On July 15th, 2015, I posted the following on Facebook:
Is there a theme (an encapsulated message) running through all of an artist’s work? A theme that, regardless of the medium, the artist cannot help but return to, over and over again. Could this be what their soul is here to work out in this incarnation?
I am putting together a new creative writing workshop that focuses on “life themes of artists.” I got the idea from studying Leonard Cohen and from watching actors go through multiple roles where they change characters (time periods, socio-economic status, etc.) but still seem to repeat some spiritual message that has been coded in their souls—a message that exposes both their strengths and their vulnerabilities—a capsule of their paradox: “You let things get too serious and I will make a fool of you,” “Can we cut through the crap and get down to the truth?” “I like to shock you with impropriety,” “I act silly because life is really tragic,” “Forget about everything else and escape for a while,” “Beauty and love are all that matter,” and “There are so many incredible things you can’t see that I want to show you.”
I may need to refine my question somewhat, but does this have any resonance? Can you tell me how?
Here are the responses (along with a few exchanges) I received:
Ginger Teppner so…i think (and these are not my original ideas) that all artists’ works are a portrait of particular issues central to each particular artist’s soul issues ( if you know where to look and how to read)
Billy Fisher Maybe the theme you’re hatching has to do with the combination of the urge to create and the need to survive. You’ve written well about this. You should have a good workshop.
Tony Ramey Are you arguing these thematic resonances result from a conscious effort of purpose, or stem from a kind of subconscious, recrudescent desire of artists to locate themselves in time and place? Though I’m reaching back quite a ways to where the roots of much of what we do are grounded, ST Coleridge presents compelling arguments (reflected in much of his poetry and prose) about a unifying, eternal subterranean spring of imagination that artists often tap into along their journeys, which might go a long way to explain how similar ideas sometimes pop up during the same time periods across the globe. In other words, the question is whether we are the originators of or the vessels through which universal themes come to existence in art.
Bobby Taylor Love your response, Tony. And, “yes,” I do think that the best work is springing forth from the subconscious and the collective unconscious. (I love that word “recrudescent.”) But I’m interested in launching an investigation into recurring themes in individuals’ works. If you read “Book of Mercy” by Leonard Cohen and then listen to “Hallelujah,” you can see how he was working out the ideas in his prose that appeared in his lyrics. (By the way, my experience of a terrible betrayal I experienced years ago gave me insight into what I believe is the ultimate meaning of the song “Hallelujah”: “Praise God in All Things, even when you have been betrayed. This is to understand spiritual transcendence–to have no other choice but to reach for the mystery in order to survive.) But, I digress. I will have to ask workshop participants to entertain the idea that each of us has a certain karmic problem (unless one is a Bodhisattva) that he needs to work out in this life, and that his work will reveal that problem if he can step back and assess his work. I think working in different mediums helps one to track his “problem.” From a spiritual perspective, “if we can isolate our karmic problem, then we can move closer to liberating ourselves spiritually.” From an artistic perspective, “if we can find our monster, we can move toward it and in doing so release our creative power.” But regardless of whether I am speaking any truth or not, the process (I believe) puts one in a new creative space that can be transformative. Does this make any sense?
Tony Ramey It does. It seems to me that every song or “work,” unless it’s exploring some existential or postmodern reaction to convention, should manifest a “problem” of some sort (whether karmic or otherwise), else it becomes difficult to identify the conflict; thus, the work itself becomes the “problem.” If you’re pinning down individuals’ thematic trends, then I do believe there is value in better understanding the art via the artist’s motives, and such an approach to creating a work can certainly prove transformative and therefore useful. As for your insightful digression, you might keep in mind it is “your” experience with betrayal that drives your interpretation of Cohen’s piece (which I believe has value), but this is a “new age” postmodern approach to critical reading, so one must be wary of the implications this brings. One does have an advantage in being familiar with other works when connecting interpretive dots, but in the strict sense of interpreting an individual work without the context of other artist’s works or the context of a reader’s personal experience, an artist’s motives are not always in harmony with an audience’s experientially motivated readings. I think as a workshop exercise, though, the method of interpretation of works takes back seat to framing a new approach to writing. If nothing else, it will get writers to examine a part of themselves, spiritually and creatively, that is no doubt important when drawing from the “well,” if I may use one of Bradbury’s analogies in _Zen…Writing_.
Btw, I am still reconciling the person shift in Cohen’s song. Assuming he had some purpose for an ambiguous, shifting narrative form, I’ve come to some interesting conclusions in a line by line exegesis, but I really do need to read “Book of Mercy” for another listen. This probably is sounding like gibberish, since I’m sleepy and it’s been ages since my brain has attempted thoughts of this nature, but it’s definitely fun exploring these concepts. I know you’ll have a great workshop!!!
