May 09, 2006

On Writing

Tonight I found this in an old journal entry; I usually need distance from my writing before I can appreciate anything about it. This is more than two years old, but tonight it helped me somehow. It helped me know there's something there... I don't know how long it will take before that "something" makes it on a printed page, but someday.

Philip (the main character in Somerset Maugham's book Of Human Bondage) is contemplating leaving behind his artistic life because he fears he’ll never be anything more than a second-rate painter. He has an intellectual appreciation for certain paintings and can parrot others’ critiques very well, but he doesn’t have a visceral, emotional response to a painting instinctively. He speaks to a colleague about it, and the colleague’s response is this:

"The artist gets a peculiar sensation from something he sees, and is impelled to express it and, he doesn’t know why, he can only express his feeling by lines and colours. It’s like a musician; he’ll read a line or two, and a certain combination of notes presents itself to him: he doesn’t know why such and such words call forth in him such and such notes; they just do. And I’ll tell you another reason why criticism is meaningless: a great painter forces the world to see nature as he sees it; but in the next generation another painter sees the world in another way, and then the public judges him not by himself but by his predecessor. So the Barbizon people taught our fathers to look at trees in a certain manner, and when Monet came along and painted differently, people said: But trees aren’t like that. It never struck them that trees are exactly how a painter chooses to see them. We paint from within outwards – if we force our vision on the world it calls us great painters; if we don’t it ignores us; but we are the same. We don’t attach any meaning to greatness or to smallness. What happens to our work afterwards is unimportant; we have got all we could out of it while we were doing it."
The first section gave me a feeling of recognition. Like a comment from John Howe (a Tolkien illustrator who was a designer for the Lord of the Rings film trilogy) said – seeing the work other designers did simply fired you with the desire to take a crack at it yourself. If I have a thought, the brass ring is finding the right words for it. The brass ring is always ephemeral. Sara Groves wrote in one of her songs that she could hear a distant singing, a song that she couldn’t write, but that it echoed in what she was always trying to say. It’s like trying to trap wind. I can create wind in an enclosure, but it’s a facsimile of wind. I can’t enclose the real thing. I can intuit a beautiful, glorious thought – and how bald and crude and clumsy it looks on paper. Merely trapping the idea in words removes some of its inspiration – and yet words are my most flexible and familiar medium. Simply reading the quote above fired me with the impulse to write this, to try to articulate my own feelings about it. Maugham didn’t include writers in the passage above, but he might as well have. An artist reaches for his paints, a musician for his instrument, and the writer for his vocabulary.

I had a brief thought somewhere in copying the passage that God equips every person to see his creation and himself in a slightly different way – God hasn’t changed, but the angle of viewing has. If I have prepared myself and surrendered completely, the gemstone of my life will refract his light in ways unseen before, to bring further beauty and glory to his name. Again, there’s a vast difference between the thrill in my heart at the realization and the pragmatism of words that communicate the realization. Someone may read this and also consider it an amazing thing, but my words only show me the gap between what I felt and what I wrote.

Maybe it’s someone else’s artistic pursuits that teach me; it’s the hope of finding just the right words someday that (tonight) drives me. I can’t look at the sun for more than a moment; I can stare at the sun’s reflected brilliance and be amazed by the moon for hours on end. I feel like I fall so short of communicating the right words for my thoughts or ideas, yet I can be amazed at others’ words or reflections of God. Others may be astounded at a phrasing, but it’s only after a period of time and distance that I could have enthusiasm fired again by my own writing – it’s more like reading someone else’s writing if enough time has passed. In the moment of writing, I’m still too aware of how far my effort is from my intent. Is writing, too, a sort of striving for holiness? Reaching for something, an ideal, that’s set apart?

I remember reading that the mere label The Fall showed the magnitude of it; Man Stubs Toe isn’t headline news. We don’t refer to it as The Trip – it’s The Fall. We choose self over God, then spend the rest of our lives trying to A-believe we’re better off, or B-try to reflect a perfect image from a fallen, fun-house mirror. Well, my writing represents The Gap to me. Comparing what I wrote to what I wanted in the moment is like holding a high school art project next to a Van Gogh. You may enjoy the art project on its own, but when you hold it by the masterpiece… what comparison could there possibly be? The project falls so far short as to be unworthy of notice.

I don't know how or why, but maybe something in these long lines of thought will help you, too.

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