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Words in paint

Wednesday 5/8/19

Filed two pieces with The Daily Beast--one on the computer game King's Quest--which is different than the 4100 word personal essay I also wrote this spring on the same game--and another on The Raft of the Medusa, the painting from 1819. Speaking of painting: I have completed a 3000 word essay--about half of which was new today--on the relationship of writing and painting, with an emphasis on Maupassant's 1889 novel Like Death. Excerpt here. I think this is very nice. The part about connection is, I believe, as succinct and accurate a statement as any made on why great writing lasts and matters. There are few to no authors providing any connection right now. Connection is a dwindling commodity in our world. The need for it, the need for the artist to provide a form of it, so that others are also better able to seek out and be receptive to other forms of it, is part of why I fight and why I do not give in to a subculture of people who would have destroyed anyone else by now, to say nothing of broken their ability to create, let alone create more, and better, to reach the people who matter--that is, the people who are not these people. The genius artist provides a service to their fellow human. That is what they are there for. They can make a fortune in providing this service, but that is the focus and core of who they are and what they do, and what it is their genius will actuate when allowed its chance; it's not about "I need to express myself," or "This is my niche," or "This helps me deal with this," or "This allows me to be part of a community where the stakes are so low and I get to go to AWP every year, yippee!" No. None of that. It is a service provided through which others can come to know themselves better, live more richly, and also be entertained in the best ways. The true artist is here, more than for anything else, to help people. The essay is titled "Writing with a Brush."


We almost always assume that a writer is most influenced by other writers. They’ve read piles of books, they’ve decided that their skills best synch up with what a given number of other authors were doing, and they take a bit here, take a bit there, mix that in with their own sensibilities, and voila, a style is born.


I’ve always found this a slipshod way to go, in part because I don’t believe a great author ever has a single style. It’s one reason I rate Hemingway as at best mediocre, and often quite terrible, like some droning, one-note song that can’t leave its initial starting key or augment what it is doing with additional chords.


You should know, when you read a great author’s work, that it could only be by them, usually within the space of a single paragraph, even a clause. They have a way of inhabiting worlds and characters, while possessing reams of that most overlooked of all literary qualities: energy. Their energy will be unique, and it will animate their characters, and their narrative, in unique ways.


When I now compose, I’m at a point where things go quite quickly. I meet the characters, and it is those characters who are going to give me the story. I simply have to allow them their space and time to tell me what happened in their lives, how they connected with each other, how they broke with each other, what it was that informed their identities during this period when I am chronicling them. I always have the understanding that they were out there doing other things before we “met,” and that they will do other things after our time together has come to a close.


A friend who knows my work well likens it to giving birth. There is an element of that, but it’s more a matter of listening, and then, having listened, finding the energy—which will always be a unique, one-off form, given that the characters are unique and one-off—to help bring these beings to life—to life again, you might say. If you write like that, people will believe that the characters in your work are out there somewhere in the world. Or that they could be. They could be a “regular” person, they could have four heads and a dragon’s tail, but they will be imbued with life in such a manner that the reader will allow that he or she could, perhaps, run into them one day. After all: reader and character are now on intimate terms, given how the author has brokered introductions and helped facilitate a developing, and deep, relationship. A connection. Nothing in this life is more powerful than a connection. Connections are rare. But the very best authors provide the most powerful connections, often. That is why their work lasts. Their output becomes a storehouse for that thing we all crave more than anything else. And we can go to their storehouse any time, to get some of it, as we also search for it in other forms in our lives, or hope that it finds us, if we don’t have the courage to search, to be vulnerable, as becomes more and more the case of our age, as it has thus far played out.


I didn’t develop as a writer because of what I read, though I read absolutely everything I could get my hands on, and even now I would estimate that the only time during my days, any of them, when I am not reading is when I am working out, which is when I am writing in my head. As a kid, my writing was informed by records. When people write about music, what they often fall back on is quoting lyrics. That’s lazy, and it’s not where the real writing often is in something like our best popular music. The real writing is in how a chord resolves itself, or a melody is given new life when it is cast in a different octave and key. We write the best of our stories that way, utilizing verbal arpeggios in dialogue, subtle changes in meter, with harmonies, staccato phrases, bridges that pass up a return to the verse to instead leap into the chorus again. Stories can fade-out, or they can come to the full-stop of all of the musicians of the band ending on the same note. It’s sticking a physical landing, as well as a narrative one, a musical one, a prose one.


I found that albums were also ordered in ways such that the individual songs functioned as contributing voices, or chapters, or stories, part of a succession of advancing narrative. They provided you new bits of information and meaning, and new characters, as you went along. The way the Beatles ordered the White Album gave it a flow and a progression in a manner that, when I read Tolstoy, I recognized in prose. And words are also sounds, each syllable literally being a note, with sound and sense abetting each other in the works of writers I found instructive, like Fitzgerald and Keats. When I was older, painting, you might say, became my music. I spent long hours in museums—I still do—wandering the galleries, better understanding how brushstrokes function as sentences.


Some are longer, thicker, imparting waves of color—meaning—at once, each hair of the brush offering up its own portion of a larger, cohesive, multi-tiered statement. Other times, the painter’s quick curl of the wrist, the creation of a twist of color, opened up worlds, but also said to me that the painter wished to alert you to these worlds but not have you tarry too long in them, for there were others to get to as part of a larger journey. Sometimes, when I wrote, I would think, “Okay, a curl of color here, a hooked stroke of the brush, that will help move people along to this part, which is filigreed, less bounding steps for the wayfarer, before the onset of the charcoal-blacks, underscored with that hint of copper tawniness, for when such and such of grave and galvanizing substance occurs.”