June 2007, Discombobulated, but not Disassociated
Eugene, Oregon from atop Skinner's Butte
Well, here we are in Eugene, close enough to the ocean to feel the cool breezes (and rain). Max (who's lived here for ten years) said to come when Eugene was paradise at the beginning of the summer so that memory would get us through the winter, if we got sad in the rain. We're a little further norther here, but not much; Denver is on the 40th parallel as is San Francisco, but Eugene is 43 degrees north. Still nothing like Englan or British Columbia, but we might notice it in the winter when there's more fog and mist than sunshine. Right now, seeing as it's over 90 in Boulder, being in the cool Northwest seems pretty damn fine. I did listen too much to Max who sits by his full spectrum light all winter and got totally sunburned the second day I was here, but got a hat the third day.
Eugene is a strange town. An old logging town, it's also in the Willamette Valley, which was flooded ten thousand years ago so badly that a layer of clay was layed down and gradually covered with topsoil. As a consequence, through most of the valley the only thing that survives the winter rains are grass and flax. After flax did a downturn the Willamette became the country's center for grass seed production. In the summer, hay fever is rampant, then they burn the fields down (which they also do in the Sacramento rice fields) which fills the sky with smoke. A consequence of this is that it keeps the mouse population down. The critters can turn into a plague. Eugene is in the south of the valley, a little higher, a little cooler, and would turn into woodlands given half a chance. Despite eco battles with the paper mills and loggers, and other battles with the University of Oregon and developers, Eugene retains a very mixed feeling with old 50's stores downtown, Craftsman cottages all over the town proper, but full of blue collar people who can't afford dentistry but who are very friendly with a small town feeling. There is also a large contingent of hippies and ex-hippies and hipsters and whatever (Max calls them Eugeniacs) who make the town maybe more lively and colorful but also part of a grass-roots art scene that is a cross between a Rainbow gathering and Burning Man. But Eugene has its growing pains with pollution from the railroad and paper mills, a large group of "redneck" lower middle class, and strip malls galore around the Beltway.
After deciding that no place was without its problems and that leaving the country would require huge funds and friends in high places, we decided to just try to make our lives a little better with this move. That meant better water, better air, quieter, less traffic, less people and less rent. My first day here, I ended up (of course) in the funkiest neighborhood of Whiteaker, that many people classify as "bad" but is very like College Terrace or Boulder's Hill or maybe like funky art neighborhoods like Soho or the Rive Gauche a looonnng time ago. I had decided that the universe could give me what I wanted, which was a cottage with a garden and cats in a funky neighborhood. The universe gave me Whiteaker.
This is a picture of a "gallery" in Whiteaker on the "anti-art walk" which is on the last Friday as opposed to the first Friday and features all the weird people who can't show at the landscape galleries who hang lovely pictures of sheep and flowers for the tourists to buy. Well, that's not fair. There are some hot galleries here, and Venosa shows in one of them. The art scene here is very alive although no one makes any more money at it than in Boulder. People here love art, I mean LOVE art. Art is a living, breathing thing here, a social experience, rather than a way to make a living. People paint buildings in Whiteaker, both flaming colors and with flaming posters, usually of some political nature, for Eugene, if nothing else, is political. Very quickly on my adventures, I answered an ad for an art studio with a garden in the local weekly and found Possum Place.
This is the little gallery in the front house, which is the old living room, but as you can see, the lawn serves as well. The couple who own the artist's compound of galleries and houses (4 in all) are painters who also paint houses for a living. After Sky came out, we eventually took the little art studio, which was perfect for us. It had a loft for Sky and a large kitchen, but is basically one room and about 500 square feet.
Here's a photo tour of the real attraction: the gardens. Many houses in Eugene are four or so little houses with a common yard. There is a big push for the "food, not lawns" movement, especially in Whiteaker, which is about half and half, lawns and herb gardens. You can walk down the street and pass through artichokes and rosemary as well as rhododendrons and hundreds of trees. Here is the little house where you can see that Sky put up Tibetian prayer flags. To the south is the front house which is on the alley and you can see "over the fence" into Oliver's garden. He and his wife teach art to kids, but he does picture books, they both do art, and Oliver is a runner. He's growing herbs and veggies in a sculptured yard. You can see in front of our house, some of the beds full of garlic and sunflowers and squash.
