Thursday, 26 January 2017

Creativity as a Process

I've been going through some of my old writing journals, lately, and I came upon this entry, written in 2008 while teaching a class on Autobiography to first year Creative Writing students. 

What is creativity and where does it come from?  How do we recognise it?  How do we nurture it and how does it grow?  Ghiselin describes the creative process as a process of evolution, of taking something that already exists and turning it into something new or something better.  It is a cause and effect relationship, where the effect may not necessarily be recognised or valued at first instance: 'Because every creative act overpasses the established order in some way and in some degree, it is likely at first to appear eccentric to most men' (1997:3).  We are reminded that in his lifetime, Van Gogh never sold a painting (a claim which is disputed by the experts), yet today we know he was a visionary, experimenting with colour and form, taking what he had learned from the artists who went before him and moulding it into something new.  Van Gogh transcended the old older; he grew beyond it. But he did not do so by chance or through 'talent' alone.  Any form of artistic endeavour takes a lot of hard graft.  That is the message I have been attempting (and failing, I fear) to get across to my students - the need to study.  And study takes effort and time in order to dissect and decipher other writers' work.

Writers write, but writers also read.  They must read in order to learn how good writing works, to internalise those lessons, and to push their own efforts forward.  There is an unappealing arrogance in the argument I hear too often from budding writers who say they don't like to read because they want to be 'original' and don't want to be influenced by others.  Worse yet is the claim that they don't have time.  And worst of all is the bold admission that they are simply 'not interested' in reading what other people have to say - and yes, I've had a Creative Writing student tell me this in a completely matter-of-fact way and without any hint of embarrassment. In my mind, all of these statements smack of laziness and a denial that a writer must learn their craft.  Creativity is nurtured by discipline - not a discipline which contains or limits thought, but a seriousness of purpose, a focussed mindset, a dedication to the craft and a willingness to work something over and over (to craft it) until it is right.  Too much confidence, I fear, is a hindrance to a writer's development.  

Recently, I have been marking first year students' Autobiography portfolios and every single one has neglected the crafting/redrafting process - the importance of which I have stressed throughout the term.  A number of these students are desperate to be taken seriously as 'writers' and believe they have something important to say.  They are very earnest in their aspirations but they have the mistaken belief that the artistic merit of 'self expression' is unquestionable.  Once or twice I have been challenged by students who want to know how I can possibly critique their writing, believing that any analysis of creativity can only be subjective.  In my feedback, I try to take them back to the idea that creativity is a process and that very few serious writers would ever be so bold as to reject a first draft's need for further development.  And I try to show them that the best way of knowing that a piece of writing has artistic merit is by reading widely.  Sadly, only one student cited one writer in his discussions, and that was Terry Prachett - not entirely relevant in a class on autobiographical writing.  

Monday, 19 December 2016

A Glimmer of Hope

~ in the short stories of Eddie Chuculate’s Cheyenne Madonna

We are different people at different times in our lives, and the experiences we have and the lessons we take from them shape us into the people we become. In Eddie Chuculate’s debut collection, Cheyenne Madonna, we dip in and out of the life of Jordan Coolwater, glimpsing some of his many identities: devoted son, runaway convict, gifted artist, and grief-ridden husband. 

Galveston Bay, 1826, which won the O. Henry Prize in 2007, gives historical context to Jordan’s life and provides the overall backdrop to the collection. Eager for adventure, Cheyenne chief Old Bull and his three companions set off on an equestrian road-trip to the sea – "the absolute end of the earth." Through the shimmering heat haze which rises off the desert, we watch the landscape change: herds of sand-coloured antelope springing in "long graceful arcs" and a wildfire which appears "like the bluffs of a red canyon, lapping and advancing with thirsty orange flames." When, after days of riding through a relentlessly arid landscape the four men reach the great expanse of Galveston Bay, we feel their wonder as they tease one another and play like children in the surf.

