On the beginnings of an idea
"I was going up in the elevator and just between the first and second floors, I felt that I was going to vomit up a little rabbit. I have never described this to you before, not so much, I don't think, from lack of truthfulness as that, just naturally, one is not going to explain to people at large that from time to time one vomits up a bunny."
- Julio Cortazar, Letter to a Young Lady in Paris
Cortazar's short story Letter to a Young Lady in Paris is written in the form of a letter by a young man to his landlord, a friend who let him stay in her apartment in Buenos Aires while she is travelling abroad. The above quote is the first reveal of his problem: one day he finds himself inexplicably and uncontrollably vomiting little bunnies. It is not a shock or a real concern--the narrator is amusingly undisturbed by the physicality of the ordeal--but the rabbits (who continue to be disgorged, and then multiply as rabbits famously do) begin to take over his life and overrun the apartment. They nibble on the corners of books, hide amongst the clothes in the wardrobe, and emotionally more than physically overwhelm him. The perfect tidiness and order of his rented apartment is constantly infringed upon by the rabbits. The story is revealed to be a suicide note: he cannot take responsibility for the creative disorder he released upon the closed space, so he kills himself.
I first read this story in college in a class on literature of the Southern Cone. I took the class as an excuse to walk around Borges's world for credit (labyrinths and impossible dictionaries! infinite libraries and hilarious meta-literary puzzles!) and to polish up my Spanish comprehension. To test myself one day, I took my week's assignment (the above Cortez story) to a coffee shop without a Spanish-English dictionary and read it through. When I first came across the phrase "vomitar conejitas," I cursed my over-confidence: surely the phrase wasn't "vomiting little bunnies?!"
Maybe it is because I read and re-read the story several times that afternoon, and read it so closely, that it has stayed with me all these years later. Maybe I was--as I predictably am--drawn to tongue-in-cheek magical realism, fantastical or disgusting situations treated like the every day. More likely, I recognized a kindred connection to the narrator. His innocuous, purposeless creation, constant and growing, taking over even the dustiest corners of his otherwise orderly space, felt familiar to me as a person who desires order but easily disappears into (occasionally unmanageable) creative production. Producing one thing is the snowball that grows into an avalanche; a project that at first can seem contained and manageable grows and cascades into a multitudinous idea, which can feel exciting and suffocating and liberating. First there are two bunnies, and then my house is overrun.
Four years ago, musing on this story, I painted a portrait of myself vomiting moths.
I approached this project as a technical exercise to try a few painting techniques I'd learned the year before, but making the metaphor literal was really funny to me. It remains one of my favorite projects from that period when I was thrashing around, searching for the right medium and venue to make my work.
Two years ago, after intensively making little books that were witty but emotionally distant from smug self-referentially, I wanted to challenge myself to make a Thing That Rings True. I returned to this image, to this idea, and mapped onto it my interest in thinking about storytelling in and of itself. How much can we really share of ourselves through narration? What is revealed and lost, what is built? I drew a draft of three storytellers, vomiting / singing different tones, that weave together to build a space where I had planned to tell a larger story. The project ended with these three panels.
And so here I am again, back at this idea, taking it to its completion. The book I am working on is about vomiting bunnies. It is about unreliable origins, about obsessive production, about giving everything to a vision, to a creative project, and what happens when that fails.
And the ocean.