Have I mentioned that I’m in Virginia? No, I know I haven’t, but here I am, surrounded by acres of forest and pasture: horse country. Today, I drove down to Richmond, to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I’ll write more about that soon. But tonight, I wanted to write about the influence of art on my writing.
I was thinking about this subject because I did an interview recently for Clarkesworld Magazine. (I’ll let you know when that comes out.) And the interviewer asked me, as interviewers often do, which writers had influenced me. I’ve certainly been influenced by other writers, but I find that I’m just as influenced by other art forms, including the visual arts. There are things I learn from looking at works of art that I don’t think I would learn from reading novels or stories or poems. Let me try to explain by giving three examples. All of these are works by artists that I’ve learned of recently, and all of them have made me reflect on my own writing.
The first example is the post-it note art of of Don Kenn. His drawings remind me of Edward Gorey’s, but they’re more whimsical, not quite so dark despite the presence of monsters. They don’t have Gorey’s satirical edge, and one could even imagine them in a children’s book. Well, for rather advanced children.
The second example is the underwater sculptures of Jason de Caries Taylor. Watch how they evolve under the water: they begin as concrete casts of actual people, but then the underwater plants begin to grow and they become something quite different, sea creatures of sorts. They become both beautiful and grotesque.
The third and final example is the cardboard houses of Daniele Del Nero. After the artist allows mold to grow on them, they develop patterns, texture, character. They become both beautiful and horrifying.
What these works do for me is help me map the space where I want my writing to fall. It is a liminal space, a space between categories. That is why I often describe rather horrible things in beautiful, poetic prose. And beautiful things in straightforward, slangy, everyday speech. And in terms of genre, I want my stories to fall in between as well. Kenn’s post-it notes: how would you classify them? As illustration? They look like illustrations, yet they illustrate nothing. Taylor’s underwater art exists between two elements, belonging to both air and water. Del Nero’s houses remind me of the phrase “in the midst of life we are in death,” to which I would add, “in the midst of death we are in life,” which is the condition of all living beings. This is vague, I know. But sometimes what I need, when I write a story, is a feeling, a sense of where I need to go. And a visual image helps me.
It helps me find that space between beauty and darkness, life and decay, where I think my best and most meaningful writing lies. If some of the dancers in Mother Night’s house have butterflies’ wings on their heads, then some of the other dancers should have heads like skulls. That is, in part, my way of getting at a deep truth that I think Kenn’s, Taylor’s, and Del Nero’s works also get at: that we are all in that liminal space, that we exist between beauty and darkness, life and decay, all of us all the time. We don’t think about it much, until a work of art points it out to us. Until we see the concrete cast of a human head blossom with algae or sprout barnacles.
And then we realize where we are, the nature of the world we live in. I want my writing to convey that deep and fundamental truth – the truth of this strange and lovely, always temporary, continually transforming world of ours – as well.