Tuesday 11 May 2010

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

One of my favourite cinematic scenes ever comes at the end of 'American Beauty' as Lester Burnham's (played superbly by Kevin Spacey) valedictory speech blends sublimely with the image of a plastic bag tossed around carelessly by the wind. What makes this passage more poignant to me is the opening phrase: 'I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn't a second at all, it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time... '

I often think of those words when analysing creative writing. Do we stretch people's lives when we let our imagination flow? A photographer freezes an image and makes us think of a past and future. What motivated that woman's smile? How come that old man is frowning when he is surrounded by loved ones? And why is that girl running away? Why is she crying? Why is her body covered in napalm? A sculptor tames the hard stone into a three dimensional still. We sometimes see a head, but not the body. The (missing) body is a blank canvas for our imagination. A writer, on the other hand, composes a series of tableaux vivants in motion where we get to stretch and freeze different scenes as and when we wish. I see that bag in the wind as the recipient in which writers put the spoils of their creative search as they go through life. The woman smiles because the girl was saved and her husband frowns because the world is not fair. After all, they still haven't found that missing torso.

How do you hunt similes? Where do you find your metaphores? What sleight of hand do you use to turn that personal name into an antonomastic phrase? I sometimes imagine writers sitting at their desks and asking themselves: 'What colour do I want the car with the driver holding a hands-free mobile phone to be?' I've heard of writers who have internal dialogues with their novels or poems: 'If you fancy something, just say it. Don't hold back.'

In order to stretch that second into a life, writers have to listen to their inner voices. They are the only creatures who are allowed the freedom to cash in on their paranoid schizophrenia. And it is a far from harmonious situation as each of those voices they hear claims to have the upper hand. A writer's job is to delegate roles to each and every one and build a cohesive and cogent argument about the existence of them all. But this suggests a logic. And writing is illogical. Creative writing, that is. You are constantly assailed by these voices that tell you, no! command you to fight them, to wrestle them into submission. To break them into smithereens. Shards. That's what writing sometimes seems to me. A kaleidoscope of confusing but alluring shards.

As my final thought tonight I will paraphrase Spacey's soliloquy in the aforementioned movie (sorry, can't do the voice, though, he's unique in that department, believe me, I saw him at the Old Vic some years ago). It's the very last part of his monologue:

'...it's hard to stay mad, when there's so much beautiful literature in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then books flow through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my life... You have no idea what I'm talking about, maybe. But don't worry... you will someday. '


Next Post: 'Rayuela (Hopscotch) by Julio Cortázar (Review)', to be published on Thursday 13th May at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Some think making metaphors is renaming, calling one thing by another's name: "words are razor blades." Also think of nicknames. I have a friend we call "Fox."
    In love poems, the metaphors are love names; in ecstatic poems--well, you get the idea.

    All said, it's a mystery why some love to rename and find these metaphors. Neruda was a master.

    I'm very interested in what you say about time stretching out and your quotes from the film.

  2. A lovely post here, Cuban , rich and thoughtful like a well cooked meal - pardon the poor metaphor.

    Language to me is all about metaphor. We use it to symbolise.

    Without an ability to symbolise we can barely communicate because so much of life is beyond the pragmatics of things and actions.

    It's about feelings, wishes, hopes and dreams.

    You convey this beautifully here. Thanks.

  3. some magic thoughts here Cuban ....and I also saw Spacey in a mesmirising performance at the Old Vic some years ago in The Iceman Cometh - same show??

  4. I love that film and the floating plastic bag scene is quite mindblowing. And you're right that creative writing and being creative in general is definitely about seeing things differently, adding to their meaning and stretching that moment in time.

    I look forward to your next post. I could never get through that book...

  5. Beautiful Post bro,

    Sometimes words fall like sweet water or honey sifting through the comb of the mind...when they're not complying I try to get silent and eventually they arise...from where I do not know.

    Peace and passion brother,


  6. Many thanks for your kind comments. I must confess that many of my posts lately have been written under the influence of Alice Munro, a Canadian writer whose collection of short stories 'Open Secrets' has been a revelation. I'm even afraid to write about the book, so good it is! I had already read about Alice in an essay in the Guardian's Saturday Review, but nothing prepared me for her narrative power. And that's how this post came about. Because to Munro each moment can be stretched out to eternity, and I, as a reader, won't mind much how much this ride will last.

