JDG: I wonder if you could say more about how you see this process of how smaller stories grow into a larger, coherent narrative?
SB: I’m not sure it can be very simply defined. But to me it’s predominantly about inspiration, and a process of accumulation.
This exchange comes from Jeppe Dyrendom Graugaard’s interview with Sharon Blackie, part of his ongoing series, research for his doctoral thesis.
It strikes me as a clear articulation of a hunch I’ve been working on for a long time. We share a belief that stories form and maintain how we see the world and in this way determine how we interact with each other and, well, everything. Our predicament is the result of predominant stories that have fossilized and metastasized to flood our attention and block our awareness of how we might behave differently. They even give us ample rationalizations for why it is better to go down in flames than abandon our dangerous illusions.
New stories, as Sharon points out, cannot be force-fed to us. They cannot come into being because we wish them to, or feel a dire need for them. Such impatience is just another sign of the habits of impatience and the rush after fables of salvation we have been so long accustomed to.
We share a concern for “short-circuits.” This is the mechanism by which failed systems maintain themselves. We tend to think of resilience as an unqualified good. We forget that overshoot cannot happen without a pernicious form of resilience. Our failed systems are frighteningly resilient. While they take us on a deadly course to mutual destruction, they persist against all odds.
This persistence is based on the hold of its stories. Not only the ways in which we are saturated with stories that short-circuit our attention back into old patterns, but the way they make it so hard to step outside of these patterns long enough to discover some other form of story that has a chance of setting up some other way of interacting with our world.
One of the dangers we face is to underestimate the difficulty. This is true with coming to appreciate the extent of the physical constraints to our surviving the consequences of our present course. It is equally true in relation to how deeply ingrained, how far back, and how broadly dispersed are the roots of our pernicious stories. Unless we see the depth of our incoherence, we are easily short-circuited back into the old patterns.
This process requires discipline. This discipline takes the form of shedding attachments, discovering what I’ve come to call a joyful disillusionment. Disillusionment may be obvious. We shed attachment to the stories that insist we must persist in the old ways. The joyful part may seem counter-intuitive. But it is very real. There is a release from the binds of futility and a strength that develops out of our discovery of the depths of our vulnerability and the web of connections we cannot live without. As we become aware of the pervasiveness of violence in every level of our current way of behaving, a violence we are fully complicit in and which can only be lifted by our bringing it to the light of day; these processes are liberating and in this liberation we can finally discover the joy that underlies all existence.
Any attempt to condense this process down into a single paragraph with the expectation that it will be understood is a form of folly. It is like expecting to show someone how to swim by giving them written instructions.
With this sketchy and fragmentary preamble out of the way let’s get back to Sharon’s statement, that a way forward may come out of inspiration coupled with accumulation. I don’t want to paraphrase her views. I want to flesh out the way her words resonate with the way I’ve been looking at fiction.
To begin, I’ve had a profound and building distrust in the verities of story-telling as they are commonly presented. If I was as new to art as I was to writing when I began Shoal Hope about ten years ago, I would have been suitably chastised for breaking the rules and would have striven to accommodate my writing to meet expectations. But I wasn’t new to art. I’ve had forty years of bumping up against external expectations and honing an internal compass that has led me to find some benefits in my negative capability to resist short-circuit. My art, my writing, have been failures. But these are failures to succumb, not failures to take steps away from failed expectations and futile successes.
This is not enough. This does not bring us to new stories. But it is a step.
You see, I’ve found that there are two aspects of the story-telling impulse that I do trust. Inspiration and accumulation.
These may seem meager beginnings, but let’s look at them a little more closely.
Inspiration, breathing in. It is what comes into us and is then available for us to use. If we strip away the faux-sophistication and adolescent cynicism surrounding muses – similar to Sharon’s frustrations concerning the devaluation of the leprechaun as a shape-shifter by consumer-culture – there is a profound connection between inspiration and the sources of creativity that go way beyond the limitations of individual egos. Inspiration is an access to Mind. It brings with it the possibility to break out of the limitations of conditioned thought.
Accumulation. One of the foundations of all artistic activity, of any possible sustained action of any sort, is that first we do one thing and then we do another. Work builds by the accumulation and the collisions between the quanta of our actions. This connects with the way in which perception works and with the ways in which meaning is discovered. Once we reject the illusion that we can control things, including creation, we fall back on the necessity to value and trust the situations this simple process makes available to us.
Perception is built upon logarithmic awareness of distinctions. Each color, each sound, every feeling we have, is distinguished from nothingness and from each other in this way. We cannot perceive a single “thing.” We must discover a relationship to have the most basic perception of anything. This connects implicitly with the way the universe appears to be organized. Any order we may perceive is structured of relationships and points to the truth – a sense of meaning – that no thing exists independently of everything else.
In these insights and realizations we find hints at a possible form of coherence. When we combine inspiration with accumulation in this way, we are operating the way creation itself works.
Before the accumulation of ill-considered assumptions derailed our existing stories they too were formed by these lights. They grew out of inspiration and accumulation within the collisions and serendipitous connections that mirror the organization of everything. It is the long slow devaluation of inspiration and accumulation – in this sense – that has taken the old stories and made them dangerous. Still resilient and dangerous.
These days I’m taking this combination of basic building blocks quite literally. I’m working on stories by allowing fragments to appear from out of whatever inspiration brings to the page. Then I combine this with the next thing, and then the next.
This is similar to the principal of collage. It’s no coincidence that collage was central to the art of “The Moment of Cubism.” When we began to see that a canvas, or whatever privileged surface we turn our attention to is a field, and that it partakes of all of the particularities of all fields, then we find the relationships that are implied by any form of juxtaposition. Unlike the narrow, tunnel-vision of reductivist thinking, the results of such experiments are not “chaos!” or “Anarchy!” – to use two of its proponents’ favorite straw-men. In a universe comprised of interwoven fields that come into being as a result of collisions and all manner of inter-relationships, it is not only in the nature of the universe, but in our nature to assemble meaning from whatever forms relationships of proximity on whatever field we can perceive.
Just as a canvas is a field, so is the space inside a story. In both cases the framing is at once arbitrary and also chosen. The relationships formed between the content and this frame are as valid and filled with import as any relationship within it. A signalling within a work that this is so, is more true than the propping up of illusions of linearity and single-purpose that form the frames we have come to expect in works of fiction.
This is not an academic conceit. It is not an excuse for Post-fill-in-the-blank gamesmanship.
As with so much of what we face today, it requires of us a sincerity and letting go of our taste for cleverness. Two more distinctly unpopular directions to take! Sincerity has been so discredited as to be totally debased, while cleverness is at the pinnacle of our culture’s idolatry.
Whatever is original will not be recognizable as such, or have any obvious value unless we can open our expectations beyond the conventional.
Another twist of our times is that unconventionality is now the watchword of the status quo! The institutionalization of the unconventional has been one of the culminating steps in the devaluation of everything. The last-ditch defense of the old ways is to envelope any other possibility within its own growing sense of its own futility. This is another aspect of its short-circuiting resilience.
Working in a field, first we do one thing, then another, then another. Relationships appear and even before we recognize them they have already influenced inspiration and affected what comes next and where. In this process we are there at the creation. We are not controlling it. This process is shared by both the makers of art and those who look to art, to stories that might have some clues to another way. There is a modest yet vital energy we can partake of in such a process. Modest in its humility. And vital and energetic in the way it takes us out of the morass of our present sense of utter futility.
In our moment of clarity, this seems like more than enough to go on….