The Things I Learned From Writing

Hello everyone, today’s post is going to be a little different.

I don’t have any art that I can yet show. The past few weeks have been a very unique one for me in terms of my own personal artistic growth, and I took the time to put aside drawing and painting (just a little bit), to involve myself in a few other pursuits that are also very dear to me. I’ve always wanted to write a novel, you see: I dreamed this one goal up when I was a child and I don’t think it has ever really left me. I’ve been working on and off on it during my spare time since about August-September of 2011, but last week I really devoted some major time to it.

Rather than detracting from my growth as an artist, I took away from it some very valuable lessons that I could not have found otherwise. It is akin to stepping outside of the fishbowl in order to take a good look at the goldfish inside. These are just some of the things that a week of writing abandon has taught me.

1. Order and Chaos are intertwined; and often we can stand to have more Chaos in our lives.

Writers, despite being artists themselves, have a different sort of idea about making a thing, a product, than many artists do. For artists who are serious about representing form and narrative, at least, you start out struggling to develop your visual literacy. That means, in non-artist terms, something like going to lots of grammar class and learning what nouns, adverbs, pronouns, adjectives, clauses — are. It’s a lot of legwork, a lot of study, a lot of checking and measuring to make sure it’s ‘done right’. All of us are born learning language (verbal literacy), but because of the way modern society is shaped, not all of us are born into conducive learning environments to build our visual literacy. Many of us begin to go to ‘art grammar school’ only at a late age, and so it takes up a disproportionate amount of attention in our lives. We, or at least I, get so obsessed with drawing things ‘right’ and ‘in the right way’.

Writers have a different view, it seems. Many writers believe that the act of writing is a nebulous, chaotic, messy process, and many acknowledge that things don’t happen in a linear fashion, from point A to point B. That’s why writing programs like Scrivener have been developed, to acknowledge and help the web-like process of writing along. To me, this is such an irony, because I have spent the last 5 or so years treating art as a linear process, one step after the other, only forward, no going back. One would assume that writing, with its inherently linear intake (we read one word after the next, one line after the previous), would follow the same trend. But no.

Writers have in general fully acknowledged that the process of writing is nothing linear; that to create great work one must first fling ideas around, generating Chaos, in order to discern Order from this great mass of nonsense. It is wholly liberating to be involved in a process that has been socially deemed acceptable to be messy. Just think of all our cliched, stereotypical perceptions of writers– fussy, grumpy, eccentric. (My own personal stereotypes of a realist artist — contemporary artists are conveniently excluded from this — are generally that we’re sticklers for exact perfection, spending hours brewing and mixing our own combinations of mediums and varnishes, spending months on a single drawing to make it absolutely perfect, carefully measuring ranges of tonal values, and so on and so forth.)

Writing has taught me that creation is creation, the same with words or with lines and shapes and colors, and that creating something is like living in a junkyard. You have a whole bunch of scrap. Scrap’s good. Scrap is for us to shuffle through, dig in, root around in, find ourselves. I could definitely use more Chaos in my process of creating.

2. Plotholes are inevitable at some point.

As a representational artist I get extremely caught up and frustrated over the need to make sure that the illusion of depth and form is in place; it is like constructing a matrix of illusion that most viewers don’t consciously think about, if done right. Leave something out, whether it’s a shape that’s the wrong value, or a form that does not turn quite right, and all of a sudden there is a hole in the fabric of illusion that viewers can escape through and realize that yes, this is just a picture after all. The more amateur the artist, the more holes there are.

It’s like having plotholes, really. Plotholes are almost always inevitable at some point during the creation process; the ends simply have not been tied together yet, and/or the whole is not yet in place for the writer to know how exactly to tie everything together. In painting there is the same concept; before you get the first pass entirely out on the canvas there is always the likelihood that the value and temperature of your shape will turn out to actually be wrong, due to the way our eyes perceive one color and value next to another (some artists call this field effects). It used to frustrate me to no end. I wanted everything to be orderly and to behave. After writing out my plot, I have come to accept that this is simply a part of creation; plotholes are inevitable, as are slip ups in the creation of illusion.

