I almost never watch television, so it seemed fated that last night, while folding mountains of laundry, I should switch on the glowing box and be immediately confronted by gorgeous, haunting black and white photographs, swept into the middle of a documentary on Sally Mann, a photographer whose body of work has been intensely personal, and controversial. Her own three children were and are her subjects, as is the land she lives on. The documentary follows her journey to create a new collection called "What Remains," which is about death; the show is planned for a major gallery in New York who cancel at the last minute. The camera captures her shock and self-doubt and grief at rejection, and her husband's grief too, and his silence, how he has no way to comfort her other than to listen and be present, and I turned to Kevin and just stared, struck dumb. She was saying the same words I say, at low moments, yet how could she possibly doubt, when what she'd created was so obviously of merit and worth and beauty? That moment also gave me a glimpse of what it must feel like to be the one absorbing that grief, on the artist's behalf. Later, as she walks with her son in the woods, she says that it doesn't matter if what she's making is going to sell, she has to make it. She has no choice. I was in tears. It felt very close to the bone.
Her photographs are eventually shown in a museum in Washington D.C., and well-reviewed and celebrated.
My stories ... well, it's presumptuous to compare myself to someone who has succeeded as an artist; my success feels transient, and sporadic, and there's no telling whether these years of work will this time add up to something of beauty and merit, but I felt a kinship watching her struggle, mourn, reflect, create. It's a blessing and curse to want to translate experience into art--not just to want to, but to do it. The work involved. Working toward an end you can't see until you find it. Will it be whole, or still-born? All these infinitessimal choices along the way that shape the final artifact, that leave you wondering--why this and not that? So much room for criticism, self and other. There's the artifact created, and the one intended, and the multiple ones that might have been.
At times I question whether I'm too patient, too painstaking. A year feels like nothing to me anymore, writing-wise. Will I rest, at peace with this project, or will I keep chasing the ones that might have been? How will I know when I've arrived? Is it only when someone else tells me so? (Hair Hat might never have been finished either, in my mind, had it not been picked up for publication). Can I accept and find an ending in solitude?
The answer might be ... no. Which is terrifying. Which is why I'm typing this, and not that.