Writing a Painting

Below are examples of when I first began to think about how to write a painting. These are from early drafts of my first novel The Age Of Certainty (Unpublished.)

2009
Hesus gathered his notebooks and carried them to his car. The day was heating up pleasantly. The dew hiding in the warm breeze caressed his arm and face. He held the wheel around a wide curve and crossed over narrow gauge tracks, sped up to the crest of a hill where he could look down onto the village. Behind each house plots of irregular rectangles were carved out of the forest, shaggily defined by slanting grey plank fences or low stone walls, filled with cabbage and potatoes and onions, straight laced corn and sleepy sunflowers. Occasionally a few solemn cows grazed in a plot, balancing awkwardly up the steep hillside. It was as if the entire village was a static landscape limited to his current point of view, like a painting that so catches the essence of its subject that the viewer forgets it’s only a representation playing on his unconscious assumptions.

2011
Hesus gathered his notebooks. The warming air was pleasant, though dew still hid in the breeze, caressing his arms and face.
Hesus held the steering wheel around a wide curve, bounced again over narrow gauge tracks, stopped on the crest of a hill. He looked down to see the road split the village roughly in two. Low stone walls behind each house held back the forest in irregular plots tilled and filled with gardens, rough grey sheds, listing corrals, and the occasional solemn cow grazing awkwardly up the hillside. Farms wrapped over the undulating horizon, small orchards and rows of vines alternating with wide expanses of corn, wheat, and golden breasts of hay scattered dazzling under the sun. It was as if the village was a static landscape limited to his current point of view, like a painting that so catches the essence of its subject that the viewer forgets it is one representation stuck in time, playing on his unconscious assumptions.

And later in the novel:

2010
He was driven into that catalytic space between day and night where your perception is mutable and it’s all too counter to your experience to quite believe, like a painting that catches the truth of a sunset yet is so unique and poignant that no one would believe it was real unless it was a photograph, but you know that there is no way a photograph of what you are witnessing would ever evoke the feelings you are having and then you realize the experience might depend on being who your are at that moment in your life so it would be impossible to adequately describe to anyone anyhow when they passed through the second checkpoint and he was handed over to Sadiq. He was deep in Taliban country now

2011
His handlers drove him into the dusk, into a position so counter to his experience that it was hard to believe, like a painting that catches the truth of a sunset yet is so poignant that no one would believe it was real unless it was a photograph, but you know a photograph could never evoke these feelings, and then you realize the experience might depend on being who you are at that moment, so it would be impossible to adequately describe to anyone else anyway, when they passed through the second checkpoint and he was handed over to Sadiq. He was deep in Taliban country now.

Compare to more recent passages from my novel in progress, Reuel, where the main character is more painterly to begin with:

2013
Through a more or less closed door Reuel discovered a piano and a futon couch. He could see Mrs. Justice’s prints on the ivory keys and foot petals, some jilted to the left, some to the right, as if her elbows and knees stuck straight out whenever she made a sound. Reuel tapped one of the middle keys.
“Me me me,” he sang into a mirror on the far wall. It was out of tune, as if he lived in another world. “So so so.” In the mirror he looked through a window, saw the eagle gently deposit Mr. Justice into a Pena-purple bed of forget-me-nots in the backyard. He decided to explore the mysteries and romances behind the other doors.
Mrs. Justice’s closet smelled of mothballs and cedar. When Reuel stuck his head in each dress bristled, each pair of sheer gold stockings winked daintily along a stair step of horizontal rods. Virginal, never-buttoned buttons on her blouses smiled expectantly, and skirts lifted at the slightest touch. Inside a shoebox was a jumble of delicate red straps and spikes like poison darts. Another box contained elegant black pumps stuffed with tissue paper and out of another tumbled sandy rubber sandals that smelled like fish. Reuel closed his eyes and dreamed of soaring like a seagull over a beach, salty wind sweeping his sepia locks across the frothy ocean.

Later:

The man swung his legs over the far side of the futon and pulled on his underwear, then a pair of slacks dark and blue as shadows turning slightly cooler just before dawn. Salt and pepper hair formed a tornado from the top of his head down his back. Anabel slipped into a pair of bright green flats. Reuel remembered the green triangles perched on a wooden ledge like parrots staring at him from the canopy of a tree while he read her diary. He could feel the wet jungle air, see her gathering her brushes, folding her easel, failing to completely reveal herself on the canvas. When he opened his eyes the futon was a couch again and no one was in the room.

