Through Hell to Beauty: The V-Shaped Artistic Process

Over the next four weeks, Transpositions will be publishing a series of articles in which artists exhibiting in the Transept Interface exhibition reflect on their creative process. These pieces will give fascinating insights into the ways in which unique artists create, as well as providing illuminating context for each artist’s contribution to the Interface exhibition. Before the exhibition launch event on Friday, Matthew Nelson reflects on composing his play V Day, that will be performed at the launch.  

In the course of writing ‘V Day’, my short play for the Interface exhibition, I reckoned anew with how the stories I love, and my writing process itself, are all ‘V-shaped’. Look at that scary letter and you’ll see what I mean. Trace it left to right and find yourself descending, descending, down into darkness, uncertainty, pain, vulnerability, the grave—yet trusting there will also be a rising.

But not too fast! We all want that beauty, redemption, wrongs righted. But first: the long hard road out of hell.

As a creative writer, my artistic process is one of learning to see God and tell the truth, a wonderful yet arduous pilgrimage to seeing and telling the beautiful God who is truth, love, life and the highway itself.[1] The wonder of the best stories is that they are such journeys to beauty, yes…but they also require descent. They necessitate descent to places in which glorious, imago dei-bearing sinners like you and me roam—our despairing mean streets. Our mean suburbs, too. All those places that God likes to harrow, the comfy and agonising soul territories.

The holy ambition of my own writing is that it would be similarly V-shaped: first the dramatic invitation to dwell with sinners like us, followed by purgation and reformation that culminates with a restored vision of God’s beauty. That’s the theory, at least. The thing is, the ‘purgation and reformation’ part makes this quite difficult. It’s certainly not an easy sales pitch. That’s because this purgation involves constant discovery of what needs to be burnt up, in me and in all of us. I’m thinking especially about those parasitic eye-logs Jesus mentioned, the hypocrisy that clings to us and quenches the Spirit. Although uncomfortable, the best stories help us—writer and reader alike—to take logs out of our eyes, in hope of renewed, pure-hearted encounter with God.

I went through something like this process in the creation of ‘V Day’. It began during a retreat with friends,[2] my fellow ITIA/Transept artists, and developed through weekly writing (and drumming)[3] sessions with them. The initial idea arose in a logistics-heavy exhibition-planning meeting,[4] when I was suddenly struck by an onslaught of memories. I furiously transcribed the snapshots as they came to mind: ‘2001: A Space Odyssey with friends during COVID quarantine’; ‘Hospital visit with a death metal musician’; ‘That hellish experience in a movie theatre’. Each picture a moment that had an impact upon me, all of them stories worth telling, yet threatening to be forgotten, lost. Ghosts with unfinished business.

Later, I began to see connections between these moments, and I narrowed my focus from about ten moments to three. Soon an overarching story took shape. This would be a story about a descent into pandemic hell, with little repeated risings to beauty amidst the unfolding horror—a V-shaped tale. And did I mention that all three stories happened to be inspired by life in Vancouver? One of them on Valentine’s Day. At a time of widespread virus infection and whisperings of hope for a vaccine. A veritable smorgasbord of V!

Thus was ‘V Day’ born, its three ‘episodes’ slowly written over two months, its creator struggling, as usual, to keep trusting that his underworld descents would find more than pointlessly suffering shades.

‘Episode One: Vortex’ was the simplest to write, as it is based upon a real experience when a screening of the film Parasite was interrupted by a medical emergency. With this, I wanted to encapsulate that sudden plunge to the depths we all experienced in 2020, when the COVID crisis assaulted us with a sense of doom and disarray. This is largely what ‘V Day’ as a whole is evoking and—I hope—revoking too.

The writing of ‘Episode Two: Virus and Victory’ proved trickier, given rough subject matter that prompted feedback advising more sensitivity to the audience. Centring upon a chaplain’s visit with a man recovering from a heroin overdose, the challenge for me as a writer was to invite others to interface with a man who does not speak or think like ‘respectable’, upright Christian citizens. The portrayal needed to be honest, neither more nor less abrasive than necessary. And so, in response to that early feedback, I rewrote the script. My goal was to tell the truth about someone who is a mess, a man who is inappropriate, angry, and violates the order of polite society. Someone who doesn’t much care for Christians or their faith, in part because, in his experience, most of them tend to be hung up on his ‘bad words’, too offended by impurities in his speech and appearance to actually listen to him. Thus, while wanting to be truthful and constructively ‘inappropriate’, I agreed to rewrite the script in recognition that the audience for Interface would be diverse, likely including young people and families and Christians, many of whom may find expletive-laden language objectionable, for any number of valid reasons.