There are times, however, when Chuculate’s research rises to the surface of the story and obscures the characters’ points of view. When the Cheyennes meet a local Indian band who invite them to a feast, the author’s voice intrudes into the narrative, jarring us out of the story: 
"Platters of roasted scallops, shrimp, and oysters were passed along to the guests. The headman showed them how to shuck out the meat with a wooden, spoonlike device and dab it onto sea salt that had dried out in a depression on a stone slab."

Old Bull is living on the cusp of change, aware of the "white men from different worlds" but not yet realising that the "absolute end" of the Cheyenne world awaits. The following six stories jump forward in time to reveal what that change means for Jordan Coolwater and his family. 

In YoYo, we see thirteen-year-old Jordan living with his grandparents outside of Muskogee,
Eddie Chuculate
Oklahoma, separated not only from his parents and siblings, but from his Native community. Isolated, lonely and bored, Jordan spends his time fishing with his dog, Butch, and lobbing dirt clods at turtles. When he first meets Yolanda, the sexually precocious fifteen-year-old who has moved into the house across the field, she stands above him with "both hands on her hips…swaying sideways, like a cobra sizing its hapless victim." Chuculate deftly captures awakening youthful passions, at once innocent and knowing, and like the Jordan, the reader is powerless to resist YoYo’s charms. 

Winter, 1979 marks another turning point in the young Jordan’s life. After his best friend, Lonny, falls into an icy pond while trying to save his dogs, Jordan’s drunken uncle grabs the boy by the throat and calls him a "fucking nigger." It is a shocking and tense moment because Lonny himself is already hurt and vulnerable, and for a moment the world hangs in a balance with both boys stunned and silent. "It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the word," Jordan tells us, "but it was the first time I’d heard it said with venom." Years later, when Jordan returns from art college, the two friends meet again by chance and begin to reminisce. Though Jordan feels the need to apologise for his uncle’s words and "right some sort of wrong," the moment passes and the two men return to their separate lives, the silence between them too broad to be spanned.

Sherman Alexie, the most commercially successful Native American writer working today has built his career on portraying the lives of contemporary Indians, struggling to find a place for themselves on and off the reservation. While Chuculate's characters do not suffer from the same questions of identity as do many of Alexie's mixedblood characters, comparisons between the two writers are inevitable. As in Alexie's stories, alcohol is a constant presence in the life of Jordan Coolwater. We see him opening cans of beer for his grandparents in Yo Yo and his uncle swigging from bottles of whisky in Winter, 1979. By the time we get to A Famous Indian Artist, where we meet a second drunken uncle, we begin to understand the extent of the devastation which alcohol has brought to Jordan's family. In Dear Shorty, we see the family's dependence come to fruition in Jordan's own life as he tells us: "You can trace the progression of alcoholism in my family like a flying arrow and I'm the bull's-eye." 

Alcohol, poverty and a sense of dispossession form a lethal mix, but family bonds – however dysfunctional that family may be – remain strong. When he learns that his father, "Shorty", has been found "slumped over a toilet at a city park, unconscious, with bottles of Listerine scattered about his feet," Jordan heads home to Oklahoma. Soon, however, his own life careers through a series of drunken binges which ultimately lead to prison.

In the title story, Jordan’s dreams converge. He is now a successful and respected artist, and through his art he has found redemption. His life has been transformed with Lisa Old Bull, and with his addiction in check, the couple look forward to the imminent birth of their first child. At last, he has found peace and calm and purpose in his life. But tragedy thrusts Jordan back to the bottle and when his new world implodes he is tested to the point of self-destruction.

Despite their bleak and sometimes desperate appearance, the stories in Cheyenne Madonna are not – as one might expect – full of despair. "How can you drink that shit?" Jordan asks his father after he has nearly died from consuming mouthwash. Without a hint of self-pity, Shorty replies, "Practice, practice, practice." It is this wry humour, Chuculate’s acceptance of his characters’ weaknesses, and the chance that life will one day turn around which lifts this collection out of misery. Chuculate takes the reader to the edge of ruin, but he does not leave us there. There is always a chance of recovery; there is always a glimmer of hope. 

