See how Woolf slows the below passage with short sentences to show Lily Briscoe’s agony when Mr. Bankes looks at her painting, one she has been guarding from others:
He had put on his spectacles. He had stepped back. He had raised his hand. He had slighted narrowed his clear blue eyes, when Lily, rousing herself, saw what he was at, and winced like a dog who sees a hand raised to strike it. She would have snatched her picture off the easel, but she said to herself, One must. She braced herself to stand the awful trial of some one looking at her picture. One must, she said, one must. And if it must be seen, Mr. Bankes was less alarming than another. But that any other eyes should see the residue of her thirty-three years, the deposit of each day’s living mixed with something more secret than she had ever spoken or shown in the course of all those days was an agony. At the same time it was immensely exciting.
As a debut author, I relate so incredibly strongly to Lily Briscoe and her simultaneous reluctance and desire to have her artwork seen. I was already in grad school when my first fiction was published, and I cried and maybe had a few too many when asked if I would let it be published. I was a sellout, I thought. I wrote for me. I wrote to understand, not for filthy lucre; not so that others could read my writing. I was going to grad school to learn how to be a better writer, but I guess I hadn’t thought about the end game. (I had been publishing nonfiction all along, but that was different to me) I was both honored and horrified, to be honest, to be offered publication. After a night of many tears, phone calls, and emails, I said yes.
My only relief was that I wasn’t paid for it. I couldn’t have handled that at the time. (Of course I DID get an advance for my novel, thank you very much, and I was fine with that.) My attitude has changed now, of course. The laborer is worthy of her hire, to modernize a biblical reference.
Wiser ones helped me understand that writing is a loop: author, story, reader. And that it’s not really a story until you communicate with your reader. I wasn’t sure I wanted to communicate with others or that I had anything original to say. How wonderful to discover what a gift it is to talk about your words with others. I’ve enjoyed so much speaking on TV, on podcasts, to reporters, to classes and groups. My unending passion to share Victorine’s story has allowed me to ease past my mixed feelings. (For those who have read my book, Victorine insists on being called by her last name, Meurent. I like to imagine I know her well enough to call her by her first name.)
Seeing Victorine published has given me unexpected gifts: those who love Victorine LOVE her. I’m so proud to have been a part of that process. (I adore her, too!) I’m proud that I put her self-portrait on the back of my book for the world to see for the first time in over a hundred years, the inaugural publishing of the painting, we believe. Her newly rediscovered paintings were shared on my PBS interview, the first time most anyone has seen them in the same amount of time. Those are huge wins and worth the initial discomfort of sharing my words.
In my second novel-to-come, just as fast paced as my first, Briscoe Chambers (named after Lily, naturally) struggles with life’s larger issues as well. She’s not a painter — her struggle is how and if to salvage a marriage broken into shards. She asks if her role as a facilitator of art (in this case, the art of music) is more important than a traditional marriage. Can she endure what she must (more on that later) for the result which she is convinced will add to the country music canon in a significant way? Should she?
There’s a twist to the book that I won’t talk much about yet. Let’s just say she discovers an art of her own and realizes that it’s herself she needs to see.
How have you been seen? How do you desire or want to be seen or by whom? What does it even mean to be seen? (Many popular books come out and mention seeing and being seen; perhaps Woolf was one of the first to imply the importance of it, to articulate it, to suggest that art is how we share our souls.)
And that Lighthouse passage above – Ah, am I right?