On solitude and art

Probing into the artist's mind

“The essence of fiction is solitary work: the work of writing, the work of reading,” Jonathan Franzen wrote in 2002 in his essay Why Bother?. Can’t agree more. Although please add ‘painting’ too.
     Reading, like writing, is creating, says Franzen. That’s what distinguishes it, for example, from going to a movie. Jonathan Franzen: “I’m able to know Sophie Bentwood (the main character in Paula Fox’s novel Desperate Characters) intimately, and to refer to her as casually as I would to a good friend, because I poured my own feelings of fear and estrangement into my construction of her (my italics).” ‘My construction’, while reading. So, basically, reading is indeed a creative act. If Franzen would have only known her by the on screen version, in 1971 with Shirley MacLaine as Sophie, “Sophie would remain an Other, divided from me by the screen, by the superficiality of film, and by MacLaine’s star presence. At most, I might feel I knew MacLaine a little better.” (Knowing MacLaine a little better, however, is what the country mainly wants, Franzen adds.)
     If reading is a creative act – one you establish in the first place for yourself, the giving back (eventually) coming later -, then the step towards writing – being creative towards another, giving directly – might not be a very big one.

Now, what is it, actually, that forms someone into a reader (and, by extension, a writer, a painter, …)? Here it gets interesting. Ever heard of Shirley Brice Heath? No? That’s a pity because this ‘stylish, twiggy, white-haired lady with no discernable tolerance for small-talk’ (Franzen) found out. How? Well, in the 80s this linguistic anthropologist roamed the US, interviewing thousands of people reading in airports, in bookstores, seaside resorts… Everywhere she saw someone reading a book she went for it. And this is what she found.
     For a person to sustain an interest in literature two things have to be in place. First of all the habit has to be ‘heavily modeled’ when very young. A parent must read and encourage the child to do the same. Secondly, young readers need to find a person with whom they can share their interest. “Lots of kids who have been lone readers get to college and suddenly discover, ‘Oh my God, there are other people here who read.’”
     But it gets even more interesting. Franzen went to have a drink with Heath, telling her there might be a flaw in her system, because, actually, he didn’t remember one of his parents ever reading any book when he was a child, so…
     Well, replied Heath, that’s because there’s a second kind of reader too: the ‘social isolate’, “the child who from an early age felt very different from everyone around him”. “What happens is you take that sense of being different into an imaginary world. But that world, then, is a world you can’t share with the people around you – because it’s imaginary. And so the important dialogue in your life is with the authors of the books you read."
     I was so happy to read this. It’s damn relatable, i had the feeling Heath was talking about me, and i thought about the painters i visited in their studios, and the readers i know - the majority of them people like the ones described by Heath. And i was even more ravished when hearing her add: “Readers of this last category are much more likely to become writers than those of the ‘modeled-habit’ (the first) variety.” I thought about the writers i know, who not only like to write, but in the first place need to.

A couple of days ago i wrote on the Instagram about the Vienna/LA painter and writer Mercedes Helnwein. Now Mercedes published her first - quite autobiographical - novel in 2008, ‘The potential hazards of Hester Day’. A fragment - the main character's mother used to take her along to weddings, family reunions, Easter egg hunts and breast cancer fundraisers, then this happens: - “With time all such efforts were abandoned, leaving me quietly to lead the existence of a young mushroom in my room. By the time I was fourteen I was completely disrelated to humanity. (…) I had made thorough use of the public library and had developed a very intimate relationship with classic literature. But I was a stone age creature in modern society. I didn’t know what to say or when to say it, how to greet, how to take my leave of a crowded dinner table, what to expect, or when to expect it, when to laugh or when to frown condescendingly. But it was more than a matter of etiquette – I wasn’t familiar with the human race and their emotions, their ideals, their concepts. I was so left alone by my species that I really didn’t have a clue as to what they were all about.” And so on.
     Have a look at the extraordinary work on her site, as well as on her IG page. The painting on the left is called “Wormhole at Chad’s house”. Incredibly funny, if you ask me. (May 26th i wrote an article on this blog about black holes, called ‘Abandon all hope, you who enter here’ – i should have added a picture of this painting then.) In a lot of her paintings and photos the 'delicious solitude' is tangible, and depicted in a funny, marvelous way.

Another example of ‘Heath’s truth’: Thomas Wolfe. A fragment of his letter to his sister Mabel, July 10th, 1927, after being present, in the hospital, at a birth: “Something gathers in my throat and my eyes are wet when I think of all the pain and wonder that little life must come to know; and I hope to God those feet will never walk as lonely a road as mine have walked.”
     Or this fragment (also to Mabel, May 1929): “I think I live alone more than any person I have ever known. I must spend a large part of my day alone. I hate crowds and public meetings. This is the only life I can lead. Sometimes I love to go out and join in with the crowd, and have a good time. But not often. The truth of the matter is that most people I meet bore me until I could cry out. This ought not to be but it is. And I am not often bored with myself or with my reading and writing. I have tried a great many of the things I dreamed of when I was a child – traveling about, Paris, Vienna, theaters, ships, and so on – but about the only real satisfaction I have had has been in work, the kind of work I like to do.” Writing.

Or painting.

So there’s the artist, have a look at him: he’s truly different. Not ‘better than’, not ‘worse than’, but – different. You might not always understand him when walking, talking, trying to live with him. Actually, you might opt for an easier path: shallowness can be fun too. Then you’d better leave him. That is, anyway, what life has told me.

A last, intriguing one. “(…) the spirit of the young man is thirsty for real praise, for admiration of his works: the creative impulse, which has such complex associations, may have roots as simple and powerful as this one” (Thomas Wolfe): this is no less than the way back, - back from delicious solitude into the company of like-minded souls… We always need the other. The other, not the crowd.

(Painting above 'Girl reading', by Iain Faulkner, UK.)

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