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Posts Tagged ‘critics’

Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper. – Ray Bradbury

How is it that, as much as I love crisp white sheets when they’re made of cotton and on my bed, I have the opposite reaction to fresh white sheets of paper?

Ernesto put up a clothesline in our back yard a few weeks ago. The delight of sheets and pillowcases washed in Full Circle Chamomile & Ylang Laundry Detergent™ then hung on the line to billow in a light breeze until they have gently and naturally dried—well, it lulls me into believing that I love to do laundry.

And all week I look forward to the pure treat of sliding into a fresh-made bed.

But facing a fresh white sheet of paper is something else entirely.

It hasn’t always been this way. I remember the excitement of having a blank sheet of paper and a full box of crayons as a child. It was impossible not to feel that, with the first mark I made, a magic key would turn and unlock the glittering world of Art, which would spill like treasure onto the page.  

I suspect that attitude began to wane in third grade when Miss Cann told me that it was inappropriate to put a strip of blue across the top of a page and call it sky. Miss Cann, I believe, had an insufficiently developed imagination.

For awhile, even after the rigors of third grade, I still felt a tingle of anticipation when given a blank white sheet of paper. What stories, poems, and rich games of Hangman the page inspired!

Somewhere along the way, though, that excitement ebbed to the point that a blank sheet of paper—whether real or virtual, with a blinking cursor at the top—inspired more fear than anticipation. Miss Cann had burrowed into my head.

It didn’t help when my French instructor in college, the entertaining P. J. Lapaire, handed out worksheets with a flourish and his stock, sing-song announcement, “Pass along a piece of sheeeeet.”  That about sums up my post-secondary reaction to the blank page: A piece of sheet.

(Note about P. J.:  I have never forgotten his entire name, which he shared with my class and taught us to chant in unison:  “Pierre-Jean Georges Jacques Yves Marie Lapaire.” Today that is, sadly, pretty much the extent of my spoken French. His sister had an equally impressive name; hers I have forgotten.)

The point is, being faced with a blank page is daunting. I don’t even think it’s writer’s block, precisely. Mostly it’s the certain knowledge that the minute I try to write something, it will come out wrong and I’ll hate it and then I’ll get frustrated and even if I get a complete piece down on paper the tiny (yet stout, and indomitable) Miss Cann who lives inside my head will mark it, “Needs improvement!”

Well, of course it needs improvement! It only just came out of my head and its little heart is scarcely beating. Let’s give it room to breathe for a little while before we jump on it, shall we?

One of my favorite ways of getting over blank-page fear is to re-read parts of Ray Bradbury’s book, Zen in the Art of Writing. He prescribes a headlong dive onto the blank piece of sheet of paper: Approach it, he advises, with all the zest and gusto, fire and passion that you’ve got. Ignore Miss Cann, who may be a perfectly lovely person in some (unknown) way, but who is completely ignorant about Art.

Time enough to think and cut and rewrite tomorrow. But today—explode—fly apart—disintegrate! The other six or seven drafts are going to be pure torture. So why not enjoy the first draft, in the hope that your joy will seek and will find others in the world who, reading your story, will catch fire, too?

What do you think of the world? You, the prism, measure the light of the world; it burns through your mind to throw a different spectroscopic reading onto white paper than anyone else anywhere can throw.

Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper.

Rest in peace, Ray Bradbury. Peace and light.

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How a Restaurant Review Introduced Me to Momos, God of Writers and Criticism

Momus Criticizes the Gods, by Maerten van Heemskerck

There is a little restaurant not far from our home called Momos Ouzaria Taverna. We decided to go there because of a wonderful description of the place that I found online:

Awash in melon and azure hues, accented by a working fireplace and an elaborate tile mosaic on the far wall and crowned by a lovely pressed-tin ceiling painted blue, Momos resembles the fairy-tale, movie-set Mediterranean tavern of our collective subconscious.

That was written in 2004 by Rose Martelli, a restaurant critic for The Riverfront Times. The entire review (delightfully titled “Grecian Yearn”) is still worth reading 7 years later. One of my favorite parts is where Rose tells us that her dessert at Momos was so good that she didn’t know whether to cuss or cry. I imagine Rose sitting at her table under the blue pressed-tin ceiling, a phyllo pastry piled with ice cream and chocolate sauce before her, and her face screwed up like a dried-apple doll while she tries to decide how best to express her extreme emotion. It must have been a wonderful dessert.

When we went to Momos the first time we learned (from the menu) that in Greek mythology Momos (or Momus) is the god of writers, poets, ridicule, and unfair criticism. Here’s the role he plays in one of Aesop’s fables, courtesy of the Theoi Project:

The story goes that Zeus, Poseidon and Athena were arguing about who could make something truly good. Zeus made the most excellent of all animals, man, while Athena made a house for people to live in, and, when it was his turn, Poseidon made a bull. Momos (Complaint) was selected to judge the competition, for he was still living among the gods at that time. Given that Momos was inclined to dislike them all, he immediately started to criticize the bull for not having eyes under his horns to let him take aim when he gored something; he criticized man for not having been given a window into his heart so that his neighbor could see what he was planning; and he criticized the house because it had not been made with iron wheels at its base, which would have made it possible for the owners of the house to move it from place to place when they went traveling.

Zeus eventually grew tired of Momos finding fault with everything and threw him out of Mount Olympus—probably he cussed when he did it. Nobody likes a critic. Why such a one would be the god of writers and poets is therefore beyond my understanding. But evidently Momos is also the god of laughter. The American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who wrote the famous lines, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone,” dedicated a poem to Momos. It ends with this stanza:

Wisdom wearies, Love had wings –
Wealth makes burdens, Pleasure stings,
Glory proves a thorny crown –
So all gifts the gods throw down
Bring their pains and troubles after;
All save Momus, god of laughter.
He alone gives constant joy.
Hail to Momus, happy boy.

Wilcox’s poetry is often included in collections with titles like Worst American Poems of All Time. So what did she get in return for flattering Momus? Ridicule and criticism.

It’s like that with writing. Sometimes it seems as if nothing I write goes the way I want it to. I told someone recently that I wished to goodness that writing were like making pound cake—find a recipe you like, master the technique (beat it to death), and you can be proud of the results. Writing is never that simple, and the results are far from predictable. I am often my own severest critic, never letting a story out to be read by anyone because I think it’s not good enough. It doesn’t have a window to its heart, or eyes below its horns so it can hit a target, or wheels so it can be moved about.

But after we cuss, cry, or pitch a real fit that incorporates both activities, we must summon up our Zeus-like power and pitch this inner Momos off of Mt. Olympus.  Then we can get back to our writing. Eventually it will come out right.

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