Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
Beauty is meant to be a right-angled thing, my parents taught me. The object must be symmetrical, clearly defined, approved by the right critics, and represented in fine art. We cannot make beauty; we can only look at it, they said. But even though nodding knowingly at Mozart’s melodies or Michelangelo’s murals was apparently the closest we could get to the stars, I didn’t want to look at their shine; I wanted to create it.
But naturally, creating beauty means creating it by the rules. I tried to combine Milton’s cosmic themes, Blake’s aphoristic style and Pope’s eloquence in my writing, but in doing so I didn’t make a work worthy of worship – I ended up with a lump of pompous sentiments that no teenager could ever think up. How could I ever create something praiseworthy?
I found my answer in “Ulysses”. Laboring through James Joyce’s labyrinthine sentences, I realized that nestled in the seemingly irrelevant (and slightly annoying) observations that popped up everywhere – like Stephen Dedalus’ musings on the milk woman as he mourns his dead mother – was a different beauty: the beauty of the real and the unexpected. And Joyce hadn’t even looked up to the heavens to write this; he had just looked around.
In trying to versify like masters of old, I had leapt too high. What profundities about humanity and heaven could a seventeen-year-old pen? I had always looked to the stars for inspiration when I tried to enliven my page with similes that likened eyebrows to comets and freckles to constellations; never had I thought that I would find the mundane worth immortalizing in metaphor as Joyce did: a man spits out a “coughball of laughter”; a boy moves his legs “frogwise”. So like a frog – in fits and starts– my conception of beauty leaped somewhere else.
Mad as it might have made me, “Ulysses” showed me that beauty is not confined to canvas or immured in marble – that someone like me could actually create something worthy of the label beautiful. With his daringness in mind, I now start each day by firing off on a piece of stream of consciousness and picking through it for anything worth reworking. I don’t wreathe my stories with archaic literary devices anymore; instead, I mine reality for the moments that I can draw meaning from. Only after I have hammered out and polished the mess will I allow myself – just maybe – to put in a mythical allusion.
Not for me the cold curves of Greek statuary or brushstrokes of Renaissance portraiture: I look for the numinous in the normal; the magical in the mundane – the puff of steam from a rice cooker; the happy pop of firecrackers on Chinese New Year; the calligraphy of sunlight on the harbor surface – because these are now what beauty is to me.