If writing’s art, what should we deliver?

It’s over a decade since I paid a stupid amount of money to attend a lecture given by Malcolm McLaren – yes, that Malcolm McLaren. It was touted as a ‘cyber lecture’ in which he was going to reveal the philosophy of his approach to art. And after he’d dribbled on about nothing for about four hours, he did.

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What's it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er - introductions...

Never mind the bollocks, here’s my typewriter.

It was really simple. Deliver paying customers nothing. Emptiness. As an art statement, you understand. He insisted it had apparently underpinned his direction of the ‘Sex Pistols’ back in the seventies. Kind of clever in a rather anarchic-in-the-UK sort of way.

Alas, as McLaren continued to blather on in verbal circles about what always turned out to be – well, nothing, I realised he’d managed to export that particular art statement to New Zealand. The fact that he was sustaining it for so long made clear that his particular brand of ‘nothing’ was, indeed, very cleverly thought out.

But time was getting towards midnight and, as he showed no signs of flagging in his delivery of empty, I felt I should respond in kind by rising to my feet and engaging in a conceptual ‘nothing march’ to the nearest exit. It wasn’t easy, because a fair number of others in the audience had decided this was also going to be the way they expressed their art. McLaren suddenly realised what was happening. ‘Wait, wait,’ he began calling from the stage. ‘I’ve got more to say’.

Actually, he hadn’t, and the stage manager evidently also thought so because he shortly had the lecture shut down so the stage crew could all go home.

Conceptually, I could see what McLaren was getting at by punking art, just as he had punked music. And art is in the eye of the beholder. But I still felt vaguely ripped off. And that, to me, raises some obvious questions about writing, which is a form of art.

The onus is on writers to produce material that takes their readers on an emotional journey – which isn’t going to be the personal emotional journey the writer has creating the stuff. The emotional experience a reader has may not even be what the author intended to create in the recipient. But it’s still valid. It’s one of the reasons why writing, by any measure, classifies as art – because it invokes that abstract multi-dimensionality of emotion on so many levels, in both creator and recipient.

The nature of that journey is, very much, up to the writer. That’s how the art of writing is personalised; it’s how it’s given its individual character. The issue is being able to deliver something – an expression of writing as art – that achieves a result, both for the artist (writer) and for the recipient.

I believe, on my own experience, that McLaren chose ‘empty’ as his art expression. That certainly isn’t mine. And there’s no room for pretension or snobbery – not if the artist wants to be genuine. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

When writing isn’t writing?

I have never understood the appeal of post-modern abstract art – you know, the pile of ordure sitting in the middle of a whitewashed gallery, from which you’re meant to deduce some profound statement about the nature of society, and if you don’t ‘get’ it then you’re a stupid luddite.

MJWright2011To me this sort of thinking has a lot more to do with woofy in-crowds than anything intellectual.

That said, if it would turn a dollar I’m not averse to the notion of inhaling mouthfuls of watercolour and blowing it at canvas in some sort of existential demonstration of the way life and physics integrate.

But I question whether it would appeal to many. And that’s the point. If we carry the idea across to writing, we find much the same comparison. Every book has its audience, but would the wider public prefer to read the latest, intellectually pretentious darling of the literary set – or a new Harry Potter book?

You get the picture.

So why are we told that literature is ‘better’, or somehow ‘smarter’, than mass-market writing? To some extent I think it’s driven by a pretentious sense of exclusive superiority. I’ve been to publisher parties where people of this ilk have walked into the room pelvis-first, flicked the artfully worn scarf over one shoulder, and declared their status as a ‘wraiter’.

Engaging these people in conversation, if they can lower themselves to your level, is interesting because after a while it turns out that they haven’t written or published anything. They’re groupies, and they look down their noses at any writing that isn’t ‘literature’.

My stuff, for instance. Apparently I’m not a proper ‘wraiter’ by this standard – I put together hack-work for the proles. Quite. Apparently that also defines my intellectual capacity.

My take? I think writers need to engage with the widest possible audience, in ways that are interesting for the writers, and which will be interesting for their audience. Producing books that are the writing equivalent of a pile of ordure in the gallery, masquerading as ‘art’, isn’t the way to do it.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Write it now: grounding your writing in practical realities

The other day I heard a panel discussion on New Zealand’s national radio. They’d called together a group of Kiwi artists – a couple of composers and a couple of writers – to comment on their work.

I usually listen to these things with a certain cynicism. Here in New Zealand I find ‘arts’ discussions tend to veer into pretentious displays of woofy intellectualism – assertions of personal status within the tiny sub-culture of ‘high art’. Meaningful to those involved, perhaps. To the rest of us it’s the intellectual equivalent of the gentlemen among the group standing up and waving their You Know What at the audience while shouting ‘oooh, haven’t I got a big one?’

