On Writing vs. Painting
May 6, 2016 § 11 Comments
By Peter Selgin
I’m a lucky man. I paint, and I write. The two blessings seldom visit me simultaneously; usually I have to choose between them, like choosing between two lovers. One of those two lovers is of a sentimental and playful disposition, brimming with joy, light, and sweetness; the other is dark, brooding, at times even forbidding. Although she smiles from time to time, her smiles are laced with irony and often with bitterness and despair. She can never stop thinking.
Before I ever started writing I was a visual artist. I say “visual artist,” though that’s too highfalutin a term for drawing pictures of ships and skyscrapers. It seems to me that I could always draw, from the very beginning, that I never had to learn, not really. I was born (so it seems) with the ability to “see” perspective; although my father tried to explain it to me in technical terms, he didn’t have to explain to me what I could very well see with my own eyes, that the rails of the train tracks converged at the horizon, while the tops of the telegraph poles grew shorter. Where other people saw straight lines I saw angles and curves. Not long ago, a well-known author tried to explain to me how, prior to the invention of the camera obscura, the artist Van Dyke could never have “gotten” the perspective of a chandelier in one of his paintings, that such things could only be grasped by the photographically trained eye, which in turn could only exist with the invention of photography or its equivalent. To this I thought (but didn’t say) humbug: in Van Dyke’s or any other time I could have drawn that chandelier.
I don’t mean to brag. My ability to draw is nothing to brag about. It’s just something I happened to be born with, the way some people are born double-jointed, or with perfect pitch. That said, I can’t deny the great joy that drawing has always given me, how often a pen or pencil and paper have rescued me from boredom and ennui (how would I survive those monthly university department meetings without doodling on my legal pad?). When traveling, I’ve considered a sketchbook and watercolors as indispensable as my toilet kit, credit cards, and passport. Don’t leave home without them. There were times when, having set out to do a watercolor in the morning, hours later in the middle of the afternoon I’d awaken as if from a trance, my face sunburned, my back sore, having lost myself completely in my painting-in-progress. I count such hours the happiest of my life. The painter in the midst of his work is impervious to suffering. He or she is a truly happy person. I can think of no place I’d rather be than in the realm of constructive oblivion that is painting a picture.
There—in that realm bounded by four points on a single plane—I exert total, dictatorial authority; I’m in charge. I get to achieve something close to perfection, or at least to aim for it. Within that circumscribed realm no one else can tell me what to do, or whether what I’m doing is wrong or right. When it comes to painting, I consider myself above and beyond criticism. When people like my paintings, I’m pleased. On the other hand I couldn’t give a damn what the “experts” think. I already can guess that most “real” painters would find my work superficial if not entirely irrelevant, that they would dismiss my paintings as products of a technically proficient amateur, one entirely unversed in the protocols (and politics) of the academy, who doesn’t “get it.” Of course these days the very notion of an “academy” in art is frowned upon, especially by those who belong to it. Once, at a communal dinner at an artist’s colony on an otherwise deserted island in Maine, at a table full of conceptual artists (one of whom, I remember, was constructing a clock from the carcasses of dead lobsters) I dared to invoke Picasso’s name, eliciting jeers and head-shakes: did I not know that Picasso was “out”? “He’s just a painter,” one of the artists remarked disparagingly. Painting was Out; Dada was in. But they didn’t belong to any academy.
Never mind. I like to paint and I paint what I like. I paint to give and receive pleasure. When I mix tint into a gesso ground, when I size a board or a canvas, when I paint shape over shape, color next to (or into or over or around) color, when I thicken the paint to a heavy paste, or thin it so it runs and bleeds, when I add sand or ink or sawdust or chalk, when I scrape one color away to reveal traces of the color underneath, when I butt up a delicate line against a heavy form, or a heavy line against a delicate form, when I key the colors so close and low it’s as if they are whispering secrets to each other, until I add a splash from beyond their range, a high-octave red or a blazing yellow that adds a piercing scream to all those mumbles and whispers . . . all done in the spirit of play, the spirit with which children make mud pies or build sandcastles on the beach. There’s no pain in painting, not for me. None at all.
I can’t say the same for writing. Writing hurts. It distresses me. You have to think when you write. (You have to think when you paint, too, but it’s a different kind of thinking, it’s thinking without words; it’s a purely physical process void of any language other than that of colors, textures, shapes, values—closer to dancing than to what writers do).
There are days when I wonder why, given a choice between painting and writing, do I choose to write? Why would any sane person, given that choice, choose that way? What on earth compels me to forsake the joyful realm of pigments and shapes for the stilted black and white universe of words and so-called “meanings”—when deep down inside all of us know perfectly well that, assuming meaning is to be found anywhere in life, language is surely the last place to look for it.
Why, then, do I bother writing?
The only answer I can give is that I write because writing is so hard, that the challenge of drawing (I use the word advisedly) meaning from words is irresistible precisely because it’s impossible, because after all words can only express thoughts, ideas, concepts, symbols—man-made and artificial things. Whereas paint is color; shapes are shapes; lines are lines; textures are textures. They don’t stand for anything (they can stand for things, but they don’t have to). As much as we take words into our hearts and love them for themselves, for the way they look and sound, in the end they can only stand for things beyond words. They are not the ends but only a means.
But then that ‘s what makes them so achingly beautiful. Because they are so difficult, so clumsy, such an inconvenient, inefficient means toward expressing feelings and creating beauty, like trying to build the Taj Mahal out of chewing gum and toothpicks. Pigments and grounds were given to us; we dug them out of the ground. Words we had to invent from scratch. As clumsy, inefficient, and inelegant as they are, for better or worse, words are the only medium we can truly claim as our own.
That makes them irresistible.
Peter Selgin’s essays have earned a dozen Best Notable Essay citations as well as two inclusions in the Best American series (Best American Essay 2006; Best American Travel Writing 2014). He is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, a novel, two books on the craft of fiction, and two children’s books. His work has been published in Colorado Review, Missouri Review, The Sun, Glimmer Train, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, and other reviews, and has won the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize, the Dana Award, and many Pushcart Prize nominations. An essay collection, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man, was published by University of Iowa press and short-listed for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Selgin’s second novel, The Water Master, won the Pirate’s Alley William Faulkner Society Prize. Of his first memoir, The Inventors, published in April, 2016, the Library Journal said, “It is book destined to become a modern classic.” He teaches at Antioch University’s low-residency MFA program and is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College & State University.