On Memoir and Bearing Witness, & Warhol’s Piss Art

March 24, 2021 § 20 Comments

By Marcia Aldrich

In the winter of 2013, in blizzard-like conditions, the Associated Writing Programs had their annual conference in Boston. I was on a panel, “How to Lose Friends and Alienate Loved Ones: Exploitation vs. Documentation in Creative Nonfiction,” which I viewed as ironic since Companion to An Untold Story, a memoir about the suicide of my friend, was being celebrated at the conference as well and could have been Exhibit A in the discussion. You’d think the topic would have been exhausted since memoir was far from an outlier in nonfiction, but you would be wrong. Each year panels assemble, and huge audiences gather to wring their collective hands over the unavoidable transgression that memoir embodies. My fellow panelists, B. J. Hollars, Roxane Gay, Bonnie Rough, and Ryan Van Meter, tried to patiently answer the audience’s questions, but let’s just say it: you can’t write a memoir without writing about other people, and some of those people won’t like being written about, they might feel betrayed—there’s no getting around that inconvenient fact. It isn’t as if you’re writing about a bunch of trees or a series of sunsets. It’s messy, this memoir business. Someone quoted Joan Didion: “Writers are always selling someone out.”

After my panel, I walked from the hotel to the Museum of Fine Art. It felt good to breathe in the chilly streets, to let go after being on point for hours and hours. At the museum I wandered until I found myself in front of Andy Warhol’s painting, hanging in the Art of the Americas Wing, called The Oxidation Painting, from a series Warhol made in the late 1970s referred to as the Piss Paintings. Its background is a copper-tinged rose, warm and ethereal against the museum’s blank wall, and then sprayed over that blush background are green splatters, in a faint, ghostly green, with darker islands pooled among the spray. The darker green reminds me of moss growing on flagstones, dank and vibrant. There’s a shimmering map like quality to the painting, a map to nowhere in particular.

Warhol worked on the series from 1977 to 1978 in his studio, the Factory, where his friends frequently stopped by. He spread the canvasses on the floor and applied the copper paint and, while it was still wet, invited friends to urinate on them. What we see in the stains and shifts in color is the urine oxidizing on the surface of the metallic paint. The paint reacted to the urine differently, depending on the composition of the urine, and the amount. Some changes were immediate, and some emerged over time. The mode of execution of these piss paintings were controversial. The aesthetic presented was achieved through the application of bodily fluid, a waste product, urine, and this bringing the body literally to bear on paint to create art has received a divided reaction.   

Companion was excruciating to write—it took me many years to realize the form it had to take.  A simple narrative would not have captured the obsessive struggle with the burden of my failure to act upon the suspicions about my friend’s plans. 

Companion was even more excruciating to talk about. It was painful to give readings, to do interviews, to field questions.  After one radio interview, the producer urged me to develop standard answers to questions I would be asked in order to protect myself. He said I was too raw, too real—I wouldn’t survive launching the book. 

I knew I would be asked why I hadn’t done more to stop Joel from killing himself. I knew this because I asked myself that question. But I was thrown by some of the aggressive questions I was asked that suggested memoirs were rotten at their core. An interviewer asked me if I wasn’t profiting from Joel’s death. While I had worried for years about whether Joel would approve of my writing about him since he had destroyed much of the documentation of his life, I had never considered my book as profiting from his death. The question suggested I was exploiting his death for my own gain. It had taken me years to write the thing, there were boxes of drafts I had painstakingly written and rejected. The struggle of writing was long lasting and visceral. If you added up all the hours that went into writing the book, I lost money. I did little to promote the book. It saddens me to think how poorly memoir is still understood, as a lesser art, as a defilement or transgression, as piss art.

Warhol, Andy, Oxidation Painting, 1978, urine on metallic pigment, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Walking home from the museum through the snow, I rehearsed some of the questions Joel’s suicide did not answer and how they haunt me still like the squiggles and lines created by the urine on Warhol’s piss art. Why did Joel not ask for his correspondence back if he didn’t want any record of his life to remain? It seemed to me he wanted to be remembered. He had been intent upon our having things from his life that would outlast him. Would he be angered or moved at my remembrance of him? The book was my struggle with these questions but not an answer.

It was a lucky convergence that I saw Warhol’s painting on the same day I was immersed in all things troubling about writing a memoir. I’m sure Warhol was changed by surviving being shot and in the aftermath he made a luminous painting, haunting in its glimmering squiggles and he used raw waste to do it. Urine. Isn’t that something we flush away—don’t want to see or think about? Just as we hide suicide, we don’t want to make public that someone was a suicide. It’s a transgression. But Warhol took that unwanted thing and used it to create a painting that transcends its materials, and he often used a friend’s urine to add an intimacy to the cold metallic paint.

Joel’s death messed me up and what emerged was Companion. I hoped it would transcend its materials, be something to memorize my friend’s life and mourn his death, and outlast us both. I return to Joan Didion’s assessment that writers are always selling someone out. Maybe we nod in agreement too easily. Sometimes writers do something else—they bear witness, they honor the complexity and contradictions of living, they give of themselves, the blood and the waste, they make piss art.

Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton, and of Companion to an Untold Story, which won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is the editor of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women, published by the University of Georgia Press (with teachers’ guide here), and has been the editor of the journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction.

