Sunday, November 13, 2016

Yiddish Hallelujah by Daniel Kahn

Today I heard this most wonderful version of Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah."  An artist named Daniel Kahn  translated the essence of the song into Yiddish. The video has English subtitles and if you're familiar with the song, you will see the lyrics vary from the original. However, I think they are just perfect. ~~GH

Hallelujah, written by Leonard Cohen. Transadaptation into Yiddish by Daniel Kahn, English translation by Daniel Kahn

There was a secret tune
That David played for God,
But for you it would never be such salvation.
One sings it like this: a Fa, a Sol,
A misheberach (prayer or scale) raises a voice,
The confused king weaves a hallelujah...

Your faith has grown weak,
Bathsheba bathes herself on the roof,
Her charm and the moon are your remedy.
She takes your body, takes your head,
She cuts a braid from your hair,
And pulls down from your mouth a hallelujah...

Oh dear, I know your style,
I've slept on your floor,
I've never lived with such a treasure of a woman.
I see your castle, see your flag. 
A heart is no King's throne.
It's a cold and a ruined hallelujah...

Oh, tell me again, like before,
What's happening down there in your lap.
Why must you be ashamed, like a virgin?
Just remember how I dwelled in you,
How the holy feminine spirit glows in our blood,
And every breath utters a hallelujah...

Could be my god isn't there at all,
And love could be a moral monstrosity,
An empty dream, broken and bankrupt.
It's not a cry in the middle of the night,
It's not a reborn zealot awakened,
But a sad, lonesome-voiced hallelujah...

You call me an apostate,
I blaspheme with the Holy Name.
No matter, I'm not expecting the messianic age.
But it burns hot in every letter,
From alef-beys all the way to the end,
The holy and ruined hallelujah...

Hallelujah, hallelujah,
Hallelujah, hallelujah.

And that's all, it's not a lot,
In the meantime, I'll do what I do.
I come here like a mensch, not a scoundrel.
Though all is lost anyway,
I will praise Adonai,
And cry "L'chaim": Hallelujah...

Hallelujah, hallelujah,
Hallelujah, hallelujah.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Death in Tehran

What does this parable mean to you? It's a favorite of mine. ~GH

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A Thousand and One Nights

The following text is being parked here to help preserve it. A brilliant bonvivant, editor, writer, author, artist, songwriter, dancer, and all-round creative woman I call my friend, Marie Lynam Fitzpatrick, shared the text link with me. Someone else captured it when the old Geocities site was shut down. 

It has captured my imagination and I hope it inspires you as well. 

