An Exercise in Looking

Naomi Washer on Magalie Guérin’s NOTES ON


NOTES ON is an a-chronological studio diary that artist Magalie Guérin re-transcribed twice by hand and now in print. Through that active facsimile Guérin documents her painting process, mapping at once her creative history and the way that history consistently transforms. Personal, professional, and creative spheres intersect like simultaneous layers in a painting. Accumulated entries capture the shifting gray area between self-doubt, self-awareness, and creative breakthrough. A recurring and parallel “character” in this journal is a hat shape—an abstract form that Guérin paints over and over again. Whether anatomical or abstract, the hat shape becomes an anthropomorphic companion as witness/lover/nemesis to the author’s artistic endeavors. Guérin shows us not only that a room of one’s own is useful, but what can happen when it is utilized.—Green Lantern Press, Chicago, 2016.

By the time I read Magalie Guérin’s book, NOTES ON, a transcription of her journals from her years in the MFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I was living in a strange place I did not understand, having left my own Chicago arts practice, so I underlined everything in her book that I recognized, which was practically all of it, and asked myself what I’d done.

“I work from a place of loneliness, of thirst—a desire for things to connect.”

I wanted to speak about this book, but every time I opened my mouth, her words came out.

“I have so much to say / or nothing—”

And so here, in this space, I juxtapose her writing with mine. “The format of my writing is inconsistent. It goes from crafted to jagged. But I think that’s the right attitude because it is how my mind operates.” It’s how my mind is operating now, how my mind always operates in writing—dropping in and out of my own storyline.

“My favorite books are the ones I can open at any page and still appreciate. I like feeling welcome to exit and enter at any point.” I read Notes On for the first time before traveling to the annual writing conference in Washington D.C. There, I saw all my Chicago art friends and felt completely over-stimulated for six days. I told my friends, “Not much seems to be working for me. I’m not able to convey what I have to offer, what I yearn for. My efforts are useless.”

When I got home to California from D.C., there was a second copy of Magalie Guérin’s book in my mailbox, so I shipped it to a friend in New York who also used to live and make art in Chicago but doesn’t anymore. The book was about process and art-making and Chicago friends, and I needed someone else to understand what I was not yet able or willing to express.

[I am writing this on the porch of my Berkeley apartment on a warm April night. I am drinking red wine from a crystal glass, I am listening to Joan Shelley, I am wrapped in a green knit blanket. It feels important to document this somehow.]

I moved to California, a place I’d never been, after completing a graduate degree in writing in Chicago, a place I‘d also never been before I made it my own, with its river and bridges and parks and bookstores and theatres, and people who rush fearlessly into the creation of art, unabashedly and repeatedly, through road blocks and setbacks and the battling of seasons.

But I had chosen to leave; to ship my books to an unknown state and drive across the country, leaving my studio, my theatres, my collaborators, because “it is my main concern to go beyond what I know and what I can know.” My books were far away. Alone in the desert, detached from everything I’d ever known and loved and understood, I began to question everything.

If a writer, if an artist, is someone who identifies with her materials (her books, her canvas), is the writer still a writer, the artist still an artist, if she is alone in the desert with no belongings?

“( ART is a way of LOOKING )”

During that time when my books were gone from me, shuttling across the country separated from their shelves, I often wondered how much of my self was true and how much was a mere construction of lines and fragments from my books. I had a vague sense that I had made myself into a construction (felt sure I had done so, had written a book about it for my thesis—a book in which I asked myself: “What is my relationship to ‘reality’? (Is reality in quotes less real?)”), which, in hindsight, is the reason I chose to leave Chicago—feeling the artist’s impulse to continually shape and create new circumstances for living, for production, to mix up and sort through and revise and redesign, to shift the lens, refocus the light, all with the question: is this __________ still a __________ if I __________?

Magalie Guérin does this in her journal with the shape of a hat she continues to draw in differing circumstances—new light, new day, new time, new mood, new boyfriend. “Is the hat shape still a hat shape if I am sick and tired and drawing on the opposite wall and haven’t eaten and am seeing someone new?” Is the writer still a writer with no paper, pen, or books? Is the writer still a writer if I take all her materials away? Is the person still a writer if I take, if I give away?

