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Mother and children Lange-MigrantMother02

Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph

Someone asked me recently what I loved more, my painting or my writing? Or, she added, is that like trying to choose which child you love most?

It is a little bit like that. Writing has always been the love of my life. Like a first child, I never thought I could love another as much as I loved him. And then number two came along and I learned that I could. Just as much, but differently.

Some children are easier to raise than others. My writing, like my first child, has wild mood swings. It’s like riding a roller coaster, one moment were up, up, up, dizzy with exhilaration, and the next were down, down, down, hating each other and sure we will never write another word again. But painting, like my second child, couldn’t be easier to live with, and there’s never been a cross word between us. She’s always ready to play when I am, and she keeps me delighted for hours.

Painting gives me more pure pleasure than writing. There’s pleasure in looking for a new project and in planning it. Pleasure in the process of painting and in the finished product. Pleasure hanging it, and every time I enter the room to view it anew.

There’s pleasure in writing too, especially in those first few hours, or days, or weeks, when the writing is hot and flowing out of me like I’m taking diction from some inspired muse. There’s even pleasure in the revision process where I’m weeding out what is extraneous and trying to make it as lean and luscious as possible. There’s pleasure in reading what I’ve written when it goes well, when I’m in the right mood, when I’m feeling confident or inspired.

Those are the peak moments. But in between all this pleasure are deep, deep lows. The sense of futility and frustration and despair can seem overwhelming. And then there are the long droughts when nothing inspires me. And the long, cold slogs when nothing is going well. And the times when I cannot force myself to sit down and try again, to keep it going. When I’d rather clean the toilet or go to the dentist or pull out my own teeth with pliers than sit down and write.

With painting, I never have to force myself to start or finish a project. If anything, I have to force myself to leave it be so I can do the laundry or prepare dinner. It’s not that I absolutely love everything I paint. But at the end of the day, it’s deemed good enough. And I feel my time was well spent. Sometimes I’m thrilled with the results and hang them on the wall. Other times I’m mildly pleased and lean them against some bookcase or pin them on bulletin board. Either way they keep me company. They suffice.

But writing, when I’m finished, disappears from sight. I might get pleasure re-reading it from time to time, but mostly I don’t bother. The few pieces that get published seem to go into a dark vault and are forgotten. Worse are the pieces that were much-loved but remain unread, unpublished. Instead of pleasure is a sense of loss and regret, of unrequited love, of stillborn life.

Given all that, you might wonder why I bother to write at all. Why not give it up for painting?

Because I can’t imaging life without writing. In some ways, for me, it’s like breathing. It seems a natural, intrinsic part of me. I can’t live without it, as difficult as it might be. I’m writing in my head all the time. Thinking and writing gets all rolled up together. Writing–putting thoughts on paper–takes me to a deeper place, and sometimes I don’t know what I think until I write it. It’s like the act of writing pulls up astonishing things from my unconscious and twirls them before my eyes so I can see what I’ve never seen before and be amazed. How could I give up something like that?

Writing this blog gives me pleasure and is a great outlet for my need to write. And your “likes” and comments help to sustain that pleasure, make it seem worthwhile. I don’t feel like the writing has dropped into a black hole or disappeared into cyberspace. I don’t feel I’m engaged in a futile exercise.

But my novel. My poor, poor novel. Unless I return to it, it will remain stillborn. And that I can’t bear. Pleasure or no, I must do it justice and publish it myself if nothing else. But all that takes time. Days, weeks, months of dedicated painstaking work. And I’ve become bewitched by painting. I can hardly stand to be away from her for a minute, let alone days, weeks, months.

So if you were me, what would you choose? Pure pleasure, or high anxiety and uncertain results? The answer seems obvious.

And yet, and yet, in the still of night my novel still calls to me.  In soft, wistful whispers.

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