“Fiction—and poetry and drama—cleanse the doors of perception.” ~ Ursula K. Le Guin
The theater critic, Ben Brantley, wrote recently for the New York Times on the exhibit of Tennessee Williams memorabilia at the Morgan Library in New York. It’s a wonderful piece of writing and well worth your time for its own merits, to say nothing of the electricity surrounding the subject, Mr. Williams himself. His eccentricities and passions released in his edgy approach to writing make wonderous anecdotes inspiring us today. But what caught me in particular was the discussion about the playwright’s passion for…blue.
It opens the essay (and exhibit) in the form of his blue Olivetti typewriter, and continues to descriptions of his appetite for the color in all forms, “chromatic, spiritual, emotional”, and gives examples of his characters carrying his craving for him; such as Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” describing her gown as “della Robbia blue”, or her speculation that she’d be buried at sea in “an ocean as blue…as my first love’s eyes.” Those shots of his favorite color show up in his paintings and diaries as well, and when combined with the hue of his beloved typewriter, there can be no doubt about it’s importance to him. Ordinarily, I’d pay little attention to this fetish, but it jumped out at me, or rather I jumped when I read it because describing blue in my own work has been a personal sore point for a long time.
My first novel had a male protagonist whose eyes I described as cerulean blue. That unusual quality of depth was important to me to give them a shocking penetration, and I didn’t want to weaken the description using a simile to help it along. Frankly, I’ve never found Mr. Williams’ padding of the “della Robbia blue” with “the blue of the robe in the old Madonna pictures” effective. And as we never knew Blanche’s first lover, the color of his eyes still seems a mystery. ‘Cerulean’ stands on its own, I thought then, and still do now. However, one of my first writing teachers did not. She crossed it out with an aggressive ‘X’, announcing it was ineffective, as no one would know what it was. The inference was that I’d used it only to impress, rather than inform. I took it out but have since found numerous instances of other authors using it, running into it with an outrageous regularity. My writer’s serendipity was in full force, dumping torrents of cerulean blue at me from every direction, including the back of a saltine box, urging us to consume the biscuits on board ships on ‘cerulean oceans’. Other authors also sent me examples of it, stumbled over in their own readings. It became a shared joke that seemed to make my point even sorer, so I eventually put it back in my novel, forever to be remembered as an example of how important it is to follow one’s own original instinct.
I wonder how many writers have color fetishes and how those influence their work. We know from the neurological partnership of color and emotion released in music that visual art is far from the only kind of creativity relying on them. I thought more about my own preferences in color, recognizing fully that blue would not be my choice, but rather something sunnier in yellow or orange or another warm earth-tone. Yet while they may govern my choices of fabric for interior design or personal fashion, they don’t rule the lives of my characters per se.
It’s not color but light that finds its way most often into my narratives. One could argue that light is part of the same family as color, but it’s a different relative altogether. And that leads me straight back to my sore point…the importance of the relationship of ‘cerulean’ to ‘blue’. The adjective leaves plenty of room for readers to serve themselves and take what they want. It suggests a depth of color absorbing so many others that one could drown in it. That opportunity to let the reader imagine is a lot more important than the specificity an author can’t let go of. Cerulean is more indispensable than blue for the wealth of possibilities it suggests.