October 13, 2008

About Plucking Old Strings

As I slowly evolve my second novel, a question that has come up in my mind:

For how long can you mine old emotional veins - pluck old strings - in the service of creating compelling stories?

This question stumps and almost staggers me. When will I run out of gas, and have nothing interesting left to say? Without that, I'm dead as an artist.

I can't see the future, and by myself, I can't answer this question, but the prospect is scary as hell.

Ironically, why would I worry about this when I still haven't even begun the career as a writer? The first story is yet to be published, and I have little idea how good or bad it is as a work. Maybe it's premature to even worry about this... Maybe. All the same, I've got to go there.

What Strings Can I Pluck?

There are a number of themes I can harvest for telling stories of fiction:
  • A life's potential lost because of manic-depression and alcoholism. What is a person worth? What are they obligated to accomplish?
  • A father's/leader's loss of control - loss of power and leadership - because of bad choices, age, depression and chronic guilt. Can he redeem himself and his integrity?
  • A young girl's sense of betrayal because of physical abuse; the horror of the loss of family security. Can she find security and strength?
  • A child torn between loyalty towards one parent or the other, and fear and insecurity towards each of them. Is the child trapped?
  • The joy of finding surrogate parents in friends and relatives...
  • What do you do when your hero becomes a villain right before your eyes? How can you love someone close to you and hate them at the same time?
  • Why do people carry childish jealousy, envy and pain within them throughout their life? How does it affect the people around them?
...okay, so there is some meat on those bones, I admit, as long as I do a good job of it. But still... there's some insecurity.

However, a recent biography gives me some hope for my creative process in the long-term.

The Life of Cartoonist Charles Schulz

Schulz is the creator of "Peanuts", Snoopy and "good ol' Charlie Brown". He's probably the most famous cartoonist of the post-war era. In the book "Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography", author David Michaelis illustrates how a man can mine insecurities, painful losses, and personal defeats, and weave them into character traits, phrases and attitudes that can fuel a small world that people in countries all over theworld have visited for over50 years.

Schulz' Peanuts characters looked like children, living in a world of invisible (or at least off-screen) adults, and yet as a kid, I knew that his kids were telling truths in a sophisticated, grown up kind of way. I didn't understand all of it, but looking back, I think there was angst, cruelty, power issues, depression, love, fate, philosophical pondering, and flights of fantasy, all played out with subtlety and intelligence. There was depth and heartfelt emotion.

I think that Charles Schulz built a world for himself in which he could say the things that he needed to say, to express his truths, through the personas of the little people he created. The fact that he was still expressing these feelings dozens of years after the fact, tells me that he had resonant, meaningful things, unresolved meaningful things, to say. That they resonated with such a large audience for so many years tells me that he was very talented and committed to his art.

There are a lot of crappy, shallow daily comic strips being published today - the three panel equivalent of cheap, rim shot jokes. Schulz and other significant artists, were able to get beyond that, and extend what is a very limiting medium into something better.

I think that if Schulz' material hadn't come from a powerful reservoir of personal experience, it wouldn't have been so good for so long. This gives me some hope for my own efforts.

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