GRIST FOR THE MILL

There is a popular book titled “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” that discusses how the advent of modern transportation and refrigeration gave people an extraordinary selection of food from which to choose and gave rise to the question, “What to eat?”

This title came to my mind when I was pondering the creative food that I as a writer and artist consume and from which I draw my inspiration and sustenance. There is a vast cornucopia of resources. In other words, everything and everyone is grist for the mill for a creative person.

I say this because several people I know – some slightly and some intimately – periodically read my blog. There are others who currently do not, but might in the future. The question I put to myself is what is my responsibility towards those I may make a meal of at some point in the future.

I am not really a fiction writer so I cannot hide behind slippery statements of fact vs. imagination, nor do I change names to protect the innocent. When I write about my neighbor Gina, for example, that is her real name and what I am saying is true – at least from my point of view. When I reminisce about a friend or relative from childhood, to the best of my memory, I am telling the truth.

The other day I asked myself what would Gina say if she read what I had written about her. Would she see it humorously or would her feelings be hurt? Would she view it as an invasion of privacy or be flattered? Even though I have a great fondness for her, did my rendering of various situations in the service of humor do injury to her?

I think these are real questions that every creative person must ask for life and people are our raw materials. To create our art we look at others with some degree of detachment, even manipulation, perhaps seeing how they reflect the outlines of an archetype, for example; or as the villain in the human comedy. We use people as engineers use steel or bakers use flour or mathematicians use numbers.

I think of satirists like Swift and Voltaire or the great political cartoonists. Did they have second thoughts about those they portrayed? Or, did they believe that by virtue of the public lives and/or infamy of their targets that they deserved all that they got and more. While I name names in my essays, my intention is usually not to criticize – although I must admit to poking fun. Might those I write about be hurt or would they laugh too?

The great society portrait painters walked a tightrope for they had to render their subjects who were paying dearly for the privilege, in a somewhat favorable light. How much light do you shine on the big nose or mean little eyes or slack and aging jowls? How much of the soul do you dare reveal – and have you as an artist the confidence to know what you are seeing is true and not a projection of your own perspective.

If any of you know a writer you can be sure that sooner or later, you or some facet, aspect or personal experience of yours will end up in a story, essay, poem, play or conversation. You may not recognize it at first but it will be there – the seemingly random comment coming out of some character’s mouth; a private confidence being acted out on the printed page; the story you whispered at midnight after too much wine the plot of erotic short story.

If you want to keep your secrets never date a poet for your most intimate and sacred moments will one day be read by others. The only saving grace is that so few people read poetry today that unless you have the misfortune to be involved with a really great writer few graduate students will ever interview you for their thesis. Songwriters are somewhat safer because their lyrics have to appeal to the masses and are thereby more general.

Novelists are the best bet for they have to create such long and convoluted plots that your particular eccentricities and foibles will be spread over many characters and chapters, thereby lessening any chance of recognition by your parents, ex girl/boyfriends or co-workers.

Another good bet for dating within the creative tribe are artists – not cartoonists who are by nature a little weird or caricaturists who are the anarchists of the visual arts – but the serious oil painters, particularly if they are abstract expressionists. Nobody will ever recognize your countenance among the drops, splashes, streaks and spills.

After all of these perambulations on the truth vs. falsehood in creative endeavors I’ve come to the conclusion that is it “caveat emptor” situation. Let the buyer beware. If, by any twist of misfortune, you find yourself near – or even suspect being observed by – any of the creative types, I urge you to be alert.

Take the necessary steps to safeguard your privacy. Watch for the bulging pocket which can contain the traveler’s sketchbook; beware of phones with built-in cameras and tape recorders; and in particular, be cautious of the slightly seedy slouching person with glasses and a wooly cardigan with patches on the elbows who seems to be interested in your tete-a-tete at the coffee shop.

 

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6 thoughts on “GRIST FOR THE MILL

  1. You are so right. People are my very sustenance. I am a literary cannibal. I try to hide the real people as much as I can. James Herriot was the best at that. He created characters that were hilarious and relatable but so well disguised that few people recognized themselves.

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