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I sometimes wonder why I write or paint at all. This bewilderment grows not because the craft is long and hard—-although it is surely that—-but because once having written an essay or etched the image I am dissatisfied. Even when the words or paintings garner praise from people whose opinions I most value, I remain unconvinced. While the craftsman in me can always find grist to revise, the dissatisfaction with my art has deeper and less certain roots. C.S. Lewis once said, “What does not satisfy when we find it, was not the thing we were desiring.”
In recent years I have become a gardener of flowers. To the surprise of family and colleagues whose memory of my earlier years included disparagement if not ridicule of those who spent precious time tending roses, I now expend abundant energy creating a multi-colored perennial garden. To my surprise, since becoming a gardener my winters are filled with a visceral yearning to feel spring’s warm sum against my cheek and spy the first lime shoot pushing through the black soil. I endure Colorado’s blustery early spring days while working the gardens bare cold earth, despite near frost-bitten hands and a reliably sore back. I tend my flowers with the same reckless frenzy my grandchildren inflict upon the wrappings of their birthday presents.
I confess that some of this anticipation and subsequent dissatisfaction is inherent in all I do—like say when I add or subtract flowers or revise a manuscript or return to a canvas. It is art embedded in a false hope, a myth that some penultimate hoop can be negotiated, that I might actually obtain, as Curley in City Slickers suggests, “The One Thing.” But somehow, my longings seem, or at least I imagine them to be, larger than hoop jumping. Rather, with an embarrassing ardor that despite the winters slush and cold not only persists but grows, I am motivated by summer’s lushness and color. It is within the memory of last August’s late afternoon sun dappled across the delphinium’s purple blooms that births a deeper longing, a longing I know but cannot name, a longing pointing beyond my garden.
I view my writing and painting studio like a garden. I often come to the blank page with a fiery desire to transform the words of my mouth into a meditation of the heart. I become mesmerized by my words, oblivious to time or surroundings. Indeed, as the movie Miss Potter suggests, “There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story.” But my art contains both flowers and weeds.
When others read my manuscripts they do not see or smell or hear my memories. Often I get a response with some variation of, “Your writing needs more “sense” prose.” That is, the words describing the smells and sounds and tastes of my characters or scenes in addition to visual and aural clues would, so the wisdom implies, make these people and places more “vivid” or “real.” What I think my well-meaning advisors mean by suggesting such a cure is the addition of sensory details incites the reader’s memory, allows the recall of their previous experience with a particular taste or smell, a lived experience that now becomes fused to words creating a new, revised image making the story more real or at least, more memorable.
I still remember the startled Saint Matthew sitting among the dandies counting his money while Caravaggio’s Christ figure pointed that beckoning finger and dazzling expanse of painted light. Christ’s finger and light exploded off the painting calling both an astonished Matthew and me. It was a finger pointing to a world bigger than the canvas or the Contarelli Chapel or anything else I knew. But, that memory remains yoked to two other sensations: the smell in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi—a drafty dank odor found in the air of all Cathedrals over 300 years old—and the magical almond chocolate flavor of my first Roman Gelato, an ambrosia consumed just prior to standing before The Calling of St. Matthew. Years later I cannot enter an old church or taste chocolate gelato without the smell or taste conjuring Matthew’s look of astonishment or of my own.
I write in the early morning. I set fresh coffee on the desk, murmur Psalm 19 as my morning prayer, and with an old-fashioned ink pen and yellow pad copy two or three paragraphs from the work of a favorite writer’s prose. I did not always follow this plan. During the discipline of graduate school, I would arise early and after the first coffee sip plunge into writing. But then the words stopped. I desired to write but while the hoops remained, I no longer had hops.
A wise friend suggested I would know what to write when I allowed my memories to speak. But I don’t think that advice is quite right. After Joshua led the Israelites across the river Jordan and into the Promised Land, God instructed him to place twelve stones from the river as a monument. When asked why, the prophet said the stones would remind their children that this was the place where God allowed Israel to cross on dry ground. My memory does serve as a fertile source of desire and a rich experience repository, a resource needing careful stewardship. But memory like the stones is not the end and cannot satisfy. I meditate upon my memories, murmur the Psalmist’s poetry, and read the graceful words of writers upon whose shoulders I stand—my own stones—because when I remember rightly they point to why I write. I desire to write, to put that word on the page, because I long to tell of a Beauty I have not experienced but a beauty my experience has seen and tasted and heard.
David Clark is a physician, writer, and visual artist. After publishing forty professional articles as a University professor of medicine/surgery, he now maintains a printmaking studio, writes short stories and creative non-fiction, and teaches English part time at Fort Lewis College. In addition to recently earning a M.F.A. from Seattle Pacific University, Clark writes a regular column—The Occasional Reader, edits a medical journal, and blogs at Art, Words, and a Journey of Wonder. He and his wife Terry live in southwest Colorado. Contact: www.davidclarkart.com
7 thoughts on “Creativity Series: David Clark “Writing and Remembering””
I am incredibly moved by your post. Your experience brought back my memories of laying on the floor of the Sistine Chapel, gazing at the ceiling with tears running down my cheeks. At that moment in time, God spoke to my soul through the art of a master.
You spoke my heart: “I desire to write, to put that word on the page, because I long to tell of a Beauty I have not experienced but a beauty my experience has seen and tasted and heard.”
Thank you for allowing God to move through you to give me the words I needed to hear today. You reminded me of why I create.
David, your post made me think of this Lewis quote:
The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.
Thanks so much for reading. I am glad you found my words useful. I’m with you. I wanted to lay down on the floor of the Sistine and spend the afternoon gazing upward. Even crammed shoulder to shoulder with sweaty picture-takers I experienced a sense of calm happiness, a sense of presence even. Blessings on your journey.
David, As always, your words are the thoughtful wisdom of a friend. Thanks for reading and sharing the wise Mr. Lewis. Blessings
Sounds like you’re in a writing funk. I find when I work on one project for to long and don’t make progress, I get in a mood too. Yet, you are so honest about the writing process.
I love your many sources of inspiration, that of the natural world, of scripture, that of the created world…creation and co-creation, and your vision of what co-creation can be in the blessed times that it comes. Thank you for sharing your memories, your experiences and your inspiration.