“More earthly experiences, please.” That is what someone in my memoir writing class wrote on one of my papers on Good Friday. It might have been the same person who, with a fist raised, had declared earlier in the afternoon that when I write about spirituality it’s “balls to the wall.” I had no idea where that expression came from and that it has to do with throttles and aviation. I am not sure anyone else did either: at least a few of us shrieked with laughter. The teacher played along, feigning horror and suggesting my fellow student might go to hell for saying such a thing during Holy Week. Though I supposed the expression did not epitomize holiness, I beamed from the praise. When I got home that evening and read the comment on my paper, I laughed and took my fellow memoir writer’s criticism also as praise: recognition that what I was trying to do in the class – to write about God and healing – is important enough that I ground my writing in enough reality that it’s accessible to others.
“More earthly experiences, please.” I still try to keep her request in mind. It seems to me that as a visual artist I have a similar responsibility to those who engage with my work. Degas said, “A picture is a thing which requires as much knavery, as much malice, and as much vice as the perpetration of a crime. Make it untrue and add an accent of truth.” I take this statement to mean: paint or write whatever you want, but only in ruthless adherence to your unique view. And mix in enough common experience that the rest of us can beleive what you see.
I think of much of my visual work as being semi-abstract, perhaps leaning toward the “semi.” I like playing with the line(s) between what is recognizable and what lies in darkness. As a young artist, the more I studied (I painted and drew from models morning and afternoon five days a week for six years), the more I found this to be reality: that most of what we see lies in half-darkness interrupted by only occasional light. I found that most great works of art are mostly composed in a middle value, with one strong light (it’s usually a sky in a landscape), and one strong dark, often in a bottom corner. (George Braque’s work exemplifies this.) These observations about light and dark might not seem important unless you have been an art student who’s spent two hours trying to render an eye while ignoring the space around it and, when too exhausted to continue, condemned yourself as a hopeless amateur incapable of accomplishing anything. Think of Mona Lisa: a silhouetted figure against a light detailed landscape; the face is left in sfumato, a smoky haze that leaves viewers to obsess over her mysterious smile. The faces I have made that most remind me of her belonged to children too much in a hurry to be seen. Looking at a beloved in the semi-dark, have you ever felt something like what Mona makes you feel: a dark, irresistible reality – an enigma begging and refusing to be solved?
I have received far less training as a writer than as a visual artist. My writing about my life is non-fiction; it’s not poetry however much I self-aggrandize. Writing memoir feels as if I am painting a portrait rather than a semi-abstract painting. My experience must be clear: though it may be dark, it must be recognizable. How do I do that when what I am writing about – an emerging disease, memory loss, and God – is enigmatic? When so much of what I write about is personal darkness, how can I make my experiences evident enough that they illumine the experience of others?
A trajectory I use often in my essays is a bitter opening: a problem; then a middle: a search that leads to some light; the light leads to an experience of God on earth: a good place to stop. I think that when I do this well, with a strong narrative and a “showing, not telling,” is when my work is most accessible. I think having a strong narrative, like Degas’ “accent of truth,” is what saves me from endlessly trying to render my experience and getting lost in my own material.
As an art instructor, I have seen students’ refusal to observe the entire scene before them in favor of rendering one spot lead to the drowning of pictures in a kind of self-love. In writing, I imagine this sort of thing happens when the writer neglects to write through all of her senses, thereby sacrificing the world she had hoped to create before the idol of what she wants to say. I imagine this ultimately leads to the suicide of her vision.
Sermon to self: Use accents of truth; show the world outside of your obsession (hopefully God, but usually your loss (poor dear) or the model’s eyes). Even though you are a memoir writer and maker of self-portraits, avoid the narcissist’s fate. Bible quote from the book of James: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” Do more with words. Write more earthly experiences to get to God. Get ready for take-off. Balls to the wall.