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 These are from early drafts of my first novel The Age Of Certainty (Unpublished.)

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.

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:

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

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:

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.


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.


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.


Pet Door

Reuel dreamed the mortal screams of a cat fight. Frodo and a larger version of Frodo circled each other. Their blood curdling howls rippled through piñon smoke leaking from the fireplace, burning Reuel’s eyes and nose. Larger Version attacked. The cats twirled above the paint splattered concrete floor of Reuel’s studio like beaters in a bowl of meringue.
“Wake up, Frodo!” Reuel screamed. He stepped into the middle of the room. “You can’t die!” Larger Version fled through the pet door.
Two days after the dream Reuel was at his easel when Larger Version pushed through the pet door’s plastic flap. Frodo was sleeping on the floor, using Reuel’s foot as a pillow, in a rectangle of warmth from the sun through one of the large windows.
“I’m dreaming again,” Reuel said. At the sound of his voice Larger Version once again escaped through the pet door. Reuel watched Larger Version run past the cross and disappear over the backyard fence. He sniffed the paint on his hands, ran his fingers through Frodo’s brindle fur, and felt his purring.
Reuel had seen people think of dreams as mere wishes, random synapses firing in their brains. But for Reuel dreams were just another door to life. Like the angelic flock of naked flying women who occasionally visited him, with their crow’s heads, blowing the moon to the other side of the sun with the flapping of their wings; or when Meister, his Golden Retriever, once or twice a year rose from his grave in the backyard to assure Reuel he’s not upset about being buried alive; there’s Reuel’s domineering wife, the one he meets for the first time each time she appears, awkwardly failing to seduce him; and that washing machine he crawls into because he doesn’t want to take his clothes off in front of everyone at the Laundromat. Sometimes the news anchorwoman repeats to the whole world how his paintings remind her of when she has sex, but can’t climax. His favorite is all those nights flying past landmark after landmark to visit his sister, Joy, and finding himself in the morning, worn out from the journey, sitting by his made up bed. And now he has Frodo protecting his territory, fighting off Larger Version, rediscovering the vigor of youth, the sinews of necessity, without a scratch, as if willing a myth.
Reuel relished lying on the bed at night, not knowing the time, patiently waiting for a train’s or owl’s hoot, tires or footsteps humming on the road, voices or Frodo whining, and the moon’s or sun’s glow to peek beyond the edges of the window blinds.
Reuel painted Larger Version into a series of landscapes. In one, he is delicate paw prints in the snow. In the next, he is the eyes of a mouse afraid to venture out of his hole. And in yet another, Larger Version is pungent piss, wet leaves, and balls of fur decomposing under a tree in the forest. Larger Version reminded Reuel how sane his love for Frodo was. Because Frodo’s love was unconditional, like a dream wife, and it was beyond imagination that an eighteen year old cat could defend his territory against Larger Version.
Talking to Joy on the phone Reuel told the story of meeting Larger Version. Joy asked Reuel if he was taking his medication. “Every night,” Reuel answered. “After I go to bed.”
One day there was a knock at the front door of Reuel’s home. He got down on his hands and knees, stuck his head out the pet door, and looked around the back yard. Finally Lola, the owner of the gallery sponsoring a solo exhibition of Reuel’s paintings, came into the backyard to see if he might be in his studio.
“What are you doing?” asked Lola. She was so beautiful that day the man following her seemed hesitant, as if entering Reuel’s world, with his sketchy black beard, dreamy eyes, and paint splattered overalls, was unfair competition.
“I’m waiting through my pet door.”
“I tried to call.”
“I don’t need to talk through the phone, if you want to come in.”
Reuel got to his feet and opened the door meant for people who think dreams are only wishes. He led them inside with a slow sweep of his hand, as if directing them into a pew at a funeral or a baptism. Lola’s long golden hair shadowboxed the suddenly timid sun, her nose protruded from between her wide almond eyes, falling in a false front towards her delightful white teeth, so perfect and inviting no one noticed how thin her lips were. Reuel watched Lola’s skirt flow around the studio, her legs bending naively, seductively, like delicate saplings in a cloth of willow branches. She swung a bottle of bubbly in reverse rhythm to her hips.
“This is Paul. He’s a great admirer of your work.” Frodo circled and rubbed Paul’s ankle, who was surprised when he found no cat hair on the cuff of his trousers.
“Thanks for including us. Is this what you’ve been waiting for?” Reuel waved at his easel in a backhanded manner. It held a canvas bisected by a row of weeping willow trees. Streaks of red formed a rectangle below the drooping branches. Inside the rectangle something not yet finished was flapping towards the viewer, like the pages of a book in the wind. Larger Version had passed through moments earlier.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Reuel felt Paul thought he needed to say.
“He’s becoming a collector’s item,” Lola assured them.
The mood was as genuine as newspaper philosophy, and it made Reuel uncomfortable, as if Paul was unsure what he wished for.
“You can’t have it now,” Lola continued. “Before all the paintings are hung together, there’s always some confusion. I’m positive Reuel will sell out. It will be worth so much more to you someday.”
Reuel scooped thick black paint onto a long brush and held it between his thumb and two fingers, like a conductor’s baton, waving it over the painting. Lola’s face scrunched in barely concealed horror. Paul held a sculpted smile, content to be in the presence of greatness. Reuel dropped his eyelids, puckered his lips, let his breath escape, then skillfully pushed the brush around the canvas. Sprouts of black paint distorted the underlying images before his eyes. Reuel lowered his arm and released the dream from his vision.
“I can’t believe you did that,” Lola groaned.
“He’s insane!” Paul said. He clapped his hands together and laughed at the low ceiling, finally noticing the multi-colored cob-webs hanging almost into his mouth.
“You might have been ruined,” Lola explained.
“It was a masterpiece,” Reuel said.
“Aren’t they all masterpieces?” Paul wanted to ask.
“This one needs to be scraped.” Reuel picked out a painting from a stack leaning against the wall under a window.
“Tell us about it,” Lola insisted.
The canvas was large enough for Reuel to disappear behind it, his voice thin as a beam of light, scattering particles through space and time.
