In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Jean McDonough

by Sep 26, 2023

Cracked windshield seen through the back seat of a car.

Your nonfiction piece, “Vanishing Point,” expertly braids painting and Cubism techniques, specifically Picasso’s Guernica, with a turbulent childhood, layered within the reality and metaphor of driving. What was the spark that made you blend these together? How did this piece develop?

The death of my father during the same year that I visited Spain and viewed Guernica—a painting that I was obsessed with as a child—is really what inspired me to begin writing about my life through the lens of Basque history and elements of Picasso’s painting. “Vanishing Point” specifically evolved from a short story that I read by Gabriel García Márquez titled “I Sell My Dreams.” The story begins with a mysterious woman who is discovered dead in her car after a random ocean wave breaches a seawall. I was haunted by this story and related it to my own car accident. I saw life in a new way through my fractured windshield, similar to the Cubism in Picasso’s Guernica

You brought up something that resonated with me, which is this idea of having control vs being out of control vs giving up control. Do you find that writing lends itself to give you control or allows you relinquish control to the writing?

When I begin an essay, I always have a general notion of what I am going to write—actually, it is more accurate to say that I feel the life of the essay—but ideas come at me from all different directions, often from years of notes that I have collected on a particular aspect of Guernica or Basque history. This is when I feel most out of control in the process, even a little nauseated because I like order in my life. From this messy swirl of ideas, I piece together fragments of my own personal experiences, similar to how I imagine Picasso once pieced together his collages on canvas. Then I sort, and add, and cut—until the writing tells me what it wants to become; sometimes this desire conflicts with my own vision, but I have learned to listen to the writing and give up control. I usually scrap half of what I write, so I have learned that self-control—or self-discipline—is critical to producing a focused piece; it is painful to cut a beautiful passage once I realize that it is repetitive or doesn’t fit with the story that I am trying to tell. Sometimes I do get lost in the creative process, though, and need to return to Picasso’s Guernica for guidance. The painting always tells me what to write, and so—with a great deal of faith and reverence—I relinquish control.

I want to focus a little more on your process. When revising a piece with so many moving parts, how do you make sure each thread pairs well with its neighbors?

I have a background in the visual arts—specifically photography—so the narrative threads that I use are images in my head. I weave these images—they often bridge time and space—much like how a film maker would use a common camera angle, landscape, movement, or character, though I also love to contrast images. Also, my writing literally has many moving parts—I use scissors to cut apart paragraphs and then reassemble them with staples and tape to create unusual juxtapositions, much like how Picasso created his collages. Working with my writing as if it were artwork gives me a fresh perspective. I also do most of my finer syntactical revisions on my cell phone—another one of my methods to gain perspective—but then I can get a little too distracted. Sometimes I find myself revising my writing in the grocery store.

You’re writing a collection of nonfiction surrounding Guernica, of which “Vanishing Point” is a part; what roles do those other writings play in relation to this piece?

I have another essay in the collection, “Amygdala in the Dark” published in Under the Sun, that parallels “Vanishing Point.” In this story, there is a different driver that speeds down a road. When I was a child, a motorist struck a deer in front of our house on Christmas Eve. The driver pounded on our front door because he believed that the deer had stumbled onto our property and that it needed to be put down, but my parents refused to help him. In the essay, I reflect on Picasso’s wounded horse in Guernica, and ask myself why—when I drove past a car accident that involved a dead horse on a rural road, several years ago—I did not stop to see if anyone needed help.

As an artist, how does your painting influence your writing, and vice versa?

I don’t think that my art has really influenced me as a writer—probably because it is harder for me to express myself on canvas—but my training in the visual arts has definitely helped me as a writer. The principles of design that I learned in art school—such as scale, proportion, unity, rhythm, shape, space, balance, and perspective—can be applied to many different artistic disciplines, including creative nonfiction.

Clearly, Picasso inspires your art. What other painters, writers, or books inspire you? 

I am indebted to Xabier Irujo, the Director of the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, who has published several books about the bombing of Gernika that I have used for my research. I am also inspired by the Basque poet Joseba Sarrionandia, and the work of William L. Smallwood, an American who—in 1972, three years before the death of Francisco Franco—traveled to Gernika and recorded the experiences of Basques during the bombing on April 26, 1937. Most recently, I have been reading Flights by the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk. She has a unique method of weaving fiction with nonfiction. I am also inspired by her reflections on travel and the human body.

Do you have other projects that are you currently working on?

No, I am consumed with writing my Guernica essays. I have been working on them for three years and probably have another two years of work before I complete the collection and submit it for publication as a book. Because there is so much thought and research involved in my writing, I am only able to complete an essay every few months. I am still learning to be patient with myself. Art cannot be rushed—it is timeless.

Black and white photograph of a white woman with light hair and glasses in a scarf.Jean McDonough is an elementary school librarian, writer, and artist. Most recently, her poetry and creative nonfiction have been published in California Quarterly and Writing Disorder. She was also a finalist forRuminate’s 2021 VanderMey Nonfiction Prize. Currently she is working on a collection of essays inspired by Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. McDonough lives in Illinois with her husband and daughter.

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