One of the Andaman locations in my new novel.

Ross Island, India circa 1936, another setting in the new novel.

Reflections on a life among words

OUT TAKES ...bits and pieces of story, research, and process

Accidental Art

October 23, 2009



Long ago and far away, when I used to paint, I found that my best paintings were blessed by accident. A line would wobble, I’d use the wrong color, I’d rub up against the canvas. The undercoat of gesso would go on rough, causing the colors that came on top of it to catch and build in unexpected textures. I would paint what I saw – the surface of an enamel sugar bowl – and discover myself in its reflection. Unhappiness, too, produced useful effects, and if not accidental, this certainly was unintended.

I was anorexic then, silently flailing against family and dependence and my own inert terror of stepping out into the life I yearned for. I spent the summer of my sophomore year in New Haven working alone matting prints and drawings in the Yale Art Gallery by day and painting alone in the studio evenings. I painted countless self portraits, a memorable bowl of oranges, which were my primary sustenance, and a haunting angled and empty picture of the studio with a mirror and my reflection. This last hangs in my office now, along with the sugar bowl series.

Nothing in these paintings was planned except the most rudimentary architecture and sense of subject. Usually, I could not tell whether the paintings were even worth keeping until I had left them and returned the next day, or put them aside for a week or two before turning them over again. In another painting on my wall now, the brush marks of the sizing I used to prime the board come through the paint. It is a picture of brushes in a glass jar, white rings to suggest the lip of the jar, deep cuts of alizarin crimson to sharpen the outlines of bristles above, and blurred strokes to convey the jumble of handles behind glass. But it is the accident of lateral striping, the effect of that undercoat that somehow makes the effect of glass most real. The painting is flawed in other ways – the planes of table and wall, the hanging rag behind the brushes do not work at all – but the sense of glass and shine and bristle and mass, and the wonder of accident remain a lesson.

I keep these paintings around me even though I no longer paint because they remind me what can happen if I let myself go. I would work in an almost trance-like state. My best results came when my hand guided itself, when my mind focused only on seeing and NOT on getting it down. The getting-down happened on its own. It was the seeing that was vital.

When I turned to nonfigurative art, when all I saw was what I was putting down, my work fell apart. I spent two years squandering what I now realize I’d gained. As a result I did not pursue my painting. But slowly, through writing, I’ve reclaimed the lessons of those early paintings.
You cannot make art if you do not see. You cannot control the reflection. Sometimes you see the most clearly when working in the dark or closing your eyes. (I painted one of my most pitch-perfect paintings, a still life of a living room, without any light on the canvas and without any sense, until morning, of what I had accomplished.) Always let the work sit awhile before rendering criticism. And finally, when accidents happen, go with them, at least till you see where they’re taking you.

All good fiction writers, I believe, depend on accident. A phrase overheard at the grocery store will change the course of a scene. The effect of sun slanting sideways through trees will develop into a guiding metaphor. Phone conversations, bad news from home, will insinuate themselves into story lines. In painting and writing alike, the aim is not to prove what you know but to explore what you cannot fathom. And in that process, while struggling to describe the surface of a sugar bowl, you may catch an accidental glimpse of your true self.

below for more about Aimee's books & work.

Anthologies of fiction and nonfiction that Aimee has edited or contributed to.
a suspenseful novel of rescue and redemption set in Central Asia at the start of the Cold War, featuring two unforgettable heroines whose fates are irrevocably intertwined.
The unforgettable tale of star-crossed love that spans four decades and two continents.
A young photographer wrestles with her repressed past and identity as an Amerasian in New York's Chinatown. Now back in print after more than a decade, FACE is Aimee's first novel.
Work on Eating Disorders
While there are numerous memoirs available chronicling individual women’s struggles with anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, this is the first book to bring together many people’s stories to create a complete and candid picture of the recovery process. Aimee Liu has skillfully brought together firsthand accounts of recovery to create a realistic roadmap for the journey. This book also includes informational sidebars, written by professionals in the field, on topics including treatment options, choosing the right therapist, the pros and cons of medication, how parents and spouses can help, and much more.
How do anorexia and bulimia impact life AFTER recovery? GAINING is one of the first books about eating disorders to connect the latest scientific insights to the personal truth of life before, during, and especially after anorexia and bulimia.
America's first memoir of anorexia, and one of the earliest books about eating disorders, originally published in 1979
Craft & Criticism
Resources and suggestions for students and fellow writers
Aimee's latest book reviews