the P-word

We don’t talk about publishing much at VCFA. Sometimes that is interpreted as a kind of snobbery about the crass and commercial considerations of it all. I’ve met students who are a little ashamed that they badly want to be published.  

 But faculty know publishing is a big part of the art puzzle. There’s you. And there’s the one you’re writing for, painting for, singing for, acting for, dancing for. Is not art the ultimate form of communication? The way one soul speaks to another? How can a story be art if it isn’t told to someone?

 For over 43 years Henry Darger lived in the same one-room apartment in Chicago. He never married, had no family, and no one in the hospital where he worked as a janitor knew much about him. But every day when he went home, his room was transformed into another world, a world of his own creation.

That world is expressed in a 15,000 page epic fantasy he called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. He illustrated the work with hundreds of beautiful watercolor paintings and collages. He also wrote a second volume titled Crazy House: Further Adventures in Chicago. Nowadays his paintings hang in the Smithsonian and his apartment has been turned into a museum. But the only people who read his story are psychologists.

People like to hold Darger up as an ideal, the noble outside artist who is above publishing, a study in misunderstood genius. Certainly there’s some truth in that. But it seems clear to me that Darger was a maladaptive daydreamer, a disorder in which someone becomes obsessed with an imaginary world to the point that he is not able to function normally. Unlike most maladaptive daydreamers, Darger wrote his down, but he never attempted to make his work palatable or publishable or even readable for anyone other than himself. His imagination lost context.

 Just before he died in 1973, his landlord, who was himself an artist of sorts, discovered Henry’s work.

 “Is it any good?” Henry asked from his bed.

 “It’s very good,” his landlord said.

“Too late,” Henry said.

 I pondered: too late for what? What did he mean? It could be many things, but in those words I hear great regret. He neglected one important part: the part where you share.

 So dearly beloveds, do not, I say, do not be squeamish about wanting to publish your book. Of course you want to publish your book! Away you go.


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4 responses to “the P-word

  1. Darger actually did, at one point in his Magnum Opus, mention the hope of it being published and of his becoming rich and famous. How sad that his story never found a home until he died. I think “home” may be the operative word, both for this man whose mother died when he was four, and whose baby sister he never met, and for us, too. Thanks for saying what we’re all thinking!

  2. Kathy Quimby

    I want to echo Louise’s thanks–thank you for telling those of us who are students that this part of our desire is also not only real, but valid.

  3. Having been one of the “Anti-P” voices at VCFA for several years, I just want to say I believe you’re right, Martine, that our students should long to get their stories out into the world and into the hands of the children and young adults they are learning to write for. None of us ever want that dream to disappear, and when the dream comes true, how thrilled we all are! My reluctance to make that conversation part of our curriculum at VCFA has had more to do with my feeling that graduate school is one of the few times in our busy lives when we’re allowed (by our families, our friends, and ourselves) to let practical considerations take a back seat to intellectual engagement and experimentation. An artist’s desire to share his or her work needs to be kept in balance, I think, with a willingness to see himself or herself first and foremost as a LEARNER (full of wonder) in the world. So once learning to be a learner (it’s not always easy) and learning to take risks (even harder) are securely in place, the desire to publish (with its slightly disruptive and practical compromises) can rise to the surface. You’re a wonderful role model for our students, Martine, because your writing is a perfect model of how to be as brave as you need to be in telling the story your way, and still getting that story into the hands of your readers. Courage, craftsmanship, and publication – the trifecta of dreams! Thanks for posting this. (As for Harry Darger, I saw an exhibit of his work at the Frye Museum and it scared the heck out of me! On the surface kind of intriguing, but deep down…well, let’s just say I agree with your word, “maladaptive.”)

  4. Thanks for this, Martine!!!

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