Content or Form

by | Feb 14, 2007 | Approaches to Writing, Literature

But wait.  Is Mrs. Dalloway really about buying flowers?  Not exactly, although in A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf says that buying flowers is a perfectly worthy topic.  Actually, what she suggests is that buying dresses is as important as things that men do, such as fight wars and play football.

I once found myself defending Woolf’s choice of topics to a high school student.  She had just read Mrs. Dalloway and was less than impressed.  The writing was alright, she said, but nothing important happens.  What was the point?

Sometimes I find it easier to talk about literature by talking about painting instead, and this is one of those times.

Painters have been able to get away with treating seemingly trivial themes for centuries.  What’s the point of painting a bowl of fruit, a girl holding a pitcher, peasants in a field?  Well, maybe it’s that beauty can be found in all sorts of places if you only have the right sort of eyes.  There may even be meaning in a bowl of fruit, too, even if it’s the sort of meaning that words would have trouble nailing down.  But fixed, captured in paint, ennobled, placed in a frame, the dusty, dusky sheen on a bunch of grapes arrests your attention in a way that the sheen on an actual bunch of grapes might not.

So what?  Well, maybe it’s true that any object, intensely regarded, can be a gateway to the immortal gods.  If we approach art with the right frame of mind it has the ability, for a moment, for a lifetime, to rejuvenate our senses and our selves, to lift us out of the world of everyday experience and into one of eternal forms, like Dorothy, whirled magically away from black and white Kansas and plunked down in a land of Technicolor.  What does she see there?  Nothing but emblems of that Kansas world in which shining, simple truths have been lying hidden in plain sight.

But mark: It took a tornado to get her to see them.  Luckily, art can do the same thing, and here is where we get back to technique.  A zephyr would not have wafted Dorothy to Oz.  A set of blobs made with a purple crayon will probably not make you see whatever truth or beauty it is that is locked up in a bunch of grapes.

Some truths may be more pleasant than others, but still they are everywhere.  Thus although it matters what a scribbler chooses to write about, in another sense it does not matter at all.  Either way, technique is the tornado that does or does not get the reader to see it, whatever it is.