Slow-Cooked Sentences

Anne Truitt on writing with loyalty about those we love

Rachael Conlin Levy

“When I write about my parents, when I speak about them to my children as my sister Louise spoke to my son, Samuel, I feel a profound loyalty to them because I felt in them the same unspeakable loneliness. I guard my tongue that I may honor their privacy, grant them respect. I sieve the good — their gentle ways, their traditional virtues, the quiet fidelity to moral principle that my mother embodied, the wry, merry slant my father brought to bear on life — so that they may pass on to their descendants, and mine, a legacy that will strengthen them as they in their turn strive toward good.”

These sentences from “Prospect: The Journal of an Artist” are gentle and wise, traits I sometimes lack, but am learning to cultivate from Anne Truitt, known for her minimalist sculptures and her sensitive writings about her life and work. She died in 2004. Look at her teaching philosophy, rich with hope and respect:

“I have found that I too can trust students to find their own way to process themselves into their work. For my part, I give information as needed, in a form as tailored to the particular person I can make it. More crucially, I maintain, and manifest a steadfast faith in each individual’s potentiality, provide them with the reinforcement that will give them, I hope, the confidence to translate aspiration into achievement.”

Besides directing me, Truitt also broadened my vocabulary with the word pentimento, which is the visible trace of earlier painting beneath a layer or layers of paint on a canvas. The hidden images can be found in centuries-old artwork and more recent advertisements. Truitt saw it within her grandson, who suffered from a disease that is incurable, life-threatening but controllable.

“I saw on his face the look of mute patience that marks children who are quietly beginning to cast off their moorings, giving way to the slow tide of death. By the time I visited him in the Richmond hospital, this look was fading. But its pentimento remains.”

Layers make me curious for the secrets they hide and exposure that results. The addition, its discovery and subsequent distraction create its own meaning, maybe even layers of meaning. I am also intrigued by what the pentimento exposes: the creative act, the mind at work.

Long ago a man newly in love made a picture from two photographs by laying his face over mine so they merged and overlapped, creating an illusion of double exposure. Not exactly a pentimento, but it feels like one with its ghostly images, and its disconnection. The faces turn away from each other: His eyes stare into the distance, mine look with anticipation out of the picture at the viewer. Maybe this is why he added the third layer, a single word “One” burst in flame.

The gift held not only the passion of the moment but the promise of today, more than 20 years later. Within its ghostly overlay, mouth becomes eye and lash turns to lip line, reminding me of Truitt’s cautionary advice to guard the tongue. Truitt writes openly, but respectfully about her parents’ weaknesses, and the failure of her own marriage, and where she fell short in mothering her children. Affection matured into love and loyalty, and sometimes loneliness. A legacy was formed, one that Truitt felt compelled to share, and one which I might learn from as I look at the picture of the woman who is now me, the man who became my husband and the four children created from our oneness. Truitt, one final time:

“An interview gives scope for self-explanation but even so is never entirely satisfactory. Some automatic ‘acting’ raises my voice a tone or two. I try to be perfectly lucid and to ‘tell the truth’ but seem only to approximate the honesty with which I speak to myself. Sometimes, if the interviewer is skillful and intuitive enough to ask evocative questions, I find myself saying what I have never said before and did not know that I knew. At best, an interview is a kind of intimacy — the kind that two congenial strangers might enjoy during a night of bus travel, knowing that they will part forever in the morning. In this sense, an interviewer and I weave between us a narrative to which we both appear to be equally loyal. But we are not. We entertain hidden agendas while we chat. Our composite narrator evaporates when we say good-bye. I am left with my thoughts; the interview cuts and trims a scenario to fit publication. All this interesting communication goes on in an exciting atmosphere. What is essentially a mutual seduction takes place, a seduction that leaves the person interviewed abandoned and the interviewer pregnant with a tale.

“When I write about myself, I ‘interview’ myself. There is a gap between the life I have lived and live, and the life I write. Partly this is the inevitable gap between experience and expression, partly what I make by deliberate choice. I am as honest as I can be about what I write — that is a moral imperative — but I ‘retain my reticences’: I omit, abbreviate, abridge and retrench. The keep of my castle remains private.”

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6 responses to “Anne Truitt on writing with loyalty about those we love”

  1. Sarah says:

    Anne Truitt’s Daybook has been my guiding book of the year — as you say, she’s gentle & wise, but there’s that steely core of belief in herself & her work to learn from too. You’ve made me eager to get onto Prospect. And I love the pairing of this post with the Solnit — so much to think about! Thank you!

  2. Andrea says:

    You always find the most interesting things to read…and then you read them closely and apply them in interesting ways. As a lazy reader, I am impressed!

  3. bill conlin says:

    In attempting to read Truitt’s passage, I find that I’m having to slow down my presence or I’ll surely miss out. And this is not easy for me…I’m kinda left bewildered.
    Dad

  4. I keep returning to “pregnant with a tale.” And now I’m thinking about the keep of my castle. This should make for interesting dreams tonight.

  5. Sarah, by reading “Prospect” before “Daybook” I’m reading Truitt out of chronological order and have discovered her thoughts on aging before learning how she balanced being a single parent and artist. I’m looking forward to reading more. And you’re right, Solnit and Truitt were an excellent pairing.

    Denise, I liked that phrase, as well, particularly because of my own training as a reporter. It reminded me how I loved returning to the newsroom with a great story, eager to sit down and begin its telling.

  6. Nicole says:

    What a beautiful quote about teaching! Words to hang on to…

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