A few days ago I sent the manuscript of a mystery novel to my editor. It was a good way to start the new year. I've now entered that limbo period where I wait for her response – how can it be strengthened, what opportunities have I missed, is the story even publishable?
During the waiting, I've learned to go ahead and think about the next project. That process includes reading, daydreaming, and imagining "what if?" scenarios for my series' characters until a new idea takes root. And I like to return to the master storytellers who have set the standard for crime fiction in America.
A particular favorite is Raymond Chandler and his marvelous essay, "The Simple Art of Murder." I either learn or remember something each time I read it. Most recently, this single sentence stood out: "In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption." For Chandler, the quality can be discovered in his hero/anti-hero detective, the knight-errant whose quest is among mean streets while he remains a man of honor.
But the sentence about art has a broader connotation than Chandler's groundbreaking work, one that connects me in a completely unexpected way to another movement happening during the time he penned his words: the creation and development of Black Mountain College.
Founded in 1933 in the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, this experiment in higher education was as much commune as campus. No grades, no set curriculum, no outside board of trustees, but simply students and teachers living and learning together. At the core of their studies, whether in natural sciences, mathematics, or literature, stood the arts – visual arts, musical arts, dramatic arts – and they were used and integrated in exploration of the more traditional subjects.
The goal of the college wasn't to turn out artists but rather to create graduates who were well-rounded citizens of a democracy. It focused on artistic exploration with practical application; in short, the supposition that art fuels the imagination, instills curiosity and connects the intellect to the world around us. Albert Einstein served on the board of advisors. At Black Mountain College, Buckminster Fuller worked on his geodesic dome and Merce Cunningham founded his company of modern dance.
The bottom line is the arts encourage and develop a way of seeing and hearing in fresh, new ways, creating a mindset that resists calcification and enables breakthroughs of thought no matter the discipline. In an age where education budgets are slashing funds for the arts or eliminating programs entirely, we could be losing a critical source of inspiration for our imagination. Raymond Chandler's title "The Simple Art of Murder" might be rephrased, "The Simple Murder of Art."
So, what do Chandler and Black Mountain College have in common? During my time of waiting for my editor's notes, the two offer food for thought and fuel for imagination of a potential story.
The renowned painter Jacob Lawrence was also an instructor at Black Mountain College. He said, "All artists are constantly looking for something and they don't always know what."
I'll substitute "detectives" for "artists" and go looking in Black Mountain for a story of redemption.