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The Story of Making Art

May 20, 2021

Anne Elliott is the author of The Artstars: Stories (Blue Light Books / Indiana University Press) and The Beginning of the End of the Beginning (Ploughshares Solos). Her short work has been featured in Story, Crab Orchard Review, Witness, Hobart, Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere. Her story “Black, Black, Red, Black” appeared in A Public Space No. 28. She lives in Maine.

Which author’s revision process would you have loved to see?

Toni Morrison. Her sentences are peerless, and I suspect the most iconic ones took a lot of work. In her foreword to Jazz, she talks about her struggle with the first sentence, sharing an early draft that looks nothing like the final incarnation. She writes about walking away from the manuscript and, thinking about her character, “angered by my inability to summon suitable language to reveal her, I threw my pencil on the floor, sucked my teeth in disgust, thinking, ‘Oh, shoot! What is this? I know that woman.’” The pencil flinging, the teeth sucking, the writerly frustration, all of those things are embodied in her first line, which, in the end, feels effortless. That peek into her tenacity is so moving and instructive that it makes me curious about her other works. How did she arrive at the sublime final lines of Sula, which break into the raw language of grief? Or, the opening of The Bluest Eye, which reframes the received language of childhood repeatedly until it empties itself? How much sitting did she do, and how much pacing the room? Did the sentences grow or shrink? How many words did she try before landing on the natural sound and mouthfeel of a Morrison line? How did she learn to trust herself?

What is your favorite punctuation mark?

Lately, I am hopeful for a resurgence of the exclamation point, after our former president abused it so thoroughly on Twitter. He does not own it! Let’s reclaim it! Gordon Lish uses exclamations beautifully right in the middle of sentences, interrupting himself—there! there!—with outbursts of frenetic energy. And Elizabeth Crane wrote a really poignant story, “My Life Is Awesome! And Great!,” where almost every sentence ends in exclamation, yet a sad subtext begins to emerge in the narrator’s forced cheer.

What is a book that changed your view of its subject?

W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn made me see how a novel can have a peripatetic structure, include discursive histories of place and culture, yet still make me feel something, as if I were reading a classic three-act story. Sebald changed how I think about the possibilities of form. I am not exactly answering your question, but perhaps form itself is one of the book’s subjects. I am currently under the influence of this novel, and others like it, such as Teju Cole’s Open City.

What is the first section you visit in a bookstore?

If the store has a section for works in translation, I will be there. I also browse staff picks. Both sections introduce me to new voices and traditions.

You studied art. You also have a background in performance. How have those art forms shaped your writing?

My time as a performance artist has made me hyperaware of the feeling of words in my mouth. If a sentence doesn’t roll off the tongue, if the placement of my breath feels off, then the sentence isn’t done. As for visual art, the life of the artist is my subject matter. I am drawn to the story of making art: interacting with materials, finding audience, and building creative communities. My prose isn’t necessarily more “visual” than the next writer, and I suspect my preference for the concrete over the abstract is largely creative-writing indoctrination. I do tend to describe a lot.

This isn't exactly a question, but I was struck by something you said in an interview last year about how your focus has shifted between The Artstars and your new work—from writing about the process of being an artist, to "being in the audience, and the permanence of art, or the impermanence of art." I guess I'm curious to hear more about that.

I love talking about this.

My current obsession is the art of portraiture, which I am attacking from three points of view: the painter, the sitter, and the audience. After embedding myself with the makers of art during the years I worked on The Artstars, I have become intrigued by the makers of the narrative: the historians. My protagonist is a middle-aged art historian who has taught the European masters for years but hasn’t yet seen them in person. She hits the road to look at the pioneers of portrait painting—Velázquez, Rembrandt, Jan van Eyck, Goya—and later, Sargent and Andrew Wyeth in the States. Much like Richard Hugo’s notion of the “triggering town,” the paintings (especially in their display contexts) spark memory and meditation. I have found this kind of narrative ekphrasis is a great vehicle to explore themes of aging in a body and in a career, the sexualized gaze, teaching versus doing, the ways art can subvert its own patronage, and the possibility of counternarrative in response to “important” works (see Sebald and Cole).

I have also found it great fun to write while looking at high-resolution photos of old paintings. I didn’t pay much attention to them in art school. Now, the more I look, the more I see. Many of them are being restored now, as well, which is exciting. Paintings do age, like people, but more slowly. Their meaning ages too.

My project is shaping into a composite novel, I think, with the working title “Looking and Being.”

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