The one typo, I copied faithfully and decline to accept fault for. ~~GH

The Thousand and One Nights

Jorge Luis Borges
tr. Eliot Weinberger, 1984
The Georgian Review (Fall 1984): 564-574.
      A major event in the history of the West was the discovery of the East. It would be more precise to speak of a continuing consciousness of the East, comparable to the presence of Persia in Greek history. Within this general consciousness of the Orient — something vast, immobile, magnificent, incomprehsible — there were certain high points, and I would like to mention a few. This seems to me the best approach to a subject I love so much, one I have loved since childhood, The Book of the Thousand and One Nights or, as it is called in the English version — the one I first read — The Arabian Nights, a title that is not without mystery, but is less beautiful.
      I will mention a few of these high points. First, the nine books of Herodotus, and in them the revelation of Egypt, far-off Egypt. I say "far-off" because space was measured by time, and the journey was hazardous. For the Greeks, the Egyptian world was older and greater, and they felt it to be mysterious.
      We will examine later the words Orient and Occident, East and West, which we cannot define, but which are true. They remind me of what St. Augustine said about time: "What is time? If you don't ask me I know; but if you ask me I don't know." What are East and the West? If you ask me, I don't know. We must settle for approximations.
      Let us look at the encounters, the campaigns, and the wars of Alexander, who conquered Persia and India and who died finally in Babylonia, as everyone knows. This was the first great meeting with the East, and an encounter that so affected Alexander that he ceased to be Greek and became partly Persian. The Persians have now incorporated him into their history — Alexander, who slept with a sword and the Iliad under his pillow. We will return to him later, but since we are mentioning Alexander, I would like to recall a legend that may be of interest to you.
      Alexander does not die in Babylonia at age thirty-three. He is separated from his men and wanders through the deserts and forests, and at last he sees a great light. It is a bonfire, and it is surrounded by warriors with yellow skin and slanted eyes. They do not know him, but they welcome him. As he is at heart a soldier, he joins in battles in a geography that is unknown to him. He is a soldier: the causes do not matter to him, but he is willing to die for them. The years pass, and he has forgotten many things. Finally the day arrives when the troops are paid off, and among the coins there is one that disturbs him. He has it in the palm of his hand, and he says: "You are an old man; this is the medal that was struck for the victory of Arbela when I was Alexander of Macedon." At that moment he remembers his past, and he returns to being a mercenary for the Tartars or Chinese or whoever they were.
      That memorable invention belongs to the poet Robert Graves. To Alexander had been prophesied the dominion of the East and the West. The Islamic countries still honor him under the name Alexander the Two-Horned, because he ruled the two horns of East and West.
      Let us look at another example of this great — and not infrequently, tragic — dialogue between East and West. Let us think of the young Virgil, touching a piece of printed silk from a distant country. The country of the Chinese, of which he only knows that it is far-off and peaceful, at the further reaches of the Orient. Virgil will remember that silk in his Georgics, that seamless silk, with images of temples, emperors, rivers, bridges, and lakes far removed from those he knew.
      Another revelation of the Orient is that admirable book, the Natural History of Pliny. There he speaks of the Chinese, and he mentions Bactria, Persia, and the India of King Porus. There is a poem of Juvenal I read more than forty years ago, which suddenly comes to mind. In order to speak of a far-off place, Juvenal says, "Ultra Auroram et Gangem," beyond the dawn and the Ganges. In those four words is, for us the East. Who knows if Juvenal felt it as we do? I think so. The East has always held a fascination for the people of the West.
      Proceeding through history, we reach a curious gift. Possibly it never happened; it has sometimes been considered a legend. Harun al-Rashi, Aaron the Orthodox, sent his counterpart Charlemagne an elephant. Perhaps it was impossible to send an elephant from Baghdad to France, but that is not important. It doesn't hurt to believe it. That elephant is a monster. Let us remember that the word monster does not mean something horrible. Lope de Vega was called a "Monster of Nature" by Cervantes. That elephant must have been something quite strange for the French and for the Germanic king Charlemagne. (It is sad to think that Charlemagne could not have read the Chanson de Roland, for he spoke some Germanic dialect.)
      They sent the elephant, and that word elephant reminds us that Roland sounded the olifant, the ivory trumpet that got its name precisely because it came from the tusk of an elephant. And since we are speaking of etymologies, let us recall that the Spanish word alfil, the bishop in the game of chess, means elephant in Arabic and has the same origin as marfil, ivory. Among Oriental chess pieces I have seen an elephant with a castle and a little man. That piece was not the rook, as one might think from the castle, but rather the bishop, the alfil, or elephant.