If a writer, if an artist, is someone who identifies with her materials (her books, her canvas), is the writer still a writer, the artist still an artist, if she is alone in the desert with no belongings?

In California, I didn’t write. I told myself, “Perhaps I haven’t come into my own just yet. I don’t know how my different bodies of work connect together.” Occasionally I was able to muster the energy to submit old work, to little avail: “Got two rejection letters from residencies this week. It’s no surprise—everything is connected.” At first, my life in California felt full with all the time outdoors. I didn’t notice that I wasn’t spending any time within myself. Whenever it occurred to me, I told myself it was healthy—that after I’d been outside myself for a while, I could come back in. I told myself, “The only thing missing from my life at the moment is reading.” That didn’t seem so bad. I was teaching myself how to cook. Like Guérin, “I needed to find a way to do something creative in the evenings. Evenings at home are too hard for me. I blame the bad set-up but I know it’s more than that.”

In Chicago, I taught a college writing class called Lessons in Seeing. We read Lia Purpura’s book, On Looking; I designed experiments, in and outside of class, for students to develop an awareness of what they do and do not pay attention to, how to train their eyes and ears and bodies to take in more, observe more in new and different ways. An art of looking, a practice necessary for all artists, all students, all people. “My work: an exercise in looking.”

I taught writing away from and outside of traditional structures, traditional formats that get in the writer’s way of questioning, and inquiry, and discovery. “I care a lot about the mind at play; that’s what’s interesting to me.” When students asked me about this, I said, “The way I make cannot possibly be different from the way I live.” I said, “I prefer the possibility of failure, the vulnerability of the personal. The personal will always be a little bit corny, but it’s not cold.”

Through discussion, and reading their journalings, I observed what I hoped would happen though I thought it possibly too good to be true—a breaking down of barriers between their student selves, their human selves, their artist selves. I designed a new class, sprung from that one, the following Fall: The Unanswerable Question. Goal: to work through an obsession, to not seek conclusion, to tear down identity barriers—the barriers between life and school.

At the end of the semester, taking apart my studio in preparation to leave the city (is the artist still an artist without her studio?), I noticed objects that reminded me of every single student in the class—the project they’d pursued, the obsession they’d pored over: action figures, Russian nesting dolls, a map of the world, a book on early childhood education in the Victorian era. On the last day of class, I gave out each object, pausing with each student, briefly explaining why the object had reminded me of them, though the explanation was unnecessary—they knew.

Is the teacher still a teacher if I take her studio, her students away?

I have retyped many of these paragraphs from the yellow legal pages on which I originally wrote them, even though “the look of my handwriting annoys me still. Especially when I’m trying to make it nice.” “I’m cutting off parts of old entries as I re-write them, adding some (like this one).” My copy of Magalie Guérin’s book was once again shipped across the country to yet another new place—this time a new-old place, a place in the mountains where I lived before Chicago, and therefore a place I felt sure I would feel at home, would get right with myself, would write every day and be pleased with myself—a perpetual artist residency.

I settle into this small cottage in the mountains, enthralled by its perfection, its too-good-to-be-true light-filled studio and all the space I could ever want for my books. “I’ve never stopped believing that once my real life starts, it’s going to be wonderful.” Mixing and reshaping and constructing a space for myself to question and make and wonder. “It was possible to frame this process as a conceptual practice but in reality, it was driven by fear.”

“My slippery focus—I can almost grab it.” The distraction is strong enough to last six months—the time at which I pick up this review again, and ask myself, once again, what I’ve done.

I know I have a public self who reveals the private when the private has the potential to enlarge our understanding of the world.

Maybe I identify with Magalie because she’s a Libra, and I’ve got a Libra Moon, and Libras are full of indecision, which makes us excellent journal-writers. “Maybe it’s the Libra in me but I find it hard to take a stand—I don’t believe there’s one stable position. It doesn’t seem credible to occupy a space if it’s not going to be yours forever.”

