Tag Archives: Sandra Chmara

The Story Analyst: Eat Of My Flesh, Drink Of My Blood

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookOkay, if The Walking Dead would stop handing out such great opportunities to discuss storytelling I could stop mentioning the show. So stop it already. (No, please don’t, I didn’t mean it, don’t be angry AMC, just keep batting em out of the park).

Check this out (not actually a video, just a sad screen grab):

AMC - The Walking Dead - Four Walls And A Roof

Maybe a quick recap first. Picture it: it’s Season 5, Episode 3 (Four Walls And A Roof). The group is holed up at Father Gabriel’s church, which by the way is called St. Sarah (Sara the Black), who is the Romani patron saint of gypsies. Sainte Sarah, who by some accounts stood on the shores of Gaul (France) to await and welcome a boatload of holy refugees of early Christian persecution. Which is why I love this show so much. Isn’t that just so perfect?

So one night Bob steps out for some fresh air and a little manly crying jag when the surviving cannibals from Terminus set upon him. He wakes up groggy in their encampment and is subjected to some loony-tunes hectoring by the icky Gareth. Seems they’ve got themselves a good old fashioned spit-turned open-pit barbeque going on. The lip-smacking, the slurping, the greasy chins, the sinewy strings of pink meat, the chewing. Oh, the chewing. The chewing and slurping and smacking. Seems Bob’s their guest of honor. Slowly, we – and poor Bob – realize how hard it is to come upon any meat other than squirrel and snake in these post-zombification days of apocalypse. Plus, Bob’s leg is missing below the knee. Yep, that ain’t no leg of lamb sizzling and crackling on the fire. FF a bit, hahaha, Bob reveals he’s been bitten and they’ve just eaten infected meat. Idiots! Commence projectile vomiting. Oh, and also the Termites throw up. Welp, that sure oughtta take care of that.

So what’s all this recapping and crazy talk getting to? The screen grab above happens when Bob is returned to the group and ultimately dies. Tyreese spares his sister from having to posthumously rearrange Bob’s grey matter with a hunting knife by doing the deed himself. He has just pulled the knife away when this moment blips by on the screen.

What is it?

Take a closer look:Walking Dead - Last Supper Close Up

That’s a wood-carved plaque of The Last Supper. The Last Supper. I mean, come on people, Tyreese isn’t even centered in the frame! That’s no art-house film technique. He’s nose-to-nose with it. You’re meant to see that plaque. Now, why is this prominently displayed at precisely this moment? Why not a simple crucifix, or a nice little annunciation scene? Why The Last Supper?

Because of what happens at the Last Supper. Christ prepares the disciples for the end by introducing the symbolism of the Eucharist and performing the first communion. Eat of my flesh, drink of my blood. He warns of a betrayer in their midst, and predicts the denial by Peter. This very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.

Now, I haven’t gone through the episode with a fine tooth comb, but I counted at least three times that Maggie “denied”. Once, when she picked up the bible on the pew, looked at it with disinterest, and set it down again, thus signalling the denial of her family’s previously deep faith. Then after the Termite slaughter when Father Gabriel surveys the gore and cries, “But this is the Lord’s house !”, Maggie flatly says, “No. It’s just four walls and a roof”, as an overt denial of the sacred. Then again, when Abe Ford and his crew start for Washington rather than put Eugene at risk, Maggie along with Glen both agree to leave with them, to abandon – to deny – their survivor family. No wonder, when you look at the absolute horror on their faces during the Termite extermination. Three types of denial, and it’s still night.

In the previous episode, the gang partakes of the church’s sacramental wine. Drink of my blood. In this episode, the sacramental bread is partaken of by the Termites. Eat of my flesh. (Oh, the chewing and slurping and smacking.)

This apocalyptic world is an inversion of that biblical metaphor. It’s a perversion. On some levels it even harkens to social theory about civilization and its fall to barbarism in the presence of irremediable human hubris. But that’s a post for another time.