“Frodo is defending his territory. Sometimes he needs to be petted. His whining hurts my ears when he wants me to think it’s time for dinner, but I hardly need to eat anymore, like a perfect lover.”
Most of the painting was blinding yellow streaks of cloudless sky. Three cottonwood trees in exquisite detail drew the eye down and to the left. An adobe church telescoped away towards the bottom, right of center. It’s wide double doors stood wide open. A cat in stained glass looked wistfully from a window. In the graveyard out back a herd of cats was having a meeting. Adog eavesdropped from a branch of one of the cottonwoods.
“What’s the title?” Lola wanted to know.
Reuel could see Paul didn’t understand. When no one responded, Reuel thought again, Conscious Dream.
“It might be Unconscious Wishes,” Reuel said.
“Really?” Paul asked.
“Reuel, excuse us for a moment.” Lola led Paul into the kitchen. “Now do you understand? The whole universe is trying to get through his door. Each sale for him is like losing a lover. Let me see what I can do with him. Don’t mention money. You can write a check, forty thousand. Wait here, put it in my purse and open the wine while I talk to him.”
“Which one?”
“Does it matter? Every one’s a dream.”
Lola left her purse and went back to the studio.
“He’s so insistent. Reuel, I know you don’t like to do this, and wouldn’t ask, but this is a wish come true for Paul. And once he buys one, your paintings will be every collector’s dream.”
Reuel set a blank canvas on the easel and starting scratching paint onto his palette to match the color of Lola’s hair.
“I can try to get him to eight thousand. But you’ll have to let him take it today.”
He outlined Lola’s figure on the canvas, making her body glow brighter than the sun through the window behind her. The pop of the cork from the kitchen startled Frodo. He left through the pet door. Reuel decided to make the window out of stained glass.
“I’m glad we see things the same way. It embarrasses Paul to talk about money. That’s great. Keep painting, it’s a nice touch. I’ll take care of the rest.”
Lola went into the kitchen, checked her purse, looked through the cabinets, and washed three glasses. She led Paul to the studio and stationed him where he could watch Reuel work. Then she poured each of them a glass of bubbly. Paul raised his to Reuel and took a sip. Reuel got down on his knees, stuck his head out the pet door, called Frodo, then went back to his easel and put the glass on the floor by his feet.
Lola picked up Unconscious Wishes and held it up for Paul to admire. Reuel observed Lola, closed his eyes, and stroked two sinuous saplings onto the canvas. Then he added wings and a crow’s head, a moon beyond the sun.
“It’s a wish come true,” Paul started.
“When that door opens, let’s go through it,” Reuel said.
“To have your dreams,” Paul said.
Lola made a cross with her index finger and thin lips. Reuel was sketching a washing machine around her body, so everyone could see her spinning through the window. He was flying across the backyard landscape for inspiration. The flap of the pet door swung open. Frodo passed into the studio, hugged Reuel, sipped the bubbles. There were paw prints in the snow, hinting at a path from the cross marking Meister’s grave to the washing machine.
“Beyond imagination,” Reuel said.
“He’s entering his own little world.” Lola whispered to Paul. She handed Unconscious Dreams to Paul, downed her bubbly, and picked up her purse.
Reuel looked at the door meant for people who know only wishes, saw their footprints in the snow. Suddenly Larger Version appeared, blocking their path. He and Frodo let out simultaneous blood-curling howls. The fireplace was leaking smoke. Paul veered to one side, hoisting Unconscious Dreams in front of his face. Reuel watched Larger Version sink his claws into the calf of Paul’s trousers. Paul kicked his leg as if he was a madman, but Larger Version’s claws caught in the material. Frodo went through the pet door. Lola tried to get a hold of Unconscious Dreams, and it looked to Reuel that the three of them, kicking and screaming, snow particles frothing in the air like smoke from a fire, were whipping dreams and wishes into a sacred mating dance. Reuel’s paintbrush flew across the backyard. It was as if he could predict what steps they were taking before they took them, their movements as familiar to him as the landscape between his bedroom and Joy’s home. Paul fell to the ground. Larger Version freed himself from Paul’s trousers and went through the canvas as if it were a pet door to get at him. Frodo leapt into Larger Version from Paul’s side of the canvas. The two cats locked onto each other, howling and scratching in an ancient choreography of flying snow. Paul ran away. Lola escaped through the pet door to the safety of the studio. Her skirt was covered in paw prints, snow clung to her buttocks. She reached out to Reuel, threw her arms around his ankles and announced, “I have always loved you, longed for you, I want you now.”
Reuel looked down on her, then closed his eyes. He stroked his canvas in flourishes, felt Lola run her hands up his legs, pull herself to her feet, press herself against him. Her thin lips touched his cheek. His brush waved non-stop at the canvas. Lola slid her skirt down, unbuttoned her shirt. She was the most beautiful woman Reuel had ever seen, and he was determined to render her faithfully. Her breasts appeared under her clothes, her buttocks a perfect heart inside her weeping skirt, spinning for all to see.
His passions spent, Reuel dropped his brush and lifted his eyelids. Frodo lay motionless in the snow. Lola dressed awkwardly, then silently went through the door meant for people who only believe in wishes, as if Reuel had stolen all her beauty and locked it into the canvas, leaving only what was ugly.
Reuel painted and dreamed, forgetting he was there. In the backyard cats gathered around the cross. The images on the canvas appeared without Reuel closing his eyes. Larger Version went up to the cross, turned to face hundreds of cats. His howl was like sex without climax, or a thousand ancient women mourning. For the first time Reuel understood Larger Version. He howled about Frodo, how their love was necessary for his sanity, and without love it was impossible to get out of bed, sleep, create, or fly through the sky. Reuel went through the pet door.
A few days later Lola came to pick up Reuel’s paintings for the exhibition. She called first, but, as usual, Reuel didn’t answer. No one came when she knocked on the front door, so she went around the home, to the door meant for those who only wish. It was locked. Lola peered through the window. Reuel’s palette was smeared with paint, a canvas on the easel. She looked around the yard. There were thousands of prints of paws in the snow.
Lola walked all the way around the house, knocked on the door again, and checked to see if any windows were unlocked. Finally, she crawled through the pet door.
On the easel was a painting of the back yard. It had a richness of detail she hadn’t seen in Reuel’s work before, but still maintained that dreamy quality that experts used to identify it as a Reuel. There was a small cross next to the big one, and two mounds of fresh dirt. Hundreds of cats filled the yard, and Larger Version was giving a eulogy. A golden retriever watched. Lola never saw Reuel again.

