‘The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity.’
So said Italian artist, Albert Giacometti (1901 – 1966).
The same is also true of writing, the equivalent, of course, being to show not tell. We’ve all been beaten about the head with this sage advice. We know it, yet at times we overlook it. Or perhaps we haven’t discovered the best way yet and have placed words to hold the space we know craves more. Rather than reproducing reality as it was, is, or could be, taking the reader there obliquely, through a surprising side door perhaps, generates an experience of that state or place with an intensity of being there.
To read of loss, for example, in words that tell you someone else has also lost someone or something, gives you knowledge of the loss and compassion and empathy follow. But some words show new truths; taking you back to your original state of loss, through evocation of something you’d never identified at the time, hadn’t given words to. Yet here it is now, in someone else’s words, shifting your heart sideways like a boat in a gale. I cannot read Auden’s Stop All the Clocks, Cut Off the Telephone without hearing that muffled drum, and thinking of my beloved clock-making, dog-loving, piano-playing father there in his coffin, let the mourners come … Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
Chekhov’s path of the moon on water is what moves us, not the fact of the moon being there, or to have it pointed out to us that it is indeed shining.
The stars at night may be represented pictorially in many different ways: asterisks, five pointed shapes, dots, yellow blobs of colour, and so on. On occasions, Vincent van Gogh painted the night sky and surrounds with candles fixed around his hat for illumination. His Starry Night, painted while he was a patient at a psychiatric hospital in St. Remy, explodes with swirls and spheres of light built up in dots and dashes of intense colour. The night sky takes on an intensity that is not of this reality, yet we are there – crouched under that vast sky of whirling colour and light. Van Gogh shows us Chekhov’s path of the moon on water without his work resembling the night sky of any empyreal visual we may have experienced. Northern and Southern Lights aside.
Writing that it was raining tells us the reality. To write: ‘… rain sift[ed] past the floodlight … sheets of drops like a procession of wraiths, shifting, tumbling.’ (Anthony Doerr in About Grace, p. 63) Doerr describes that rain with an intensity that takes you there – you are an alien in a world of silvery shifting shadows, drops of rain seeping uncomfortably down the back of your neck.
Anyone who knows those first days of new motherhood recognises that far sea in Sylvia Plath’s Morning Song: ‘All night your moth-breath / Flickers among the flat pink roses. / I wake to listen: / A far sea moves in my ear. / One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral / In my Victorian nightgown. / Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s.’
This, then, is the writer’s aim: to find the words, and the order to express, in a way that is not the thing in itself or the state of being, but something seen in a sideways glance. Some new truth. To explore this, delve deeper and expose what is there for all of us, though we may not have seen it at the time, lost as we were in our love, loss, fear or hope. But we know when we read it from others, as an intense reality is recreated, leaving us envious that we had not written those words ourselves.