To the north of our house is another yard with the greenhouse, but a large wall that faces a RV fix-it joint. Whiteaker is mixed zone, which all of us like. While some people might not like the pristine feeling of totally residential, it's more real in that people actually work here as well as live (and do art!). Here is the little house and you can see the greenhouse peeking over there. Here is the house from the "back" or the street side and the greenhouse. Here in the last photo is inside the greenhouse which is less active in the summer.
Here is the porch again (with Otis manning his post) and then the wall where you can see the toolshed/sauna and the bees up on the wall. They haven't cracked the hive yet, but the bees swarmed last year.
On the other side of the shed to the east is the other house where Ruth and Sterling live and also Kelsey and Jacob, a poetess and a writer. Here is the fire pit and more of the garden where Otis presides.
Here is more of the garden seen from our deck and Kelsey's herb garden where she grows medincinals and unusual herbs. Yes, we've talked a bit about poetry and herbs!
Here are two more of the garden cats: Amanda and Stanley.
Here all three cats are conferring about life in the sun. And Otis poses so you can see our house again in the background and some of the garden sculpture in the foreground.
For more pictures of the house and me and Ruth and Sterling go to Sky's site:
Go to Possums
What's happening on the art front? I re-did my art bio for one but decided that I had to wait on the art instruction part of the site (sorry, David) because I have too many projects going, not to mention moving! The above and below pictures are different takes using different tools, mostly pencil and my new art tablet and Adobe PhotoShop.
Some of the changes are obvious, some are not so obvious. I added some stuff in the second original and darkened the fence, BEFORE the scan, but in both I widened the fence and shaded in the woman's garments and sharpened the contrast in the pencil. In the first version, I wanted to push back the background by darkening it, but in both versions I got too much of the cartoon, which I don't like in the illustration. It's not a problem; I just don't like it. I think I was successful in integrating the people (characters from the books) into a background authentic to the world, but I didn't like either of these pictures. The style defeats the mood of the book, in my opinion. Not the way it's rendered or portrayed or that it's static, but just the more cartoon style.
Intensely frustrated with the cartoon effect, I tried a completely different approach, that of white chalk on dark paper, only putting in highlights, but also just a little shadow with black. Now I had the mood I wanted, but not the world. This technique works very well for dark scenes like this scene in which these two characters are waiting to be attacked, but not for most of the illustrations I would need. But I put this picture here to show you what style will do to completely change mood. It's all very involved: a delicate balance between technique style, character style and world style. Does one show the details of the world as in the two pictures above and abbreviate the characters with cartoon, or does one depict mood first and foremost and to hell with the world details? Well, in modern fiction, you want to go with the latter, but for a foreign world? I want to show the difference in Tualárach houses and ours without having to go into endless detail in the narration about those differences and break the flow of story. It's a dilemma, for sure.
Well, I decided to junk it all and go back to basics and start with character sheets. My task was to fill a page with character heads and try to get family similarities, personality, etc., etc., while working on a technique that I could carry into the book. Here was my first character sheet. I succeeded and failed, but pushed through to do as many as possible. I'll continue to work on these sheets as excercise. What I was trying to do was to sketch in the more salient features and then do visible hatchwork with the pencil rather than a more careful shading like last month's portraits. The idea was to do these at a rate of ten characters a day. The faces are about 3 inches high. I wanted to get a combination of facility with the pencil and a rapid approach to laying in features and personality.
