The Painted Cow

After a weekend of being social with other writers, and of thinking about my writing, I . . . am exhausted, for one thing, but also concluded that writing was sometimes a bit like painting.

Say I painted a cow. I worked really, really hard on this cow, trying to make it just the way I envisioned it should be: big brown spots, cute little ears, pink nose . . . Sometimes I would have to paint over parts of the cow because they didn’t look right. But finally! At some point I would say, “I’m finished!” And ta-da! I would show my cow to someone else.

And they would say . . .

“Why does it only have three legs?”

Which just goes to prove that when you paint—or write—you have a kind of blind spot in regards to your own work. Sometimes what you envision, great as it may be, may still lack something. Like a leg.

In other words, you need feedback.

Here’s where things get tricky. Not all feedback is created equal, and all art is subjective. So a writer (or painter) can’t take every critique personally, but should always be open to considering what’s being said. In the cow example, the options are to say, “Well, I wanted a three-legged cow because [fill in valid reason].” Or, to admit you hadn’t noticed your cow was missing a leg and then go back and fix it.

The same is true when writing. You can explain a reason for having done something a certain way, or you can say, “Huh! You’re right. I need to rewrite that.” What you shouldn’t do is get defensive. Because this only shuts down lines of communication. And you need those lines to stay open if you’re ever going to succeed. You need these people to (a) continue giving you feedback (which they won’t do if you’re difficult about hearing it), and (b) to hopefully then help you find a place to show your painting, or submit your manuscript, or whatever. Relationships are key in marketing yourself and your work. If you get a reputation for being a pain in the ass, you’re not going to get very far.

When I was working on film sets, I had a reputation for being “can do” (as the producer told me). To be honest, it wasn’t a guise; I just didn’t think “no” was an option. So if something needed to happen, I worked hard to see it done. And if it really was impossible, I looked for viable alternatives. Because my biggest fear was to have to go back to the producer’s trailer and say, “I can’t.” But that can-do attitude served me well because, one day when the associate producer stormed off the set in a huff, I was selected to take her place. Being flexible and willing and easy to work with won me a promotion.

It’s tough, as an artist—someone who puts themselves into their work, then puts that work out there for others, thereby basically breaking off pieces of your soul and offering them up—to not be hurt, to not want to protect when others begin to throw stones. But you are allowed to dodge. And always examine the motivations. Some people really are trying to help, and they’ll usually be constructive and encouraging. (Some won’t be, not because they’re trying to be mean, but because they don’t have the finesse to be softer about it.) And then some people really are mean, or they’re the types to find fault with everything, and you learn to avoid those people and find the ones who won’t abuse you and your work. That isn’t to say, “Find only people who will say it’s great.” No. You want honest feedback. But honesty doesn’t have to be painful. It may sting, but it doesn’t have to leave third-degree burns.

Now. Go paint your cow. Make it the best possible cow you can. Don’t make it look like every other cow; make it yours, own it, let it show off your style. And if, at the end of the day, someone points out that it only has three legs . . . Well, it’s up to you how to deal with that.

This comes on a day that started with a form rejection for one of my scripts. They did not offer any specific feedback, which is always difficult because that is like saying, “We don’t like your cow” without saying why. “What’s wrong with my cow?” I wonder. But I can waste time worrying about it, or I can say, “Maybe cows aren’t their thing” and move on. It hurts, yes, but if I let it stop me, I won’t get any more work done. So I must move on. I’ve got a chicken to paint next . . .

The Goal of Writing

Many people will tell you the goal of writing is to tell a story. Preferably a good story. And bonus points if you tell it well.

Those people are wrong.

The goal of writing is to take a picture from the writer’s mind and put it in the minds of others. It’s done with words, but the picture is the goal.

In a sense, every writer is a cinematographer. Every writer wants to make you see what s/he sees. Artists do it with paint, photographers with cameras (used to be film, but no more), writers with words. A picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps, but what’s lovely about using words instead of paint or film is the fluidity. A painting or photograph is static, even when it gives the impression of movement. But words are always in motion. And no two people will visualize the exact same thing, not until that book becomes a movie anyway.

So if the goal of writing is to take a picture from the writer’s mind and put it in the mind of the reader . . . And yet the reader will never be able to see it exactly as the writer does . . . Doesn’t that mean all writing is a failure? Maybe. But it’s wonderfully freeing to know, as a writer, that there is no exactly right way to do your job. Only that some ways are better than others. And it’s freeing for the reader, too, to know there is no right way to do his or her job, either. (Unless you’re reading for English Lit class and your instructor has very definite ideas about things. But that’s something else again.)

At the end of the day, a writer should be trying to make himself or herself clear to the reader. If I’m picturing two people at a restaurant, it’s easy to say that much. But now everyone is picturing two random people in various types of restaurants: Is it upscale? A dive? Is it day or night? Two men? A man and a woman? Two women? Are they friends, lovers, enemies, coworkers?

When writing a script, each scene begins with a “slug” that tells the director (and location scouts, and art department, etc.) where and when the characters are. For example:

INT. DAVID’S BEDROOM – DAY

When writing prose, you can’t start every scene this way; it would be silly. But you should start with it in mind so that the reader knows where s/he is and what s/he’s looking at.

