This past month, I have been thinking a lot about obsessions and their relationship to creative writing (and me). The definition of the word obsess is "to haunt or excessively preoccupy the mind of." The first known usage of the word obsess was in 1531. That is how long we have been calling this experience what it is. I often wonder what word or words were used before this, what brought it about. For 491 years, we have used this little word to hold such an immense amount of emotion and texture. I think the first thing that really drew me to this definition was that to obsess is to be haunted by something, to have that something excessively take up space within your mind. Think about hauntings, what that implies. It consumes. It withers. What is there not to love about a word that captures something which holds you captive, something you cannot let go.
Let's start first with a list. Here is a list of my latest obsessions:
the word "easy"
definitions in general
collaborating with other women
Several months ago, an author/friend I deeply admire, Kaia Preus, began talking about research and posted on Instagram about her forays into investigation. Seeing her pushing into the wide unknown of knowledge inspired me. I remembered my college days, toiling over books in the library and reading academic journal article after article looking for pieces of information to support my thesis [I know typically undergrads don't do a thesis, but I was finishing up my senior year at a college where I knew no one (transfer student), and figured I would put my loneliness and love of learning to good use through an independent study course which required me to write a forty-five page thesis paper as the study's primary project]. I felt wildly inspired to get back into that head space, to once again engage with learning in the way I had before. I set off to find my topic... and ended up watching two hours of crime drama. Whoops.
But something released in me. Some deep need to return to the act of searching for some kind of truth in the texts of others. I didn't know what I wanted to research, not then anyway, but I knew that I needed that experience again, pouring over three different books at once, highlighting printed articles, and underlining nearly everything. It grew and reverberated in my bones. It haunted me. I knew sooner or later it would begin to eat away at me if I couldn't find my topic. I was obsessing.
But choosing a topic to research is more challenging now than it was back when I was in school. Then every half empty hallway, every snow-covered knoll, every slice of a face in a crowd seemed to whisper topics to me. I felt so strongly about so many things at once. Perhaps because I was in a constant state of uncovering information, everything jazzed me. But I am a decade-plus older than that constantly-inspired and never-needing-sleep self. It is hard enough for me to stay consistent with what I have to be responsible for, let alone commit my immensely limited time to, to be researching anything at all. I did all I could. I let my desire go. I surrendered into the obsessive feeling of want.
Not long after letting go, I was at my dad's house and we were chatting in his living room as our dinner cooked. He said something something something Toulouse-Lautrec something something. I took that opportunity to dive down the Wikipedia hole of discovery. We read and discussed the artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, for a while until I stumbled upon these sentences, "In 1885, Toulouse-Lautrec met Suzanne Valadon. He made several portraits of her and supported her ambition as an artist. It is believed that they were lovers and that she wanted to marry him. Their relationship ended, and Valadon attempted suicide in 1888." Maybe since I have read a lot of books written by women who eventually committed suicide that last part of the sentence grabbed me. Or maybe it was my own experiences with my mental landscape and my tenuous relationship to love and death that grabbed me. Or maybe it was that of all the trysts Toulouse-Lautrec had, this woman was highlighted. Or maybe it was something else. Didn't matter. Who was this woman. I had to know.
When I clicked on the link that moved me to the Wikipedia page for Suzanne Valadon, the image that displayed under her name was one of her self portraits from 1898. Here it is.
In the moment that I saw this painting, tears began to roll down my face. I wish I could verbalize why. She looked familiar, as if I had found a photograph of a passed-on aunt or was looking in a kind of mirror. Something inside me shifted so heavily, I felt the clink and crank of gears within beginning to churn. I knew I was approaching the beginnings of my research subject(s).
