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Eye of the Beholder

How to Build an Artist

There is a Twitter thread, almost twenty-five thousand comments long, about an eleven-year-old girl who was hit by a car and hospitalized for brain trauma. From her bedside, the girl’s mother shared a tweet asking for prayers, and suddenly it was trending, and it kept trending for two weeks and celebrities started to chime in, and then the little girl—Molly—died.

 I scroll through fifty comments or so before I have to look away. It’s about two-thirds condolences and one-third people telling this devastated mother what she should be doing with her grief instead of posting on Twitter. I find most of it nauseating. A friend of mine, meanwhile, is thrilled.

“It’s fascinating,” she tells our class, sharing the link for the whole thread. “I read every single comment and took pages of notes. The timeline of her brain trauma is so helpful for me to see.” 

My friend is writing a novel. We’re all writing novels. One of her characters suffers brain trauma in an assault, and my friend has recently felt like the timeline of this character’s recovery is off. She has spent hours in depressing medical forums, typing symptoms and complications into Google. She’s not thrilled by the horror of this girl’s accident or death, but by the chance it’s given her to get the words right. And we don’t tell her that she’s weird or obsessive or morbid or heartless. We are jealous. We wish the things we were writing about walked straight up to us and laid themselves down, fully exposed, ready for us to take what we need and move on to the next browser window. Most of the time it doesn’t happen this way. Most of the time we crawl after the thing that we need, leaving a trail of horrific online searches and concerned friends in our wake, and we are lucky if we can ever catch up.




Ana Mendieta is all over my house. She’s taped to the wall below the window right above the desk where I usually write. She’s pinned to the bulletin board that hangs in the dark corner where my standing desk lives. A book of her artwork props my laptop to eye level as I type this. She’s all over the wall in the laundry room, which also serves as my art studio. In addition to writing about her, I am also making art about her, because once I started writing about her, I could not stop thinking about her. She’s the saved podcast episodes on my phone and the screenshots of Instagram accounts that promote the work of female artists. She’s half the notes I’ve taken for novel research. She’s on the cover of the graphic novel on my nightstand. If there was a Twitter thread with twenty-five thousand comments about Ana, I would read every single one of them, too. 

I remember the day I decided to put her in my novel. It was the same day I realized that I probably couldn’t. I did another Internet search, though I already knew what it would say: Ana died in 1985 at the age of thirty-six after she supposedly fell from her apartment window and landed on the roof of the bodega below. Her husband, Carl Andre, was present and his 911 call was bizarre; he stated repeatedly that he was also an artist and that his wife “went through” the window. All their friends knew they often had intense arguments and there was some evidence of physical altercations. Andre was tried and acquitted for her murder, and the world just sort of moved on.

Except for those of us who didn’t.

So even though my book is fiction, and even though it’s my opinion that he pushed her, I know I can’t take her off my bulletin board and put her straight into my book. 




What I can do is make a new person. This new person can borrow from Ana: her age, her profession, her upbringing in Cuba, her graphic and brutal performance pieces, her sharp personality. I can pin all these things to a new person the way I’ve pinned Ana all over my house, and as long as I give this character a different name, I’m not directly accusing anyone of murder or infringing on any copyrights. 

So I start researching how to build a new person from the ruins of another person.




Isn’t it embedded in your DNA? a male friend asks when I am obsessing about this over lunch one day. 

Isn’t what embedded in my DNA? I ask back, though he’s not the first man to suggest this.

Making people. You’re a woman. Women make people from scratch with their bodies.

I’m not sure she’ll appear if I have sex with my book, I tell him. But I make note of this concept for an experimental flash fiction piece I’ve been working on.




I have to admit it’s an interesting idea. Cis women have an entire organ dedicated to the creation of new human beings. Even those of us who never plan to use our uteruses have to carry them around with us, this constant reminder that our bodies are meant to be used as incubators for other bodies. I wonder if this means we are predisposed to the creation of fictional characters in a way that men are not. I find dozens of scientific and medical articles arguing about whether or not there are differences in the creative parts of men’s and women’s brains. The consensus? A resounding maybe. A Rolling Stone article claims that women actually create more innovative music than men do because women are less likely to be hailed as creative geniuses, so we have to make crazier songs in order to stand out. 

But that’s misogyny, not biology.