Again frustrated with the cartoon look, I switched pencils. In the first sheet I worked with an HB mechanical pencil. In this sheet, I worked with an 9B solid lead pencil sharpened to a pinprick point. Voila! You can see in this sheet more personality in the pencil and linework. I also tried to eliminate the elements that make for a cartoon: lines around features, exaggeration of the eyes, especially of the iris and pupil, less shadow and more of a shorthand feeling. The lower sketches are the same size, but I made the image larger so that you can see the linework better. What was curious to me was that in the second attempt, I suddenly got more personality differences as well as the feature differences. What is essential to me in illustration is capturing the personality of my characters, not just their features. If they are all of one family, what makes them different? If you look at this drawing, there are five direct on head shots that show intelligence. But you can see in an instant that the personalities of these people are very different. They all have long faces and long noses, yet it's obvious that we depend on tiny differences in faces to clue us into personality. If I was to ask each of you to try to describe these people's personalities by this one image, you could. But the amazing thing to me was the difference a switch in pencils can make. The technique is identical, but the pencils are different. Go figure. I might have all this down by my 100th character sheet!
I then decided to apply the pencil feature to a detail drawing of armor and costume of one of my peoples. I'm fascinated with the idea of the warrior in history. I read in two places in interviews with Bucky Fuller and Robert Graves (both the same age) that honor is a dead concept. This means that we, of the 20th and 21st centuries have no warriors around to look at. The best we have is punks, thugs, gangstas and soldiers, all of whom fall a little short of the images described over and over from the past. We have some fiction attempts, perhaps the Klingons being among the most accurate, but Mel Gibson in Braveheart, while heroic, is not an accurate image of a warrior or of honor. I think movies like Walkabout do a much better job of portraying a warrior. I'm exploring the warriors that Tolkien wanted nothing to do with, the vicious, bloody berserkers of the Celts and Norse. Tolkien loves honor, and describes an English honor which was created by the Victorians on the playing field and to try to control the rabble of London, who were basically not English, but a mish-mash of punks and thugs and gangstas and soldiers. They created the "stiff upper lip" English sense of honor, which was "women and children first", more of a way to sacrifice rather than a kind of personal honor. One might call it a social responsibility, not honor, although it is honorable. I'll explain a little.
Honor is a concept which basically means that a person was valued through his reputation. He attempted to create a personal reputation that would hold up under any circumstances. The honor part was that, no matter how the person fared, he would act predictably in the way that he announced to the world that he would act. Societies created codes of honor where things like the English code came to the fore under dire circumstances. When an Englishman said that he would sacrifice himself for the good of others, he held to that, and that was his honor, not the actual value of sacrifice. Ancient warriors lived by a code and considered honor to be above all other values. If you broke your own code, you were shamed and, in some cultures, had to die for it in order to redeem your image. One of the other big elements to a warrior was personal appearance. Warriors took on aspects of animals that they admired for various reasons: strength, tenacity, ferocity, etc. Part of many animal combat strategies was in appearance. If an animal looked dangerous enough, its enemies would back down. So part of a warrior's reputation involved a "don't mess with me" appearance both in clothing, weapons and conduct. The involved, formal codes of etiquette were a vital part of a warrior's arsenal, very much like the display of certain animals.
Here are my warriors. These punks are members of a clan known for its berserkers. Part of their elaborate elections of champions involves display. The men effect a hair style that any punk would envy but was common among the Goths, Celts and Norse without the lime. Most warriors limed their hair, making it stand up in spikes of bleached, clay-hardened strands. Scalping was common and head-hunting, so the long hair was in defiance of that practice. Rather than shave the head to prevent scalping, this hairstyle was a "come and get it if you dare" style combined with utter vanity. A warrior almost has to be vain. If a seven tined stag is vain of his rack, then these punks show an equal amount of vanity and confidence. The crow armor was not meant to be terribly practical like the under tunic shown on the left. The rule here is display, not practicality. If you think of all the elaborate uniforms of the warrior class, you get the idea. The sole function of these two "cuilinns" was to be a champion who would interface with their greatest enemies in order to prevent all out war. They led sacred lives with special privileges because their function was to kill the king of the opposing clan. The next king would be the one to hunt them down and kill them in an act of vengeance that was very specialized, very elaborate, very ritualized and saved the two clans from destroying each other in war. The concept of the sacred champion is very, very old, and is familiar to us only in games. Part of the excercise of illustration is to draw like this without having the people look goofy or put them up for parody rather than as illustration. What made this picture work for me, was getting away from the cartoon in the face and then abbreviating the costumes to show it as a "sketch" not as a full illustration a la N. C. Wyeth. Staying very rough outside of the faces worked here. I was also happy to get extremely different looking fellows who are obviously of the same race. I was also happy to get in so many elements of the Holly, the prickly leaves and the sharp decor.
