Art and Soul

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

As soon as I came up with that title I realized I just can’t help myself—I am an ad man’s daughter after all; I come by the glib and the slick naturally. That said (and perhaps as a counter to the genetic link!), I also put my heart and soul into most of the works I attempt (the blessing and curse I was reviewing inside myself, which prompted me to write this short essay.)

I throw myself from the cliffs, I hurl myself into the wild surf of language, or, if I’m painting, into the swift currents of color, line and shape. If that sounds like it could be painful—well, it sometimes is. It is also exhilarating.

An idea glimmers. A scene or a subject arrives. That usually means a lot of preliminary background work—pushing myself into the darkest crannies, the narrowest passageways—arriving at all the dead ends and also the occasional airy rooms where some apparition shimmers into being at the edges of consciousness. The excitement of the original idea has given way to the dig and the delve of it.

Recently I conducted an author interview onstage before an audience. When, a few weeks before, I had committed to the job, I began reading everything I could find by and about this writer—novels, short stories, reviews, essays and interviews. I listened to whatever I could find on the internet. I researched the landscapes in her books; I looked up places and people I suspected might have inspired some of the stories and writing. My research took me all over the virtual globe, and across the virtual centuries. As I researched I jotted notes, then wrote pages and pages of thoughts and questions for the author.

Nearly all of which I discarded in the end, preferring instead to write a bare-bones outline with a few key prompts to remind me of those subjects I wanted to be sure to touch upon—a few guideposts to keep me from going astray, from leading the author into the wilderness while the spotlights glared.

It was a lot like writing a poem. The pages and pages of notes, the revisions, the futile “final drafts” that morph into longer/shorter/completely different shapes on the page; that suddenly jettison what seemed most important, only to end up on some rocky little peak sticking up out of the oceans of printer paper and thought: the poem! at last! (I won’t even mention those paintings with seven layers of paint, seven versions of “cushion” under the final image…)

The author I interviewed wrote her first short story while she was in graduate school. She put it through seventy-five drafts—she revised it seventy-five times. Then it won a Pushcart Prize. She put her heart and soul into it, as we all do when we’re serious about making art.

Art and soul: There is, I remind the relentless self-critic inside, nothing glib or slick about that.

The Attic of the Mind

I climbed the ladder
to that place

where bare nails plunged
through the tarry skull

of the house;
where light filed

in through slits
in slivers

between raw
timbers.

_____

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