What do you write about? Or…sometimes…What do you write?
This followed by a frantic pause (sic).
What do I write? What has been published? What do I write about?
What do I paint? Where can they be viewed? What do I paint about?
The second set of questions seems, to me, more obtuse and that quality throws light, for me, on the precariousness of the first.
What do I write (about)?
I have been ‘writing’ – consciously, compulsively ‘making up stories’ whether as prose or plays or poetry – since I was at least 11 years old – 47 years.
But what was I writing about?
In Andrew Wyeth : A Secret Life, Richard Meryman’s biography of A.N.Wyeth, the American 20th Century realist painter, he asserts that Wyeth’s painting ‘Spring Fed’ has ‘in the back-ground’ – in its emotional and aesthetic hinterland – the death of Robin Hood. The tempera – in Wyeth’s characteristically austere cold tones – depicts a water trough in a byre, fed by a trickle of clear water ‘spring fed’. A bucket hangs on the wall to the right. Through the window above and beyond the trough, cattle graze the middle ground before a gently sloping hill in the distance. Reading more deeply into Wyeth’s biography, the cattle are Swiss-Brown. The byre, trough and hill belonged to Karl Kuerner, a first-generation German immigrant who farmed near Wyeth’s home in Pennsylvania. Wyeth was a 3rd generation immigrant to the US on his father’s side (German-Swiss). Kuerner had been a machine gunner in the German Army during World War One.
These are, of course, the details I select. What resonates for me amidst what resonated for Meryman (and Wyeth). Robin Hood, dying in the hospitable seclusion of a convent gathers his men, shoots a final arrow through the open casement and wills that where that arrow falls will be his final resting place. My heart is in the Highlands, my heart is not here etcetera.
Windows, and people looking out of windows, are a regular feature in Wyeth’s work. Even, paradoxically, in a painting such as Christina’s World there is a sense of the protagonist being on the inside looking out. So too is the device of painting a portrait of an individual, a deep and emotional, biographical representation of a lived life through the depiction of a lived in yet presently vacant interior (as in Groundhog Day for example) or of implements or clothing by which/in which the individual has lived (as in Sea Boots or Willard’s Coat). Like Kuerner’s trough and Kuerner’s bucket. Like the spring water that flows from the hill into the byre and the viewer who gazes back from the byre towards the hill and Wyeth’s childhood romance of the aging hero longing to be again. Cattle apart, this is a still life. Nature morte. And yet, with interpretation, each element orbits mood and meaning.
Once again, I think, we are in the territory of still life as innuendo rather than eye-candy but not, simply, the wistful-moralistic mood of Dutch ondbitjes – ‘all flesh is grass’, ‘there’s always the morning after’ – but rather an entire life-theme, not a whole life but strand of it, a sustained emotional strain.
So what do you write about? And – what do you write?
Really? Whose life?
Aye, there’s the rub.
For a while now I have been very interested in (auto)biographical writing – Life Writing in the current parlance. How do you earnestly and honestly engage with lived experience and attempt to excavate – the only verb I feel that fits – some sort of narrative ‘explanation’ for ‘what happened’? I’ve been aware for many years that a great part of the motivation to write – to fabulate and to confect fictions – is, in me, to clype – to point out that that’s not really (quite) how it is or was and that some of us (at least) don’t experience life that way and mothering can be an ambiguous experience and the apple pie may well be laced with strychnine.
One’s self-confidence, in this, is, of course, undermined by shame and, in my case at least, the suspicion of a certain psychological ‘volatility’. Is that really what happened? I know you think that happened but…? So one creeps into the undergrowth – the long grass I suppose – and conceals oneself amidst the ‘make it that’. And ‘make it that’ becomes the laboratory in which our personal Mr. & Mrs. Hydes can be conjured, cultured, trained.
The Arvon Book of Life Writing edited by Sally Cline and Carole Angier makes, in this context, salutary reading. It makes it clear, I think, that ‘Life Writing’ is a dodgy pastime, that autobiography is (always) morally reprehensible and biography problematic unless all of the protagonists, their children and their childrens’ children have shuffled off. It might be OK to write a biography of Sappho or Prester John – otherwise the author is on thin-ice frankly. One of the charms and virtues of the book, and there are several, is that the authors and contributors are so upfront about this aspect whilst encouraging wannabe life-writers (like me?) to ‘have a go’. Running a crack-house may result in socially questionable outcomes but think of the upsides why-don’t-you?
But what does a writer write about if not his or her lived experience? Fantasy alter-egos living a life of crime, historical importance, sentimental overload, sexual disinhibition or super-empowerment? I know that is what stories are ‘for’…but what do you write about?
In response to which, I return to a figure (on the viewer’s side of the picture plane) gazing out through a life, through a window – alone and reticent in his telling and remembering – observing a life, his own or another’s, and constructing an evocation in the present of how it is and how it was that everyone can (sort of) live with. An evocation constructed of trompe d’oeil make-it-that’s and a perfect command of tone.
Is that what I write about? Is that what I paint about? Well, it’s something to aim for.