Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Writing on the right side of the brain

The classic book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (Betty Edwards) offers essentially one piece of instruction for would-be artists: Use your pencil to set down on a piece of paper what you can see about an object, not what you know about that object.

To illustrate: if I asked you in conversation to describe a Radio flyer red wagon, you might mention at some point that the part you sit in is shaped like an open box, and another part is wheels, which are circles. But if you wanted to draw that wagon settled in the tall grass of your back yard, boxes and circles wouldn’t come into play.


From your seat on the back steps, the little red wagon doesn’t look like a squared-off shallow box; it has the skewed angles of a parallogram. You know there are four wheels, but you may see only two or three. Your brain knows those wheels are circles. But you see ovals, and only partial ovals. Your drawing will look more “real” if you forget about what the wagon is like “in reality” and draw only what you see.

What can a writer learn from that? Let me put out a few ideas.
  1. The observing voice of a piece, whether it is a character or a narrator, doesn’t have to include every detail in the scene. Back to the drawing analogy: not every spot of rust, not every dinged bit of red metal has to go into my drawing of a Radio Flyer for you to say, “Oh, I had a wagon like that.” Depending on what details I include, I might intend for you to think of the exciting candy-apple shine of the wagon under the tree on Christmas morning. Or maybe I’m hoping you’ll feel a regretful pang, that your little red wagon is rusting in a basement far away. So: not every observable detail, just the ones that matter to the story.

  2. Fiction is mainly about people, what people do and say and feel and believe. To write fiction, you have to care enough about people to look at them closely. You don’t have to like them, or approve of them, but you do have to consider them with the same patient gaze you’d give to the red wagon on the grass as you sketched.

    I personally believe that the more closely you observe people, the more you do like them-- or at least you can regard their messiness with some compassion. Not every writer believes that. Tolstoy is with me on this, but I think Flaubert went the other way.
  3. This means that idealists (like me) may not be the best natural storytellers. If I write a novel that shows people as I wish they were – or wish they had been– that may not interest people who live in the real world, i.e., everyone else.

  4. That doesn’t mean you can’t write about utopia, or write satire, or write fan fiction about Jabba the Hutt’s singing ABBA at karaoke. But it does mean that the details you set down on paper have to add up to something people recognize. As economically as possible. Flair is always welcome. A keen eye that sees something in the world and matches it to words that fit just right is golden. It doesn’t matter whether the reader says “Yes, that’s exactly how it is,” or “I never thought if that way before, but hmmm.”

The job of the writer doesn’t start with choosing words, thinking about words. It starts when you care about people in the world, take the time to look closely, and absorb the heart of the scene. That's where you find the words, lift those details up and make them shine.

1 comment:

  1. I love this, Anne! Great analogy, and great picture of the Radio flyer! And for the record, I am with you and Tolstoy.

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