Since this is a new beginning to my blog, it seems only right that I begin with fear.
Fear is something that I believe the artist (writer, musician, actor, painter) knows well. It goes beyond facing our demons to get at our best work or the cliché of rejection (“Your work is meaningless. Don’t quite your day job.”) Fears spoil our peace of mind, our sense of realism (quite different from reality) and our way of seeing through the back eye to an organic composite of our experiences, perceptions, minds, hearts, bodies – and fear.
There is a lot of talk about sincerity in art. I recently read an article on method acting that pointed to America’s uneasy relationship with the word. Fear is perhaps the most sincere emotion there is because it has no boundaries. Its venom strikes quickly like the cobra or slowly like the Gala monster with its poisonous bite. We are all of us familiar with the physicality of fear and it seems as if the media glorifies these because it is human nature to be more at ease with what we can see (Fear Factor, extreme sports).
But most artists know the psychology of fear, the way in which their hearts leap away from their work when they know that fear is driving it forward. I say leap away because the psychology of fear takes us into flight mode until we realize the excitement and palpitations are not taking us back but moving us forward towards life rather than death (which is what escape from fear really is – a dead sense of awakening).
About ten years ago, I wrote the first draft of a novel I titled The Dark-Haired Daughter. It was a novel written in three narratives about the psychic deterioration of a family. I have always lived quite isolated and family relationships were what I knew best. I was exploring a style then, heavily influenced by writer Anais Nin and her philosophies on psychological reality in art. I was interested in seeing what happened to children who never left home and grew up to be adult children under the control of a tyrannical matriarch. I also wanted to tell the story of a woman whose desperate need for freedom ultimately led her to the place in which she had started.
The novel was an experiment in poetic prose, the prose where what is unspoken is more important than what is said, where colors and textures matter, and where people do not always find their happy ending but do get a keener awareness of what was driving them forward.
I finished the novel and set about revising it. But here was where I stumbled. I was convinced I was being pretentious, flowerly, trying to capture an authenticity I had never before exposed. I was trying to wear the black cape that tricked me into thinking I could be big “W” writer.
And yet the novel would not let go. For more than ten years, I would go back to it, changing the characters, changing the story, starting from another point of view, even embedding a collective over a personal past. But it was as if the novel and I were playing a game. My mother once told me that during a session with my father, the therapist gave them a cord and told them to play tug of war. The game revealed that they were viciously at odds but so bound together that the cord would never snap.
It took me a long time to realize why I had become so impotent about the novel. In my attempts to write something new, I had exposed the ways in which my past still sickened and horrified me. I had included all those emotions that no one in my family was allowed to voice (what one of my characters calls “the unmentionables”). The alchemy of fear is a wretched thing, a silent but more gruesome atom bomb that leaves scattered remains. Everything was there – tyranny, manipulation, rage, claustrophobia, desperation for freedom. The novel was not autobiographical but in writing it, I had managed to lay out all my wounds.
A few years ago, I started writing genre fiction. I combined my interest in history, mystery, and women. I wrote the first book of a historical mystery series. I had fun writing it and a few beta readers said it had merit. I thought I had escaped my fears.
I cannot say who or what revealed to me how much I had so gotten away from myself. Maybe it was my father’s cancer diagnosis in June and the way I watched his already anxious mind deteriorate even as his cancer was cured. But at some point I realized that I was in a land of skeletons because I had tried to escape my fears.
Authenticity in an artist requires taking up the threads that we drop like fire rods and weaving them back together like a tapestry, the tapestry of the sincere heart.