Monday, March 18, 2013

Nowhere to hide, or Henry James meets Picasso's owl

I'm spending two weeks at a house party in the South of France. I'd like to pretend I do this all the time because it makes me feel like Henry James (who DID do this sort of thing a lot) but alas, such opportunities occur with extreme rarity which is why I didn't feel I could pass up this one.

Before I flew down to Europe's warmer end I was up in England, where I've had several weeks with family getting to grips with the issues that inevitably result when your parents live to a ripe age and the change in family dynamics these concerns involve. My trip coincided with the funeral of a favorite aunt (who lived a full, happy life) and I caught up with relatives I haven't seen for YEARS - so altogether my longest stay in England since, wow, somewhere in the 80s has been a positive experience.

Orangina has been with me the whole time, of course, as my role as caregiver doesn't come with much vacation time (not until Felsted retires at any rate) so what I haven't had is solitude.

And that's kind of hard on me as I'm used to regular time alone. I've been sitting here in this villa (with two young musicians rehearsing six feet away from me, which doesn't bother me a bit because they're not talking to ME) staring at this screen for the last half hour. I'm trying to encapsulate my thoughts about my need for solitude without sounding whiny and ungrateful because I'm really happy to be in this part of the world. The mimosa's in bloom, I can see green palm trees instead of the brown and white flatness of snowy Illinois, and while we were waiting for our hostess to turn up earlier my distant view was of snow-capped mountains. When I'm back home staring at the four walls of my office, no longer able to escape the accusing eye of my whiteboard with its list of things I'm not doing, I will see that view in my mind's eye and sigh.

Yet my current mood is that of wanting to retreat to my little corner and shut the door. And I think it's just because my brain's full and I haven't had a chance to process all the new thoughts and impressions I've been picking up; and I do that kind of processing best by myself. Are you like that?

I don't think this is an uncommon dilemma for a writer. Creativity is fed by two streams: one is outside impressions that spark new or dormant areas of your brain, and the other is that inner life that's practically impossible to describe to someone else. Of course as a twenty-first-century writer I can get the outside impressions through the medium of the internet, but no electronic medium can replace real life. I could take a video of this room to show you, but how can I communicate the whole of it? The tick of the overly ornate and most definitely too loud longcase clock, the liquid song of blackbirds triumphing over the coo-coo-coo of some kind of wood pigeon outside, the way the view through the glass-encased porch changes when the sun comes out, the smells left over from breakfast and those announcing dinner, the movements of the musicians who are taking a break now--these are my momentary realities and are utterly irreproducible except in my future memory. Today's experiences are rare and wonderful and, I hope, will feed tomorrow's writing; but they impede today's writing precisely because they're NOT the everyday view of my office, whiteboard, goldfish, piles of unread books and (yuck) paperwork not yet done. It's the very sameness of my everyday surroundings that drive me into my head and that's where the magic happens, where the stories start writing themselves...

About three days ago I was at the Picasso museum in Antibes, which is in the building where Picasso had his studio just after WWII. The views from the window are the sea, the mountains, the sparkling sunlight...and I found myself wondering how it could be that Picasso, with that view right there, could possibly achieve art that was so completely focused on his inner life. But now--having had this comparatively solitary space to process what's bugging ME--I'm starting to imagine him in a place that's permanently untidy with paint and canvases everywhere, smelling of turpentine, probably way too hot in summer and shivery cold in winter, with a dirty mattress for a bed (and I know it was like that because there are a series of photos of his studio on the walls.) In that space the artist hid from the outside realities (wife and kids, food, friends, that sea, those mountains...) and deconstructed them into his inner reality so that he could put that interior truth on canvas.

Take the owl, for instance. Picasso had a pet owl, did you know that? I didn't until this week because I don't know a whole lot about art. The owl turns up continually in his work, including my favorite from the museum, a brownish-yellow egg-shaped clay sculpture incised to suggest wings and an owl's markings with a wonderfully childlike beak and eyes stuck on. To me that big egg suggested not just the exterior appearance of the owl but its whole existence from egg to bird right through to the memory of owl that would have remained (was going to remain?) in Picasso's mind after the bird's death and his knowledge that after his death people like me would be standing in a museum looking at the sculpture and seeing that it's egg-shaped.

Because this is the internet (I'm writing straight to Blogger which, when I come to think about it, is an interior/exterior space in itself with its dull gray-and-white blahness, a preparation for connection with a much wider world) I was hoping I could put up a picture of the egg/owl. But the only one I can find would get me into copyright trouble if I reproduced it, so I won't and you'll have to build the picture in your own mind from my words, which are themselves the representation of something I saw with my own eyes, a something that was an abstract representation of a reality that was tied to a certain time and place. And now for me that reality lives in my memory...


And weirdly enough, the feeling of frustration about not getting any time alone that was crushing me when I sat down to this post has dissipated into thoughts about Picasso's owl because I've managed to get out of my exterior surroundings and go hide in my brain. I just realized I haven't noticed the tick of the clock for the last hour or so. This feeling is not going to survive the onslaught of the return of the rest of the party from their shopping trip and one of my ears is open for their voices, but somehow the act of writing has turned a whine into a victory.

I know for certain that I've mentioned a Henry James story I've heard of but never been able to find, where a writer socializes (at a house party, I rather think) on a terrace while behind the closed shutters of the house, a shadowy figure scribbles in a lonely room. I've looked for this story for years, and I'm beginning to wonder whether I didn't imagine reading about it. I'm beginning to think, in fact, that it only exists in my own head, and that this means that I have to write it. And that Picasso's owl now needs to be in it (perhaps in another form as I'm not sure I want to write about Picasso) because that was the ingredient missing from my thinking-picture; the real deconstructed into the abstract.

As I was writing that last sentence yesterday the rest of the house party returned, bustle ensued and I could no longer think writerly thoughts...but the whole process of writing this post really cleared the junk out of my brainbox. If you stuck with me so far (and if you did, WELL DONE because this post got a bit long), I'd love to hear your thoughts about the creative process, solitude vs. real life and all the rest!