I wonder if it works the same for fiction. I think of some of the characters I can’t live without: Jo March, Lizzie Bennett, Sula Peace, Hannah Wolfe, Cathy Ames, Dana Franklin. Mostly women, mostly written by women. I imagine this list says more about me than it does about anything else.

Still, each time I start a new character, I find myself paying close attention to my body, especially the part inside me that I never plan to use. Cis men walk around without that space inside waiting to be filled. They don’t bleed every time it’s left empty. That blood must make some sort of difference. 




In her 1974 film  Blood + Feathers, Ana Mendieta stands naked next to a creek. She maintains eye contact with the camera as she slowly pours a pitcher of blood over her chest, arms, and legs. She pours more down her back. Then she tosses the pitcher aside and lowers herself into a pile of white feathers and rolls around until they stick to her. When she is covered with them, she stands and slowly raises her arms into a strange position, bird-like.

The film ends.

According to The Tate: “In all her feathered performances of 1974, Mendieta transforms herself into the sacrificial victim—the creature that must be killed in order to produce new life. Blood is central to rituals of the Catholic Church, the religion in which Mendieta was raised, through the metaphor of wine. Real blood-letting through the sacrifice of such animals as roosters, turtles, and goats is a vital part of Santería, the hybrid religion developed in Cuba by African slaves in the nineteenth century, which fuses Yoruba culture (from southwestern Nigeria) with Spanish Roman Catholicism. However, while Santería sacrifice specifies the use of a male bird, Mendieta’s bird-figures are unmistakably feminine.”

The creature that must be killed in order to produce new life

I take down one of my pinned images of Ana so I can add a new one, which has been forming inside me for months. So far, the image is just a word I’ve written on a scrap of paper: Eva.




My Facebook ads suggest I have been expecting a baby for two years. Part of it is my age and part is the fact that I have a couple of baby naming websites bookmarked. I’m picky about my characters and usually I change names a few times before settling on one. 

I’ve wondered—not infrequently—if this is because I was supposed to have an entirely different name. I was supposed to be Erin before my grandpa Jack died two weeks before I was born. I think of Erin as the ghost version of me, living some other life in some other realm. Is her personality the same as mine? Did she do the logical thing and decide to become a lawyer with a steady paycheck? Is she going to use her uterus? I hope she has good health insurance.

So maybe I feel some pressure about names. When you assign a character a name, are you also assigning a personality, a fate? My Internet searches progress: I go from baby names to names in general, then the science of names, quickly spiraling through browser tabs until I am at the Wikipedia page for “nominative determinism,” which is the idea that your name might determine the type of profession toward which you gravitate. The page lists a few examples: someone named Igor Judge, who became the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales for a while; a study that shows an unusually high number of men named Dennis who became dentists; a weather reporter named Storm Field, which feels so much like fiction that I know it has to be real. There is also something called “implicit egotism,” which means we humans are unconsciously drawn to things that remind us of ourselves, even if it’s just the letters in our names. 

Is this why I have so many jackets?

The fictional Ana’s name comes to me easily and I know immediately it is right: Eva. I like the sound of it, that it clearly sounds like Ana’s name. I like that it’s short and powerful. I like names with “v” in them because they’re sharp. I like that it’s derived from Eve, which has the Judeo-Christian association of being the first woman, and I like that when I search for it online, its definition isn’t framed as “the female version” of some male name.

In relation to the name “Ana,” “Eva” is similar enough and different enough. I don’t care if some art enthusiast reads the novel and recognizes Ana in Eva: I’m not trying to trick anyone. I want these two women to exist in a way that is similar to me and Erin—one that was and one that could have been, the same person with two different names, the same origin with two different potential outcomes. 




When I workshopped part of my novel for the first time, an older man in the class tried to correct—among other things—my pronunciation of one of my characters’ names. He explained to me that I wasn’t emphasizing the correct syllable and I explained to him that since I’m the one who created the character, I’m the one who decides how the name is pronounced. He tried to explain to me again why I was wrong, as though I hadn’t spoken, and I gave up and nodded, making a show of writing a note about it.

My note: name the murderer after this dude. 




I have so many notes from the museum. The museum paid me to watch people. During each shift, I stood next to whichever artwork I’d been assigned that day, and I watched to see if anyone got too close or tried to touch. I watched influencers and tourists take their endless selfies. I watched people on first dates, parents corralling children, children corralling parents, school groups, tour groups, friend groups, people who had lost their group, the occasional celebrity. 

