Picassos on the Page
Last week I was at the MET with my grandma, taking in as much as we could in the hour and a half we had before closing, which is to say, not a whole lot. We were sort of running through Impressionism, giving quick waves to Van Gogh and Monet and the rest, when Picasso stopped us in our tracks (he's pretty good at that). It was unlike any Picasso I'd ever seen, without all the pizzazz of cubism. I've seen things from his Blue Period before, but nothing hurt to look at so much as this one. It's called'The Blind Man's Meal'and if you want to be geeky like me, you can read more about it here. The photo below doesn't do it justice, but hopefully it'll give you pause, too.
So what does Picasso and, more particularly, this painting, have to do with writing' In a word: character. Picasso didn't just paint'any'blind man - he painted'this'blind man. He is absolutely singular, caught in a private moment of sorrow and longing. And yet there's also something tranquil here, a sort of acceptance of his condition. What kills me is the way his hand seems to almost be stroking the jug of wine. I can almost feel the grainy texture under my own fingertips as I imagine him running his skin over it. Perhaps he's wondering what color it is or wishes he could see how much is left. Or he wishes there were someone he could share it with - this blind man feels very much alone, no' And look at his face. He's beautiful, but does he know it' The swooney girl in me wants to kiss those perfect, pouty lips, but does he have someone in his life to appreciate them' I don't think so. He's skinny and sitting alone and he only seems to have that one piece of bread. Picasso shows us his poverty here; I'm not exactly sure what "telling" looks like in a painting, but my guess is that the blind man is not a representation or a stand-in--it's him in all his raw humanity. Picasso doesn't need to beat us over the head with it, we get it from the way his shirt hangs a little loosely around him, the meagre meal, the blue tones that immediately evoke sadness.
I wonder how Picasso got us there. It's not just masterful technique or a great subject. It was something deeper. Pieces of himself that he mixed in with the pain and an awareness of the human condition so keen, so empathetic, that there is no doubt that Picasso, however briefly, went to this sightless place with the blind man in order to see him more clearly. When he painted this in the early nineteen-hundreds, Picasso himself was a poor artist. But he wasn't blind. He, as editor Patricia Gauch says, "went to the mountain." You look at this painting, you see this character in this deeply private moment, and you feel something. An ache, a hurt in the pit of your stomach that has nothing to do with pity. It's beautiful because it's real.
YA is full of unreal characters. Broody boys and pretty girls who don't know they're pretty and everyone sounds the same and has the same problems and BLEGH. Or, you get characters who seem to put the quirk in quirky, as though weird ticks and habits and hobbies slapped onto a teen prototype can somehow render them unique. You can see the author trying too hard. Give me the real deal, however messy it is. Give me'Eleanor and Park,'two characters who are so real to me that I swear I'm going to run into them on the street someday. Oh Lord, give me Sean Kendrick from'The Scorpio Races,'where author Maggie Stiefvater takes the broody boy to a whole new level. Or how about the wonderfully conniving Frankie Landau-Banks'and the heartbreakingly broken Lennie in'The Sky is Everywhere' These are some of my favorite characters because they aren't perfect. They're messed up and make bad choices or they've got so many sides to themselves--hidden sides, beautiful sides--that they're kaleidoscopic.
Writing a truly unique protagonist is hard work. It requires the writer to dig deep, to go further, to walk on hot, shifting sands and brave soul-sucking winds. Like an actor, you need to channel them, meditate on them, talk to them. And listen. Because they always talk back and they'll let you know when you're making a false move. Avoid the easy route. Cross out the cliches and find the characteristics and moments that are as unique as a fingerprint. The process is arduous but when it works...well, when it works, we call that art. Writing a Picasso is'like closing your eyes and searching with your fingertips for that jug of wine, that hunk of bread, the hunger that nothing seems to fill.
It's dancing in the dark.
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