      In the Crusades, the soldiers returned and brought back memories. They brought memories of lions, for example. We have the famous crusader Richard the Lion-Hearted. The lion that entered into heraldry is an animal from the East. This list should not go on forever, but let us remember Marco Polo, whose book is a revelation of the Orient — for a long time it was the major source. The book was dictated to a friend in jail, after the battle in which the Venetians were conquered by the Genoese. In it, there is the history of the Orient, and he speaks of Kublai Khan, who will reappear in a certain poem by Coleridge.
      In the fifteenth century in the city of Alexandria, the city of Alexander the Two-Horned, a series of tales was gathered. Those tales have a strange history, as it is generally believed. They were first told in India, then in Persia, then in Asia Minor, and finally were written down in Arabic and compiled in Cairo. They became The Book of the Thousand and One Nights.
      I want to pause over the title. It is one of the most beautiful in the world . . . . I think its beauty lies in the fact that for us the word thousand is almost synonymous with infinite. To say a thousand nights is to say infinite nights, countless nights, endless nights. To say a thousand and one nights is to add one to infinity. Let us recall a curious English expression: instead of forever, they sometimes say forever and a day. A day has been added to forever. It is reminiscent of a line of Heine, written to a woman: "I will love you eternally and even after."
      The idea of infinity is consubstantial with The Thousand and One Nights.
      In 1704, the first European version was published, the first of the six volumes by the French Orientalist Antoine Galland. With the Romantic movement, the Orient richly entered the consciousness of Europe. It is enough to mention two great names: Byron, more important for his image than for his work, and Hugo, the greatest of them all. By 1890 or so, Kipling could say: "Once you have heard the call of the East, you will never hear anything else."
      Let us return for a moment to the first translation of The Thousand and One Nights. It is a major event for all European literature. We are in 1704, in France. It is the France of the Grand Siècle; it is the France where literature is legislated by Boileau, who dies in 1711 and never suspects that all his rhetoric is threatened by that splendid Oriental invasion.
      Let us think about the rhetoric of Boileau, made of precautions and prohibitions, of the cult of reason, and of that beautiful line of Fénelon: "Of the operations of the spirit, the least frequent is reason." Boileau, of course, wanted to base poetry on reason.
      We are speaking in the illustrious dialect of Latin we call Spanish, and it too is an episode of that nostalgia, of that amorous and at times bellicose commerce between Orient and Occident, for the discovery of America is due to the desire to reach the Indies. We call the people of Montezuma and Atahualpa Indians precisely because of this error, because the Spaniards believed they had reached the Indies. This little lecture is part of that dialogue between East and West.
      As for the word Occident, we know its origin, but that does not matter. Suffice to say that Western culture is not pure in the sense that it exists entirely because of Western efforts. Two nations have been essential for our culture: Greece (since Rome is a Hellenistic extension) and Israel, an Eastern country. Both are combined into what we call Western civilization. Speaking of the revelations of the East, we must also remember the continuing revelation that is the Holy Scripture. The fact is reciprocal, now that the West influences the East. There is a book by a French author called The Discovery of Europe by the Chinese — that too must have occurred.
      The Orient is the place where the sun comes from. There is a beautiful German word for the East, Morgenland, land of evening. You will recall Spengler's Der Untergang des Abendlandes, that is, the downward motion of the land of evening, or, as it is translated more prosiacally, The Decline of the West. I think that we must not renounce the word Orient, a word so beautiful, for within it, by happy chance, is the word oro,gold. In the word Orient we feel the word oro, for when the sun rises we see a sky of gold. I come back to that famous line of Dante:  "Dolce color d'oriental zaffiro." The word oriental here has two meanings: the Oriental sapphire, which comes from the East, and also the gold of morning, the gold of that first morning in Purgatory.
      What is the Orient? If we attempt to define it in a geographical way, we encounter something quiet strange: part of the Orient, North Africa, is in the West, or what for the Greeks and Romans was the West. Egypt is also the Orient, and the lands of Israel, Asia Monor, and Bactria, Persia, India — all of those countries that stretch further and further and have little in common with one another. Thus, for example, Tartary, China, Japan — all that is our Orient. Hearing the word Orient, I think we all think, first of all, of the Islamic Orient, and by extension the Orient of northern India.
