Drawings of Five Writers’ Photos
by Joanna Walsh
One day, I was already old, a man came up to me in the entrance of a public place. He introduced himself and said, “I’ve known you forever. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than you were then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.
Like so many women who write, Duras’ face was her fortune, a life’s work. It is her face that appears on the cover of her best-known work, The Lover, a story she published three times, altering the details with each subsequent take. Is she the book’s protagonist, or isn’t she? Is The Lover a novel from life? Why is it important that women play this triangular game: face, fortune, fiction?
Before the appearance of a mirror, the person didn’t know his own face except reflected in the waters of a lake. After a certain point everyone is responsible for the face he has. I’ll now look at mine. It is a naked face. And when I think that no other like it exists in the world, I get a happy shock. (Agua Viva trans Stefan Tobler)
I have never seen Clarice Lispector’s face naked. She made herself up. Her portraits are a silent film star’s. Overexposure blanked out wrinkles and, eventually, the burn-scars she sustained in a house fire, leaving planes of pure light and shadow. What makes her easy to photograph makes her difficult to draw. How do we know it’s her? Those lips…
Appearing and recognising, writing and reading: it takes two to tango. She writes,
You who are reading me please help me to be born.
Like Colette, who once ran a beauty parlour, Jean Rhys who modelled, and Shelia Heti, whose alter ego in How Should a Person Be, worked in a salon, Lispector did time in the looks industry as an advice columnist for Correio Feminino. Lispector’s author photos are so very much like a model’s in a magazine, her face displaying the same kind of lonely rapture. Intense sensation without apparent stimulation – is this what beauty is?
This series of drawings came about partly because I happened on a photo of Lispector that looked a bit like me on a good day. I have tried to draw this picture of her, looking a little like me, many times and, although this photo shows her at her most stylised, her most cartoonish, her least naked – perhaps that where I find the resemblance: anyone can paint on those lips, those brows, anyone can look a bit like Lispector as she looks here – I have never quite succeeded in capturing her.
I don’t have Lispector’s teeny nose or bee-stung lips but I am infected by the sympathetic magic most women experience on seeing a photograph of a beauty. Look at that model in Vogue! Taking her in through my eyes, knowing I could buy her dress (if I were rich enough – another layer of fantasy), I could also buy her sensation, her experience – I could buy being her – or so it seems. If a man desires to possess the beautiful woman in the photograph, a woman desires to be possessed by her. To be possessed by Lispector: imagine…
It would seem hubristic to identify with Lispector’s photo – as though by doing so I’m saying I could write her stories. Who gave me permission? I’m not sure. She did, or the photographer did, or the book publicist… something about these photos gives permission for identification, just as a writer who explicitly involves her own life in her work leaves it open to her readers: the ‘facts’, like the ‘real’ face, a foothold in the smooth wall of fiction.
It’s not faces themselves that mean so much, it’s the repetition of their representations. Seeing Lispector on the street, Heti at a reading, would be nothing if these weren’t instances of the faces on a million book covers. What am I adding in reproducing these representations? Drawing is always some kind of attempt at possession – to possess or to be possessed – and I’m never sure which.
You are what you wear? None more than Joan Didion. There has never been a writer I have wanted so much to dress like – never a writer whose wardrobe, Didion herself suggests, brings me closer to the way she works. Remember her famous list?
To Pack and Wear:
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes
nightgown, robe slippers
bag with: shampoo, toothbrush and paste, Basis soap, razor, deodorant, aspirin, prescriptions, Tampax, face cream, powder, baby oil
2 legal pads and pens
This is a list which was taped inside my closet door in Hollywood during those years when I was reporting more or less steadily. The list enabled me to pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do. Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard, and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture. Notice the mohair throw for trunk-line flights (i.e. no blankets) and for the motel room in which the air conditioning could not be turned off. Notice the bourbon for the same motel room. Notice the typewriter for the airport, coming home: the idea was to turn in the Hertz car, check in, find an empty bench, and start typing the day’s notes. (The White Album)
…and remember how, years later, she was criticised for Blue Nights‘ attention to designer names, the clear implication in this review is that a woman who loves to dress may rightly suspect herself incapable of loving other than narcissistically.
