“The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails”
It goes that the Daedalus myth is the archetype of the artist, who for some offense, was trapped inside his own creation, a labyrinth, with his son Icarus at his side, and a monster, the Minotaur, hidden somewhere inside the maze with them. It is a rather curious myth because it is not entirely clear what Daedalus had done to warrant this punishment, nor is it clear which half of the Minotaur is man and which half is bull. Was Daedalus punished because he had built a sham cow for Minos’s wife, Pasiphaë, to mate with a bull, or was it that King Minos feared that Daedalus would give away the solution to the infamous labyrinth and others would find the monster in the maze? The overarching lesson remains that the artist should not be too cunning. Daedalus like Odysseus was a cunning trickster. After the death of his son, Daedalus would be punished again for having been too clever: jealous of his nephew’s invention of a saw, Daedalus let his nephew, Perdix, fall to his death, but not before Athena saved him by turning him into a partridge.
Art and artist, creation and creator, pride and humility, patron and some undeniable price are the themes that I wish to discuss in this quick post. King Minos was a patron who had an agenda for containment rather than glorification of his name. Athena was a patroness of inspiration and of ingenuity, though Apollo is the better known as a patron of the arts. Let us look at the other participants in the artistic process. The Minotaur never asked for much. Every year seven Athenian boys and seven maidens were tossed into his prison to satisfy a grudge that his father had against the Athenians, until one day, Theseus, like the kid in The Shining, figured how to back-track his way out of the maze with a thread after killing the Minotaur. Icarus, like his father, proves a little too ambitious, and there I locate the myth of the mentor and artist.
In a perfect situation another artist is the mentor to the tyro. Daedalus taught his son most of his tricks, but, as we know, Icarus got overly enthusiastic with his wax wings and flapped his way up towards the sun until the heat melted the wings, causing him to fall to his death in the sea below. Unlike Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” and the Freudian idea that the son has to overcome the father to assert his artistic identity, it is the developing artist and not the master who dies. In today’s world we can ask, Who are the patrons and who are the mentors?
From the patrons of the world, we have genius grants and funding organizations that fund the work of artists, but I think the readers out there in the Amazonian jungle of digital and paper books are the modern patrons. They make or break writers. Ah, the cultivation of the craft has had a long, long history. There is no shortage of examples. Ezra Pound helped T.S. Eliot with The Wasteland. Thomas Wentworth Higginson might have mentored Emily Dickinson by way of his encouragement, but I think that he probably was more perplexed by her unorthodox style, dislocated syntax, and lyrical but occasionally violent imagery than capable of helping her art in the pursuit of her art in any substantive manner. John Gardner helped numerous writers find their voice; among them was Raymond Carver. Gertrude Stein helped numerous writers with painstaking criticism and advice in her workshops. Sherwood Anderson mentored Faulkner and Hemingway. Ford Maddox Ford mentored both Hemingway and Jean Rhys; and in these last two examples, I do think the artists turned on their mentors. The New Yorker has had a venerable tradition of editors, from William Shawn on down to Tina Brown, who have battled, coaxed and cajoled a Who’s Who List of American letters. For one last example of mentoring we have Jonathan Franzen and his close friend, the late David Foster Wallace. We can only speculate about the monsters in the maze, the dark side of mentoring: F. Scott Fitzgerald and wife, Zelda; Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.
Whom do writers have today for mentors? There might be a writer’s workshop at a community college, or an online forum where you submit a work for review and commentary, where you have your icepacks for the bumps and lumps, or wait to read the Track Changes comments and deletions in Microsoft Word that, despite all the ink colors, sting as badly as grandmother’s mercurochrome. I’ve tried writer workshops in the past and found that I had to deal with too many egos. It was not a positive experience for me. I also had the experience that those who read my work had their own biases. I didn’t want to be edited and shaped by how some teacher or peer would have written my piece their way. It might well have been a lack of confidence on my part, that I won’t deny, but in the end, I walked away. Workshops may work for other people, but they don’t for me.