    Greetings from London.

  7. I understand your post, but I could not give a worthy comment. Maybe someday..

  8. I exactly understand the final thought of your post(Kevin Spacey's monologue). At times, when I enter a public library with the shelves brimming over with books, I almost get out of breath. The thought that roils through my head is: "So many books... when will I read all of them?" Then I remember that I will never get to read every one of them and to enjoy just whichever ones I manage to... :)

  9. I meant to mention this too in my previous comment, but forgot. I passed a Happiness 101 award to your blog a few weeks ago (when you were in Malaysia)... I don't see any awards on your blog, but thought one never needs permission to pass on happiness :).

    And I quite enjoyed the exercise of consciously thinking about what makes me happy.

  10. Though I do remember that image of the bag floating by, I don't remember what Spacey was saying. I'm glad that you included it.

    I've never written prose (except a few stories too based on what I'd experienced), never assuming that I have the imagination to do it...
    but I'm still happy to write...

    Now I'm going to look up autonomastic. I hope that it means something like -- the name of the character is distinctive enough to embody (or substitute a better word) something about the person. I often lose track of which character I'm reading about if the names are too similar, or all American...Jim, Ed, blah and blah. I have the same trouble with students...I can get the names if they're complicated - Tenzing, Taylor - but not if they're simple (and I have the notion that they've gone to Catholic school and all look the same..that's very prejudiced, I'm totally aware of that and embarassed, but there you go...a profound weakness.)

    Oh, I''m having a great deal of fun thinking about cliches.
    Thank you..

  11. How funny: I immediately recognized that image’s link to American Beauty. It was my favorite scene in the movie. You are an artist if you can turn garbage into art as opposed to some who turn art into garbage.

    This line of yours is beautifully artful: “I see that bag in the wind as the recipient in which writers put the spoils of their creative search as they go through life. “

    Yes, my kids think I’m a little crazy listening to my characters, especially when I mutter back to them. I love this line of yours too: “Shards. That's what writing sometimes seems to me. A kaleidoscope of confusing but alluring shards.”

    You make me want to watch American Beauty a second time and come back here and read more posts like this. One of your best yet!

  12. You touched on so many interesting thoughts about creative writing. I've never stopped to think about where I get my metaphors, or whether I make someone's life stretch in my imagination. That's such a fascinating thought!

    I've definitely sat at my desk and asked myself, what colour do I want this guy's car to be? *giggle*

    I wouldn't say that, for me, creative writing is illogical. I think of it more as intuitive, listening with the voice inside me (that usually comes from my gut) and trusting it.


  13. I loved this deeply thoughtful post. It is the intimate associations the characters have, that is what creative writing means to me. Understanding those associations, providing healing in a society that ostracises...

    I have not watched American Beauty, now I will.

    Thank you.

  14. You've got me thinking about how I write. I don't think I ever ask what colour, for example, I just know. Though, it's true, I do often change my mind at the redrafting stage but I still do it on a whim. My head is filled with images, actions, snippets of dialogue, sounds, etc., and writing is a bit like being a pinata.

  15. So you have discovered my compatriot, Alice Munro. Citizenship is the only thing we share! She is astonishing, isn't she??

    I almost didn't want to read this post once I realize what it was about, because I do not yet have a clear vision of what creative writing means to me. And I'm frustrated by that.
    However, I did read it all and it has helped to focus my lens, so to speak. Thanks for this. I wish I had written it myself.

    PS I lunched with Maggie of Stepping Out with Red Shoes today and we talked about you. How much we enjoy you and how wonderfully spontaneous and genuine your comments are.

  16. Eloquent and thought provoking - as always, Cuban. I take it that you are talking here about the process of writing a work of fiction?

    As Aristotle says in the Poetics, poetry is better than history because fiction expresses the universal, whereas factual accounts merely express the particular. Because it deals with what may happen, rather than what has happened, poetry is a more philosophical kind of writing, and has more to do with universal truths. Fiction is to "true stories" as a painting (even a still life painting) is to photography. And just as photography can be done artfully, so can non-fiction, but it lacks that rollercoaster journey of the imagination. It is more constrained, more rooted in the realities of the material world, with less potential to expand the imagination into the metaphysical world...which, in my opinion, is exactly why fiction might just do a better job of expressing truth.



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