The Slippery Slope to Self-Portrait
Early on in the drawing class this morning the teacher brought out some pictures the group had been working with the day before. They were medical diagrams of intestines. I didn’t want to look at them. I didn’t feel good. I had a bad taste in my mouth.
In the break, when everyone else grabbed coffee and biscuits and talked about what they’d been doing, I sat down and did the drawing on the right. It was big and it was fast. I didn’t like looking at it.
The picture didn’t look right. It wasn’t how I remembered it happening. For a start, the only thing that had screamed had been the cable right before it broke. Second, when I think about it, I wasn’t even looking when he fell. I remember him being all crumpled up in the stupid yellow coveralls they gave us, the angles being wrong but the blood all dark and mixed up in the other wet and mess.
But then I remembered that the overalls were orange and the helmet was yellow. And what colour was that big coat? Wasn’t the cable snapping that time on the Medway when the First Officer smashed his arm and it swelled up until his skin looked like the plastic sheen of a store-front dummy? And if it wasn’t a cable that killed him, then what the hell was I remembering?
I finished a story recently where the first draft came out in 48 hours of fury and keyboard hammering. When I read through I saw the central character had become some sort of condensation of little bits of an imagined me at my worst; arrogant, misogynistic, cowardly; an occasionally charming bastard who poisons the people who care about him then ignores and forgets about them.
His world was populated with twisted versions of my own past, distant enough to be fictional, completely fictional really, but with key colours and textures that I recognised and remembered, repainted to be horrible and wrong, seen through the eyes of someone I didn’t like very much. It felt like I’d violated my own memories and they’d given birth to this monster.
The story is sitting in my hard drive and I’m too scared to show it to anyone. I’m scared that people will recognise the little bits of truth in there and think the bigger things are true as well. I don’t want people to think that the way this character sees the world is the way that I see the world as well. I don’t want anybody to mistake this expression of how I imagine certain things feel for a description of things that actually happened.
I’ve studied a bit about memory. It’s a useful thing to know about if you’re going to interview witnesses, or if you want to understand how people make decisions. Memory isn’t a collection of photographs; it isn’t an accurate recording of events stored on a hard-drive in your head. Memory is a collection of stories we tell ourselves over and over again, that only exist in the present as we tell them, and that are about how see ourselves now and how we understand the world around us as it is right now. The past may or may not exist, but it has little to do with our memory, and our memories are only true to the extent that they are expressions of what we feel.
That’s why we should be forgiving when we accuse people of lying on the stand in court, or when they talk about things to a newspaper. Because our memory isn’t there to help us keep hold of what actually happened. It’s there to help us understand where we are now.
I look back at the drawing, still trying to remember who I am drawing, what it is that I’m representing. Then it dawns on me. The picture is a self-portrait. The only thing I draw is myself.