I liked this job because I like to watch people. You begin to develop a sixth sense for body language until you can predict which person will take one step too far, which child will swerve a bit too close, who will end the date early. On my short breaks, I took notes on things I wanted to remember, like the Cecily Brown painting that seemed abstract until you stared at it for a minute and realized all of a sudden you were staring at a woman down on all fours. People had so many different reactions to this painting, but one thing I noticed—and I kept a running tally—was the number of women who would trace the figure of the woman in the air with their hands. Men, on the other hand, were more likely to take a step back once they realized what they were looking at. 

In another gallery, we had to guard Under the Table by Robert Therrien—a massive sculpture of a table under which guests were encouraged to walk, but not touch. Everyone touched it. Those of us working in that gallery knew we’d been assigned a futile mission, and we often gave up around hour two of the shift. Another tally: the number of times men would walk through and knock lightly on one of the chairs, presumably to see if they could identify the type of wood. I never once saw a woman do this, but at least three men would knock on the sculpture during every shift.

Most of my observations and notes on body language haven’t been channeled into Eva, but rather into Rosie, the protagonist of my novel, who also works in a museum.

The problem with Eva is that her body isn’t actually in my book. She exists in my novel only as a voice, through journal entries. Like Ana, she died from a fall. 




Eva’s journal entries are the only part of the novel I’m writing in first person, so in a way—and even though I’ve spent hundreds more hours with Rosie—I feel somewhat closer to Eva. Luckily for me, there are a lot of real-life female artists who kept journals or at least notes: Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Frida Kahlo. I’m currently on the waiting list to get into the library at UCLA—closed for COVID—which has a massive archive of the works and journals of Laura Aguilar, whose aesthetic was similar to Ana’s. Both used their bodies as their primary media, whether they were making performance art or photographs. Both were brown and female in an art world that was primarily white and male. Both used their photography not only as a means of performance, but also as one of documentation.

Eva’s artwork is similar to Ana’s and Laura’s. She also uses her body as her primary medium, and her work consists mostly of photographs and videos. Documentation. At first, I wonder if it is a problem that I have created a character who views her body like this, while also taking her body out of the book completely. She is literally a disembodied voice. 

But if you had to choose, maybe it is better to be a voice without a body than to be a body without a voice.




I draft one of Eva’s journal entries as I wait for my gynecological exam. When I hit a sentence I don’t know how to follow, I study the diagrams pinned to the wall: a uterus, a vagina, ovaries. There are posters explaining what to do if you want to become pregnant and what to do if you do not want to become pregnant. How to create life, how not to create it. I look at the draft of Eva in my lap. If only writer’s block were as easy to remove as a condom.

 Before the doctor examines me, she runs off a list of questions, including one I’ve been expecting for years: Are you planning to have children?

Not biologically, I say.

OK, she says, because you know, after age thirty-five, technically a pregnancy would be considered high risk.

I am thirty-two. 

Ana died when she was thirty-six. 

I had originally planned to kill Eva at the same age, thirty-six, but now I decide to bump it up a few years. I don’t want her to have to worry about this shit. 




Another workshop. I want to see what my classmates think of Eva’s journal entries. Everyone is on board except for one. She tells me: I like the idea of them, but they still feel too … structured, maybe? I think if it’s a journal, it should be more scattered, stream of consciousness.

I cross out everyone else’s notes and keep only hers. She’s pointed out the thing I could see but couldn’t name. Without being able to structure Eva’s body—the way she walks into a room, hugs her friends, eats a banana—I’ve been trying too hard to structure her language. But that, of course, is not the point of a journal. A journal is all voice, and voice is about expression, emotion, things that defy structure. I start to pull the sentences apart and rearrange them. I delete transitions so that she seems to bounce from topic to topic. It makes sense to her, and mostly to me. Does it matter if it doesn’t make total sense to certain readers—or even to most?

One of the books propping my laptop to eye level is a Louise Bourgeois catalog that includes some of her notes and journal entries. They read more like impressionistic sketches than prose; she doesn’t connect the lines and she doesn’t have to. She was the original audience, not us. When we read these entries, we aren’t so much spectators as spies, looking for clues to piece together the mystery of her.  




