Here in Halifax we have been socked in with fog and cloud a lot lately, and the last two days in particular have been relentlessly overcast and muggy. The humidity alone is demoralizing, and the absence of sunlight just compounds the gloom. Happily we’re supposed to see at least some sun later today–but most of the rest of the week is forecast to be pretty grey. This kind of disappointing weather is typical of May and June here, but by July we’re usually enjoying a bit more brightness! As our long-awaited and always too-brief summer slips away, it’s hard not to feel a bit depressed, especially as constant construction noise in our usually tranquil neighborhood has made even the few really nice sunny days harder to enjoy. I have hardly spent any time reading on the deck, which is the one summer activity I really look forward to!
My mopey mood has not been helped by the constant barrage of bad news, or by the ceaseless cascade of angry responses to one thing after another on social media. My twitter feed yesterday was heavily dominated, for example, by people being angry about a terrible “take” on libraries and an ill-conceived hit job on Wuthering Heights. I didn’t disagree with (most of) the complaints: I love libraries as much as the next person in my feed, and though Wuthering Heights is hardly my favorite novel either, if for some reason I felt like making a big public statement about that, I would at least try to explain myself without insulting either the book or those who admire it–and I would certainly make a good faith effort to know the novel better and acknowledge its strengths as part of the project. But eventually I had to wonder who these declarations were really aimed at, since the pieces’ authors are almost certainly not going to see or be persuaded by them. I know it feels good to vent, and we all (myself certainly included!) use Twitter for this some of the time, but after a while the anger seems largely performative, and I’m increasingly inclined to see the compulsion to join the chorus of outrage as a problem in itself, not any kind of solution–though, having said that, I do realize that there can be both comfort and political value in asserting solidarity with other like-minded people. My least favorite genre of tweet is “you’re doing Twitter wrong,” so what I need to do is keep working on managing my own experience of Twitter–which I still find a vital lifeline to relationships and conversations and ideas I value–so that it is on balance more engaging than stressful.
On the bright side, I just finished reading a pretty good book, Sarah Moss’s Names for the Sea, which I will write a bit more about here soon. I also really liked Kathy Page’s Dear Evelyn, which I just finished writing up for Quill & Quire, and now I’m focusing on a short essay on Carol Shields’ Unless, a novel that has come to be one of my very favorites. I also feel good about my piece on “Reading Trollope in the Age of Trump,” which ran last week on the TLS Online–it was a treat to be writing about a Victorian novel again, and it was an interesting challenge to see if I could highlight its contemporary relevance while still mostly focusing on its particulars, keeping it “more Trollope than Trump,” as my editor and I agreed. It was also nice not to be behind their paywall for once!
I’m sure I will perk up soon. The sun is already trying to burn its way through today’s fog, and in the meantime I have plenty to do. Days–and moods–like this, though, which are pretty common for me in the summer, are why I don’t 100% look forward to this season, and why I kind of hate the well-intentioned “how’s your summer going?” questions from the few people I run into, most of whom really only want or expect me to say “fine.”
An An Artist artist finds her identity in art, does nothing but make art, and does it all the time, making work of unimaginable creativity. An An Artist artist makes art 100 percent of the time. . . . All of me wanted to be An Artist–and yet at the same time to keep my past as a thinker and writer. But how could I be An Artist, when “academic” was so poisonous a concept in art and while I had always been academic?
I have never wanted to be “An Artist,” never dreamed of reinventing myself the way Nell Painter did herself when she retired from a distinguished career as a historian and enrolled in a BFA and then an MFA program. I was drawn to her memoir about this experience, though, partly because of my own recent (and ongoing) attempts to at least become more artistic and partly because in a different and more modest way I have reinvented myself over the past decade. It has been a more sputtering process for me, not begun with anything like the same decisiveness and clarity of purpose–but as eventually happens with Painter, the result has been work that could be described as “hybrid,” rooted in academic experience but expressing itself differently. One of the recurrent questions in Painter’s book is what exactly defines “An Artist”–or, when are you entitled to consider yourself one? In a similar way, I puzzle about what it means to call yourself “A Writer,” an identity that surely overlaps with being a professor but which is rarely claimed by or attributed to those whose writing is academic.
