Recently, I had my seven-year-old niece, Ella, over for an artist’s weekend. Ella is a budding painter, so I took her to visit a few of my artist friends. First, Evie, who paints portraits and animals and still life, and then, Paula, who is more of a visionary artist. Ella said, “Evie paints what’s on the outside, and Paula paints what’s on the inside. A sharp observation for a young soul, though not entirely accurate as Evie makes what is on the outside even better–her subjects are softened, made more radiant, perhaps one could say created in their perfect form. Paula brings to life raw emotion and the inner working of the mind, but she, too, is starting from some common point we all recognize. It is why when we look at her work we have that glimmer of recognition–or as it happened to me, a feeling that she had painted my very being. These artists approach their work in different ways, but they both share that ability to capture what “is” and then infuse it with higher meaning. In the words of Chagall, “Great art picks up where nature ends.” It is no different for writers–whether we look outside or in, we are searching for the truth.
Eckhart Tolle in his book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, says that flowers can be looked at as the enlightenment of plants. And can also lead to enlightenment. He tells the story of the Buddha giving a “silent sermon” once during which he held up a flower and gazed at it. After a while one of the monks that was present broke out into a smile–according to legend, that smile was handed down by twenty-eight successive masters and much later became the origin of Zen. I get that. I have felt that deep, inner smile when working or just being in the flower garden. And I feel that as well when reading the words of Proust, his descriptions are a flowering of enlightenment. And it is this very thing that I have been struggling with as an artist for the past week. How to create this enlightenment on the page. The late David Foster Wallace is quoted in The New Yorker as saying, “Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilites for being alive and human in it.” Chekhov’s powerful little story, “The Student,” seems a perfect example of this. It begins in the desolate, darkness of the forest and ends with this student’s enlightenment–the feeling of the past touching the present in an unbroken chain, brought on by this darkness, the realization that we are connected by the darkest of moments. An epiphany that leaves him filled with an unknown, mysterious happiness. It’s not that all of our characters need to have happy endings, but something, it seems, must transcend the illusion of our dark realities. . .