Life, in a can of paint (changes for 2013)

I spent part of the holiday break painting a couple of “accent” walls in my house. I wavered between two color choices: a grey-blue, or dark red. I went with red, preferring the sense of fire and passion and emotion it brings up for me.

photo (1)I find painting tedious and routinized. The advantage, though, is that you can spend the time thinking about other things. Since it’s the start of a new year, my thoughts wandered into resolutions, the idea of beginning anew, and “character” development.

To be very charitable, 2012 held a “rough patch” for me. I’ve since been working to paint a new (or renewed) self. Among other changes, I want to (re)discover a feeling of fearless love, toward life and toward myself and toward the passion and willingness to be vulnerable and caring that have led to the best things in my life. Somewhere along the line, life snuck in, snatched that away, and sabotaged the good. I want it back.

paint canHere’s where I’m taking direction, as absurd as it sounds, from a paint can. Redecorating requires that you follow a few rules. First, there’s prep work. Painting, both walls and the self, is a messy process. If you don’t take time to set up your work area, you’re likely to do as much harm as good. Set your drop cloth down, tape off the area that you want the new paint to cover, and don’t forget to clean the work surface. No matter how it got there, you’re responsible for the gunk and grime on the walls you live in. Simply covering up what’s currently showing doesn’t work. For the paint to stick, you’ve got to clean up the old and repair cracks and scars.

Second, you need to give the paint time to dry. Often you’ll need several coats. Rushing the process doesn’t work and can actually be counter-productive, muddying the finish you want. Patience and a willingness to sit calmly in the midst of mess are required.

I’ve realized that my writing often turns to a similar interplay between surface and what is covered. As a writer, I’m fascinated with what lurks beneath. I talk in Chapter One of Ghost Music about how we live on top of a palimpsest, with hidden layers under our feet. I mention elsewhere the idea of running atop a cracked surface, trying to stay one step ahead of the crumbling ground. Characters try to escape the past, only to find that they never leave anything truly behind. Words create a veneer that says one thing but vibrates with the weight of unspoken emotions. For me, it always comes back to emotion, which some characters push down in a (doomed) effort to contain it.

Ghost Music is a murder mystery. Of course, murder will out. But the same is true of emotion and history. Emotion will out, while history is in fact always present. I can’t undo 2012. I also can’t just cover it up. Painting—whether it’s a scene for readers to envision, a new self, or even something as ordinary as a wall—involves a great deal more than just slapping on some color. Done properly, it’s not as much covering up as it is repairing, adding to, and building upon what’s underneath.

Tattoos, pain, and writing

I have a few tattoos already. I have plans for a few others: when I qualify for the Boston Marathon, I’ll get a tattoo that captures that moment on my calf; when Ghost Music is published, I’ll get a tattoo celebrating that dream. Those of you with tattoos are probably familiar with this question—people often ask me if getting a tattoo hurts. My answer isn’t exactly what they’re looking for. For me, there’s a powerful connection between my writing, my tattoos, and that question about pain.

I’m not talking about physical pain from getting a tattoo (though I will say that getting a tattoo on the side of your torso isn’t the most fun). Rather, my tattoos have me simultaneously celebrating and second-guessing how I’d like to live my life. Both tattoos are related to my writing. I mentioned before that I am an emotional writer. When I’m at my best, I’m ready to burn with emotion, explode with the passion and pain of feeling, and willing to grab hold of the live wire of emotional existence with bare hands. The tattoo on my torso is meant to capture this: Icarus is flying into the sun, wings melting and feathers falling. Though the original story isn’t intended this way, I take Icarus not as a cautionary tale but as a promise to myself: I’m willing to scorch myself and push to the point of no return in pursuit of emotional intensity.

My other tattoo has a literary bent as well: on my upper left arm, a stone gargoyle sits hunched over, sadness in his eyes, eating his own heart. A response to Stephen Crane’s “In the Desert,” this tattoo reminds me of how I feast on emotion and have a love-hate relationship with feelings of sadness. “Love:” the intensity of the pain often shakes lose new creative directions for me. Hate: feeling the pain is overwhelming at times.

A few caveats to this creative process. First, let’s not romanticize the method. I don’t like feeling lousy. It’s not a mystical muse that I want to court or think is special. Yes, “pain is real,” but when you’re in pain feeling “real” isn’t so cool. Second, you have to take that emotional energy and compress it, hammer it out into a cohesive plan. I’m a planner when I write. I know the general framework of where I want to go and how I want to get there. I use the emotional upheaval as a planning block: how does emotion X fit into plot Y and advance character Z?

For me, this becomes the best of all possible worlds: it makes the writing less mechanical, it balances pure emotion within a broader perspective/plan, and it makes room for an important tweaking of that platitude to “write what you know.” More on the last point in a later post…

Writing and eating–food for thought

Today I’m thinking about how writing is like eating. There are lots of ways to take this simile.

We can go the modernist route and suggest that art is the very bread of life, that words provide an almost spiritual sustenance to us. Personally I think that’s a bit over the top and puts a wee bit too much pressure on writing. But the writing as nourishment angle is interesting.

We could argue that some authors have almost compulsive styles of writing, so that Hemingway or Raymond Carver are anorexic in the sparseness of their prose and refuse to add any morsel that isn’t absolutely necessary to the life of their work. Other writers gorge themselves (and their readers) on a literary style that refuses to hold anything in, creating incredibly long, convoluted sentences that would make Hemingway or Carver nauseous.

And there are of course the great majority of us, who enjoy good meals and good writing and aspire to create both but, generally, seem to be missing the secret ingredient. This all came from my sense that I am, I here confess, an emotional writer. I don’t emotionally eat, I emotionally write. What does that mean? Simply that writing often helps smooth away the rough spots of the day for me and often gives me the space to step back and gain a little perspective. I need that. It’s a productive, therapeutic synergy for me: writing helps me process the emotions; the emotions become fuel for the writing.

This can be a dangerous game, though. No one wants to read regurgitated, stream-of-conscious wailing at the universe. Good writing, like good cooking, necessitates preparation. The menu needs to be thought about in advance and you can’t forget to clean-up after the cooking is finished. If you’re lucky, people will want to come back for more.

–Patrick