I plowed through a whole bunch of plotholes last week, shuffling things around until I got ideas for fixing the many gaping holes in my narrative. At the very end, when I had gotten to the last draft of the fourth book (I’m writing a four-book epic saga, it turns out), everything clicked together. It was almost audible. Things sorted themselves out magically. It was like it was meant to be, like putting the last piece of the jigsaw into place. I realized that this same coming together will happen too, in art, if only I simply let it. I had been so caught up in making sure everything was perfect from the get go, one perfect step after the next, that I was strangling my own work. Painters are not printers. We don’t simply eject lines of artwork out in a step by step fashion. We are human, and so we mix things up, correcting as we go.

Which brings me to my third lesson:

3. Rewrites (and redraws) are inevitable.

Every writer will probably snort coffee if one were to go up to them and say, “I’ve got this novel. It’s my first draft, but it’s already perfect. Please don’t make me rewrite or edit it.” Your skin would probably be blown off by the subsequent eruption of laughter and derision. In the writing world, it is a well-known fact that the first draft is rarely ever perfect. Sure, they may come in various degrees of finish, some more than others, but very few people acknowledge that the first draft is the best one. For some reason, learning artists like myself think that our first visual idea is somehow holy and must be worshipped on an altar.

Perhaps this is due to the fact that our struggle to gain visual literacy has made it so that whenever we DO produce something, it is the culmination of all these strange things we’ve been trying to learn, and so evokes thoughts of “it took me so long just to get to this stage, don’t you dare make me do it over again.” It’s the fallacy of sunk costs. Most people, on the other hand, don’t struggle to write or type the alphabet. Writing is already down to plot, subject matter, content, and perhaps grammatical errors. In contrast, the artist has to actually learn how to hold his pencil in an optimal way for what he wants to do. So most artists halfway up the art ladder, like me, tend to not want to do something over again.

The reason redrawing and rewriting is so essential as human creators is because, often, the process of writing or drawing or painting itself sets us up for growth. We change during the act of making something. And at the end, we often find that what we’ve created is no longer in tune with us or with itself, because new concepts and ideas got added along the way. Our ideas evolve and mature, and in doing so, change. They become alive, and they begin to take charge, sometimes in directions that we would never have thought of on our own. To not redraw or edit is to do our ideas a disservice by limiting what they could be. If we were to measure the unused words and lines that go into making something, we would find that it’s not ‘worth it’, because so much gets chucked out in the garbage. Some writers write drafts that are half the length of the actual novel, that no one will ever see. Leonardo was reputed to have done 500 thumbnails for a single painting. Butartistic refuse is an essential part of the creator’s internal ecosystem, a way for us to find our path to the eventual and final masterpiece. Without spending actual time making the bad stuff, we’ll never know if what we have is truly good.

I have one last lesson for myself, and hopefully, for anyone who reads this too.

4. Never deny yourself what might lead you to your bliss.

The worst thing you can do is to deny yourself the things that excite you, that make you curious, that make you alive. These things can be scary — especially when they make you cross genres and do something you’ve never done before. I used to say to myself that I wouldn’t write because I am LE VISUAL ARTISTE, and if I write I will be taking time away from drawing and painting. That was about the dumbest decision I could have made.

I know, now, from the wonderful time that working on my novel became, that I am both a writer and artist. I may never get to publish that book that I’ve always wanted to because my writing is nowhere where it needs to be, but I sure won’t stop because I crave the experience of writing itself. I crave making a believable world with characters that I can talk to as if they were friends. I felt alive in my own world, an emotion that I think was behind all the art pieces I’ve made that I do like. It’s barely tangible, but I think an audience can really tell when you don’t feel for your own work. When it’s actually JUST work, and not something that fully engages the mind and spirit.

There is a big difference between surviving and being alive. As artists, as human beings, all of us should respect that which makes us individual and more than passing pieces of the universe.

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One thought on “The Things I Learned From Writing

  1. Point #3 and #4 gave me some serious insight and inspiration. A person with dreams is one that’s truly living and alive; go for it, and hopefully one day, I can have the honor of buying and reading your books (of course, it needs to have artwork in it)! Good luck! :-)

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