Old in Art School is a fascinating read if you are interested in these kinds of questions, or in questions about what makes art “good” (and who decides) or how (or whether) art can be taught. Painter’s own journey follows her from enthusiasm to painful doubt about her own goals and talents: an alternative subtitle could be A Memoir of Imposter Syndrome, given how often she is driven to despair about whether she can or should sustain her ambition to be an artist (much less An Artist), or how to reconcile her own interests–in particular subjects as well as styles, and especially in incorporating historical and textual material into her work–with the advice she gets in the relentless “crits” that are a key part of the art school apparatus.
The early part of the memoir follows her struggle to see differently and to let go of her fixation on coherence. “False and foolish pride, mine,” she remarks tartly, “beguiled by my lying twentieth-century eyes”:
My lying twentieth-century eyes favored craft, clarity, skill, narrative, and meaning. My twenty-first-century classmates and teachers preferred everyday subject matter, the do-it-yourself (DIY) aesthetic, appropriation, and the visible marks of facture: drips, smudges, and what in the twentieth century would have been considered mistakes needing to be cleaned up. What I thought of as private intimacy is out in the open, as graphically as possible. Penises and vaginas are commonplace motifs, and nowadays even I contemplate making penis art.
One way that, as a non-Artist, I understand this shift is away from art as pictures (whether more or less representative) and towards art as visual thinking–mimetic or figurative art is out, and highly conceptual art is in. (The more advanced Painter’s work gets, the more explanation it requires to know what she thinks it is doing, or is about.) This won’t surprise anyone who knows even a little bit about art history, of course, but Painter helped clarify for me why an artist, or at any rate an aspiring Artist (one who wants to be taken seriously in what she calls “the Art World”–Painter is irritatingly fond of capitalizing words to given them more, or more ironic, weight), would have to, and presumably want to, embrace the 21st-century modes she outlines. Other ways of seeing and painting would condemn you to being seen as derivative or commercial–heaven forbid! I think there is some tension between that compulsion towards the new and what an amateur like me might think of as authenticity. What if you love doing beautiful watercolors of recognizable landscapes? should you really have to abandon them for “penis art” to qualify as an artist? (Similarly, do you–should you–have to abandon plot and character to be taken seriously as a novelist? Some critics clearly think so.) But at least as Painter tells it, for her it was a genuine and ultimately satisfying–if often unhappy and difficult–process of transformation in her aesthetic vision.
Old in Art School is also interesting about Painter’s feelings as she loses her hard-won authority as a historian and academic. Not only did she hold prestigious professorial appointments, including at Princeton, but she was the President of the Organization of American Historians and served on the boards of multiple other important professional organizations including the American Historical Society and the Association of Black Women Historians. None of this means anything to her art school “peers,” who see her only as an anomaly–as an “old” woman mysteriously landed among them (Painter is 64 when she begins her BFA at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts), and as a black woman in a conspicuously non-diverse context. Though she is occasionally and understandably bitter about the awkwardness and exclusion that results, she is also acidly funny about her undergraduate classmates:
Day after day after day I ate alone among undergraduates laughing uproariously and commiserating dramatically over what was Technicolor red-orange hilarious and what was acrylic cyan-green catastrophic. Everything new. Everything just born. Drama, always. Undergraduates’ lives were so vivid. . . . In their arty costumes and fabulous tattoos, they nuzzled one another, arms on shoulders, kisses on cheeks. They laughed some more. They chose their vegetarian meals together, paid up together, sat down together, fed off each other’s plats, and left together arm in arm. Everything mattered so deeply.
Her curmudgeonly perspective does not keep her from learning both alongside and from her youthful peers, who distress and annoy her sometimes with what she perceives as their lack of commitment, organization, and patient effort but also often surprise her with the results of their different habits and artistic instincts. Still, she attributes her own progress to “education and hard work”: this approach may be less glamorous than frantic all-nighters in the studio and run contrary to the popular assertion that an artist is born, not made, but in her case at least, it is the route to success.