An Atheist’s Prayer to His Faithful Friends

Facing wonder
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

I do not know
How they rise
So easily

It is heavy
This failure
To straighten our backs

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

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.


When we bought our old Victorian house, it was pretty run down; now, it is a showpiece in the neighborhood. I can buy any car I want, but I prefer to restore older models. My business affords me comforts I never imagined. My wife is not only beautiful, but extremely talented. My children and many grandchildren forgive my selfishness, and I am a failure.

We had a plan. In two years my wife quit working to pursue her art career full-time. In four years we saved enough money to last several years so I could pursue my dream. When I was thirteen I promised myself I would be a writer.

So in the middle of the night these words I scribble vie for space in my life. The familiar colors of spring turn to summer greens, the sunlight plays at my feet after navigating yellow leaves of poplars I planted in that season of promise. Their shade is pleasant now, but I hope for a lasting legacy, to arrest life and resist the vagaries of time.

My old friends ask: does someone misinterpreting your thoughts in a hundred years make up for the sleepless nights, the missed holidays, the loneliness? I am afraid to answer that my greatest moments of joy are shared with the page, that I have never experienced meaning that is not also metaphor.

A reader is a secret relation, like being able to pick your relatives instead of blind fate imposing its will. But what if no one is reading?

I have close friends, six brothers whose mother died.  She wrote a beautiful diary spanning forty years, and I am the only person who ever read it. Now I am her seventh son.

So I write, I think, I learn; and I answer the questions: How’s your book coming? When is it going to be published? I’d love to read it. Until no one knows whether to believe me anymore. Maybe all I am doing is watching old movies