Interviewed by Tanya Ward Goodman
In her recent memoir, He Came in With It, painter Miriam Feldman tells the story of how, after her son Nick’s second suicide attempt, she made fruitless efforts to paint his portrait. After rolling white gesso over those early paintings, she used the canvases for other artwork. “Only I,” she writes, “know what is under the new paintings, buried, lost.”
Unable to rely on her skills as a fine artist to make sense of the effects of schizophrenia on her nineteen-year-old son and excavate the impact of his mental illness on her family, Feldman put down her brush and picked up a pen. “I don’t think much when painting,” she says, “but a book requires a different level of detail and information.”
For two years Feldman worked to compress over a decade of calamitous events into a little more than three hundred pages. With an eye for detail and unsparing honesty, Feldman surveys thirty-four years of marriage, the lives of four children and the perils and promise of aging. Though Nick’s diagnosis forms the backbone of the book, Feldman’s keen understanding of the symphonic reality of misfortune leads her to chronicle her own treatment for a brain tumor, her husband’s heart attack, and a daughter’s cancer. The resulting story is Feldman’s own, revealing a mother, wife, and woman in a state of flux and revelation
I read her book while drafting my second memoir. My first followed the story of my father’s diagnosis with early-onset Alzheimer’s and how his loss led me to create a family of my own. With just a week separating the birth of my son and the death of my father, my second book centers on the emotional and physical cost of caregiving. Balancing writing with mothering two teenagers was often difficult and I’d begun to feel bogged down. Inspired by Feldman’s successful shift from one form of creative output to another, I signed up for an online painting class. It was a great relief to concentrate for a couple of hours on the shape of a bunch of bananas or a few tangerines. I learned to use my brush to sketch out the rough contours of the fruit in brown paint before filling in the color. Laying down a clear foundation and building on it was a vast relief from days spent drilling down into my life story in search of slippery, mutable meaning. When the class ended, I returned to my manuscript and began to identify what amounted to the “underpainting” in my narrative. This process helped me to focus my story and, ultimately, finish a solid draft.
Curious to understand more about the process and benefits of moving from one form of expression to another, I had an initial conversation with Miriam Feldman over the phone and followed up by email and Zoom through January 2021.
Feldman serves on the advisory board of Bring Change 2 Mind, a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to encouraging dialogue about mental health. Feldman writes a blog for their site and has been published widely as a mental health advocate and parent. As founder of Demar Feldman Studios, Inc., a mural and decorative art company, her work has been featured in numerous design magazines, including Architectural Digest and Elle Decor. Her fine art is represented by Hamilton Galleries in Santa Monica.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Tanya Ward Goodman: You’ve been a painter for most of your life and this book represents your first serious literary attempt. What habits from your career as an artist translated to writing?
The habits really are exactly the same. Sit down and paint. Sit down and write. I have never indulged myself in the romantic concept of needing some sort of inspiration or passion in order to paint. It is my job, and I do it whether I feel like it or not. When I used to teach workshops, I’d tell students that if they are not feeling inspired, to put an apple in a bowl and paint it. It’s like playing scales if you are a musician. Having this somewhat pedestrian attitude about the work has kept me always producing art. Then when the magic comes, or the enlightenment arrives, I am ready for it. In the meanwhile, I can play the hell out of the scales.
I like to be somewhat closed off from the outside world. Since the work (both painting and writing) is really a process of going inward, my environment doesn’t need to be stimulating, actually the opposite. I need good light and room to work, that’s about it. A big window with a beautiful view can be a problem, as can other people being around.
Was it different for writing?
Since writing was new to me, I just dove in to figure it out. It became a process of reviewing the previous day’s work, then writing for five or six hours (while jotting down memories or ideas that came to me on Post-its) and then organizing the Post-its for an hour at the end. Writing demands more organization and scrutiny than painting, which for me is more organic. My writing room looked, ironically, like the workshop of mathematician John Nash, portrayed in A Beautiful Mind…scraps of papers and notes all over the walls.
How did you incorporate your identity as an artist into the events described in your book?
I had a stunning realization in regard to that. When I was workshopping the book with Lidia Yuknavitch, she asked me, “Why don’t you talk about the painting? It is obviously a huge part of you, and your family’s story, and yet you don’t tell the reader anything. You don’t describe the paintings; you don’t talk about what it feels like to paint…what’s going on here?” Now, as I said before, I am pragmatic about painting, and I rarely talk about it. I think that might stem from my art school years when I found that the people who did the most talking about art were actually making the least amount of art. I was more of the “shut up and do it” school. I’ve always felt that there was something pretentious about pontificating about art theory, it’s just not my style. But Lidia made me see that it was a necessary component to the book. I’d been painting for years and finally had permission to talk about painting, about what it means to me, and how it impacts the dynamics of my family.
How did art form a connection between you and your children?
My connection to all my children is tethered by art in a very organic way. From the time they were small they’d hang out in my studio and tinker around with their own stuff while I worked. We all identify as artists in the way that some families identify with a religion. Nick was a gifted artist from the time he was very young, and he worked with his father and me to develop his skills and his vision. He was going to be an important artist. The pain of that loss when he became ill was sharp for all of us. We lost a future we had fallen in love with. In the first years of his schizophrenia, Nick painted a bit but then stopped. He later transitioned to drawing in children’s coloring books for many years. It was heartbreaking in one respect. I realized that the internal machinations of his mind were surely too much for him to delve into. But he had such a basic drive to put paint on a surface that he found a way to continue. Framed that way, his Ninja Turtle colorings became inspirational to me. I have always said that it was the process, not the product that mattered most to me, and here was the perfect incarnation of that idea! His mind had turned against him but the need for the process, for the actual application of color, moved him through a different portal. In the last year he has begun painting on canvas again and it is fascinating to see.