Progress, nineteenth century style; bigger, faster, heavier... more Mordor.

Pretentiousness in the arts? Not for me. I prefer practical industry when writing (that’s me on the right, in the hat).

The arts aren’t the only field where pretentious status contests dominate, of course. So I sat back to listen to this discussion, expecting to hear the usual claptrap. Except it wasn’t. As I listened to this programme I suddenly discovered that this particular arts discussion was practical. These were nuts-and-bolts artists – everyday people like you or me who had a passion for what they were doing and wanted to share it with other everyday people. It was properly grounded, properly practical, and smart.

And that, it seemed to me, was where things should be.

Writing – which is one of the arts – needs to be grounded. It’s about the writer having a thought, an idea, an emotion, and being able to transfer that to the reader. And who is that reader? I suppose some will have aspirations with the pretentious literati set. But for the most part readers are ordinary people – again, like you and me. That means being practical, it means writing what people want to read – not what will earn the writer status among a closed group of woofy literati who use their interest as a device to validate their pretensions of superiority.

Writing should be by – and for – everyday, practical people. People who don’t give a toss about status within exclusive in-crowds, or within academic departments. People who have real lives and go out and get jobs and come home tired, and love their families, and play sports on the weekend or do a bit of home maintenance or hang out with friends. People who want to be entertained in practical ways, to have a laugh, to weep, to get excited, to feel joy – to do, in short, all the things we do as humans.

That’s the real audience for writers. People like us. It’s what writing is about. Being real. Being practical. Being human. In everyday ways.

What’s your take?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: more writing tips, more geekery, humour – and more. Watch this space.

Write it now: who’s your writing influence?

As far as I am concerned one of the more facile questions authors – or artists of any kind – get asked is ‘who’s your influence?’

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, I’m a huge Tolkien fan. Is Tolkien an ‘influence’ on my writing? No.

It’s as if nobody can do anything original. There’s an automatic assumption that a creative artist – like a writer – has to be ‘influenced’ by the style or approach of a leader in their field – that they have to follow, not create or think laterally.

To the extent that styles often follow trend, I think it’s always going to be possible to trace links between different authors’ work. But the question of ‘influence’ begs the obvious question – if writers are only capable of following others’ lead, where do the original ideas come from?

The reality, of course, is that there are authors who don’t let others influence them – who march to the beat of their own drum. I can’t help thinking that the best writers are those who  go out and create something entirely new.

Sometimes they create stuff that’s too bizarre for words. Or just weird, like Kafka’s flirtation with gaps instead of commas. But amidst all that is an originality that you just can’t get if you let people ‘influence’ you. Out of that comes such things as Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, an experiment in free-flow thought that absolutely worked. Or Hemingway, whose stylistic influence was pure art deco.

So where do these authors get their ideas? Their influences?

Part of it, I think, comes from cross-pollenation, often in unlikely ways. Take Claude Debussy – possibly the greatest French composer that ever lived. His influence, quite explicitly, was the Impressionist art movement.

If Monet could evoke an emotion through colour, he wondered, could a composer evoke a sense of colour through music? Bizarre idea –but he had a go. And through this, Debussy captured the feel of late nineteenth century Parisian bohemianism, just as the artists did. He influenced a whole school of composers  – I’m thinking of Erik Satie’s ‘Gymnopedie’, especially, a piece filled with morning-after ennui.

That works for writing too. If you think of influence in this abstract and indirect way then it becomes more then just follow-my-leader. One of my ‘influences’ in this sense, as a writer, has always been Frank Zappa. What gives, you say? He was a composer. That’s right. The appeal is what he was doing musically – which was all to do with collisions of rhythm, collisions of tonalities. Almost dada, in a way. How does that flow into writing? In many ways. Collisions create the tension that draws readers on. And that is the essence of writing.

Do you have an ‘influencer’ like this?  What inspires you, as a writer?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery, history and more. Check it out.

More wonderful architecture from the art deco capital of the world

I thought I would conclude my trilogy of deco posts with a few more glimpses of my home town – Napier, New Zealand. The place has spectacularly reinvented itself since its discovery, about 25 years ago, of its own modernist heritage.

The Masonic Hotel (1932) - early streamline moderne, with the former T&G Building (1936) behind.

The Masonic Hotel (1932) – early streamline moderne, with the former T&G Building (1936) behind. I had lunch in here last week.