I do humbly submit, however, that perhaps not all of those various reasons for taking offence are good. Indeed, these reasons may be far from good, even unwittingly counter to the ways of that heavenly God who incarnates within this dirty world, for the sake of love, in the person of Jesus Christ. That God who visits us and ministers love despite our uncleanliness. The one who reveals to us that others’ dirt is also our dirt, and that there are many more ways to be ‘offensive’ than profanity. Might it be that our view of language is what is improper, corroding our capacity for dwelling with the misfits and outcasts and fu—ahem, ‘messed’ up—among us? People variously like and unlike you and me, my gentle friends, for whom narrative art can be particularly well-suited to training in the ways of compassion, to seeing more like God sees.[5]

My friend and Interface performance director, Karen Kiefer, wrestled with similar questions in relation to Episode Two:

As the person who will be ‘bleeping’ the addict’s profanity during the performance, I am mindful of the times when I have felt silenced. To be the one silencing another feels repugnant, and dishonouring to the gravity of the addict’s experience. While I believe sensitivity to the audience and the church venue-related space is important, I cannot help but consider the ways in which certain church-speak and disposition are far more offensive than four-letter words. Homophobic, racist and misogynistic language and actions, far too common still, are significantly more harmful to the fabric of our human dignity. Thinking about such things, I want to utter an obscenity. Why do we guard so strongly against offending our ears while tolerating offences against our whole person?

In line with authors like Flannery O’Connor, one of my convictions about narrative art is that, ideally, it should offend like Jesus offends. It should pierce us, jolt us awake, shake up the status quo. It should therefore be unpleasant to some degree, shining light upon that in us which we would prefer to let fester in darkness, shocking us into recognition of what we might otherwise remain ignorant. It should help us to go where God goes, learning how to attend to broken dirty upside-down people and their stories—including our own—with grace. To see what should be seen, hear what should be heard, speak what should be spoken. And, likewise, to discern what not to see, hear, or speak, what not to exalt or glamorise or indulge. Things I must continue learning.

In line with authors like Flannery O’Connor, one of my convictions about narrative art is that, ideally, it should offend like Jesus offends. It should pierce us, jolt us awake, shake up the status quo.

Finally, ‘Episode Three: Vision, Vancouver 2020’. This one is about three men whose friendship must change when one of them moves away. It deals with the heaviness many of us experienced in the pandemic—the loss of loved ones, prolonged periods of separation and social isolation, and the way that screens have come to mediate our relationships more than ever before. However, this story also features unveilings of the beauty right in front of our eyes all along. Like unicorns. Or ancient Lemurian dances. Or resilient long-distance friendships. Not to mention all the brand new 1960’s songs, rebellious hope just waiting to be sung…

So come to see ‘V Day’ and the Interface exhibition. It might be you’ll discover there are more things in heaven and this spacetime continuum than have been dreamt of in your philosophies, good people! Descend and rise to Beauty with me, if you would…

The Interface Exhibition Launch Event is on Friday the 8th of April at All Saints Church, in St Andrews. Details for the event can be found here: Interface Exhibition Launch Event | Facebook

[1] 1 John 4:16, ’God is love’, most English translations. In John 14:6, Jesus Christ proclaims himself ‘the way and the truth and life’, in most English translations. The Message paraphrase translates ‘the way’ as ‘the road’, and I am likewise taking liberty to translate ‘the way’ as ‘highway’.

[2] The importance of this social and relational dimension cannot be overstated.

[3] Responsive communal rhythm-making, literal drumming, is apparently quite useful for staying ‘in tune’ and hitting dramatic beats in a narrative!

[4] No relation between business-like logistics-heavy meetings, and Hell, should be inferred…

[5] I heartily recommend Mary McCampbell’s new book, Imagining Our Neighbors as Ourselves: How Art Shapes Empathy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2022), which explores these themes.   

Author

  • (Associate Editor) is a doctoral student at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews, under the supervision of Gavin Hopps. He is researching the theological implications of the fiction of Thomas Pynchon (1937- ), exploring his work as post-secular literature, and in relation to the Gothic tradition.

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