Monday, December 3, 2007
WRITTEN WORD 35 - The Last Line First
For six mostly happy years I thought I was not a writer.
During this period of not writing the whole landscape of my life, past and present, was changing. I moved from New York City up to Woodstock in the Catskill Mountains, but that was not the whole story. It seemed to me I had lived too much of my life in a linear world involving words. And then words were suddenly useless, and nothing was happening on a straight line.
This change in direction began in the eighties when, while living in Manhattan, I realized I felt less and less connection with what I thought of as my life. Maybe I had had only moderate success with my writing but my identity was mixed up with being a writer. I had enough money. I had this book my friend Max and I had written on the horror of the Marcos Philippines (one in a string of my published works). It was in a bookstore window I passed on Fifth Avenue. A divorce had come through and my social life was picking up. I still had connection to the literary world. I was putting together plans for new book, including one on great rivers of the world and one making fun of California. An editor was pushing a new project that treated my often very dark childhood and family as amusing and happy. There was no satisfaction in any of the projected writing projects that I had thought I wanted so badly. It all felt more like an ending than a beginning, more like death than life.
I was struck with the realization that it had been twenty years since I had written without a contract and advance money. Worse, it had been nearly as long since I had started a book, fiction or nonfiction, without knowing what I would say in my final chapter. Publishers need outlines before they write checks. The outlines are mainly to convince their hard-headed sales people that there will really be a book one day. They are kind of fake, these outlines. But I had been following actual or imagined outlines for years. And nothing was changing. There was no discovery. I began to think of writing as plodding and distant. With new acquaintances I started to hide what I had done for a living.
And then something else came into focus. I had always thought of myself as being extremely visual, but now I became aware that it had been many years since I had been inside an art museum. So one morning a new girl friend and I took the subway up to the Metropolitan.
Almost immediately I was spending time alone in museums every day – and was still doing it a year later when I signed up for courses at art schools all over town and became, in mid-life, a full-time art student. Now, I thought, as I roamed about town with my portfolio, no one will take me for a writer.
Operating in visual worlds I found I had no control over what I was doing. It was a relief. I could not use paint and colored pencils to force conclusions and keep terror at bay the way I had taught myself to use words. Maybe an artist with years of academic training could keep up the illusion of control with images the way I had done it with words. But I did not have those years of training. Anything could happen.
I would see something in color – for instance, the horror of blood red against a Flemish or Dutch aqua sky – in the Met; I would be led to that same color combination in an angry East Village feminist crucifixion scene, and that mood would lead to the dark dangerous forests of Hobbema at the Frick, landscapes that I had once thought uneasily should be comforting. Hobbema would lead to the sickly landscapes of Theodore Rousseau at the Frick and the Brooklyn, and then on to the sacred, evocative nature scenes of Daubigny at the Brooklyn and back at the Met again, and then on to visual connections resulting from black between Manet and Goya and Murillo, and then the pure color of Monet at the Met and the Guggenheim and the Modern, the same Monet who had moved me decades earlier in Paris and then been lost to me. And from Monet I would go to Hopper's sunlight on buildings and his wife's grand naked body at the Whitney, then into the horror world of Gorky and the chaos of Pollack, and the lively erotic bronze nudes of Matisse and the strangely evocative but stylized bronze nudes of Archipenko, and the terror of Franz Kline abstract figures, and the deep longing in Joan Mitchell abstractions. Surrealism, I learned, could be as real as realism and abstraction could be too. I did not study art history. I did not know if anyone else saw what I saw. I just looked.
And it was now that the art I saw and made became mixed with images in my dreams, and mixed too with my memories of all the scenes of my life. My stories began to change. For example, episodes of family violence, from suicide to child molestation, no longer seemed isolated incidents in overall stories that I had recounted as amusing. I had found that, though it seemed it could be a great career boosting move, I could not write a word of a projected project in which I planned treat myself and my family so lightly that all darkness was removed.
Lies no longer seemed unimportant. And maybe this was why for the first time since adolescence I had a sense that spiritual talk was not always nonsense talk. And so I eased into spiritual areas I had dismissed as not fitting my plans – worlds I had dismissed maybe even to the extent that my family of origin had dismissed people of all races including even the race they thought of as their own. (I had once spoken with pride of how I had spent a total of seven intense years in the Far East without having a single spiritual experience.)
Then art led to nature, and I realized how far I had come from forces whose power had once put me in thrall. It is hard to visit the Brooklyn Museum without going to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, hard to do the Met or the Frick or the Guggenheim without roaming in Central Park. I found myself spending time in nature in a seamless transition from what I had been doing in studio classrooms and in galleries and museums.
I went beyond the parks – to Vermont and New Hampshire, to New England mountains and lakes. And there seemed no good reason not to live in countryside again. One day I drove up to the Catskills to check out the Woodstock School of Art. I found myself in the surrounding mountains, alongside streams and ponds. As it became clear I would stay I started to know joy and terror I had kept at a distance living in cities for so many years. It had been an array of places, from Bangkok to Beirut to Athens, but always cities, always walking on concrete, not real earth, nothing like the dangerous earth I now remembered – as paintings became mixed with recently salvaged memories, and with dreams, and the present reality.
My stories, now out of my control, took many directions. What I had dismissed as silly I now saw as deadly, and what I had thought of as beyond possibility began to seem real. In this way the landscape of my life, past as well as present, changed. Now nothing was more important than getting at the stories that were most real, which were not always the stories that fit into the imposed frameworks I had accepted.
And now when I started writing I never knew exactly what direction the writing would take. What was happening in the writing now was a very concrete version of what had been happening when in a painting I tried to portray enemies with a dark scaly figure of horror – and the painting took such a different direction.