Writer’s Quote Wednesday: Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Woman?

The Arnolfini Portrait. Artist: Jan van Eyck (1434 ). Source: http://www.nationalgalleryimages.co.uk/ Contact: picture.library@nationalgallery.co.uk  Copyright © The National Gallery, London

Some scholars believe that Jan van Eyck’s famous Arnolfini Portrait includes a self-portrait of the artist within the mirror.

“Every man’s work . . . is always a portrait of himself.”–Samuel Butler

Not long after I started blogging, I had an eye-opening conversation with my mother. This blog is the first public writing that I’ve done since college, and she was happy to see me exploring a creative outlet.

My mother explained that she sees my blog as a way for my children to know me better — the real “me,” that is, not just the mom who chauffeurs them, or washes their clothes, or makes sure they do their schoolwork. Her next remark took me by surprise: “You may not realize how much of yourself is in your posts.” Hmmm. Now I felt nervous, wondering what I had unknowingly revealed about myself in my newly minted blog.

The point that Samuel Butler makes here — “Every man’s work . . . is always a portrait of himself” — is one of the reasons that I’ve been wary of writing fiction. What if I unwittingly incorporate real people into my fictional world? If my fiction is to be lifelike, can I avoid using people I know for models? And (shudder) what if those people aren’t portrayed in a flattering light? There is a thin line between the world of reality and the world of fiction: I don’t want to be like fellow Ashevillian Thomas Wolfe, unable to go home again. No satirical descriptions of my hometown, past or present, thank you very much.

But, if Butler’s observation is right, fiction isn’t the only medium that could give me away. This very post will betray something about me — about what I value, what I believe, what I fear, what I love. Am I okay with that? Honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe I should change this site’s name to The Tentative Blogger? (I suspect that name is not in high demand.) It’s not as if hordes of readers are flocking to my posts, but someone might stumble upon a part of myself that I try to conceal. Have I unintentionally bared my innermost self to the public eye?

Even when we try to play our cards close to our chest, we may give glimpses of a King here or an Ace there. Any creative endeavor will reveal something about the artist’s personality. There are so many nuances and subtle choices behind a photo or a painting, for instance. What color palette did the artist choose for the portrait of his wife, and why? Fiction, with its need for believable characters, still seems dangerous to me: one’s judgments will surely creep into seemingly innocent descriptions. But is prose any safer? How can you write about the life you know without writing about the people you know?

self-portrait 2015In the end, the blog world is no place for the faint of heart. Neither is the world of literature, of course. The semi-autobiographical work for which Victorian writer Samuel Butler is best known, The Way of All Flesh, was not published during his lifetime, by Butler’s own wish. George Orwell praised Butler for his courage, but how courageous was Butler, if he didn’t want his novel published while he was alive? Perhaps Butler was uneasy not only about his criticisms of Victorian society but also about his self-revelations. The older I grow, the less charm I find in mirrors. Should that distaste carry over to the unconscious mirror of my words, spilling heedlessly onto the screen?

This dialogue begs the question, “Why are you afraid to expose your innermost self ?” Fear of criticism? Fear of self-discovery? Reluctance to accept the face that timidly peers back from the mirror? I am not the person that I wish I were, or the person that I hope to be. If I don’t want the world to get a glimpse of the woman behind the facade, I should stop writing blog posts.

This post was written as part of Silver Threading‘s Writer’s Quote Wednesday event. Thank you, Colleen, for continuing to host this event, week after week. I first encountered Butler’s observation in my son’s English language book. After writing this post, I discovered that the quotation had been abridged. The full quotation reads, “Every man’s work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself, and the more he tries to conceal himself, the more clearly will his character appear in spite of him” (Chapter XIV, The Way of All Flesh).

21 thoughts on “Writer’s Quote Wednesday: Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Woman?

