A Walk in the Park and Minor White

The other day, I fired up Google to look at opinions on the appropriate age for protagonists of young adult vs. middle grade fantasy. The reason, as I have said here recently, is that I am reviewing all my ideas and assumptions about the story I’m working on. Everything is on the table.  I was thinking of the greater freedom middle grade fantasy allows; as one blogger put it, “in middle grade, tall ships and laptops can exist in the same universe.”

Opinions on the age divide between the two genres varied, and in particular, no one seemed to know where to put a 14 year old lead character – what I am currently leaning toward for my heroine.  She started out 14, became 16 for a while, and is probably going to get younger again.

At the end of this search I was not only frustrated with the lack of clear answers, but also slightly disgusted with myself.  I have written about not being bound by rules, and these are the most inane sort of rules.  I remembered my very first post on this blog, when I quoted from Neil Gaiman’s editorial notes for the collection of stories called, Stories (William Morrow, 2010).  Gaiman says:  “I realized that I was not alone in finding myself increasingly frustrated with the boundaries of genre:  the idea that categories which existed only to guide people around bookshops now seemed to be dictating the kinds of stories that were being written.”

The next day, Mary and I were walking in the local park and I was relating the results of my search and grousing a bit.  I said, “It would be nice to forget the whole business of getting published.”  She shrugged and said, “Why don’t you?”

Why don’t I indeed?  And we’re not talking here of the old cliche, “I just write for myself,” which implies indifference to quality or being read.  We’re talking of what T.S. Eliot meant when he said, “Take no thought for the harvest but only for the proper sowing.”

Why don’t I?  The reason is simple.  I’m still learning my craft as a writer, still a little hungry for external validation, but I have travelled this arc from apprentice to journeyman before.  I thought of the words and photographs of Minor White who influenced me more than anyone else when, after two years of college, I changed majors and schools to study art and photography.  Minor White’s dedication to photography as a spiritual practice was one of the reasons I went.

White, (1908-1976), began taking photographs in 1938 after spending five years writing poetry.  In 1946, Ansel Adams invited him to join the faculty of the first American fine arts photography department at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco.  White’s work always had an inward focus; he evolved the concept of “equivalents,” a word first coined by the photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, who served as a mentor for White’s and Adams’s entire generation.

Equivalents are photographs, often of mundane subjects, that are seen with an almost visionary regard for form and light.  At their best, “equivalents” evoke powerful and even semi-mystical responses in the viewer, unrelated to the literal meaning of the image.  Later in his working and teaching career, White wrote extensively of Zen and camera work.

Snow Door by Minor White

Zen has always been associated with certain arts, traditionally, painting, poetry, archery, flower arranging, and the tea ceremony. Zen Master Dogen (1200-1253) wrote a manual for cooks.  My friend, Rosi Hollinbeck, has written about the inspiration she gets from Natalie Goldberg who writes about writing from the perspective of a long time Zen practitioner:  http://rosihollinbeckthewritestuff.blogspot.com/2011/03/book-for-writers-and-lovers.html.

For me, it was Minor White who opened a doorway into the practice of art as a spiritual discipline.  At the core of any such discipline are moments of selflessness, where the subject-object split disappears, and mindfulness replaces concern for the “product.”

I hadn’t thought of Minor White in some time, but the memory brought a great sense of relief, because I remembered that once before I had learned a craft well enough that it sometimes became transparent, became a doorway to “the still point in the turning world.”  Sometimes I didn’t realize when it was happening; sometimes I did, as with this image of a crumbling barn in western New York.

"Near Oswego, NY," 1973, by Morgan Mussell

Seen from this perspective, the answer to Mary’s question, “Is it possible to forget about results in writing,” becomes, “It is necessary!”

I was fortunate enough to meet some of the great photographers of White’s generation – Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham.  I never met Minor White himself.  It’s probably just as well.  He was a heros then, and some heroes can loom so large it is hard to let them go when the time comes.

Minor White, 1973. Photo by Robert Haiko

I don’t really have heroes now; heroes are for young men.  What I have is tremendous gratitude and respect for those who, like Minor White, served as mentors and guides.  These are people who found a way to walk their own individual paths, and in doing so, showed us that it remains possible.

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3 Responses to A Walk in the Park and Minor White

  1. Thanks for the mention. This is, as usual, very thoughtful and thought provoking. I think it’s important while learning the craft for external validation. How else do we know if we have really learned what we need to? Few of us can find the distance to judge our own work appropriately. We will be published. It’s just a matter of time.

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    • Stephen King’s editorial notes in that collection of stories I bought yesterday were both hilarious and pointed and worthy of their own post. He spoke of gathering vast numbers of stories to review over the year, but being hugely disappointed in many that were self conscious in various ways, and “worst of all,” according to King, felt as if they had been “written for editors and teachers rather than for readers.” That is the downside I was trying to get at, and not receiving encouragement as we work and ultimately getting work to an audience.

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  2. Pingback: Project #2 | Professional Amateur Photography

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