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Artist-Writer-Artist: A Future Book Introduction (ii)

Part 2

At the end of part 1, I wrote about my novel being taken on by a London literary agent, and I ended with the question: "So where did it all go wrong?"

There are two reasons, I think. One: I didn’t revise enough. Living as I do with a teacher of creative writing, who revises her stories many times, sometimes over a period of years, I realize now that I fell prey to the illusion that one or two edits was enough. Two: I didn’t try hard enough. Ms. Clarke pushed the manuscript, and apparently it came close to being published at one point, but eventually she returned it, while leaving the door open to future submissions of new work. I did indeed write a second novel, but that got rejected too. At that point, I decided that maybe I was a writer, but just not quite good enough of a writer to actually get anything published. Three: I got accepted to a Master’s program at an art college.
Let’s go back in time again, to those teenage years. I was a precocious kid, and in addition to developing a love of reading and of writing about reading, I had a talent for drawing and painting. My art teacher at that Catholic school was grooming me to apply to London art schools. Of course, there was no guarantee that I would have been accepted. But when my English teacher told me that he would work with me and get me into Cambridge, he seemed so certain (he was as good as his word, too), and his offer also chimed in with my James Joyce/writing life fantasy, so I chose the literary path instead of the visual art path. All through my time at Cambridge, I attended life drawing classes, to keep my hand and eye in shape, as it were. After college, I continued attending life classes, and painting in a studio in the house that I was renting. I even had shows in small spaces in provincial English towns. Nothing sufficiently original to excite the art world, but enough to get me into the art college that I applied for, just on a whim, during the year that I was waiting for a final decision on the manuscript.
From this moment, when people asked me at parties, “So what do you do?”, I replied, “Artist.” Since I graduated from art college, my art career, such as it is, has been firmly within the realm of expression through the tactile and the visual. Paintings, prints, installations, books. Ah yes, books. If people really pressed me hard, I might tell them about my past ambition to be a writer — you know, a real writer, with books and everything. But I preferred to talk about what I had done in the visual arts since the mid-nineties. I only reconsidered this a few years ago when someone pointed out to me that my work had a strong narrative element that never quite went away no matter how ‘abstract’ I thought I was being. I resisted this at first, because I was still influenced by the anti-narrative bias of my art college years. The idea of narrative content in art was deeply despised by teachers and students alike, and I largely accepted this orthodoxy, and succumbed to the belief that art had to have meaning and relevance to contemporary society and certain big ideas, and never stray over the line into the ‘lower realm’ of mere ‘illustration’. I guess we were all afraid we would end up making Norman Rockwell paintings. But in the end – specifically, about six years ago – I began to investigate more deeply this narrative element in my work. How was it there? How did it manifest itself? If I felt the need to tell stories, how best to represent them? In words, or visually? A combination of both? How far to go in the telling: more toward events, or more towards suggestion?
So it is that I have arrived at this point. I know I will not be the new James Joyce, nor will I publish works of fiction that are admired for their linguistic felicity and that win prizes. I know greatly talented writers, prize-winning authors. I’m married to one of them. I know that they can do things that I will never be able to do. But my dual track creative life, my perhaps 70/30 split of the visual and the written, has led me to much of what concerns me both creatively and professionally today. I feel qualified to co-teach classes at Columbia College Chicago that are mainly attended by fiction writing students, classes in which we explore story and scene in drawing and writing. (This semester I am teaching the same class with students in the Film and Video department, too, as a fresh way for them to approach story in their work).
Writing this blog almost every day is a way to write, too, at least an outlet for the words, a place for the words to go. And it’s because I have had this experience of working for prolonged stretches of time with both words and with pictures that I am now exploring, in the Artist-Writer-Artist series, how other practitioners do both, how they reflect on the commonalities between these apparently very different creative acts. I undertake these interviews because I’ve always loved hearing artists talk about their art. I am also aware of something that I heard one of my colleagues in the fiction writing department say: that when we ask other writers questions about their work, we should keep in mind how those questions might be asked of our own work. So bear that in mind if you’re reading these interviews and essays: when I ask the questions, I am also partly addressing them to myself.

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