Valadon's nontraditional color choices, the dark hit of her line work, her manipulation of the paint to create light contours and shading; blown away is not nearly an adequate enough term for what I felt as I began scouring the internet for more of her paintings. What I found felt familiar and even a bit frightening. Her paintings were lonely, and conveyed such a heaviness. I knew the emotions she painted. I could empathize and relate to what she was telling the viewer through her work. That day, I bought three books on her. Nearly none of the women artists who painted during the late 1800s achieved instant acclaim. But she did. Her relationship with many rising or well known (male) artists at the time possibly helped, but I believe it had more to do with her uncanny ability to capture imagery that was untouched by others during that era and her defiance of societal rules when it came to art and what women were "allowed" to do. She didn't care, she drew and painted what she wanted, she followed her soul's vow to art. She created scenes of abandonment that she saw and experienced throughout her youth. In the small bit of research I have begun to do, I have learned a great deal about the sadness and struggle of her existence, which helps me reflect on the self-portrait of my own life and challenges.
I have always been a bit of a sucker for the word easy. Such a small word, it carries a great deal with it. I will let you enjoy reading the Many definitions of this word on your own, but my favorites are "not severe," "not steep or abrupt," and "felt or attained to readily, naturally, and spontaneously." Something about those definitions make the word even more pleasing to me. [If you have time, look up the definitions for some of your favorite words, trace the familial history of where they came from and why. It is an enlightening experience to say the least.] Reading these books on Valadon, I was struck by how during that time, nearly all of the artists were painting joyous, lively (one might say easy - not in that the painting was easy because if you have ever tried to paint anything, you will know it is Not easy, but rather that the subject matter was easy, gentle, non-controversial) scenes, but the contrast of her dark work garnered her significant notice and surprising approval within the artistic community at the time. I imagine how the word easy (or rather facile, as she was French) must have rolled around in her mouth while she sat for hours for countless male artists or watched the few other female painters receive notoriety or tried to capture a scene or person's aloneness on her canvas. Perhaps she was jealous of other's wealth - being raised in abject poverty and living with her alcoholic mother - or other's fame or their abilities and thought about how easy their lives must have been when in contrast to her own. I know that I fall victim to this line of thinking. We all do.
Valadon taught herself how to draw starting from around age eight, but I imagine she was immensely self-critical as she destroyed all of her work prior to 1883. When she was young, she'd accompany her mother - a cleaning lady (or charwoman, as it was called then) for some time - to studios where she would watch other artists at work drawing or painting, picking up on cues from their study. During her time as a model, she was focused on learning the techniques used by the painters she sat for. But she had no formal training in her early years. Later, the painter Edgar Degas saw in her immense potential and capacity, and began to teach her soft-ground etching on his press. His assistance and influence helped her grow her work and talent, and they maintained a life-long friendship. But was it easy. Probably not. When I grab my paint brush and take to the canvas or my pen and take to the page, I know that I too am holding that word, easy, in my teeth. This should be easy. It looks so easy for someone else. Easy. Easy. Easy. When she began selling her work, her lifestyle was able to shift from one of lack to one of luxury. Did she feel that things were easy then. Would she ever.
The more I researched Valadon, the more obsessed I became with her, with women artists (which I have always had a fascination with - Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keefe being two that I have been enamored with my whole life), with women. The powerhouses that women are and the tremendous weight they carry. The work they do, the way they transform. This fascination was/is not sequestered to painters. Most of the literature I choose to read is by authors who identify as female (I also read a fair amount from trans and nonbinary writers, and some male writers but those tend to be narratives written by people of color). I decided that to continue my research, I needed to gather more data, and by that I mean I needed to read some more books. Granted, I already had mentally pinned a few that I knew would be part of this larger project on women artists, but I still didn't quite have the subject, the idea. What was I trying to unlock. What was I trying to uncover. What obsessive thread was I trying to de-tangle.
The other night, I visited my local bookstore and wandered through the shelves choosing books that spoke to me. In the image below are some of the books I picked up (save for the Valadon book, which I got elsewhere). Additionally, not pictured were two books I bought that night for a friend: Steven Dunn's Potted Meat and Vi Khi Nao's Fish Carcass. You probably see the theme.
