FEATURE — Summer 2009

After a successful career as a trial attorney, alumnus Donald Friedman got back to his true craft: writing.

A Brush with Art

In his highly acclaimed book, The Writer’s Brush, alumnus Donald Friedman reveals some 203 writer-artists with a desire and capacity to create in multiple media.

By Candace O’Connor

That scamp Tom Sawyer, eager to avoid the chore of painting his aunt’s fence, convinced gullible friends to do the work for him. But Tom’s creator, the equally mischievous Mark Twain, took a serious delight in producing his own artwork—self-portraits, comic sketches, doodles—feeling that they gave him a “new and exalted life,” he once said. “It steeps me in a sacred rapture to see a portrait develop and take soul under my hand.”

On the jacket of The Writer’s Brush is Sylvia Plath’s Two Women Reading. C. 1950–51. Tempera. 18 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Sylvia Plath Estate 2007.

An astonishing number of writers have also been painters or sculptors, cartoonists or lithographers. In his 2007 book, The Writer’s Brush, author Donald Friedman, A.B. ’65, wrote biographical sketches of 203 writer-artists from around the world and paired them with reproductions of their artistic work. A handful, such as William Blake and Wyndham Lewis, had such luminous talent in both areas that “each morning was apparently a coin toss to determine whether the day would be spent standing in a smock or seated with a pen,” wrote Friedman in his introduction. Others switched from one medium to the other; late in life, Tennessee Williams gave up playwriting for painting.

But most saw their art as simply a joyful new form of creative expression. As novelist and watercolorist Hermann Hesse wrote: “When I paint my little pictures, it is not so much a question of competence but of privilege, and probably of enormous luck, to be permitted to play with colors and sing in praise of nature.” The very act of producing a work of art may even enhance a writer’s prose, said writer and part-time cartoonist Flannery O’Connor. “I know a good many fiction writers who paint, not because they’re any good at painting, but because it helps their writing. It forces them to look at things.”

Emily Brontë. Flossy. C. 1843. Watercolor on paper. 9–1/2 x 13–1/2 inches. Courtesy of the Brontë Society.

Friedman spent decades compiling such nuggets, and the result is a full-color, 457-page volume that has received widespread acclaim. “One of the most fascinating books of the year,” declared The London Times. “A subversive jewel of an idea, sparkling audaciously on every page…,” said The New York Times Book Review, in a nod to Friedman’s spare and sometimes sly comments, which illuminate the writers’ inner lives.

Also included in the book is an essay by William H. Gass, the David May Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in the Humanities, who reflects on the varied success of writers living with the “dual muse.” William Faulkner’s drawings “simply dance the Charleston with energy and delight,” he said, while the brilliant Johann Wolfgang von Goethe produced paintings that were “technically weak, formally conventional, and emotionally banal.” Poet Elizabeth Bishop was “not, by and large, a happy person; yet her watercolors, for the most part, take undiluted pleasure in their scenes.”

As a child in New Jersey, Friedman loved art, painting in oils by age 10 and sculpting in alabaster by 13. As an undergraduate at Washington University, he audited a School of Art drawing course and did some cartooning for Student Life. At the same time, he tried creative writing “and noticed,” he says, “in some way that I could not have articulated, that there was a connection in my brain between the creative urge to draw and paint and to write.”

Hermann Hesse, Verso Arasio. 1931. Watercolor. 10–5/8 x 9–1/4 inches. Courtesy Hesse Museum, Montagnola, Switzerland. Copyright © Hermann Hesse Editions Archiv, Offenbach a.Main, Germany.

For three years, he was an unhappy pre-med student, dutifully taking science courses but feeling drawn to writing, acting, and civil rights issues, including an action that resulted in the integration of Santoro’s, a popular restaurant nearby. His group of iconoclastic, creative friends—including his roommate Michael Shamberg, A.B. ’66, later the producer of such films as Erin Brockovich and Pulp Fiction—provided his happiest times. Finally, someone persuaded writer Stanley Elkin to take Friedman on as his lone advisee.

“When I walked into his office, he yelled at me: ‘Advisees! Advisees! Is that all I have to do is advise people?!’ Then he looked at my transcript and saw courses like comparative anatomy, and said: ‘What am I supposed to tell you about these things?’ I said I was there because I liked to write stories, and he told me to bring him one, which I did. After he read it, he said: ‘This is not a story; stories begin with plot and action, not philosophy.’ He proceeded to give me the basics on how to approach writing. He was a wonderful mentor. He was the best.”

After college, Friedman lived in poverty for a year, trying to write, but he quickly realized that he had no life experiences to draw upon. He decided to “join the establishment” and attend law school, planning to return to writing at age 40, which is when he figured that “all useful life ended.” He built a successful career as a trial lawyer, with his own New Jersey firm; he married and raised two children, including Samantha Friedman, A.B. ’99, J.D. ’03.

Rudyard Kipling. From “How the Whale Got His Throat.” Pen and ink. From Just So Stories (1902).

But that goal of writing still nagged at him, as he scribbled ideas on napkins and scraps of paper through the years. “At the stroke of midnight on my 40th birthday, my wife said to me: ‘Well, now are you going to start?’” he recalls. “She enrolled me in a writing course at the New School and bought me my first book about writing. That was the beginning.”

Early in the morning, he wrote before work—short stories at first, including “Jewing,” published by Tikkun magazine. That story evolved into a 1999 novel: The Hand Before the Eye, which won the First Series Award for the Novel from its publisher, Mid-List Press. Then Friedman returned to his old question about the link between writing and art. He found a reference to a 1971 Chicago show about writer-artists and tracked down its records at the Newberry Library, finding a wealth of material. Retiring from his law practice in 2000, he plunged into this new project.

“It was a four-part process,” he says. “First, I found the art and got permission for its reproduction; then I read the writers’ biographies, letters, and diaries for their insights into the process. Next I went through their lives, extracting telling details. All of them suffered from the most miserable life traumas, especially as young people. Finally, I reflected on all of this: What did these writers have in common? What are the connections between word and image? What is creativity all about?”

“Finally, I reflected on all of this: What did these writers have in common? What are the connections between word and image? What is creativity all about?”

Mid-List Press took a chance on this large volume—and it quickly took off, with translations so far in German, Spanish, Rumanian, and Korean, and a major writer/artist exhibition, curated by Friedman, in Manhattan and Cambridge, Massachusetts. While Friedman never answered his fundamental questions, he still ponders them, as he works on his second novel.

In the end, perhaps the answer lies with a quote from poet and artist E. E. Cummings, included in his book: “...however ‘the arts’ may differ among themselves, their common function is the expression of that supreme aliveness which is known as ‘beauty.’”

Candace O’Connor is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.