While my bookshelves are lined with literary mentors, I’ve been fortunate to have real-life mentors. I was fortunate to find a good friend, Dean Hunt, who remains patient with my perverse handling of grammar. Let me offer my mea culpa first and foremost. I’ve struggled with grammar most of my life. Elementary-school grammar was a nightmare for me. I’ll offer theory and fact. English was not my first language and when I started school I felt that I had to rewire my brain. I won’t go into too much detail but needless to say that when I write today I still self-edit because I tend to place my adjectives after my nouns. Dean, as dutiful grammarian, will let me know whether it is whether or if it is if. You’d think as a former applications engineer who wrote and debugged If-Then loops I’d know better. Tense sequencing is another bug in my neural software. As for the fact? My hearing is less than ideal so there are rather odd quirks. For example, I don’t hear contractions well. I do not hear the “d” in “I’d” for “I would” and I hear “another words” for “in other words.”
Then there is line-editing, which is a skill that is in short supply in my toolbox. After Dean edits for grammar and syntax, I entrust my work to Dave King, line-editor extraordinaire. I learned about Dave by accident. I had found his book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, which he co-wrote with Renni Browne. The book is now in its second edition. Rather than tell you what Dave does with my writing, I’d rather show you. Below are the first three paragraphs of my unpublished novel from 2010, The Good Man, followed by the line-edited version.
Every city breathes. The Paris that he remembered exhaled diesel fumes, fresh-pulled espresso and the lingering burn of Gauloises every morning; but Vienna, in those days after the War, struggled for something between a frustrated yawn and a fresh breath of air. Everything was new in an old sort of way.
Walker took in his own breath of air and walked across the floor to his office. The
eyes at the desks followed him. They always did. He didn’t have to look. He knew. He felt queer in civilian clothes. He was slowly becoming habituated to the new look. His broad shoulders spread nicely in the navy weave, the blue shirt met his old standards, crisp, and the black tie with diagonal red and blue stripes held his Midwestern-neck midline and business-like. He owned no briefcase. No business card. His most comforting fashion accessory, Grable, a .45, hung secure in its holster under his shoulder, under the suit jacket, and unknown under the topcoat. His Grable was never Betty: she either made you appreciate your legs as you ran, or she took you off of them.
His office door had no name. His secretary was a nervous young woman nondescript in
looks, almost anonymous. She despised vices, particularly alcohol and tobacco. Aside from the dress there were no curves to her personality, except that she exuded that scared, terminal tension an animal gets in its final sickness when there is no desire to eat or drink, knowing something bad will happen but not when. She rarely spoke, her answers were always perfunctory and to the point. She was government-office efficiency.
Every city breathes. The Paris that he remembered exhaled diesel fumes, fresh-pulled espresso and the lingering burn of Gauloises every morning. Vienna, in those days after the War, struggled for something between a sachertorte and ruin.
Walker took a deep breath of the Vienna mix and walked across the floor to his office. The eyes at the desks followed him, as they had every day of his first week on the job. He still felt queer in civilian clothes. His broad shoulders were constrained by the navy weave, though the blue shirt met his old standards of crispness, and the black tie with diagonal red and blue stripes gave his midwestern neck a businesslike facade. His most comforting fashion accessory, Grable, a .45, hung secure in its holster under his shoulder, a subtle lump under the suit jacket and invisible under the topcoat.
There was no name on his office door. The secretary Jack had given him was a nervous young woman, nondescript to the point of being anonymous. Aside from the dress, there were no curves to her personality. She despised vices, particularly alcohol and tobacco. She rarely spoke, and then her answers were always perfunctory and to the point. She was government-office efficiency personified.
Without citing all of Dave’s comments, I will tell you that what I learned from them was that the biggest fault present in my writing before the line-editing, the fault that was diminishing an otherwise compelling resurrection of the classic-noir spy thriller, was that I was overwriting the noir language to the point of Lew Archer parody. As I worked with Dave in fifty-page batches, I saw his rationale as he pruned and shaped the prose, where he asked for rewriting, and warned me about point-of-view glitches that I had to remedy. I became aware of my faults, recurring habits, and my strengths. Dave would continue onward line-editing all my novels, including Roma, Underground, and its subsequent installments that would find their way to Winter Goose Publishing, where I would add editor James Logan to my triumvirate of mentors.
I hope that in reading this you can see the maze and the potential pitfalls, but with a mentor who “gets” your style and hears your voice, without trying to refashion you into something that you are not, you can avoid the monster in the maze, whether it is real or something you have created. A mentor keeps you humble, the craft keeps you honest; and while a mentor cannot make you a writer, he or she can shepherd your work to higher and safer ground.