institute for documentary studies

{Week 4: Writing}

Week 4: Writing


“The writer must believe that what he is doing is the important thing in the world, and he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.”
– John Steinbeck

I heard this lil’ piece of brilliance read by Garrison Keillor on his daily podcast, “The Writer’s Almanac.” Mira plays his podcast at the beginning of class—a writerly tradition to warm us up in the morning, or during our post-lunch haze. Our class nodded in unison over Steinbeck’s sentiment; it made us feel more, not less, proud of our medium.  At Salt, we are a fraction the size of the radio students, and without the fancy equipment of the photo. But with a shelf life longer than radio, and photography, and multimedia, and requiring only a pencil and paper, writing always wins. We have to make it from scratch, guys.

This week felt something like being in a confession booth. We went around and discussed our first assignments, aired our dirty laundry, and laid our inchoate drafts out to dry. Last week, Mira said “all you need is a bad first draft,” and that is what we brought in. But being the sensitive literary folk that we are, we still wanted our bad to be pretty and our drafts glowing with promise.

Mira gave us some reading relief by putting on a documentary about Alice Neel—a bohemian artist known for her portraits of family and friends, each rendered with bright colors and distinct brushstrokes.  While Neel painted portraits on canvas, Pop and Abstract art were in vogue, making her “quaint” art form a thing of the past.  Not until she was in her old age did she achieve notoriety for her work; we watch old footage of her retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum, where she grips onto the arms of her two sons, her smile glowing in the limelight.

What distinguishes Neel’s work is her ability to give life to her subjects, making each painting a timeless embodiment of the subject’s character. Neel’s bold style is definitively her own, which adds a layer of complexity to her portraits— of the subject, but by the artist. Her work led me to reflect on my profile assignment. How does an artist, or writer, maintain objectivity while staying true their own style? Is objectivity even possible? Am I too much of a novice to have my own style?  It seems the harder I strive for “truth”, the more I am creating my own version of reality.

When asked to give advice to writers just starting out, Jo Ann Beard says in her interview on Days of Yore; “Understand that you will always be just starting out.”