This painting hangs in the living room of my house. It didn’t always. Once upon a time there was a large painting of cattails going to seed upon this wall. It was one of the ugliest paintings I’ve ever seen, and I had no desire to see it on a daily basis. But my husband learned the painting was going to be thrown away, and the thought of it ending up in a dumpster, where the canvas would be torn, crushed and eventually incinerated was unbearable to him. My husband has a much softer, more generous heart than I do. His students actually call him, “Mr. Softie.” And that’s how the ugly cattail canvas came to hang on the wall. I refused to look at it, but I refrained from complaining— some battles aren’t worth the effort.
Shortly before Christmas, my soft-hearted husband said he wanted to paint me a picture, something to bring me joy and hope after the horrible year I endured— a painting in the vein of Jack Yeats whose work I adore. He showed me his photoshop rendering. I was smitten. Then he delivered the best news of all. His painting would not only replace the cattails, but erase them from our lives for good because he was going to paint over the ugly canvas.
“What made you decide to do that?”
“You’ve always hated that painting, and I’ve never liked it either,” he said. “I just didn’t want the canvas to go in the dumpster.”
Yes, Jocosa, surprises do happen even after 32 years of marriage.
The Creative Process
He used a silver basecoat to get rid of the old painting. I was thrilled. Gazing at the canvas calmed me, as if I was looking out over a sea of rolling waves. I could’ve meditated in front of that canvas for hours. “Seriously,” I said, “why don’t we just hang this on the wall. This basecoat is better than a lot of stuff I’ve seen at MOMA.” My husband laughed and kept painting. He worked at night, like the elves in The Elves and the Shoemaker. And so, upon waking, I’d dash down to the basement to see what magic had transpired while I slept.
Each day colors and textures were added, and the shape of a world came into being. Every additional layer evoked a different mood and aroused questions. Where is the setting, who is the woman, what is she thinking? Why is she there? What drives her to be alone, to seek solitude and revel in the outdoors?
My husband’s painting is a gift of love. But the greatest part of his gift was his willingness to allow me to bear witness to the creative process. How he systematically and instinctively evoked the painting out of the canvas by his use of color, and the way he blended and textured those colors with sponges, brushes and paper towels, then added glaze and blended more; it was fascinating.
After five days he said, “It won’t be done by Christmas.”
I said, no problem. No deadline.
“Last night, I realized the rendering was getting in my way. The painting is no longer interested in my vision. It started showing me what it needs to be. It has a life of its own.”
Early in my journey, I heard writers say the same— “My characters are telling me they want to do something different.”
I didn’t understand; it never happened to me. Was that because I was a pantser and didn’t work with an outline? But then I thought, maybe my characters don’t argue with me because I’m always listening to them. I sit in front of the blank page, listen and write what I hear.
Then along came the eighth draft. I got to the part where the protagonist enters the Second Threshold of the story. And she said, “This action is way too convenient. What if it wasn’t?” So, I placed her in the unknown— a place she really hadn’t been since the first draft.
I placed her in the unknown and dared her to be uncomfortable and wrote the first ending of the story that resonated in my gut. An ending that spoke to the issues that were tangled up inside me and the themes that run through my writing: identity, loss of hope, and how to discover life after a real or emotional death. It took another four drafts to get the rest of the story to mesh, but the eighth draft showed me how important it is to get out of my own way when creating something new.
The creative process needs to be a freefall. My husband’s painting showed me that process in a tactile way. Yes, he came to the canvas with a completed rendering but, ultimately, he needed to let go of the mechanics and trust the process by having faith in the image that inspired him to paint. Once he did, his painting became a living entity, where every angle of viewing reveals another nuance of color, texture and emotion. It is a painting that keeps on giving.
If I’m honest, the poems and stories I’m most proud of are the ones that began with a completely blank canvas. Sure, there was a certain amount of control in the beginning as I got in touch with whatever emotion or essence of character I needed to explore. And once they appeared, I refined them so they were as clear as possible for others to see. But I didn’t craft them. They shimmered because I let go of all expectations and ideas of what I wanted them to be; I surrendered to the process.
Maybe this journey is less about being a writer and more about finding the best way to work as a medium for the stories asking to be heard.