Crushing the butterfly

I had one of those bookstore moments last week where a book on the very bottom of the new releases shelf caught my eye. I picked it up, and it went home with me. (I feel good it was an independent bookstore. Just saying.) The book was This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett. It turned out to be well worth my time and money.

I want to share something in my own experience I heard Ann say in the book. It is about art and how it becomes real in our heads and then when we try to put it into a tangible form, it loses its glitter. I know because this happens with every single tapestry I weave.

I design largely in my head.

For a long time.

Little bits of this and that come together over time and an image forms. I can see it in all its beautiful form. I can almost feel the yarn and my muscles know what weaving it would feel like. Then I finally do the hard work of putting that beautiful idea into a cartoon and choosing the colors and yarn for it. And then I start to weave. And that is when it happens. Ann Patchett, who is a writer, puts it this way.
For me it's like this: I make up a novel in my head.... This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling. During the months (or years) it takes me to put my ideas together, I don't take notes or make outlines; I'm figuring things out, and all the while the book makes a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame. This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

And so I do. When I can't think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It's not that I want to kill it, but it's the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing--all the color, the light and movement--is gone. What I'm left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That's my book.
I know that sounds kind of stark, but it really is kind of like that. I have a beautiful image in my head and it is perfect. And I know it is going to be the best tapestry ever. The design has evolved over months and I have tweaked it endlessly until it is just perfect. But in the translation to a real, tangible piece of art, it becomes something that does not bear a great resemblance to the thing that I saw in my head.

Ann goes on to talk about how "art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art you must master the craft" and then to talk about forgiveness.
Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don't know where exactly, I arrived at the art. I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.
Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. Every time I have set out to translate the book [...] that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let's face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can't write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.
Forgiveness for ourselves. Practice. Continue.

Reference: Patchett, A. (2013). This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. p. 24-25, 29-30.