And:

He started reading the first story in the book, about two lonely people who dreamed of finding true love.
The lonely woman and lonely man lived very close to each other in the same city. They both loved animals, classical music, reading, were shy, and used proper etiquette even when only with their pets. The words were crafted into sentences and paragraphs that fit together in poetic harmonious purple-slate rhythms. Reuel ran his eyes over the pages like reverent fingertips over an intricately patterned melancholy-blue lined buttery marble surface polished to a smooth slippery sheen. Every time he was sure the two lonely people were about to come together some higher purpose made one turn a half a block too soon, the other look away just at the moment of truth.
Reuel decided where he wanted to be was to believe in miracles. One day the lonely man went to the art museum to see a large exhibition of his favorite artist. He walked for hours amidst the largest crowd he had ever seen at the museum. Finally the lonely man realized he had been standing in front of one painting for so long he wasn’t sure what time was. The author described the painting with such acumen Reuel saw it on the page, felt the woman’s eyes staring out tall windows in her wedding dress, felt the tension in the leg muscles of the man she was watching. He blushed, embarrassed that other patrons had been looking over his shoulder and maneuvering around him to see the masterpiece so as not to disturb him. For a moment the lonely man felt claustrophobic, he could feel someone’s breath on his ear, a tingle down that side of his body. It’s mesmerizing, the breath whispered. He turned to see the chamomile voice. Yes, he said as the lonely woman’s hazel gaze fell deeply and without qualm into his. Her skin was that melancholy-blue lined buttery marble surface, his face the perfect intricate pattern of her dreams, and his reverent fingertips ran over the love of his life for ever after.
The creative force of his paintings, Reuel decided, is greater than him yet contained within him, and can be shared by anyone, if only they realize dreams are more than mere wishes.

The tension is between abstraction, like a dream you are trying to remember, and coherent narrative. A well crafted painting does a good job of balancing the tension. My goal is to achieve this balance in a narrative form without slipping into poetry.

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My UnAmerican Holidays

I live in a country full of all kinds of people

A country based on freedom, on the idea that I have an inalienable right to my own belifs, and the right express those beliefs without being persecuted.

I understand this means my next door neighbors, those worshiping in a church down the street, across town, in another state, from another culture, don’t necessarily share my beliefs.

And I by living here I have explicitly agreed to co-exist with all these diverse individuals, groups, cultures, freaks, bozos, ignoramuses, deep and shallow thinkers, those who love and hate me, for whatever reasons.

So I extend respect to all my fellow citizens, and I tolerate them, and expect them to tolerate me, even when I’m irrascible.

By definition then, we are a tolerant nation. This experiment in tolerance has worked quite well, producing the best place to live on the planet. Not just at the moment, but the best place to live as a human being in the entire history of the human race.

Not only am I proud of this, but profoundly humbled. Why am I so lucky? Why is it I was born a white male in the mid-twentieth century in America? What did I do to derserve the life I enjoy, the wonderfu;ly diverse people I share this life with, the unprecedented opportunity to learn from all these people that tolerate me?

At times I have to compromise my beliefs in order to allow others that disagree with me to tell me what they think, why they think what they think. Yes, I have to allow the laws I live under to govern me. Often I grit my teeth at perceived injustices that I think are unnecessary.

And I am humbled in the knowledge that others have to grit their teeth to tolerate me.

All this makes me happy.

I have one simple request. If you do not want to tolerate me; if you disagree with me so much that you think I should conform to your way of thinking; then you should move somewhere else, because you are UnAmerican.

It is UnAmerican to not tolerate me. It is UnAmerican to not take my views into account. It is UnAmerican to not compromise or take me and others who don’t agree with you into account.

If you want to live in a society where you don’t have to compromise (I don’t really think such a society exists) then move somewhere else. I can suggest a couple of communist nations. Or perhaps you can discover a time machine and go to Germany or Italy in 1938. There was quite a society in Espana in the 1400s that might work well for you.

But if you decide America is where you want to live, I welcome you. Just keep always in mind that by living here you agree to compromise, so we can all live a better, more fair, more just, and more fulfilling life together.

An Atheist’s Prayer to His Faithful Friends

Facing wonder
Envy
Humility
My small back bowed
To divine
A scrap of insight

I watch my faithful friends
Bent and twisted under the burden
Taking comfort in our communion

They murmur
Feel the weight grow
Between us

Knowing
I do not know
How they rise
So easily

It is heavy
This failure
To straighten our backs
Together

Every time we shut our eyes
We shrink to our knees
Every time the morning beckons
We beg to know
Like an honest prayer
That goes unanswered

Fingerprints of You

Reading Kristen-Paige Madonia’s Fingerprints of You, and certain passages strike home.

p.38: Inner voice of Lemon, a 17 year old pregnant girl who has never known her father, who resents her mother for moving her around so much as a child;

I remember our shitty little house with the stained carpet and the worn-out couch waiting for us on the other side of town, and I realized I’d spent most of my childhood being angry at her (Mom) for making us live like that, for not having enough money for us to rent a nicer home, and for refusing to pick a place to settle in. (End of Quote)

I have a similar situation in my family now, adult kids struggling with their resentment of moving a lot when they were young, of Mom being married multiple times and having boyfriends, of feeling when they were kids they didn’t have all the fancy stuff their peers had, because Mom bought thrift store Polos, cut the little guy on his horse off and sewed him onto their cheap shirts, because Mom pursued her art instead of a steady job. Mom’s hashed this out with them many times, but somehow it hasn’t been enough, though the kids have their own kids now, beautiful kids, like their parents, who are responsible and capable and articulate and are good people in large part because Mom has always provided for them, still provides for them, is committed to her children and grandchildren as if they were still her vulnerable little tots, which in many ways they are.

