Elizabeth Lyons holds an MFA from Purdue University. She is a PhD candidate in poetry at the University of Houston, where she serves as a nonfiction editor for Gulf Coast.
The Surrealist in the Closet
The other day, I was texting with a friend of mine about how, now that we were at the midway point of the semester, we'd soon be stress-crying in the closet at a local museum. She hence named it, via text, "the crying closet." She asked if I thought the surrealists ever had a closet like that and my response was, "They did, but Dalí was kind of selfish and would book it for entire weekends."
Go further with the scenario. Perhaps in your version, Picasso knocks on the door of the crying closet and offers Dalí a croque monsieur if he'll just stop crying and paint something. Perhaps Freud is there talking about dreams. Perhaps this is where the melting clocks come from.
This is my favorite part of being friends with writers. No one thinks it's strange to joke about crying in closets, or the surrealists and they will kindly pick the cat hair off your sweater before you leave the office to go teach.
This idea of surrealists in the closet is a spin on the old question "What people, living or dead, would you invite to a dinner party?" The problem with dinner parties is that you can escape--I prefer to ask who you'd take on a road trip. Let's even be more specific. We're going to drive across Texas. We'll start in Houston and drive west to Big Bend Ranch State Park--the place markets itself as "The Other Side of Nowhere." Google Maps reports that it should be an eleven-hour drive. I think the surrealists would have felt at home in west Texas; there's something about the desolation in surrealist paintings that look just like a stretch of desert.
I realize that desolation and dream may seem like two opposing forces--but if you walk through a surrealist exhibit, notice how few people there are in those paintings. Landscapes feature prominently, as do houses and animals, as do things that look vaguely animal but are really just the suggestion of an animal. People seem to be less important to the surrealists; so much of what these painters did was internal and connected to their own dreamlike states. I imagine as a surrealist painter, it must have been hard to think of what people might look like if they inhabited these strange worlds. Would we need to have melting bodies to match melting clocks?
As writers, much of what we do is invested in the idea of creating a world in which the reader can escape. The ultimate goal, of course, is to create a world in which the reader forgets where he or she is, forgets the world around them and escapes into the world of the book. We want, as writers, to craft a place in which we forget reality. Of course, the irony is that we also want the reader to also face our reality--recognize the human in some sort of essential way. I realize, at this point, it becomes a philosophical argument about if we want the dream or a dream that looks like reality, and then we're all thinking about The Matrix and the red vs. the blue pill.
So let's step back and go to the original question of a surrealist closet. Closets, by pure definition, are small spaces in which we store things. So, if the surrealists did have a closet, real or imagined, what are the things they would want to store away? We're talking about artists who traffic in the imagined. So what could be off limits for such an artist? And is there something, that as writers, we're also trying to store away? What topic have you been saving for the next book?
Perhaps it's time to write about it now.