      Such is the primary meaning it has for us, and this is the product of The Thousand and One Nights. There is something we feel as the Orient, something I have not felt in Israel but have felt in Granada and in Córdoba. I have felt the presence of the East, and I don't know if I can define it; perhaps it's not worth it to define something we feel so instinctively. The connotations of that word we owe to The Thousand and One Nights. It is our first thought; only later do we think of Marco Polo or the legends of Prester John, of those rivers of sand with fishes of gold. First we think of Islam.
      Let us look at the history of the book, and then at the translations. The origin of the book is obscure. We may think of the cathedrals, miscalled Gothic, that are the works of generations of men. But there is an essential difference: the artisans and craftsmen of the cathedrals knew what they were making. In contrast, The Thousand and One Nights appears in a mysterious way. It is the work of thousands of authors, and none of them knew that he was helping to construct this illustrous book, one of the most illustrious books in all literature (and one more appreciated in the West than in the East, so they tell me).
      Now, a curious note that was transcribed by the Baron von Hammer-Purgstall, an Orientalist cited with admiration by both Lane and Burton, the two most famous English translators of The Thousand and One Nights. He speaks of certain men he calls confabulatores nocturni, men of the night who tell stories, men whose profession it is to tell stories during the night. He cites an ancient Persian text which states that the first person to hear such stories told, who gathered the men of the night to tell stories in order to ease his insomnia, was Alexander of Macedon.
      Those stories must have been fables. I suspect that the enchantment of fables is not in their morals. What enchanted Aesop or the Hindu fabulists was to imagine animals that were like little men, with their comedies and tragedies. The idea of the moral proposition was added later. What was important was the fact that the wolf spoke with the sheep and the ox with the ass, or the lion with the nightingale.
      We have Alexander of Macedon hearing the stories told by these anonymous men of the night, and this profession lasted for a long time. Lane, in his book Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, says that as late as 1850 storytellers were common in Cairo. There were some fifty of them, and they often told stories from The Thousand and One Nights.
      We have a series of tales. Those from India, which form the central core (according to Burton and to Cansinos-Asséns, author of an excellent Spanish version) pass on to Persia; in Persia they are modified, enriched, and Arabized. They finally reach Egypt at the end of the fifteenth century, and the first compilation is made. This one leads to another, apparently a Persian version:  Hazar Afsana, the thousand tales.
      Why were there first a thousand and later a thousand and one? I think there are two reasons. First, there was the superstition — and superstition is very important in this case — that even numbers are evil omens. They then sought an odd number and luckily added and one. If they had made it nine hundred and ninety-nine we would have felt that there was a night missing. This way we feel that we have been given something infinite, that we have received a bonus — another night.
      We know that chronology and history exist, but they are primarily Western discoveries. There are no Persian histories of literature or Indian histories of philosophy, nor are there Chinese histories of Chinese liberature, because they are not interested in the succession of facts. They believe that literature and poetry are eternal processes. I think they are basically right. For example, the title, The Thousand and One Nights would be beautiful even if it were invented this morning. If it had been made today we would think what a lovely title, and it is lovely not only because it is beautiful (as beautiful as Lugones' Los crepúsculos del jardín: The Twilights of the Garden) but because it makes you want to read the book.
      One feels like getting lost in The Thousand and One Nights, one knows that entering that book one can forget one's own poor human fate; one can enter a world, a world made up of archetypal figures but also of individuals.
      In the title The Thousand and One Nights there is something very important: the suggestion of an infinite book. It practically is. The Arabs say that no one can read The Thousand and One Nightsto the end. Not for reasons of boredom: one feels the book is infinite.
      At home I have the seventeen volumes of Burton's version. I know I'll never read all of them, but I know that there the nights are waiting for me; that my life may be wretched but the seventeen volumes will be there; there will be that species of eternity, The Thousand and One Nights of the Orient.
      How does one define the Orient (not the real Orient, which does not exist)? I would say that the notions of East and West are generalizations, but that no individual can feel himself to be Oriental. I suppose that a man feels himself to be Persian or Hindu or Malaysian, but not Oriental. In the same way, no one feels himself to be Latin American: we feel ourselves to be Argentines or Chileans. It doesn't matter; the concept does not exist.