Windswept Terrain: Finding a Way to Write About Grief

March 11, 2019 § 33 Comments

DAH_JaelStudioBy D.A. Hickman

Vast and unthinkable. Silent and timeless. A windswept terrain. This is grief. It’s also the Dakota prairie I grew up with. But I wasn’t fully aware of this curious pairing until I lost my son to suicide. When the final moment came, he’d already been plagued for years by treacherous life and death issues. Only 27, he was tired. We were tired. Yet, the end had come when least expected.

Beginning a quest for deeper understanding of everything that had transpired, I realized I would have to find the stamina, the steadiness, to write a memoir about the trauma—anguish, confusion, and isolation—of those years. Yet, my thoughts were peppered with fear. Do I want to reveal his story to the world? Why? Will this honor his memory, help others, or simply turn into a lengthy exercise in writing?

Staying rational was impossible, and the paralyzing impact of unimaginable sorrow was an overwhelming new dynamic in my life. Only infrequently, could I access my intuition, and fully recognizing my profound yearning to explore the darkest corners of loss, took time. But Matthew’s death wasn’t going away. Writing or not writing wasn’t going to change this dreadfully challenging fact.

A year passed. An increasing number of insistent questions flowed into my awareness.

How could I effectively share my son’s life and loss in a world that seems hungry for happily-ever-after stories? Could I truly help others by surrendering to this arduous climb in a search for universal insights? Where would I begin? How long will it take? Where might I find useful feedback?

One question, in particular, hit me like an early-morning clap of thunder.

What is left to be said after death, when everyone has left the cemetery, gone home and mailed you a lovely sympathy card, and you feel more alone than ever before?

A deceptively simple-sounding question, it haunted me, dragged me around in an array of futile directions in search of a substantive answer that rang true. Surely, I reasoned, there was more to this story of life and loss than the standard, short-lived reactions. Lacking clarity and useful insights, I eventually realized the answer would have to be discovered en route. With a less-than-confident deep breath, I wrote a few exploratory lines. Pushing myself to confront the surreal nature of absence—its place within the story of existence—I sought a hidden truth.

Like a spiritual detective, I searched for understanding, rejecting the popularized, nearly trite, explanations that abound in our culture. I wasn’t buying any of this: “time will heal,” “he’s in a better place,” “death comes at any time,” or “you’ll feel better one day.”

My search evolved into seven years of work. Writing, editing, revising. The emotional strain was significant. Not only did I have to relive my son’s painful passing, somewhat stubbornly, I had to dig far beneath the surface for substance. Misconceptions about grief, cultural and societal expectations to “move on,” swirled in the air like autumn leaves sadly adrift on a bleak November day.

Maybe my question is unanswerable. Maybe my search is just a senseless obsession. 

Some have asked me where I found the courage. How did I persist? Perhaps it helped that I was 52 when faced with my son’s suicide, an ending that seemed to stem from an inability to beat addiction and depression. Not terribly surprising given our culture’s role in subtly pointing so many people in the direction of dangerous escape routes from whatever troubles them. So while a degree of maturity probably generated strength and persistence, something else helped me.

Growing up on the prairie, I’d grown accustomed to being confronted by a vast terrain—a tireless sky, a remote and worn landscape offering the seldom tree, vigorous winds—since my earliest days. And, finally, as I pushed through the heavy fog of doubt, I began to detect a subtle comfort. Familiar, even known and trusted. Though intensely alone at the keyboard, my affection for the vibrant spirit of the prairie—rolling, unencumbered spaces—helped me access the emotional energy I needed to survive the depth of my grief and questioning.

I felt empty and shattered in a dozen ways, but also knew firsthand the steady heartbeat of nature. The soothing power of place. Childhood memories hummed in my mind like intrepid soldiers, and I managed to recall a seamless prairie sky well above the fray.

Remembering all of this helped me tap into the past to reveal the present. It really does take a certain amount of daring to probe a harsh, bewildering reality in a quest for new insights and equanimity. As authors working on seriously challenging projects, we need support wherever we can find it. But as I penetrated the bleak silence of the moment, as chapters developed and my confidence began to return, I knew what was left to be said after everyone had gone, and I was alone as never before. Even living with my husband and comforting pets, Noah and Lola, even with kind co-workers, friends, and extended family, I was remarkably alone. Regardless of who or how many may surround us, grief is inherently personal. But my question had an answer.

Life is always about the basics. Nothing more, nothing less. Certainly we manage to complicate things as we grow and evolve, yet, ultimately, we return to the beginning once more. As I worked to transcend my own suffering, my writing sustained me, but it wasn’t therapeutic as many believe. Rather, my journey was a befuddled inner climb lacking precision or dignity; it was my way of learning how to peacefully return to the basics of life to begin again. And again. This is the only magic, the only way back.

 D.A. (Daisy) Hickman, an avid student of culture and society, writes to connect more deeply to the complexities of the human condition. Her 2016 memoir, The Silence of Morning: A Memoir of Time Undone, followed a first book from William Morrow about growing up “prairie-wise” (Always Returning: The Wisdom of Place, second edition, 2014). Also a poet, Hickman recently published Ancients of the Earth: Poems of Time. “Too often,” she notes, “we manage to give our lives to time, but most would agree, it’s the wrong emphasis.” For Richard Gilbert’s in-depth interview with the author, see “We Need Memoir“. Hickman studied sociology (M.S.) at Iowa State University, legal studies (B.A.) at Stephens College; her website, a sunny, creative space for kindred spirits, is at SunnyRoomStudio.com. At work on new nonfiction and poetry, Hickman lives in Brookings, a small college town in eastern South Dakota, with her husband and spirited schnauzers, Hannah and Georgia.


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