The Painting of Words
a metaphoric essay
Gregory Lee White ©
My writing process is the painting of a room. The elements of designing a novel and redecorating the look and feel of the room are the same; they both require an idea, planning, creativity, precision, technique, editing, and often a few rounds of procrastination. I imagine dipping a paint roller into a tray of wet words and spreading them across the walls and I know the space will never look the same again.
It begins with the actual idea to paint the room, the initial moment when I look around at the environment and decide that it can be different than it is. It is the desire to manipulate my surroundings, to mold and redesign them into something that is uniquely me. It is the need to paint a world where I decide the tone, the very essence of the space. I want it to become something that will effect every conversation and event that happens there in the future.
And so, the rumination process begins where the mood, the color, the very emotion of the concept tosses around from hand to hand, brain cell to brain cell, until just the right image steps forward. Paint chips laid out are the heart of the story, tempting me with endless choices and shades of notions that I never knew existed. I embrace custom colors, allowing the shade can be of my own creation, not subject to the rules and regulations of another. Should the room begin with a bang, as the lustful maroons and the murderous reds suggest? The greens say it should start a little more grounded and down to earth with characters who know who they are and where they have been. But, the yellows have a say in the debate as well – that homey color that small kitchens are hued, broken up by the bottoms of copper pots hanging on the walls. As I move to the other side of the selections and flip through the beiges and browns, I wonder if the mood should be more somber or sedate. Instead, the term ‘boring’ comes to mind. Blue is the most popular of colors but at the same time, a synonym for depression. There on the bottom rows are the blacks and grays, the dark-and-stormy-nights of the selections. No, not a good choice.
Nevertheless, a decision must be made to begin the process. I collect one of each and tape them to the wall, waiting for the right one to jump out and say, “Pick me!” Then, I do nothing. I go about my daily business of dishes and phone calls, errands and cooking, eyeing these colorful concepts against the wall. Sometimes, I take them down and shuffle them, pacing back and forth as I flip through them, rambling through the possibilities. Another day I may sit and stare, wondering if repainting was such a good idea to begin with and consider tossing the samples into the junk drawer in the kitchen. Through this lengthy process, this dance with compromise and opinion, the idea of what the room can look like begins to take shape, just as it does with the initial creation of a story. I can see the room as it should be along with everything that goes on inside it: soft words, arguments, disappointments, joys, and misunderstandings. Then it happens, the moment of realization. When I can finally picture a room full of people chatting about their opinions or whining about their problems, complaining about their day or tossing a drink in someone’s face, I pull down the paint chip and say, most definitely, “red!”
With the idea of my color firmly fixed, it is time to begin preparing the room. With each picture taken down from the walls there are memories and stories attached to them. Now is the time to decide which elements I will keep, exactly as they are. The others will require the pulling of nails and the filling of holes, little gaps that may or may not end up serving a purpose. But, progress is being made: I have a color, I know which pictures I want to keep in place, and which ones to store away in the closet under the stairs. Knowing these things, I begin to outline the floor with painter’s tape.
When outlining this way, always choose the cobalt blue tape. It is sticky enough to stay intact but giving enough to allow you to rip it away and start again. Admittedly, there are times when my method is lazy and half the tape must be removed and laid again, mainly because I did not bother to sweep away the dust from the floor. Cluttered, dusty ideas are a bad thing and will cause the colors to run in places I never intended. It is better to start with firm ideas, bare walls, all holes filled, and a clean outline all the way around the baseboards. I should know. I have painted many stories without the use of painter’s tape. Characters that belong to another writer make their way into the room and spill out onto the floor, only to be wiped up later with a damp eraser. The concept wanders around without any notion of beginning, middle, and end. Without this outline to guide me, this neat row of blue tape surrounding the room, my thoughts get out of hand and scoot out the front door, just as a cat does when it spies a squirrel on the front steps. If I am not careful, a month will pass without a character even entering a room, let alone bothering to paint it.
Next, there is the ritual of the tools, everything I will need to create the first coat of paint to my story. A clean desk is my drop cloth. However, I usually notice that the drop cloth needs washing, then ironing, and the paintbrushes need cleaning first. I do not have a number-two roller and aside from all of this fussing – doesn’t the dishwasher need to be filled? Before I know it, the mood is gone without a single sentence or brushstroke and I reach for the television remote.
