A Train, Manet, and…a Burger?

The title of this sounds like a joke in progress, but it’s not. Over Labor Day Weekend Barry and I took the South Shore Line into Chicago to (finally!) catch Manet and Modern Beauty at the Art Institute.

If you’re a listener of our podcast, Writing All the Things, you’ve heard about our trip in Episode 10. (Shameless plug.)

First of all, the train ride to the museum reminded us of when we rode from Rome to Florence backwards. It gives you more time to gaze at something if it catches your eye. We watched quaint towns go by and I (an urban decay aficionado) paid close attention to the rusting steel mills. It was a short enough ride from where we got on not to be tiresomely long.

Since I have recently fallen for vintage South Shore posters, much to my wallet’s chagrin, it was exciting to ride it for the first time.

We actually arrived early in Chicago, so we stopped for a quick breakfast before getting in line at the museum. “Getting in line” is code for talking with everyone around us about the exhibit, about previous exhibits, and about other museums we had all been to. Visitors were there from Japan and New Zealand, for starters.

Once we had our tickets we raced directly to the exhibit. Inside it, we decided to start at the end and come forwards. This was because, predictably, the area was packed with the early crowd.

Forgive me for this mild rant: it’s eerie to be in an exciting exhibit and hear near silence, to see audio guides glued to faces. That’s fine for those who like it, I suppose, but I “art” aloud. I like to discuss my discoveries, share with wide hand gestures the inevitably beautiful lines. (I’m a line person!) When I see a gorgeous color, I feel obligated to point it out. I don’t think this means I respect art any less. Hubby is much the same.

True, art has sometimes reduced me to silence. It has caused me to weep. This exhibit, however, felt like a visit with a friend. I’ve been studying Manet’s work for several years, and I could likely have been a guide myself.

Because the show was of his later works, Victorine (of my forthcoming novel of the same name; she was his favorite model and a painter herself), was only present in a photo from Manet’s album.

All of the works were worth seeing, though some stood out more than others. In the Conservatory was there. Barry and I last saw it with a dear friend in Berlin, where it lives. It was wonderful to see it again and discover the cigar anew.

Plum Brandy’s colors are hard to match, as is the sad sack expression on the model’s face. The model was actually an actor of the time, and her face would have been familiar. What does that say about acting of the time that he depicted her as so glum? Or was he merely painting what he observed?

Also to note: the banquette the woman is seated at (she’s supposed to be in a cafe or some such drinking establishment) is repeated in another of his paintings, clearly giving away that the painting was created in his studio. And, did you know they actually put a whole plum in the brandy? I haven’t researched this, but that’s what’s in her glass. Go figure. Ah, but those shades of rose and pink, the way the colors race around the canvas…

Manet was a master of still life. His brioche (complete with Zuzu, his wife’s cat, in the background, and a rose sticking out of the baked good) looks flaky and tasty. His white asparagus (besides looking phallic, naturally — the man has a juvenile’s sense of humor sometimes) are lifelike. There were two paintings of them there. One, alone, and a bunch of them as well.

His irregular, faintly bruised peaches also bear testament to his still life abilities. One likes them better for their imperfections.

Barry and I probably spent the most time in front of Boating. The colors in person are dazzling! Those gradations of blue! The shimmering water!

The figure placement is, predictably, pleasingly unusual. The passenger in the small boat, a woman in a dress that looks ungodly hot, complete with a belt, a hat, and veil, leans on her elbows. We see her profile. Her companion, the rower, is in basically a white undershirt, white pants, and a small straw hat. I’m angry that he gets to dress cooler than she does. He looks kinda irritated — because it’s hot and he’s rowing? How warm must she be!

In any case, the couple seems disconnected, for all that they’re in this tiny space. Her pose is relaxed but her body is not. They’re turned about as far away from one another as they can be.

He has the expression of someone who sees he’s about to have his picture taken and doesn’t like it. But since he’s posed for this painting, we have to attribute his features to conveying what Manet wants him to.

Is the rower too hot? Hearing bad news? Tired? The writer in me is still spinning scenarios.

Ah, but I promised you a burger. So because we didn’t have much time after we finished at the museum to have dinner, we shared an Impossible “burger” at Burger King. You know, the veggie burger that’s supposed to be indistinguishable from a real burger? Spoiler alert: it’s not. But nice try, BK.

