The Artistic Unconscious (Never Avert Your Eyes)

Today’s guest post is from the always authentic Darrelyn Saloom. Follow her on Twitter, or read more of her guest posts here. Above: “Queen of Heaven”, oil on canvas, by Wayne Ditch.

The first day on a quest to collect narratives from my mother, I
realized how fundamentally unprepared I was for the job. As we dug
through and organized boxes of old photographs, Mama told me the story
behind each one. But listening was not always easy. Some of the images
made me uncomfortable. I’d look away, pick up another snapshot, and then
change the subject.   

Frustrated, I went home with an empty
notebook. Unable to write a single sentence, I decided to read the
spring issue of Writers Ask, a quarterly publication of author
interviews that has never failed to inspire me. I realized my mistake on
the fourth page when Pulitzer Prize winner, Robert Olen Butler,
responded to a question about his talent for “inhabiting people who are
way outside yourself.”

The thing about the artistic unconscious
is that, well, first of all, it’s scary as hell there, and that’s why to
be an artist means never to avert your eyes, because your impulse, your
deepest impulse, is to flinch, to look away. That’s why so many writers
are very comfortable in their heads—it’s safe there.

Butler’s
reply was a perfect description of what I’d done while visiting my
mother. I looked away when I didn’t like the picture in front of me. And
I stopped listening when I disapproved of her story. My mother stood
before me, yet I refused to see her. It was safer that way. I could just
make up my own tale of a conventional mom.

And that was an
enormous mistake. The beauty of Mama’s life is that she never followed
the rules of convention. She has spent eighty-three years in defiance.
Her story is of a rebellious girl who refused to learn to cook, sew, or
embrace anything domestic. She joined the army during the Second World
War. But mostly she worked to earn her own money. She did marry, but
often, and in a blaze of passion.

So if you go into your
unconscious and you don’t avert your eyes and you do that day after day,
story after story, book after book, eventually you will break through
to a place where you are neither male nor female, neither black, white,
red, or brown, neither Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, or Jew, … You
are human. … And if the authenticity comes from that deep place,
and if your life experiences are eclectic and broad and intensely
observed on the surface levels as well, because that’s important, then
you can draw that universal human authenticity up through the vessels of
characters, who might be, on the surface, quite different from you.

As
I read the interview, I wondered what it would be like to visit my
mother and not see her as Mother. Not some projected idea of what I want
her to be. Just allow the stories to flow, not close my eyes or look
away. Listen without judgment or manipulation, anger or pain. In other
words, visit my mother from the same place I go to as a writer in an
effort to create.

Part of the reason artists are who they are is
so they can reassure the world that the things that seem to divide
us—race, gender, culture, ethnicity, religion—are not nearly as
important as the things that unite us. And we never question the
artist’s ability to do that in realms that I would suggest require a
greater leap of imagination than leaping over matters of gender and race
and so forth. For example, I am a middle-aged white male, born in the
Midwest, I am an only child. My parents, last December, celebrated their
sixty-eighth wedding anniversary. And not a day has gone by when we
have not been in contact with each other, and most days the word love is
freely and sincerely exchanged.

I imagine Robert Olen Butler
lives by his words. It’s reflected in his impressive body of work. It’s
also reflected in his relationship with his parents. I love my parents,
too. So my quest has expanded. As I collect Mama’s stories, I shall
practice being human. Not Daughter questioning Mother, but as one person
to another. And this time, my goal is to leap into the artistic
unconscious and not avert my eyes. 

Editor’s note: If
you didn’t know, Writer’s Digest published two compilations of the best material from the Writers Ask
newsletter
(via Glimmer Train). Check them out: Volume

1 and Volume

2.

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22 thoughts on “The Artistic Unconscious (Never Avert Your Eyes)

  1. Carolyn Patin

    True! True! True! Another lesson learned from a story written by you.

    I enjoyed this story very much. It "home" for me. I will engraved the words "Never Avert Your Eyes" into my heart and brain. It is something all humans should practice (or at least try).

    On a side note, I love the painting (by artist Wayne Ditch), that you chose to go with your story.

    Thanks for your treasured gift you share with us.