It is not an accident that all this is also linked to the slaughter of the Termites at the altar of Father Gabriel’s church. The Last Supper was a Passover meal, which required the offering of a lamb in thanks for delivering the Hebrews out of Egypt. Remember that the Hebrews at the time were told to mark their doors with the blood of the sacrificed lamb so that their households would be spared from the Angel of Death, sent by God to punish the Pharaoh and his people for refusing to let the Hebrew slaves go. The letter A had been written, presumably by the Termites, in blood by the door of the church.

And so it happens that the group is indeed spared, because Rick and his squad return unexpectedly and proceed to ex-terminate the Termites. But like the Hebrews, once delivered, we are left to wonder if they too will be cast adrift in the wilderness after proving time and again that they don’t yet deserve the Promised Land. We see this through Maggie’s and Glen’s horrified reactions to – and lack of participation in – the savagery.

With the addition of one innocuous item of art, the writers are telling viewers a whole lot more about what’s happening to survivors of this apocalypse. It’s both warning and hint at the conditions that took the sacred and the divine out of the equation, and thus brought about an onslaught straight from hell. Whether it’s nuclear power, where mankind has finally discovered a way to do to itself what only God could do before – wipe out every living thing – or whether it’s fictionally tampering with the human genome and unwittingly unleashing a zombie virus, our distance from God, the sacred, the divine, has never been greater. We drink of our own metaphorical blood, and eat of our own flesh, and therefore no longer participate in the divine (communion).When humans supplant God, we become monstrous, and the Promised Land remains farther and farther beyond our reach.

The show’s subtle allusions to Nazism and communism are not without reason either. These have been our greatest historical examples of what happens when humanity supplants God in trying to create a Promised Land.

In storytelling, these are the little details that seed a plot with richness and depth. Even if an audience doesn’t consciously pick up on that plaque hanging there on the wall, it certainly will be taken in, somewhere deep in the subconscious brain. And that subconscious brain has a few cells set aside for all the information our vast circuitry has ever absorbed about The Last Supper, which are then set aflutter by the un/conscious perception of that plaque.

Your brain starts telling you to anticipate. All those synaptic zips and zaps are connecting flesh, blood, bread, wine, sacrifice, betrayal, denial, wilderness, Promised Land –

Just from that plaque. The writers are signalling and signifying with well-placed visual cues like this.

Add to that the expression in Daryl’s eyes (that too could be a whole post on its own) at the end of the episode and all your spidey senses should be left tingling: is he the betrayer? Or has he brought the betrayer into their midst?

Now that I think of it, Carol has been behaving strangely. And what was she doing back at the prison anyhow after the Governor ambushed the group, when she knew she would not be welcome? What would we have found out about her activities during her absence if the battle with the Governor had not forced the group from the prison? What was her purpose in being there? Had she been sent by someone? She’d already crossed a line by pre-emptively killing two sick but very much living members of the group, so there’s no telling how this bent in her personality was further warped by isolation and segregation from the only semblance of family she had left. And once they’d all settled into Father Gabriel’s church, you know when Carol found that car on the side of the road that she was going to leave on her own (or meet up with someone else?), and was about to just when Daryl grabbed her to chase down the car that took Beth.

Did she have something to do with Beth’s disappearance? Or that awful, freighted look in Daryl’s eyes when Michonne realized it was him coming through the woods and he glanced back toward the darkness in the trees and told someone to come on out? Is that expression evidence that Daryl – and thus everyone – has been betrayed by Carol?

Writers who use symbolism, metaphor, and recurring motifs can trigger profound subconscious emotional or psychological responses in readers that can keep them turning the page or watching episode after episode for reasons they might not even perceive. But in order to work, they have to be universally understood, or at the very least understanding must be attainable through the story’s context (in other words, never assume they’re going to pause, research it, then return to the story).

