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Monday, June 6, 2016

Improvising a life after Woolf


Blame it on Virginia.  I've gone 46 days without posting here.  My manuscript on her aesthetics needed what I call a final proofreading:  checking for readability (clear sentences, clear logic) and scholarliness (bibliography in order and every possible quotation from other scholars, her 6 volumes of essays, 5 volumes of diaries, and 6 volumes of letters shoring up my argument).  I would read a couple of paragraphs and realize that she'd said something in one of her essays to support my startling conclusion, or that she described her creative process as she wrote To the Lighthouse fully in her diary, and I'd go off hunting.  To keep the hunting at a minimum, I stored as much as possible in my head.  There was room for nothing else, except some gardening--and even then I got my carrot and lettuce seeds in late.  Now that the bibliography is included, it is 144,226 words and 449 pages long.  You see why I did nothing else?

My old psychiatrist would describe my mood the last week as the result of the "after the prom effect."  So much preparation!  (Learning about the autonomy of art and re-reading Woolf's complete and large oeuvre.)  So much time choosing a dress!  (Developing lines of argument based on an enormous body of evidence.)  The make-up and the hair!  (Writing, writing, writing.)  All you writers
know the drill:  now you wait, usually for a few months.  And in the meantime, there's this gap in your sense of purpose.  Having retired, I have been getting up to "Where did I leave off yesterday, and what problem do I need to solve today?"  Now so many things clamour for my attention--things of course that I put on hold, like planting the pole beans and painting the front steps--that I feel more, if differently, overwhelmed.

I needed to acknowledge that I was making up my life as I went along, and that for a little while at least all the second guessing that had gone into Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement was no longer necessary.  So I turned to the practice that seems to keep my life in balance:  quilting.

Normally I work in fairly traditional forms with fabric that would also be called traditional.  If you'll stop looking at the gorgeous cat for a moment, you can see the traditional Massachusetts Cross and Crown on the right, rendered in indigo, white, and ecru.  When you spread it out, the blocks create light and dark stripes that make large Vs on the quilt.  The quiet quilt on the left is simply a nine patch with a puss in the corner, and it is indeed quiet.   The "puss" is literal and figurative.  There's the cat, yes, of course, but those four little square on the outside of each block are called a puss in the corner.

But I found that I needed something different in my quilting practice, a kind of antidote to the months of deliberation, questioning, writing, revising, staring at the computer screen willing my brain to think harder about what Woolf means when she uses this odd form--, say a series of very long letters, to argue that if societies want to be less warlike and violent, they need to support women's education and women's professional lives, rather than impede them.  (And unlikely as this argument seemed to her fellow Bloomsberries, she's recently been proven right by Steven Pinker.  He identifies a general feminization of a culture as one of the major causes of decreasing violence.)  A letter 214 pages long with with 46 pages of densely packed footnotes?  And running through it all a discussion of the role of art in our everyday lives?  Why?????  That was one of the easier questions I asked myself.
I need to admit that right now I am making up my life as I go  along and that I need a few weeks without the constant second-guessing that comes with any project when you hit the revision phase, and dress your ideas in a garment presentable enough to be seen in public.  So I turned to British quilter Lucie Summers and her book on improvisational quilting.  Then I threw in the funky fabric choice of Australian quilter Kathy Doughty.  You see the results at the top of the post.  I made four of Summers' basket weave blocks in various colour combinations, though I cheated.  Summers uses the same fabrics in the same order for all the squares that stripe vertically and a different set of fabrics, also in the same order, for the squares that stripe horizontally.  instead, I made up colour rules for each of the four blocks--only cool colours for the lower left-hand corner block, with very pale pastels in the horizontal squares, or only pinks and oranges with a touch of lime green or turquoise for the bottom right block.  But after that, I did what I wanted, ending with my decision to use two different border fabrics and to create an asymmetrical border.

