Guest Blog Post, Beth Gilstrap: The Quiet Times

Beth GilstrapDownstage center, the footlights warmed my bare feet. I had run down the long hall, through the double doors, and kicked my shoes off upon entry –my first ritual. At the end of the school day, I no longer had to navigate the social cavern of being the Principal’s daughter.

A deep bow. My hands raised, With plenty of air behind my words, I said, “My name is Beth. This is my theater.” Since my brother had moved on to middle school, in his absence, the auditorium became mine and mine alone. Jenny, a teacher’s daughter joined me on occasion, but I was often by myself while my mom was hard at work in the office doing terrifying Principal things.

I practiced dance routines until my soles were black from stage dust. I was proud of my feet, though I wasn’t entirely sure why people praised them so much. I had good turnout.

Other times, I just lay on my stomach and did homework in pencil. When I finished, I stared at the ceiling with its crisscrossed lines, ropes, and bags. How it all worked was a mystery, but I taught myself to raise and lower curtains and snapped lights on and off in varied patterns. Just cool blue and green made the world right. I grew fond of the way the velvet felt on my arms as I slipped from behind closed curtains.  And always, as though hovering just below the surface, ready to come up for air, was an audience. If I just pulled a little harder, they’d appear.

By the end of the fourth-grade, I’d written a play with Daryl Hall and John Oates as central protagonists. I’m both proud and mortified by this fact. Unfortunately, there is no surviving copy of what was surely my masterpiece. Mom absconded with it, too disturbed by the multiple sex scenes to let the thing live, but before the manuscript was confiscated, I’d blocked out the play, and bossed Jenny into being Daryl Hall’s lover.

Somewhere in the dip of time and space on that stage, I became a seeker, and what is an artist but just that? Writers, dancers, painters, musicians, what have you, we all seek. We fight silence, each in our own way. We talk to each other through our works. Some rhetoricians and philosophers might call this a form of dialectic, or even the trialectic when we get down to ekphrasis or the attempt to interpret and transform one form of art into another, most often the verbal representation of the visual arts, but I’m not here to dig into a bag of big vocabulary. What I’m concerned with is how to get past what most call writer’s block, but I prefer to think of as writer’s funk.

Sometimes, the faces emerge easily. Just a slight tug and there’s a cast of characters fully formed in all their toxic glory. There are days it’s just one face, one body, that shows up in a seat, maybe in the back left, maybe down front, but it’s there. Other times, there’s no one who’s materialized, but you can feel them in the distance, a murmur. When I write, I do everything I can to pull that tiny sound up and out. For me, this is inspiration and these days, I see it as less ephemeral than I used to. I can still summon that stage when I need to, though I haven’t stepped foot on it in almost thirty years. When I get stuck, it is my touchstone, my birthplace as an artist, where I first learned to seek.  This wasn’t always the case.

A year ago, I finished an extensive revision of my first novel. I’d recently graduated from my MFA program, and I was exhausted. Unsure of my future or myself, I curled up with disenchantment, draped it over me like a blanket. Some writers say to read when you feel yourself drifting, but I was at such an insecure point that I couldn’t even read without thinking I could never do that. I still read, but it was not the answer for me at that moment in time. Two graduate degrees can burn the reasons you love to read, too. It was during a particularly Scarlet O’Hara bout of self-pity that I decided to visit an art museum. And there, in a sculpture built of trash, a voice seeped through.

I’d heard of and done a few writing exercises using ekphrasis before, but this was different. It wasn’t just about describing the sculpture. It was creating a world around it, a cast, and story. I had forgotten how important non-verbal arts could be to an artist working primarily with words. During the days, weeks, or months when I feel unproductive and bad at what I do, it’s usually because I haven’t left the house much. I’m too immersed in words. Though I aim for 3-4 hours of uninterrupted writing time per day, it is difficult to maintain. I get depleted. Faces recede. Distance grows.  Writing becomes the equivalent of walking into the same wall over and over. Writer’s funk takes hold.

In an effort to understand why ekphrasis works for me, I looked for other writers who’ve used the technique. According to Michael Trussler, writers such as Donald Barthelme, Salman Rushdie, and John Edgar Wideman use ekphrasis to “intimate structures of feeling or those aspects of consciousness which exist apart from taxonomies.”  Formally speaking, its aesthetic “preoccupation with flux and transcription serves to check our propensity for thinking in immutable categories.” In other words, this method of representation can be fruitful because it attempts to get at the spaces in between the visual and verbal. And so I say to you, writers, do what you have to do to get on that silent stage, to walk the land of the in between, to pull those strings a little harder. Go to paintings. Go to plays. Go to music. Seek and see what emerges. And in the meantime, we must all learn to be okay with the quiet times for they will always be.