      What is the Orient, then? It is above all a world of extremes in which people are very unhappy or very happy, very rich or very poor. A world of kings, of kings who do not have to explain what they do. Of kings who are, we might say, as irresponsible as gods.
      There is, moreover, the notion of hidden treasures. Anybody may discover one. And the notion of magic, which is very important. What is magic? Magic is unique causality. It is the belief that besides the causal relations we know, there is another causal relation. That relationship may be due to accidents, to a ring, to a lamp. We rub a ring, a lamp, and a genie appears. That genie is a slave who is also omnipotent and who will fulfill our wishes. It can happen at any moment.
      Let us recall the story of the fisherman and the genie. The fisherman has four children and is poor. Every morning he casts his net from the banks of a sea. Already the expression a sea is magical, placing us in a world of undefined geography. The fisherman doesn't go down the the sea, he goes down to a sea and casts his net. One morning he casts and hauls it in three times: he hauls in a dead donkey, he hauls in broken pots — in short, useless things. He casts his net a fourth time — each time he recites a poem — and the net is very heavy. He hopes it will be full of fish, but what he hauls in is a jar of yellow copper, sealed with the seal of Suleiman (Solomon). He opens the jar, and a thick smoke emerges. He thinks of selling the jar to the hardware merchants, the smoke rises to the sky, condenses, and forms the figure of a genie.
      What are these genies? They are related to a pre-Adamite creation — before Adam, inferior to men, but they can be gigantic. According to the Moslems, they inhabit all of space and are invisible and impalpable.
      The genie says, "All praises to God and Solomon His Prophet." The fisherman asks why he speaks of Solomon, who died so long ago; today His Prophet is Mohammed. He also asks him why he is closed up in the jar. The genie tells him that he is one of those who rebelled against Solomon, and that Solomon enclosed him in the jar, sealed it, and threw it to the bottom of the sea. Four hundred years passed, and the genie pledged that whoever liberated him would be given all the gold in the world. Nothing happened. He swore that whoever liberated him, he would teach the song of the birds. The centuries passed, and the promises multiplied. Finally he swore that he would kill whoever freed him. "Now I must fulfill my promise. Prepare to die, my savior!" That flash of rage makes the genie strangely human, and perhaps likable.
      The fisherman is terrified. He pretends to disbelieve the story, and he says: "What you have told me cannot be true. How could you, whose head touches the sky and whose feet touch the earth, fit into that tiny jar?" The genie answers: "Man of little faith, you will see." He shrinks, goes back into the jar, and the fisherman seals it up.
      The story continues, and the protagonist becomes not a fisherman but a king, then the king of the Black Islands, and at the end everything comes together. It is typical of The Thousand and One Nights. We may think of those Chinese spheres in which there are other spheres, or of Russian dolls. We encounter something similar in Don Quixote but not taken to the extremes of The Thousand and One Nights. Moreover, all of this is inside a vast central tale which you all know: that of the sultan who has been deceived by his wife and who, in order never to be deceived again, resolves to marry every night and kill the woman the following morning. Until Scheherazade pledges to save the others and stays alive by telling stories that remain unfinished. They spend a thousand and one nights together, and in the end she produces a son.
      Stories within stories create a strange effect, almost infinite, a sort of vertigo. This has been imitated by writers ever since. The "Alice" books of Lewis Carroll or his novel Sylvia and Bruno, where there are dreams that branch out and multiply.
      The subject of dreams is a favorite of The Thousand and One Nights. For example, the story of the two dreamers. A man in Cairo dreams that a voice orders him to go to Isfahan in Persia, where a treasure awaits him. He undertakes the long and difficult voyage and finally reaches Isfahan. Exhausted, he stretches out in the patio of a mosque to rest. Without knowing it he is among thieves. They are all arrested, and the cadi asks him why he has come to the city. The Egyptian tells him. The cadi laughs until he shows the back of his teeth and says to him: "Foolish and gullible man, three times I have dreamed of a house in Cairo, behind which is a garden, and in the garden a sundial, and then a fountain and a fig tree, and beneath the fountain there is a treasure. I have never given the least credit to this lie. Never return to Isfahan. Take this money and go." The man returns to Cairo. He has recognized his own house in the cadi's dream. He digs beneath the fountain and finds the treasure.
      In The Thousand and One Nights there are echoes of the West. We encounter the adventures of Ulysses, except that Ulysses is called Sinbad the Sailor. The adventures are at times identical: for example, the story of Polyphemus.