  2. Mariana N. Blaser

    What a wonderful piece Darrelyn!

    Indeed we have an innate tendency to flinch from reality, especially when it concerns our loved ones. In my view, your finding is one of the most precious of a writer’s life, as you discovered a new perspective, a new way of thinking and seeing things. This means that not only your personal life will be enriched, but your writing as well. My compliments!

    On a final note, I’m sorry I took this long to stop by. The Mother Day’s tour took all my attention! I hope you had a marvelous mother’s day. 🙂

  3. Charlotte B

    Perfect piece for Mother’s day! I’ve been working on the same journey with my grandmother and mother. It is so interesting to really sit down and listen. They have so many stories to share both inspiring and heartbreaking. I look forward to learning, listening, and really getting to know what they’ve experienced during thier time on earth.

  4. Dan Holloway

    This is a fascinating piece, and I’m not sure if I absolutely agree, or absolutely disagree. I know I have issues with the way Butler presents his arguments in the quoted pieces, but I have a feeling they may be surface differences. For me, the attempt to show the commonality of human nature is the first step to inauthenticity in writing. There is no such thing as commonality or category – and just as those things don’t divide us, neither do they unite us. Every world view is different, and is recounted by the unflinching (and here I absolutely agree) observation of the author’s mind. Each person ,as part of the world, observes a different external world – because the set of thnigs external to each author is different – in each case it is "the totality minus me" and "me" in every case is different.

    My intuition is that it is when we ruthlessly forget all attempts at commonality (which, nonetheless, as artists, is always in the background) and burrow deepest inside ourselves for the messed and mulched mix of outside and inside we find there that we stand most chance of succeeding in bridging the gap and reaching out – one absolutely lonely individual speaking to a "society" comprised of those who, whatever their illusions, are nothing but so many million other absolutely alone beings.

    So, back to disagreement – one’s own head is the scariest place to be, and the only source of information for the writer. Literature, whether we imagine it or not, is confessional. My inkling is that writing is at its most authentic when there is no attempt to hide that confessionality.

  5. JoAnn M

    Darrelyn, Your post intrigued me on so many levels, most intimately as I believe one of my children just wishes I owuld learn to sit and knit when I prefer to crochet other dreams, color outside the lines, which I still can. Parts of that still include stumbling around a bit while I find the key to those doors, the spices to flavor that appetizer that sets the stage for moving on to savor more of the unlimited menu. How old he seems in his seriousness and I pray that someday he can take off his judgmental focused glasses and see the treasure that is me.

  6. Sally G

    Reading this, I am reminded of my husband’s favorite songwriter/singer Taj Mahal who sings, simply, "Take a giant step outside your mind..you’d be surprised at what you might find"–I never gave this a thought until I read your wonderful article. That’s the key, isn’t it, in creating that lasting piece of art that moves you to tears or laughter. Darrelyn, I hope you know that you have always been authentic, honest and have such a warm and wonderful way of weaving your dreams and ideas with the practical side of creation. Truly a gift. Happy Mothers Day.

  7. Donna Carrick

    Hi, Darrelyn, thanks for the excellent post. I think you captured the artistic comfort zone perfectly. What separates the best writers from the rest in my opinion is the ability to courageously step out of that zone to connect to the reality of being human.
    Hope you have a terrific Mother’s Day weekend — sounds like you’ve got an ambitious ‘mom’ project ahead!

  8. Rhonda Leverett

    Wow, Darrelyn, Thanks for sharing your heart. This post evoked many emotions in me. I visited my grandmother today, and couldn’t get enough of her. I wanted her stories. I wanted the smell of her face as it has always been–like Pond’s cold cream and something else she layers on top of that. No one smells like her. The stories we used to re-hash, of her being my childhood hero through every illness and poisonous insect bite, she doesn’t remember now. Really. She sat there over coffee and said, "I don’t remember that. Maybe if I rattled my brain." She is 89 and her life seems to me now as a shadow shifting in twilight–about to disappear. It is important that we do not flinch.