Bobby Taylor Good thoughts, Tony. I envy your intellectual vigor and agility. The person shift does not bother me. I actually like it. It puts me in a “between” space–where the muse is perhaps more available? Like a Japanese koan, it places me in a shifting space. I’ve always loved writing that does that. The “unbalancing” that occurs in the mind (soul), the struggle to identify (or discover) a fresh pattern–that experience feels like creation to me–not only the opening of the flower, but the birth of a new species. For me, this pondering of the mystical was what Blake and Keats were illuminating–the “shamanic quality of literature” if you will. Check out “Fire in the Head” sometime, as an approach to writing. I look forward to more conversations, my friend.
Tony Ramey Definitely…critical reading has long been argued a co-creative effort. I think you’re right about what Keats and Blake were doing in general, albeit their reasons for doing so might have been different. To me (and to many other Blake critics), Blake’s explorations of the mystical, dichotomous, and “unbalanced” universe ends in apologetical treatments of God and his greater plan and in justifying the very universe which at first glance seems unbalanced–themes and motifs perhaps resulting from Blake’s early loss of his brother (which buttresses your argument for such an approach to reading and writing). His graphic art leaves clues to this critical path as well. Keats, on the other hand, a much more popular poet during his time, seems to adhere to the gothic conventions of shadow and light and uses the ethereal to expose the dangers that lurk in corners awaiting unsuspecting victims. Albeit the mystical abounds, Keats’ work seems more concerned with using it to get his readers to distrust and inveigh against the rationalization of the mind. He leads us down a maze of corridors where we are lost forever, or running in circles because we ignore the mystical in our penchant to attain a rational state of mind. The reason I used the word “reconcile,” in my reading of Cohen’s lyric, is that the Romantics, by and large, while quick to oftentimes disclaim the narrative voice, were careful to remain consistent with it, which is why more contemporary works in a postmodern and post-postmodern setting create difficulties for me…if the medium itself is meant to unbalance the reader/listener/viewer, then we might begin to distrust the artist, as opposed to distrust the universe the artist is attempting to expose through the imagination of the work. Even though a “balanced” universe is not always our subject matter, consistency of voice and other devices shows us a balanced mind operates within it, which further validates the artist’s role as endowed at the soul’s level with the capacity to offer harmony and enlightenment where there is discord and darkness: “And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep…And God said, ‘Let there be light'” (Gen 1:2-3). Perhaps my spiritual positivity is getting in the way, and readers should not always encumber the artist with “fixing” their problematic world wink emoticon. At any rate, you have compelled and inspired me to revisit many of these works. And “Fire in the Head” sounds very familiar either because I read it at some point and have forgotten it, or I have heard discussions on it. Either way I’ll dig up a copy and give it some time…
Bobby Taylor Well, I feel foolish, but it has produced some great dialog. I meant “Yeats,” not “Keats.” *blush* Feel free to re-address.
Tony Ramey Ha! One letter can make the difference in an era! “The center cannot hold” my friend…Yeats famously recognizes “things fall[ing] apart” and the launching of a movement, but had a great deal more in common with the Romantics than the postmodernists in my humble opinion. He certainly played up the problems of convention, but there is still more consistency in his medium in terms of craft than what I see in many contemporary radical textual reactions. I think a semiotician like Umberto Eco would posit an argument for the value of narrative voice shifts and semantic dissonance, but I am still not convinced it does nothing more than detract from the deeper, more relevant message of a given work. Alas! I am bound by my own chains!
Lori Fischer Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Marsha Norman said once that every writer is writing the same story over and over (hopefully getting better with each try). My work often has to do with reconciliation. It’s a theme that’s usually present even though I have never set out to write about that topic. Not sure this answer helps, but it’s the answer that first occurred to me.