      To erect the palace of The Thousand and One Nights it took generations of men, and those men are our benefactors, as we have inherited this inexhaustible book, this book capable of so much metamorphosis. I say so much metamorphosis because the first translation, that of Galland, is quite simple and is perhaps the most enchanting of them all, the least demanding on the reader. Without this first text, as Captain Burton said, the later versions could not have been written.
      Galland publishes his first volume in 1704. It produces a sort of scandal, but at the same time it enchants the rational France of Louis XIV. When we think of the Romantic movement, we usually think of dates that are much later. But it might be said that the Romantic movement begins at that moment when someone, in Normandy or in Paris, reads The Thousand and One Nights. He leaves the world legislated by Boileau and enters the world of Romantic freedom.
      The other events come later: the discovery of the picaresque novel by the Frenchman Le Sage; the Scots and English ballads published by Percy around 1750; and, around 1798, the Romantic movement beginning in England with Coleridge, who dreams of Kublai Khan, the protector of Marco Polo. We see how marvelous the world is and how interconnected things are.
      Then come the other translations. The one by Lane is accompanied by an encyclopedia of the customs of the Moslems. The anthropological and obscene translation by Burton is written in a curious English partly derived from the fourteenth century, an English full of archaisms and neologisms, an English not devoid of beauty but which at times is difficult to read. Then the licensed (in both senses of the word) version of Doctor Mardrus, and a German version, literal but without literary charm, by Littmann. Now, happily, we have a Spanish version by my teacher Rafael Cansinos-Asséns. The book has been published in Mexico; it is perhaps the best of all the versions, and it is accompanied by notes.
      The most famous tale of The Thousand and One Nights is not found in the original version. It is the story of Aladdin and the magic lamp. It appears in Galland's version, and Burton searched in vain for an Arabic or Persian text. Some have suspected Galland forged the tale. I think the word forged is unjust and malign. Galland had as much right to invent a story as did those confabulatores nocturni. Why shouldn't we suppose that after having translated so many tales, he wanted to invent one himself, and did?
      The story does not end with Galland. In his autobiography De Quincey says that, for him, there was one story in The Thousand and One Nights that was incomparably superior to the others, and that was the story of Aladdin. He speaks of the magician of Magrab who comes to China because he knows that there is the one person capable of exhuming the marvelous lamp. Galland tells us that the magician was an astrologer, and that the stars told him he had to go to China to find the boy. De Quincey, who had a wonderfully inventive memory, records a completely different fact. According to him, the magician had put his ear to the ground and had heard the innumerable footsteps of men. And he had distinguished, from among the footsteps, those of the boy destined to discover the lamp. This, said De Quincey, brought him to the idea that the world is made of correspondences, is full of magic mirrors — that in small things is the cipher of the large. The fact of the magician putting his ear to the ground and deciphering the footsteps of Aladdin appears in none of these texts. It is an invention of the memory or the dreams of De Quincey.
      The Thousand and One Nights has not died. The infinite time of the thousand and one nights continues its course. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the book was translated; at the beginning of the nineteenth (or end of the eighteenth) De Quincey remembered it another way. The Nights will have other translators, and each translator will create a different version of the book. We may almost speak of the many books titles The Thousand and One Nights: two in French, by Galland and Mardrus; three in English, by Burton, Lane, and Paine; three in German, by Henning, Littmann, and Weil; one in Spanish by Cansinos-Asséns. Each of these books is different, because The Thousand and One Nightskeeps growing or recreating itself. Robert Louis Stevenson's admirable New Arabian Nights takes up the subject of the disguised prince who walks through the city accompanied by his vizier and who has curious adventures. But Stevenson invented his prince, Florizel of Bohemia, and his aide-de-camp, Colonel Geraldine, and he had them walk through London. Not a real London, but a London similar to Baghdad; not the Baghdad of reality, but the Baghdad of The Thousand and One Nights.
      There is another author we must add: G. K. Chesterton, Stevenson's heir. The fantastic London in which occur the adventures of Father Brown and of The Man Who Was Thursday  would not exist if he hadn't read Stevenson. And Stevenson would not have written his New Arabian Nights if he hadn't read The Arabian Nights.  The Thousand and One Nights is not something which has died. It is a book so vast that it is not necessary to have read it, for it is a part of our memory — and also, now, a part of tonight.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Neil Gaiman's Speech

