Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Künst(lich?)

I've made a lot of clamor over the past year or so about needing to live more in the real world, about needing to be more engaged in politics, about building a firm and discerning character capable of taking stances on issues affecting the world today. By all rights, I should be writing a post with what I know about the refugee crisis and the way it is everywhere in the news now, how Germans talk and think about it (although I encounter mostly leftist Germans); or about the Panama Papers and the line to walk between privacy and public accountability. I will write such posts, if not on these topics then in the same vein, in the future.

Today, however, I want to think about art, stories, and the kind of art and stories that I want to create. We'll see if my growing politicism will find its way in.

Ubermadchen, which I finished at the end of last month, grew into some modern political messages while also, I think, drifting from the political struggles and class conflicts that would have been more relevant at the time. It was a long story, an adventure story and ein Bildungsroman, fantasy, with a main character who is not afraid to emote. More and more, as I wrote, I grew to care about the characters, identifying with their struggles and with them. When I get the book to a state fit to share, I hope that it does that for others, too. I don't think I ever started crying while writing, which has happened before in rare instances, but the second half of the book was written during my first five quarters of college, a time with far greater emotional amplitude than my pre-college life, and that emotional valence--the fear and uncertainty and occasional triumph of breaking out of one's chrysalis--is present, and is not something I would try to edit out.

Contrast: I am in a theater class right now, and we are looking at contemporary Berlin productions, which are predominantly of a "postdramatic" bent. This means, as far as I can tell, that the point isn't to care about the characters and their situations, but to be challenged--breaking down the fourth wall, playing with form, deconstructing, breaking down. Characters aren't people, they are types, they are media for meaning that may not be textual.

I've been short of story input since coming to college and letting my reading time disappear, and the sudden influx of this new kind of story fodder is a bit of a shock to the system. What if I did that? Did avant-garde, did postdramatic, did quirky and strange, played with form? What if...

It's not off the table, but the trouble is that characters are and have always been the key to the stories I tell. I can't deal with a cast of masks. I live with and through my characters; for every single story I have, I have a modern AU in which I can imagine these people, who I know aren't real but who still matter to me, walking around and interacting with the world that I live in. As I get to know the city of Berlin, I think of how the Ubermadchen characters would interact with it. There is Katya and Levi, on a date strolling along the Spree and talking about robots; Marilla is drinking hot chocolate at Fassbender & Rausch; Josefina and Suzanne are volunteering at Tempelhof, helping refugees; Terez is the undercut hipster on the U-Bahn, listening to a podcast about rocks. If I want to mix my stories, then they're also checking homework solutions with Wolfgang Gemeinhardt at one of the FU libraries.

People are what make writing fiction matter to me. It's why I have three novel-length stories under my belt but abandon standalone short stories after a few thousand words. My current project, which is moving rather slowly because I've got a city to explore, is about Marilla helping out some ghosts and is prompted by a conversation with my sister about horror stories where I could not--unbedingt!--see myself writing a ghost story that did not in some measure attempt to humanize the ghosts.

So I don't know if I can do postdramatic. That probably excludes me forever from being Berlin cool.

I am okay with not being cool, but I do think that it will be worth trying this style or approach out, as an experiment. What draws people to this style? The first thing that comes to mind is that people want to suggest or outright state a message, and the particulars about the characters and their histories and futures and human pecularities would get in the way of that. That would neatly explain why this style is hard for me to imagine myself writing: what message do I feel strongly enough that it outweighs my interest in the individuality of characters? Self-determination and individual freedom/autonomy--but does this lend itself well to abstraction, when the point is more clearly made by an individual determining their particular life against particular odds? Responsibility to help people--but...

Maybe I should stop saying "but" and push these ideas farther. A stronger abstraction machine is worth cultivating.

A big mental block for me is that I don't want to be gimmicky, or rather, to come off as gimmicky. And for someone who strongly values simplicity, any time that style is too visible, the gimmick alarms start, very softly, to beep. I don't like or have patience for affectation, and I am still caught by the illusion of story creation as something organic. But of course, it is not, and even if it was--there is more than one way to grow.

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Additional reading: I am no literary expert, but thanks to the internet, I can access people who are. Theodora Goss's blog post on Modernism, which basically expresses a desire to return to the sort of swift, thinking-over-feeling story that I question my ability to execute. I also deeply admire the work of more intellectual writers, whose work does not stand upon identifying with a particular character--Kafka, Hesse, Borges, und so weiter. They execute the allegorical style fantastically.

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