Tom Angland Well, Bobby, I think there is much truth in your premise. I have written a full length drama about a famous monk and Christian writer, and am in the middle of creating a romantic comedy and I’ve been noticing parallels–or rather the same scenes through different lenses appear in both, themes overlap and repeat, monologues are rife with similarities and so on. Look at Tennessee Williams and how many times the stories surround listless alcoholic writers and helpless Southern women. So, I think the idea is sort of profound and core on the one hand, and ubiquitous to the point of risking mundanity on the other. Who we are and what we’re working out can’t help pouring out us if we are creating authentic art. Recently read Oscar Wilde’s intro to “Portrait of Dorian Gray.” One: it was so Wilde-like in its tone and topic that it proves your point on that level. Two: He asserts that all art and all criticism are autobiography. In his typical fashion, he moves directly to hyperbole with tongue firmly in cheek, and yet we know exactly what about life he is both ridiculing and loving. As to how to make your idea into a transformative workshop, I’m sure you are better equipped with ideas for that than I. The question I would pose in response is are people better off to be conscious of and work consciously with the issues they are working out in their art? And if “yes,” then how can one help them to say yes to and embrace the presence of these karmic spectres, and ride the magic of that particular muse? I don’t know if any of that made sense. Forgive me if I have only muddied the waters. I’m away from phone service at the moment, but sometimes just talking through an idea in the presence of another person helps me refine my thinking. Happy to provide that if you wish once I’m back in the land of cell towers next week.
Bobby Taylor This is great, Tom. It’s actually a songwriting/creative writing workshop where we look at writers who have had hit songs and also published prose or poetry. I will take your advice to heart. Check out “Book of Mercy” sometime and then listen to “Hallelujah” by Cohen. It’s like he was working out his questions in his prose before turning the thoughts into lyrics. Then, for the workshop attendees, the challenge becomes: “Given infinite possibilities, what are the themes in your work that contain your power?” From there, well, I saw this workshop have a profound effect on the few who attended it last time.
Bobby Taylor I first spotted these “thematic capsules” in theater. I just wondered if it made sense to anyone else.
April Lee Uzarski Hi Bobby! It does have resonance, and it is a fantastic question. I guess I will tell you how by answering the question if that’s alright. In short: it’s true for me.
I am highly intrigued by human beings and our behaviors. Because of this, it’s one of the main themes in my writing and photography. On a deeper level, I carry a lot of sadness in seeing how people treat one another in their daily lives. Then on an even deeper level, I am propelled by religious people who constantly look upon others as not worthy or abominations. If I could write about the hypocrisy I see on a daily basis, I don’t think I would have enough hours in my day. It would also be extremely depressing.
I have long had a defiance for religious hypocrisy in my writing which started to form after years of Catholic school education. I wrote and performed a 45 minute one person show in college for my thesis that was based on all of these religious thoughts. It was funny and offensive, but it was effective.
Over the years, that need to write about hypocrisy has channeled itself to my becoming a keen observer of life around me, then transitioning those findings to my stories. Recently I have tried to taking a more positive spin on my human observations to improve my life, and bring positivity to my readers.
As I move forward I want to keep the core of my themes, but strive to make each piece unique. I am aware that themes of my life are so loud that I can’t quiet them, but I want to avoid them swallowing me whole and making my musings obsolete.
My current paradox: Living in the land of Everyone for Themselves NYC whist trying to make an impact as a good human being.
My lifelong paradox: Trying to stay open minded in a sea of closed mindedness.
Jim Walke Man, I don’t know. It is funny that you asked today. I am walking through the Ann Arbor art fair, which is gigantic. You see a lot of booths where the artist is telling the same story in various sizes over and over. I don’t know why thoughm
You are a spiritual being. I am really not. Is it something they are working through?
My girlfriend Ashley has a very gothic southern family. She did not realize that she put a large southern family with a strong and kindly patriarch in each of her four novels, until I pointed it out.
Four novels. Jeez.
Jim Walke My work seems to be all over the place to me, and I have had some readers say the same when they read, say, a collection.
But maybe someone can look at the whole thing from the outside and determine a shape.
John R Briggs I absolutely think you’re on to something. I’ve noticed in much of my writing that I have certain themes that reoccur regardless of the voice. It might be a character in a musical story, a character in a song, or something that is personal to me. I even see it in my poetry.
John R Briggs “Life/love is a gamble, so much of our happiness is determined by random incidents or acts of arbitration” is a constant theme in my work. It is only recently that I’ve become aware of it.
Bobby Taylor I’ve been studying songwriters who write poetry, in an attempt to identify themes. I’ve been looking at Cohen, Dylan, Patti Smith, Rod McKuen, Jim Morrison, etc. The idea is to get writers in the workshop to look for themes in others works and then look for themes in their own work–this being where their power is, in my opinion. So far, leading a workshop this way seemed to be transformative for those involved. Thanks for your feedback!
Alan Bailey I’m afraid I’m too late to be helpful, but my answer is — yes, I believe this has resonance. I believe one of the greatest lessons any creative artist has to learn is WHO THEY ARE, and your goal of helping people define what their life theme is seems to be a great way to help unlock people’s creativity. Self-awareness is strength, so I think this workshop sounds like a big, big idea and a great one!