If you missed the show, I’m sorry to hear it. It was special in so many ways. We talked about it from the museum back to the dunes and pretty much all the way home the next day. I still feel excitement fluttering in me just thinking of it.

What’s your favorite exhibit you’ve ever seen? Or is there one you wanted to make it to but didn’t? Let me know.

La Luministe, a Lush Art Novel by Paula Butterfield

When I heard about this book, I knew I’d buy it. There are books like that. Since I’m an Impressionism geek and feminist, when I heard that Paula Butterfield had written a novel about Berthe Morisot, one of the few women on the forefront of the Impressionist movement, I was thrilled.

Then I learned that my Victorine Meurent, the main character of my novel, makes an appearance in La Luministe, and I squealed. (A fun thing is that Morisot shows up in my book briefly as well.)

If someone had asked me what I’d like a novel written about, I’d have said this. And I wasn’t disappointed.

But before I discuss the content, let’s look at the cover. You’ve got this amazing painting, At the Ball, by Morisot, which depicts a woman with a fan. Here, though, the painting is partially, tantalizingly, obscured. If you continue your gaze downward, you’ll be rewarded by a bit of what we assume is an easel, complete with a lovely, paint-spattered brush at the bottom. That brush! I want to hold it.

As one who has carefully studied mid-19th century Parisian art history and its chief players, I greatly admired and enjoyed the story, once I allowed my gaze to stray beyond that fabulous cover. In fact, Butterfield assumes the mantle of our “luministe” as she enlightens us about what it was like to be a painter during a time when respectable women did not paint beyond pretty little scenes to make them seem accomplished to suitable husbands.

Though artist Berthe Morisot sustains a lifelong longing for the unobtainable Edouard Manet, she manages to break free from both society and familial expectations enough to become a painter of note herself in the newly bourgeoning Impressionist movement. In the end, she ultimately finds herself at “repose,” as one of Manet’s paintings of her is titled.

This book is moving, well researched, and told with painstaking detail. It was a delight to read.

Manet’s Mania for Chokers

In Victorine, my historical novel coming out in the next few months, I write about the black choker Edouard Manet paints Victorine wearing. I imagine it as his bootlace, called into service on the spot.

Later, I give Victorine adoring fans who purchase and sport chokers with her as Olympia in lockets. It hardly offsets the cruelty she experiences in the streets after the “scandalous” nude painting was exhibited.

But Victorine is not the only one of Manet’s models to wear chokers. While I wouldn’t dismiss out of hand someone psychoanalyzing the painter and his predilection for encircling his model’s necks, I prefer to chalk it up to his respect and regard for fashion. Few paint fabric and fashion of the day the way he did.

When I stumbled upon this collage on Instagram, I knew I had to share it with you. Thanks, guzelonlu, for this lineup.

Four of the images pictured are Victorine. Can you tell which?

Bonus points if you can tell me the titles of those paintings. First one to comment gets a shoutout from me on Twitter.

#Manet #ArtHistory #Art #Impressionism

Guilty Secret: I Like Editing!

the skull

Some people hate editing. I don’t. Now I’m not talking about that prissy brand of “You really need a comma here” editing. That’s important, and it can certainly be useful, but people who like that sort of editing tend to be those who are less involved in creative writing and more all about the rules. That’s the sort of person who makes me more than a little cranky to be around.

While there’s nothing like writing twenty-four pages in one fevered sitting (my wrists ached, but I did it), there’s something even better about slowing down and reading and tweaking what you wrote.

With a rough draft, you have to get intimate. You stare at each sentence. You make every word explain itself, sometimes repeatedly. You ask it how it has earned its place. If it hasn’t, out it goes. There’s nowhere for a word to hide, no fig leaf you won’t pull away from it.

Oh and that’s just each word. Now what about POV? If you are using multiple points of view, you have to demand to know why the narrative is shifting. What’s gained? What’s lost? If your text can handle that, move on to:

Scenes. Is every scene necessary? Are any gratuitous? Have you mentioned your pet pig collection just because you like pigs or is the collection integral to the story?

Will summary tell more with less belaboring? Then summarize away!

What about half scenes? If you have half scenes, do you have good reasons that they aren’t full-blown affairs? Why are they hybrids? What’s gained? What’s lost?