Lemon again, on p. 93, talking to her friend Emmy as they ride on a Greyhound bus across the country, to San Francisco to find her father;

“I wanted to believe she made the right choice for us,” I told her, “but I just couldn’t help being pissed off. It’s like sometimes I blame her for not making a family out of us, but then sometimes I know it was probably better that way,” I said. “He never came for me, so I figured he was a loser, the kind of guy who couldn’t handle being a real dad.” (End of Quote)

My wife’s son told me he’d reconciled with his father for not being there, that they’d never be friends, but they’d been able to talk about things in a way he couldn’t get his Mom to talk about things, and they’d come to terms. Yet I’ve been there more than once when the kids ganged up on their Mom, telling her how bad she was to them, how awful it was to live in a funky house full of art and artists, in the wrong part of town, how embarrassed they were that their mother made a living cleaning other people’s houses and traveling to art shows to sell her paintings, how she abandoned them when they were teenagers when she got an apartment close by and let her daughter’s boyfriend’s Aunt move into their house for a short while, and Mom apologizing and defending herself, until all any of us were doing was repeating ourselves. It’s hard for me to imagine what else could be said, what words from her could dig up and dissipate feelings that have been shunted aside since childhood. 

I haven”t finished Fingerprints of You yet, but I last night I read these passages to my wife, and I told her that I’m guessing Lemon comes to terms with her mother by the end of the novel, that she comes to realize that even her mother’s mistakes were the best she could do, and that part of becoming an adult means accepting responsibility for who you are, giving up the impulse to blame others for your emotions.

My parents always felt guilty for breaking up our home, for the protracted nastiness of the custody battle, for using us kids against the other parent. My sister and I dealt with the divorce in different, often unhealthy ways. My not blaming my parents may be the best thing I ever did for myself.

I hope to finish Fingerprints of You this evening, am anxious to see how Lemon grows up.

Taos Summer Writers Conference

Attending Robert Boswell’s Fiction for Serious Writer’s Workshop at the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference.

Love Boz’s approach, his insistence that writing be art, not merely craft, that craft underpins art, yes, but when well executed stays in the background of the piece, almost unseen, doing it’s multifarious job, like jesso and scraped layers of paint on canvas.

Increasingly I understand writing as analogous to painting. I look at a recent piece of Peggy’s (my wife, Peggy McGivern,) ‘Indian Pony Dream,’ and the blue-gray shadows defining the pony’s dominant-white body are a turn of phrase with multiple meanings, without too definite a line, and the more powerful for it.

My eyes read over a wavy block of color without noticing the technique, the brushstrokes, showing me withers, ribcage, health and wild beauty standing in high grasses, provoking emotion and imagination, a phrase I can dissect in subsequent readings and analysis, an Alice Munro story offering more pleasure the more I look.

Peggy is experimenting with abstraction, and I, too, am learning how to give myself permission, permission to scrape words from my pages, see what stubbornly persists despite the razor’s edge, despite my habits and previous understanding.

My workshop mates and I are like the ponies flying dreamlike in the sky of the painting, our inner world to make manifest on the canvas and pages of experience, the evolution of memories, a new ingrained habit to use and overcome.

Taos Mountain looms in the background of our pony dreams and inspires us with beauty and novelty. I walk out of a spirited session, my mind galloping somewhere between dreams and realities, and I don’t want to drift down from the sky, even though the high desert beckons, its impossible light on the chamisa, sage, adobe, and my mind nourishing and ecstatically real. How can I maintain this ill-equilibrium, this equine existence reduced to its core?

I will not worry with that. Today I can run with my ponies through the high grass, reaching for the sky.

My Taos Memory

This was in last week’s Taos News, letter to the editor. Life is a work of art here, visual, intellectual, spiritual, all aspects; her I feel life can truly be what you make of it.

My Taos Memory

I recently visited Taos for the celebration of a family member’s life. Her passing was sudden and a shock to us all.

Some of my family and I, who traveled to New Mexico from across the country, stayed at the Hampton Inn. Each morning I would sit in the lobby dnjoying a cup of coffee, but feeling the loss of Sandi.

A very talented gentleman played Native American flute in the lobby each morning. I now know art is not only for the eyes. This man’s artistry took my mind to places it needed to be, a little closer to heaven. The music both calmed and relaxed and I saw why my sister-in-law and brother chose to spend their years together here. The air is clear, the people more than friendly and, as I know now, an incredible source of peace. \

God must love New Mexico.

New Jersey Visitor