This review was first published on The Short Review.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Review of Sherman Alexie's Ten Little Indians

Sherman Alexie had already published four collections of poetry by the time he gained national attention in 1993 by winning the prestigious PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Book of Fiction for the short story collection The Lone-Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.  In 1996, he was named as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists in recognition for his first novel Reservation Blues. Two years later, he won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival for the screenplay of Smoke Signals

In all, Alexie has published eighteen books and screenplays in sixteen years, making him one of the most prolific writers working in the United States today. But his multi-genre talents don’t stop there.  He’s also collaborated on an album with musician Jim Boyd and turned his hand at film directing, too.  And in his free time?  He does a spot of stand-up comedy as well. 
While much of Alexie’s earlier work explores small-town life on the Spokane Reservation where he grew up, the stories in Ten Little Indians (2004) focus on the lives of Indians who’ve gravitated to SeattleAlexie himself is Spokane Indian, a term he prefers to the politically correct ‘Native American’ and ‘Indianness’ is central to everything he writes.  In this collection, however, the characters are less ethnically strident: being Indian is only part of who they are.

In The Search Engine, nineteen-year-old Corliss regards herself as being somehow different from other members of her tribe: she is solitary and bookish in a communal society of blue-collar sensibilities.  When she comes across a book of poems by the previously unheard-of Spokane Indian Harlan Atwater, Corliss believes she has found a kindred spirit at last, and sets off on a quest to track him down.  What she finds, of course, is not what she expected, for Atwater is Indian in DNA only. In the end, as in so many of Alexie’s stories, both characters are left to struggle with the question ‘What is Indian?’

In numerous interviews, Alexie has discussed the way the focus of his writing changed after September 11, 2001.  Where much of his earlier work was tainted with an antagonistic ‘them and us’ tribalism which examined the minutiae of Native American adversity, the stories produced after that date incorporate a broader, more universal view of the human condition.  And although his protagonists are still almost exclusively Indian, their personal traumas are not defined by, nor the result of their ethnicity.  They are human beings first, and Indian by accident of birth.  It is this breaking down of old tribal affiliations – affiliations that encourage an unwavering sense of righteousness – that differentiates this collection from Alexie’s previous books.

Two stories, Can I Get a Witness and Flight Patterns, deal explicitly with the after-effects of 9/11.  In the former, a middle-class Spokane Indian woman is having lunch in a Seattle restaurant when a suicide bomber walks in off the street and detonates the bomb strapped to his chest.  She emerges from the rubble seemingly unscathed and confesses to her would-be rescuer that she had been longing to be released from her life by just such a ‘suicide by inertia’. 

At its centre, the story criticises America’s indulgence in the ‘grief porn’ which flowed out of the media after the 9/11 tragedy, and questions the way that those who died were treated as saints and heroes.  When the woman suggests that some of the victims ‘did deserve to die’ and that there may be a wife or a daughter who ‘thanks God or Allah or the devil for Osama’s rage’ her rescuer refuses to listen and tells her repeatedly ‘I don’t want to hear it.’  It was tribalism which caused men to crash planes into the twin towers and it was tribalism which prevented Americans from asking why anyone could possibly want to do such a thing.  When George W. Bush said to the world ‘You’re either with us or against us” he not only stifled debate, but he also laid down the rules for membership of his tribe.  By refusing to listen to the woman’s blasphemous suggestions, the man who came to her rescue is protecting his place within that tribe.

Redemption, in both senses of the word, is the theme of another story in the collection.  In What You Pawn I Will Redeem, we meet Jackson Jackson, a homeless Spokane Indian man who finds his grandmother’s stolen dance regalia on display in a pawnshop window.  Believing that the theft of the precious regalia sparked the cancer from which his grandmother died, Jackson sets out to reclaim it and wonders if by doing so he might also bring his grandmother back to life. 

Alexie has spent his career smashing apart Indian stereotypes and creating, instead, characters which are challenging, honest and complex.  Each of his collections has opened up a world that few in his white readership have seen, worlds full of humour and poignancy, rage and atonement.  Despite its title, however, Ten Little Indians is the first book he’s published where being Indian has been incidental.

This review was first published on The Short Review in 2011.  Alexie’s most recent collection of short stories, Blasphemy, was published in 2013.