Those are the two questions, actually, that you must ask yourself all along the way, no matter what you do to your pages. What’s gained by this choice? What’s lost?

I just finished (another) read through of my manuscript with a pen. Trust me, it is quite marked up. Next up will be to put in the changes and to write the missing scenes…or locate them in a previous draft and reinstate them! (The nice thing about changes are that they don’t have to be permanent. You’re allowed to change your mind.)

In multiple spots I noted “you’ve already said this.” Apparently I wanted to get those points across! I am merciless with myself. I will make fun of myself in the margins while editing. I just today wrote “Zzz…” at a particularly “talky” part. Nothing is allowed to escape the heavily wielded pen. That’s as it should be.

While I may be proud in many areas (just ask my husband), when it comes to my writing, I am egoless. Anyone may say anything about my writing, and I can remain objective. If there is a grain of truth to the criticism, I will know it. I will grasp onto it and not make that mistake again.

This is, of course, because I have confidence in my writing abilities. If you don’t have that, keep writing, keep reading, until you do have it. I’m not sure editing tips are going to help you if you don’t believe in yourself. (See Anne Lamott’s “Sh*tty First Drafts” in Bird by Bird if you need permission to not write perfectly. Then come back over here.)

When it comes to writing, you’re going to have to be totally convinced that you know how to write to edit as harshly, as lovingly, as you need to. Perhaps “harshly” is the wrong word. Be solidly sure that you know how to write, if not perfectly. Demand of yourself that you keep going until the words say exactly what you want them to say. Don’t allow less.

Here’s what I do: I read through the passage I’m editing until I catch a “ding.” I stole that from someone. My apologies because I don’t remember who said it first, but it’s true. Keep reading until you hit upon a word, a phrase, or an idea that just doesn’t sit right. Then see if you can get rid of what doesn’t work. Unkink the syntax. “Verbify” a draggy sentence.

You do know to use vivid verbs, don’t you? If you have not read Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch by Constance Hale, please stop reading and go order it. Now. (Unless you are my husband who is one of the most vivid “verbers” I know. In everyday speech, no less.) Seek and destroy passive sentences.

By the way, I will not be able to come even close to saying in one post everything there is to know about editing. There are editing checklists out there, some good ones. I’ll let you find the one that speaks most to you.

Editing shouldn’t take place until the bones of the piece are there: the basic plot has been settled and you likely have a pretty complete rough draft. If not, you might as well get your beginning, middle and end finished first. That’s another reason I don’t like those schoolmarmish editing types: they always want to edit your work too soon. Don’t do it. Don’t let them, either. Many a fine story or novel has died due to early, undue criticism. A flower just emerging from the ground does not yet bloom. Don’t expect more of your work. Not yet.

Beware plot/logic jumps. Sometimes you mention something in chapter one and contradict yourself in chapter eight. Yeah, I’ve been known to do that. Honestly, I’m not so great at catching that stuff. Perhaps you can guess that I’m a pantser, not an outliner. Although after my tortured reworking of this novel I keep saying I’m going to become an outliner in the future. Uh-huh. And I may also shave my head.

For me, those issues are easiest fixed by asking others to read it for me. Another way to do it is for me to read the work all the way through a couple of times. The problem with that is that I become self conscious and only half pay attention as I read because I feel shy of my own work. It feels immodest to enjoy it. I do note high points, but anything that wobbles at all makes me despair. Just for a moment, but enough so that I honestly can’t keep the whole flow in my head at once. I suspect that is a singular failing of mine.

Don’t confuse quantity with quality. I recently lopped over fifty pages off my WIP. I don’t mind that at all. It’s a stronger story for it. Now, that said, I will likely continue to warp and weave another block of pages back in because I got rid of a character who wasn’t working. She just couldn’t convince me that she lent anything to the party, so O-U-T and out goes she.

When you can read through the book more than once and nothing sticks out, nothing stops you, chances are any changes that you make at that point will be nervous tics. Stop. Hit “print.” And consider your work edited.

I will be a happy camper when I can do so with this novel. But I am also enjoying the journey, every syllable of it. Because to me, editing is when you get to sit back and enjoy your work, knowing you can still change things that don’t please you. Once your work is in print, it’s no longer just yours. That’s the beauty and the sorrow of it.