Thursday, March 23, 2006

What drawing taught me about writing


"I don't love writing. I love having written." I'm not sure who said this but for many years I identified with it whole-heartedly. I've always wanted to be a writer - I never wanted to be anything else, really - but for a big stretch of years I completely lost joy in it. I lost the fun of storytelling that had made me sit on the porch as a kid and write tales of magic crayfish. I was still "writing", but what emerged as my great pleasure as I got older was wordplay. Arranging beautiful sentences, reading them aloud, revising them, listening to the ebb and flow of words, tasting the sounds of the prose.

This is not enough.

As the years went on, I honed my sentence-writing skills, kept a whiney journal, got A's on school papers, read great fiction and pretended not to notice that I wasn't writing what I loved reading: stories! All I had to show for my dream of being a writer were notebooks filled with beautiful sentences - at most, paragraphs - that led nowhere. Ah, and there were synopses and ideas for stories, but I couldn't figure out how to make the leap from planning them to actually writing them. My junior year of college I made some progress and took a writing workshop where I finished several stories: Emily, Blindfolded; and The Muse of Suicide. I also took a class from Anne Lamott at the bookstore where I worked all through college -- she was a single mom who wasn't yet quite famous, and I had the great good luck of catching her then, when she still taught this little class to make ends meet. I submitted The Muse of Suicide, a self-satire of the months I lived in Paris after highschool trying to like espresso and wishing I was a tormented "artiste." I loved that story, and Anne Lamott liked it too. She gave me one of the greatest compliments of my life. On my story she wrote, "You are the real thing. Keep writing."

So I stopped writing.

It makes me laugh, now, the perversity of it. I was editing travel guides for Lonely Planet by then, and I had enough words in my life. I couldn't make myself write after work. But I had a creative void to fill, and I did fill it. I started to draw. I took a class in illustrating children's books. Then a watercolor class... then a life-drawing class... and the next thing I knew I was dropping out of my "professional" life to wait tables and go to art school! This actually occurred in a space of two or three years, but in my memory it's like a snap of the fingers.

In all that time, I wasn't writing. But that's okay, because it was learning to draw that taught me to write. I really believe that. Drawing was a new, mysterious world, and it had the benefit of immediacy. You draw it and it's there; the visual connection is immediate. As hard as it is to draw well... let me see if I can explain... you can't decieve yourself, can you? A whole notebook filled with disconnected beautiful sentences, well, someone really dedicated to fooling themselves might be persuaded they were actually "writing". But an incomplete drawing is plainly nothing more than an incomplete drawing. Drawing began to strip away the nonsense and to teach me to work towards a finished product, to just keep going and make it happen. It also gave me a repetoire of tricks. I learned that the first version of a drawing is rarely as good as it's going to get. You can start over, or you can build on what you have, refining it.

My "trick" for making my drawings better is tracing paper. I don't trace photos or other people's drawings -- I trace my own rough drawing and make it better as I go, then I flip over the tracing paper and further refine it on the other side. Seeing the mirror image gives me a new perspective, as well as allowing me to add detail without messing up what I've already drawn. This frees me. It's just the trick my particular brain needs. I particulary recommend it to perfectionists and detail-lovers. Big, bold, fearless types probably won't enjoy it. I am NOT a fearless type. I am a perfectionist in the worst sense: I am paralyzed by it, afraid to write a scene lest it not be the BEST incarnation of the scene possible in the universe, afraid to disrupt the white page lest the line not be just the beautiful line Destiny has in mind for that particular canvas...

Rubbish!! I've got tricks now to get past that. I never draw directly onto the surface I'm going to paint, be it canvas or whatever, because I KNOW my first drawing won't be good enough for me. So I do my drawing on tracing paper, reworking it until I love it (often this takes place over many layers of tracings), and then transfer it. Well, this translates to my writing, too. This is going to sound kind of insane to brave people who are NOT crippled by perfectionism, but... I can rarely write right into my actual chapter document. Right off, if my page reads 'Chapter One', I feel pressure for the words to come out perfectly as if dictated by god in good mood. Then I get stuck in sentence-perfecting mode. I've gotten around this by having TWO documents open on my laptop: my chapter document, and my "working" document, in which anything goes. There, amid the mess of unfinished thoughts and plentiful 'what ifs', I can actually get some storytelling done! When I say it like this I realize two things: 1) I am absurdly easy to fool; and 2) It must sound a little insane. I wonder if anyone else has to go to such great lengths to trick themselves?

The really good news is that the writers who tell you it gets easier, that with practice it does eventually start to flow, they're not lying! I was so sure they were! That when they would say things like "the characters took over the story", they were just being spiteful, but at last I've begun to experience it. (I still feel great skepticism when I hear things like how William Styron claims he wrote Sophie's Choice straight through without outlining it or ever going back to make corrections, like it stepped whole from his head like Athena. He MUST be lying!!) I never thought it would happen to me that I would love the actual process of writing, and not just the finished product, but it HAS. Sometimes - SOMETIMES - I even find myself writing with a smile on my face, my fingers racing to keep up with the flow of the story, and on REALLY good days, I want to high-five myself at the end of a scene! Mind you, not all days are like this. But enough are. And I'm pretty sure that if I hadn't taken up drawing, I might never have discovered the joy of storytelling -- I might still be stringing words like pearls into beautiful sentences that lead nowhere. Learning a new process has opened up doors in my mind... or maybe it inserted funhouse mirrors into my brain that made me see things in a new way? I don't know, but at long last, something clicked, and now that I know I can do it, I'm never going to stop!

