For the past couple of years I’ve been writing a memoir. I have a story to tell and it’s kind of burning to get out. Okay, it’s a glowing ember, not exactly a flame, but I have kept at it, little by little for a while now. I started somewhere in the middle I think, and have been writing around that middle, adding a little here and there, always looking for the big idea of it all. This writing stuff isn’t for sissies, I definitely recognize that. How do you take a story from a mildly interesting chronological listing of events that happened, to a story with a heart and a purpose? That has been my struggle.
At the end of my painting class we had to do a final exam painting. I started without an idea for that project. As I sat looking at my canvas, my friend said “Paint the story.” She was referring to a story I’d told her, one that is at the heart of the memoir. It is a story of the heartbreak and fortitude of a young woman who had no other choice but to be strong through such a difficult time. I shook my head, my eyes tearing up, and said, “Why does everything have to hurt? I don’t want to paint that story.” The teacher walked up and overhearing me, asked me to tell her the story. I did and she told me to paint it. “Begin with the wall. Paint the wall first.” I began by drawing a tipi and some parallel lines with charcoal and then smudging them up. I didn’t really want those images in the painting but I did want them in the memory of the painting, so once they were drawn I began to paint over them. I used titanium White, Unbleached Titanium White, Burnt Umber and Parchment. Both Titanium whites are completely opaque, but the others aren’t so at first the charcoal images kind of ghosted on the canvas.
As I continued to add layers of paint and new images, I felt the story unwinding within me. I suddenly realized that the story is about how we struggle through heartbreak without even realizing how badly we are hurt. Sometimes life is too demanding to take time to stop and really feel it and thinking about it threatens to take us under. In that moment we really don’t have the strength for it, so we just forge ahead, doing the daily tasks that must be done until the edges of the hurt have been blunted. That leaves it buried deeply, where it can quietly gnaw at us for the rest of our life. I have been surprised on several occasions to feel that old hurt rise up with all its rawness, triggered by something unexpectedly powerful like a movie or or a book, or even a conversation. The recognition of the continuing pulse of my story, even after so many years, enabled me to understand and finish the painting. I think that maybe the realization of what was happening in my heart way back then has replaced some of the hurt with admiration for the young woman I was then.
I am finding such a compelling companionship between writing and painting. When the words are stuck, sometimes painting about it helps. As the words begin to flow, the important elements of the painting become more obvious. Translating these words into images is a challenge for me, and that’s okay. This is new, and I’m still quite clunky as a painter. But I have learned that if I stop and center myself for a few minutes and turn on some music before I begin, the ideas and images are easier to see in my mind and I am less judgmental about the work I produce. The heart of the story surfaces as the images become clear. There comes a gentleness within me that I’m able to carry into my painting session. This feels like a breakthrough, actually, so I suppose the benefits are indeed reciprocal.
Continuing to foster the intertwining between my art and my writing seems to offer promise. Maybe I will actually figure out how to tell the story that wants so to be told.