Today it styles itself the ‘art deco capital of the world’. And in many ways, it is. Back in 1931, a devastating earthquake destroyed the town centre. Afterwards, grand plans to rebuild after the model of Santa Barbara  were scuttled by cost. Still, the architecture that did emerge was all of its day, mostly early 1930s modernism. Today it has one of the coolest collections of those styles in the world, a Californian climate – and a look that would not have been out of place in golden age Hollywood.

Close-up of the former T&G Building (1936).

Close-up of the former T&G Building (1936).

Former State Theatre, a Spanish Mission design redolent of the Golden Age of Hollywood. That door on the left is about where the queue was in 1977 when I was eagerly waiting to watch Star Wars...and the theatre manager came out to say they were full. Sigh. I saw it later, of course. About ten times.

Former State Theatre, a Spanish Mission design redolent of the Golden Age of Hollywood. That door on the left is about where the queue was in 1977 when I was eagerly waiting to watch Star Wars…and the theatre manager came out to say they were full. Sigh. I saw it later, of course.  Four times in this cinema alone.

View of the town centre with Clifton and Cape Kidnappers across the bay beyond.

View of the town centre with Clifton and Cape Kidnappers across the bay beyond.

Want to know the sad part? When I was a kid, there was a LOT more art deco than today. Everything, back in the late 1960s, was still in its original 1933-40 incarnation – and, at the time, entirely out of fashion, faded and dowdy. It was only after a lot the best stuff was ripped down or re-made, including some of the deco footpaths, that Napier’s unique and irreplaceable heritage was suddenly rediscovered.

But ain’t that always the way?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Regular writing posts science, humour and all the usual stuff. Watch this space.

Five reasons why blank paper’s a writing inspiration

Ever been caught when that ‘good idea’ floats in – and vanishes just as quickly, before you can get back to your computer? Just as you’re writing to a deadline or trying to make up your NaNoWriMo quota?

History offers us a few ways out of it. Back in the nineteenth century a good number of New Zealand settlers carried watercolours, paper and brushes with them – the same way most of us carry a camera (phone) today.

1195430130203966891liftarn_Writing_My_Master_s_Words_svg_medTheir quick-sketch records are a wonderful snapshot of how they saw their world. Others carried notebooks – among them land buyer Donald McLean who wrote moment-by-moment events as he watched them happen. Like this moment when he watched Maori haul a canoe up the raging Manawatu river:

“…A strong tug and a long tug. Poor fellows – just touch and go and she will do it. No! Yes, she will! There comes the help – now! One strong pull and and one long pull! No – not yet! …Into the water, lads! Over she goes, some of the helpers struggling to gain the shore among the heavy boulders and rocks“.

Today it’s too easy. You can dictate into your phone, take a photo, even type notes (slowly). Yet I can’t help thinking that we’ve lost something. Specifically, the way that writing with pen and ink forces us to translate reality through the filter of mind. There is a value to that. And it does so in ways that electronic gadgets don’t.

A few hand-written notes can be incredibly valuable, quite apart from capturing ideas then and there. Because:

1. Writing ideas down with a pen frames your thoughts in ways that differ from a keyboard.
2. You can literally draw connections between ideas.
3. Ideas can float in, from left field, in ways they wouldn’t otherwise.
4. Paper works during power cuts and doesn’t need charging.
5. Paper’s recyclable and renewable…unlike plastic and electronic parts.

My top tip today? When you go out next, take a notebook with you. One made of paper…

Or do you already? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: Write it now, more National November Writing Month tips, writing prompts and more. Watch this space.

Sixty second writing tips: why we write

I saw the supermoon this week. It hung luminescent yellow in the low horizon.

From a scientific perspective, not too different from any full moon. But it was there, and it carried an emotion because it emerged in the first clear night sky we’d had over Wellington since the worst storm in years. And something struck me. Could I write about the emotions and mood it conveyed? Could I imagine how others might receive it, and write about them? Perhaps.

But also, maybe not.

I’ve spent over 40 years learning about writing and then doing it. I started when I was seven. I was formally trained in fiction writing. I’ve written every day I can since  forever – not just books in my academic field but also as a freelance journalist and writer.  Here’s my list. And I’ve done a lot of other work in the industry.

Yet from this experience I know that words are simply imperfect vehicles with which we try, as writers, to express the perfection of thoughts and concepts.

All too often I have the idea in my mind – and cannot translate that to the page to my satisfaction. The crystal perfection of concept, which cannot be conveyed by words.

The real skill of writing, I think, is the aspiration towards that end point  – which is unattainable. Naturally.

Yet we must try – and in that attempt, perhaps surprise ourselves. And our readers.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013