I’ve always been too scattered as a person—in both my thoughts and personal belongings—to keep a journal successfully. Instead I keep notes. During my last move, I found a few old notebooks from junior high, when I would come home from school, complete my homework, and then shut myself in my bedroom to write notes or stories until dinner. There is also my high school physics notebook, which contains more Harry Potter fan fiction and random, half-formed thoughts lining its margins than any physics notes. There is one page where I kept a list of the only parts of physics I found interesting. At the top it reads: energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only changed. 

I wonder if instead of destroying Ana and creating a new person, I have simply changed her into a different version of herself.

Some of the first writing advice I ever got—also during high school—was that you should write as though you are telling a story to a friend. Your form and voice will relax and you’ll sound more like yourself, less like you’re trying to impress. This seemed like good advice until I realized that some of my best writing has come from those scribbled margin notes or the things I wrote for hours after school, before social media, when the only audience was myself. Sometimes the writing wasn’t legible, sometimes there were tangents, but the thing that is hardest to nail down remains there: the voice. The voice holds all of these seemingly disparate threads together, and that’s what makes journals or notes fascinating documents, whether they are yours or someone else’s. 

Especially if they are someone else’s. 

Even if I were giving Eva a body, her voice would still be the most important element to get right. So far, her portions of the book have been the easiest for me to write. Because they are written as journal entries or, more often, scattered notes, they are the only sections where I can almost convince myself that maybe they will always remain private, like those junior high school notebooks, all that private writing I’ve tucked so very safely back away. 




Here is the trick: connecting all the threads so they are woven, not tangled. I’m not sure I believe in endings, so much as I believe that there is a good place and a bad place to stop. After you’ve done it enough times, you’ll know where to stop when you see it. 

Either that, or eventually you run out of thread. 




I build out Eva’s journals a bit more: I read, then I break up some of her sentences, then I rearrange those. I stop writing altogether and watch Promising Young Woman until it’s well past midnight. The ending of the movie upsets me so much that I have to pour a glass of wine and sit on the cool bathroom floor with my cats until my heart slows down. I know this ending is bothering me more than it normally would because my mind has been in overdrive thinking about endings, so I can’t just watch a movie and let it end without imagining the whole idea of it, all the threads the writer had to weave. 

This exhausts me, but not in any way that will lead to sleep. 

I type a note in my phone: I think of all the threads I’m constantly trying to weave into everything I write. Will I ever be able to look at anything – a note from a writing workshop, a joke I hear in passing, a tweet, a strangely worded billboard, a diagram in a gynecologist’s office—without weaving it into something I’m writing? Threads are not heavy until you’ve spent thirty-two years gathering them. And the problem is: as soon as you’ve gathered enough that they weave together, as soon as you release them into the world and relish in their weight leaving your body—you see something else and you write it down and another pile accumulates.

I go to my desk. Next to one of my pinned images of Ana, I have a bit of verse by Anne Carson: The reason I drink is to understand the yellow sky the great yellow sky, said Van Gogh. When he looked at the world he saw the nails that attach colours to things and he saw that the nails were in pain.

I think that is the perfect way to describe an artist: we see the nails that attach colors to things. Our brains are constantly making these connections whether we want them to or not. Unconsciously, we build things out of them.

 I go to bed and open a new note in my phone. I draft a journal entry for Eva: she is exhausted, and her threads are beginning to unravel.




There is, of course, a fun part: when you know you’re putting a thread in the right place. The way my friend felt after reading those twenty-five thousand comments on the Twitter thread—a thread, I think, and write that down—so she was able to find the words she needed to build the thing she’d been picturing in her head. I know absolutely nothing about weaving actual fabric threads together, but I imagine it must become instinctual after you do it enough times and make every mistake more than once. You can tell if your finger makes a wrong move. You can tell if something is off even if you don’t know what it is. You can tell when you have to stop, step back, and look at the image you’ve created thus far. 

I go back to the twenty-five thousand comments that make up the Twitter thread. The way they weave in and out of each other, some replies, some entirely new tangents, some images, some indecipherable, some so stream-of-consciousness they seem like accidents, like maybe someone forgot they were adding a piece to a very public puzzle. 

I look for a piece of thread I might be able to use.

It does become more instinctual, or maybe there is some sort of muscle that generates. You find the loose thread and pull it. You weave it back in somewhere else.

Jackie DesForges is a writer and artist based in Los Angeles. She has an MFA in fiction from UC Riverside, and her work has been published or exhibited in The New York Times, Off Assignment, Exposition Review, The Coachella Review, Matador Network, and Woman Made Gallery. 

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