In a perfect world, one would think it is time for the real work to begin, and it should be. However, something else has settled in among my tools, ideas, and plans for redecorating the page – fear. What if my brushstrokes are sloppy and lack perfection on the first attempt? What if I have chosen the wrong color and in six months, I will want to change it again? I imagine throwing a party where I walk by some uninvited guest as she takes a sip of white wine and says, “What a terrible color. They obviously didn’t hire a professional.” That one simple line from a stranger triggers the panic so I sit and wait, sometimes for months, with furniture pulled out in the middle of the room. By this time, I have already forgotten which pictures hung where.
Perhaps I should just be content with being an observer, someone who enjoys delving into the works of others without the burden of judgment. Should I simply download the latest design catalog to my Kindle and be happy with that? Why did I ever think I could possibly paint my own scene when there are so many others that can do it better? There is the literary style of Sherwin Williams, the complexity of Benjamin Moore, and the poetry of Glidden. Why, even mainstream artists like Behr managed to find an audience.
Still it is there, this itching desire to create for myself. In the middle of the night when no one is looking, I flip on the lights, grab a flathead screwdriver and open the can of paint. Obsession takes over. I move across the surface quickly with my roller, trying not to care that I will have to go back and fill in the corners with my paintbrush. For now, the corners are unimportant. If I can just get one coat complete then I will have something to work with. I will be able to see where the saga of this room is going and more images will come to me. One finished coat will tell me if I need to recover the sofa or just buy new throw pillows. Just one unabridged, protective covering and I know I will have something to work with.
I stand back, wipe my brow, and set down the brush. What a mess. What a horrible, stinking catastrophe. The old color is showing through in places, the trim now looks dingy, and there is still that perfect line to create against the ceiling. I have to remind myself it is a beginning, a rough draft of what the room can be if I have the courage to go back and perfect it. Oh, look. There is a run splashing down the windowsill in a big glob. Yes, the room definitely needs editing.
Not yet. Too many rash decisions can be made at this point. It is best to put the room in a drawer for at least a week, maybe two, and get back to the normalcy of life. Shut the door without looking back and go out into the world. The image of it is still there, though, weighing of my subconscious. While sitting in a grungy coffee shop or pushing my cart in the produce aisle of the grocery store, questions begin to form. Occasionally, answers show up.
Is there too much of me in the room? Did I, the protagonist of the narrative, not think enough about everyone else who will be living there? Did I flesh out the opinions and emotions of the other characters who will be sitting on the couch staring at four red walls? Maybe they have something to say about the choice of new curtains. Better yet, perhaps they will argue with me about the new area rug I bought in a moment of spontaneity and give my little project more conflict, more umph! Ah, even more useful, what if there is a knock-down-drag-out fight towards the end that causes all of us to throw the old furniture out into the street, cursing and kicking the entire way?
I open the door, step inside and begin the second coat in an attempt to tidy up all the loose ends that shine through. I stand on the ladder and carefully cut in against the white ceiling, meticulously calculating the pressure of each swipe of the paintbrush, careful that it does not erase any of the good work I have done. I stay inside the lines of everything I have learned, crossing every “t” and dotting every “i” of the room. I place commas in the corners and wipe away misused semicolons from the floor.
Still, it is not enough. The woodwork needs refreshing and the floors require mopping – not my favorite pastime. I turn back to the first wall, page one of this entire adventure, and start again because I know it is not BETTER HOMES AND GARDEN quality. I fumble with the upholstery attachments and vacuum silly dialogue from beneath the couch and loveseat before pushing them back into place. The title will do for now, at least until someone accepts that this room really is a great place to be and says, “I’d love to live here.”
I realize that when you work on something this hard, there will eventually come a day when you finish. I put away the tools and sigh. The moment arrives when I have to face the terrible truth that there is nothing left to do. Part of me doesn’t want to let go yet. I walk around the room straightening picture frames, running my fingers along tables that have already been dusted, and stoop down to pick up a single speck of lint from the floor. I fluff the cover letter on the wingback chair and slide the room into an oversized envelope. There is nothing more to do except wait, possibly for weeks or even months, to see if anyone wants to come to the unveiling. As I watch the postman carry the package away, I stand there with crossed arms and wonder, should I have gone with blue?