How about writing?
Well, this is actually kind of interesting.
Word was in on The Burning Tree. It was up to Frank Herbert standards, with a plot that worked, good story flow, a huge cast with conflict and a vast world as a background. Many experimental elements had come together. I was satisfied to let it go, but I knew that I had the sharpen some of the moral conflict a little. My readers still said the the book lacked "heart" but that it wasn't a problem.
A popular trend in recent fiction is to write about characters (usually heroes) with problems. Through the course of the story, the hero learns about his problem and works on how to fix it. I am VERY tired of the hero's journey (although it doesn't stop me from reading heroic tales) and EXTREMELY tired of broken characters. I'm not broken. I have only so much patience for getting into the heads of pathological characters. I like stories where the characters do something rather than get over their problems. Yes, I know, it's not the popular thing right now. I realized that I had such a distaste for making my characters broken that I was almost avoiding conflict in my work, a big no-no. For years my books have been rejected because the main character doesn't have enough problems or the problems are not of the right kind. Fads in problems? Give me a break.
Well, I got a copy of the .pdf part of a program for writers called "Dramatica" which is oriented toward screen writing, but is applicable for anyone writing serious fiction. The authors of Dramatica try to make grids of theme, conflict, character creation and plot that are logical rather than based on the hero's journey or other myths or found by looking at a lot of fiction (climax, denouement) or attempts to drive stories through the different ways in which people "break" (Enneagram, Myers-Briggs). Although their map is slightly artificial, they have some very valuable things to say and I urge anyone intested in writing, whether an old hand or a newbie, to look into the program.
Go to Dramatica
That said, I realized when reading over their material that, although flawed, Dramatica stumbled onto a major point in character conflict that I had not considered. The current trend in writing has downplayed grand theme and the story that deals with grand theme, of which Ayn Rand is probably the most extreme of the 20th Century authors, and Herbert is the most extreme of the SF authors. Dramatica's point is that, while there are other kinds of fiction, if you chose to do a grand theme story or grand argument story, as they call it, all your character conflict and character development must revolve around the theme. Now this gets me directly out of the broken character thing, which I hate. The focus changes from personality conflict and psycho-drama to conflict over theme, or issues discussed and covered in the book. This may not be to everyone's tastes, and may seem pretty cold from this side of the discussion, but all hero's journey, epic stories fall into this line. Most good fiction falls into this line, and is often clued by title like Pride and Prejudice or Les Miserables. Anything with a war in it, better be theme oriented or it's just history. And this means 99.9 percent of FANTASY, folks. Harry Potter is a grand argument story and so is Spiderman and Batman and LOTR and Amber and Earthsea and all those other books we know and love. SF is so full of theme oriented work that most serious fans want to retch when offered psychodrama pap instead. (Deanna Troi should just go away!) So, if you're in the ghetto, pay attention.
The concept is simple the implementation is not. Dramatica tries to help and to make it accessible by maps and elaborate heady explanations, but basically, you have two sets of characters. You have your classic protagonist and antagonist set that DRIVES the plot and then you have "main" and "impact" characters who drive the theme (Dramatica's names--thus in quotes). Even if you find this program utterly bewildering, it will make you think. Part of the failing of the authors is what I do, which is to gesture at their ideas and expect people to just "catch on". So, if you think you're an idiot reading through it, you're not, it's just the authors. Reading the appendix helps where they actually define their terms, which they don't do in text.
As for my own work, I realized that my overall story was making the individual books look weird. The overall protagonist is a background character in the story where all the main characters are antagonists to the overall story. So I'm writing from the antagonists' points of view. Sound like a set up for failure? Ya, you betcha. Until I realized that I had to give the reader a BIG chance with the overall story before I slipped down into the individual experiences with the sixteen main character stories or viewpoints on the grand theme. I know I'm losing you, but suffice it to say, that I was putting the cart before the horse and hoping that the reader would infer the cart. I also solved my problem with conflict, having "healthy" characters conflict over theme, not over personality problems and differences. What a relief!
