“I think a person permeates a spot, and a lost presence makes the environment timeless to me, keeps an area alive.” ~Andrew Wyeth
Over the holidays I visited the Seattle Art Museum, and was fortunate enough to take in “Andrew Wyeth In Retrospect.” This diverse collection celebrated the painter’s life over seventy-five years. Many of his pieces I knew, and they spoke to me, although there were a few that stirred my need to write in ways I could not explain. I could only stand and stare.
Once home, I tried using this revved motivation to create new lines of poetry and emotional depth in my novel, and yet, found myself stuck. I didn’t understand. How could I walk out of that museum with a sense of urgency to write, when my words felt trapped in my bones. So, I tucked everything away to revisit later. I interpreted it as timing. Or as my poet-guru says, “Let it cook.”
Weeks later, reading from The Emotional Craft of Fiction, by Donald Maass, it struck me. On page 172, he explains the following when discussing feelings without names.
“The fleeting beauty of life. The irony of it all, Women! Men! A nameless dread. The exquisite ache of inexpressible love. Is there a greater art than evoking a feeling that has no name? When readers feel those it’s magic, a pure human connection, a silent but potent sharing straight from heart to heart. It’s like when couples who’ve known each other forever exchange a look. Who needs words? The look says is all.”
His teaching reminded me of the characters from my novel, and how I could enhance their characterization in the story, but it also drudged up my museum visit. Sweeping out the folded Andrew Wyeth brochure from my coat breast pocket, I revisited the experience that had moved me, but kept reading from The Emotional Craft of Fiction.
On page 173, Maass adds… “Unique feelings are situation specific. They flare as brightly as fireworks and perish just as quickly. They leave behind a trace, though, of something elusive, an excitement or trepidation too real and yet impossible to convey or re-create.”
This was exactly how I felt when looking at Wyeth’s painting, “Public Sale.” I’m not going to attempt to describe or critique the painting as a whole (in no way could I put together the right words to express his masterpiece). However, I can share what parts struck me personally as a writer; it was the mud.
The soil, rich with coral sunrises and sunsets toiled through a million shades of brown, in patterns I felt I could touch. I could almost wriggle my fingers between the deep folds of earth turned over from the bulging grooves of truck tires. How had he done that? And with watercolor?! It took my breath away, and the art I had been idly appreciating came to a complete halt. I was moved, and I knew it was in a “writer’s” important way. I snapped a picture (allowed in this exhibit). I couldn’t identify what I felt at that moment, but I knew later I would want to try.
From there I found another painting, “Wind From The Sea,” and my heart beat an intoxicating rhythm in my chest. Was he speaking to me from beyond the grave? This was a painting of a window. Simply, a window that had just been opened after a long time of being shut. But what got me, as did the mud from “Public Sale,” were the curtains. The veil curtains flew as if the birds crocheted couldn’t wait… like a secret had been exposed!
Wyeth wrote, “Of all my work at the Olson’s this seems to me to be the one that expresses a great deal without too much in it. I walked up into the dry, attic room one day. It was a hot summer day in August, so hot that I went over to that window, pushed it up about six inches and as I stood there, looking out, all of a sudden this curtain that had been lying there stale for years, God knows how long, began slowly to rise, and the birds crocheted on it began to move. My hair about stood on end.”
I wanted to breathe in life this way. To be in that precise moment, at that precise time. I wanted to be in that stale room appreciating something so simple.
I looked around at the throngs of people. It seemed others were equally impressed with his work. There were crowds as I’ve never seen before at an art museum. And onlookers were all stopping, tilting their heads, whispering words of praise to each other. But did they feel alive? Did they want to take note of the date and time? Because that’s what I felt I should do. I wanted to sit down on the floor in front of the “Wind From The Sea” painting, and write down everything surrounding me. The gray walls standing like borders to a new uncharted world, the hum of whispered voices carrying like native chants through the cool air. My cream sweater, my black boots.
I couldn’t see anymore. I had to stop, to turn back. I kept walking until I got to the museum café. I grounded myself with a cup of grounded coffee beans. What else does one do in Seattle? I needed to think. This man had created immeasurable beauty with a brush, capturing colors and light that spoke volumes to me. And with every written word describing his works, so carefully adhered to the wall beside each painting, his love of family and home revealed itself.
I tend to live in the past, and often, the future, as most humans do. But at that very moment, I was present. And the fact that he was gone, unable to create paintings of the places and people that meant the most to him, saddened me. Yet it also stirred in me the urgency to write; to leave my own legacy.
After leaving the museum, it felt like I’d left something tangible behind, but in no way could I grasp it to explain or share. The more I tried to write poetry inspired from it, the more baffled I felt. Maybe there was more to it, or I was missing something. Maybe I was trapped in that room by the sea with the window shut tight. Maybe…
Maybe I just needed to relax and let the words unfold. And that’s what I did. In the midst of my January hibernation it came to me. Borrowed from Wyeth’s own thoughts, yet altered by my own… sometimes a place permeates a moment, and the experience becomes timeless, keeping it alive. I think I was afraid I would forget that “writer’s urge” inspired by my experience at the museum. And when I couldn’t express what I was feeling in my work, I wondered how I would ever keep it alive. But as I read in Maass’ book, about feelings without names, it became clearer. It was that unnamable experience that will keep me on my toes when I write from now on. To slow down and appreciate what I am focused on accomplishing. To feel grateful for the words that do trickle onto the page, and the ones I will have to show rather than tell, because there are no words.
This moment at the museum, for me, will be discovered over and over again in all my writing.
Writer’s Advice: Frame in those Feelings
As a teacher I instill in my students to “show, not tell” all the time. But, they are usually showing and telling with feelings and events you can show. We know lots of ways to express anger or sadness, and even exhilaration. And we can write these descriptions beautifully. But how do you adequately show your heart falling out of your chest? Or something as simple as a painting moving you to want to write… to pour your heart into the words that hit the page, and to hope they strike others as surely as they struck you?
How can you ensure that others actually feel what you’ve felt, when maybe the moment in time wasn’t meant for them? When it was your gift from the universe, how do you share that?
Writers, this is still a mystery to me. But, my advice is to think of Andrew Wyeth’s words, “I think a person permeates a spot, and a lost presence makes the environment timeless to me, keeps an area alive.” I would write to show everything happening in the world around that moment that meant something to you, or perhaps the moment that means something to the character in your story, or the subject matter in your poetry.
Whatever you are writing, a big event or the tiniest moment… frame it in like a piece of art. Capture it like a masterpiece, and sit down on the floor in front of it to feel.
You may need to let those feelings cook for a while. Take a peek at my last Sunday post, January Renewal: Don’t Resist, and think about being in the moment for a time. My belief is that you (and me both) will feel more grounded, and hopefully be able to share those deeper feelings about our experiences as well as what we’re moved to write about.
My ekphrastic poem inspired by Andrew Wyeth’s, “Wind From The Sea”—
Gust of wind on a still day,
summer tranquility caught
in between time
as it sits
woven intricately with
featherweight cotton threads, white
like a whisper
Until this moment, the birds,
benumbed by heat’s encumbrance,
revive and fly.
My heart bobs in the ocean,
just beyond this window’s view,
and I inhale
more than dust
Though my spirits rise on end,
and I glance back to be sure…
to be discovered.
Categories: Thoughts on writing...