Friday, December 30, 2005

About Art: My four year old loves to dance. It's just a natural thing in her. Ever since she gained any coordination at all, she's had to move if there was any music on. One of my fondest memories is her as a little bald-headed toddler, lying on the couch. We thought she was asleep, but when she heard some music from a TV commercial, she had to raise her barely-conscious arm and bounce it with the music.

She's learned a little more about dance since then. She'll do her version of ballet when she hears classical music. She'll rock out, even play air guitar when she hears rock. Tap to tap. You get the idea.

I'm not saying she's a child prodigy or anything. She's not particularly graceful and I'm not all that sure about her sense of rhythm.

But man, does that girl ever love to dance.

There's an honesty in her dancing, where you can tell she's doing what she feels with the music. No matter how it might look to anybody else, to her it feels right, and it shows.

So tonight, I was watching her dance to some music on a National Geographic for Kids video they'd picked out from the library. Some animal or other was cavorting to the music on screen, but Miriam wasn't watching so much as she was listening, so she could dance.

And I got to thinking. About the things that draw us to art in the first place. About that raw love we have for the art form, for the way performing or creating that piece of art makes us feel. The way it is for my four year old, just to move her body the way the music tells her to. The way it seems to be for my three year old and drawing--even though the shapes are barely starting to become recognizable, she loves making them. The way it was for me, as a kid, making up stories.

And that got me thinking about the transition. The one that comes as we begin to go from yeomen in our art to journeymen. We start learning the techniques of the craft, the way everyone else does it. The things people have decided work and don't work. What was raw and free form is given a structure, an organization.

In some ways, that can expand our abilities. We discover things we didn't previously know about. Our means of expression expands.

But in some other ways, we begin to feel boxed in. All that organization and structure begins to put limits and boundaries on what had previously felt to us to be limitless.

Even the language of our art begins to put boundaries on us. I realized this when I learned another language. In Portuguese, there's a really terrific word--jeito. Now if you plug that into Babelfish, it will tell you that word means "Skill." That almost makes me laugh. The word jeito is actually a terrific concept. When you talk about a person's jeito, you're talking about their aura, their comportment, their methods of doing things, the whole way they present themselves, their charisma. But it's more than that--it's almost the whole way a person interacts with the world. When you say you're going to get something to change, you say you're going to give it some jeito.

Now Portuguese speakers are probably going to post here to say my definition here is inaccurate or incomplete. They're right. Again, the whole concept doesn't really exist in English. For us, it's complicated to explain. For them, it's one word. It's jeito.

It's the same way as we start building the vocabulary of our art form. Suddenly you're not just flinging out your arms because it felt right, but you're getting a name for that, and a way to fling them that's the right way, and reproving click-clicks of the tongue from the teacher if it's not.

Like I said, there's value in learning what you can about the art. A musician can never dream of making the beautiful music their heart yearns to create without being willing to slog through repetitious scales that familiarize their fingers with the instrument. A dancer, through repetition and training will enable their bodies to do exhilarating things the casual dancer only dreams of.

The trick, the hardest part of it, is maintaining that love of the art, maintaining that spontaneity and creativity that drove you into the art, even while you're having to spend all that time focusing on the nuts and bolts of it, seeing the rough stitching on the underside rather than the lovely presentation up top.

That's the part where a lot of people get lost as they work to become artists. All of that analysis, criticism, study--it's like taking your favorite dog and dissecting him on the kitchen table. All of that doesn't really reveal all that much more about true "dogginess." And it certainly doesn't explain the magic of the bond the person has with their companion. If anything, it strips a little of that magic away. It denigrates it. It says, look--this is all there is! Just flesh and bone and puppy parts. What were you getting so worked up about?

So that's the key. I don't know the language for dance or music or painting, but for writing, it means absorbing and mastering the principles of plot and character and hooks and twists and viewpoint and pacing and beats and still being able to generate that little squeal of a thrill from feeling that a story or a scene or even just a sentence feels right.

Like a basketball player who's done drills and learned plays and knows techniques and form, but in the heat of the moment all of that gets pushed to the back of his mind as he gets by on that same instinct that got him by on the asphalt courts at his junior high.

The difference is, now his instincts have the benefit of all that training and study and practice to rely on. Because he managed to maintain his love of the game through it all, he's now able to be paid to do it. Others want to crowd arenas to watch him do it.

I think that makes the difference in taking him from journeyman to master.

So I know that my daughter is eventually going to have to make a choice. It's the same one I have to make in my writing. The same one you've got to make in whatever you do. Do you love it enough to lay it out, dissect it, and understand it? Can you endure all of that enough that it can bring you back to where you started, that place of innocent creation, only this time, armed with the tools to create what you only barely sensed was possible in your first fledgling attempts?

I sincerely hope the answer is yes. For me at least.

My daughter's still got time to decide.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

For Pete's Sake: Will everybody stop talking about this letter as if it's news? Seriously, no one, not Lewis, not Lewis's Mom, not the president of Lewis's fan club would have thought The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe would have made a good live-action movie. He basically said, live action effects don't do these kinds of films justice, and he was right.

But that was nearly thirty years ago. That was the year Ben-Hur won the special effects Oscar. Peter Jackson wasn't even born for two more years.

This letter was pulled out of some vault somewhere by some PR guy to get a little more buzz going for the movie. It's anything but news.