Debra Di Blasi
I am usually terrible at math. The exception is geometry. In fact, once when I was assigned a twenty-page paper on a topic of my choice in high school, I wrote about geometry and philosophy. So when I saw the AWP session title “The Geometry of the Novel: Making Shapelier Fiction,” I was intrigued.
The panelists focused on moving away from linear and other traditional narratives, and questioned whether that was even possible. They based their discussion on Jerome Stern’s Making Shapelier Fiction, which I now plan to read. The two panelists who resonated with me most were Debra Di Blasi and Michael Martone (see sketches).
Di Blasi, like two of the other panelists, talked about pushing the limits of form, but did so through example as much as by theoretical postulation. She discussed her interest in using fractals–images that mathematically repeat to create organic-looking visual structures–as a model for shaping fiction. The discussion itself came in a package with an even more unique shape: she organized her talk via the anatomy of a jellyfish. She aligned the various polyps of the Portuguese Man-of-War with approaches to storytelling, moving through the translucent body to make her case. Scientific descriptions of the different polyps and their functions became signals for the way a story functions.
As she spoke, Di Blasi’s love of fractals began to mix in with her use of the jellyfish: she placed passages of fiction throughout her reading, signifying these with the colors of the jellyfish: blue and orange. Like the repeated colors in fractals, these hues became the framework for the fiction passages. Di Blasi, like any good author who moves into unfamiliar territory, taught us how to read her as she piloted our voyage. The first several times she used the color word “blue,” it immediately proceeded a word, phrase, or experience with a positive connotation. “Orange” always proceeded the negative connotation. After several repetitions of each color, Di Blasi had assigned new meanings to these two words, which began to color the meanings of her less universal phrases. For instance, people have a variety of feelings about church, and therefore the word “church” has no universal connotation. But when Di Blasi followed the word “church” with “orange” in one of her passages, the listener instantly knew that in this context church was negative. It was brilliant.
Michael Martone caught my eye a few hours before the session even started. I noticed him descending the stairs from an earlier conference event. His longish gray hair, bow-tie, and glasses meeting with a rather hulking physique made me think he would be perfectly cast as an eccentric musician in a film. When I heard him speak about the fact that convention and expectation shape our stories and, therefore, their meanings, I found his ideas interesting and his delivery even more so. He used a kind of house-that-jack-built way of self-consciously examining the form of the talk itself. Martone talked about how AWP necessitated that his talk be fifteen minutes long and structured a particular way and in that way AWP determined the structure, content, and message of the discussion. He drew parallels between this and the novel market, and momentarily defied structural expectations by calling for 60 seconds of silence.
Ultimately, it was a fun discussion but not one that evoked much response from me until a few days later when I was home in my own studio, painting. I feel myself more developed as a painter than as a writer, so the painter in me often schools the writer, and she did again this week.
I was preparing for a show opening on Saturday, finishing a piece I’d begun months ago. The portion I’d already done was a small, detailed image of a nest painted on a dried sea grape leaf. The stem of the leaf hooks forward, and so from the beginning my plan was to hang it from a larger painting. I like to examine interior lives of people in my art, and so I bought a canvas and cut a hole in it, just big enough for the leaf to dangle within. The plan was to paint a person on the canvas around the hole so that the leaf dangled in about the spot where the heart would be.
In order to reinforce the structure of the canvas now that it had a hole in the middle, I cut strips of plaster of Paris to lay over the surface. It turned out I didn’t have enough. I could see it would not cover the whole surface. The stores were closed, and I needed to get the plastering done that night if it were to dry in time to get the painting done. So I cut it into smaller strips and used them to encircle the hole, moving outward toward the edges of the canvas. As I worked, I realized that because of this circular application, the plaster was forming a second nest around the hole.
In that moment, I remembered Michael Martone and understood. Instead of trying to force a human torso over this second nest, which would be meaning fighting with structure, I realized that I should allow this new structure to have what it wanted. When it dried, I began to paint the twigs of this new nest, and out of these twigs an entire human figure emerged, curled around the hole where the leaf would hang.
The painting has always been titled Empty Nest. When I began, I was thinking about the day my daughter will leave home. But between the time that I painted the first nest and the time that I painted the second, I learned I may have a medical condition that affects the central nervous system. For the past week and a half, I have been preoccupied with the gradual losses that began years ago. I have been coming to terms with potential future losses and waiting to meet with doctors who can tell me more about it. As the new structure began to dominate the painting, I began to realize that the empty nest, and the figure embedded in it, is me in a different way. The twigs and tendrils that form the nest and the woman weave through her like the nerve cells weaving through my body.
I have known for years to listen to my art instead of forcing directions with it. This particular experience that dealt specifically with the structure of the work so soon after Martone’s talk has brought home to me an awareness of how to approach my writing with fresh eyes and a respect for the story that wants to be told.