Saturday, April 16, 2011

A lesson in the writer's craft from paper dolls

Isabella DeBorchegrave takes a page from the writer's handbook with her paper recreations of famous clothes and costumes from the Medici's to Fortuny to Coco Chanel.  The exhibit, Pulp Fashion, at San Francisco's Legion of Honor, suspends the viewer's disbelief with astonishing brilliance.  Even as you examine up close, or as close as the guards will allow, the hand-painted, life size paper creations, it is hard to believe you are not looking at cut velvet, lace, bejeweled ribbon and silk. You step into a fantasy of opulence and style, art and wealth, power and seduction as you walk around the legendary gowns and court finery worn by mannequins that seemed to have stepped out of the paintings of Botticelli and the Renaissance masters.  Towards the end of the exhibit, when I was able to catch my breath and think about the work with some distance, it struck me that this experience is exactly the task set by the writer who must create a world on paper, but with words instead of paint.  But what is it that allows the writer to make the universe of her characters or his experience so vivid and real that the reader's mind is not continually saying, this is only a story, this is not real, these are only paper dolls?  Why do we inhabit the characters lives and build such a close relationship with them that we feel their joy and grief as if it were our own?  I'm thinking of Agee's A Death in the Family, which I read five years after my own father died unexpectedly of a heart attack while traveling to the village in Ireland where he was born.  The day I got the news I actually felt something inside of me pull me away from the awful reality so that I could not feel it, went numb for awhile before tears could come.  But years later, as I read about Agee's fictional father, and his family's shock and grief, their struggle to understand the accident that changed everything in their lives forever, I found myself weeping, the shock of that death as searing as the shock of my father's.  It was Agee's courageous use of his imagination that allowed me to suspend my disbelief, my critical mind and revisit that place inside where a hard stone of grief waited to come alive and be experienced as it could not years earlier.  But what did Agee do that allowed some of my grief to finally melt away as I mingled my feelings with those of Agee's characters?  How exactly did he suspend my disbelief?  He had talent and intelligence to be sure.  He worked at his craft.  We all do.  But there is something else, something he shares with DeBorchgrave and other artists that build fantastical worlds for us.  It is the thing that astonished me the most about DeBorchegrave’s work, the unfettered imagination and the courage to follow where it leads, which is into the heart of the work.  

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