Radical Work Takes Time, by Louise DeSalvo
July 14, 2010
I love learning how creative people work. I love reading accounts of how works of art come into being; I love reading writer’s journals describing how they work; I love, as a teacher, watching writers move from inspiration to completed work. It’s inspiring, humbling, and instructive.
So that today, when I picked up The New York Times Arts & Leisure section and saw an article by Carol Vogel entitled “High-Tech Matisse: New Electronic Methods Provide Fresh Insights Into How a Master Honed His Technique,” I pounced. Starting next week, there will be an important exhibit of Matisse’s work, devoted, in part, to how he developed several of his most renowned works at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The exhibit is entitled “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917.”
John Elderfield and Stephanie d’Allessandro organized the exhibit. They began organizing it after the two of them studied the changes Matisse made in his celebrated painting, “Bathers by the River,” which he worked on from 1909 to 1917. And we think writing a memoir takes a long time! This was how much time Matisse took to refine his vision, to develop the work into the finished product that we see today.
Modern technology permitted Elderfield and d’Allessandro to penetrate the layers of paint that Matisse had put down on the canvas, enabling them to describe the stages through which the work evolved. They could see how Matisse added and subtracted details; they could see how he moved objects from one part of the canvas to another; they could see how he sharpened lines in the work. This account is a very long, very complex story. But, to synopsize, they determined that the layers of paint revealed “a constantly shifting landscape of figures, with stronger lines and more intense tones over time.”
What the layers of paint revealed is depicted in the Times article; it is also part of this important exhibit. You can access the Times article online. And you might also find a Times interactive feature about Elderfield’s and d’Allessandro’s findings fascinating: nytimes.com/design.
Elderfield and d’Allessandro learned that when Matisse began “Bathers by the River,” the women’s bodies are rendered with a fluid line. Through time, the figures became “increasingly rigid and abstract,” even iconic. The final work’s composition was “far more radical” than what we can think of as Matisse’s earliest draft of the work.
Radical work indeed takes time.
So what does this tell those of us writing our lives?
I’ve witnessed, in my own process, that the earliest versions of my works are constrained, safe, knee-jerk. I reach for solutions that have worked for me before, or for those that have worked for others. The portraits I paint are simplistic, if not simple-minded. The spaces I render are sketchy. The shape of the narrative I choose is predictable.
Like most writers, I don’t know what I’m doing at the beginning, and I’m unsure and I’m afraid. Uncertain work, fearful work is safe work, constrained work, timid work, maybe even good work, but not good enough work, at least, not for me. That’s the way my work is through several early drafts. That’s normal for me, and that’s normal for many writers I know. (A few though, and I think of them as the lucky ones, let all hell break lose from the beginning — but that’s not me, that’s not most writers.)
But many writers I know stop or bog down just at the point when things are about to become very, very interesting. For Matisse, remember that that didn’t happen until the seventh year of his work, though you could see movement in that direction earlier.
How long are we willing to wait to get our most radical work? Are we stopping short of when our work begins to sing its true song? I suspect that many of us do, and it’s too bad. I’m suggesting that we don’t, that we shove on until our work starts to surprise us, even startle us with what it’s becoming.
Portrait of me during an eleventh draft. Am I surer of what I’m doing? A little. Mostly I’m sick and tired of what I’m doing, and want to get the damn thing done, and this, and not courage, is what allows me to drop my guard. So one day it starts coming, a crazy kind of order, a few parentheses with wild stuff inside thrown in, a flash forward and flashback in the same paragraph, a shift in tenses, past to present to past within a page, an image that just happens (thank you, creative spirit wherever you are) that’s dynamite, a title (glory, glory). And this starts happening fast, and I start thinking, why has it been so hard up until now? Well it has, because it is hard. It’s hard to push through to a new vision of what our narrative is all about. It takes a long time. It took Matisse seven years.
Why should it take us less time than it took him?