For Didion, it’s always the clothes. In On Keeping a Notebook, the “plaid silk dress” with the hem let down, the “dirty crepe-de-chine wrapper”, the “mandarin coat” persist long after their meanings are forgotten. All Didion knows – although the clothes are not always hers – is that they are pointers to “How it felt to me”. And if she’s forgotten the ‘meaning’ of the girl’s plaid dress, she can infer, or invent one. She takes the material and turns it into the immaterial: words. Turning a plot is “setting a sleeve… Do you sew? I mean I had to work that revolution in on the bias”. However much you strip her down to her ‘meanings’ there’s always another dress.
“I do not think in abstracts,” (In Why I Write, remembering her college years). “I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor… a physical fact.”
Didon insists on the material both as itself and as something else. We’re divided from her only by the “fifty yards of… transparent golden silk” that cast a light across her New York window in Goodbye to All That. We’re divided by the sphinx stare of her author photos that – like her packing list – is both a description of how a writer becomes able to observe, and a barrier to being seen too closely.
Miranda July takes a good photo. She’s made for other women to hate. I think it’s something to do with her refusal to encounter her beauty. It annoys me, but I feel badly about it. A film maker, she knows the photographer is there, but she acts like she never expected it to be. Camera-shy, the lens transfixes her: she looks terrified, or she looks away, her avoidance of the camera perfectly posed. If it wasn’t such a way to look I’d almost believe her.
You may not have noticed but Miranda July is fat. At least she is in her stories. Writing first person, she’s old, uneducated, a loser – everything her author photos suggest she is not: a chubby divorcée who “might never fuck again” (“Majesty”/Nobody Belongs Here More Than You); a school-dropout peep-show stripper (“Something that Needs Nothing”, ibid); a lonely retiree who finds he can like the sex he’s coerced into because he may never be offered anything else again (“The Sister”, ibid). These are the stories of people without choices, their titles dripping with negatives (“No one belongs here more than you’, ‘Something that needs nothing’). Her characters circle round a hole of everything they’re not, and it’s everything we might imagine July is.
July once made an art piece with holes in it. It’s called Eleven Heavy Things and has gaps for the people who are not Miranda July to put their difficult emotions, which are lightly defined for them in a cute schoolgirl font.
July’s work looks like it should be about her, because, in its mood of absence… there her image is. But, at the last moment, you find she’s not there after all: the smooth, beautiful interface she’s left behind is undisturbed. And it says… nothing.
One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like. It could be me.
In How Should a Person Be? Heti tries on a few looks: “Responsibility looks so good on Misha, and irresponsibility looks so good on Margaux. How could I know which would look best on me?”
Are ethics like outfits? Sheila McClear chose to question what Heti wore in her author photo. “You, Sheila Heti, an otherwise pretty girl, find it fit to send a blurry photo in an ill-fitting, tatty thrift-store dress. To the New York Times. What is a girl to do? HOW SHOULD A PERSON DRESS?”
“What does it mean to be ugly?” asks the ‘otherwise pretty’ Heti in The Awl, and why does it matter that a person should write about it, especially if she’s going to be famous? “Can one be ugly,” she asks, “and still appear in the world?”
In How Should a Person Be, Heti’s alter ego, ‘Shelia’, wants to be famous, but “for no one to be too interested in taking my picture, for they’d all carry around in their heads an image of me that was unchanging, startling, and magnetic.” But she eventually decides there’s more enterprise in walking naked: “Most people live their entire lives with their clothes on, and even if they wanted to, couldn’t take them off. Then there are those who cannot put them on. They are the ones who live their lives not just as people, but as examples of people. They are destined to expose every part of themselves so the rest of us can know what it means to be human…. Some of us have to be naked, so the rest can be exempted by fate.”
Jessica Ferri talking with Heti in The Awl says, “In the book, Margaux claims that “her words floating from separate from her body” is her worst fear — and yet, this could be a description of the act of writing.”
Words are come from the (unclothed) artist but, as soon as they’re written down, separate and, rather like a choice of dress, which might be fortunate or unfortunate, become its public image.
In How Should a Person Be?, ‘Margaux’s’ ‘ugly painting‘ turns out to be the painter’s distorted naked self-portrait. ‘Sheila’ interprets it as ‘Margaux’s’ response to ‘Sheila’s’ projection of her own self-loathing onto ‘Margaux’s’ words, which she appropriated: a female response to a female, not a male, gaze – but the gaze of a writer, a muse-maker all the same.
