Revisions on the way to the grave

I have a short story that I started in the middle of 2020, submitted to Overland Literary Journal a year later and a year after that it was published in their issue 245, as shown here by my daughter, Margaux. It was started as I began to see a psychologist for the first time. The pandemic and lockdown in Victoria brought to the surface some of the trauma I’d long repressed and couldn’t paper over any longer. My family’s experiences of the Vietnam war, the experience of fleeing family and country, the experience of resettling into a new country with all that recent trauma upon us.

The psychologist gave me some tools, and I invented some of my own (including keeping a ‘cringe list’ in my phone notes of all the things that I felt embarrassed or ashamed of that kept coming back to thwart me), that helped me shift a few things around. Something that came up from those sessions was how important art had been for grounding me in the past. I began to think about getting back into painting. In January 2021 I got a studio again after a ten-year break.

I recently finished the painting below on the left, called ‘A milestone on the way to the grave’, which I’d read somewhere that Dylan Thomas had said about writing poems. I think about it often, how each painting or story finished is an entry into my personal, mortal register.

But can you go back to the milestone and move it? The late, great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges had no issue with returning to stories that had already been published and revising or rewriting them. This is of course a very Borgesian thing to do. Artists, too, often riff on the same ideas or themes, sometimes for years.

The painting above on the right was done twenty years ago, after I’d moved from Perth to Melbourne. They are both an attempt to celebrate my love of writing and painting. The idea is the same but the execution is different. We revise ourselves all the time, our health and wellbeing; we reinvent ourselves as different parts of us change, are resolved, or let go.

I’ve never wanted to give up painting or writing for the other, unlike surrealist painter James Gleeson, who chose art over writing when he was confronted with the same conundrum as a young man. Back when I was young and blissfully on the dole, I could make painting and writing co-exist equally in my day, but that’s harder to do when you have a family to feed. Hopefully I can find that sweet spot again, go back to the marker and shift it, albeit a little closer to the grave.

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