For example, a dove suggests something very different from the vulture, or the peacock. In exactly zero ways can you successfully write a horror story involving a dove as the symbol of malevolence unless you intend to be funny or satirical or ironic. Doves in horror will be the first thing to die.

Oh, and hey – guess how many survivors there are left from the battle at the prison?

Twelve.

This is conscious, deliberate storytelling with strokes of genius.

Think about it this way: you can throw a slab of meat on the barbie (sorry, I have to go there, I really do), and yes, it will be tasty all on its own with all that fat dripping down, juices flowing.

But a great master barbequer knows that a particular kind of wood and a hint of very specific herbs and spices depending on the meat – but not so much to overwhelm all that sizzling and crackling barbeque deliciousness – makes the meal oh-so-much more satisfying.

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The Story Analyst: Character vs. The Moment

SCEW - WordPress embedded icon - glass lookBelievable characters work in a kind of inviolable synchronicity with story itself. Sometimes character is more important than almost any other part of the story, like Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Other times, as in much genre or pulp fiction, characters are little more than lightly sketched catalysts for the story’s unfolding details.

So what makes a character credible?

Whether you’re writing cardboard characters or hanging a literary skin on a complex psychological, emotional, intellectual, and experiential scaffolding, there must still be something true about them for the reader. The best opportunities to use character to create energy and momentum for a story is through moments of decision or crisis. Growth – or lack of it – should not only enrich the story’s path, but also solidify the reader’s trust even when they hate what the character does. A reader who throws a book down and screams, “That would never happen!” is very different from one who screams, “That’s not what I expected to happen!” As a writer you want to aim for taking characters in a direction that both works for the story and takes the reader by surprise.

Here’s a great example. Apologies to those who are not Walking Dead fans. Also condolences. Truly. The following scene hails from the Season 5 premiere, and it depicts the moment when Carol and Daryl reunite after a long separation brought about when Rick, the de facto leader of our merry band of survivors, expelled Carol from the group when she broke the only rule that safeguarded their humanity: she killed the living who were not an immediate threat to personal or group safety.

Now, Carol and Daryl were developing a romantic relationship when all this happened. This scene nakedly exposes how they feel about each other. But it also reveals so much more.

In this scene the two are drawn like magnets, running into each others’ arms with almost childlike abandon. Daryl, self-styled white trash, tough guy, bad boy, bites back a big gut sob just having her in his arms. He steps back, hesitant, like a little boy who doesn’t know where to put such big emotions, but the best he can do is drop his head against her shoulder and let her hold him. It’s almost mother/son-ish.

But why doesn’t Daryl kiss her? Why doesn’t she kiss him? Glenn and Maggie would have (kissed each other, that is). I mean, Carol salvaged Daryl’s crossbow (sniff) and brought it to him. His crossbow, people. Sniff. If that’s not love, what is? That’s how gals like Carol roll, right?

That’s so romantic.

Should they have kissed? What would it mean if the writers had given them that “first” in this scene? Sure, it would have pandered to a moment of high emotion, and to the viewers’ desire to see these two find something beautiful in each other in such an awful world, but it would have done nothing to reflect or explore – or further – character. Nor would it have served as a social commentary about the world before and after zombification.

It reveals so much more about who these people are and their social conditioning to have not kissed. Obvious is that the feelings these two have for each other are singular, and belong only to them and between them, but the missing kiss suggests that while they clearly have cared about each other, the blush might be off this rose. Maybe Carol and Tyrese bonded just enough to make her doubt her feelings for Daryl. Maybe what Daryl experienced with Beth on the run, then losing her the way he did, hurt more deeply than it appeared.

There’s a wall up between them. That much is clear.

