Just last summer, I had the opportunity to attend readings by Rebecca Brown. Her openness, the wilding visions inspired by her words, seemed to offer a profoundly personal permission to create with like courage. I felt the swelling yelp of words, of pictures, of weird sculptures made from glass and wire and bear traps. All of us in that room, I thought I heard her say, were charged with the order to jump up, break the windows, smash the chairs, scratch up the floor boards and build with the bits something jagged and new and rougher enough to tell the truth. I sat rapt, brimmed with new energy for the work to come, at once vital and yet weirdly dry mouthed from the zap of understanding that I won’t ever write like that.
When I was in my early twenties, I saw an exhibition of the late works of El Greco. His eyesight failing, the old master had worked on his oversized images with his head cocked to one side to favor his better working eye, a technique that altered the frontal perspective of saints and patrons, great cities and angelic episodes, twisting everything eerily clockwise. To see the images unskewed, in emulation of the artist, the viewer was obliged to tilt, chin over, sightline right to favor the upside eye. At just the right angle, up and down balanced precisely with back and forward, the cliffside of swirling color and light snapped to its true muscular armature and all but walked off the wall, out into the comparatively flat air of Dallas in autumn. The annunciation over, El Greco’s Mary looked down, burning with secrets, unlocked her stiff-angled limbs and climbed off the wall. She walked away, not caring a whit that I was running behind full of questions.
I admit that I was strangely depressed after that experience—in a full-hearted way that made me glad to know what was possible but certain that my own painting was useless, all original beauty having been long ago cast onto canvas—once you’ve been ignored by El Greco’s Madonna, you know that there is little left for you to do with your paints that hasn’t been already exceeded.
Familiar, then, were the feelings that emerged from listening to Rebecca Brown read. I fell in love with her words, and instantly, by implication, disenchanted with my own. This happens every time I fall in love with some new art, artist, or rumor of perfection.
In fact, reading Schulz provokes the same internal argument to abandon creative fervor as prospective projects grow pale and flimsy next to the unearthly brilliance of his prose. I snap from one state to the other—inspiration whiplash being so common to my experience that I will admit being enthused and then immediately crashing when looking at something I did myself—and I know I’ll never do again. Not that I have work to compare to Bruno Schulz, but I have written stories and painted paintings that sometimes feel like my size two jeans circa 1978, just…beyond me, from the very moment I finish them.
I am helped by looking at it as something that can be addressed by therapy. The Sisyphus in me may go on rolling his stone up and running like hell when it chases him back down, but on the way down, if I type an essay, start a story, paint a mandala, and revise some dialogue, the running doesn’t wind me nearly as much. The work is therapeutic fortifier. The stone has its gory moment, but I always catch the next infatuation with art, rise up and resume the hill.