Last Friday morning, I was arrested by three images of portraits by Matisse reproduced in the Arts section of the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/30/arts/design/matisse-exhibition-at-the-metropolitan-museum-of-art.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0. ) I love Matisse, and hadn’t remembered seeing these paintings. There was something elemental about them, with their simple shapes and limited palette. At first, they almost seem childlike in their freshness and seeming effortlessness. But as I read further in Roberta Smith’s wonderful review, I learned that “that Matisse’s progress was often grueling and yet….., he worked through his difficulties to a final image that exudes consummate freshness and ease.” He revisited certain “scenes and subjects and at times also making superficially similar if drastically divergent copies of his paintings.” According to Ms. Smith, “Always he sought an implicitly modern directness and rawness that created a brave new intimacy among artist, object and viewer. He claimed to work “toward what I feel; toward a kind of ecstasy.””
I sipped my coffee and soaked in the images. But perhaps what stood out most for me was the phrase, “he worked through his difficulties to a final image that exudes consummate freshness and ease.” So often when we view art or read a finished poem or story, what we experience is the completeness, the inevitability of the work of art. Because the work, if it is good, has the energy and spontaneity of the original impulse, we don’t appreciate the many stages of revision, the detours and setbacks that go into making it. The awe we feel at what was once considered the “divine spark” overshadows the very human process, the often grueling process, that goes into creating a work.
Somehow I felt buoyed up to learn of Matisse’s process. I know that in my own writing and very amateurish attempts at visual art, I’ve often given up before something was “done.” Dispirited by the incompleteness, by the raw edges showing through, I haven’t persisted, or worked through a piece. I’ve wanted to jump over the hard working through to the finished project, not realizing that it is in the working through that one often discovers the truest essence of the piece.
In the movie, A Late Quartet, Christopher Walken plays a cellist and teacher who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. When one of his students criticizes another student, he tells them his story of meeting Pablo Casals when he was a young student, and playing for him. What Walken’s character remembers are all the mistakes he made, but when he goes on to play with Casals later and tells him how mortified he was by the mistakes, Casals’ response was to remember what was felicitous about the young man’s playing. So often as we struggle to create, we see only the mistakes, and too often give up on ourselves.
What does all this have to do with writing and healing? Not everyone who comes to a healing writing class is interested in creating art. However, I have found that participants are often very interested in craft, in “getting better.” Offering our own experiences of process, and gently encouraging participants to persist through frustration, can lead to a sense of mastery, which is in itself healing. By pointing out the positive, we can support them as they explore ways to deepen their work, and we can model the human enterprise that making art is.