14 Notes on Tropes


Stephen Thomas

(These have been excerpted from a longer work.)

3. The bravest and hardest thing is to be humble enough to employ a recognizable trope; that is, to participate in a tradition; that is, to admit you’re human.

15. To me the most profound point of integration between experience and art is in rendering faithfully and resonantly a well-known trope. To do so is to surrender, to submerge the ego in something greater than itself. The ego wants to be iconoclastic and “experimental” and puts up a hell of a fight. If you can allow yourself to commit the pedestrian sin of employing a recognizable trope, or somehow sneak a recognizable trope into your work by accident (then, upon seeing it, realize you like it, and feel reluctant to strike it), the reward of seeing something universally understandable drawn by your own hand, which then becomes not recognizably your hand at all but a vessel of culture and humanity, is one of the sovereign experiences, I think, of being alive. (This is the phenomenology of “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”)

16. A trope is a feeling—sometimes. It’s trying to be anyway. It is if it’s executed with sufficient subtlety and camouflage and if it’s made to resonate, to sing, which is a matter of knowing your audience and the notes they bend to.

17. To be able to manipulate emotions—what power.

18. The tragedy of art expertise is this, though: when you’re at a point where you’re so familiar with a trope that it becomes second nature and you can employ it on the fly, naturally, offhand, whenever your mud (cf. Trecartin: “mud” as subconscious art-processing plant) sees fit, the trope has completely lost its emotional power for you. You become progressively inured to the power of art even as you become its master.

19. A masterpiece, then, is easy to make—for the master. It’s equally as rote and equally as inspired as any other piece of art he or she has ever done; they’ve just been doing this for a while. (Picasso dashes off a drawing for a stranger and says, “One million dollars,” and the stranger says, “It only took you five seconds,” and Picasso says, “No, it took me 40 years.”)

27. One of the many reasons why “giving up” and “being lazy and insincere” is necessary to create good art (cf. Wilde, Nabokov) is because once you have internalized a trope to the point where you can employ it at the drop of a hat with no effort, it feels to you fake and insincere.

However, you cannot choose what kind of (good) artist you will become.

But if you maintain your precious allergy to something that feels easy and understandable, you’ll never allow yourself to employ this trope which, despite being pure math to you now, once meant so much to you, and still has power for others who don’t spend all day every day dissecting art.

50. To go back to “excise all the art from art”—obviously this is something you do after apprenticing for a very long time, when the tropes and techniques are no longer baffling instruments but rather extensions of your limbs, like fingers you can control without needing to think about. Then it makes sense to say, “Eschew what does not feel natural.” A baby cannot eschew all art.

59. This is why, although “notes from reality” are necessary, one must start with tropes, as opposed to being motivated by “something interesting or weird or moving that happened.” Tropes are information tied directly to human biology—for example, think of the primacy to human experience of a nostos or an aubade. There’s a reason homecomings and lover-leavings became represented so often that they got their own names.

89. To return to Tolstoy’s “art comes from things we all do every day, practiced and paid attention to”—storytelling, performing for each other, writing to each other, thrilling each other, lying to each other, tricking each other, and making things for each other. The useful gestures get reused and become tropes.

90. Some artists hew close to the everyday-gestural bone and that can feel “pure.” Life of a Craphead, early Cat Power, Shoplifting from American Apparel, NaoKo TakaHashi.

91. Other artists take pre-existing tropes as their raw data and that can feel genius in a different way; it thrills a different part of your brain. Infinite Jest, Charlie Kaufman, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Trecartin.

92. Probably every decent artist attempts to eschew all recognizable tropes, at first.

93. You find what works for you. However, you cannot choose what kind of (good) artist you will become. Be humble enough to share the gifts you actually have with the world (even if they don’t feel cool), be nimble enough to follow your genius, and be open enough to dabble and discover it.

Stephen Thomas is the author of The Jokes, a collection of short stories published by BookThug in 2016. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeneys, Hazlitt, The Seneca Review, The Fanzine, The Millions, Joyland, Little Brother, Real Life, and last but not least, The Puritan (and other places). His very first published poem is forthcoming in Mesmer, which he is excited about.

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