Category Archives: Essays

The Life of the Artist in the Digital Age

by Julian Neuer

artist-digital-age

My fingertips possess fantastic powers.

The power to skip and hop over these keys, to form words and sentences, to surprise and amuse readers, even when the readers are just me.

The power to slide and dance over this trackpad, to trace lines and shapes, to enlarge and reduce them, to fill figures and backgrounds, to fill — to try to fill — empty spaces in life.

From my fingertips emerge laser rays, burning sparks, electronic ectoplasm, bucket-filled color gradients. Visible magic.

From my fingertips come the motions to conduct invisible orchestras, the cues to direct the actors planted in the crowd.

My fingertips set the pace. My fingertips point to destinations.

I raise my hands and they turn into long branches, reaching all the way to the clouds. Birds come to rest on my fingers, to converse, to plan their migrations. At night, when the birds are gone, my fingertips tickle the stars.

I let my arms fall to my sides, my hands dig deep into the ground. My roots grow so fast that they emerge on the other side of the world, only to meet the sky again. On my fingertips perch tall mountains, giant waves, fiery dragons, rising suns.

It’s been a long day. Back home, my head is heavy. I rub my eyelids with my fingertips and fall asleep. Now it’s time to dream.


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Collage by Julian Neuer.

Preface to a book of short stories I have yet to finish

by Julian Neuer

Libri_books6

I don’t know about you, but now that I am turning fifty, some things are starting to make sense to me.

(Don’t get me wrong, most of them still don’t. Do they to you? Please send me an email if they do.)

I’ve spent my entire life with a strong suspicion that all the people around me are very confused. They’re confused all the time, even when they want to help me or when they try to explain how the world works. Especially then.

Everybody is always confused, even when they happen to be right. That’s because they can never be sure they’re right. If they say they are sure, it’s just another sign that they are confused. They just hope they’re right, and hope is confusing because it is not certainty.

In a way, the confusion can be reassuring, as you don’t have to take people very seriously. The confusion means that no one really knows what they are saying, so there is still a chance that you are the one who got things right after all.

But it’s also discouraging, because whatever you say in response to all those confused people, chances are that they will stay confused, sometimes even more so than before.

As I was saying, the modest untangling of a small portion of my personal confusion took the better part of half a century. For me, that’s a waste of time. How can it possibly do me any good, say, to have adolescence all figured out by the time I reach my fiftieth birthday?

That’s why I’ve decided to teach my son all the tricks in my bag. Teach him all the secrets now, when he’s still a child — he’s eleven —, so he won’t feel he has wasted as much time as I have. I was planning to do it casually, maybe in the form of bedtime talks, very short, very objective, something along the lines of what I wish someone had done for me when my mind was young and chock-full of confused questions.

I started the program last week. Each night, as I tucked him in bed, I tried to condense into concise sentences one of the precious truths it had taken me a long time to reap from my own tangled existence. “Life lessons”, I called them. I explained to my son that bedtime would be a time for life lessons. He seemed to like the idea.

The first nights, I served him jewels like:

“You shouldn’t make things more complicated than they need to be.”

“Use your time to practice what you want to be good at.”

“Trust me even when you don’t understand what I say.”

After a few days, I thought it would be good pedagogical practice to review the previous lessons before proclaiming a new one. That was when I found my son couldn’t remember any of them! I was outraged! To take for granted such a treasure of life lessons! How unwise. How disappointing.

How confusing.

Then I realized I couldn’t remember them either. I was making my life lessons so compact that they were slipping through our mental fingers, so to speak. The human mind, I concluded, has not evolved to process these concentrated bits of pure truth in any efficient way. Before I could explain this to my son, however, he confessed:

“I thought you were going to tell me stories about how you learned your life lessons.”

Stories.

But of course.

Stories.

Stories are how the human mind digests important truths.

Stories take longer than aphorisms, sure, but not so long as fifty years. My son was right.

So stories it would be.

Except that I couldn’t find them. I searched as hard as I could, but all I found were disconnected fragments, isolated events, indistinct impressions. Where were the stories, my stories, the raw stuff of my worldview? Either I couldn’t remember them or they didn’t exist at all — not in the form I was looking for.

Could it be because my lessons, my precious life lessons, had only been learned little by little, after a lot of trial and error, while I went stumbling through the decades? Were my lessons a trick of mirrors, an illusion that existed only with the benefit of hindsight?

Would my son have to live my life — or his life, for that matter — to learn the lessons I was trying to teach him?

There was only one solution I could see.

I would have to make up my stories.

And this is how this book came to be.

Here they are.

They are stories of fantasy and fiction, to urge you not to take for granted the world in which we live, because things could have been, could be, may someday be very different from what we consider “normal” and “commonplace” today.

They are stories that warn you that it is so-called “normality” that is fictional, because fiction can carry much deeper truths than “normality” can.

