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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 417 Response

Writing as Discovery

with Donna Hole

In Ron Van Sweringen’s “The Last Madonna”:
What is the story about?
Does it help to know that the author is an artist by vocation?

[Donna H.] I think this story is about endearing love; passion. Antonio appears to have two great loves, his painting and the glimpse of Maria that inspired his life-long commitment to painting his vision of the Madonna. Antonio appears to be a spiritual being, and perhaps it was his destiny — his purpose in life — to create the perfect Madonna.

Is it the Hindus who believe a person is placed on earth to complete one specific task; and once that task is completed they can move on to the next level of existence? Fail at your task as you risk repeating a level, or being reincarnated to a lower level. The angels watched over his shoulder as he worked; I’d say he fulfilled his destiny. A beautifully sentimental story.

[Don Webb] One can read the story in a number of ways. As you say, it is somewhat sentimental. Not for any relationship between Antonio and Maria de Consento, of course; there is none. For all practical purposes she is a model he glimpses every now and then but never speaks to. Thus, the story is a parable about an artist’s motivation and his dedication to his work.

Looking at Antonio’s story from a practical viewpoint, we can surmise that he is not a great artist. If he were, he would have been able to paint a portrait to his satisfaction more easily and would not have had to spend his life on one painting.

But that raises the question of motivation. Antonio is good enough an artist to paint a “perfect” portrait before he dies. Why, then, does he have this idée fixe about Maria de Consento? Why does it dominate his life and art? Antonio seems to be a very lonely man. Art, then, is his surrogate marriage to an ideal woman. Painting and repainting her portrait is Antonio’s way of bringing her to life in his home. Therefore he must not “perfect” — i.e. complete — her portrait before he dies, even if he can.

[Donna H.] No, knowing the author is an artist does not make the story more meaningful. Anything can be researched to add the appropriate level of depth to a character. However; as Ron is an artist by vocation, he probably had an easier task of writing this perspective than someone such as myself, who cannot even draw stick figures.

Ron’s personal experience with singleminded dedication to a specific purpose could as easily be applied to an athlete preparing for a marathon, a medical student specializing in a specific field; any character who makes a life commitment to effect a single outcome. I think this goes back to the argument that writers should only write about things the have personal knowledge and experience in. More important is the proper emotional attachment to a comparable experience. In my opinion, of course.

[Don W.] You and I may be saying the same thing in different words.

“Write what you know” is an oft-repeated injunction. But I don’t believe it; I automatically distrust glib and ambiguous formulas. I have three responses:

Details are trivial. As you say, Ron is on safe ground in “The Last Madonna,” because he’s quite familiar with the craft of painting. But he doesn’t parade his knowledge in his little story. And you’re right that any topic can be researched.

Rather, writing — like all art — is a form of discovery. It takes place in the dialogue between the artist and the work at the level of the subconscious. There’s no need to strive for it; it’s inescapable. That’s why all writers have their own “voice” and all artists their own style.

A practical example: is my own little Christmas story “Taking Notice” really “about” three sets of historical questions? On the surface, yes; I find the historical topics interesting. But if that were all there is to it, “writing what I know” would result only in dry lectures. That is not what stories do. A closer reading will show that “Taking Notice” is really about the nature and function of literature. Writing “what I know” is incidental; rather the story shows how I feel about what I know and what it means.

Copyright © 2011 by Bewildering Stories

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