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Studying the masters is important for anyone who wants to write, but it is not enough to just read. Learn from the visual arts and find new tools in your creation.
You cannot learn to paint by looking at a painting by Picasso, just as you can learn to play the guitar by listening to Jimi Hendrix, but for some reason writers are often expected to learn their craft just by reading books.
According to Ghostwriting Solution, Of course, reading is absolutely crucial – just like watching for an artist and listening for a guitarist – but what artists, musicians and for that matter athletes know about training in their field, has many times completely passed writers by.
Although I learned a lot from the writing courses, workshops and writing conferences I attended, I also think I have noticed that they like to focus more on what not to do than what actually works. The person who inadvertently taught me the most about how to create my first short story was instead a teacher I had in painting.
So with a little nod to him, here are three techniques from the basic training that visual artists usually get. They can all help you find a deeper, truer and more vibrant literary voice.
Painters have always learned their craft by plagiarizing the masters’ work. Trying to create a copy of a Cézanne or a Matisse can be daunting for self-confidence, but gives the apprentice knowledge of composition and brush technique that would be impossible to absorb in any other way. And after doing this with 20 or 30 different artists, you start to get some really useful tools in your toolbox.
So it can be with writing. I usually encourage my students to carefully read a wide range of authors, and after each try to write a few sentences in the style of that particular word artist. Take, for example, a typical sentence by William Faulkner or Elizabeth Bishop. Then try to replace all nouns and verbs with your own – without breaking the structure of the sentence. Test this with both writers you adore and those you feel the greatest a version to. You may learn even more from the styles you thought you hated.
The point is not to graft these plagiarized sentences straight into your own text. It would be like taking a self-portrait of Frida Kahlo, changing her hair color and calling it your own. No, what it’s about is training, so that the many different styles eventually work their way into your brain, mix around in your subconscious and help shape your own unique voice.
No art form exists in a vacuum. The Impressionists were friends and rivals who hung out in the same cafes. They shared, stole, borrowed, and helped each other forward. Dancers learn from other dancers. New music genres are developed so that artists constantly respond to each other’s music. For an author, being imitated is an extremely concrete way of analyzing different ways of handling dialogue, rhythm, and character building, and learning from the strengths and weaknesses of others. The most important thing to notice is often what the reader does not notices, that is, and how the author keeps us immersed in what John Gardner once called “the uninterrupted fictional dream.” When we as readers sink into this happy dream, the text just seems to happen, there does not seem to be anything constructed or deliberate behind it all. But it does, of course. Imitating can help you uncover the grips that keep the film rolling.
Few visual artists start with a large canvas without first making countless small sketches that help them sharpen their skills and drive a vision. Lessons in artistic education often begin with time-limited studies of the human body, so-called croquet, where the model initially poses for as short moments as five seconds before changing position. Gradually the time increases to 10, 15 and 30 seconds. Once you get up for a minute, it suddenly feels like you have all day to capture the position in your sketchbook. The purpose is to free your gaze and hand and make you focus more on the process than on the product. Such quick little outbursts also prevent you from taking yourself too seriously – you do not get caught up in perfectionism and frustration as quickly.
Writers can benefit from the same thing and I usually start my writing lessons with my own variation of this technique. We send around small objects in the group – a thimble, a pair of glasses, a pine cone. Students touch the object and have a few seconds to write about it – sensory impressions, associations or memories – before they have to pass it on to the next person and receive the next object.
You do not have to sit in a classroom to do this exercise. Make sure you always have a notepad (or at least your mobile phone) and take every possible opportunity during the day – at the lunch restaurant or on the bus – and throw down gestures, expressions or fragments of a dialogue you happen to eavesdrop on. The volatility of this kind of situation will create its own time constraints. It may seem unplanned and ill-considered, and that’s exactly what it is, but believe me, you benefit from it. The American author Natalie Goldberg has in her best-selling writing guide writing down the Bones, referred to authors’ notebooks as “compost heaps”. There, ideas can sink into the subconscious, lie to themselves and break down over time.
Whether these little moments will find their way all the way to one of your writing projects or not, they will deepen your awareness of man’s many different expressions, deviations, and movement patterns. It will be noticed in your future texts.
Traditional landscape and portrait painters often start with a sub-painting in sepia or cold basic tones. This constitution has two advantages: First of all, it allows the artist to play with the composition before it is nailed, in a freeway and with wide brushstrokes. It also forces one to put things like color choices and details aside and only see the painting in terms of dark and light fields. It provides the large frames for the image, before the content is defined too carefully. Once it’s time to go with color, the artist has gained a thorough understanding of the image’s different layers and dimensions.
Now, you may think I’ll suggest you write a synopsis, but I’m not. Synopsis can definitely work for some writers, but it is still something that has to do with the rational part of the brain. Here I am rather looking for the fast and easy-going first draft, the one that emerges from the subconscious that dreams.
The novel I am currently working on began with a 20-page-wide brushstroke that captured the basic story, and then expanded to 500 pages. It did not grow linearly, but more like a sponge, inside and out. Writing in this way is like working on the entire canvas at the same time. Intuitively, you connect different fields of the image even though they are far apart. Because if you get stuck in a corner, you risk losing the feeling for the whole and eventually forgetting what it was you wanted to express – that which binds your story together into a living organism.
Just like a painter, you have to make sure to keep the whole painting alive, and let the colors play against each other. As a writer, you pull threads back and forth between images and scenes so that they relate to each other and collaborate across many pages. Keep track of your recurring details and notice how their meaning can change each time they appear, so that they never do the same job twice, and constantly push the action forward.
A good example of this is the grandmother’s hat in Flannery O’Connor’s classic short story A good man is hard to find. The hat is insignificant for the plot itself but central to the character design. Each time it appears, it marks a shift. You cannot achieve that kind of resonance with a small detail if you have not worked with the whole composition at the same time. I do not know if O’Connor started with something she would call underpainting, but I can bet she started with an image that then had to explode in all possible directions.
Writing in this way is also about daring to test things. It is important to give oneself permission to create what the American author Anne Lamott in her writing guide Bird by Bird calls a “lousy first draft”. Stephen King is on the same track in his handbook Writing. He writes his first draft with the door closed, without anyone who can look over his shoulder and his own self-criticism locked in a desk drawer. It is not until the second draft that he opens the door for a scrutiny.
CULTURE YOUR CURIOSITY
Recently, I found wordless inspiration for the craft of writing in the fantastic art documentary Mystery Picasso from 1956. The film simply depicts a painting Picasso, but what strikes one is his phenomenal ruthlessness when it comes to the images. For example, he can start with a vase. You look and think: »It’s amazing! It’s a Picasso vase! ”But immediately he goes back and works on the vase, turning it into a hen. »Wow, even better. There it was! ”But of course it did not, for he immediately wipes out the hen in favor of a demon with horns.
It’s wonderful to see his total indifference to the end result. It is entirely a process, without preconceived ideas that lock him into a motive. Even though he started with a kind of underpainting – the vase – he follows each new brushstroke like a hunter who does not know what he is hunting but who is determined to catch it. The film gives a glimpse of pure artistic curiosity.
Take every chance you get to watch great artists when they are in the middle of their process, engrossed in that dynamic energy. Bring it to your own writing cabin. Your lyrics will thank you.