Thursday, June 6, 2013

Capturing what would otherwise fade away

I'm not a visual artist, but I had the urge to paint something today. Specifically, the rose petals I saw lying on the sidewalk. Brilliant pink, tapering to creamy white, they made me want to capture them in some permanent way.

Which got me thinking about the creative urge. The world gives me rose petals, and I want to give rose petals back. I see a rose petal and want to paint a rose petal. What is that? Is it a generous impulse ("give rose petals back") or a selfish one? (Am I trying to own the world, to make it mine?)

I've just finished reading Sylvia Plath's journals, and the last section consists of detailed descriptions of her neighbors in England: their illnesses and flirtations, their children, their problems, their wallpaper, their clothing, and what they served for tea. It's clear she used these as exercises, practice in writing description, practice in observing. In one entry, she chides herself for not paying closer attention to what someone was wearing so that she could record it in her journal.

But because she became famous, these anecdotes are now part of history: the little annoyances and frictions between neighbors. There's a scene where Plath is picking daffodils from her property to sell at the market, to try to bring in some extra income, and she has a conversation with a neighbor in which she believes the neighbor is angling for free flowers. That scene struck me as so human. It plays out countless times between neighbors, co-workers, family members--just replace "daffodils" with any of a thousand other favors.

Probably nobody is safe around a writer: we are always taking notes.


  1. So well said. This makes me want to pick up Plath's journals.

    1. She wrote them just for herself, so they can be a bit hard to follow. I read them simultaneously with her letters to her mother, which made it easier to understand what was going on in her life, because the letters have more explanation. It was really interesting how she sometimes gave very different accounts of the same event to her mother and her diary ... interesting illustration of the public/private face.