This last month is a race to the finish for me—the first draft of my second novel is due on August 1. Actually, it was due July 1, but I begged for another month. Which is what authors do. Used to be, I was the editor on the receiving end of such requests. Now it’s me asking for more time. I think I was always nice when I was the editor in that situation. May goddess give me a stitch in my side if I wasn’t. I abjectly apologize for all those times I might have been less than understanding.
While I write and write and write and write and write, I haven’t had a whole lot of time for anything else. I did have an editorial client deliver a 120,000 word manuscript in the middle of this. Which was a good reminder to me that what I do is a joy but also a job, and when you’re paid to do a job you just do it. There was no way I could say to my client, sorry but I’m writing my NOVEL so could you wait a month? No, I had to say, why thank you, client, I am delighted to read and edit your 120,000 word manuscript. And in truth, I was. It was in fact a bit of a relief to help make someone else’s words better, rather than to worry about coughing up my own. Then when I did return to my own, my coughing was all the more aggressively from the gut. Because time’s a-wasting, my friends, and August 1 is just around the corner OH MY GODDESS.
Anyhoo. One thing I did to quell the wild lizard of panic that took up residence in my belly was to cancel any and all engagements. This has rendered me an anti-social, unexercised creature with the rough shape of a desk chair...but needs must. The one exception I made was to visit the Brooklyn Museum of Art to see the exhibit Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern. I love the Brooklyn Museum, and it was a surprise to learn that her very first retrospective took place there in 1927. This current exhibit’s goal was to present O’Keeffe as an artist who merged her physical presence and her personal environment with her art. The same clean, at times austere, always precise and yet sensual aesthetic that you see in her art, she wished to incorporate into everything about her personal world—from her dress, to how she decorated her home, to how she cooked her food. And oh my, the blouses she wore. There were several blouses hanging in the exhibit—in pale, buttery silk and linen—that were defiantly soft and touchable, in direct contrast with the black, angular garments she wore over them. It was as if she were saying to the world: I will be me, and I will be comfortable, and I will also wear sheer, creamy silk under which you may glimpse the tiny bow of my lingerie, because this is all of who I am.
This idea that you can be perfect and also perfectly yourself is so dangerously attractive to me. And O’Keeffe did seem perfect. She was perfect when she was all black and white in Brooklyn, and she was perfect when she was all denim and white in New Mexico. Either way, she decided the form and the function, often making her own clothes—clothes that allowed her to do the work that she passionately loved, while also being distinctly her. Throw away your fashion magazines and delete your aspirational bookmarks. Isn’t that what we all want: to live a life so seamlessly integrated?
It’s tempting then to revile anything in one’s wardrobe and life that isn’t perfect. But then. Then. We come to the work of art in the exhibit that moved me more than any other. It was a watercolor stroke of a brush, inspired by Japanese calligraphy. And it was rendered with the help of an assistant when O’Keeffe was losing her sight to macular degeneration (painted in 1979, she was 92 at the time). And…it’s gorgeous. Focused. Distilled. Expressive. Still perfect in its way, but not trying to do any more than it can within the confines of that piece of paper and the physical limitations of the artist.
And what a lesson that is. Putting aside all the aspiration, all the ways in which one might wish one could be the monumental success that O’Keeffe was…what it all comes down to is her drive to make something beautiful, even if, ultimately, that was a bit of red water color on white paper. The message I decided to take away from this is not that one is inadequate if one isn’t able to emulate her perfection, but rather that perfection lies not in a particular thing but in a state of being. And that state is self-expression, whatever form it might take. Do something that represents you: This is really what her life was about. And do it as well as you can, whatever the circumstances. Even when you’re 92 (or less than 92) and you need someone’s help. (And I hasten to add: I'm not saying we should immediately quit our day jobs and take up water colors. But if you want to paint: paint. If you want to move your body: move your body. If you want to make muffins: blueberry are my favorite. Not unrelated: Georgia O'Keeffe loved to garden and cook.)
I’m pleased to report that despite the tunnel vision that comes from OH MY GOD HAVE I MENTIONED THAT I HAVE A COMPLETE FIRST DRAFT DUE ON AUGUST FIRST?....I do have a few recommendations for you. The first is a book, of course. It’s Dawn Kurtagich’s And the Trees Crept In. Oooooh, it’s as lovely and as creepy as that title would suggest. If you’re a fan of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and the absolutely marvelous movie The Babadook, then this novel is most definitely for you. It’s the very perfect thing for me when I climb into bed, mentally exhausted, and I need someone to masterfully take the narrative wheel and point me to the backseat. Sit there, Kurtagich says, and leave this to me. And I do. Boy howdy.
My other recommendation is music. Because when I have to go somewhere these days, that’s what I reach for to keep me company. Music is like fertilizer as well as relaxant for my brain when I’m in writing mode. Right now I’m swept away by the Fleet Foxes' new album, Crack-Up. Each song is a short symphony, and the album art of a rocky coast and foamy ocean perfectly captures the feeling I have when listening to it.
Now I must go to sleep. My brain, she is tired. I look forward to reporting back in a month that the deadline has been met. Oh! And I will also hope to confirm details of an event I will be doing with some other YA novelists at Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, MA, on Wednesday, September 27 at 7PM. Please put a pin in that if you’re in the area. I would love to see you there.
My artistically limited portrait of how it feels to be me these days.
Here's a detail of one of O'Keeffe's breathtakingly beautiful blouses. As delicate-seeming as a butterfly wing, and yet ninety years old and worn by a woman as strong as the landscapes she painted.
Last and definitely most sublime: Untitled (Abstraction Red Wave with Circle), 1979, Watercolor on paper, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, NM. One of more than forty watercolors she created with the aid of an assistant as she was losing her eyesight to macular degeneration.