In a script, if it is the first time you’ve seen a location, there will be a description. Not too detailed—broad strokes except when something is important to the plot. What does David’s bedroom look like?

Remarkably tidy room, blank walls; looks unused, impersonal as a hotel room except for the stack of library books on the floor beside the bed.

That’s how I might write it as part of a script; in prose, I would naturally not pare it down quite so much. But that little bit already says a lot about David, doesn’t it? Readers (or viewers) suddenly know more about him in that brief bit of description than any amount of dialogue might have conveyed. (And the director, the actor, the art department all know more, too.)

Because prose changes locations without a transitioning camera, it’s even more important to make it clear to a reader where the characters are, what they are passing through. The reader can’t see it if you don’t put it on the page. And with nothing to “look” at, the reader becomes lost in a kind of void. I read a story recently that had people in a car, then in a restaurant, then going on to another location. Back in the car, I assumed, though it wasn’t clear. And when at one point a character went to set something down, I found myself thinking: Setting it down where? Where are they? I was lost. I was not seeing the picture the writer was trying to paint for me.

Every writer uses words to paint pictures. Poets, novelists, screenwriters, playwrights. In the cases of screenwriters and playwrights, the goal is to have those pictures made real, either on stage or screen. (At that point, like a painting or photograph, the screen version becomes static and definitive. The stage, however, remains fluid, as there can be many interpretations of the material, and even differences within the same production from night to night.) Admittedly, novelists may wish to have movies made of their books as well. But first things first: you have to paint a picture for your readers. You have to make them see it. When they can see it, they can feel it, they can connect. And that is the goal.

The End Result of My Painting

Here, then, are three of the four paintings I’ve done, now hanging over my headboard. I know I’m no special talent, but I’m pleased with the end result of my work, given I have zero training in visual arts. The paintings are called (left to right): “A Study in Crimson,” “Jaune,” and “Broken.”

My fourth painting is “World’s End.” It’s different enough not to really fit in with these, and anyway, there was only space for three above the bed. Not sure what I’ll do with this one.

Don’t think there’s room for it in my office. Maybe one of the kids will want it in his or her room.

That’s all my painting for the moment. If I get the itch again, I might go buy more canvas. In the meantime, I really should think about my next writing project (or which of the ones I’ve started I most feel like finishing). And I also need to mentally prepare for AFF in a couple more weeks . . . Meanwhile, if you’re wondering what I’m thinking about stuff like Doctor Who and Revolution, you should certainly go over to spooklights; I try to put at least one new article up each day or two, so there’s always something worth checking out.

Painting Update

So I’m closing in on “World’s End,” which is very unlike the first two paintings. I realize it looks a bit childish, but when I started painting it, this is the image that came to me. I’ve still got some touching up to do with it, but it’s nearly done.

And I’ve started my final canvas (for this set). I call this one “Broken.”

“Broken” after a first pass.

Lots more to do on that one. I’m enjoying the process immensely. Today I wrote a bit on my new play, then when I began to feel stuck, I went and painted. It’s nice to be able to switch off.

One Down

“A Study in Crimson” is finished.

The point at which I ran out of crimson paint.

I had been planning to use some violet in some way, and running out of crimson decided for me just how.

The finished painting.

Next up is to finish “Jaune.” Then I have two more canvases to play with . . . I’m really enjoying it. I’d forgotten how much I like to paint. I like that the finished product may not be perfect—indeed, cannot be—and yet can still be beautiful. I never feel quite that way about writing. The difference between a profession and a hobby, I suppose.

Canvassing

I haven’t felt much like writing the past few days, so I decided to paint.

I’m not any big painter. My grandmother painted, my grandfather liked to draw, and my own father draws too, but I didn’t get whatever gene allows you to translate a picture in your head through your hand and onto paper or canvas. I’ve tried. I even took a drawing class at uni, but it didn’t take. So I never even bothered trying to paint until I was in grad school, and even then it was completely by accident. My then fiancé had a bit of canvas with a drawing inked on it that he wanted to get rid of, so I painted over it. And enjoyed doing it. Even if the final result was no great bit of art (though I’ll admit I’m fond of it).

Still, I haven’t painted anything in years. But I got the itch to do it again, so this weekend I went to the craft store and bought some canvas and paints and brushes. I use acrylics. I’ve tried watercolors, but I don’t like how they bleed; I prefer to have a bit more control over the art. I think this is one of the reasons I’m a writer—control issues. But that’s another discussion entirely.

Anyway, today I prepped two of the four canvases. I don’t have a roller, and I don’t think I’d use one even if I did have it. I like doing the brush work by hand.

“A Study in Crimson” after one application of color.
This one is currently untitled. This is after two colors have been applied to the canvas.
“A Study in Crimson” after the second coat.
After additional applications of color and some texturing. Thinking of calling it “Jaune.”

None of these are finished yet. This is just the start for them. And I’m not thinking I’m some great prodigy. I have no background in art, have taken no art history classes. I just paint for my own well-being, because it soothes me when I can’t write.