The Difficult That Leads to Wonderful

I was recently reading Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy, and about halfway through, I started to ponder (which, apparently, I do a lot), started to listen to that little voice commenting in my head. “Hey,” it said, “Do you see what is happening here? Do you see that this is a conversation. The whole thing! They are just talking to each other. And this is a novel?” So I stopped, and I began to really think about what was actually happening in the story. Yup, the voice was right: The story unfolding is simply a Psychiatrist and a patient (Alicia the suicidal genius mathematician) in various therapy sessions. Wow! The plot, if any, is razor thin, gossamer thin, a slight thread of narrative pulled taught but never breaking. The characterization (which is profound) is simply via dialogue – no narrative exposition, narrative summary, no in-scene action (okay, they smoke cigarettes).This is a reduced, distilled technique where McCarthy basically said to himself, “I wonder if I can use only dialogue and pull off a novel.” And he does. And, as with other novels dof McCarthy, the result is stunning.

But to the reader – it is… well… just plain difficult.

And this concept of “stretching or using a technique to the absolute breaking point,” experimenting with the Art, testing it, seeing what truly works, when it fails, pulling it back just before – this is what creativity and genius really is. To the Artist, it is what is possible. 

So, this made me think: What makes Art difficult? And why would an artist do such a thing? Some, I agree, are after a shock, a raised middle finger to the “great unwashed.” But those are few, and we forget them over time. The rest are explorers of craft, the adventurer, the scientists of Art, those who truly want to “understand” how the craft works, getting to the bones, the mechanics of the thing.

In my own world of writing, these explorers are many: Stanley Elkin comes to mind (a maximalist who wanted to see what the sentence could do at its fullest). He once wrote a sentence (in his novel Magic Kingdom) a page long. And it is brilliant! Powerful – filled with characterization and control. On the other end, Hemingway, McCarthy, Stein, the minimalists who distill the language down to its bare essence, reduce it to scaffolding… see if it can hold the weight of the story. And it does. There are others (too many to mention), but they are there, in every genre, every Art Form pushing, pulling, shaping, failing, re-grouping, trying again.

I’ve used this analogy often in my teaching about writing: a novel is like sitting on a two seated bike. The novel (words placed side-by-side) is in the front seat steering; the reader sits on the back seat. You could say this about all ART. What makes really experimental art difficult is that it consistently pulls you away from what you expect, the established rules to the game. You want the bike to go to the well so you can have a drink. The artist says, “I know what you want, you’ll get it, but you need to trust me. I found another route. Enjoy the ride.” I open Stella Maris expecting it to be a traditional novel. I get a dialogue/character study so profound I am still thinking about it to this moment. Moby Dick does this, War and Peace Does this, Most of the great Russian Writers do this, Joyce does this, Mieville, and Dickenson, and Stephenson, and Pynchon, Elkin, and on and on and on. The Art form and the playful experimenting Artist is infinite.

So, the next time you come up against the difficult in Art, go for the ride. It may fail, the art breaking down, the enjoyment of the thing, the journey – not worth it. But it may (and often does) just surprise you, like Stella Maris does, make you think and ponder and experience something quite extraordinary.

Let me know your thoughts? Have you experienced the difficult/amazing? What was it? What is it that makes art fail? Can it fail?

I’ll look forward to hearing from you.


3 thoughts on “The Difficult That Leads to Wonderful

  1. I’ve always been willing to go along for the ride and what you’ve said here tells me why others may find it difficult. I leave myself open to the vision others bring knowing that even if I don’t understand, something has been added that will help my journey.


    • Those are wise words. Art makes us vulnerable. By definition we must be vulnerable in order to “receive” it. I think that makes us uncomfortable. Good Art always pays off. If I want the drink, I get the drink eventually. Good Art always gives us more not less. Bad art never delivers, and we feel like there was no payoff at the end. It could be we did not get it. That’s when the participant must be informed and do some research. It could be, the artist is uniformed – which to writer John Barth “ignorance is inexcusable for an artist”


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