What does success mean to her? Another interesting strand of Old in Art School is Painter’s attempt to answer this question, which is closely related to the question of why she attends art school at all. “You don’t need it,” one of her teachers tells her about her decision to go on to an MFA after finishing at Mason Gross. Painter resists that advice, partly because she rejects a narrative the sadly familiar subtext of which is “you can’t do it” or “you shouldn’t do it.” Her determination is also clearly related to her academic background, and the fixation it cultivates on credentials and validation. “I just assumed,” Painter says,
I could not be a serious artist without art graduate school, just as I had known I could not be a serious historian–a publishing historian, a scholarly historian–without history graduate school. For history graduate school, I went to Harvard. For art graduate school, I went to RISD.
She doesn’t spend much time interrogating these assumptions, though they are part and parcel of her ambition not just to paint better on her own terms but to become a recognized participant in the Art World. As she tells it, entrée into that world does depend on credentials and connections, but especially given how important she finds advice and critiques from people she knows outside of her degree programs, I wondered about how necessary such formal programs were to her or indeed are to art itself, or whether they have the same equivocal relationship to art that MFA programs do to writing. I don’t know the art world well enough to know if there is a faintly disparaging term equivalent to “MFA fiction,” or if there’s the same lingering sense that the degree is really essential only so that you can compete for jobs teaching in similar programs–not because a degree is either necessary or sufficient for you to write a great novel or brilliant poetry.
In any case, success for Painter ultimately means both completing her degrees and finding her way to art that encompasses her historical expertise and her love of text. “In my history books,” she concludes,
I have already had my say in clear language and discursive meaning about community. Now what history means to me in images is freedom from coherence, clarity, and collective representation. My images carry their visual meaning, which may or may not explicate history usefully or unequivocally.
Painter’s book did not entirely convince me about the rightness of this result: I don’t really grasp the value in abandoning coherence, for instance, and (relatedly) my own taste in visual art is pretty old-fashioned. By and large I prefer figurative art to abstract or expressionist art, and Painter’s more chaotic, collage-like works do not appeal to me aesthetically, though her comments about them and the conceptual projects they fulfill certainly interest me.
Old in Art School is not really that kind of a book, though: it is not a work of theory or art history, or an aesthetic treatise. It is, as its subtitle indicates, a personal memoir. A significant amount of the book is spent on Painter’s family, and on her feelings–which are not separate from her artistic development but entangled with it, as one of her main struggles is reconciling the pull of her personal life with the art school expectation that “an An Artist artist makes art 100 percent of the time.” In particular, Painter lives in New Jersey and her aging parents live in California. They demand and deserve her time and attention; her grief for the loss of her mother, the emotional vortex of her father’s depression and his eventual move east to be closer to her, his death–these are not things she can avoid or deny, though for a long time she feels intensely conflicted about how to cope with them and still pursue her artistic ambitions. The artistic ethos Painter finally embraces is one that does not insist on separating life from art, just as it also incorporates history and writing.
Old in Art School is sometimes awkward as it shifts among its many topics. Painter’s narrative jumps around in time in ways that did not always make sense to me, and her prose often seemed stilted. She is refreshingly frank, though, including about her own failures of empathy, patience, or insight, and she is consistently sharp and illuminating about being older, especially as a woman, among mostly young people, and about being a black academic and artist in worlds where to be either, never mind both, is still a rarity. Though her experiences in these respects are far from my own, I definitely recognized the plague of self-doubt and the frustrating truth that appeals to other people’s judgment can never really appease it. As for being “An Artist” or “A Writer,” Painter is happier having reconciled her academic and artistic selves. The key may be to stop fretting about identity in any such absolute way and just keep doing the work in front of you–while always also imagining how else, and what else, you might make with the time you have.
I’m just back from a great week visiting family and friends in Vancouver. It was mostly family this time, as Maddie came with me. She had not been to Vancouver since she was 7 and has not had very many opportunities to spend time with my parents or my brother and sister and their families–it seemed important to make them a priority, and I’m glad we did. The highest cost of my professional life has been the distance it put between me (and thus my children) and them.
