Monday, July 26, 2010

Miss Connecticut

She must have gotten on in Springfield while I slept. I awoke to find her sitting there next to me, wearing a zippered down coat and looking, as far as I could see, much too pretty to have landed there beside me on a stinking Peter Pan bus bound for Danbury from Brattleboro. I must have been twenty-two, twenty-three, something like that. 1980, or thereabouts.

As dusk settled on the tobacco fields and barns and crowded in on the tired bus, fusing together shapes in the dim cabin, we got to talking. I explained that I was returning from a visit with some of my high school chums in Vermont, all artists of one sort or another, all waiting tables or washing dishes. She with a hint of reluctance confessed to having been crowned Miss Connecticut a few weeks before, and being on her way to New York City, where she would spend three all-expenses-paid days at the Grand Hyatt hotel before boarding a plane for Miami to take part in the Miss America pageant there. Though in the darkness I couldn't see it, I heard the smirk in her voice, along with a note of sad disbelief, as if she considered the whole affair ludicrous.

I myself had always thought beauty pageants silly, so why was I self-conscious sitting next to Miss Connecticut, as if she were a goddess or the Pope? In the darkness I imagined her in white taffeta with sash and crown, smiling for the cameras, her sparkling teeth throwing back the glare of flashbulbs. I cracked a bad joke about Bert Park’s dentures, to which she said, “Who?” betraying both our ages. We spoke of nothing for three or four miles before she turned to her book, and I to the dark window.

I wondered about physical beauty as applied to people. Is it really skin deep? Are physically attractive people not somehow superior to plain or ugly ones? I'd been reading Middlemarch, by George Elliot, and remembered her disastrous affair with the Darwinist Herbert Spencer, of his own conclusion that the end was a preordained by Elliot's famous ugliness by her "heavy jaw, large mouth and thick nose"—qualities no intellectual attraction could redeem. "The lack of physical attraction," Spencer admitted—bragged?—later, "was fatal. . . Strongly as my judgment prompted, my instincts would not respond." I wondered how many potential lovers I'd never given the time of day to for similar reasons? Do believers read divine judgment in the distribution of beauty? What makes less sense than a contest where the participants exercise no skill, where the winner is determined by the performance not of the contestants, but of the judges?

The bus rolled on. And though it remained too dark for me to see her, and though I did my best not to be moved by the received wisdom of a silly contest, the more it rolled, the more beautiful my fellow passenger grew there next to me. Or maybe I'd been dreaming. Maybe she wasn't so beautiful. Maybe she'd pulled my leg and had the face of a gorilla, or a lizard. But no, she was Miss Connecticut, and gave off the sweet, silent, secret, intoxicating essence of beauty.

By the time we pulled into Hartford she'd fallen asleep with her head on my shoulder. For the rest of the trip I didn't budge. I was very uncomfortable, but felt like the luckiest man alive.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Cornered by Criticism

It's been months now since my last entry here. I've been two-timing you, giving my attention to another blog, this one called "Your First Page." There, I invite authors to submit (anonymously) up to the first 350 words of a manuscript-in-progress, and offer a free critique. To date I've commented on 40 first pages.

It's been a lot of work, and fun. I worried first that no one would send me their pages, then that I'd be overwhelmed with submissions. Neither worry has materialized. I get a trickle of pages every week—usually no more than five or six—just enough to keep up with. When I've done 100 I'll stop.

I've enjoyed the process. Each page presents a sort of puzzle, or several puzzles. First, I have to decide what's working and not, and why. That's probably the easier part. The next task is to contextualize the issues raised by a first page. To give an example, one of the last pages I commented on was from a detective or crime novel. And so, along with the critique, I did a short historical overview of detective fiction. That sort of thing.

Then there's the challenge of offering advice and criticism that's honest without being brutal or condescending, or worse, belittling--a trap I fallen into at least once. The author let me know it. As his comment reveals he was angry. I don't blame him. In the end I made good, and he has since become one of the blog's biggest fans. You might say we "met cute."

Belittling people is one of the risks one runs when offering criticism—especially when trying to make the criticism relevant and entertaining not just to the authors of the works in question, but to others. Attempts at humor can easily come off as condescension, as humor at the expense of the authors who have bravely offered their works to public scrutiny.

There's an even worse risk with respect to my own writing. Criticism and creativity are at odds. I used to not think so; I used to tell myself, "Why can't critical commentary be an art form like any other?" Sure there's an art to it. Whenever we shape thoughts into paragraphs we create something. But it's a heady art, an intellectual art, and art that engages the brain, not the heart. And the more time you spend in your brain the less well you know your heart, until it atrophies, its tissues dry out and harden.

Have I sacrificed my own creativity at the alter of criticism? Will I finally be one of those who (as one critic said of my work recently) can't, therefore he teaches? I never wanted to be a teacher who writes; I wanted to be a writer who teaches. Speaking of another kind of art, actor Paul Schofield described himself between performances as an empty vessel waiting to be filled by the next role. Outside of his roles the actor has nothing to say or add. This is why (Schofield said) interviews with actors are terribly boring. There is nothing beyond the art itself. Any discussion or analysis of that art diminishes both the art and the performer. Between roles, the actor should disappear, or at least keep his mouth shut.

Schofield's words touched me. All this writing I do about writing—how much has it diminished me? Am I strangling myself? Cutting off the blood supply to my own creative work, turning it into dry criticism? It that what I really want, to be a critic and not an artist? For years now I've wondered if teaching has hurt or helped me as an artist. Now I worry and wonder if it's too late, if I've poisoned the well of inspiration with all my critical ink. Am I creating, or destroying?

Whatever we do with a generous spirit is creative. Whether we write criticism or poetry, whether we're paid or not, whether it's published in the Paris Review or the Cappuccino Foam Review (or nowhere at all) doesn't matter. What matters is intent. If the intent is pure, the work will be pure. If we write out of generosity and not out of ambition, whatever we write can rise to art.