Let’s take it up a notch. The moment reveals some residual resentment or reticence after having been ex-communicated and left to fend for herself. Who knows what she experienced out there on her own? Carol’s doubt about her acceptance by the group and by Daryl could also be implied. Don’t forget that Carol was in an abusive marriage before the swine Ed got what he deserved: a zombie to the jugular and a few well deserved blows to the brain stem delivered by Carol. Carol’s whole past with men is in that not-kiss. It is not easy for abused women to trust – not men, yes, but they don’t trust their feelings or their gut instinct either. How could Carol physically give herself over to any man after Ed, but more importantly how can she trust her attraction to someone who, for all intents and purposes, is (was?) a whole nuther level of human scum who shared a bloodline with the likes of Merle?

Oh, we all love Daryl but let’s face it, he’s not exactly the kind of fella a well-bred lady would take home to meet the folks, even if there aren’t any folks left to care about social niceties. In that not-kiss moment Carol probably went with her primal attraction and ran to him, then thought, “Carol, what are you doing? Sure, he’s hot but do you really see yourself scrubbing out the skidmarks in his gotchies while he gets pig-eyed over a barrel of rotgut? Didn’t you learn your lesson from Ed?”

The not-kiss also reveals Daryl’s inability to accept himself yet as part of this society – one made up of the same types of people who wouldn’t have even made eye contact with him in the before-time. Maybe he even picks up on Carol’s hesitation or doubt. Right now, in this moment in all its raw emotion, Daryl’s pre-zombie identity is painfully still very much in play. It’s what impels him to move aside despite his feelings and his need for Carol, to make way for Rick. Who, by the way, made the high-handed executive decision behind everyone’s backs to exile Carol to begin with. Daryl’s before-self is still holding him back from allowing love, friendship, passion, romance – and even the brotherhood that Rick proclaimed last season. He steps aside because he knows he’s not Rick’s brother, not his equal. Not anyone’s equal. That’s the Daryl who didn’t matter to anyone peeking through. When he’s killing walkers there is a sense of simpatico between Daryl’s former self and his survivor self. But what is Daryl in love? What is Daryl with love?

Daryl don’t know.

Nor should we.

In one curious omission during a critical scene – the lack of a kiss – who Daryl and Carol were, who they are, and who they’re becoming – are all exposed in one shot. That’s credible character development.

Not kissing means that viewers have something to anticipate. A kiss would have left no room for guessing. Maybe it will still be a private moment between them later on, and in nine months baby Judith will have an ersatz brother or sister. Or it could mean the dissolution of their relationship because Daryl will realize he has to keep his walls up if he wants to survive.

For Daryl and Carol, kissing would have told us about what was. Not kissing told us about what could be. It’s fraught with possibility. It keeps viewers moving forward. It’s the not knowing that’s so delicious.

That’s how writers can create moments that are not just true for character, but sizzling with potential, all without compromising the credibility that readers and viewers depend upon in good storytelling.

Create moments like this in your writing, and you will have readers kissing your hand. Or not.

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Writing Quote: John Irving

SC Blog - Irving - Know the StoryKnow the story—as much of the story as you can possibly know, if not the whole story—before you commit yourself to the first paragraph….If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of a storyteller are you?
-John Irving

[Read some comments below}

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Writing Quote: Dean R. Koontz

SC Blog - Koontz - Literary Fiction Quote“Authors of so-called ‘literary’ fiction insist that action, like plot, is vulgar and unworthy of a true artist. Don’t pay any attention to misguided advice of that sort. If you do, you will very likely starve trying to live on your writing income. Besides, the only writers who survive the ages are those who understand the need for action in a novel.”
—Dean R. Koontz, August 1981

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Writing Quote: Anton Chekhov

SC Blog - Chekhov - moon quote“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
― Anton Chekhov

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The “Because” of Storytelling

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Years ago a client came to me with a massive unpublished coming-of-age manuscript set in an era rife with racial tensions. She had a magical way with description. During a workshop a brief excerpt had even been given tons of praise and attention by an award-winning internationally renowned author, who saw great potential in the writing and in the bones of the story. This author even gave the writer her agent’s name and contact info, with express consent to name drop to the agent.

Take a moment to let that kind of opportunity sink in.

Yes sir!

Yes sir!

