Sunday, December 20, 2015

Margaret McMullan Learns the Importance of Seeing

In the 45th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Margaret McMullan, author of Aftermath Lounge (Calypso Editions), recounts the influence an art class she took as a teenager has had on her writing.

When I was 17, I told my mother I wanted to be a painter, and she signed me up for night classes with Ed Paschke at the community center in Highland Park, Illinois. This was radical on several levels:
1. My mom was OK with my impractical career choice.
2. She was OK with me driving alone at night to another town.
3. She was OK and with me getting instructions from a man who had monthly illustrations in Playboy magazine.
Ed was never late and he never cancelled a class, even when the temperatures were subzero. Today, his paintings hang in The Whitney, The Guggenheim, Chicago’s Art Institute and New York’s MOMA, but back then, he needed money. He even took our class to his studio in Evanston, where we saw how a real craftsman works.

Ed Paschke: spacing out
What did I learn? Ed showed me how to draw a nose and a cloud. Most importantly, he taught me the importance of SEEING. “Notice everything,” he said one night. He was talking about how he still stared at railroad crossing lights because to him it looked as if the green light transformed into the red, when really, they were just going on and off. “Appreciate your own spacey-ness.” 

That year, I learned I did not, in fact, want to be a painter. But I did learn about the hard, every-day work of becoming an artist.

“Diligence is the mother of good luck.” That’s a proverb that dates back to the 16th century. Passion and hard work trump talent. 

Every day I get up, walk the dog, pour a thermos full of coffee, go to my desk, open my laptop, and get to work. Coffee and getting to the desk are important. The dog sleeping nearby is important too. I look through my notes from the previous day and begin. Framed pictures of ancestors remind me of duty, honor, compassion, and responsibility. When I get stuck, I’ll read notes on my lampshade: 
  • “The problem is not you. The problem is the problem. Work the problem,” says Steven Pressfield; Plot is a verb; 
  • “A story should be urgent, honest, and violent.” 
  • Patience; 
  • “No satisfaction whatever at any time.” Martha Graham; 
  • “You discover your book as you write it.” Frederick Bausch; 
  • Command+2=undelete.
I’ve got a picture of Paschke nearby too. And every day I try to notice everything...and get spacey.