Writers Talk About Writing
Writing As Fecund As Picasso's Sculptures
A few months ago my wife and I visited New York's Whitney Museum and I wrote a column inspired by the art there that broke all the rules of realism. This month we toured a Museum of Modern Art exhibit of sculptures that Pablo Picasso created over six decades and felt a similar inspiration. Minutes after entering the galleries, we both had goofy grins of pure joy on our faces. Everywhere we turned, on the walls, inside glass boxes, standing in open air, were splendid works of art—a pregnant goat, a girl skipping rope, a smashed up guitar, a baboon with a face made from a toy car, a porcelain owl, a wooden bird with legs made of forks, a bronze cat on the prowl, pebbles painted with ghostly faces, an orator, a reaper, a Greek warrior. Some were big, some small, some painted wood, some plain plaster, some abstract, some realistic, and all of them, despite their still silence, exploding with a wild, expansive energy.
"Fecund, fecund"—that's the word that kept going through my mind. Picasso's seething creative urge powered every sculpture, his sharp eye penetrated every surface, his boundless imagination transformed every shape. An unconquerable willpower emanated in tangible waves from the sculptures, no matter their size or subject. "Creer, creer, toujours creer!" said Balzac, and as I stood and turned and gaped and marveled, I felt Picasso reaching my soul with that same inspirational message: "Create, create, always create!"
Recollecting my emotions in the tranquility of a cup of tea at home, I began to wonder: can writing reach such thunderous heights of Olympian power? Writing, remember, does not reach us as tangibly, as directly, as sculpture does. Before we can see Huck and Jim floating on the raft, Don Quixote tilting at the windmills, or Oliver Twist asking for a second bowl of porridge, we need to decipher writing's code of letter groups into sounds to which our ancestors and we have given meaning; only then do the pictures emerge. How can that two-step process deliver the same unmediated whammy as sculptures that leap into our minds like lightning bolts from the mind of the artist?
It didn't take much wondering before I decided: yes, the pictures, ideas, and emotions of writing can leap into my mind, into your mind, as speedily and vibrantly as the energy blossoming up from Picasso's sculptures. How writing does so may long remain shrouded by the mysteries of word sound and meaning, but of its success there can be no doubt.
Read this fragment of Psalm 104:
You make springs gush forth in torrents
To flow between the hills.
You made the moon to measure the seasons,
The sun knows its time for setting.
You bring on darkness and it is night...
The young lions roar for prey,
Seeking their food from God.
When the sun rises they steal away
and go to lie down in their dens.
These sixty-one common words, like the common objects of Picasso's sculptures, compel my instant belief. As I read them, I link the words to all I know of life and affirm: "Yes, some universal energy sets the sun and moon in motion, gives song to the birds and food to hungry lions." What I feel is not a religious experience but a reading experience, no different from what I feel reading Shakespeare. When I read "Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May," I don't think, "Excuse me, Mr. Shakespeare, but rough winds never shake May's darling buds." No! I read and say, "William my friend, you've hit the nail on the head one more time!" Likewise, I see Picasso's bird with the fork feet and think, "Wow, birds' feet look like forks!"
Take these lines from Walt Whitman's Crossing Brooklyn Ferry:
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;
Just as you are refresh'd by the gladness of the river, and the bright flow, I was refreshed;
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried.
I read the poet's lines and—whap!—I am beside him, with him. Nothing separates us, certainly not the century and a half marked on our clumsy calendars—just as I'm with Picasso when viewing Picasso's sculptures. At the exhibit I saw a little boy tagging along behind his mother. When they came to the bronze cat, the boy laughed and called out in a voice the whole gallery could hear, "Mommy, there's my kitty cat!" For him as for me and for Picasso, the prowling cat was alive. Whitman knew himself to be one of the ferry's "living crowd," and I could likewise see that the little boy and the cat, Picasso and me, were beings in the living crowd swirling about the gallery rooms.
Or read a few sentences from Dostoyevsky that quickly sketch five nervous people:
Ferdyshchenko could not keep still; Rogozhin looked on bewildered and kept looking at the prince and Pitsyn with terrible uneasiness. Darya Alexeyevna seemed unable to bear the suspense much longer. Even Lebedev was unable to restrain himself, came out of his corner, and, craning his neck perilously, began peering over Pitsyn's shoulder at the letter, with the air of a man who was afraid of getting a sound thrashing then and there for doing so. —The Idiot
The words of this passage are black marks as motionless as the framed pieces of Picasso's deconstructed guitar, yet as I read them— "bewildered… uneasiness… suspense…perilously… peering…afraid…thrashing," I can feel the anguished anxiety of Dostoyevsky's twitchy characters as I can feel the revealing-destroying energy that laid bare the guitar's insides.
Nothing I saw in the sculptures that recent afternoon seemed angry, but I felt a passion in Picasso's work as committed, as limitless as Henry V's volcanic fury which has not cooled a degree since Shakespeare penned these red hot lines:
What shall I say to thee, Lord Scroop, thou cruel,
Ingrateful, savage, and inhuman creature!
Thou that didst bear the key of all my counsels,
That knew'st the very bottom of my soul,
That almost might have coined me into gold,
Wouldst thou have practiced on me for thy use,
May it be possible, that foreign hire
Could out of thee extract one spark of evil
That might annoy my finger?
Writing does not need such naked drama to attain Picasso's immediate quality. This passage by Mark Twain:
A rail fence round a two-acre yard; a stile made out of logs sawed off and upended in steps, like barrels of a different length, to climb over the fence with, and for the women to stand on when they are going to jump on to a horse; some sickly grass patches in the big yard, but mostly it was bare and smooth, like an old hat with the nap rubbed off; big double log house for the white folks--hewed logs, with the chinks stopped up with mud or mortar, and these mud stripes been whitewashed some time or another… —Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
—couldn't be more prosaic, yet Twain's long list of homey details reminds me of how Picasso's loving use of watering cans, twigs, nails and baking tins connects his studio with our kitchens, attics, and garages.
And so, fellow scribblers, let's keep creating, keep digging into the ever-burgeoning welter of life inside and around us. Picasso saw beauty, mystery, and comedy in objects so common that we use them without seeing them. Take a paragraph to describe the contents of a kitchen cabinet; write a chapter about a trip to the supermarket. Picasso saw a bull's head in a bicycle seat and handle bars. Look up from your computer right now: what do you see? What can you write to make me see it too?