It’s almost hard not to picture said author giving said writer a little chuck under the chin and a knowing wink.

So the writer came to me to help her get the story into a publishable state. About 600 pages later the character had passed through all the epic horror and beauty you’d expect from that era and place, including a brutal act of violence experienced by the protagonist.

It was never published. All the lush description in the world could not save this manuscript or this writer. The world-class author could not have known how problematic this manuscript was based on the first few pages – which can be the best pages in a m/s, or the worst. Upon completing my analysis I informed the writer that unless she followed my advice it would never be published. She didn’t – or couldn’t – do it, and what might have been an important story likely became bird-cage liner.

So, what went wrong?

There’s some advice that’s been around forever about the narrative “and” versus “and then”. This happens, and this happens. Or this happens, and then that happens. One is supposed to be better than the other, but let’s break that down and see what kind of value it really has in storytelling.

Beginning writers often take a character and drop them into a successive string of events, with the idea that as long as the the protagonist’s the center of action and an end is reached they’ve succeeded. This is the simple addition of narrative. Event + Event. Scene + Scene. This happens, and this happens, and this happens, the end.

Now, these stories might be really well written but it’s not storytelling, and often this approach results in a sprawling, disjointed, pointless, tedious product. Yes, in the case of this manuscript the protagonist went from childhood to womanhood and even found inner peace, but only because the writer said so. The story proved nothing of the kind. The protagonist moved through a succession of scenes typified by the era – in fact, one might argue, the equivalent of a tour-book cliche of it. The end.

Let me repeat that. The protagonist moved through a succession of scenes.

The protagonist did not experience the events. She didn’t even witness them or offer reportage. She merely passed through them like an inert bubble. In them, but not of them. The placement of the protagonist into guidebook attractions only compromised any hope for authenticity, as though the writer had wanted to touch upon all the touristy things that absolutely must be experienced in this locale in order for it to be recognized by readers. In truth, she did not trust that she could tell a story about place without them. This lack of any real agency and authority would give any story all the earnestness of a Paris Hilton driving through Jim Crow South in the back of a Hummer with a Condé Nast Traveller, then trying to write To Kill A Mockingbird.

Nope.

Nope.

The damage this additive approach – scene+scene – causes to a story is endless (see sprawling, pointless, tedious, disjointed above), but the chief failure in this case was that the writer seemed unable to give the protagonist any kind of emotional or psychological functionality. Part of that was a consistent urge to tell rather than show.

Say a serial killer broke into your kitchen and slaughtered your beloved Ma. I just made that up to drive home a point. There you are, standing at the door looking in on this scene, a plate of hamburger and fries slathered in ketchup in your hand, and you think OMG, I’m s-o-o-o terrified. Police arrive, you tell them you were s-o-o-o terrified, then you leave the scene and … never think about it again? And if you passed in and out of that kitchen regularly for the next few years, would you just go right ahead and squeeze that blob of ketchup out, lick a dab off your thumb, and never even get a twitch?

I was so terrified. Meaningless. What does terror feel like? How can you make the reader experience terror by proxy? In our manuscript example, the worst was when the protagonist as a young woman was gang-raped, then went on for the rest of the story exactly the same way she had since page one.

Terror has an aftermath too, so this client put her character through some unspeakable events whose effects had exactly zero impact on anything once that scene was over.

No emotional/psychological functionality. Not good. Not in fiction, not in life. Not in a writer.

Now, if you’re writing about sociopaths or particular psychological states where the protagonist regresses or detaches, that’s one thing. The writer did not appear to know how to offer the reader anything but descriptions of things and places, or understand how to write growth or development into a character, which is hard to miss in a coming-of-age story.

If you look at the most hardcore non-linear literary works they are never merely strings of events out of order. Even epistolary and picaresque novels give the appearance of this simple narrative addition, but are far more complex and carefully orchestrated.

