Gateway to Understanding

Is emotion the gateway to reason or is it an obstacle to understanding?

I had always believed in the power of the intellect, that an educated intelligence should be sufficient to decode the clues and understand the opportunities and conflicts we all face. Now I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m pretty sure the opposite is true; it is only through emotional engagement that we can truly understand anything at all. How we respond to art offers a window.

Angle of Reflection contains a scene in a museum where Ben and Emma are discussing a Picasso exhibit. Ben is able to admire the technique and appreciate the results from an intellectual distance but maintains that Picasso never moves him. (Let’s assume he’s never seen Guernica.) Emma tells him it may yet happen and to beware of sealing his emotions in today’s opinion.

Later he reflects on a painting that moved him more than most: Vermeer’s, A Maid Asleep. “I couldn’t turn away. I was immediately and profoundly drawn into that world, I could walk into that woman’s dreams and imagine stories that explained all the elements Vermeer chose to include.” We can’t know whether the artist had the same stories in mind but it doesn’t matter, what is significant is that the emotional reaction to the image made the content knowable.

Here’s where we get back to the question of antidepressant medication: it is my contention that one of the severe effects of many years on SSRIs was a stifling of emotion, which led to a failure to understand what was happening to me. I couldn’t get to it because I couldn’t feel it.

I’m not the first to report this. “SSRIs also cause a multitude of troubling side effects. These include sexual dysfunction, suppression of REM sleep, muscle tics, fatigue, emotional blunting, and apathy. In addition, investigators have reported that long-term use is associated with memory impairment, problem-solving difficulties, loss of creativity, and learning deficiencies.” Robert Whitaker: Anatomy of an Epidemic, Broadway Books, Random House, 2010.

I’m beginning to feel that I’m nearing the finish line for Angle. Could be wrong, of course, I’ve thought this before, then I sent it to my editor. I began to wonder how you know when you’re done with a novel. There is no requirement for length, no facts that have to be explained, no rules to follow. Thinking won’t get you there. I suppose you can say that it’s finished when someone decides to publish it, but Fitzgerald was still trying to rewrite Gatsby as it was on the press. I asked a friend who is a wonderful painter how she knew when a painting was finished. She said: “I don’t know, I just feel it.”

Feels right to me.

©2015 Ron Scherl

Reading Aloud

The hardest part of the transition from photographer to writer is mastering the difference in the creative process.

In many types of photography the creative act is instantaneous. To reduce it to its most basic Cartier-Bresson decisive moment: see it, shoot it. Of course, there’s a lot that must happen before that moment in order to be in position to capture it, but the act of creativity really does take place in an instant. This is true of almost any journalistic type of photography but also holds for portraiture, fashion, even landscapes; any time the subject is alive, or changing light is an element.

Even when there’s a great deal of pre-production preparation and post-production processing and elements of creativity are spread throughout the process, even then, the critical creative act is the instant of releasing the shutter.

Only still life photography is exempt from this and only when the lighting is fully controlled. Maybe that’s why the French call it nature morte.

The act of writing a novel is a very different process.

Larry Walker sent me a quote from William Faulkner on the subject:

“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”

That was certainly true of my first novel – but then the work began and hasn’t yet been completed. The creative process evolves from writing to editing and the number of revisions mounts at an alarming rate. It amazed me how often I could revise the same text and still find absolute clunkers that had to go. I would repeat the process until I hated every word then take a break and ask a friend to read it, after which I could admit that not every word was worthless and revise yet again.

Now, I’ve revised my revision process. I found that when I had trouble with a passage, reading it aloud would often point to the problem. When I stumbled over the reading, it was because either the thought or the language was unclear. In dialogue, it showed mostly in the placement of the “he said, she said” attributions. But in expository passages, reading aloud revealed awkward structures or fuzzy thinking. Enough time and consideration would eventually lead me to an improvement, often after several iterations, and I learned that when the words flowed easily from my mouth they were just better written.

I mentioned this to my friend Jess, who said she’d love to hear my reading, so I recorded the first chapter and sent it to her. In doing so, I discovered a new process: record, then listen while reading the text, stop to revise where needed and record again. Repeat until the words sound right.

Not exactly ready for “This American Life,” but Jess now has a podcast for one, and I’ve discovered an editing tool that works well for me.

I don’t know if other writers work this way. I’d love to hear from anyone who does.

Creativity is Risk

The decision to de-medicate really began last year with a simple question from a very good friend: I was thinking last night that I’ve never seen you be aggressive. Have you always been like that? 