How wonderful to be immersed playfully with colour--delighting one's senses and leaving one's analytical twin at home.  And then, instead of the exact cutting that makes every triangle of the Massachusetts Cross and Crown meet the other triangles in exactly the right place, I would cut a 5-inch stripe the width of which reflected how much I wanted of this particular colour in a block.  I worked by instinct: second-guessing was not allowed.   Then as I sewed them--the easiest sewing I've done in decades--I thought about creativity.

While I worked on Woolf, I did not write anything else, but I read a great deal.  One of the things I noticed in work I admired, like Jeanette Lynes' Bedlam Cowslop, was how free she was with grammar and syntax.  A mere phrase might stand on its own--an impression, not a subject and a verb.  A rhythm or a sound that echoed other rhythms and sounds or evoked a frame of mind on their own--not always a sentence. 

Visible Cities has been called a very cerebral collection, and certainly there was a discipline to thinking about cityspace and about how the photographs captured the places more than half the human population now lives in.  There was also a discipline in keeping myself entirely out of the collection as a voice or persona.  As well, my practice has always been to go for subjects and verbs--clear sentences.  Since the work dealt with ideas, I didn't want to lose readers with careless grammar.  I wanted them to know what I said so that they could work out what I meant.

But now I need to do something different.  A new adventure. 

I don't know if I will ever quilt my wild basketweave quilt, though I suspect Bill is about to claim it for his office.  As I worked on it, I learned more about colour than all the colour wheels and colour theories have ever taught me:  I know what works in theory, but it's apt to be a bit languid and obedient--though maybe on a king size bed, that's what you might want.  But it doesn't matter if anyone wants my wild quilt or even if I turn it into a quilt.  It was valuable as a draft, teaching me to colour outside the lines.

I fully believe Sherwood Anderson's quip that inspiration comes when you fasten the seat of your pants to the seat of a chair.  But I wish someone would come up with a sharp quip for drafts.  How they are the lightning of the possible.  How sometimes all you need to do is make yourself clear to yourself--at least in the first instance.  Once you get that far, you can find ways to invite readers in.  How they are experiments, hypotheses, trial runs.  How they can go nowhere, but how the writer certainly goes somewhere in struggling with them--gaining some insight, seeing another path through the forest, learning to play and experiment, if nothing else.

Yesterday I began reading Julian Barnes' latest novel, The Noise of Time.  He takes a common anecdote about the Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovitch--that for a while he spent his nights in the hallway of his apartment with a small suitcase so that Stalin's men came for him, the goons wouldn't wake his wife and daughter--and so far he's turned the situation partly into a meditation on art.  Literature in the age of Google sent me looking for a phrase Shostakovich uses:  that artists are "the engineers of human souls."  Apparently, Yuri Olesha used the phrase when he met Stalin at the home of writer Maxim Gorky, and this idea became part of Stalin's ideological vocabulary.  As Shostakovitch stands in his hallway, he thinks that two things are problematic about the grand, Stalinesque phrase.  First, most people don't want to be engineered by the art they look at, the music they listen to, the books they read.  As I've argued at length (and perhaps ad nauseum) in Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement, people want to maintain their autonomy in the face of a work of art.  They'd like to have a conversation with the artist. (Which is why Woolf wrote  Three Guineas as a letter:  you can always answer a letter, and Woolf received a record number of letters over Three Guineas, all of which she answered).  Woolf thought of her readers as "accomplices" who maintained their own freedom by making their individual contributions to the text.  But Shostakovitch's other question is also important:  who engineers the engineers?  What is the source of the ideology the artist/engineer infuses his or her work with?

One way we avoid being engineers is to claim every freedom we have as writers or painters or composers.  There are different freedoms for different occasions.  Visible Cities gave me the freedom of keeping myself out of the poetry I was writing, to immerse myself in a poetry of ideas.  I suspect that the next poems will need me to be free of verbiage and analysis--to let what I am seeing simply be.  As well, there are other kinds of freedom that all art needs to claim:  freedom from conventions, from banality, from safety, predictability, common received ideas, dogma, ideology.  At least that's what I concluded as I made my quilt.  




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