Tess Callahan, author of the novel April & Oliver, says you can’t learn to paint by looking at a Picasso any more than you can learn the cello by listening to Yo-Yo Ma, yet writers are expected to know their craft by virtue of having read books. Reading is of course crucial—just as looking is for the painter and listening for the cellist—but what artists, musicians and even athletes know about training for their field is often lost on writers.
Painters often learn their craft by copying master works. Try recreating a Cézanne or a Matisse and you’ll see how humbling it is. This method teaches the apprentice artist things about composition and brushstroke that he or she could never have internalized otherwise. Once the painter does this with 20 or 30 artists, she starts to get some serious tools in her toolbox. So it can be with writing. For example, take a signature line from Ernest Hemingway or Amy Tan and, while keeping the sentence structure intact, take out all of the nouns and verbs and replace them with your own. Do this with the writers you most admire, as well as those to which you have the greatest aversion. You might learn more from styles you hate.
Do not place these emulated lines directly into your own writing project. That would be like taking a Frida Kahlo self-portrait, changing the color of her hair, and calling it your own. Rather, the plan is to practice emulating lines so that the many different styles can work their way into your brain. After all, no art form exists in a vacuum. The masters often hung out together, sipping coffee in the same cafés, sharing ideas and pushing each other forward. Dancers learn from dancers. Jazz musicians learn from jazz musicians. In fact, new music genres develop from musicians comparing notes. Oh my, a pun!
In her book Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose helps readers pull aside the curtain to observe what the writer-magician is doing, to isolate how each one manages gesture, dialog and character development, and to learn from others’ strengths and weaknesses. As readers, the most important thing to notice is typically what we fail to notice—that is, how the writer keeps us immersed in what John Gardner in The Art of Fiction called “the uninterrupted fictional dream.” When we fall into that blissful dream as readers—when we actually forget we’re reading a story—it appears seamless on the part of the writer.
FREQUENT SMALL SKETCHES
Figure-drawing classes often start with timed gesture drawings of initial poses lasting as short as five seconds before the model moves. Gradually, the time increases to 10, 15 and 30 seconds. By the time you get to a minute, it feels as if you have all day to capture the pose on your sketch pad. The idea is to keep you free, dexterous and more focused on process than end product. Process is paramount at this stage of an artist’s life. The more process he or she engages in, the more they’re able to hone their craft. Such short bursts also keep you from taking yourself too seriously—otherwise, you’d quickly become frustrated. I suffer this malady! I must remind myself to focus on the art of writing rather than the art itself.
Thankfully, you don’t have to take a creative writing class to use this technique. Simply take a moment here and there throughout the day, waiting for the train or at your favorite restaurant, jot down gestures, expressions or snippets of dialog. Given that these experiences are transitory in nature, the exercises will create their own time constraints. Whether or not these little vignettes make it into your story or novel, they will aid in deepening your awareness of the myriad expressions and experiences we go through each day.
One of my favorite “how to” books on writing is Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg refers to writers’ journals as “compost piles” where ideas can sink down into the subconscious, heat up, and combust at any time. Most artists don’t start on a big canvas without doing countless thumbnail sketches that help sharpen their skills and drive their vision. My father was extremely creative. He did numerous paintings in various media, including oils, watercolor, pastels, and acrylic. He also build furniture, shelving, and wooden toys. I remember him making several sketches and reworking the idea before committing it to canvas or cutting his first piece of wood in the shop. Writers can benefit from this practice as well.
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron teaches use of daily free-form writing in a journal. She suggests this exercise be done the moment you wake up, and refers to this as morning pages. Cameron says, “In order to retrieve your creativity, you need to find it” (p. 9). The morning pages are three hand-written pages of stream-of-consciousness writing. Writing without any concern for punctuation, spelling, grammar, or concern for mistakes. She believes it is better to use a pen and paper for this undertaking than using your laptop. Something about the tactile experience of words-to-paper.
Traditional landscape and portrait artists often begin with a monotone under-painting using sepia or cool tones. Essentially a base layer, this has two benefits: First, it allows the artist to play with the composition rapidly in broad strokes before committing to a particular layout. Second, it forces him or her to put aside the issue of color and see the image in terms of dark and light planes. The artist “frames out the house” before putting up the walls. Once the artist begins applying color, he or she does so with a solid understanding of the image’s layers and dimensions.
Callahan says, “What I’m suggesting here is not outlining, which comes from the rational brain and works for some writers, but rather quick, loose first drafts that spring from the subconscious like dreams and proceed image by image.” Consider what it means to write a novel that has morphed from a 20-page short story. In order to flush out the complete tale in this fashion, you must be able to work the entire canvas at once, relating people and places and plots and subplots across great distances. For me, this is quite a daunting task. I’m sure that’s why I’ve so far limited my writing to short stories, flash fiction and prose. After all, to get stuck in one corner of the canvas risks losing the proverbial thread that connects it to the entirety of the story. And this needs to be done page after page, for hundreds of pages.
Just as painters must keep the brush moving, relating one color to another, writers must work threads back and forth so that their patterns of imagery relate and work together across the scope of many pages. Writers, keep looking at your recurring images and notice how they change each time they surface. They should never be redundant; instead, they must always move the story forward. A writer cannot achieve resonance on a minor note without constantly working the whole piece at once. Again, from my perspective, arg! I’m thinking, “Yeah, that’s gonna take some practice!”
To write this way, quick and without restraint, means giving ourselves permission to create crap. We cannot, nor should we, predict what will come out of our first draft. Then again, the first draft is always written for the audience of one—you, the writer. Stephen King says, “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.” In fact, in On Writing, King describes how he pens his first drafts with the door closed, no one watching over his shoulder, his internal editor shut away. Not until the second draft does he open the door to allow in criticism. Fluid first drafts, like under-paintings, hold open a space for the real story to emerge.
When we write, our minds have a million thoughts running through them. How do I want to organize this chapter? What are my main points? Am I being consistent with my characters? Not surprisingly, the best way to focus is to allow plenty of time—ideally two or three hours with absolutely no interruptions or distractions. Find the time, whenever that might occur in your day, and cherish it. Defend it with all your might. When we write, we delve into another world. Interference tends to quell immersion in this nether world. This practice must become routine—it needs to be established in a pattern. It is through this routine that you will be able to write more consistently.
Cameron, J. (1992). The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Los Angeles, CA: Tarcher/Perigee.
Gardner, J. (1983). The Art of Fiction. New York, NY: Random House.
King, S. (2000). On Writing. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Prose, Francine. (2006). Reading Like a Writer. New York, NY: Harper Collins.