They are stories with lots of interior monologues and dialogues addressing the reader (is there really a difference?), because I think the only life worth living is the life of the mind.

They are stories about the lives of mysterious characters, some of them not even human. I can’t help you much here. I don’t know who they are, or where they have come from. They simply showed up and told me their tales themselves.

So we’re both in this together, you and I: if there are life lessons to be learned from these stories, it is up to me — as much as it is up to you — to find out what those lessons are.

They are stories I may have never lived — not that I remember, anyway —, but that I’ve had somewhere inside me all this time. There must be a lot of me in them, and I sure hope there are more of them in me.

The book, needless to say, is dedicated to my son.


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Photo of books from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Libri_books6.JPG.

Confessional Writing

by Julian Neuer

395px-Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_-_Confidences

I find it easier to write fiction than to write about myself. I admit there is always a little bit of me in the fiction I write, but it is usually just a little, and it is well hidden — when it is a lot, then it is very well hidden — and if pressed about a particular passage, I can always claim that that detail is totally invented.

“Writing is the only socially acceptable way to be a compulsive liar”, I have seen someone offer as the main reason why he writes. How true. This makes writing equivalent to daydreaming (hallucinating?). When I was a child, I used to lie in bed at night, waiting for sleep to come, and imagine adventures where I figured as the main character, the hero, the champion. A particular recurring episode was a painting contest, where I always came out the winner. After documenting my painting process, journalists would interview me and congratulate me on my success, and the audience would ask me for autographs.

I have never painted a single stroke in my entire life.

On the other hand, Nachtzug nach Lissabon has shown me how a personal journal can be made into a literary jewel. Amadeu Prado’s autobiographical essays are exquisite and relevant. So relevant, in fact, that we forget they are not real, but only the product of Pascal Mercier’s imagination. Would that be the height of fiction writing, to produce fiction that passes so perfectly as nonfiction? No, let’s not be naïve. Whether what we write is true or not (in the sense of having happened in the real world) should be utterly irrelevant; what matters is that readers can identify with what we write, that readers be convinced that what we write could have happened, could happen, could be happening right now. To us. To them.

Then the question comes up that maybe real life — my life, more precisely — is not interesting enough material to be written about. A question to which a good answer would be that scene from Charlie Kaufmann’s film Adaptation, where a beginning writer asks at a workshop:

“What if a writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens? Where people don’t change, they don’t have any epiphanies. They struggle and are frustrated, and nothing is resolved. More a reflection of the real world.”

and McKee, the writing guru in charge, answers:

“The real fucking world… First of all, you write a screenplay without conflict or crisis, you’ll bore your audience to tears. Secondly, nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day. There’s genocide, war, corruption. Every fucking day, somewhere in the world, somebody sacrifices his life to save somebody else. Every fucking day, someone somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love. People lose it. Christ, a child watches a mother beaten to death on the steps of a church. Someone goes hungry. Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman. If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life!”

But form is important here too. Nabokov once wrote that “style and structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are hogwash”. However, if an autobiographical text is to move the reader through style and structure, wouldn’t it lose the spontaneous nature we expect autobiography to have? Or should I draft, revise and polish every one of my journal entries like I draft, revise and polish my short stories? Can I even keep up the pace such a polished journal would demand? Or, while I’m at it, why not embellish it — like Pascal Mercier did — and create a fictional journal, a fictional autobiography?

So, if I go confessional in my writing, do I have to make it interesting and beautiful, or can I be my own dull self? (Or, to follow McKee’s exhortation, should I learn about life before trying to write about it?) And if I want to write moving fiction, do I have to stay away from autobiographical content? Should anyone really be interested in my confessions?

I should. Another reason to write is “to discover, to express, to celebrate, to acknowledge, to witness, to remember who I am”, according to another anonymous aspiring writer. Writing is psychotherapy. If I never write about myself, is there something I am trying to hide? And can I hide it from myself, when I am just the person who should know best? I have already admitted that there is always a bit of truth in every fictional piece that I write, so I might as well stop trying to hide that truth, and hold it up for all to see. (Sometimes I hide it so well that even I have a hard time recognizing it. I should be more honest with myself.) This is what Pascal Mercier’s Amadeu Prado had to say about writing as the road to self-knowledge:

“It is a fight against the inner paralysis. Why didn’t I start it sooner? We are not fully awake when we do not write. And we have no idea who we are. Not to mention who we are not.”

He meant autobiographical writing. He did not consider the question of fiction versus nonfiction. But I have a clear feeling that the answer — as it often is — is to act. To write fiction, nonfiction, about others, about myself. Different combinations may work best for different people at different times, and one thing is certain: as Andy Warhol said, “the most important thing is work”.


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“Confidences”, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_-_Confidences.jpg, is in the public domain.