The art of subtlety in writing

I belong to a support group, and someone in that group recommended reading a YA book called ‘Jacob Have I Loved.’ It’s about a girl who grows up on an island in the Chesapeake Bay area with a twin sister who’s very different from her – favored and pampered by their parents and the community in general. The title refers to this Bible verse (even though it’s not a religious book):

As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’ – Romans 9:13

To give context, in the Bible, Jacob and Esau are twins. Esau is the older one, but Jacob deceives him and receives a very important blessing from their elderly father. The book invokes the conflict between Jacob and Esau in the title; the narrator relates to Esau, as technically she’s the oldest, but it’s the youngest who manages to take attention away from her.

I was reading with a purpose – specifically to look at the dynamic between the siblings and within the family unit. Art reflects life, after all.

What I found were great examples of ‘show, don’t tell’ and subtlety in writing.

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“The closing walls and the ticking clocks”

Studies have shown that there’s a powerful link between scent and memory. I have personally found this to be profoundly true. One breath in and suddenly I’m transported into the past.

I have smell triggers. Lilies remind me of funerals. The smell of matches reminds me of burning candles late at night in my room as an angsty teen. The salty smell of the ocean reminds me of going to the shore during summers as a child, which was one of the few truly happy parts of my childhood.

Today as I was leaving a meeting at a local conference venue, I was greeted by the heavy scent of cigar smoke, courtesy of a sheepish-looking gentleman who was having a quick smoke in the parking garage of a smoke free property. He needn’t have worried – I’m the type who snitches on people trying to enjoy a simple vice.

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Transcendental confusion

I was in high school when I first read Walt Whitman. I remember being introduced to the idea of Transcendentalism, finding something about it intriguing, and liking something I read by Whitman. He’s lumped in with both the Transcendentalists and Romantics, but if you think of Transcendentalism as the American spin on Romanticism, or as two highly entwined movements, that makes a lot of sense.

I picked up a copy of Leaves of Grass somewhere, in which the poem Song of Myself is prominently featured. When I read it, I realized with excitement that I was already familiar with it. I was in a choir as a child, and someone picked out several passages to arrange into a chorale piece. It’s about innocence and death, which Whitman seamlessly entwines without allowing it to become dark…

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Stepping out of my burrow

So I’m in my late 30s. This is an age that I think a lot of people dread, because 40 marks the beginning of middle age, the no-good, very bad slump that follows young(er) adulthood where we’re all suddenly used-up malcontents who are either beaten down by life or on the verge of launching headfirst into a sitcom-like midlife crisis.

That is, of course, utterly ridiculous. But I have noticed that birthdays that end in 0 tend to cause panic in adults.

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Constructing identities

I spent some time at the Denver Art Museum last week, and one of the current exhibits is a landscape exhibit which, according to the DAM, will show how various artists have blurred “the distinction between ‘observed’ and ‘constructed’ imagery.”

Observed vs. constructed is an interesting binary. Has the artist who took this simple (yet stunning) photograph below merely created something we can observe? Or is there an element of construction there?

One could certainly observe and move on. But I think the fact that the photo is in muted tones and that an image was chose that features an asymmetrical breaking wave is an element of construction. It makes me feel like I’m looking at a wild, stormy ocean. It’s beautiful, but fearsome. It should be admired, but also respected.

I would even argue that the color of the wall that the DAM chose to hung it on adds to/emphasizes that construction. Would the photo have felt different if it was hung on the beige wall instead of the gray one? What if it was hung on a red wall? Does that change the context?

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Throwing out sparks

For many of us who live in the U.S., this is a frightening time. I feel the ball of anxiety tightening in my chest everyday, triggering a queasy feeling, an uneasiness that hovers around me. My concern for this country and the people in it is at unprecedented levels – I am, at times, actually breathless when I consider the possibilities that the next few years could bring.

It has not been a surprise that I find myself turning more toward the arts, both to soothe me and to energize me.

Art and literature have, at many times throughout history, been sources of subversiveness and protest. And so I write furiously, building a story that was born from my anxiety and anger. It’s one of those tiny sparks of hope that I have, that some humans respond to calls for conformity and oppression by creating something non-conformist and sharing it with others.

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