I’ve been reading Elizabeth Jane Howard’s memoir, Slipstream. I love British authors because of the way they speak, the words they use, the sound of their sentences. We have a language in common, and yet the way they use it sounds so much better. I wouldn’t call myself an Anglophile on any other day, but I wallow like a happy hippo in her writing. (Rosamunde Pilcher is another good one, and from the same era).
What’s fascinating to me is how unformed Elizabeth was as an adult, how uncertain. She grew up largely uneducated and very naive in a family with stiff-upper-lip syndrome, who had trouble acknowledging talents or encouraging accomplishments and expected nothing more from her than to marry well and maybe learn to type (she came of age during World War II when everyone was trying to do his or her part). As a result, she literally had no idea who she was or what direction to take in life. She did not know what floated her proverbial boat. So she tried acting, she got married to someone she didn’t love and had a child she was totally ill-equipped to care for, and eventually decided she wanted to write, mostly because ideas for novels and plays and stories kept cropping up in her head and there was nothing to do but write them down. She spent much of her early writing days without discipline, fitting it in between her many odd jobs to pay the bills and her many failed love affairs. Her art suffered. But it never went away, and she realized, eventually, that she owed something to it.
Her art—her writing—saved her. It gave her reason to grow up. It gave her license to learn a thing or two about herself, and to turn all the swirling doubts and insecurities and bewildering experiences into something tangible that could be shared in a cathartic way with the world.
Which leads me, oddly enough, to George W. Bush (former president, that is, though he was never my president). Politics aside and the past over and done with, I now see, as many of you probably have, that he’s been doing a lot of painting. People want to critique it, of course, maybe even have some laughs at his expense. Others may think it’s pretty amazing that a world leader of such un-sophistication had it in him. But me? It makes me smile. I mean truly smile, like I’m looking upon a kid from the sticks going off to Juilliard to study music.
Clearly I don’t know him, and I can’t say for certain, but my guess is that in practicing his craft and painting all those portraits, he has changed. Opened. I imagine him in a light-filled studio at home, swiping a brush across a rough canvas to capture the shadow of a jaw. Perhaps he looks upward and outward these days. Perhaps he feels the beating of his own heart, sees new colors in the world. Perhaps he wonders more than he speaks.
My favorite stories are the ones about problems and failures. On The Writers Room and in the most recent issue of Vanity Fair, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, co-creators of HBO’s series The Game of Thrones, talk about when they showed the finished pilot episode to a room full of trusted friends. When it was over, someone said, “You’ve got a massive problem,” and the ever-conscientious D.B. Weiss, who must have been a good student in his days, scrawled across the page of his notepad, “Massive problem.” They were embarrassed, of course. They were just trying to follow a jolt of inspiration and make a good show; they didn’t know how it would be received, and certainly didn’t expect that kind of reaction to it. Ultimately they had to re-shoot the pilot, fill in the holes, re-think, re-do. Now look what it’s turned into.
Their art was not without tangles and exposed wiring. Their art did not come out of the womb perfect and shiny and baby-soft. But it was their art, nevertheless, and they learned from it and by it…and eventually the rest of the world got to soak in its mastery. They now get to wake up every day with an inch more of gumption, of commitment to the story’s final scene. Their art keeps them honest.
Art. There should be a tagline: “Makes you grow.”