The Creative Process: Painting, Writing, and the Case for Ruthlessness

hindu-gods-kaliEven before I began writing, I loved to draw and paint. Although it came easily to me, I never considered it as a profession. Maybe I was afraid of the impracticality, or like my character, Oliver, (in my novel April & Oliver), I was simply afraid. Accessing one’s own creative power can be terrifying. Disowning it, on the other hand, opens the door to catastrophe, as poor Oliver finds out.

To keep me sane, and in an effort to understand the world, I’ve lived and traveled in a variety of continents. It hasn’t helped on either score, by the way. I now have more questions and less sanity. Nevertheless, traveling has added a thick, rich texture to my life. Throughout these journeys, my journal and sketchbook have been my navigation tools. For me, the two are complimentary, and over the years, visual art has taught me to be a better writer.

Painter Roy Kinzer, who formerly taught at the Montclair Art Museum, unwittingly taught me as much about writing as any writing teacher. He pushed his students to see large, abstract forms, positive and negative space, and nuances of color – such as flecks of green in a skin tone or reds in a swatch of grass. By forcing myself to yield my preconceived ideas to the reality of what was actually in front of me, I slowly began to give that same courtesy to my characters. My stock assessments of them fell away as they revealed their true and surprising selves. Also, Kinzer’s insistence that we work on all parts of the canvas at once, rather than get bogged down in minutia too soon, trained me to stay fluid with the overall arc of my storyline.

Years ago I saw a film about the creative process that has stayed with me ever since.
French director Henri-Georges Clouzot persuaded his friend Pablo Picasso in 1956 to make a documentary of his painting process. The film, called The Mystery of Picasso, shows the artist creating more than a dozen paintings, and illustrates the relationship between creation and destruction. (2 minute trailer)

As with Kinzer, Picasso starts with broad geometric shapes that immediately take possession of the entire page. Then come shading, color and depth. The most striking thing about the film is Picasso’s spontaneity, the dexterity with which he changes course. In one breath he has drawn an intricate fish. Just when you think it is perfect, he dives back in and transfigures it into a rooster. His changes are ruthless. He has no hesitation about obliterating what he has just done in order to transform it into something else. Just when you want to scream out, “Stop! You are destroying a Picasso!” he leaps in again to vaporize the rooster into a demon’s head. Astonishing. As an artist, it’s hard to watch this film without gasping. Many of us know the anguish of realizing we have to cut the very line we thought was brilliant. With Picasso, there is no anguish. His mercilessness is stunning. He may have been an arrogant SOB in life, but in art he was without egoic attachment. The film illustrates his total surrender to form. By prior agreement, when Clouzot finished shooting The Mystery of Picasso, all of the paintings were destroyed.

The Hindu goddess Kali is the deity of creation and destruction. Robert Bly writes about her as an example of a “Death Mother” in Sleepers Joining Hands, and elsewhere. Generally, she is depicted with four arms that carry a sword, a trident, a severed head dripping blood, and a skull cup catching the blood. Her necklace is made of the skulls of her victims, (our inner demons and egoic attachments). She symbolizes the link between destruction and restoration in nature, and is feared for her extreme methods of initiating change – the forest fire followed by new growth, flooded plains followed by alluvial soil. Despite her ferocity, or rather because of it, she is the embodiment of divine energy or Shakti.

Picasso did not fear his own Kali energy. On the contrary, he slept with her and made babies with her, lots of them. Painting and drawing have introduced me to Kali, too. She is the goddess of change; in other words, the goddess of Now. When I am tempted to save a favorite cut line in a scrap file for possible use later on, Kali tells me, “Baby, just hit delete.”

  1. Jocelyn S says:

    Just finished reading this and went on several websites to see if this is already on the radar—

    I was watching Jane Austen’s Persuasion on Masterpiece Theatre last night—and said to myself that your book has definitely some strains of Jane Austen in it – for the 21st century consumption, of course. You packed so much action in a slim book and I am amazed at how finely woven the fabric of the story came to light. The restraint of these characters (April and Oliver) toward each other is very Jane Austen. (Too bad – I did not know you were in Livingston back in June 2009—at the Barnes & Noble—I would have loved to ask you a few questions—like the absence of cell phones in the book—clearly not set in the present—but near present enough that it is not a period piece; what happened to April’s Mom, etc.)

    I loved Nana and her sharp and honest remarks to April. These characters resonate so much that I am haunted by them- days after I finished reading the book.

    Thank you for bringing us their stories. Are there any Olivers left in this world? I hope so –for my unmarried friends.