A Tree Grows


“In the future, when something comes up, you tell exactly how it happened but write down for yourself the way you think it should have happened. Tell the truth and write the story. Then you won’t get mixed up.”

Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Trees Grow

I took “Writing The Impossible”, a workshop with my hero, Lynda Barry, earlier this year. She taught a method of character and story construction based heavily on memory… we spent hours accessing our earliest recollections of the way carpets smelled and the exact color of the mucus that always leaked from our 4th-grade locker mate’s nose. We would then marry these memories to new stories inspired by randomly chosen words and/or pictures.

Ever since, I’ve been assailed by powerful memories randomly. The slightest trigger will tear space and time, spilling out words and colors from my distant past.

When I saw these two photos, space-time tore again and vomited out the miserable feeling I had reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for the first time. Borrowed grudgingly from the Granger Middle School library, that book taught me about ironic distance. I slogged through the melodramatic, moralistic story defensively, careful to sneer every time I started to identify with Francie.

At that age, I was a voracious if non-discriminating reader, snapping up books beyond my years and puzzling over their implications.  I would carry three or four massive tomes out of the library every week.  Invariably, someone would ask “How are you going to read all that in just one week? I didn’t yet understand yet that I was a freak, a reading mutant; able to absorb hundreds of pages in a single hour.

I use a lot of the found things I post here in the creation of new stories, pictures, and daydreams. Sometimes the place I end up is really far from the place I started: marrying a sense-memory of the retention pond field I played in as a girl:

  • insecurity dealing with strangers
  • green grass so wet it molded at the roots and died as it grew–smooshing under my feet, smelling of loam and sweetness
  • Queen Anne’s Lace delicate and soft at the top yet rough enough at the stem to break the skin on my palms when I picked it
  • fear of the alligators I was told lived in the giant sewer grates at the end of the field
  • longing for friends and the way all the sense experiences I wrote before this provided a foil for that longing

…with a fading photograph of a girl whispering into a horse’s ear lead me to draw this:

The day after I posted the above portion of this blog, my friend Logan sent me an article I thought should be acknowledged with this entry. The article meanders around the subject of pleasure lying, medically-induced confabulation, and the creation of art. I found the article’s claim that “Art is a lie whose secret ingredient is truth” to be obvious and axiomatic, but given my particular methods of creation that’s an unavoidable conclusion.

At one point, the article describes brain-damaged chronic confabulators thusly:

“Uncertain, and obscurely distressed by their uncertainty, they are seized by a “compulsion to narrate”: a deep-seated need to shape, order and explain what they do not understand.”

I’ve been watching tons of Star Trek in an effort to view the entirety of the franchise consecutively, from Kirk to Archer (I’m on Janeway now). In the Voyager episode “The Conspiracy”, one character adds an implant that allows her to download all of the information collected on the ship directly to her brain for analysis.  She then proceeds to develop a series of elaborate conspiracy theories.  The episode ends (spoiler alert, LOLOLOLOL) with a doctor pointing out that her mind, though capable of receiving humongous amounts of information, is in fact only human and can therefore only process a small portion of it.  Her conspiracy theories were the fruit of her attempts to comprehend the incomprehensible.

We’re all just humans lost in an incomprehensibly complicated universe, struggling to get our bearings in one way or another… religion, art… and science, and even language: whatever. Every relationship we have–every society we form and culture we have cultivated–as humans, these interpersonal and hierarchal structures are just one more way of trying to bring order to chaos; comprehension to the incomprehensible.

You can call it “art” if you want to be coy. You can call it “lying” if you want to be honest. The truth is that there is no truth; it’s scary and beautiful and it’s the world and it’s our lives, forever and ever.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I never thought of it that way, well put!


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