This can be accomplished, now and again, by studying artists working in other media.
The parallels often prove startling, and somehow the energy of the revelations hits us in a fresh way—if we’re lucky, informing the work we undertake thereafter.
Gone for a while are the tired vocabularies and earnest formulae of writerly striving: character, plot, structure, diction, verisimilitude, blah, blah. Instead: watch and listen as an iconic painter talks about his own, remarkably similar processes—and quest.
The tools, language and perspectives may have shifted. But the call, the drive, and the objective, resonate clearly. Eye-poppingly.
I’m speaking now of one of the most remarkable books I’ve read in years: Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucien Freud, by British art critic and curator Martin Gayford. It’s essentially the biography of a portrait-in-progress—painted by the famously scandalous and always brilliant Freud, who died in 2011 at the age of 88. Admired, deplored, driven, by no means an artist to be summarized simply, Freud was working (to my knowledge) until the last. Even to cursorily scan some of his work is to be dazzled.
Open this book anywhere. (Have ready a sheaf of bright-colored sticky-notes. You don’t want to mark these exquisite pages, which are punctuated regularly by superb reproductions of Freud’s works, and the works of others who influenced him.)
“I would wish my portraits,” says Freud, “to be of the people, not like them. Not having a look of the sitter; being them. … As far as I am concerned the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does.”
“In the studio,” notices Gayford, “there is an eternal present. Time stops. … There is no sense of hurry.”
Freud visits art galleries, he remarks, “as you would go to a doctor, to go round thinking, ‘Ah, that’s how that culd be mended. That’s the way to put that right!’ ” (This is often the way writers read, of course.)
And when a famous artist informed Freud that he could not “see the point” of Freud’s work, Freud was not bothered.
Italics here are mine:
“It wasn’t as though I was producing a product for customers,” Freud told Gayford.
“It was something I was doing as the result of a decision.”
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.