The more I think about the process of writing well, the more I’m reminded of what I’ve learned about drawing. I’ve definitely spent more time definitively studying drawing than I have writing, although on the passive side I’ve probably consumed more novels than art.
One thing which I learned relatively late in my artistic studies was not to be too precious with my work. In other words, don’t spend hours refining and polishing a simple pencil sketch; let it go and move on to the next piece. It can be a difficult thing to do. A great drawing grows from the very first marks you make on the page, and if you get them just right then you can almost feel the drawing develop under your pencil as if it was a physical object and you’re just stroking it gently to draw attention to it. It’s a wonderful feeling, and the temptation is to keep adding more and more detail to this existing form rather than calling it finished.
The problem here, obviously, is that by obsessing over the later and arguably easier stages, you’re spending a disproportionate amount of time on them rather than on the tricky earlier parts. This leads to a self-fulfilling kind of artist’s block, where getting the earlier parts just right seems like something of a lottery, since it can’t be reliably reproduced, which results in fewer and fewer starts, and even less practice in the skill of starting.
Exactly the same goes on in writing. I know it and recognise it because I’ve seen it before. Ideas float to the surface, and my first instinct is to wonder where they can fit into my existing work-in-progress. Because starts are scary, and if they can be accommodated in the framework I have already set up, it lets me off the hook on setting up a new one. It will take practice and discipline to avoid shoehorning ideas into somewhere they don’t really go.
The idea of ten-minute writing is a commonly touted solution for writer’s block, in order to just get something down on the page. In the world of drawing, there were two which worked well for me. One was to carry around a notebook and do at least one sketch every day of people I saw around me. These were not ever intended to be part of a larger work, or even reference material, they were simply throwaway exercises to develop my skill. The other was the very short sketches which we did as warmup for life drawing – and when I say very short I mean very short; some as short as ten seconds. When challenged with getting the essence of a person’s movement onto paper in ten seconds, knowing that they will move on and you just need to keep moving with them, it helps you to get out of your own way and to draw straight from eye to hand without your brain getting in the way.
I’m thinking a good writing challenge would be the character sketch exercise; a very short description of a random person seen during the day. It seems like a good way of strengthening the writing muscles without the expectation of creating something re-usable. I find the ten-minutes exercises far too long since I generate quite a few words in that time and then the ‘precious’ comes back and I don’t want to throw them away, but a thirty-second sketch feels more like something I can get behind.
Gloria Hanlon 2016 All Rights Reserved