The other day, I may have said something profound, and I think it bears repeating.
It was during writing group. My writing group is made up of myself, and two friends of mine who are career writers, and much cleverer at it than I am. However, of the three of us, I’m the most experienced in visual arts, and in trying to describe an exercise, I think I realized an idea.
We were talking about how writing is hard. If you hang around writing people long enough, or listen to interviews with authors, or read a couple of good writing books (such as Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing, or Stephen King’s On Writing), you’ll probably discover that writers find writing difficult, and it never really gets any easier.
Sure, some things about writing become more practiced. I’m a lot better a grammar since I studied Latin and tutored EAL writing. I know a bit more about my short-story process: I like to take an image and free write a load of drek, then pull the good stuff out of that and run with it. But it never gets any easier to write. I have to make myself start. I have to wrestle with words, and let go parts that aren’t as good as I want to be now, so that I can move on with the idea and come back to it later. I have to cut out large swaths that, on second and third thought, don’t deserve existence.
We were talking about this kind of problem, in particular how people who don’t spend a lot of time writing assume writing is easy. One of my friends claimed that this doesn’t happen in other areas of art. People don’t assume they can sing, or think they can draw, because they can see the kind of ability required for that, and recognize that they don’t have it. But people do use words all the time, so they assume that they’d be just as good a writer as the next author, if only they could get that book that is crystal clear in their head onto the page.
We all have crystal clear bits of test in our head. It’s in the transfer to paper where we discover difficulty. But, since quite a lot of people don’t write, they don’t appreciate that difficulty.
The main problem, or so I usually find, is that we don’t actually have the idea clear in our head at all, but since it’s in our head, we can’t actually scrutinize it and notice all the bits that don’t work.
But that wasn’t the interesting thing I said.
Instead, I was trying to show one of my friends a visual arts exercise. I don’t remember where this exercise came from, or if it even is something other people use. I might have made it up just then. Doesn’t really matter. It boils down to taking a bit of paper and a nice, dark drawing tool (I used charcoal), and drawing the kind of picture you had in your head when you wrote a piece. The idea is to get something from your head onto paper so that you can look at it, and I wanted my friend to do it for a poem that she had recently written. I added that she wasn’t aloud to lift the charcoal at any point, because that’s the kind of rule that goes along with this sort of exercise.
Now, I had a go at this to illustrate what I meant, and I drew a little scribble about a poem my other friend had written. And I realized the interesting point that I’ve been wanting to get at for several lines now.
That thing about the clarity of an idea in your head versus on the paper is as true for visual arts as it is for writing. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was also true for music.
I think the reason people think they cannot draw—and as someone who can, I’m always irritated by this attitude, because I know that, given time, anyone can become a competent visual artist—is because they cannot actually see the image they want to put down. A contrary example of this is tracing. Anyone with a steady hand and working sight can trace an image. But that same person might not necessarily be able to draw an image in his or her head.
I have often been surprised at how a visual project turns out by the time I finish it. It’s never quite what I imagined, though it is still good, and sometimes better than the picture in my head. Now, though, I think the picture in my head is actually very fuzzy, with just a few elements at the front. I cannot really look at the picture in my head until I’ve put it onto paper.
So. What I have been struggling to train myself to do when I write is what I’ve been doing unconsciously while drawing: just get on with it, and then see what I have to work with.
And I think that’s pretty cool.