I stood back from the massive white canvas hanging on the wall before me and began to weep. I wondered, which is more intimidating: a blank canvas or the blank page? I was struggling with both. Where do I begin to paint the picture of my life?
I was about to start the fourth painting of this daylong workshop. Just before I began weeping, I’d felt rejuvenated by each picture I painted. I thought I was ready to tackle a bigger canvas since the first three paintings were on smaller, manageable pieces of paper. But now, as I stood before this massive wall of white, I welled up with emotion, my gut tightened, and tears flowed down my cheeks like raindrops during a mountain downpour. I motioned to my best friend, Pam, to come over for guidance. She was my instructor for this intuitive painting workshop in Boulder, Colorado. I’d flown here from San Diego for exactly this moment. I knew this was coming, this pain, and this blockage, this feeling of fear, uncertainty, and incompetence. Vulnerability draped over me like a lead apron, weighing me down and rendering my arms useless.
The phrase, ”big canvas” popped into my head as I recalled the words my writing instructor uttered one night after reading the second draft of my memoir during a manuscript critique session. My story deals with big places: New York City, Africa, People magazine, and Costa Rica as well as broad themes like personal transformation, self-discovery, courage, risk-taking, inner strength, and finding fulfillment. Now on the third draft, I am still struggling with how to distill the largeness of my story into manageable bite-sized morsels that my readers will be able to digest and hopefully, to savor without being overwhelmed.
The writing of my story requires telling secrets, not just mine but also my family’s. Growing up as the good girl in a conventional, upper-middle-class suburban family, I was groomed to have polite manners from the womb. So telling secrets is not in my nature. We didn’t talk about my mother’s drunken behavior. We lived in denial and by a code of silence. We never even questioned my mother during the sober light of day about why, when the clock struck five, she was magnetically drawn to her nightly elixir, instead of to us, her three little girls.
Facing the blank page requires remembering the pain and processing it, feeling emotions I thought I’d left behind. Reliving awful childhood memories and realizing, nothing much has changed since then. My mother drank a lot back then, and fifty years later, she’s still at it.
The largeness of the canvas before me made me feel small and overwhelmed. The empty pages of my childhood chapters keep me silent and powerless.
“Where do you feel the hurt?” Pam asked me as I stared forward, avoiding eye contact with her.
“My stomach. No, my heart, right here,” I said as I pointed to the middle of my chest.
“Start there,” she said.
I walked over to the table in the middle of the art studio and stared at a colorful collection of tempera paints. I shut down my thinking brain and let my intuition take over as I poured an array of colors onto my palette: blood red, Pepto-Bismol pink, a fiery orange, and one that looked like melted gold. I surveyed the assortment of painting tools stuffed into glass jars and plastic yogurt containers; brushes of every size and dimension, sponges, scrapers, even toilet bowl brushes with plastic handles. I chose a smooth handled wide brush and walked back to the long white horizontal canvas. It was at least nine feet in length and about three feet high. I stared it down while attempting to take a deep, nourishing breath, but my chest was tight, so a shallow inhale was all I could manage.
I began in the middle of the canvas with a big broad stroke and painted a blood red heart. I used repetitive motions, switching up paints, layering color, and creating zigzag textures with the scraper. When I felt done I moved to the right side of the paper and laid down more paint, again playing with texture and color. The painting felt lopsided to me as I stared at the empty left side of the canvas, but I continued laying down red, pink, and orange paint on the right side, using a robotic motion with my brush, over and over again. The layers of color were like drafts of my story, each layer of paint felt like a rewrite of that troublesome first chapter. I moved the brush and the paint over and around, up and down, round and round, each stroke feeling like it still wasn’t right.
Judgment. This was a judgment-free workshop, but there it was, my inner critic, rearing its ugly head, telling me it wasn’t good enough, it wasn’t perfect, not yet. I put a big black “X” through it all. There…take that, manuscript!
I walked back to the paint table and squirted more blood red paint onto my palette. I grabbed the toilet brush and dipped it into the paint and with a big violent motion, threw it across the canvas–a pitching motion that splattered the red paint across the canvas and onto the wall and floor and nearby bookshelves as well. Most of it landed on the blank left side of the canvas. Splashes of red paint stained the glimmering white paper. I dipped a new brush into the gold paint and threw it like a baseball at the wall. It landed straight through the heart in the middle of the painting, just like an arrow. I stepped back from the canvas and gasped, as though the sharp tip of an arrow pierced my own heart, my knees buckled and I fell to the floor. I felt the wounds of so much buried pain.
I looked up at the golden arrow on the painting, and I couldn’t help but think it was magically guided there. My chest expanded, and I was able to take a deeper breath. I got up from the floor and walked closer to the wall. For the first time all day, I looked at the canvas with compassion. I liked it and smiled. I chose another brush and painted over the black “X” with pink. It wasn’t to cover up the big black “x” as though hiding a mistake. It felt more like a healing gesture. Like I was taking back the reins, steering this masterpiece back on course.
I put my paints and tools down, wiped the rainbow of colors off my hands and onto my smock and scrutinized the canvas. The red heart centered the painting; the golden arrow sparkled; the heavy layers of color on the right side drew my attention but so did the sparseness of the left with its dramatic spattering of blood-red paint.
I realized I’d painted my manuscript. The right side of the painting was heavy with effort–so many revisions of the African adventure part of my story. The middle panel held the heart with the golden arrow slung through the middle–the romance at the center of my tale. And the left side of the canvas was the beginning of my manuscript–still empty save for the hint of the blood-letting of secrets yet to come.
Pam appeared by my side and asked, “Are you done?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then sign it.”
I picked up a slender, long-handled wooden paintbrush, dipped the bristles into the paint and proudly signed it with big, gold letters. I stood back to admire my creation. I felt like I had overcome something by facing this big blank canvas and attacking it, then making peace with it. Replacing the sting of my own harsh judgment with self-acceptance.
It’s been a few years since that workshop. The blank page looms large before now.
How do I begin to write the story of my life?
Where does it hurt?
Elizabeth is currently working on behalf of the Epilepsy Foundation of San Diego County as an advocate, speaker, and fundraiser. Formerly an award-winning advertising executive with Sports Illustrated, People and Life magazines, a life-changing climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro steered her towards a new path, working in conservation and education in Costa Rica, Baja, and the Galapagos Islands. Along the way, she discovered writing and is currently finalizing her memoir, Beyond the Peak with Marni Freedman’s Thursday group. An excerpt from her memoir, Masai in the Mirror was performed on stage as part of the 2016 San Diego Writers’ Ink Memoir Showcase and will be published in the upcoming San Diego Memoir Writers Association anthology.