It was a real treat for me having Maddie along: I loved showing her around the city as well as seeing her get to know everyone better. We walked a lot, ate a lot, and talked a lot! I did a better job than usual keeping work-related things at bay, and because we were out and about so much, I also wasn’t online enough to feel oppressed by the unceasing stream of bad news and petty conflicts. It was lovely, and I am not altogether happy to be back. #sigh
For once I didn’t buy any books (Maddie and I frugally shared a suitcase, which meant there wasn’t room for much besides the essentials), but I did make off with two books from my mother’s collection: Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone and Margaret Drabble’s The Pattern in the Carpet. I didn’t steal them! My mother is trying to clear some space on her shelves, so really I was helping. My airplane reading was Nell Painter’s awkward but engaging memoir Old in Art School, which I have now finished and will write more about here soon–once my jet lag subsides and I can concentrate properly. In the meantime, here are a couple of pictures from the trip. Vancouver is such a breathtakingly beautiful place! The last photo is of my parents’ garden, a verdant oasis that always reminds me of Marvell’s nice line about “a green thought in a green shade.”
You just discovered your children are mortal, how could you not want another baby, a back-up baby, an insurance against childlessness. You want a third chance, the magic occasion to get it all right. But you can’t get it right, darling. With every birth, a new death comes into being. With every love, a loss. There is no back up, no alternative, no chance to change whatever plot we are living.
My daughter Maddie was around 2 years old when we got a call from the daycare saying she’d broken out in hives after eating eggs for lunch. Before long we were at the allergist’s office holding her hands to keep her from scratching at the welts rising on her arms from the “prick tests” that revealed the bad news: not only is she highly allergic to eggs, but she is also very allergic to peanuts and most tree nuts. Other parents who have gone through this testing will understand how the world, and your parenting, changes afterwards: food–not just a necessity but also the center of so much of our family and social lives–becomes something difficult; shopping and outings and birthday parties and travel are all fraught. The consequences of one unsafe morsel could be unbearable–or not, as the one sure thing about allergies, you soon discover, is that they are unpredictable and not well understood. You know your child has to live in a world that is not risk-free; you know you all have to figure out how she can move safely through it without worrying too much, or asking too much of others. But how much is too much? When it’s your child, it can be awfully hard to settle that question, but you have to, and so you rebuild using new rules–always read labels; never assume; no epi-pen, no food.
Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone tells the story of a family whose experience is a limiting case for this kind of stress. One day, without warning (or maybe not), 16-year-old Miriam collapses and nearly dies, for no apparent reason. After a couple of weeks in the hospital, and many tests, the doctors conclude that it was probably (though not certainly) exercise-induced anaphylaxis–rare, inexplicable, and likely to reoccur, though how likely, or how soon, or with what severity, they really can’t say. “You do understand,” the doctor says to Miriam when she’s being discharged, “that because we don’t know what caused your anaphylaxis, we don’t know how you can avoid it.”
The novel is narrated by Miriam’s father Adam, a stay-at-home dad and part-time academic. He is wry, sarcastic, irritable, self-aware, loving, and desperately trying to navigate the newly uncertain terrain of his life, especially his relationship with his daughter, with at least a little grace. His interior monologues brilliantly capture his struggle to keep his overwhelming fear for Miriam’s safety from becoming debilitating for either of them. “I don’t want the new normal,” he thinks when they first bring Miriam home and his wife Emma, herself a doctor, urges him to relax:
I want the old one back, or if I can’t have that I want Mim on the monitors for the rest of her life or at least the rest of mine and she is not going away in three years she can live here with us where I can listen to her breathing and she can attend one of the five excellent universities within an hour’s journey, to which I will happily drive her, outside whose lecture theatres I will happily wait.
“You need to practice letting go,” Adam’s father tells him; “this is understandable but it won’t help either of you in the long run.” Adam knows this perfectly well, but it’s one thing to know something and another thing to feel its truth and act on it; the novel is about Adam’s learning to let go, not of his fear for Miriam, but in spite of it.
