Self portrait, 2005, acrylic on paper. www.carolineallen.com
We are sitting over the remains of a pasta dinner (mushroom and spinach — I can’t cook, but this somehow turned out alright) and an empty bottle of Shiraz. My landlady and I are playing rummy, and talking about an upcoming art class in a nearby Church auditorium. I’ve been life drawing for years, and I want her to come with me. She was a big fashion designer in Boston and New York City and has a powerful visual sense. She now owns and rents properties to make a living, but I see the glint in her eye when she sees art of any kind.
She talks about her life now and her hesitancy in getting back into the arts. A light seems to enter the top of her head and course through her body. She looks up and says: “I get why I’m hesitant. It’s so messy. Art is messy.”
I think she means physically, paint everywhere, charcoal smudges, acrylic clumps in the carpet.
“Emotionally messy,” she explains.
BINGO, I think. She’s absolutely right. It’s emotionally messy to do art. It’s so much easier to avoid it. To have a nice clean linear life. So much easier. So so so much easier.
I have been thinking about what she said for a week. It’s also emotionally messy to write. I cannot get this concept out of my mind. All week, I’ve been thinking about how “together” I was as a journalist, how in control, how uber-cool. I wore black, lived in London, popped out of bed even after a late night of yucking it up with fellow reporters in a pub, got to work on time, filed my stories, edited whole sections of newspapers, yacked on the phone, yucked it up some more that night, and basically had the clarity, time and energy to do everything well and with panache.
Ever since I became a fiction writer, I’d have to say I’m emotionally coo-coo for cocoa puffs, as my friends and I like to say. I cry often. I laugh inappropriately. I talk to myself. I forget to comb my hair. I’m a complete nerd. I dress in the most awful combinations of sweat pants and torn socks. I sleep until 9 a.m. after a particularly intense writing session. I can’t write for whole days at a time because I’m grappling with some ogre, some beast who doesn’t care about my linear tidy need to do a certain number of words a day. I whine a lot. I want my mommy. I want my mommy a lot. A LOT.
I can’t stop thinking about all the people I coach. Many get so EMOTIONAL about it, and that emotional reaction hinders the writing, delays it, makes it a sloppy slippery slope. That emotional response is real, it’s necessary and it can’t be avoided. But, damn, it’d be easier if all this tumultous emotional stuff didn’t keep rearing its ugly mug, I tell you.
Ever since I’ve started doing fiction and visual art, I’m a highly strung hyper-sensitive soul who sometimes can barely take going out into the “real” world. I find myself staring aghast at the cheap shitty products filling the shelves of an overly bright Target. Is all this CRAP necessary? I mean there are people starving, there are people dying…
As for grocery stores, do we really need 100 choices of breakfast cereal? If you’ve traveled to other countries, these mega-stores can seem deeply offensive and heinous. A friend of mine took in Russian exchange students in the 1980s in London. The day Ivan arrived, she told her son to take him to the local grocery store to pick up some items. He stood at the head of the first aisle and broke into uncontrollable sobs. (And this was in London where, at least in the ’80s, the grocery stores, even the big ones, were nothing compared to American ones in terms of size.)
When I’m uber sensitive, when I’m open as a writer, when I’m in my soul, (which I seem to be in all the time these days), don’t even get me near a newspaper or television news. I can be deeply disturbed and visibly upset for a week over a one column story of violence or rape or hate or murder.
But of course writing is messy — we’re exploring, exposing the very core of our souls. Daily! Hourly! Minute by minute in the most delectable details. Our souls open in a world of the closed. We seem crazy. But who are the crazy ones here?
I can’t stop thinking about this messiness in terms of the people I’ve taught who were just beginning to get to the core of their first story. Sometimes, this new writer will suddenly and completely disappear. I never see them again. They never come back to class.
If I hear from them again, a year or two later, if I send a group email about a class or something, I’m often asked tersely to take them off my mailing list. I wonder if their writing churned up an emotional mess in their chest, and they simply cannot handle it. They tamp it down. Did they decide it was better to have a clean tidy life over this tempest of emotions?
Writing is messy! Emotionally messy! There’s just no way around it.