My other revelation for the month was over style. It's like I've spent the last 20 years learning the guts of stuff and now I'm allowing myself to focus on superficial elements that happen to be highly visible like style and technique. The other MUST READ for authors is Ursula LeGuin's Steering the Craft in which she gives examples and excercises of stuff not covered in basic writing courses. Fred knocked me on the head again with this book (I'm tall so I get knocked in the head a lot). For many many many years, I've been suppressing my style. When we watched a video of "Burning Man" I realized that I've been suppressing all my style too much, not wanting to be visibly too weird. Well, I've never read Virginia Woolf, but Ursula has and quotes her. It suddenly hit me on the head that I have a very similar voice to Woolf. Woolf is what ULG calls an "involved" author. I was trying to be objective or subjective but holding back involvement, which explains the lack of "heart" in my fiction. I realized that Woolf writes like me if I were to write the way I'm supposed to. Which brings me back to several discussions ago when I realized that a person has to imitate people who seem kin to him and not seek to imitate those who are not except by way of learning what he cannot do. I've yet to find the right art style, but I think I've found the right writing style, thanks to ULG.
In closing, here is the magnificience of Virginia Woolf in a passage from Orlando. Whether you like her or not, she's a damned writing genius. Look at the mastery of the subler poetic forms: alliteration and consonance. Read it out loud. This is beauty in English at its very height, as Hemmingway, but his opposite.
He loved, beneath all this summer transiency, to feel the earth's spine beneath him; for such he took the hard root of the oak tree to be; for image followed image, it was the back of a great horse that he was riding; or the deck of a tumbling ship--it was anything indeed, so long as it was hard, for he felt the need of something which he could attach his floating heart to; the heart that tugged at his side; the heart that seemed filled with spiced and amorous gales every evening about this time when he walked out. To the oak tree he tied it and as he lay there, gradually the flutter in and about him stilled itself; the little leaves hung; the deer stopped; the pale summer clouds stayed; his limbs grew heavy on the ground; and he lay so still that by degrees the deer stepped nearer and the rooks wheels around him and the swallows dipped and circled and the dragon-flies shot past, as if all the fertility and amorous activity of a summer's evening were woven web-like around his body.
Inspired by all of this, I whipped up a .pdf of book one in the newly structured series Tales of Anieth, which some of you don't know and some of you know too well in previous incarnations! I've yet to redo the site pages, but if you're curious, go ahead and look at this first chapter, complete with some illustrations.
The book works well if you go to the bottom of the Acrobat screen and click on the icon that indicates 4 pages up, side by side. Then you can scroll down and read the chapter without having to look at the pictures if you want. The interesting thing about much of the new artwork is that it was done completely on the computer. Much of what I do now is to take a basic image that I drew or a photo and then alter it and play with it with my array of computer tools. Mostly I take a bad photo or a rough sketch, load it into Photo Shop then go at it with brushes and such to put in lighting, change eyes and nostrils and such, put in beards, change eyebrows--all kinds of things which are possible if you know your anatomy and basic drawing. I've used some of the pre-fab modelling programs and I don't like the way they handle lighting. But that's another lecture! Long and short of it, is that there's very little of the original sketch or photo in these finished images--fun!
To many of you, I talked of the "ghost image" idea of layering images in a book so that the overall effect is of several layers of images all translucent. I think I'm getting the hang of it in this first attempt at an ebook. I also went wild with my own version of Woolf's style and tried to make my writing more readable rather than clip it and "modernize" it. I'll never be Chandler, but I'm not feeling so bad about it any longer. I think I also got "heart" into this version. The rest of the book is basically done; I don't know whether I'll get one chapter a week illustrated, but the edit for "heart" should be pretty quick. However, those of you who want to read further, be warned that it's going to be a bit of a wait. Sorry about that. But I always find it fun to see what people are doing!
Be warned though: this file is 10 MB and may take a while for some of you on dial up to download. Go to The Tales of Anieth: Moonspine Chapter One