Thursday, April 23, 2009

Grist

It was a big dinner, one of those traditional, multi-family affairs, always the same people, the only change being their growing or graying over the year’s span. This time I sat next to the art professor who taught at a small, liberal-arts school in the southeast. Our conversation ranged all over the place, from the abstract paintings of Makoto Fujimura to how she’d struggled to get down the stairs in an academic building after fracturing her leg, from the challenge of defending a thesis before snooty Parisian academics to the glories of Rhône reds. Then the topic changed to religious belief, and she told me how she’d attended a number of congregations known for ecstatic forms of worship. "It’s good for me," she said, "because strong personal experience underpins great art."

Enthroning experience as art’s prime mover has a distinguished tradition. Wordsworth famously defined poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings from emotions recollected in tranquility." Welsh wordsmith Dylan Thomas and American auteur Orson Welles gained renown for mingling creative excellence with hard living. And grunge’s favorite son Kurt Cobain carried the theory to fatal extremes, writing that "it's better to burn out than to fade away" before putting the gun to his head. But what of the nine-to-fivers, those of us with average pains and normal joys and oh-so-common fears? Is there a place at the artistic table for us?

Yes. Oh, yes. A thousand times yes. Occurrences aren’t the only grist for the mill; the mind has its own utility. This is where genre fiction excels, in taking naked ideas and clothing them, covering bare propositions with people and places and actions. We may not have ever
found the Holy Grail beneath a fur coat or set fire to a neighbor’s house or made a literary pact with the devil. But we have ruminated over the pain of aging and the fragile ties that bind person to person and whether or not anything can prick an editor’s hard heart. So the thoughts flow and the wheel turns and we grind out the words, grind them over and over and over again. And sometimes, precious sometimes, what we end up with is fine indeed -- even if we've never experienced it.

(Picture: CC 2007 by
Micah A. Ponce)

2 comments:

Chris said...

Kurt Cobain may have written "it's better to burn out than to fade away," before he shot himself, but he was quoting Neil Young (who is on quite a long burn himself)`

Loren Eaton said...

Yeah, in the first draft I'd worked in that it was an allusion to "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)," but it was getting really wordy, so I cut it. There's a lot of irony in Cobain's use of Young.