Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Mystery of Picasso

The edge of the canvas

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The Mystery of Picasso, Part 2

In my senior year in college, I took a course on studio painting. For a classics major who had no serious aspirations for a career in art, it was a fairly random choice, and I suspect that I may have been motivated by the sense that my undergraduate years were ending with too many avenues left unexplored. I was lucky to get in all: the course was open to perhaps twenty students, and we had to audition by executing a painting on the spot in black and white acrylic. I’ve always been a decent sketcher and amateur artist, so I made the cut, but I quickly discovered that I wasn’t meant to be a painter. At some point, I hit a wall on how much progress I could make, and although my instructor predicted that I could produce respectable work once I managed to break through, it never really happened. (Based on some of my written assignments, he did say I’d make a good art critic, and although that isn’t the way my life ultimately went, I’d like to think that it had some impact on the stories I ended up writing.)

But I enjoyed the class enormously, largely because of the technical and practical insights it afforded. I’d never done much in the way of work with my hands, so I particularly liked the process of stretching canvases. There was a woodshop at the Carpenter Center that we could use to cut stretchers to size, and I loved wielding the table saw and pneumatic nail gun, as well as the pliers and staples that we used to stretch the canvas itself. You have to staple part of it, then pull the rest tight, followed by several applications of thick gesso with repeated strokes of the knife, and my proudest moment was probably when the instructor used my prepared canvas as an example for the other students. (I believe his exact words were: “You can all hate Alec now.”) My experience here—and my subsequent dismantling of a semester’s worth of paintings, which I rolled up and brought with me to New York—later informed the chapter in The Icon Thief in which Ilya takes apart a painting for easier transport. And it also taught me some valuable lessons about the act of creation itself.

The Mystery of Picasso, Part 6

More than anything else, I came away with an understanding of how a painting is a snapshot of a process that takes place in time. I’d already learned much of this from Clouzot’s great movie The Mystery of Picasso, which uses stop-motion photography to show the remarkable evolution of Picasso’s canvases in the studio: figures are added or subtracted, the style moves from representational to expressionistic and back again, and the entire composition is successively destroyed and rebuilt. After a certain point, you realize that one of an artist’s most crucial creative choices is knowing when to stop. A painting can be refined and toyed with indefinitely, and if you’re not satisfied, you can always add another layer. These stages are usually invisible in the finished work, but you can occasionally see them on the edge of the canvas, which stands as a geological record of each stratum of work. For a while, I went through a pretentious phase in which I would check out the edges of the canvases in galleries, and I always felt a quiet satisfaction when I noticed a thin line of cadmium red that hinted at some earlier, hidden chapter in the painting’s history.

And the result has shaped the way I think about literary art as well. At the moment, I’m reworking a novel that I began writing more than seven years ago, and although the current manuscript is pretty tight, you can still catch glimpses of the older, messier version that lurks beneath it, visible even after fifty drafts. What used to be an entire subplot has been condensed to a paragraph; a sentence that had one meaning in the original narrative now plays another role entirely, even as it lingers on as a vestigial remnant of the story that used to be there. I’d like to believe that I see similar traces in the works of other writers: Infinite Jest, for instance, contains lines that feel like artifacts of an earlier draft, one more openly indebted to Pynchon, and you can see a similar form of accretion in the last, unrevised volume of In Search of Lost Time, in which a character said to be dead in one chapter turns up alive in the next. Every work of narrative art is a snapshot, often taken at a time enforced by deadlines, mortality, or artistic exhaustion, and although it presents itself to the viewer as a unified whole, you can often pick out its earlier incarnations just by looking at the edge.

Written by nevalalee

June 26, 2013 at 8:50 am

Painting, writing, and the shape of fiction

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At the moment, along with about eight other books, I’m working my way through Sparks of Genius by Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein. It’s basically an account of what the authors regard as the thirteen essential tools of artists and other creative types—abstracting, analogizing, playing, and so on—and while the book’s argument isn’t all that tightly structured, as a series of illustrations of the creative process, it’s great. Every page has three or four juicy stories or quotes from a wide range of artists, writers, and other thinkers, and it’s already proven to be a useful source of advice and inspiration.

