We had a cartoon prepared for today. Then Roe v Wade got overturned and now it doesn’t feel right to do the same kind of piece we usually do. Still. Here’s the comic right at the top if you’re looking for a quick smile. CONTENT WARNING (if you continue below the comic) discussions of sexual violence.-Ed.
Big Cat, Little Cat
Roe v Wade: News, Emotion, Art
Interacting with the news tends to cause you to feel emotions: pride, rage, misery… And Art tends to come from emotions. But not a lot of people are particularly familiar with how the one feeds into the other.
So let’s talk about that.
A few years ago, I read a novel called Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Its main character is a young woman (she is in high school) who does not speak. Does not socialize. Barely engages with her classes. Except she has this art class.
As her art teacher draws her out of her shell, we see her trying to reclaim her voice and trying to use images of trees, representing growth, stability, and life.
If you know anything about this book, you know that it is about a 13-14 year old girl trying to reclaim her voice after being sexually assaulted. In an example of life imitating art, it took another 2 decades for Laurie Halse Anderson to divulge that she herself had been raped at that age. And that the novel was based on her own experiences.
Sadly, it will become all too necessary for people who experience the trauma set in motion by the supreme court to express themselves through art. Just to survive. And a lot of the people who most need to do so will not know how. So here’s how.
How to Turn an Incident like Roe v Wade into Art
Let’s notice a few things about the novel. First, the main character is almost completely mute throughout the whole work. Second, the main character is a visual artist. These are both extremely important points. It can be difficult to communicate emotions through text. You might be in a social situation where someone gives you a look that you find devastating. But if you were to say that in writing, it would not come across: “they gave me a look that I found devastating.” The simple transcription of life into prose comes off as sterile and vague.
So what do you do instead? You look for metaphor that helps you to capture what you’re going through. It is normal for a person who survives a sexual assault not to want to talk about it. But that doesn’t make for very good drama in a work of fiction. In other words, it doesn’t communicate the relevant emotions. Anderson, like any novelist, would be trying to help her reader to understand the depths of loneliness and despair felt by a sexual assault survivor. But fiction is a less immersive reality than, well, reality. So she had to up the stakes. Instead of a character who does not speak about one thing, she creates a character who does not speak at all.
The idea is a simple one. Something that you experience in your own life is real and immediate to you. But something that you read on the page is… not. So when you use your life as the inspiration for what you put on the page, it will not have the same impact on the audience that it had on you. You might need to use visual metaphors to convey what you felt. And you might need to up the stakes.
Visual versus Literary Art
The same kind of alchemy is at work in the visual artistry of the main character. We know that this work is semi-autobiographical. That it was based on Anderson’s own adolescence. And we know that Anderson is a writer. But translating the artistry from words to pictures gives the main character’s work an immediacy it wouldn’t have otherwise.
Think about it this way. Anna Karenina is a beautiful work of art. So is Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien-Lepage. Both are about young women who live in a world of their own, apart from their neighbors. But one takes much longer to appreciate than the other. To represent the beauties of Anna Karenina one would have to quote the work at great length. Perhaps summarize significant plot points. But a description of the beauty and themes of the painting can be taken care of comparatively quickly. A work of literature can even include illustrations.
Imagine an author writing a novel about a novelist. They couldn’t include the whole novel as an insert in the novel they were writing. But a novel about a painter? They could include a fairly minute description of the painter’s magnum opus. Anderson and other novelists aren’t lying to their readers by taking a fiction writer and converting them into a visual artist. They’re using the strengths and weaknesses of their medium. They’re taking internal struggles and turning them into images that the reader of their work can appreciate and understand.
An unfortunate side effect of this process is that we tend to use disabilities as object-lessons in literature. Blindness might be used by a writer to represent the fog of the mind. A better way forward is to make like Sophocles and show that a character suffering from literal blindness can still see better than a character suffering from self-imposed blindness. It’s up to you how you navigate this issue. Just remember that disabled people aren’t there to be your object-lessons.