Adam tries to help himself (unforgivably, he sometimes thinks) by focusing on those whose traumas dwarf theirs: other families in the ward whose children will not come home again no matter how careful their parents promise to be; families destroyed in Auschwitz or in Yugoslavia; children bullied to death or drowned or without Miriam’s access to life-saving treatments. A historian by training, he works on putting things in perspective. “This would have been normal,” he remarks to Emma; “Everyone would have been used to it. You know. Adverse outcomes in pædiatric medicine.” The euphemism does not do its job: “It means dead people,” Miriam (wonderfully smart, combative, and brave) ruthlessly explains to her little sister Rose. “All I mean,” Adam persists,
is that the way things are for us now is the normal one, globally and historically. It’s everyone else who’s anomalous. Everyone who doesn’t think it could happen to them.
Emma cannot understand why this comforts him at all, but it does, “a little.” Miriam’s near-death experience initially made him feel disconnected from everyone around him, because their surface normalcy seemed unable to accommodate the drastic collapse of his family’s normal life. The comforting realization, for him, is how shallow that surface layer is for everyone–that they all have in common the enormous, unbearable fragility of everything they take for granted, just as he took for granted that his daughters’ bodies worked, and would keep working, ceaselessly to keep them alive.
What helps Adam most, though, is his work on a book about the restoration of Coventry Cathedral. The implicit parallels between its destruction and rebuilding and the destruction and reconstruction of Adam’s family are beautifully handled: the connections are never made explicit, never become heavy-handed, but simply grow in resonance as Moss interleaves Adam’s account of the work on the cathedral with his family story. By the end of The Tidal Zone I longed to see what Sir Basil Spence had built, encompassing both ruin and resurrection; the great tapestry designed by Graham Sutherland; and especially the windows of angels — “Leaping, leaning, jumping. Rising, writhing.” The new cathedral, Adam reflects, does not gloss over loss or pain, but that does not impede its message of hope:
It is not all right.
It is not all right, but there is beauty. We have ways of saying that it is not all right, that there is death and suffering and evil, and they are the same ways we have had for hundreds of years. Buildings. Glass. Weaving.
Against these rare soaring moments, and in contrast also to the tension and pathos of Adam’s anxiety for Miriam, Moss sets Adam’s wry commentary on being a stay-at-home dad and some terrific low-key satire of academic life. “Like all universities,” he says about the one where he teaches, “it is always building,” paving over the green spaces for car parks then digging up the car parks for new buildings so that “a swarm of angry drivers is permanently circling campus.” “I imagine there is some market research,” he goes on,
behind universities’ manifest view that what every bright eighteen-year-old craves is more overpriced coffee brought to them as they sit on more red leather sofas under more sepia images of Paris and New York. . . . You’d think that what The Youth of Today wants most of all is to recline in a soft red place and suck on the breasts of franchised multinational corporations, but only until you met the students. It is plain that the high-ups do not meet the students.
Add “posh places to use top-of-the-line exercise machines” to the list of what the “high-ups” assume The Youth of Today want and I think most North American academics would nod even more vigorously in rueful agreement. And we can all sympathize with Adam’s disappointment that the meeting for which he drags himself to campus does not, after all, serve coffee and biscuits. (Only meetings involving the “high-ups” get those, in my experience.)
I found The Tidal Zone gripping, moving, funny, and smart. It is written in a higher emotional register and with a faster pace than Moss’s Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children, which I reviewed for Numero Cinq; these historical novels are also very smart but were almost too refined and cerebral for my taste. I’ve kept thinking about them since I wrote that review, though, which doesn’t always happen with books I review, and The Tidal Zone confirms Moss’s place on my list of writers whose new work I will always seek out (and in fact I’ll be reviewing her latest, Ghost Wall, for its fall release date, which is one reason I took The Tidal Zone off the shelf now). She has two earlier novels I haven’t read yet, and also a memoir; I look forward to reading them as well.
