Is there anything you can’t write about? ART FOR WRITERS
I’m guessing that most people have seen Claude Monet’s paintings of water lilies in his garden at Giverny, near Paris. He began painting them in 1899 and didn’t stop for the next 20 years. The images he created are on posters and make up bags, tablecloths and lighters. They have caught our collective imagination and their gentle colours have become part of our mental landscape.
This painting, however, comes from an earlier and darker period of his life. It is of his wife Camille Monet and she has just died a slow, painful death from cancer having been ill for two years with tuberculosis. It is 1879, she is 32 years old and leaves behind two small sons and a grief-stricken husband burdened with terrible financial problems.
And what does he do? He paints her and even as he does so, he’s horrified that he can be so detached.
“I caught myself…searching for the succession, the arrangement of coloured graduations that death was imposing on her motionless face”
He called it an automatic reflex to observe (and record) colour.
Of course he is not the only artist to treat the death of someone they loved as another experience that deserved to be captured and explored. Rembrandt drew his beloved Saskia when she was dying. And writers also walk on dangerous ground.
American author Joan Didion wrote about the death of her husband in The Year of Magical Thinking and remembered her daughter’s life and death in Blue Nights.
In 2002 the great Irish author Edna O’Brien was castigated for writing In The Forest, a novel about a triple murder that shook Ireland eight years earlier. The relatives of the murder victims were horrified but she said that writers must be free to write about whatever they choose. There cannot be any subject that is out of bounds.
A review in The Independent called it a beautifully written memorial to the wanton destruction of the innocent, others suggested that it was too soon to delve into such a tragedy.
What do you think?
What wouldn’t you write about? Or read about?
It’s a question that has to be tackled by anyone who has thought about writing from their own experiences – even if their memoir doesn’t deal directly with death and loss – because if you write about your own life, you’re also writing about someone else’s life.
Each writer/artist has to work their way to towards their own answer to this difficult question and it may never be entirely satisfactory.