Writers then tend to go from the additive approach to writing into the realm of narrative algebra. This happens, and then that happens takes the scene+scene idea up a notch, suggesting a movement that simple narrative addition lacks. Here order matters. To even get this far our promising writer needed to make each scene serve a purpose to the story that went beyond describing what everything looked like, or as mere breadcrumbs between beginning and end.

In mathematics, addition is a basic operative function. Order doesn’t matter. In storytelling, this would be the equivalent of one scene having no more or less value than any other. You can keep adding scenes but it will not give the outcome any more weight. You can have 2+1+1 or you can have 1 + 1+ 2. Writers who are just stringing scenes together get the same outcome, with nothing else making any difference. No particular scene changes the character much, or the plot points.

Algebra (al-jebr: the reunion of broken parts) involves mathematical systems of representation (letters for unknown quantities). After approaching the writing process as additive, writers might begin to put some weight on the events and scenes to end up with something more like this:

(Scene a + Event b) x X = novel

This can work just fine for very formulaic stories or genres. The whodunnit, the bodice-ripper. But there’s still something missing. It’s the connectedness and reflexivity between the events. Breadcrumbs lead somewhere, but they are only discrete placeholders.  Picking up a narrative thread and following it to wherever it leads is better but almost as limiting. You still don’ t know where you are in the grand scheme of things. You’re just going from here to there.

Story is more: because this happened, that happens. Now we’re getting into a more complex kind of narrative calculus:

(Event 1 + Scene 1 ) +  Purpose Y  x  ∑  (Δ emotional state/Δ psychological state ) +  time X + Event 2 = Scene 2

Now, all that’s just a bunch of fancy looking nonsense to demonstrate the complexity of storytelling, but the truth is that everything beautiful in mathematics is what makes storytelling rich. Calculus is the mathematics of change. Calculus deals with differentiation, integration, function, and symbolic reasoning. Wow, that’s beautiful for writers. The pros know it deep in their solar plexus.

One of my suggestions to the client was to take the rape out and rewrite it as a children’s story. Certainly the makings of an excellent children’s story were there. In fact, it was too naively written to be anything else. If she could not develop the character maturely, or could not see the story through the filter of cynicism needed to create the kind of emotional and psychological ugliness the events demanded, children’s writing was the only realistic option.

My guess is that she promptly made a beeline for the agent’s open door, cashed in the secret handshake given by the famous author, then …

Mary Poppins Inappropriate Story

Um – maybe urban violence isn’t the right fit for this story …?

Nothing. Good description can’t save bad storytelling.

If a writer’s lucky there’ll be some generous hints from an agent or a publisher about how to fix what’s broken. Most just get rejected, no specified reason. What happens when a manuscript is fixable but the writer can’t or won’t do what the story requires? Back then I’m sure the client continued trying to find a publisher or agent, obviously without success. Today she might go straight to self-publishing, then wonder why only close family and friends and a handful of strangers interested in the subject have bought a copy. The despair of rejection or the inability to understand storytelling will make most writers give up. I’m sure she did.

Any time I’ve worked with beginners the mistakes are the same. They’re stuck at the narrative addition stage. Or they go in the opposite direction and the characters’ emotional and psychological states are gut-spattered all over the pages until none of it has any value. There isn’t enough internal value carried through the story. Dropped threads. Meagre or nonexistent internal lives. Events and experiences that pop up with little  or no continuity or connection to each other or to the characters’ internal lives. There’s no sense of because.

This happens because that happened, and because that happened, there is change.

If you’re not getting anywhere with your stories, or if you’ve self-published and have sold poorly, ask yourself whether your writing is too additive, or too algebraic. Are your characters’ emotional and psychological states carried over across the entire story, expanded and contracted by joy and trauma in the same way they would if real people had those same experiences? Does the calculus of you narrative account for change?

Have you looked for and developed the “because” in storytelling?

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Writing Quote: Rainer Maria Rilke

SC Blog - Rilke - go into yourself quote“Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.

This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose…

…Describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty – describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. – And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke

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