I don’t write up every TV show I watch, but I just finished a complete viewing of all 12 seasons of Bones and 12 seasons is a lot–so I thought it deserved a bit of comment. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
The first thing that strikes me is that Bones is not actually a show that prompts a lot of reflection. It’s certainly unlike Buffyand Angel, both of which invite interpretation in a non-literal way that makes them quite different even from the other TV shows I have enjoyed thinking and writing about (Friday Night Lights, for example) or that I am always happy to dip into again (for me, this list includes Sex & the City, Gilmore Girls, and The West Wing, for example). Bones is not as good a show as any of these–it has no layers, its characters are remarkably static, its storylines are often ridiculous, and its favorite plot device is the manipulative fake-out. Overall I thought the show’s writers played it really safe: they just kept doing more or less the same kind of thing over and over and over.
And yet, having said that, I watched all 12 seasons because the kind of thing Bones did was pretty entertaining and its consistency made it a comfortable imaginative space to hang out it. I started watching it while running on the treadmill over the winter: it was perfect for that. Then I kept going because it was also perfect for the odd moment after work or after dinner or whenever nothing else in particular was going on that demanded my attention (something you never think will happen when your kids are small) but when I was too tired or distracted to feel like reading. The plots kept me just curious enough every time, and I cared just enough about the people involved, that I was never bored watching it. I just can’t imagine watching it all again.
My biggest bone to pick with Bones is that the writers didn’t have the courage not to marry off Booth and Brennan. I understand that there’s a lot of cultural pressure to have a romantic relationship between your male and female lead and that this is something a lot of fans wanted. Watching the first few seasons in the wake of the #metoo and #timesup movements, though, I found it really refreshing to see a man and a woman in a working relationship who didn’t lust after each other. It felt really healthy, and I enjoyed the way Booth and Brennan pushed back against the constant assumption that because they trusted and fought for each other they must also be lovers. It’s true that marriage and children add elements to a series that are useful for both plot and character development–but I can easily imagine how much richer the arcs could have been if they had married other people, especially people outside law enforcement, and then dealt with the challenges of those people’s feelings towards their work and their partnership. I knew when I started the show that they did eventually marry, so I knew it was coming; still, I was disappointed. I got used to it, though, and I admit I thought their married relationship was pretty cute overall. I’m glad they never stopped bickering, at least.
Probably my favorite thing about the show was the science. I read around a bit to see if it was any good, and I gather it’s at least not terrible, though of course it is all sped up and simplified. (I don’t know if any of the things Angela does are plausible: I found the “Angelatron” stuff the hardest to take seriously.) Regardless of the accuracy of it all, it’s always presented as if we should find it gripping, and I especially appreciated the unapologetic enthusiasm of Brennan and Hodgins for their work. (I loved Hodgins’s experiments.) Even Booth’s frequent impatience with the “squints” didn’t detract from the fact that in this show, nerds are not just cool–they are heroic! And with the exception of Avalon the psychic, the show had little truck with unscientific theories or methods. Booth’s “gut”–and his faith–are significant parts of his individual character, but solving the case always came down to the evidence.
The other thing that kept me loyal to the show was how much I enjoyed the characters as a group. This was key to my enjoyment of Buffy and Angel as well. While the characters in Bones really don’t evolve–not at all, not just not in the remarkable way characters like Spike, Wesley, and Cordelia do in the Whedonverse–they are a nice group to (virtually) hang out with. By and large they are all good to each other, and they all aim to do good in the world. I will say that watching 12 seasons of David Boreanaz being staunch and upright–which of course he’s very good at–made me nostalgic for the moral complexity of Angel/Angelus. I’m pretty disappointed that Angel has disappeared from Netflix! I might have to somehow add it to my permanent collection. But not every show is worth that kind of commitment, and that’s OK. I mostly watch TV for a bit of company, and for all its gross decomposing corpses and creepy serial killers, Bones was just right for that.
My drawing class met for the last time this week–it was just six sessions total. That’s obviously not enough time to get really good at anything (though I gather the “ten thousand hours of practice” theory has been more or less debunked). It’s not so much that I have to put in a lot more hours but that I need to figure out how to make the most of the hours I have.
