Lit Counts: At War With Our Art

By Tiffany Kassab

Over the last six months, I’ve chipped away at a collection of essays 150 words at a time. I was making strong progress until I reached an emotional point in my work. It was the kind of emotional moment in which I would wake some mornings feeling as though I had been crying in my dreams, but I couldn’t remember what I had dreamt of. I began drafting again and again one particular scene—the significance of the scene was down there beneath the surface, and yet, I couldn’t pull it up.

I felt like I was at war with my words.

Overwhelmed, I took a step back and binged on Netflix!

I watched nine whole episodes of The Crown in one week. (There are only 10 episodes in the season!) But, something happened in episode nine between two characters that resonated with me and my work. Allow me to explain:

In episode nine, the Winston Churchill character sits for a portrait painted by Graham Sutherland, a renowned modernist of his time. According to this episode, Churchill was a hobbyist painter himself. He mentions to the Sutherland character that “painting a picture is like fighting a battle, a bloody battle. And in the gladiatorial fight to the death the artist either wins or loses.”

[caption id="attachment_9029" align="aligncenter" width="300"]John Lithgow as Winston Churchill in The Crown. John Lithgow as Winston Churchill in The Crown.[/caption]

As the conversation continues, the Sutherland character points out that Churchill painted the same pond more than 20 times. Churchill says, “Because it eludes me.” Sutherland says, “Perhaps you elude yourself.”

Sutherland goes on, referring to Churchill’s pond paintings: “Beneath the tranquility, the elegance, and the light playing on the surface I saw honesty and pain, terrible pain.”

Churchill says that he painted the pond because it presented a technical challenge, but it was after all just a pond. The conversation takes a dark turn, and in a roundabout way, Sutherland helps Churchill uncover the significance of the pond: it was put in a year after his daughter died.

Upon this realization, Churchill displays a look of grievance; as though he has been betrayed by both the modernist and himself.

This episode felt to me like being in that one workshop where everyone is saying Dig deeper, because they can see it, but you don’t know what deeper is yet. Or, you’re not ready to put your face in the water and see where deeper will lead you. Which makes me wonder: Is the process of working through emotional scenes more important than finding the answers?

I believe the Churchill character thought so. At the end of the episode, the writers made a note that Churchill continued to paint the pond long into retirement. Maybe he wasn’t satisfied with what Sutherland had to say about it, or maybe he saw it differently from then on. He returned to that same subject again and again, still seeking his own answers.

I think what it comes down to is fear. How much will we doubt ourselves in addressing the moments in our writing that are so important to us? The worthiness of an object, like Churchill’s pond, or of a triggering moment, like the scene that I’m stuck on, might present itself on a subconscious level more than we’re aware of consciously when we sit down to write. But once we’ve uncovered the meaning, we must be fierce in our convictions and face it.

I think something wonderful happens when we surrender to the process and our emotions. Give in to the water. Trust that our words will guide us there. It’s scary as hell, but then again, so is a metaphorical war with our art.

This post is part of our annual Lit Counts series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop— is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 6 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!

Tiffany Kassab has a master’s degree in creative nonfiction from Regis University, and she is working on a collection of essays about living in the San Francisco Bay area, a place in perpetual transition. Follow her on twitter @tiffanykassab.