I was surprised by the question and it has haunted me ever since. To some extent I’ve always been more passive than was good for me, but I also think it’s become worse over the years. There are really two indivisible issues: passivity and timidity. They start with hesitation and develop into a rigid shell; together they create a kind of death of the soul.

Depression can be the precursor of both conditions; the usual medications can make them worse because the effects put a limit on your presence in the world. They allow you to accept what should be an unbearable way of life. The shell forms and within it there is never enough air or water to allow anything to grow. You begin to die inside: old relationships wither, new ones never have a chance.

The timid and passive don’t take risks and there is no creativity without risk.

It is an act of courage to walk out on a stage and play a sonata before an audience. Or sing an aria, or paint, write, or photograph. It’s not just the risk of failure and humiliation, although that can be a powerful stop sign, the bigger risk is in opening yourself and finding out what’s inside. And you do have to dig because anything of value emerges from the core of your being. Call it soul, or heart. It doesn’t matter. It’s the only thing you have to give and if you can’t open enough to tap into it, you can’t produce anything of value. I’m talking about works of art, but also about what you give in a relationship, the love you give to a friend, a lover, or a child. It’s all risky, but essential.

Here’s a bit from Angle of Reflection in which Ben acts against type and takes a risk because he just had to photograph that woman, in that place, at that time.

“They came out of the gallery into a small stone courtyard with indirect sunlight bouncing off the walls and up from the ground, creating a lovely portrait light. He asked Emma to pose for a moment and started shooting before she could say no. He was keenly aware of the crowd around them in a city full of photographers, but he had to do this. He shot and moved, asking her to turn to him sometimes, look away at others. He wanted to juxtapose her youthful skin against the ancient stone walls, but more than that he wanted to capture the light that made her glow with a beauty that made his heart ache. He had her bring one hand up to her face for a few frames but it didn’t work. Then he had her turn her back to him and made a few images of her hands and hair as she did that twirly chignon thing. After a few minutes, she became self-conscious, turned around and made a funny face at him, and he stopped. It was too late, he was in love and frightened by the intensity of the moment and his feel­ings for her. His hands were shaking and his heart was beating much too fast. She looked at him and seemed to understand. Very quietly she said “thank you,” and quickly squeezed his hand before they walked in silence to the next venue.”

Ben had to take the risk, the opportunity would never have come again. I missed too many moments. No more.

©2015 Ron Scherl



The Rhythm of Writing

After many years as a photographer, adapting to the process of writing novels is very much about adjusting the pace of creativity. Photographs record moments, miniscule fragments of time measured in fractions of a second. The creative process may be much longer and may involve such things as travel, research, rearranging the furniture, image processing, editing, sequencing, and printing. But the critical act of framing the subject and releasing the shutter is brief and fleeting. The expression of a portrait subject or the light on a landscape is a momentary thing and capturing that moment is the essence of photographic creativity.

The final product may take months or even years to complete, but that process is usually just a matter of repeating the critical moments of creativity in different circumstances.

Writing fiction is a whole different ballgame, one that involves retraining the brain to accommodate a much longer creative process. Think about stretching that fraction of a second out to the time it takes to write a three hundred page novel; it takes endurance, dedication, and discipline in the face of great odds against success, whether critical or commercial.

I write every day because that’s what it takes for me to maintain the creative process long enough to finish a book. Sure, there are days I accomplish little. I’ve learned to accept them and try to use those days for reading related to my current project. And I adjust my work schedule to accommodate other interests, especially when the Giants are playing.

I try to keep in mind that I may be an accomplished photographer but I’m a novice writer. I’m working on my second novel, while continuing to revise and rewrite the first. These incremental changes take time: some changes necessitate others, and flaws missed on the fifth draft may not be obvious until the tenth. The process makes me feel like a manuscript is never finished. It is, I guess, like a photographer’s portfolio: it may never be perfect, but at some point you have to go out and show it to the people you want to work for. Where I once called on magazine picture editors, now I’m searching for a literary agent. Every industry has its gatekeepers.

I like the task of learning something new, but I’m surprised that I seem to have lost interest in photography so quickly. Earlier this year I was in Paris, a city that has never failed to engage my eye, until now. I passed days at a time without shooting anything, although I did keep a journal. Last week I went to Lake Tahoe with my friend, Tom. It was beautiful. I shot little, more with an iPhone than a Nikon.

In this era of instant and constant communication, of disruption and sharing, I have taken up a practice that is slow, solitary, traditional, and personal. I like it.