In one of the books I grabbed, Death By Landscape, the author Elvia Wilk questions the literary notion of the background. She is specifically talking about the landscape/the environment (but also women and non-traditional narrators) and the loose concept of moving the background into the foreground as both ecological protest and breaking the mode of capitalist, oppressive, and traditional story-telling. I love this idea for many reasons, but what I kept thinking about long after I put the book down and was trying to sleep, was how women are often part of the background. The labor of being a woman is this low hum in the ecosystem of life and literature and art.
This also brought me into asking myself, what is the role of women and collaboration in my thinking, my art, my writing, my life.
One way in which I am engaging with this idea is with my dear friend, Heather Bartel, through the literary project, The Champagne Room Journal. When Heather brought me onboard last year, my only experience working with a literary journal was the copy-editing I had done for The Pitkin Review during my MFA at Goddard College. I was thrilled to be a part of a new literary community and to help CR grow and shine, but mostly I was overjoyed to be collaborating on something with an incredible woman and dear friend. Heather and I had been exchanging hand-written letters for a couple years. In these letters, we often wrote of wanting to collaborate creatively, to grow something together. I knew her, I trusted her, and entering into a literary endeavor together felt (and continues to feel) like the most perfect progression of our relationship.
When we meet weekly (online), we discuss submissions and the website, sure, but we also ask one another how we are, we talk about our own submission successes and failures, we discuss our lives, we go over different craft elements and how they affect our writing, etc. That communion continues to blossom with each day, each month. We share our manuscripts, we laugh joyously when our work is accepted to the same journals. We think about how our writing is often in conversation with one another. We come up with new ideas to engage with our literary community, like our upcoming generative writing workshop, together. We share and that allows us to be closer, which allows us to do an even better job with our literary experiment. The ebb and flow of the written word and our conversations, is the fuel that melds into what we are doing with The Champagne Room, with our writing, with ourselves, and motivates us to continue, onward.
I asked Heather if she wanted to share her feelings on our collaborative relationship, and here are some of her words from a forthcoming conversation piece that will be featured on our website next month:
"It is amazing to work with someone who understands you, whose ideas and strengths and interests complement your own, someone who shares your vision and goes above and beyond to see it through."
Another collaboration which I have been immensely enjoying lately is that with my tattoo artist and now good friend, Le Brit. I have been getting tattooed since I was eighteen, but I have only been blessed with gaining friendship with a tattoo artist lately. For those of you reading this who aren't heavily tattooed, let me let you in on a little secret: you should trust and thus really like your tattoo artist. The bond that you make with them is integral to the experience of tattooing. The trust, the communion, it all feeds into that space of creation that is laced with safety. Working with that person, discussing the plan(s) for your tattoo(s), making changes, and finally watching the work be permanently colored into your skin is a collaboration like no other. I had been searching for a while for a tattoo artist whose work I really felt drawn to, because when you treat your body as a canvas, you want beautiful art, that you enjoy looking at, to cover you.
A little backstory. Like many women, I have spent decades challenged by the image of my body in the mirror. I struggle(d) to be able to look at the parts I didn't like or felt didn't fit some media-driven idea of what I should look like. Tattooing opened a door for me where nothing else worked. I will never forget the feeling of watching my left bicep transform from something I wanted to hide to a beautiful brilliantly-colored goby fish in honor of my father who loves them and used to be a marine biologist. Whenever I look at my bicep now, I only see the beauty of that fish and my memories. I no longer critique the skin it is tattooed on.
When I discovered Le Brit's work, I immediately knew that I wanted her art on me. Her bold line-work and design cradled me back to what I loved in Valadon's work. Before even meeting her, she felt familiar. As if her pieces spoke through the thin screen of my phone, saying something like, welcome home. Our connection was instant, and we spent a good deal of our first session planning what would be next. Currently, we are working together to design both of my leg sleeves. What began as a simple, design whatever you want, has grown through our complex and evolving conversations on sexism, trauma, mental illness, art, progress, and being a woman into a grand sharing of ideas where we are curating the leg sleeves together.