I’ve just finished the chapter on imaging, which points out that many great writers have also been painters or visual artists. Along with Wyndham Lewis, quoted below, the authors list Thackeray, the Brontë sisters, Edward Lear, D.H. Lawrence, Marianne Moore, and G.K. Chesterton, who actually drew charming cartoons of the action he wanted to portray. As Wyndham Lewis notes, artistic training obviously helps an author with his or her observational skills, but I think it’s even more valuable in encouraging nonlinear thinking. After even a little experience in the visual arts, it’s hard not to see one’s novel—as Beethoven did with his symphonies—as a kind of sculptural entity, which can inform narrative structure in ways that aren’t obvious when the story is taken moment by moment.

My own art background is sort of a mixed bag. I’ve always enjoyed drawing, and was pretty good at it all the way through my twenties, but it’s been so long since I’ve picked up a pen that I don’t know how much of that early facility is left. In college, I took an intensive semester-long course on oil painting, and while most of the paintings I produced were fairly embarrassing, I welcomed the chance to learn the elements of an unfamiliar craft—making stretchers in the Carpenter Center woodshop, stretching the canvas with a staple gun and some cool pliers, mixing the paint, managing the palette. The background I acquired served me well for The Icon Thief, in which the details of painting construction play a small but crucial role, but it also allowed me to think about narrative in unexpected ways.

A painting, after all, is experienced all at once, while a novel is experienced one moment at a time. (An author’s skill, as certain critics like to point out, is generally judged on the level of the paragraph.) But when I think back to my own favorite novels, I don’t always think of individual scenes or moments, but of the entire book at once, as if I’m viewing it as a single plastic object. Stories have inherent shapes and patterns that only appear when you stand back, and while they may remain invisible to the first-time reader, they affect the unfolding story of the book in perceptible ways. (An early example of this is The Divine Comedy, which is organized along two distinct dimensions.) Some background in painting and other forms of visual composition—as well as the allied arts, like animation—is as good a way as any for a writer to get into the habit of seeing how his novel really looks.

(And of course a painting, in turn, can be experienced as a work of narrative, as The Mystery of Picasso so memorably demonstrates. Art, especially great art, refuses to fit into the obvious categories.)

Learning from the masters: an introduction

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Today’s quote of the day comes from a fascinating interview with the poet Gary Snyder, which I came across yesterday after seeing it mentioned in Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein’s stimulating book Sparks of Genius. The part of the interview that caught my eye goes as follows:

Say you wanted to be a poet, and you saw a man that you recognized as a master mechanic or a great cook. You would do better, for yourself as a poet, to study under that man than to study under another poet who was not a master, that you didn’t recognize as a master.

Snyder goes on to give a specific example:

I use the term master mechanic because I know a master mechanic, Rod Coburn. Whenever I spend any time with him, I learn something from him…About everything. But I see it in terms of my craft as a poet. I learn about my craft as a poet. I learn about what it really takes to be a craftsman, what it really means to be committed, what it really means to work.

Which struck me for a number of reasons. As a writer, I’ve always been conscious of the fact that much of what I’ve learned about the creative process comes from the work of nonliterary artists. Regular readers of this blog know how much I’ve learned about writing and editing from David Mamet and Walter Murch. My approach to my own work owes as much to The Mystery of Picasso or the video games of Shigeru Miyamoto as to John Gardner’s Art of Fiction. More recently, Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat, with its detailed descriptions of the lyricist’s craft, has been an endless source of instruction and encouragement.

The point of all this, I think, is that it’s easy to get caught up in the conventions of the craft—whether it’s fiction, poetry, art, or something else entirely—that you know best. Studying other forms of art is one way, and perhaps the best, of knocking yourself out of your usual assumptions. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. I recently came across an interview with cartoonist Daniel Clowes in which he explained how his work in film (including Ghost World and Art School Confidential) has influenced the way he plans his comics:

To me, the most useful experience in working in “the film industry” has been watching and learning the editing process. You can write whatever you want and try to film whatever you want, but the whole thing really happens in that editing room. How do you edit comics? If you do them in a certain way, the standard way, it’s basically impossible. That’s what led me to this approach of breaking my stories into segments that all have a beginning and end on one, two, three pages. This makes it much easier to shift things around, to rearrange parts of the story sequence.

