What You Think You See; What You Really See

Hello. As you may know, I have a hobby in which I do colored pencil renderings of photos I take or my friends send to me. It’s very intense work, but I find, as I do it, that I’m not thinking about anything else–not even words (who could believe it?!); rather, I am completely in the moment, whether I’m doing background or specific objects, like a wine bottle.

I’m currently doing a still life of (mostly) nature objects, but when I look at the photograph I took of the still life, I see things, relationships, colors, that are different from what I thought I saw. This current still life has a empty (it was fun getting it to that stage, I must say) whiskey bottle of clear glass. At least, I thought I saw clear glass, and as you can imagine, I was surprised, as I looked at the photograph and then the still life itself, at what I really saw: a bottle clear but not clear, as the background color of gray shone through. My walls are white, but in the corner of the room, with limited lighting, I saw a pale gray wall. So I experimented on my palate with layering different colors for the bottle, and found what was really there, and colored the bottle. It came out pretty well, and tomorrow, I plan on doing the background–the wall–to both ground and enhance the (clear) bottle. There’s a lot more than that that I need to do, but I’ve learned something. I’m looking forward to this part of the picture, to being in the moment. The experience is almost Zen-like.

I think I learned that word-work is similar. When I write a poem, as I first start out, I just write and see where the words take me. Then I have a draft. And then, words aren’t words; rather, they’re my visions and colors of a different world than what I live in, my elements for making a life. And then–although I wouldn’t put my work up to James Agee–I find the world, and ultimately the spirit of the writing. I’m sure you’re all familiar with Agee’s book with photos by Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It’s non-fiction and photographs of some tenant farmers during the Dust Bowl. The language is not what you’d expect: objective government-like reporting. It’s poetic, and it creates and expresses the humanity and spirit of these families. Evans’s black and white photographs, likewise, of these families are in your face: they are the “famous men”; a kind but forceful, outraged, black and white statement about who and what we are. Between Agee and Evans, we find that we are not somehow superior to these subjects. Their strength is as the strength of ten because [their] hearts are pure. Pure doesn’t mean perfect; we all are flawed, but that is the human condition. Which is not to say these people aren’t flawed, but they are fully human and humble yet proud of who they are. They are an example of what we all should be.

For some reason, I think of the fifteenth century Flemish painter, Hieronymus Bosch, and his surreal paintings of hell. They’re vivid, in your face, exquisitely detailed. And scary, although you can’t stop looking at them. It’s a dream, and yet it’s true. We believe in the dream, in a way; no one has really seen these sights in the world, but how can we not believe? It’s a hyper-reality.

Words can do that, too, whether Agee or Faulkner or Dante. And although I am not a surreal writer, the dream in which we operate is real, true. It’s an oxymoron: the real dream. No wonder there were and are people who interpret dreams: we are afraid of what they mean, and hope we can find comfort, and live in the spirit.

I realize this is quite the rambling, but I’m just starting to think it through, and to that end, I’ve got a lot of writing to do.

By the way, my short story, WADE, is now out in the world, looking for a publisher.


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