Recently I was in a city where all of the public art had themes of failed romance, yet with overtones of hope. One depiction after another of lost dreams and gutted, broken love with a live undercurrent of promise and the optimism of next time—like a bright green tendril curling through a blackened, burned-out building.
I think of this art when I read Fear of Flying—a book of so many questions.
Erica Jong's heroine, Isadora, spends a lot of time talking about men and the conflict of being an artist and a woman. She asks the very real questions:
"Who do women look to for guidance? Who are our mentors? Who are our heroines?"
She lists the beacons of literary greatness such as Sylvia Plath "sticking her head into an oven of myth" and Lillian Hellman obsessed with Dashiell Hammet so "he'll love her as he loves himself," as well as Georgia O'Keefe "alone in the desert" and Simone de Beauvoir who "never makes a move without wondering what would Sartre think?"
She calls this group of female artists "shy, shrinking, and schizoid," and notes that they are almost all suicides or spinsters so "Was that where it all led?"
Do these great ladies reflect history or do they shape history? Are they simply a mirror in which we see ourselves or are they a window?
Mythology is a strange beast. I think of it like tattooing. When people get tattoos, does the art take life from being endlessly visible? From being talked about and explained and thus acquiring its own story of a time and place and mood? Or is the story an expression of something already inside the person that has simply taken shape in visible ink?
In that same way, are these strange, severe, suicidal heroines of literary mythology our future as female artists? Are they showing us what we are? Or are we female artists shaping ourselves around their example? Do we use them as wayposts, following them into the swamp where great art only comes from a shit life because there's a limited amount of energy accessible to us and if we spend it all on art, there isn't any left over for life.
I struggle with that balance as a writer. I find that if I'm living a story-worthy life, I have less energy to document it, and if I'm not documenting it, is it really happening?
Conversely, the times that I've spent the largest percentage of time in my daily life just writing, I'm the most cloistered and solitary and miserable. I'm not sure how to pour my lust and love and energy and passion into art without sacrificing the actual art of living.
Isadora asks, "Where was the female Chaucer? One lusty lady who had juice and joy and love and talent too?"
Where are those women who are creating great art and living great lives? Do they exist?
Juice, joy, love and talent. Isn't that a glorious description?
I want to be that. A green tendril of hope in the shit swamp because we all deserve better options than suicide or spinsterhood, especially in the service of art.
Juicy and joyful. Let it be so, world without end. Amen.