Leonardo Di Vinci’s search for beauty led him to explore ugliness in many forms.
His sketches of battles, grotesques, and deluges often appear next to
sublime evocations of flowers and beautiful youths.”
– How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci sat with a friend, holding him until he died, but then immediately started autopsying him. He followed people who were considered “grotesque,” (and even held a dinner for some of them), so he could come to see them more clearly.

As writers, we often face the grainer, meaner, harder parts of life in our poetry or poems. But how we deal with them is what is important.

Have you ever taken the time to really look deeply enough at something society has an aversion to in an attempt to bring it in as an integral part of your story? In Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom, he has a long scene where one of his characters has to dig through his own sh** to find something. It’s a gross, but compelling scene, and Franzen doesn’t shy away from the revulsion of it. That’s not easy to do when it comes to topics like bowel movements, terrifying injuries, death, and more. We’ll take a hospital scene where someone is attached to a million tubes and takes her last gulping breath, but how often have you read a scene that accurately depicts dying from COPD by slowly drowning in your own fluids?

But facing life is also about finding beauty in everything that is around us, the good and the bad, the pleasant and not-so pleasant. I have a chapter in my book where a woman is cleaning the body of her dead mother at the turn of the 20th century. I researched what the procedure entailed and then tried to imagine what it would be like to actually look directly at your mother’s body and see the roadmap of her life: What having eight children would do to her body, what the hard labor she endured as a farmer’s wife did to her, how the death of three children changed her. I like this chapter a great deal because it took a difficult topic (when I read it to my writing group, they said they were all nervous to see how I handle placing the herbs in her body cavities, and liked how I didn’t shy away from the procedure, but was able to capture the beauty in it.

How do you capture the loveliness of the plainness or unpleasantness of life? It’s about actually seeing what you are describing and being true to what is happening or what you are looking at. Everything in this world has a yin/yang aspect to it: male/female, good/bad, lovely/terrifying, inviting/repulsive. If you take the time to really put yourself at one with what you are writing about, you will naturally see this duality. There cannot be light without dark; love without apathy; death without birth; joy without sorrow.

Don’t shy away from the wretched, the ugly, the dirt, the pain, the sadness, the emptiness. Go deep into them until you find their other side; then write about both.

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