It’s been said that for writers the blank page is our canvas and words our paint.
But I don’t think so.
Images and ideas are the paint, words the loaded brush, and sentences our brushstrokes. The mind and imagination of both writer and reader is the blank canvas.
Nothing is there on the page—mere white space, black ink strokes. Yet in the act of reading the mind becomes awash in colors, images, ideas, emotions. Like magic. What the reader draws upon is not only the writer’s words and images, but the reader’s as well, his memories and associations. Our reader co-creates with us.
What both the writer and reader draw upon, as do all visual artists, are all the images and associations from our own lives as well as all those who came before us and left their imprints upon our imaginations, through books and artwork and film and advertising. Scraps of overheard conversation, images of bloodshed and atrocities on nightly broadcasts. Scenes drifting by a train window, songs played upon the radio, sounds of playground laughter. Faraway land and cultures and wilderness areas glimpsed in our travels or from magazines or TV documentaries.
We draw upon myths and legends, iconic images and personal histories passed on from one generation to the next, spanning back to the beginning of life, perhaps, if we do indeed carry within our genes memories of primeval birthing. All these images and association stored in our personal or collective unconscious.
What interests me in all this is the creative process. How we dip our brushes into this swirling palette, and bring out more on our loaded brushes than what we had intended or even realized at first glance. And yet our work is the richer for it.
Here’s an example of a scene I created without being fully aware of its implications until in the midst of the writing, and moments afterwards. This is from “Tamara in Her Garden.”
I was eleven years old when the house burned down one night. Burned clean to the ground. Nothing left but heaps of ashes and twisted metal folded among the stone foundation. Sifting through the silt and rubble, firemen found the charred remains of my father, who had died in bed, and the broken bones of fifteen young men, boys really, buried beneath the house.
They found me crouched in the garden, dress torn and singed, eyes so wide, they said, it was as if the fire had burned off my eyelids and I would never sleep again.
What I remember most about that night now is the way my Aunt Rose held me afterward, drew me to her lap and rocked me. I was tall for my age, taller than Aunt Rose by then, but she held me nonetheless. Gathered me up, all the odd and bony parts of me, the long thin back and stooped shoulders, the heavy head. Folding herself over, stroking and holding, rocking me like a baby, like I was part of her lost self. And I, spilling over her yet holding too–tightly, tight. And thinking with open eyes: She knew. She knew, too.
Now when I remember, and remember how she held me, I am reminded of ancient Italy. Of towering cypress pressed against an Aegean sky. Of sun-drenched doorways and crumbling stoops. Of Michelangelo’s Pieta, cool and smooth in a cool, dark hall, the Son’s body spilling half naked across the Mother’s lap as she held him. Holding and spilling. Holding and spilling. Remembering places I’ve never yet always been.
As I was creating the image of the child being held by the Aunt, I began to realize I’d seen this before—it was a deeply familiar, iconic image, steeped in religious, artistic, and maternal associations. The Pieta was already part of my palette.
I didn’t realize until after I had written the words that drawing upon this iconic image was thus imbuing the scene with a sense of suffering and sacrifice, of sin and redemption, of death and the hope of resurrection.
Realizing this, it became part of the story. The protagonist herself realizes the implication and draws upon images of beauty and decay, life and death, art and darkness, all washing together but impossible to hold without spilling. She draws upon places we’ve all been, or know, figuratively, without perhaps having been there ourselves.
The phrase “remembering places I’ve been and never been” is particularly potent because it captures for me some deep truth—that humans, particularly with our exposure to film and art and news, are exposed to places, scenes, people, cultures, that become part of our world view, our memories and associations, without ever actually having “been” there.
Which brings us back to the original point of this post: The paint we dip our brushes into is so much more deep and vast than any of the creators who came before us had. Along with our individual experiences come experiences filtered through the minds and imaginations of others, framed by their cameras, their perceptions, their agendas, their images—but it all becomes part of our consciousness, gets missed in with the personal, and recreated into our works.
Art that inspires us becomes part of our subconscious, our memories and association, part of that “paint” swirling around in our minds upon which we draw when we “paint” with words. The Pieta was already there, already steeped in associations, already all-ready for me to draw upon when seeking the perfect image for this particular scene of a wounded child being drawn to the lap of her maternal aunt to be comforted, the child herself being “too big”, her wound too devastating, for the Aunt to hold, so spilling past her, unable to hold it all, to even grasp it all, all that her niece had suffered, and so spilling beyond the aunt’s ability to comfort, hold, heal.
And yet the act of attempting to do just that—that despite the enormity of the task, its impossibility, its futility, the attempt in itself becomes a kind of absolution, a love beyond love, a sacramental act, that touches the child more tenderly than anything else might have.
I think in writing this, I have touched upon, unawares, a realization, that this is something I seek again and again in my writing to capture, articulate. The impossibility of healing, comforting, redeeming, forgiving, witnessing, the sorrow and hurt of this world as it unfolds in each of our lives, and yet the absolute necessity to attempt to do so, for just the attempt itself—the whole-hearted, deep-throated, full-bent attempt—is enough. The attempt despite no hope of succeeding, is precisely what’s needed, and will suffice.
If we live a million years, we can do no more, nor less, than that.
We are so much deeper and wider and richer than we will ever know, so much more than our personal histories can account for, and we might never know it but from these percolations bubbling up from the deep Unconscious, or those deliberate dippings below the surface.
Lending our pens to that which writes us.
[I wrote this post several years ago before I began painting myself. Now I find it more true than ever. Even for painting, my “brush” is dipped into the deep unconscious before I ever put a stroke on paper or canvas]