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  • The Spider Inside
    by Erin | June 28th, 2011 |

    [Ed. Note: Guest Blogger Kris Saknussemm brings this essay on the interstitial creative process. Kris Saknussemm is the author of the novels Zanesville, Private Midnight and Enigmatic Pilot, along with a short story collection, Sinister Miniatures.  A multimedia artist, his paintings have been published as a portfolio book The Colors of Compulsion, and he records music with several collaborators, most notably Steve Joseph in Houston and Lou Mulkern and Eric Wyatt in New York.  Dark Coast Press will bring out his most significant work, Reverend America, in February.]

    ~

    Web-spinning spiders are interstitial artists par excellence.  Their highly visual creations are often invisible, depending on the light.  They’re sculptural, architectural—and also musical, as you can discover, should you chance to find a large blowfly entrapped.  No one ever said art wasn’t a matter of life and death, or they weren’t making very interesting art if they did.  And yet…what could be lighter or more fragile than a spider web?

    As an interstitial artist myself, I see that my challenge is to be both the web spinner—and to also allow myself to become ensnared in the fascination of the work.  Or just pure fascination.

    The first thing I do in regards to each book I write is to develop an outline—just as so many writing manuals recommend.

    Then I abandon it completely for the freedom and adrenalin rush of discovery, of going on a journey with my characters.  No matter what kind of story I’m embarked on, I spend a lot of time taking photographs and making tape recordings with a quality field recorder.  I purposely don’t focus on big important subjects or special scenes.  Most of the time I’m photographing cracks in pavement, flecks in walls, odd growths of rust or lichen—or perhaps the way a flattened pie pan can become a kind of discarded mask in the right light.  I’m an inspector of rubble and vacant lot rubbish.  Ever since my earliest memories of childhood I’ve been obsessed with the secret stories and hidden dramas in seemingly random patterns—the monster head lurking in the pine knot, the army of angry giants in the oil stain.

    I apply the same aesthetic to my collection of sounds.  I’m particularly fascinated by the various subtleties in the whine and hum of escalators and revolving doors, and I have several hours of high fidelity capture of the stirrings of cattle in a moonlit stockyard.  (I just played back a recording I made in New York, on the subway to Harlem, coming into the 72nd Street Station.  It’s an almost perfect web of frequencies and frenzies—words and whir.)

    Traffic interests me a lot…the lulls and rhythms…the counterpoint and flux.  I’m also curious about the rumblings of stomachs, garbage trucks backing up, female orgasms…wind in torn metal, distant chainsaws and people snoring on buses.  Everything becomes interesting when you bring the right openness of mind to it.  I become more aware (and in good moments hyperaware) of new dynamic relationships of image and sound, and their other extrasensual implications.

    Now it’s true that as a multimedia artist, I may have some intention of using these images and sounds in some direct creative execution eventually, but as a writer, I use this practice in precisely the opposite way of accumulation and ownership.  I call upon my meandering findings as a means of clearing my mind—of releasing expectations and assumptions, and interrogating my current preconceived notions of what constitutes a discrete image or a sound, let alone their more symphonic and cinematic flow.

    I do this in visual and aural/musical terms because it’s so very hard to gain such a forensic vantage point on language, which, as we often take for granted, is the essential fabric of every story (and perhaps every thought).

    The Dadaists and Surrealists, Joyce, William Burroughs with his cut-ups—many writers have tried a range of formalist means to “experiment” with narrative—but while the results may be intriguing and even delighting on a small scale, they invariably disappoint or simply bewilder when adopted systematically over the larger scope of an entire novel.

    So I don’t try to do that anymore.  I concentrate instead on revising my concept of concentration and letting small, often overlooked or apparently unperceived elements influence me as they will.

    There’s an old saying, that wherever you are, “There’s a spider nearby.”  (In my house there could be several.)  What I’m principally concerned with as an artist is what gets unconsidered—what goes unseen or unheard.  Which is to say, I suppose, that my definition of art is that which expands your field of awareness and your definition of art.

    In pragmatic, writerly terms, I use my interests in the visual arts and music to help make me more conscious of detail and interrelation.  I build the imagined worlds of my fiction (however fantastic or realistic) from motes of dust and stray hairs…shavings, splinters, droppings, drippings, figments, filaments.  I, of course, am concerned about conventional issues such as theme, style, the pace of story, character depth and the impact of idea.  But I find I’m increasingly fixated somewhat autistically on the quality and richness of detail that underpins a storyline.

    To me, the real art in writing is what details you choose to highlight—which ones are the most important.  This is a high level instinctual-intellectual survival task that connects us all back very directly to our hunter/gatherer Paleolithic beginnings.  We’re all hunting for something, all the time.

    I’ve found the oblique focus on what’s happening in the moment—what’s really happening—to be especially beneficial in setting a story in the historic past.  My latest novel Enigmatic Pilot is set in mid 19th century America, a period not so long ago really (and disturbingly similar to our own in many ways), yet inexplicably remote on the level of physical detail.

    While I may take liberties with my interpretations and distortions of so-called “true” history, I think my world is credible because of its detail.  People will always query the narrative arc and sequencing of a story.  They will always measure their satisfaction with an author’s result against an inner temperament of desire (either for reinforcement of their expectations or surprise, in my experience).

    No one ever queries my precision of imagining, because I keep a very open mind on what’s important.  When I mention a horseshoe nail, I want you to subconsciously at least be able to smell it in your hand.  To hear how it would sound falling on a hardwood floor or a cobblestone street…to, well below your level of awareness, be considering how it was made and what it’s actually used for.

    Stephen King, one of the most successful writers of our time has emphasized “writing to entertain.”  And so the stories that both do and dramatically don’t entertain, pile up.

    My paradigm is a little different.  Intertainment, not just entertainment (you can do that with one of your hands).  I want you to think about that spider that’s nearby.  In the corner of your eye right now, something bizarre beyond measure is happening.

    My job isn’t to compete with those peculiar miracles, but to bring the spiders a little closer, to be more like them.

    I’m now holding a tiny translucent green one in my hand.  It was under my desk.  Been here this whole time.  The really remarkable thing is that if I were a different size, this spider could be making an audible noise right now.

    Projected onto a large canvas, it would be a thing of terrible wonder.  Lying in one of the lines of my hand, it looks like a lost letter of an alphabet we’d all do well to remember.

    I adopt an interstitial approach to art to help me forget what I know and to remember what I don’t.

    finish line

    One Response to “The Spider Inside”

    1. Wendy Ellertson Says:

      I’ll never look at spider webs the same way again. Thanks for this. Love
      your ” definition of art is that which expands your field of awareness and your definition of art”

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