I really enjoy his voice in this talk. And the tips he gives are excellent, as well. ~~ GH

Keynote Address, University of The Arts
134th Commencement
May 17, 2012
I never really expected to find myself giving advice to people graduating from an establishment of higher education.  I never graduated from any such establishment. I never even started at one. I escaped from school as soon as I could, when the prospect of four more years of enforced learning before I'd become the writer I wanted to be was stifling.
I got out into the world, I wrote, and I became a better writer the more I wrote, and I wrote some more, and nobody ever seemed to mind that I was making it up as I went along, they just read what I wrote and they paid for it, or they didn't, and often they commissioned me to write something else for them.
Which has left me with a healthy respect and fondness for higher education that those of my friends and family, who attended Universities, were cured of long ago.
Looking back, I've had a remarkable ride. I'm not sure I can call it a career, because a career implies that I had some kind of career plan, and I never did. The nearest thing I had was a list I made when I was 15 of everything I wanted to do: to write an adult novel, a children's book, a comic, a movie, record an audiobook, write an episode of Doctor Who... and so on. I didn't have a career. I just did the next thing on the list.
So I thought I'd tell you everything I wish I'd known starting out, and a few things that, looking back on it, I suppose that I did know. And that I would also give you the best piece of advice I'd ever got, which I completely failed to follow.
First of all: When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing.
This is great. People who know what they are doing know the rules, and know what is possible and impossible. You do not. And you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can.
If you don't know it's impossible it's easier to do. And because nobody's done it before, they haven't made up rules to stop anyone doing that again, yet.
Secondly, If you have an idea of what you want to make, what you were put here to do, then just go and do that.
And that's much harder than it sounds and, sometimes in the end, so much easier than you might imagine. Because normally, there are things you have to do before you can get to the place you want to be. I wanted to write comics and novels and stories and films, so I became a journalist, because journalists are allowed to ask questions, and to simply go and find out how the world works, and besides, to do those things I needed to write and to write well, and I was being paid to learn how to write economically,  crisply, sometimes under adverse conditions, and on time.
Sometimes the way to do what you hope to do will be clear cut, and sometimes  it will be almost impossible to decide whether or not you are doing the correct thing, because you'll have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debts, finding work, settling for what you can get.
Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.
And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.
I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work.
Thirdly, When you start off, you have to deal with the problems of failure. You need to be thickskinned, to learn that not every project will survive. A freelance life, a life in the arts, is sometimes like putting messages in bottles, on a desert island, and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles and open it and read it, and put something in a bottle that will wash its way back to you: appreciation, or a commission, or money, or love. And you have to accept that you may put out a hundred things for every bottle that winds up coming back.
The problems of failure are problems of discouragement, of hopelessness, of hunger. You want everything to happen and you want it now, and things go wrong. My first book – a piece of journalism I had done for the money, and which had already bought me an electric typewriter  from the advance – should have been a bestseller. It should have paid me a lot of money. If the publisher hadn't gone into involuntary liquidation between the first print run selling out and the second printing, and before any royalties could be paid, it would have done.
And I shrugged, and I still had my electric typewriter and enough money to pay the rent for a couple of months, and I decided that I would do my best in future not to write books just for the money. If you didn't get the money, then you didn't have anything. If I did work I was proud of, and I didn't get the money, at least I'd have the work.
Every now and again, I forget that rule, and whenever I do, the universe kicks me hard and reminds me. I don't know that it's an issue for anybody but me, but it's true that nothing I did where the only reason for doing it was the money was ever worth it, except as bitter experience. Usually I didn't wind up getting the money, either.  The things I did because I was excited, and wanted to see them exist in reality have never let me down, and I've never regretted the time I spent on any of them.
The problems of failure are hard.
The problems of success can be harder, because nobody warns you about them.
The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you. It's Imposter Syndrome, something my wife Amanda christened the Fraud Police.
In my case, I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard (I don't know why he carried a clipboard, in my head, but he did) would be there, to tell me it was all over, and they had caught up with me, and now I would have to go and get a real job, one that didn't consist of making things up and writing them down, and reading books I wanted to read. And then I would go away quietly and get the kind of job where you don't have to make things up any more.
The problems of success. They're real, and with luck you'll experience them. The point where you stop saying yes to everything, because now the bottles you threw in the ocean are all coming back, and have to learn to say no.
I watched my peers, and my friends, and the ones who were older than me and watch how miserable some of them were: I'd listen to them telling me that they couldn't envisage a world where they did what they had always wanted to do any more, because now they had to earn a certain amount every month just to keep where they were. They couldn't go and do the things that mattered, and that they had really wanted to do; and that seemed as a big a tragedy as any problem of failure.
And after that, the biggest problem of success is that the world conspires to stop you doing the thing that you do, because you are successful. There was a day when I looked up and realised that I had become someone who professionally replied to email, and who wrote as a hobby.  I started answering fewer emails, and was relieved to find I was writing much more.
Fourthly, I hope you'll make mistakes. If you're making mistakes, it means you're out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be useful. I once misspelled Caroline, in a letter, transposing the A and the O, and I thought, “Coraline looks like a real name...”
And remember that whatever discipline you are in, whether you are a musician or a photographer, a fine artist or a cartoonist, a writer, a dancer, a designer, whatever you do you have one thing that's unique. You have the ability to make art.