Talking on Williamson’s blog, Heti defends ‘exposing’ herself and her friends’ in her writing: “We do not look at ourselves in order to bask in our vanity (do you think anyone writes in furs?) but to understand ourselves as human beings – so as to understand other human beings – the human: fiction’s greatest subject.”
Surely two ‘otherwise pretty’ girls who prefer to examine the hot triangle of self/image/text in thrift store dresses (or naked) to furs, are a shoe-in for the kind of public image that comes with celebrity publication? So why did it take so long for the book to find a publisher? Heti remembers, “One editor said, “Oh sweetie. Maybe you and Margaux should get famous first and then publish this book.” (The Awl)
Masha Tupitsyn is a girl who looks like a boy, except she doesn’t here, or she doesn’t now. Anyhow, she’s not a girl, she’s a woman. The boy she looked like was, or is, Ralph Macchio, the subject of the book she’s working on. He resembled Tupitsyn when they were both adolescents, both wavering on a high point of shifting, androgynous beauty.
She’s not seventeen any more and nor is he, but he is because time is all the same to the movies. You can play them on loop as you grow older than the boy you used to resemble or love, or both, and, because he is young maybe you are too.
“For me, the real question is always: What do images want and what do we want from images? But not just from images when we look at them, but what wants of ours are stored in and reflected back to us.” (minorprogression.com). Or, if you prefer, “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces“ said Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, or ‘a picture is worth 1000 words’.
Tupitsyn gets how the image, even – or particularly – the moving image, stops time, makes it replayable, makes a person into a thing that does not move with time but that moves us, time and time again. And she sees herself, and she knows the many things she looks like, and what it means to desire these surfaces, or to desire to resemble them, and it doesn’t matter because tho’ they all slip away, we can always play it again (Sam).
“Beauty is story, and it’s told,” says Tupitsyn in Cottage Life. That’s the link between words and pictures. A storytelling lover makes you more beautiful but the story remains his or – more hopefully – becomes a kind of collaboration.
“All you need for a movie,” said Godard, “is a girl and a gun,” those interchangeable objects for the projection of fantasies, or what we could call stories, (call beauty?). He’s left out the obvious: himself – the watcher, the director, unseen, telling, male. But female writers are the frontwomen of their own work. Male actors, whose appearance is the vehicle for their creativity, could be the closest sharers of their experience. Perhaps this is the reason acting has long been associated with camp or ‘feminised’ men.
“It wasn’t about one or the other: real versus fake, onscreen versus offscreen. Lloyd Dobler versus John Cusack, ” says Tupitsyn, talking about the acting, though she may as well be talking about watching, or writing, or reading. ” It was about doubling. Using one person to be another person, so that you could be more and less of yourself. A hybrid. An ideal.” (indiewire.com)
When Joan Didion was small, she didn’t want to be a writer but an actress. Like Duras, she became a screenwriter. In discussion in The Believer, Didion corrects Heti. Writing is like acting but, “with writing, I don’t think it’s performing a character, really, if the character you’re performing is yourself. I don’t see that as playing a role. It’s just appearing in public.”
“Writing, for me,” agrees Heti in a Paris Review interview, “when I’m writing in the first-person, is like a form of acting. So as I’m writing, the character or self I’m writing about and my whole self — when I began the book — become entwined. It’s soon hard to tell them apart.”
Drawing is a bit like acting. When I draw someone (and I know this is not uncommon amongst artists) it helps if I make the face I’m sketching, or tense the same muscles as I know must be contracted in the body I’m drawing. It’s a bit like reading or going to the cinema: for an hour or two I get to participate in being the person I’m watching. Whose lines are they in the end?
Didion, in conversation with Heti, insists that they’re “not somebody else’s lines. Your lines. ‘Look at me—this is me’ is, I think, what you’re saying.”
About the Author:
Joanna Walsh’s writings and drawings have been published by Tate, The Guardian, The Times, The Idler, FiveDials, 3:AM and The White Review, amongst others. She has created large-scale artworks for the Tate Modern and The Wellcome Institute. Her website, Badaude, was a Webby Honoree in 2008. She has created and developed situational games in collaboration with agencies Hide & Seek and Coney. Last year she appeared at the Port Eliot Festival, The Wellcome Institute, The Cambridge Festival of Ideas, Hide & Seek’s Southbank Weekender, Shakespeare and Company Paris, Dialogue Books Berlin and the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. She is an associate member of the London Institute of ‘Pataphysics. She is currently writing a semiautobiography.