As an artist, you find many ways to cheat and make more with less. I have discovered that with a cheap photo-shopping program, I can snip elements out of existing artworks and combine them together into something new. My fingers no longer have the dexterity needed for intricately detailed backgrounds, but I find that photo-backgrounds fit my plan better anyway. Here I took Valerie Clarke and pasted her on a photo of hollyhocks created by Belinda Buchanan. I then pasted in the Swallowtail butterfly from a recent Paffooney. Now, I know that if your mind doesn’t accept the butterfly as in the air and closer to the viewer than Valerie, then I have created a picture of pre-historic monster-bug. Mothra does Iowa. Oh well, I think it is pretty anyway… and it leads to further noodling with old art.
So, I finished the Paffooney pencil drawing that I was working on to illustrate my struggles with the creative act. I can noodle on the piano to some effect, but I cannot play Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor the way the boy (or is it a girl?) in the picture is doing it. What I can do is create a symphony of words and pictures that reveal my inner self as thoroughly as if I were performing naked in front of the audience. So what you see here is not the real naked me. It is, rather, my naked thoughts, my soul, the beauty that is hidden inside my hideously aged and peeling flesh. Inside my mind is beauty and rhythm and rhyme… On the inside you can see what is there without the usual patina of pain and depression and pessimistic pondering. I have explained the naked piano player, but you may be wondering still about the butterfly. You see, long ago when I was a butterfly hunter, I longed to catch the tiger swallowtail that flitted about our back yard and played about the neighbors’ hollyhocks. It was a very elusive butterfly, you see. Monarchs and red admirals, mourning cloaks, fritillaries, painted ladies, and even spicebush swallowtails I had captured and mounted in my butterfly box. But never the tiger. He always seem to flit too high above my net at the last moment. I would see him towards the tops of towering maples, but rarely within reach, and never long enough to grab him in my net. So, one day, I was sitting under the little maple in the back yard, reading a book, when the tiger swallowtail came to light on the back of the hand I used to hold my book. Now, I could have grabbed him right there. I would have been victorious. But in clapping my left hand over him to capture him, his wing dust might have smeared, or his lovely wings might’ve cracked and broken. I had to make an instant decision. I chose to let him flutter away. I did not crush the butterfly, and so… my life, my art, my inner self have all benefited. To this day I can say… “I did not crush the butterfly” and that has made me who I am.
I decided I wanted to be a novelist because of Charles Dickens. I loved the way he told a story with vivid characters, rising and falling crises, and story arcs that arrive at a happily-ever-after, or a how-sad-but-sweet-the-world-is ultimate goal. Sometimes he reached both destinations with the same story, like in David Copperfield or The Old Curiosity Shop. I have wanted to write like that since I read The Old Curiosity Shop in 9th Grade.
Thomas Hardy has a lot in common with Chuck. I mean, more than just being old Victorian coots. Hardy knows the Wessex countryside, Blackmoor and Casterbridge with the depth and understanding that Dickens bestows on London. Hardy can delineate a character as clearly and as keenly as Dickens, as shown by Diggory Venn, the Reddleman in Return of the Native, or Tess Durbyfield in the novel I am reading at the moment. These characters present us with an archetypal image and weave a story around it that speaks to themes with soul-shaking depth. Whereas Dickens will amuse and make us laugh at the antics of the Artful Dodger or Mr. Dick or Jerry Cruncher from a Tale of Two Cities, Hardy makes us feel the ache and the sadness of love wrecked by conflict with the corrupt and selfish modern world. Today I read a gem of a scene with the three milkmaids, Izz, Retty, and Marian looking longingly out the window at the young gentleman Angel Clare. Each wants the young man to notice her and fall in love with her. Sad-faced Izz is a dark-haired and brooding personality. Round-faced Marian is more jolly and happy-go-lucky. Young Retty is entirely bound up by shyness and the uncertainty of youth. Yet each admits to her crush and secret hopes. Tess, meanwhile, overhears all of it, all the time knowing that Angel is falling in love with her. And worse yet, she has sworn to herself never to let another man fall in love with her because of the shameful way Alec D’Urberville took advantage of her, a quaint old phrase that in our time would mean date rape. There is such bittersweet nectar to be had in the characterizations and plots of these old Victorian novels. They are more than a hundred years old, and thus, not easy to read, but worth every grain of effort you sprinkle upon it. I am determined now to finish rereading Tess of the Durbervilles, and further determined to learn from it, even if it kills me.
As you can see, I made a tiny bit of progress over yesterday… but in many different ways. I got my son to finish his week’s worth of online school despite his not being completely well. I got the fake shutters off the windows on the wall where the city is expecting me to put up new siding so the house doesn’t shame the neighborhood. (I wonder if they threaten the other shabby yards and houses in the neighborhood with fines, or am I just special?) I got the dog to choke down 30 per cent of her heart-worm pill. And I added the keyboard and a tiny bit of Chopin to the Paffooney.
Why is the piano player naked, you ask? (Well, really you don’t ask, that was really me. But I have to connect the idea somehow, don’t I? Don’t answer that.) The piano player, like all writers, story-tellers, performers, artists, and other motley fools must put something of herself or himself into the piece. It has to be the true self, the inner self, the often private self. Having been the victim of sexual abuse as a child, the fear of being naked and vulnerable like that is nearly overwhelming. And yet, in a very metaphorical way, it is what I am compelled to do. (What? You can stop screaming. I’m not going to take my clothes off, if that’s what you’re afraid of. I know how horrifying that thought is.) I am only baring what I feel about the creative process. I am writing that part near the end of The Bicycle-Wheel Genius (the fool novel project I am now working on) where the bad guy must be defeated, the good must be made clear and maybe win out, and somebody dies or does something else irretrievably sad. I did it in Catch a Falling Star. I did it again with a major character in Snow Babies. And now, one of the characters that I have created and loved will die at the climax of this novel. A resolution and a death at the end of the tale, just like some cheap Robert Altman movie. How can you possibly have a comedy where nobody dies at the end? Wait, am I doing something wrong here? Who knows?
So that is the meat of this Paffooney process. I give you the drawing, even though it is not complete. I give you the ideas, even though they are half-formed and goofy as heck. A naked piano player… and, I don’t know if you can see it yet, a tiger swallowtail butterfly. The butterfly will be naked too.