Tuesday, December 27, 2011

on prying things apart

I read this article today, and it made me think. It's about an artist who composts dead horses and uses their skeletons to create beautiful sculptures. I understand that some people are squeamish, and as someone who once joined PETA and wrote a ten page paper instead of dissecting a frog, I suppose I can get that. But I embrace it, so long as no live creature is harmed in the process.

See, I wanted a horse all my life.

When I was little, I used to dream that on my birthday, I would wake up and find a black horse tied to a tree outside or snarfing oats in the unused half of our garage. That never happened.

When I was 17, I went to France with a student exchange program. One night, I told the waiter, "This is the best steak I've ever had!" In French, of course. He replied, again in French, and with a very French expression of disdain, "It's not steak. It's horse."

I kept chewing and said to myself, "I always wanted a horse."

I figured that, like that Monet I touched before they threw me out of the museum, at least the horse would be merging with my atoms, be part of me forever.

Years later, a friend invited me to her barn. Her husband taught vet science at a local college, and they ran an equine rescue organization, and they were going to euthanize a horse and dissect it for his vet students. The poor animal was toothless and blind and starving to death and could barely walk. I have never seen a more pathetic creature, and my heart just about broke, watching its legs wobble beneath it. They gave it a shot, and it went all dreamy and fell.

Part of me was scared and sad, thinking that something I had always wanted had just died at my feet. But as the process continued, I found myself transfixed. I had always liked animals so much that I would never do anything to hurt them. But with the cruelty removed from the process, I was free to see the beauty of what happens under the skin. I saw the inside of a cataract. I held a piece of trachea. I saw the inside of a stomach, the gleam of bone, how very tiny the parts of the ear are. I saw how very large a horse's heart is, what it takes to move blood through those giant, majestic bodies.

Because the horse was dead, I wasn't blinded by my lifelong wish for a horse. It was no longer my dream; it was an object, albeit one we tried to honor and learn from. Instead, I saw how very pretty and magical and breathtaking it was on the inside.

I think art and writing can be a little like that, too.

Sometimes, people are in so much awe of the artist or the artwork, the book or the author, that they're afraid to get their hands messy. I remember, years ago, wanting to be an artist so very badly and just sitting for hours in front of a canvas, wishing for a lightning bolt of inspiration. I used to listen to the soundtrack from the 1998 Great Expectations, thinking about this scene and wishing to hell that I could feel that mad fury, that passion for art. Wishing that I had that kind of inborn style and obsession.

But I never did.

And I was too afraid to try it and mess up. Too afraid to do the wrong thing.

Writing is the same way. You can't be too much in awe of great books, of a huge sheaf of papers. you can't get ten pages into a first draft and decide that it sucks, that you'll never be GRR Martin or JK Rowling or Jane Austen or Haruki Murakami or insert your favorite author here. You have to want it so badly that you're willing to get your hands around what you want, even if it's broken, and rip it wide open and lay its flaws and beauties bare, and then you've got to keep going and reach in your hands and fix it all.

I'm not saying that you should go dissect a horse. I'm saying that sometimes you have to watch your dreams die before you can figure out how to make them come true.

The way I always wished to feel about art is now the way I feel about writing. I finally have that passion, that obsession, that drive. And you know what? Every single one of my books includes a horse.

Some dreams never die.



Elisabeth Black said...

I agree. And I am in awe of this post. Truly. Love.

Bee said...

I'm so speechless, I'm gonna let this do the talking:


Christa said...

Yes. This. All of it. Remember it when next you feel discouraged. I am saving it.

delilah s. dawson said...

Thanks, y'all. I'm so glad it spoke to you. When I woke up this morning, I dearly hoped my caffeine fueled meandering about dead horses was more helpful and less morbid. =)

Patty Blount said...

I missed this this morning and am glad Beth retweeted the link!

Remember that scene in Ghost with the pottery wheel? How messy and dirty and hot and sexy and ugly but gorgeous it was?

Writing is the same.

Anonymous said...

Ditto to what everyone else has said. As someone in the middle of a first draft (of my second book) so long it's frightening, I really appreciate this post. Thank you for reminding me its okay to get my hands really dirty right now, if I'm willing to go back and do the work to make it right later. Exactly what I needed to hear right now.

EttyOop said...

This is an excellent piece of writing advice... wrapped in a story that kind of made me shudder ;-) But I can see where it would be fascinating and inspiring to have seen. Just... not me.

charissimo said...

Well spoken, Ms. D.