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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-Minded #17: You are an artist. Write like one.

If the fact that I'm writing Writing Tip for the Practical-Minded #17 confuses you, because you are utterly certain that you read Writing Tip for the Practical-Minded #19 yesterday, rest easy.  I looked back and saw that I skipped #17.  Slipping it in out of order is just easier and less confusing than re-numbering the old posts.

I love to teach writing, and I'll be doing that soon at the Anhinga Writers' Studio Summer Workshops, July 28-31.  If you like this blog, you'll love our conference.  I'm in charge of the faculty, so I've assembled a crackerjack faculty that is stacked with my friends.  This means that they are talented teachers and they are fun.  My agent, Anne Hawkins, will be there.  So will Jeanne Leiby, editor of The Southern Review, NEA fellow and Florida Poet Laureate Peter Meinke, and a bunch of my other buddies.  I myself will be blathering for six hours over the course of two days, and I'll be doing one-on-one consults with students, as well.  Look here, if you'd like to get your Writing Tips for the Practical-Minded in person.  (I was going to say, "...if you want to learn to make sausage in person," but that just sounded icky.)

When I teach, I want my students to think of new ways to express their art, writing.  Sometimes, I suggest that they look to other art forms to get another lens on the creative process. 

Thinking about melodies and how they move people's souls will help you listen to the music in your prose.  Song lyrics or poems will open your ears to your own rhythms.

A mental picture of dancing bodies will give your words motion and lightness.  You want your words to leap across the page.  Your readers' eyes should never plod.

A painting can be viewed as a whole in an instant, and a book can't.  Even poetry can't be perceived at a glance...not even haiku.  But to truly appreciate a painting, it's necessary to stand in front of it and look at the details.  The brush strokes, whether they be feathery and precise or whether they be great gobs of paint ladled on with a knife, were applied for a reason.  Spend some time in front of a painting and ask yourself where the artist spent the most time and attention.  Ask yourself why he or she made that choice.  Then apply the answer to your own work.  What visual detail is so important to your story that you must spend precious words describing it?  Because words are precious.  Don't splatter them all over the page.  Set them down gently, like diamonds in an antique brooch.

To me, the very definition of an art must involve the notion of communication.  Artists communicate emotions that we all experience, but we're not all able to express them.  That's why artists and their work have been valued since the first handprint was painted on a cave wall.  Take yourself seriously as an artist, and consider how you will use the words that are your medium.


  1. I adore Truman Capote's famous quote: "That's not writing; that's typing." I often use it when I am critiquing work that's flat and without soul.

    Having a good story is not the same as WRITING a good story, and I've had many a good story die a tragic, bloody death under my red pen because the writer forgot that he or she is an artist. Good writing sings. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. The Capote quote reminds me of something Carrie Fisher said about George Lucas's writing style: "You can type that stuff, but you can't say it." Since I heard that interview, I always think of that quote when she speaks immortal lines like, "Darth Vader, I should have recognized your foul stench from the moment I came on board."

    And yes, our family has remained on the lookout for opportunities to use the "foul stench" line for many years ago. For example:

    "Take your foul stench to the shower, and when you do, leave your sweaty socks and their foul stench in the garage!"

    I feel more like Princess Leia already.

  3. Is mixing a metaphor the same thing as mixing references from both Star Wars and Star Trek?

    You never cease to amaze me with the quotes you know and use in your teaching, SciFi scholar that you are. Great work, Princess!

  4. quoted Truman Capote. I quoted George Lucas. George Lucas has sold a lot of movie tickets, and I love those movies to death, but he's no Truman Capote.

    Live long and prosper, and may the Force by with you...

  5. I do love his characterization of Princess Leia, however. Whenever she picks up a blaster and busts out of jail, trailing the clueless Luke behind her and belting out, "Somebody's got to save our skins!", my sister always says, "I want to go to the Princess School that *she* went to."

  6. Craft is the "what" you do to tell a story. It's plotting, structure, characterization, voice and all that good stuff experience has taught us our readers need.

    The art is in "how" you do it so you can communicate those powerful emotional experiences.

    We need the Craft so we can do the art. They work together; both are needed.

  7. Well, of course, Bruce.

    Nothing makes me crazier than trying to explain to students that their plots don't have enough structure to support all that beautiful prose.

    Even worse, it's nearly impossible to get a person with a shaky grasp of grammar to understand that it was not invented by English teachers for the purpose of torture. Grammar is a *tool*. Writers must be completely comfortable with the English language. Without it, their tales are forever trapped in their brains.