All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind.
I am not a natural learner. Well, not in the traditional, educational model of; linear, sequential, bite-sized chunks type learning, which as a child, I found hard to swallow. The nearest technical term for my learning style, is probably, non-linear, but I would describe it as an; holistic, phenomenal, sporadic, and insightful event, which can come without warning and on a good day, is an overwhelming, 3D, synapse-sparking experience. These insights are often generated at and between, media boundaries especially at the point of crossing over. Recently, I have had a whomping-great, word/picture, head-opening insight. I was practically talking-in-tongues… but I’m getting carried away and to make sense of these insights and to satisfy the need to share, I must backtrack to come forwards.
Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly — they’ll go through anything. You read and you are pierced. Aldous Huxley
As readers of previous blogs will know, I am an artist, though these days, the link is a bit tenuous as I spend a lot of my time writing. I come from a large family of five children and although not poor, money was tight, which may have been why people felt compelled to give us vast quantities of books, sometimes a whole lifetime’s worth. The books piled up in the attic and we children, roamed and read at will. From age ten, I devoured an eclectic and heady mix. Here is a small sample, in no particular order; Little Women, The Last Days and Death of Hitler, The Carpet Baggers, Lorna Doone and Biggles, interspersed with everything by Agatha Christie and Ray Bradbury. This resulted in un-holy, non-hierarchical couplings. So, it’s not surprising my first attempt at oil painting, was copied from a book, an illustration from Gulliver’s Travels. Crossover: reading/painting.
Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth. Ursula K. Le Guin
In my twenties, I taught English as a foreign language and forced to draw on my strengths, made extensive use of the whiteboard and marker pen, to invent, lightening quick, on-the-spot, brain drawings, to explain and reinforce, things like prepositions (1.) Flash cards followed and soon words and pictures melded and elicited language. Crossover: drawing/spoken words
Later on, in Adult Education, as a teacher of drawing and painting, to expand student’s technique, I made lists of step-by-step instructions to fit images of de-constructed paintings. At this time, I was also exhibiting my own work commercially, detailed still-lives of objects with printed text on the packaging, Sherbet Dabs come to mind, and a book by my then favourite author, Iris Murdoch. Later still, were magazine and book contributions, road-testing, paint reviews and demonstrations, all discussed painting techniques and this type of writing became a habitual way of reflectively, documenting process – I still seem to be doing it… (2.) Crossover: painting/written instructions
The word is a verb and the verb is God. Victor Hugo
But it wasn’t until I ventured back to university that I consciously used words as a medium in my art practice. To accommodate the difficult transition between figurative and conceptual art, I moved into sculpture and while revelling in all the new learning, discovered Richard Serra’s famous Verb List (1967-68). He used verbs like; to chop, to spill, to cut, as a vehicle to create work, incorporating industrial materials like steel. He used verbs in an overtly masculine way, which prompted me to hijack and subvert some of the more ambiguous ones like; to cover, to flow and to fold, and feminise them within my own work. Eventually I used new ones like, to nurture and to augment. The use of verbs as a constraint, kept the work pared down to its essentials. (3. & 4.) Crossover: conceptual art-speak/sculpture.
After university, I wrote a blog about my art practice which precipitated a profound change. In retrospect, I think the drip effect of regular writing allowed words to insinuate themselves as my primary medium. Three years on, I have a novel, Indian Yellow, which at the moment is languishing in Intensive Care, undergoing various treatments, each time I have another insight. My lust for knowledge is undiminished but now creative cross-currents flow between art and writing which enables me to utilise the famous, Sentences about Conceptual Art, by Sol Lewitt, which were my mantra at university. All apply equally well to writing and these two are especially pertinent. (3.) Crossover: art practice/journaling
No. 6. If the artist changes his mind midway through the execution of the piece he compromises the result and repeats past results.
No. 22. The artist cannot imagine his art, and cannot perceive it until it is complete.
Now drawing flows into and informs my writing, for example, I have learned (through tedious repetition), it is better at the start of a portrait, not to commit to any singular feature too soon, rather, keep the drawing loose until an accurate foundation is established. In writing terms, this would equate to a speedy, loose first draft and to let the theme emerge naturally to avoid over-committing too early. Crossover: preliminary sketch/first draft.
You never try to push a noun against a verb without trying to blow up something. H.L. Menken
And lately, reducing my overall adverb limit, in an attempt to improve my writing, less is more, has forced to my verbs pull their weight, stand on their own feet, so to speak. And that’s when it happened…reading late into the night, I became aware of other writer’s verbs behaving oddly/badly/brilliantly (adverb count blown), sometimes in unexpected ways and at others, completely out of their original context. I could see that these intentional shifts, augmented the verbs with added feeling and extra reaching power, as here:
“Mammy exploded the cutlery on the kitchen table.” From Electric Souk, by Rose McGinty.
This tells you so much about Mammy. And below, two fairly ordinary verbs used to extraordinary effect.
“The driveway unfolded in a lazy ache and I looked up to the house, its wide face rubbed to orange by the late sun.” from Light, by C. M. Taylor.
The use of unfolded, gives a heightened sense of ennui and, rubbed, makes physical, an invisible weathering process.
And finally, in The Good Son, by Paul McVeigh, the rambunctious spirit of the book, is for me, encapsulated within the dialogue and I couldn’t help noticing what was going on with the verbs.
“Ma I’m away on.”
I shout to the yard.
“Did you get washed?”
Ma shouts back.
The verb-treatment here, lends vernacular authenticity, especially Ma’s passively voiced, get washed, which helps me see, Ma and gives new meaning to term, phrasal verb. Crossover: words/visual image.
So that’s about where I am now, reading with my new, verb-watching antennae on and enjoying art and literature, showing-off and swashing around together, as well as intermittent attempts to defibrillate my novel…whilst surreptitiously starting a new one, called Bleu, God help me.
I thought art was a verb, rather than a noun. Yoko Ono