  1. I once set out to create a fictional character who was as little like myself as possible. As a result, she never came alive, because anytime I tried to imbue her with anything I really understood–in other words, anything from my own experience of the world–I was making her like myself. So that wasn’t the best piece of writing I ever did. But I do believe that at our best we transform the pieces of ourselves we pour into our fiction. So yes, we’re there, but it’s not exactly ourselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a good way to put it, Ellen: “at our best we transform the pieces of ourselves we pour into our fiction.” There is no getting away from ourselves, if we are to write with honesty.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting thoughts. We cannot help revealing some parts of ourselves, each time we speak or write. There is a time when one is afraid to write, and then later a time when one is afraid of waiting any longer because time is running out. I think when I turned 50 I realized I have few years left to contribute anything at all meaningful. In the end, perhaps the danger is not in revealing too much, but in revealing and having no one notice. The best writing contains the clear, enticing voice of the writer, calling to us to know her while she hides her face behind story. I love finding a writer’s voice that is irresistible, that feels as good to the mind as delicious food is to the palate. So, not only is self-revelation necessary to writing, but any writing that avoid it is, I think, empty.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely relate to what you say, both about being afraid to write , yet, later, feeling that time is running out. The 20- or 30-year-old doesn’t see herself as a future 50-year-old (or I didn’t). You also make an excellent point about the fear –and perhaps all bloggers experience that–of making a statement, only to have your words unread. Thanks for reading, MK!


  3. Sandy, I would always have something to say even if I didn’t. My mother used to tell me she would split my tongue and run my leg through it if I did not hush. Or when she spoke about me to others, she would say, “Beth’s tongue is tied in the middle and loose on both ends.”

    Those were not very flattering comments, and they cut a little girl’s heart deeply–even made me believe at times I did not really have anything worth saying. Perhaps that was one reason I dreamed of being able to write rather than talk.

    Liked by 1 person

    • OUch! I know that, as a parent, I have sometimes said things in jest that hurt my children deeply. (This past weekend, even. Sigh.) Writing does feel like a safe place, doesn’t it? Even there, it is possible to wound others unintentionally.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ha Ha. Your self portrait in the dark is a lot more ballsy than my picture of a pasque flower or a logo. I love it. I share your concerns. Even though you have valid concerns you are coming across quite well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not so sure about that, April: of course, our faces are out there every day, whether we like it or not, but the baring of our souls is what takes courage–which you have shown repeatedly.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Writer’s Quote Wednesday Weekly Wrap-Up for 2/4/15 | Silver Threading

  6. I have revealed all kinds of stuff on my blog. Whatever you are comfortable with, it is your choice. I am not an expert on writing but I did read Ann Lamott’s book “Bird by bird,” about writing. She talks about using people from your own life in your writing. I think many, many writers write from their own life experience. Names can be changed of characters. I think when we blog we are putting ourselves out there and it makes us feel vulnerable. I don’t want to be judged. Some things I have revealed were more uncomfortable for me. Then I thought, it is my life and why shouldn’t I be able to talk about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Yes, this is a fabulous post. You’ve hit on some of my hesitations as well. (I think, everyone’s) How do we find the perfect balance of private vs. public life. Other people’s lives, of course, but ours as well. And dare I say it? After writing this blog for almost 3 years, i’ve gotten out my old unfinished novel and dusted it off and written a new chapter… Not saying I’m going to finish it, mind you. But yes, writing does that to one… And now I want to read The Way of all Flesh, just from your writings about it. Very thought provoking.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, the public vs. private is a big issue, isn’t it? In a strange way, it can be easier to share with strangers than with acquaintances — for me, anyway.

      I have to confess that I’ve not read The Way of All Flesh (but now I feel like I should, too, although I’m not sure that I’ll like it).


  8. Sandi, I have missed you so. What an absolutely fabulous post!! Yes, I myself have found my blog to be a self awakening of my writing desires repressed for many years. I feel liberated. Write away, and keep showing who you are. My oldest daughter has said the same thing. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Colleen — and thanks for your event, which always provides inspiration and food for thought. I agree that the blog as a genre (is it a genre?) is a wonderful thing for those of us who have set aside writing for a while — not just because of the writing but because of the opportunities for connecting with other aspiring writers.

      Liked by 3 people

      • I suppose I might be considered an aspiring writer, but do I really want to write for the public? Initially I had in mind to write for my children and grandchildren. They already think they know me, but do they really? Do they even want to know me? I might be surprised to find out.

        Later I had other aspirations about writing to teach–something that is a lot easier to do. One can teach without revealing too much of self, yet what one teaches tells it all.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That is an interesting point, Beth (although I suspect that even a bit of yourself comes through in writing to teach). I really struggle with whether or not I want to write publicly. I don’t always have something to say, and that seems an important requirement.

          Liked by 1 person

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