Recently, I told her I wanted a very significant and special tattoo to encapsulate some cherished elements of who I am. Below is her incredible design, which we placed on my left shin.
These ladies (again, women!) are an imagination of my sun & moon astrology sign, Virgo, as well as a representation of my bipolar-ness. Le Brit and I discussed how to achieve this and came up with the Queen-style playing card, where the two queens would be passing a mask back and forth (the representation of how being bipolar presents in me). Every time we spoke of the tattoo, she'd call it, the ladies, which I loved. I bought her a copy of The Ladies by Sara Veglahn - a favorite book of mine - for her when we started this tattoo project. My way of sharing my literary world with a woman I knew would appreciate it.
I sat in the tattoo shop alongside her, chatting as she drew, discussing different topics, as we do when she is tattooing me. She drew the Virgo Sun wearing a crown (cause duh, us Virgo Suns have strong Queen energy), but that prompted us to think about what the Moon would wear. Maybe a flower? Or an animal? She played with the drawing a while, and then suggested a fox for the Moon Virgo. I immediately said, YES, definitely. We have a pair of foxes that float around our neighborhood whom I consider friends (from a distance of course), so it felt just right. The fox resting on top of the Virgo Moon woman's head is also a call out to adaptability. A reminder that when I am challenged, there are many ways to look at and work through situations. She continued to draw. I listened to the conversations drifting around the tattoo shop, all mixing in with ours. The heavy weighted sound that tattoo guns create, that vibration texture echoing around the small space, bleeding in. She looked at me at one point and said, what about a loon for the animal on top of the Sun woman's head? I swear it was as if our brains were linked, okay, how did you know I love loons? We are on the same wavelength! she smiled back at me. The loon atop the Virgo Sun woman's head, for me, stands as a reminder of an internal wildness - the unclaimable outside [or background] - and a fierce reminder of loyalty toward family (loons have been known to kill eagles that tried to attack their young; forget tiger mom, be a loon mom).
As we continued to work through this design, she'd ask me questions and we'd discuss, back and forth. She drew and then would show me her ideas, more discussion, the process evolving on and on, until we both sat there astounded by how perfectly she captured what I was looking for and what she knew the piece needed, by working together. Then began the fun part, bringing it to life in the skin. This incredible process of collaboration thrills me. Curating this canvas for my legs together, this constant mix and meld, has been a fantastic experience and for that I am forever grateful.
Here are some of Le Brit's thoughts, in her own words, on the process between artist and client:
"Collaboration means, to me, that we are mutually invested. Not just in the outcome but in the intent, process, and place we create in practice. We are both speaking and listening to each other, both laying down stones to create the path that will take us to the (final product). If either of us needs to turn a stone in that path, it isn’t disruptive because we have already established that we are trusting of one another’s input. We have created a place in which we have agency, and are free to be creative, experimental, and authentic.
Every artist, and every client, are different in what they need from the other to feel as though they are trusted, heard, and consenting. For me, the session can be fun and rowdy, or serious and peaceful, or effortless and brief, but it all has to start with the agreement that we are in this together."
Collaboration and Communion. That is what really gets me. The sharing communal-ness, that women often generate, which breeds ongoingness. That generative space is the way in which the background, the under-served and under-represented, grows its voice and strength. It helps me become a better version of myself.
I have come to realize that my list of "obsessions," like collaboration and art, aren't really obsessions. Rather they are important elements which provide me with a context for seeing myself as a part of something larger, while also something in the background, which is gathering strength, resiliency, and power.
That is what my research project is now on: bringing the background (women) into the foreground to instigate and encourage an upheaval of normative culture and literature. I don't know where this research will take me or what it might turn into. But I sure do love the learning along the way; as the way we help ourselves grow into more informed humans, the better we can all be.
Final note. If after reading everything above, you want to discuss these topics and/or collaboration more with me, please use my Contact form to start a conversation.
Much light and respect.