Though I still think that in some ways this specific class simply wasn’t a great fit for me, things definitely improved (including my attitude) once I started copying pictures–not photographs of faces, which is no fun for me (it just takes too little to make it look “wrong”), but landscapes or other drawings, especially ones that are stylized enough that the copy doesn’t need to be exact to look pretty good. Copying George O’Keeffe and Emily Carr was still plenty challenging for me, but I enjoyed doing it, and though the resulting pictures are of course unoriginal, it’s a good way to practice important skills, including shading and also patience (which, yes, I consider a skill, or at least something you have to exercise deliberately). I learned that rulers are my friends! Also erasers.
What else have I learned? For one thing, I have begun to look at things differently, with more attention to lines, shapes, lights, and shadows, though I still don’t find the instruction to “just draw what you see” very helpful. I regret having dutifully purchased the workbook for Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain; I eventually took a few other drawing books out of the library to see some different approaches (research is a hard habit to break) and I found this one much more informative about how to draw what I see. With its help, I drew the best eye I have done so far! I have also been exploring YouTube–which, after all, is where I learned to crochet–and I quite like this series.
I think the most important lesson I learned is that if you wish you could do something, you have to actually go do it. I enjoyed the weekly classes–everyone was very friendly, and we had a good time chatting and drawing and sharing our efforts–and I know I picked up ideas, information, and strategies from my teacher. Most of all, though, the lessons focused my previously vague interest in drawing and gave me an explicit incentive to put pencil to paper, both of which I needed to overcome my longstanding inhibitions about drawing. I’m still a long way from creating original art that shows anything like “my own” style, but I’m a lot closer to being able to produce pictures I like–in fact, I’ve done a few already.
In the process of figuring even this much out, I learned when I can let go of my need to do things “well” or “right” and when I can’t, and also I figured out more about what kind of both drawing (the action) and drawings (the art) appeal to me, which perhaps oddly I hadn’t thought much about before registering for this class. I had been thinking about drawing more in terms of creativity in the abstract, as something to do that was not reading or writing, and also something that I did not for anyone else or for any other purpose, but just for its own sake. You can’t just move your pencil around randomly any more than you can start writing without any sense of purpose at all, however (well, I guess someone could, but I can’t); now I know a lot more about what the options and possibilities are.
Did I in fact “learn to draw”? Well, I’m certainly no longer assuming that I can’t draw: instead, I’m thinking about what I will draw next. I have a folder full of potential subjects to copy, and I am resolved also to try some sketching in the Public Gardens and at Point Pleasant Park. So far the only thing I’ve drawn “en plein air” is the trunk of the huge elm tree in our back yard, which is hardly the most scenic thing in the area!
All in all, I consider the experiment a success; I’m glad I tried it, and I’m grateful to the folks (on Twitter especially, but also at home–“yay, Mom!”) who encouraged me!
I didn’t like it. In fact, I really didn’t like it. The comparison to Shirley Jackson on the cover tempted but misled me: there’s nothing sly or subtle in this novel, nothing to make you start and look again, or laugh then shudder and look away, the way you have to with We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The only reason I can think of that Eileen was nominated for prestigious prizes including the Booker is that in the rush to free women writers and female protagonists from the stifling obligation to be nice and likable some people have concluded that being mean and unlikable is an aesthetic virtue in and of itself. I have written about this trend a couple of times before: here, comparing Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs (which I disliked for some of the same reasons I disliked Eileen) to Barbara Pym’s (much better) Excellent Women, and here, attempting to parse the Ferrante phenomenon. I don’t object in principle to novels preoccupied with anger, vomit, and excrement, and I don’t demand carthasis or epiphany as my reward for being vicariously immersed in them, but I would like some sense that they mean something, or that the novel somehow takes us beyond them. Eileen (like Eileen) is just nasty for nastiness’s sake. Who needs that? Not me.
Feel free to tell me I’m wrong. Did I miss some redeeming subtlety, some glints of humor, some pay-off for 260 pages of graphic unpleasantness?