21 comments:

megg said...

What a POST! That's what I need - the tracing paper!!! I'm so amazed by your talent, it's nice to know that you need to do first drafts too!!! I can't wait to read your stories!!! OXOXOXO

Pearl said...

Like the tracing paper idea. I can relate to the peversity of once being told I was the real deal, switching to something else.

Anna said...

I love this! It's just what I needed. And I have to say that I'm hugely jealous of your Anne Lamott experience! She's truly one of my heroes. Thank you for sharing this~ and those polka dot shoes below? Supremely sexy!

M said...

What a post! Thank you for sharing your experiences, once again. I've always been one to play with words as well, writing journals galore. I'm a perfectionist too and have never allowed myself to really get into any story, at least not since I was a kid. I'm going to give your idea a try!

Jamie said...

I'm so happy for you, for the smile on your face that appears sometimes while writing, for the way you've discovered what works just for you, for the way your precious storytelling has found its way back into your life. Here's to not stopping!

Deb R said...

I loved reading this and getting a glimpse into how the process works for you. And Yay that you're finding joy in storytelling!

chest of drawers said...

One thing leads to another...you are living proof that people should dream, believe in themselves and love what they are doing. You are such an inspiration to me!

jd said...

Thanks for sharing. It's always helpful to hear the process other writers use. I can empathize with your hiatus from writing and how you filled the void by doing other creative things. I'm going through a period of that right now.

la vie en rose said...

i loved this glimpse into your creative process.

WCP/FB said...

I struggle to balance my editing duties with my own writing.

Kim G. said...

Thanks for sharing this glimpse into your writing. I too struggle with wanting a perfect first draft. I feel like I'm just starting to feel comfortable with the red pen and realizing that through the process comes a much better story!

Loved hearing about your recent getaway! We leave today and I'm so excited to escape the routine!
Blessings!

Lady Lore said...

It was quite an interesting post, especially for a random visitor. I love the use of tracing paper myself. I also think that drawing wouldn't be the only thing to open up doors into writing. It could be reversed or even another art form that creates a dawning of understanding. :)

liz elayne said...

as i take a break from editing, this post is like a breath of fresh air. thank you laini. this glimpse into your process, your perfectionism, your world...you inspire me so much. i know that i must keep going with all that i am doing in my world.
and this story of anne lamott is simply incredible. how blessed you were. and i hope you take that paper out and look at it over and over again to remember who you are. the real thing.

kelly rae said...

what a wonderful tribute to drawing that led you to discover your storytelling. in many ways i credit running as leading me to my art. funny how that happens! your writing, your storytelling is just wonderful! love it. and yes, anne lamott is right. you're the real thing. and i have a feeling she'd love those red shoes!

Marilyn said...

Love, love, LOVE this post. Anne Lamott's comment to you suddenly made me remember something my favorite dance teacher once said to me. She happened to stop in at the boutique where I was working, about 6 months after I'd stopped taking classes with her. She asked if I was still dancing...said I should be dancing because I had a lot of natural talent. So of course I never danced again. Why do we DO that?! I've always thought that the only thing scarier than fear of failure is fear of success.

I really think you might want to think about publishing this essay (beyond your blog, I mean). :)

GoGo said...

What wonderful advice for writers. It brings the process to a new level. I recently began investing in other forms of creativity, including drawing and it too unlocked doors for me. I'm not where your at, but I'll get there.

As for "It must sound a little insane. I wonder if anyone else has to go to such great lengths to trick themselves?"

The answer is yes! For the blog, I have to write in Word before transfering it to the blog. This helps me avoid the pressure. For papers, I have to write in layers over and over again before a paragraph is even written.

Nice post. Thanks.

HoBess said...

How fun to peek into your process ... I think we all have secret tricks we play on ourselves, whether we admit them to ourselves or not. For me, it's three files, one with research, one with the story I'm writing and one that has the story, it's photos/typography/graphics on the page that will appear when published. That way I can leave out information that comes through in the photo or elsewhere on the published page. I'm not sure how this would work with fiction, but I know in children's books I like the books that use illustration as a layer of information best. I love this glimpse into your "funhouse mirrors!"

shari said...

Thank you so much! You are an inspiration. The stories of your life are breath-taking banners waving in the wind that say "See! It can happen!! Keep going! Keep doing! Be who you were meant to be!!

Aloha to you! Laini

Shannon (sentimental) said...

I love to hear about you and your writing. It is such a fun avenue and it leads to many others. So it was nice to hear your tale.

arvindh said...

As someone interested in both drawing and writing, I found your article a great read.
You have a wonderful blog. I am glad I stumbled into it! Will come back again.

Mardougrrl said...

Oh. my. goodness. WHAT an amazing post! You reached right into my brain, pulled out all of my negative notions about writing, and answered them. I'm terrible about needing to correct and correct also...well, when I am writing fiction. My nonfiction voice usually comes out a lot easier.

I am going to try your "two documents open" idea when I dare to open my novel again.

And wow...to have someone like ANNE LAMOTT say that you are the "real deal"...that would paralyze me too. Talk about being frozen by your expectations! So much admiration for you--that you managed to get past that and write again.

I'm taking your word for it as far as the "characters write themselves" stuff. I haven't QUITE experienced that yet myself.