My constant indecision is the thing that keeps me journaling, keeps me writing through my practice, my unknowing. My constant indecision is the stability I seek, is perhaps even the reason I left Chicago, a place I loved so fully and exquisitely that it became too known to me—too easy. Perhaps I felt I’d exhausted indecision there, and therefore run out of grist for my journal-mill.

“What does growth look like, visually-speaking?”

Shortly after I began writing this review, in the early morning, on the couch in my cramped apartment in California, I went to Yaddo for the summer to write.

I wrote nothing worthy. I lay on the couch in my studio with my head in my hands. I posted photos on Instagram with quotes from poems I was reading. Or else I sat at the desk, looking through the sheer curtains out the window to the paths where my fellow residents biked or walked to lunch, or through the woods, and back to their studios, producing what I told myself was surely the next Great American Whatever. I thought, “I’m vulnerable right now—getting rejected left and right. I feel old. Tired too.” I thought, “I’m crippled by a giant pile of desire.” I produced nothing of worth, suffered the strongest case of imposter syndrome I’d ever experienced, and finally, when my residency came to an end, I left.

I would sit in the kitchen late on those nights at Yaddo, drinking beer and wine, eating chips and salsa with other artists, talking about Our Work, talking about the places we lived and the problems we faced, and the relationships we had or didn’t have or wanted to have or hoped we’d never have again with other writers, other artists, other non-creative types. My stint at Yaddo took place during my move from one side of the country to the other. When people asked me what I was working on, I basically told them I was working on me. Privately, I lectured myself: “Shouldn’t an artist be a maker first and foremost? I feel more like a voyeur. I observe my practice more than I practice it. I have to be detached AND I have to notice what has happened.”

It was a dream to be at Yaddo and I had squandered it. I couldn’t find a way to forgive myself—to accept the fact that sometimes the writing doesn’t come. No matter how much you want it to. No matter how beautiful the landscape is. No matter how many artists you have around you.

I thought Yaddo would give me one room to serve as both bedroom and studio, as I did not require any large materials, but I was given both—a small studio next to a large bedroom, with a large desk in both rooms. For a while, I found I could not even go inside my studio—the imposter syndrome was too great. So I stayed inside the bedroom drawing comics that expressed what I wished I could write about but could not. This impulse made no sense, but it was during a time where nothing made sense, so I followed it, which was the only thing I could do.

The day before I started writing this review again (again, again, again), Marina shared a memory on Facebook from December 19, 2013, which was years before I met her but only months before a professor told me to read her chapbook, Russian for Lovers. The post is a quote from Jennifer Moxley’s introduction to the book Commentary, published by Ugly Duckling Presse: “(We recall here that in Latin, vulgare, meaning ‘of the people’ but also ‘to publish,’ was used as a slur against women who were thought to have made their bodies ‘public.’ Thus a vulgar woman is a woman who ‘publishes’ that which men believe should stay private).”

I’m fucking astounded by this. In NOTES ON, Magalie says, “All art is yes—so how do you say no? What do you say no to? How do you turn your private no into a public no? Is FB private or public? What kind of space is it?” My Facebook is full of the public narrative of why I left Chicago for adventure on the West Coast—sand dunes and camping and deserts and canyons—and why I left California for Vermont—green mountains, wildflowers, farms and red barns—and it contains nothing of my private reasoning. The closest my Facebook will get to sharing my private reasoning is when I share the post that this review of NOTES ON has been published online.

“In a way, the journal writer has (to pretend) to be introverted about the content. If Anaïs Nin had published her diaries as she wrote them, we would automatically mistrust the material. Journals are personal—to write thoughts with an audience in mind would undoubtedly change the ‘confessional’ nature of the format.”

Listen: I’m an essayist. I don’t know what is private and what is public; what should be kept only for me and what should be shared. I know I have a public self who reveals the private when the private has the potential to enlarge our understanding of the world. I know the public reason I left my arts practice in Chicago was to save it, but I lost it, because there were unacknowledged private reasons I left Chicago too.

