Replay: Painting with words

Deborah Eisenberg — Portrait of a Painter

Deborah Eisenberg — Portrait of a Painter

A replay this week for an extraordinary writer who just won this year’s PEN/Malamud Award. Congratulations to Deborah Eisenberg.


The other night I was reading Cross Off and Move On, the latest short story by Deborah Eisenberg, a completely, utterly brilliant and original writer. Reading it I was struck by how she was able, in so few words, to paint pictures, words her brush strokes. With a few simple sentences (in terms of vocabulary she’s well-within a tenth grade level, proof you do not need to use big or obscure words to write deeply) she conveys a snatch of a childhood memory, or an elusive thought, the kind that never stays long in the mind because it’s pushed out by more mundane concerns: What time did she say she’d get here? Don’t I have to pick up milk at the grocery store? Should I get gas on the way home or wait till the weekend? I remember as a kid playing with magnets and noticing how I could never “pin down” a magnet with another of the same charge—one always pushed the other out of the way. These thoughts are a lot like that. They squeeze away just as you feel you’re about to nail them.

But Eisenberg lives somewhere deep in that netherland between conscious and unconscious, and she can convey the feelings and sights and sounds—and fears and hopes and aspirations—of these areas in vivid portraiture. Better than any other writer alive, in part because few others go there or go as deeply. Eisenberg’s stories are often like dreams.

She fills these dreams with those vivid portraits, and that was the thought I came away with when I finished her latest work—that I’d been thinking of fiction-writing in the wrong terms, or at least not the best-suited terms. Most people, even writers, will reflexively say writer are storytellers. I think I disagree. Writers are painters. They paint with words. The storytelling is secondary.

But, you say, what about The Bard? They don’t call him that name for nothing. Well, consider this: it’s well-known that most of Shakespeare’s plots are not original. Others in his own theater company even addressed many of them before he did. Before he took his stab most of them were not considered anything special. So why do his tellings live on?

I posit it’s because he painted better pictures. His stories had the better brushwork, not the better plotting. Bard my ass.

Great literature, really, rarely turns on plot, on “A happens, which leads to B and that leads to C, which makes D conflict with…”

No, no. It’s the author’s world, headspace, mind. A vase of flowers, a chair, a wheatfield, isn’t particularly interesting until Van Gogh looks at them. Both Beethoven and a far lesser-known composer dealt with da-da-da-duuum. In the same year, too! (1808, in case you’re interested.) If the content alone were so compelling, we’d still remember Étienne Nicolas Méhul’s symphony today, but for the most part we don’t. His notes just aren’t put together in a very interesting way.

God is in the details…

We constantly hear that writers are storytellers, but I don’t think so. Writers paint. Photographers paint with light. Dancers paint with movement. Writers paint with words. You can create a written masterpiece with no plot at all. But you can’t create one without a voice. That’s a shopping list. Or an instructional manual.

Listen to this wonderful passage of impressions from Cross Off and Move On, which, from what I’ve read about her, must originate from Eisenberg’s own childhood:

Sometimes my mother takes me to the club where she works, and even though it’s exhaustingly dull to play in the cloakroom all day, I can bring my paper and colored pencils, and there is a lurid appeal in the ambiguous suggestions of adult life: the soft, luxurious coats and scarves, the interesting muddy marks of huge shoes on the thick carpet when it’s been raining, the great big men who linger and talk with my mother and who smell—and even look—like cigars, and the pretty little basket that the men put change and sometimes dollar bills into.

I don’t know about you, but I can see this painting, hanging in a museum. It’s as real as anything by Courbet or Daumier.

Or how about a couple of very simple poignant sentences that describe the psychological character of a fragile young girl, her embittered mother, and three loving aunts—

There are two pianos in the parlor. I don’t play the piano. My lack of musical talent is impressive, my mother has informed me, and lessons would only be a waste of money. This is a shame, though, I explain solemnly to my aunts, who listen with raised eyebrows, because my mother says that those of us who will not necessarily be able to rely on our looks need to invest time and effort on cultivating our other assets. My aunts look at one another and then Aunt Charna puts her hands over her face and lies back, her lazy, round laugh rolling from her. My mother can be counted on to speak her mind, she says, and Aunt Bernice and Aunt Adela titter a bit, sadly.

Just tilt your head back and imagine it all. Some paintings are best viewed with your eyes closed.


One addendum: if you’re a fan of the show Gossip Girl, which stars her partner-for-more-than-30-years playwright Wallace (“Inconceivable!”) Shawn, you may want to know that Deborah was on one episode in the 2012-2013 season, called Despicable B, as herself. She’s also been in a couple other movies in small parts, most notably an uncredited blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre. (She’s also mentioned in the voice-over of the film, given, once again, by Wallace Shawn.)


2 responses

  1. Thanks, John. You have expanded my view of myself, which is what great writing is about. I think you are absolutely right. We writers are not just storytellers, but storytellers who use canvases of words and paint scenes and entire worlds for our readers to step into. Eisenberg is a great role-model for us all. I love this post!


    February 15, 2013 at 6:40 am

  2. Maureen Owen

    Wow, John, that was a good one. Your essay says more about what’s great in writing than so many others I’ve read. When are you going to finish that novel?!?! And I liked the new stories you have up.


    February 15, 2013 at 11:03 am

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