And the best way to put lessons from other media to work, as Snyder points out, is to study the masters. This week, if time permits, I’m going to be talking about a handful of artists in other media—music, comics, film, and television—that have influenced the way I approach my own writing.

To outline or not to outline?

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Many novelists hate outlines. And with good reason. If followed too slavishly, they can result in a novel that feels artificial and contrived. They make it hard to follow your characters wherever they’re willing to go. They discourage, or so it seems, those happy accidents that are the high points of every writer’s life. And, perhaps most dangerously, they can lead to boredom on the part of the author, which, if left unchecked, usually carries over to the reader as well.

Me? I outline the living hell out of everything. I outline like it’s my second job. For Kamera and for all of my short fiction, I tend to outline things down to the level of the individual paragraph—and sometimes the sentence as well. One portion of my outline for “Kawataro,” a novelette that is coming out in Analog in June, was 1,800 words long, with more than two hundred separate items, for a section that ended up being just over 3,800 words in the final draft. And while this is an extreme example—a short story is usually much more compressed than a novel—it isn’t entirely atypical. I love outlines. And I couldn’t write much of anything without them.

Which isn’t to say that you should do the same. Outlining, like everything else that goes into a novel, is a very personal thing. Some writers will be happy with a page of notes that lays out the novel’s structure in very general terms, while others will want an index card for every paragraph. Every writer eventually works out his or her own favorite approach. And that’s fine. But I strongly believe that you need some kind of outline before you begin writing, even if you take for granted—and you should—that the outline will change drastically before you’re done.

Why? It’s simple: a novel with an outline is about ten times more likely to be finished than a novel without one. This is true for literary fiction, mainstream, genre, and everything in between. Finishing a novel is hard enough even with an outline; without it, and many writers aren’t likely to get past the first few chapters. It’s just too easy to lose your way. Yes, it’s true, as E.L. Doctorow says below, that you can get home at night using only your headlights—but only if you’ve driven the road before. Or have a map. An outline is a combination of both.

What about the risk that an outline will rob the novel of surprise? In my experience, it doesn’t happen. For one thing, the creation of the outline itself can be full of surprises, assisted by some of the creativity tools I talk about here, here, and here. More importantly, when I sit down to write every day, I have no real idea what to expect. I can experiment, I can take a different tack than planned, but only because I know I have an outline to fall back on. Example: in Kamera, a dead body is discovered in the second chapter. Halfway through the writing of the novel, the identity of the killer shifted from one character to another. It surprised the hell out of me. But I knew that the rest of the outline was sound, which gave me the confidence to make the change. And it elevated the entire novel.

Another point: I believe that the first draft of a novel should be written as quickly as possible. Kamera took more than two years to bring from initial conception to final manuscript, but less than three months, spread out over a longer period, was spent physically typing the first draft, often at the pace of a chapter per day. Why so fast? As I’ve said before, writing is revision, and the sooner you have that shitty first draft, as Anne Lamott says, the sooner you can make it good. If you get stuck on a problem in the first chapter, you may find the answer in the twentieth. And it’s much easier to focus on perfecting individual sentences when the weight of the entire novel is reassuringly there in the background. It exists. And the only way to write a first draft so quickly is with an outline.

Basically, an outline is a sketch. You put it down lightly on paper, make it as detailed or vague as you like, but not so heavy that you can’t erase it later. Once you’ve got a sense of the overall shape, you fill in the blanks, keeping what works, throwing out what doesn’t. And as these stills from Clouzot’s Mystery of Picasso illustrate—and as you can see more clearly in the video here—the overall composition can continue to evolve long after you’ve begun laying down the paint. But make that sketch first. Six months from now, when you’re still staring at that canvas, you’ll be glad you did.

Written by nevalalee

January 26, 2011 at 10:26 am

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