Art on the Border

Some time ago, I read a New York Times article on the artist Patrick Dougherty, who lives in North Carolina and works all over the world. You can read the article here. Dougherty weaves tree saplings into the most amazing structures, like giant jars, or people made out of twigs, or houses that look as though they came out of fairy tales, all looking askew and windblown. There is something magical about them. You can see pictures of his installations on his website.

And then, some time later, I was given a postcard with a painting by Julie Heffernan. I’ve loved her paintings since I saw the cover of the Fantastic Women issue of Tin House. You can find a number of her paintings here and here and here. They will, at least, give you a sense of how she combines traditional techniques with a contemporary but fantastical sensibility.

Dougherty and Heffernan are such different artists, and yet in them I find a fundamental similarty: they are both there, on the border, in that space I want to inhabit. Their art is both traditional and modern, fantastical and realistic. And that’s where I want to be, that’s where I think the excitement is. How do I do that? I’m not sure yet. I think some of my stories are there, for example “Singing of Mount Abora.” And now I think about it, the stories that are there, on that border, are the stories I later think are the most effective, the ones most representative of who I am and what I do. “The Rose in Twelve Petals,” “Pip and the Fairies,” “Singing of Mount Abora,” those sorts of stories.

Am I writing those sorts of stories? I think I am, more and more, as I discover who I am as a writer. It’s taken a long time to discover that, and it’s certainly still a process, still something I engage in with every story. I’m still trying to figure out who Theodora Goss is, exactly. The hardest thing, sometimes, is to see yourself. It’s like looking into a mirror. What you see in a mirror isn’t really your face, but all the ideas you have about your face, how it looks today compared to the other times you’ve seen it, how you wish it looked. Also all the ideas you have about how your face doesn’t look. It’s a wonder we can see clearly enough to brush our hair.

With every story now, I try to find that place where it is me writing, where I am doing whatever it is I do with a story. It’s so clear that Dougherty and Heffernan have found that place for themselves: they are both so distinctive, they could not be mistaken for anyone else. Some of my favorite writers are like that. I think I could tell a Kelly Link, a Ted Chiang, a Catherynne Valente within a paragraph. (I can tell, too, when someone else is doing Kelly Link. It’s that distinctive.) I’m not sure my writing is that distinctive; sometimes, I can’t hear my own writing any more clearly than I can see my own face. But I am trying to figure out what it is I do, and do it. As hard as I can.

And it’s there, on that border, with saplings twisted into fairy tale houses, or women whose ball gowns are made of flowers and slain waterfowl.

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