What Reaction did the News of Roe v Wade being overturned Provoke?
The first step to creating art based on an experience is gauging your own reaction. In this case we’re talking about the experience of reading the news and seeing that the American Supreme Court had undone fifty years of precedent by overturning Roe v Wade.
It can be really difficult to do this but give it a try. Sit down before an empty page in your notebook or an empty word-processing document and talk to yourself. How do you feel about Roe v Wade being overturned? Betrayed? If so, why? What are other events your mind leads back to? A lot of people are making angry statements about the voters who “didn’t like” Hillary Clinton and thus allowed Trump to get elected. And a lot of people are making angry statements about Ruth Bader Ginsburg refusing to retired when it would have been more expedient to replace her with a like-minded jurist.
It’s natural to go to these related news-items. But what emotion do they represent? This is not the place to relegislate those two moments. But I’m going to hazard a guess that these two recollections arise from a feeling despair. When you are thinking about changing things you cannot change instead of about changing things you can change, you are feeling despair.
Okay. That was one emotion. Now there are others. Take your time. This will not be a quick process; nor a painless one.
How to Provoke that Same Reaction in your Audience
I won’t say now comes the hard part. That was already hard. Digging into your own emotions is not easy. But now you can start thinking about how to evoke those emotions in your audience. Consider Anderson’s example. Think about how to make situations bigger on the page than they would be in real life. Think about how to make things visual instead of verbal. Characters need to say things out loud that real people would keep to themselves. Characters who would normally eye each other as they pass need to confront each other in the open.
It can be difficult to introduce enough of this sort of drama into your story. And if you do, it can be difficult to find that balance between drama and melodrama. Maybe melodrama is what you’re going for. In which case, go for it.
Don’t Look Over your Shoulder at how Other Artists are Processing Roe v Wade being Overturned
This one is difficult. You’ll see a lot of great art in the next few days and weeks as other artists write essays and craft editorial cartoons (massive content warning on this one). It’s not a bad idea to look to other artists for inspiration. But resist the temptation to look at their finished product and say: “I want to make something like that.” Better is to look at their process and imitate that instead. Or follow your own process if you have one. The goal is to make your art. Not someone else’s.
In the Wake of the Roe v Wade Repeal, People are
Prostrate with Grief and Anger. But Go. Give it a Try. And Let
us Know How we Can Help
Anyway. This is where the instructions end, at least for now. It takes practice. Writing your thoughts and emotions down is a difficult and tedious project. But we do it because it feels right. Years later you can look back and see: that is how I was feeling at that moment. When that was happening in the news. You can show someone what it might have felt like for them to be in your shoes. That’s a real gift to be able to give yourself. Or another person. Funneling your emotions into an act of creation will not make what is happening right. Nothing can do that. But for some people it gives a sense of agency, even influence. And that’s not nothing.
It would be a mistake to create art in order to influence another person. Not because you shouldn’t try to influence people. Just because artwork created with that purpose in mind tends to come off as fake. But a real work of art can be a conduit from your own genuine emotions to the genuine emotions of the audience. And that is a necessary part of any way forward for us as individuals or as a country.
Reach out: Strength in Solidarity
Art is an important part of healing. But don’t let it replace more direct methods: therapy, support groups, and so on.
Erika recommends contacting rainn.
3 identical panels depicting a large orange cat and a small grey cat sitting together in conversation on a blue cushion before a greyish background. The large orange looks down with a smile on the little grey, but the grey is looking off into the distance with an expression on his face somewhere between contemplative and irritated.
Big Cat: Hey, Little Cat! Penny for your thoughts?
Little Cat: I’m not usually one to romanticize the past…
Little Cat: But imagine Michelangelo painting the entire Sistine Chapel all by himself!
Little Cat: Using only a pair of nunchaku!