for the sake of filling in the proper bubbles on standardized tests, as well as an astounding amount of time devoted to the preparations for these tests. There is little room for interpretation or discussion and, increasingly, little room for reading at all.

Of course, in young adults’ spare time, on the internet, imagination and interpretation are alive and well. I discovered this not long after I discovered that literary interpretation did not happen in regular schools. While trying, trying, trying to force my thirteen year old self to enjoy Harry Potter. Perhaps, thought I, the answer could be found through online discussion. Perhaps I would enjoy the book better if I could find a list of why so many other kids liked it.

My God, the things I discovered.  The fixation, and the obsession, and above all the lengthy and varied discussions all over what at that time amounted to two children’s books, one of which hadn’t even been released in the U.S. yet. Friends I had known now for a couple of years, who had grown up either ignoring or being told to ignore the possibility of interpretation, discussed the books just as excitedly. And their interpretations were just as varied, just as individual.

In spite of my efforts, I never got into Harry Potter as a kid. Even though I could recognize that they were good books, for whatever reason they didn’t speak to me in the same way they spoke to seemingly every other kid I knew. However, even though I’ve yet to learn to love the books, I am forever grateful to Joanne Rowling for creating them and sending them out into the world to awaken the imaginations of minds the school system has too little time and too little money to do much with.

The modern American job search will destroy your soul

To search for a job in America’s current economic climate is to be met again and again with failure, indifference, and derision. Failure because unemployment is high and jobs are scarce, indifference due to employers’ dedication to their own survival, and derision due to the prevailing American belief that the unemployed are simply lazy or otherwise intrinsically flawed. You are lazy, or you failed to educate yourself thoroughly enough, or you are unforgivably stupid, or you dress poorly, or you need to pluck your eyebrows. The one unifying factor in the thousands of reasons the average person will tell you you’ve had no luck finding a job (and tell you they must) is that each and every reason is laser-focused on a choice you must have made, and made poorly. No one is ever laid off or refused a job due to circumstances they themselves could not control. To admit that the individual is not in complete and utter lucid, knowing control of his fate is to dismiss one of the most fundamental aspects of modern American (and, increasingly, Western) thought: That we are the masters of our own destiny. If you happen to be a fortunate person with numerous contacts and a fulfilling life, this can be a very comforting and fortifying notion. It can make one feel quite puffed up and important to have gotten to a comfortable place all on one’s own.

A woman in a comfortable office job is not taught by our culture to think first of the friend who recommended her for the position, but to focus instead on the qualities she must have possessed to be recommended in the first place. A man who, at 35, owns his own profitable business has not been socialized to remember the terrible first six months of the venture, during which his landlord waived two months worth of rent for the sake of keeping the space occupied and livening up the town’s shopping district.

As a corollary, those who are unemployed, underemployed, or even impoverished are bombarded at all times by blame and derision. The poor do not deserve our concern since, after all, they at some point made the conscious decision to be poor. We ascribe to their situation no other contributing factor than personal choices made poorly. We believe that each and every person lives in a vacuum within which their own agency is the only meaningful force. If poor people didn’t want to be poor, if they truly couldn’t stand it, then they could very easily decide to stop being lazy and start being normal and productive members of society.

Searching for a job in this environment when it’s been further corrupted by the economic crisis is a uniquely soul-siphoning experience. the pool of applicants is immense, the jobs scant, and the prevailing attitude toward those seeking employment by turns distrustful and frigid. It is a long trudge through shame and indignity, a continual succession of humiliations and uncomfortable compromises. Perhaps most insultingly and tellingly of all, many Americans are (sometimes willfully) ignorant of the situation.

Our culture raises us to believe that we are the ultimate masters of our own fates, and the fragility of our self esteem prevents us from accepting any other possibility, lest we face the fact that we could easily fall as low as the man we see shuffling from place to place in the rain, his hungry eyes scanning storefronts and bulletin boards for help wanted signs.

WWII is making my research tiring.

I’m writing a story set in Germany shortly before the outbreak of World War I, and let me tell you: Researching this can get very frustrating. Online research entails finding the magical Search Engine Genie Words that will bring you something other than Nazis, Nazis, Nazis. Now, it isn’t that I feel that this period of history doesn’t deserve all the attention it gets; it was a world-altering time. It’s just that it seems to siphon academic attention away from the period in history I’m trying to learn about. The popular concept of German history appears to be:

  1. Ye Olden Times
  2. Some religious thing happened
  3. Wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff
  4. NAZIS
  5. Berlin Wall
  6. ???

I just want something that’s between ‘NAAAZIIIIIIS’ and ‘Puffy pants still socially acceptable,’ and God damn that’s hard sometimes.

What Books Are to Me

I don’t think I’ve ever had what one would call a normal perspective on books. At least not a perspective other book people would consider normal. When I think ‘book,’ my mind remains fixed more on the content than on the object. You can write a 300 page novel and print it out on notecards that you glue to a wall and I would call it a book after some consideration. A book has always been an idea to me first, a physical thing second. They just happen to share a word.

When I was a kid, my books were transient things. A lack of money combined with my mother’s ever-expanding hoard of stuff that tended to swallow things up meant that most of the books I read were either borrowed from the library or bought cheaply and quickly whisked away from my possession. I did manage to keep some to read over and over, but not all that many.

The first thing of any considerable length that I wrote was typed on a computer, and even though I knew that I would never print it or share it with anyone, everyday I sat down to work on it I would think, “I’m going to work on my book.” From then on, I believe the notion of a book as a written collection of knowledge or ideas became fixed in my mind. My book had no binding save for the floppy diskette I used to back it up, but it was still a book to me.

I spent the next many, many years happily writing and reading primarily from a computer screen. The stories I read and the knowledge I absorbed were public domain or posted for free by the authors. My computer was mine and mine alone, and the files could always be found again if they’d been online. Anything I wanted, if it was there, if it was free, could be mine. My time was limited, of course, due to issues of eyestrain and not (at the time) being able to carry the internet around. That didn’t matter. I could read Moby Dick and plenty of miscellaneous supplementary information on the setting and the author without pleading with my father to take me with him on the eighteen mile car ride into town. I could read stories and essays by people I’d never even heard of, young, brilliant, unique people who so greatly differed from the haggard and religiously-stringent Southern Mississippi people I knew in daily life that the knowledge that they existed shook something inside me and made me feel a tremulous hope for myself.

When I first heard of e-readers, I was opposed to the idea of owning one for one reason: It looked like a large lump of money spent so that you could then spend more money on what I suspected would be a staggeringly limited selection of books. I wasn’t concerned about e-books not feeling, or smelling, or tasting like ‘real’ books. I have no such visceral attachment to the physicality of them. My love is with knowledge and ideas, with words, with something much more free-floating and accessible than wood pulp and leatherette.

I could not have imagined the variety, the opportunities, that would open up to me after I received an e-reader. The library, as inconsistent as its content may be, feels limitless. Even if I counted only the books offered for free, there is more than I could ever read. Browsing the selection for the first time was stunning. I thought of The Matrix and its many, many guns.

On top of that, I can carry it around. It’s absurdly light and it holds a great amount of stuff. I can finally take my immense internet library with me. I am no longer limited by location or space, and I am far less limited by poverty.

The definition of ‘book’ changed a long time ago for me. All an e-reader does is make the acquisition of books easier.