I think a lot about learned skills versus innate talent. How was learning to paint different for you than learning to write? What do you think is a necessary foundation?
Skills versus talent is an interesting subject. I’m a big fan of skills, ninety-nine percent perspiration and all that. But inarguably the component of talent, or ability, has to be there. The learning process for me was distinctly different with painting and writing. Ever since I could hold something in my hand, it was a paintbrush, so I’ve developed skills. I have an MFA in painting, so I’ve studied. For me that was a necessary foundation. In terms of writing, it’s a whole different thing. I had a certain knack for stringing words together, but I had no idea how to write a book! After the initial months of getting the story out in 400-plus pages, I thought I had a book. Nope. I spent the next year learning the absolute basics. I read tutorials about story construction, worked with editors and writers. That was my education in storytelling. The book that I thought I had in the beginning is a very different book than the one I published. I imagine that there are those whose talent allows them the luxury of skipping the education and skill honing, but I’m not one of them.
What did you get out of writing that you could not find in painting?
The story of my son’s schizophrenia, the electric shock of trauma it sent through my family, and the profound shift in worldview it caused was more than I could tackle with paint. I had to be specific, I had to name things, I had to chart a path.
What led you to write a memoir instead of a novel?
I actually danced around that quite a bit and then I realized that the main deciding factor was the number of bad things that happened in such a short period of time. If I wrote this as fiction nobody would believe it—you know what I mean? I realized that if I was going to tell this story one of the important thrusts for me was to tell the truth after lying so much. It seemed like the proper delivery method of this truth was memoir.
When you say “lying,” what are you talking about?
Hiding things, pretending things were fine when they weren’t fine. Not talking about schizophrenia. All of that. Writing was sort of a reckoning for me.
Would you advise this kind of “reckoning” for other parents in similar circumstances?
While I’d surely recommend writing a memoir in order to gain clarity, it’s not something most people would do. I think that journaling is probably a similar exercise. I’ve never done that, but the act of writing distances you from the story in a way that allows for more insight.
I’m very careful to say that the book is not a road map and I’m not giving advice. If anything, I’m giving an example of how to screw up, you know what I mean? I’m just a person struggling through it like anybody. I guess I would say to anyone looking for advice, “you are not alone.”
Was writing therapeutic for you?
Of course it was. One of the most interesting things that happened was that I had to deal with members of my family as characters. Setting aside the lens of mother or wife, I had to look at my family and see what motivated them. I had to think about how I could depict them in a true way. That’s not something you do in relationships when you are busy with your own agenda.
I found something inside myself that I’d previously not understood. I’d always regarded “surrender” as weakness, failure. Losing the war. Now I understand that surrender, acceptance, is an action of intelligence. I’ve stopped throwing myself against the brick wall. Now I either walk around it or live with it.
It’s often hard to write about family and friends. I worry about what they will think and how they will feel. Did those same concerns affect you as you wrote the book?
I decided to suspend all consideration of the people involved while writing the first few drafts. I wanted to be unhindered in my writing. Once I had a cohesive draft that showed the bones of the book, I had my family read it. I told each of them that if there was anything they didn’t want in the book I’d remove it. No one asked, which was so gratifying. As far as worrying about what friends will think. I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I don’t care what people think of me. I believe that is evident in the candor with which I told my story. The fact that I made mistakes and am flawed is an important part of the story.
What informed your decision to use Nick’s self-portrait on the cover of the book?
I had some hesitancy about putting his image, his face, out into the world, but the publisher’s other ideas were more decorative and less personal. This cover felt truer to the actual story.
So many of your own paintings put the subject in a place of vulnerability which can also be seen as strength or courage. In your book, we see a narrator full of rage, despair, and near mania along with chaos in the house, and the bare depiction of some violent and unsettling moments. What does it feel like to paint these moments? How does it feel to write those scenes?
It’s funny you should state it that way, vulnerability that can also be seen as strength—that strikes a chord with me. I have a photograph pinned to the wall where I paint that has been there for over forty years. It shows a woman who has leapt to her death, hovering in the air above a calm street scene where no one has noticed yet. It was snapped by a journalist who was there by chance. For me, that picture holds everything I ever paint. That moment, the second before something irrevocable happens, is what fascinates me. The tipping point. So that’s the thing for me: vulnerability and strength, order and chaos, and violence and love. These things exist concurrently. It has all the portent of a fertilized egg. So, although writing many of those scenes was difficult—especially the ones that involved violence—it was there that I grappled with truth, and it felt great. For me, the irrevocable thing was writing the memoir itself. Once I put the story to paper it became its own truth, nonnegotiable.
Tanya Ward Goodman is the author of the award-winning memoir Leaving Tinkertown. Her essays and articles have appeared in numerous publications including the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Luxe, Coast Magazine, the Huffington Post, Literary Mama, and Brain, Child. Her essay, “What Life Does,” originally published in the Fourth River, was listed as notable in The 2019 Best American Science and Nature Writing. She is currently at work on a second memoir about mourning, motherhood, and the way travel cultivates a willing acceptance of uncertainty.