Writers on Writing #118: Dorothy Bendel
Writing, David Lynch, and the Shape of the Jug
“The outward form of things passes away, but the essence remains forever. How long will you be besotted with the shape of the jug? Cast aside the jug, and seek the water. If you look too closely at the form, you miss the essence. If you are wise, you will always pick out the pearl from the shell.” ~Rumi
The writer Robert Vivian included this quote during in a lecture I attended at Vermont College of Fine Arts several years ago. When I first heard these words spoken, I felt a sense of relief wash over me. I applied to a handful of MFA programs in multiple genres because I had no idea what direction to go in with my writing. I wrote poetry. I wrote essays. I wrote fiction. Some MFA programs wanted me to focus on creative non-fiction, while others leaned toward poetry or fiction. I was fortunate enough to be accepted into my first choice and choose which direction I wanted to go in. I also had the opportunity to choose a dual-genre focus, but that would entail an extra semester and as I was already digesting the expense of flying from London to Vermont to attend residences twice a year. I felt I needed to choose a single path.
Like many writers, I often over-analyze options when trying to make a decision, to the point where it seems nearly impossible to make a choice. I call it "paralysis by analysis." At my first residency, I met my potential advisors while wearing a nametag that listed all three genres I was considering, giving off the impression that I was either overly ambitious or a complete scatterbrain. I identified more closely to the latter term. As the first few days passed and I met exceptional emerging writers and poets who seemed to have it together much more than I did, I felt the burden to choose buzz louder and louder in my ear. To add to the confusion, I found myself drawn to visual art when shaping my work. This, for me, is where David Lynch steps into the picture.
It doesn't take much film research to realize that David Lynch is gifted with the ability to transcribe nightmarish experiences on the screen. I remember watching Twin Peaks when it first aired on television and being transfixed by the scenes that unfolded within the Black Lodge. Our protagonist, Agent Cooper, walks from room to room, pushing aside red curtains, only to end up in the same place again, encountering different people and situations along the way. He tries to find a way out, and we want him to find release, even as both Cooper and the audience feel the sinking dread that this release will never come.
When we experience trauma, it can be a challenge to find an adequate way to frame and convey our experiences. In my youth, I lived in a homeless shelter for a short time. At times, I lived without any shelter at all. When I reflect on this period, I don't experience it in a linear fashion. I experience moments in starts and stops, in fragments pieced together by a sense of dread and lost innocence. The faces of the kids I met. A pregnant girl turning tricks a block away from the shelter she was ejected from just to have a place to rest. A flash of terror in a dark parking lot. I experience these memories like many of us experience dreams or nightmares. I've often wondered if these memories are the reason why I find myself acutely drawn to David Lynch's work.
Many years later, I re-watched the entire Twin Peaks series on Netflix and I found myself drawn to the Black Lodge scenes once again, although I related to those scenes in a completely different way. Upon my first viewing, I was fascinated by the mystery and eeriness of it all. I felt a creeping thrill, as one might experience while watching a well-constructed horror film. As an adult, the atmosphere of the Black Lodge shot through my rib cage with an intensity grounded in waking life. These nightmarish fragments fit into a reality I rarely spoke of. I marveled at Lynch's ability to translate this horror to the screen, his ability to get at the truth of this dread through an artistry that appears boundless.
David Lynch studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). In late 2014, I travelled from Washington, DC to Philadelphia to see an exhibition of his work. PAFA presented paintings and visual installations from his early career. I studied each piece carefully, and considered how aggressively I could manipulate my budget when I saw one of his early sketches for sale. Each medium bled into the other. An attentive observer could easily perceive the desire for moving paintings apparent within every fixed frame. The line from art student to filmmaker seemed a short one, a line that this artist didn’t appear hesitant to follow. Now 70 years old, Lynch continues to follow this line as it branches out in any direction it chooses. Clearly, this writer, director, actor, musician, and visual artist is not primarily concerned with the shape of the jug.
It's common for writers who enter an MFA program to feel the pressure to choose a specific focus. To some degree, this feeling is self-inflicted. I settled on fiction, being that it was the genre in which I felt I needed the most work, although I had the opportunity to experience mixed-genre workshops. Some of my advisors, like Sue Silverman, encouraged her prose writers to include poetry on their semester reading lists. I read both poetry and fiction to groups of my peers. At first, reading a poem when I studied prose made me feel inadequate, like I didn’t have a right to read poetry aloud. Even as the themes I explored crossed over from one genre to the next, it took some time let go of the confines of form.
Our need to categorize and label the world is well-documented and as old as time. There is a sense of comfort that comes with trying to make sense of the world. It is less comforting to realize that the world can't be ordered to our own liking, even if this philosophy exists closer to the truth. Yet, to some degree, labeling the world as a sprawling, chaotic mess is its own type of label, one that offers its own strange comfort. If we begin the journey expecting life to unfold in a logical, linear path, a few decades of existence will surely upend our notions. Why shouldn't our artistic lives follow the same? It is within this sense of what Lynch might call "dream logic" that I made peace with the shifting sense of myself as a writer.
During a Q&A after a group poetry reading I participated in, an audience member asked each poet if she/he writes in other forms outside of poetry, and how we decide which path we choose. I fumbled over my words, feeling that my answer wasn't sufficient, although I noticed a common thread well up amongst the poets present. Often, the written word arrives inscribed by its own shape. This is a poem. This is a short story. Get comfortable, my friend, this is a novel. I don't believe in the Muses, at least not in any sort of supernatural sense, but I do believe in an artist's ability to know, deeply, the heart of the water, and the shape it must take to move from within us to the waiting page.
Dorothy Bendel's essays and fiction can be found in The Rumpus, Connotation Press, Green Mountains Review, Microchondria II: 42 More Short-Short Stories Collected by Harvard Book Store, and additional publications. Find her on Twitter: @DorothyBendel.