“Admitting that one cares is hard because if it’s not reciprocal, then it hurts.” And so, “my process: covering up and sanding down to reveal, covering up again and sanding down to reveal some more,” both fails and sustains me. I cover up my private reasons, sand them down to reveal the public, cover the public up again and make it private, and sand it down to reveal a new reasoning, a new statement I can hide behind, a new voice I hope is strong enough to convince the audience at a reading that I am fine. But “I don’t have much confidence these days. Every move I make, I question.” Every state line I cross, carrying my books from one apartment to another, every new relationship I start because of what I refuse to acknowledge, pushes me further from where I know I’ll be productive, from the circumstances in which I know I can contribute to my world. “I don’t know what prevents me from engaging so seriously in the one thing I’m convinced I want. It’s so frustrating. It must be self-sabotage.”

In Manhattan on my way to Yaddo, I met up with Marina for coffee, and we talked for several hours about writing and politics and what it means to be a female essayist. We ate these little fried balls of dough with cheese inside, and they were so delicious, and my coffee was never-ending, and I had to pee so badly but our conversation was too fulfilling, and we talked about process and questioning, and the suppression of the spirit of inquiry, and the story lying underneath the story, and I was so grateful for that day, because “I miss having intense studio conversations. Conversations about process, the motivation.” And it made me feel that perhaps I hadn’t lost my arts practice completely—that maybe I’d find it again, maybe it wasn’t gone.

“What is my framework?

What am I really interested in?

What do I care about?”

“The only satisfaction I ever get from my writing is when using the journal format—direct, short, honest.” In my journal at 17, I wrote that all I wanted was to live alone in a cabin in the woods so I could write. This is what I have now, but “I’m afraid my solitude is a curse to the work.” Though it’s only been a few years since I lived in Chicago, I feel very far away from the desire I apparently had to be alone, “without technology or any other means to communicate.” I don’t even remember feeling this. I had to ask a friend to remind me. She told me that I’d said, “I have fantasies of disappearing for a while, so I can stop caring so much and just be.”

“My head, with its editorial tendencies, always wants to cut and rearrange everything I see.” It wants to cut out the span of time I wasn’t writing—chop it up and shorten it, make it just a weekend maybe, a month at the most. But I don’t know what changing my storyline would do for me. “I’ve never quite understood where I belong or where I’d like to be; who I want to be.”

I didn’t know Magalie Guérin while I was in Chicago, but I feel that I have known her, did know her, know her because I and all my friends are her. I feel I am her journal, am her process of questioning, of trusting and doubting, of intentional distraction, of repetition, of repetition, of repetition, of revealing vulnerability and fear for the purpose of uncovering the next step, the next landing, the next shape, the next heart at the essence of our work.

“Failure, yes. Vulnerability, yes.” “If the purpose is to focus attention on a question, then the question is How Do I Live? and always has been.”

I don’t know where Magalie Guérin is right now, but I wish she was in my studio while I write about her journal. I wish Marina was here with us too. I wish Shelby was up in the loft, reading my copy of Magalie’s NOTES ON, underlining the parts that speak to her and calling down the lines to all of us, while Magalie is reading Marina’s Russian for Lovers, and Alexis from Yaddo is showing me where to find the owls, and Rebecca from college is stitching a prairie, and Angelo and I are arguing about epistolary poetics, and Jayita and I are breaking nonsense words apart from sense words. And all the while I am witnessing these scenes from out on my porch, watching this inquiry unfold, watching the privacy I’ve allowed myself to reveal.

Naomi Washer’s writing, dance films, and translations have appeared in Homonym, The Account, Interim, Essay Daily, Crab Fat Magazine, The Boiler, Split Lip Magazine, St. Petersburg Review, Blue Mesa Review, and other journals. She has received fellowships from Yaddo and Columbia College Chicago, where she earned her MFA in Nonfiction. She is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Ghost Proposal.

NOTES ON by Magalie Guérin • Green Lantern Press, 2016 • 240 pages

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s