Like the novel or memoir many of us feel we have lurking inside but will probably never put to paper, there is undoubtedly a painting or two that simmers in the arm and hand of all creative beings. More primal than writing, mark-making begins in early childhood, to be perverted later into a messy and inconvenient activity where the exception to do it in adulthood is made only when it serves an industry. A lawyer friend once invited me to his basement to show me an appealing, sort-of pointillist portrait in cheery colours. “Can you help me get a show?” he asked. An unfinished second one was leaning in the corner. “Was it fun?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “How much did you enjoy the second painting?” I inquired. He replied, “Not as much as the first.”

Caspar-David-Friedrich_Abby_in_the-Oak-Wood-300x192

“The Abbey in the Oak Wood” 1808-10
oil on canvas
by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)

In her 2001 lecture series at Cambridge University, Margaret Atwood explained the difference between writing and being a writer: “Everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave digger,” she said. “The latter takes a good deal more stamina and persistence. It is also, because of the nature of the activity, a deeply symbolic role. As a grave digger, you are not just a person who excavates. You carry upon your shoulders the weight of other people’s projections, of their fears and fantasies and anxieties and superstitions.”

“Wanderer above a Sea of Fog”
oil painting
by Caspar David Friedrich

I drove home from the studio visit and picked up my brush, thinking it was perhaps easier to be certifiably unemployable than to have a choice about being a painter. Enjoyable or not, the digging would continue until I became a grave digger. I remembered my parents discussing whether we, their children, should have something to fall back on, should we fail as artists. My mum insisted we all take a turn at summer work. I was, for three weeks, the dessert-cart-girl at the Black Forest Restaurant. Soon, the manager relegated me to drawing on the specials board. My dad, as if he knew the secret to never holding a real job, suggested we spend our summers daydreaming and sticking to independent projects.

Atwood recalled, “There were no films or theatres in the North, and the radio didn’t work very well. But there were always books.” She said she became a writer one day when she wrote a poem in her head, while walking across a field. “I didn’t know that this poem of mine wasn’t at all good, and if I had known, I probably wouldn’t have cared. It wasn’t the result but the experience that had hooked me: it was the electricity. My transition from not being a writer to being one was instantaneous, like the change from docile bank clerk to fanged monster in ‘B’ movies.”

“Monastery Graveyard in the Snow” 1817-19
oil painting
by Caspar David Friedrich

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “Any form of human creativity is a process of doing it and getting better at it. You become a writer by writing, there is no other way. So do it, do it more, do it better. Fail. Fail better.” (Margaret Atwood)

Esoterica: Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa, Ontario to a forest entomologist father and a mother who had been a dietician. Because of her father’s research, Atwood spent her childhood commuting with her family between Toronto, Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie and the Quebec wilderness. She didn’t enroll in full-time school until she was eight and read Grimm’s fairytales and Dell pocketbook mysteries, animal stories and comic books. “I learned to read early, was an avid reader and read everything I could get my hands on — no one ever told me I couldn’t read a book. My mother liked quietness in children, and a child who is reading is very quiet.”