The list of things that make me think I should Stop Writing Now is long and mutable, and it's a fairly safe bet that a new exhibition of oil paintings will shoot to the top. I started daubing in oils when I was about 15 and maybe the fumes infected my brain or the pigments poisoned my skin but I became hooked and have never kicked the addiction, despite all-but-quitting painting over a decade ago. A good exhibition is the glimpse of the bottle, the glint of the needle, that shatters a precarious resolve: I walk around in a paroxysm of envy and grass-is-greener confusion, wondering how, why, I let writing come to dominate my life, when paint was surely the partner for me.
I'm so accustomed to feeling this that the past three months have been perplexing: one exhibition after another has left me comparatively unmoved. It's partly to do with the oils I've been seeing: lots of the symbolist work at the Scottish National Gallery was minor league; I can't abide the prissy erotics and risible melodrama of the pre-Raphaelites; too much of the Munch was dispensable. But a few days ago I saw a small room of new work by a painter whose last show was an electric shock of unexpected self-recognition, and felt surprised again by my equanimity. The painter is Simon Ling, and I should declare an interest: I met Simon years ago at a lindy-hop class and although I hardly ever see him he lives in my heart because he's the only person with whom I dance and can feel even fractionally competent. His last show, in the main space at Greengrassi, startled me because it did exactly the things I dreamed of doing with paint: investigated the degrading effect of humans on nature, and nature's insidious revenge, in images of ragged wastelands and strangled forests and derelict buildings smothered in weeds, representing this collision realistically while calling sly, sensuous attention to the act of painting itself. The new show, also at Greengrassi, is much smaller, and there are three paintings in it that I love, of buildings around Old Street station, each one fascinating in its slipperiness. One building seems to stand askew, another to careen towards the edges of the canvas, while the third holds itself together at the edge of collapse. I think again about the abandoned painting of a crumbling building in Athens that I was supposed to give my dad for his 50th birthday: these, too, are things I dreamed of doing. But this time, it's OK that I'm not.
Painting is the one thing I don't allow myself to fudge: I'll make clothes and write and invent cake recipes and just muddle along, but if I can't be brilliant at painting I won't do it at all. Not even as a hobby: the phrase “Sunday painter”, for that matter the word “hobby”, makes me balk. Occasionally I've wondered if such fundamentalism isn't idiotic. But last year, reading an interview with John Berger in the Guardian, I received confirmation. “Painting is something that you need to do if not every day, then certainly most days,” Berger said. “It is almost like being a pianist, if you stop you lose something. The phrase 'Sunday painter' is not often a compliment.”
I've been thinking about Berger a lot this past fortnight, since X I had to confess, sotto voce, that Berger is one of far too many writers whose books I know I ought to have read by now but which I've been trying to absorb by osmosis, as though simply having them on the shelves were enough. Who knows, maybe it's worked: in an email conversation about Berger X, Rajni Shah wrote admiringly of the way that, in Berger's writing, “the space of language is not separate to the space of thinking is not separate to the space of eating and walking and falling and hesitating and implying”. Which is pretty much exactly what I'd like to be doing on Deliq.
At the same time, I've been thinking about painting, or rather, about writing-as-painting, slowly becoming conscious of a correspondence between how I used to paint and how I now write, at least for Deliq, at least about theatre, and vaguely wondering what that means. So I had something of a double-flip when I came across this passage in Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible, the second essay in Berger's book The Shape of a Pocket (yes, I am actually reading him now):
The impulse to paint comes neither from observation nor from the soul (which is probably blind) but from an encounter... When a painting is lifeless it is the result of the painter not having the nerve to get close enough for a collaboration to start. He stays at a copying distance. …The modern illusion concerning painting … is that the artist is a creator. Rather he is a receiver. What seems like creation is the act of giving form to what he has received.
And then this, from the fourth essay, Studio Talk:
...two words: FACE and PLACE.… Whatever the painter is looking for, he's looking for its face. All the search and the losing and the re-finding is about that, isn't it? And 'its face' means what? He's looking for its return gaze and he's looking for its expression – a slight sign of its inner life.… A place is more than an area. A place surrounds something. A place is the extension of a presence or the consequence of an action.… How does a painting become a place? … When a place is found it is found somewhere on the frontier between nature and art. It is like a hollow in the sand within which the frontier has been wiped out. The place of the painting begins in this hollow.
Forgive me if this sounds completely ridiculous, but everything Berger says here (and I realise there are lots of ellipses: they don't negate the recognition but further confirm it) chimes with me instinctively not as a painter but as a theatre-writer. What am I if not a receiver, struggling to give new form to that which I've received? What am I looking for if not the face, the inner life, of a piece? What is Dialogue, the website/proposal for a new approach to theatre-writing that I started this year with Jake Orr, if not an attempt to get close enough to theatre-makers for a collaboration to start? And what might become possible if I were entirely unafraid to leap into that hollow in the sand, where the frontier between life and theatre, me and the piece, has been wiped out?
I've been writing this in my parents' house in Cyprus, a portal to a parallel universe where all the paintings I did as a teenager hang on the walls and I'm confronted daily by the person I never became. Earlier today I went for a walk around their village and listened to Deerhunter and beamed at the mountains turning lilac in the sunset, dove-grey roads snaking across them, and photographed the small gnarled trunk of a tree, its sinuous limbs curved like the body of a woman, two snapped branches reaching out in supplication, and thought of Daphne escaping Apollo, and of coming back tomorrow to draw it. Last night I threw together a yoghurt cake by whisking three medium eggs with five tablespoons of honey, maybe 50ml of olive oil, 200g Greek yoghurt, three heaped spoons of plain flour, 125g ground almonds and a sprinkle of cinnamon, baked it for 40 minutes in a moderate oven, then glazed it with more honey, a spoonful of lemon juice, and nibbed almonds; it was good, something like a mild smooth cheesecake, but I wish I'd made the effort to bake it in a bain marie. Every evening I sit with my computer on my lap and half-despise, half-relish the impossible frustration of words, while my family play cards and drink and talk politics. And at the beach I read this, from another essay in The Shape of a Pocket, about Vincent van Gogh: “for him the act of drawing or painting was a way of discovering and demonstrating why he loved so intensely what he was looking at”. And I shivered as the heat of the sun turned my skin indignant red and thought: yes, that is how I want to write about theatre, too.