And for me, and for so many of the people I have known, that's been a lifesaver. The ultimate lifesaver. It gets you through good times and it gets you through the other ones.
Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.
Make good art.
I'm serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it's all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn't matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.
Make it on the good days too.
And Fifthly, while you are at it, make your art. Do the stuff that only you can do.
The urge, starting out, is to copy. And that's not a bad thing. Most of us only find our own voices after we've sounded like a lot of other people. But the one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.
The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you're walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That's the moment you may be starting to get it right.
The things I've done that worked the best were the things I was the least certain about, the stories where I was sure they would either work, or more likely be the kinds of embarrassing failures people would gather together and talk about  until the end of time. They always had that in common: looking back at them, people explain why they were inevitable successes. While I was doing them, I had no idea.
I still don't. And where would be the fun in making something you knew was going to work?
And sometimes the things I did really didn't work. There are stories of mine that have never been reprinted. Some of them never even left the house. But I learned as much from them as I did from the things that worked.
Sixthly. I will pass on some secret freelancer knowledge. Secret knowledge is always good. And it is useful for anyone who ever plans to create art for other people, to enter a freelance world of any kind. I learned it in comics, but it applies to other fields too. And it's this:
People get hired because, somehow, they get hired. In my case I did something which these days would be easy to check, and would get me into trouble, and when I started out, in those pre-internet days, seemed like a sensible career strategy: when I was asked by editors who I'd worked for, I lied. I listed a handful of magazines that sounded likely, and I sounded confident, and I got jobs. I then made it a point of honour to have written something for each of the magazines I'd listed to get that first job, so that I hadn't actually lied, I'd just been chronologically challenged... You get work however you get work.
People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today's world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don't even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They'll forgive the lateness of the work if it's good, and if they like you. And you don't have to be as good as the others if you're on time and it's always a pleasure to hear from you.
When I agreed to give this address, I started trying to think what the best advice I'd been given over the years was.
And it came from Stephen King twenty years ago, at the height of the success of Sandman. I was writing a comic that people loved and were taking seriously. King had liked Sandman and my novel with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens, and he saw the madness, the long signing lines, all that, and his advice was this:
This is really great. You should enjoy it.
And I didn't. Best advice I got that I ignored.Instead I worried about it. I worried about the next deadline, the next idea, the next story. There wasn't a moment for the next fourteen or fifteen years that I wasn't writing something in my head, or wondering about it. And I didn't stop and look around and go, this is really fun. I wish I'd enjoyed it more. It's been an amazing ride. But there were parts of the ride I missed, because I was too worried about things going wrong, about what came next, to enjoy the bit I was on.
That was the hardest lesson for me, I think: to let go and enjoy the ride, because the ride takes you to some remarkable and unexpected places.
And here, on this platform, today, is one of those places. (I am enjoying myself immensely.)
To all today's graduates: I wish you luck. Luck is useful. Often you will discover that the harder you work, and the more wisely you work, the luckier you get. But there is luck, and it helps.
We're in a transitional world right now, if you're in any kind of artistic field, because the nature of distribution is changing, the models by which creators got their work out into the world, and got to keep a roof over their heads and buy sandwiches while they did that, are all changing. I've talked to people at the top of the food chain in publishing, in bookselling, in all those areas, and nobody knows what the landscape will look like two years from now, let alone a decade away. The distribution channels that people had built over the last century or so are in flux for print, for visual artists, for musicians, for creative people of all kinds.
Which is, on the one hand, intimidating, and on the other, immensely liberating. The rules, the assumptions, the now-we're supposed to's of how you get your work seen, and what you do then, are breaking down. The gatekeepers are leaving their gates. You can be as creative as you need to be to get your work seen. YouTube and the web (and whatever comes after YouTube and the web) can give you more people watching than television ever did. The old rules are crumbling and nobody knows what the new rules are.
So make up your own rules.
Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult, in this case recording an audio book, and I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could. She put up a notice to this effect on the studio wall, and she said it helped.
So be wise, because the world needs more wisdom, and if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would.
And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Gentleman Caller

Funny how important things can be forgotten. Just today I remembered we made a pact, he and I -- a pact that he cannot take me. I must give myself to him or he cannot have me.
We have sat together many times, he and me -- we -- balancing the soul between us like the ballast we were. He tugged the soul toward him to see if it was ready to go; I pulled it back to center, refusing to let it feel rushed or pressed for time. These decisions must not be made in haste.

He sat with me countless times, nodding with respect, rocking in his chair (he brings one with him everywhere he goes -- he hates to stand on ceremony but is willing to wait forever) with his bony hand outstretched in invitation lest I feel rejected.
I think he feels lonely at times. Many fear him, cower in fear at his face. When he gets a spare moment, he always stops to pay his respects (he deeply respects me), and we talk.
He ritually invites me to leave with him just before he fades into the shadow in the corner. So far, I've declined but thanked him for his kindness.
And today, I remembered the bargain we struck, quid pro quo. He may not compel me go with him. In return, I entertain Death whenever he stops by.
One could have worse company. ~~ Ginger Hamilton