  9. cynthia newberry martin

    Darrelyn, it sounds like you were really paying attention and Butler’s writing provided words for the amorphous thing that was going on. I love when that happens. It also sounds like you’ve cracked the motherhood shell that was preventing you from seeing your mother. And now your writing has allowed me to see the shell. So thank you.

  10. Katie F.

    This article really touched me. The writing, painting, and excerpts from Butler worked really well together.
    I guess that I, too, am guilty of idealizing my mother to a point where I don’t see her as a person. I’m glad I read this today.

  11. Jenn

    Darrelyn,

    I am so happy that you shared this part of your writing process with us. I was hoping you would continue the story of What Lies in Between!

    What a challenge to put your "daughter self" on the shelf & listen as a writer. It would be easy to flinch & walk away from our family stories, but then we’d miss out on the chance to understand their lives & perspectives. I can’t wait to read your Mama’s stories some day.

    Thank you for another inspiring post Darrelyn!

  12. Kat Magendie

    Your mother sounds incredibly interesting. The day we catch a glimpse of our mothers as individuals outside of "Mom" (although we can never really completely see them as "not mom") is the day so many things can click into place, or the day forgiveness happens, or the day we see the whys of things.

    Beautiful article, as usual, Darrelyn

  13. Charlie Hass

    Great post. I think it’s true what a lot of writers say, that when the material starts getting uncomfortable for you, you’re getting somewhere. A hard process, but you and Butler help clarify it. Thanks.

  14. Suzette

    How thought provoking is that!? Darrelyn, I had no concept of the intricacies, depth and delicacy of the writer’s journey in getting and telling the true grit of a story. i can see where, if you couldn’t get in that place of neutrality and flow, it could be emotionally exhausting and stressful. I think your toolbox may be full, dear, so get to it. There are stories waiting for your pen.
    Happy Mother’s Day my sweet friend. And tell your mom I send her Happy Mother’s Day wishes as well. Now when are meeting for tea?
    Suzette

  15. Hilary Dartez

    Darrelyn,

    This blog has spoken to me as a daughter, grand daughter, and now as a mother. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and words with us.

    Happy Mother’s Day!

  16. Jane Bretl

    Darrelyn,
    As usual, you hit home. Talk about someone who can write with a universal understanding of the human condition — I relate so well to your stories I would think you have been following me around, watching my foibles and using them for fodder. You have a gift!

    So, I recently had some time with my mother and wanted to hear her stories, but do you know what happened? I did avert my eyes, out of instinct, and probably out of habit. I flinched, and then before I knew it she was driving away, and our private face-to-face time was over. I did not realize exactly what had happened until I read your piece; I had blamed the missed opportunity on a combination of chronic procrastination and irritable daughter syndrome, but it was simply… fear.

    I have the gift to see her again this summer, so I will have the chance to try again. With your help, I’ll go with my eyes wide open.

    Happy Mother’s Day to you!

  17. George LaCas

    Hi Darrelyn, this is probably my favorite out of all the guest posts you have written here. It reminded me of how difficult it is to clearly see family members, and also of the need for writers to create archetypes (universally, recognizably human) as opposed to stereotypes. Great post, and Happy Mother’s Day!

  18. Debra Marrs

    Darrelyn, wow, this is a treasure! I appreciate how you weave your mother’s story into Robert Olen Butler’s sage advice for writers. Deftly done! Within your piece is embedded the notion that writers must take themselves out of the writing and become excellent observers of characters and their actions, and then get it all down.

    I connect deeply with your experience, Darrelyn. My mother was a big storyteller, the keeper of all the family lore, and loved to tell the tales on everyone, even going back multiple generations. My sister, brother and I turned a deaf ear, never listening too closely to her gab. During the final months of her life, sensing it was time I got these stories on tape, I flew 2500 miles to spend time with her. Alas, she was too sick and not so interested in my quest. Sadly, our family lost so much of that family lore when she died. Be with your mother with clear eyes and open mind, Darrelyn. You’ll never ever regret that; I firmly attest.

    Thank you SO much for sharing your mother with us today. It’s a great tribute as we head into Mother’s Day weekend. Happy Mother’s Day to YOU and to Mama, Darrelyn.

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