I read an article I read on the Publishers Weekly website called “Why Life and Writing are Inseparable” by Amie Barrodale, and I wanted to share some thoughts.
The thing that struck me first and drew me in was that the article opens with a discussion of writing, drops a rambling sentence of personal bombshells into the narrative, and then picks up the writing topic again without missing a beat. The result is jarringly familiar to anyone who has ever tried to combine life and writing, or life and illustrating, or life and any other creative endeavor. And especially so as I write this toward the end of a school year, which combines the chaos of life with the artistry of teaching.
Barrodale conveys the life/art balance through the structure of her story more effectively than if she’d used words alone, and at the same time establishes the importance of structure and subtext in her writing.
The article goes on to describe Barrodale’s early writing as having a focus on craft, until she found herself shifting to stories from her own life for the larger part of her career. We then find ourselves shifting from this brief focus on craft to a story from Barrodale’s life that takes up most of the remaining bulk of the piece.
And once again, in an entirely different way, I was struck by the author’s remarkable use of structure to support her theme. Much like concrete poetry, in which a poem about a fish might be shaped like a fish, Barrodale’s story about her life was actually shaped like her life—and can there be any better way to show the inseparability of life and creativity?
The story part of the article tells of Barrodale’s experiences carrying bowls around a Tibetan cave during a meditation retreat. She focuses on rules and norms, and how it felt to be in disagreement or conflict with other practitioners of the bowl-carrying arts.
Like most readers of the article, I’ve never been on a meditation retreat to a Tibetan cave, so I have no personal stake in the theory or politics Barrodale is describing. Readers can approach this story without the baggage we’d bring to a similar story about writing, or illustrating, or whatever creative endeavor we’re most experienced with and passionate about.
Which seems to be entirely the point.
A story about bowl-carrying techniques among cave-dwelling meditation practitioners can serve as an effective metaphor for any artists fumbling in the dark with the traditions and strictures of their craft. So what seems at first to be a tangent away from writing actually becomes the meat of Barrodale’s thesis about writing. Yet again, she uses structure rather than words to support the idea that writing and life are inseparable.
I thought the resulting essay was by far the most carefully, deliberately, and effectively structured article I’d ever read. But as a counterpoint, an irate reader in the comments section berated the author, editor, and publisher alike for releasing what she saw as an entirely unstructured article that “reads like someone journaling.”
Althrough we read all the same words, we read two very different articles.
From my perspective, the comment writer missed the most important aspects of the piece, as if looking at a fish-shaped poem and seeing only a random jumble of words. And from her perspective, she might say that I imposed an imagined structure on the article where none was actually intended.
Where I saw a pattern, the comment writer saw a mess.
Thinking about how the same article can be read and interpreted so differently by different people revealed the final puzzle piece in my quest to understand the connection between life and art.
Life is messy, but human beings are wired to extract patterns of meaning and importance from that mess. As creators, we seed our work with those same patterns and hope for the best. When a pattern resonates with a reader’s messy life experience, it feels true and a powerful connection is made. But a reader who does not connect with that pattern, no matter how artfully arranged, will only see the mess.
We may think we’re building stories with characters and plot, lines and color, structure and theme, but on the most basic level it’s all just patterns and mess.
Just like life.