One of the first things I did when I got started on the planet, after getting the hang of eating and excreting and some basic motor skills, was draw pictures. I learned to walk late, talking and drawing were bigger priorities for me. Somewhere my mom has a photo of my first drawing from when I was one and a half: a mass of short lines, scribbles and dots on a chalkboard that I told her was a face. I pointed out the “eye-bows.” What got me so obsessed with drawing I don’t know, but I drew all the time. People told me I was good at it and that probably went to my head. Once when I was five I saw a picture in a museum, of a train drawn by Diego Rivera when he was three. I calculated that I could have drawn a picture that good right then, but I would have had two years on him and I could tell that in the imaginary competition in my mind, little Diego Rivera had won. Forty-one years later, it’s easy to see that against me Diego Rivera, and many lesser known artists, will always win.
The thing that I did not struggle with when I was a kid, was questioning the value of art. I took for granted that I did it just because I wanted to. I find that adulthood sucks in large part because everything you do has to have a reason, a justification, it’s got to make money, or at least help someone. Really what it means is that your activities have to justify your existence, and while choosing activities in an intentional way is a good thing, it can also make for a pretty sad baseline.
I spent a lot of years pursuing things I thought had more value than art. And then when I was back to doing art (which was often) I spent a lot of time trying to push the concepts of “art” and “value” back together in my mind. The two kept repelling, like magnets with the wrong sides toward each other. I’m not sure where that struggle went actually, I never came to any grand conclusions, but it has faded over time.
Here’s what I think won out. Two things, first: I really love stories, even the kind that start with “One time,” and end with the person you’re telling it to going, “And?” Sometimes visual art makes stories come to life in a way they couldn’t otherwise. Queens of comics art Marjane Satrapi, Kate Beaton and Lynda Barry, for example, are superb at this. So there’s love and excitement and beauty and poignancy in works I really connect to, whether that’s in books, radio stories or moments from life.
Secondly, I’ve discovered that for me part of the value of art (including writing) is that it’s a big part of the way that I deal with the difficult parts of being alive. Last year I read in Langston Hughes’ autobiography The Big Sea, that he wrote mostly when he felt bad. I felt relieved reading that. Maybe being a writer isn’t all about inspiration, maybe being a writer also means it’s what you turn to when you have to turn to something. And maybe another part of the time it’s just for the imaginary friends you get out of it. In any case, it turns out I’m still doing now what I started as a toddler. Maybe it was all unavoidable.
On that note I’d like to leave you with a story, because that’s what I live for.
One time many years ago I spent ten December days in London, on an impromptu, medicinal visit. I’d been in Spain and was a sort of casualty of love. I stayed with my friend Dina, and while she was working I went out on the tube to different places she recommended. On one of these excursions I went to the National Gallery and stumbled upon a school tour of the Van Goghs, given by a man I remember as resembling the French actor Dominique Pinon of Amélie, Delicatessen, etc. Thirty or so young students were seated on the floor in front of one of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, while clusters of older museum visitors, myself included, stood around behind them.
Monsieur Pinon knelt beneath the painting on one knee, expounding passionately on Van Gogh, and the brilliant way he sculpted the paint into texture, and his important relationship with the painter Paul Gauguin. He spoke of the role of the painting in Van Gogh’s time with Gauguin, and the feud that erupted between them when they were living and working together in Arles, in the south of France. This feud, the lecturer said, caused Gauguin to leave town.
At that moment another visitor at the museum, a man with long hair and a goatee and a puffed-up chest he’d had his arms folded across, called out, “And then he went to Tahiti and shagged all the young women!” He strutted out, as he said this, disappearing into another gallery.
Dead silence. The students stared.
The lecturer, who had frozen mid-sentence, tipped his head to the side and said, “‘Tis true…”
The students laughed. The rest of us visitors laughed. And Monsieur Pinon went on with his talk.
Recently, Jenny Jaeckel wrote an essay for Writer’s Digest called “Bodies, Blind Spots and Quirks” where she talks about writing her novel House of Rougeaux. To find out more about her newest book visit Raincloud Press. Also available to order here, or from your favorite bookstore.