Shh…I am reading! Lisette’s List

After waiting ALL DAY, while I was on my walk my husband texted to let me know that UPS had been. So I am happy to report that I am now blissfully reading Susan Vreeland’s newest book, Lisette’s List.

LisettesList1_22cover

Shhh…you may not hear anything from me for quite some time.

Ah, writing about art. Is there anything like it? Reading about art.

Telling the Truth About Art By Lying About Paintings

I’m writing about paintings that don’t exist. Let me back up. I’m writing about an artist whose work has largely been lost. When a trusted mentor read my work, she suggested I write about the artist’s paintings. “Make them up,” she said. I was fascinated and daunted.

I’ve since gotten over my fear and have discovered that it’s freeing and fun to imagine what an artist’s work looks like. We only have one of her paintings to go by (as of yet, though I am hopeful that more will come to light), and some titles of her paintings that I fervently believe will one day be returned to the art world, so I do have something to guide me. And there’s my imagination, of course.

It starts with an image. I imagine her painting en plein air, and I look around and ask myself what would interest her. Or I think of where she is and what is happening. Is she in the city? Then she would be fascinated by the building going on. In the country she would adore the sheep, or so I tell myself. Then I allow the image to focus. I ask myself what the weather’s like. I try to “become” her: what is she seeing? Feeling? Smelling? What direction is the wind coming from?

I take it a step further by framing it. It’s not enough that there’s a girl with a lamb. I need to zoom in on one aspect, one angle.

The advantage to this, of course, is that I don’t need to ask the child to stay still. I can force this through my imagination. If the wind needs to blow in another direction, I can do that, too.

It’s powerful and great for imagination-building skills. I dare say it is probably helping my painting skills, though I haven’t painted for some time.

I have seen people become totally paralyzed when asked to use the imagination. It’s only by exercising it that it gets stronger, so if you need to apply this technique, just give it a try with confidence.

Let’s try an exercise, shall we?
Close your eyes. See a simple shape — a high-rise building, a four-leaf clover, or even the moon. Now build a painting. What color is the building? What do you see through the windows? Any signs on it?

That clover, where is it? What is of interest around it? Is a chicken about to eat it?

The moon…is it a full moon or a half? How bright is it?

To properly “build” a painting in your mind, you need to tell a story about it, so let’s keep going.

Go back to the building. What do you want to say about the building, or what story do you want to tell? Are you making a statement about how it looks just like the ten around it, or that it is different? Is it a monument to civilization, or is it competing with the tiny tree below?

The clover…are you highlighting its shape and the luck it supposedly gives, or that the chicken (if your picture has one) is about to eat luck, making itself lucky, or that the chicken doesn’t know that she is eating something “lucky”?

That moon…is it a persistent light despite a smoggy atmosphere, or is it clear and beautiful with the magic that only night can bring, the kind that makes you fall in love with yourself and everything that breathes just by seeing it?

Once you know what your CHARACTER would say about it, that makes things easier. For it’s not your painting. It’s your character’s.

My character equally loves progress and the country, so very likely her paintings would reflect the conflict between these worlds. How could I show this? I could have her painting a pastoral scene with the train running in the background. Or the smoke of a factory could waft above a lake on which a couple is rowing a boat.

Even if you’re not writing about art, this will serve you well when writing description and deciding what’s important to write about. Pretend you have a camera, and use it. That’s all.

Happy Lying!

Telling vs. Showing: A Privilege of the First Person POV

Even though one is not supposed to wear the editor’s hat while writing a first draft, I found myself doing so yesterday, forcing myself to stop and go back and show versus tell. I did this in a couple of places before questioning myself.  Was the result of my pruning what I had really envisioned?

I also found myself freehanding long passages of exposition, telling’s nearly verboten cousin. Some of it will, of course, need to be weeded. I’m fine with that. But one of the reasons I enjoy writing from the first person point of view is interiority and all aspects of anything even approaching that.

What’s that? You don’t think telling and exposition are quite the same thing as interiority? Again, not exactly, but they certainly share traits. They involve explanation, sometimes at length. They hold up a mirror rather than a camera.

A few years ago my husband and I visited Rome. I had been so looking forward to seeing the famed Sistine Chapel. In my head it was going to be this small, remote chapel with a starry-skied, hazy ceiling filled with pews and walled with stucco. We would quietly file in, spend some time in the silent near darkness, contemplating the art.

Had I but looked once at it online I would have known this was not at all what we would encounter. The chapel is, of course, part of the Vatican. It is a loud, crowded room where you are shushed every two minutes and given the stink eye if you raise your camera. You are not at all encouraged to linger or meditate upon the painted ceiling.

My point is that somehow I got the impression of what I thought the chapel would be like from something I read, and that impression stayed with me until I was disappointed by reality. Telling has a charm that showing sometimes does not.

Telling is also where the “eye of the beholder” comes in. The picture the beholder can give us often trumps the actual place or experience, and sometimes it is more valuable to us. When I was a child, I used to pester my father to tell me what my grandfather, who was deceased, had been like. I was only three when he passed. My father’s description of him has left a longing and a vision of the man that I doubt would have been there had I known him, not because he wasn’t a lovely man, because by all accounts he was, but because no mere mortal can live up to the “true” stories that are doubtless embellished and inflated. I write because he wrote; I have always tried to play guitar because he did. This was all based on the stories my father told me about him, and on the photos of him playing guitar and the picture of me sitting on his lap. He looked utterly blissful to be holding me. (I should insert that photo here, but it may be at my parents’ home. TK, let us say, in editor speak.)

I’m a thought junkie. One of my favorite books is Of Human Bondage. I remember saying when I read it that I wished the man would stop with the story, already, and just talk to me! Because when he used (albeit not in first person, true) telling, he lit circuits in my brain. Give me beautiful things to think about and I’m yours! While showing lends us beautiful images, telling gives us ideas to consider.

So if you want my storytelling skills, you’re just going to have to be patient at times when I tell you, rather than show you. If I do it right, maybe you’ll even want to hear more and see less.  Or not.  But if I’m writing in the first person POV, rest assured that I’m going to take that privilege. Let’s hope it pays off.

My Top Ten Tips for Organizing and Writing About Art: A Sneak Peek at my Ebook.

I’d already read Susan Vreeland’s books, and Tracy Chevalier’s wonderful Girl with a Pearl Earring. I fell for Of Human Bondage as well — it remains my favorite novel, even though I did throw it against the wall when I finished it because I was so distressed at Philip’s decision. But it wasn’t until I took a college class called “The Painted Word” that I considered mingling my twin loves of writing and art.

When we students were asked to write about art, I wrote a short story based on a painting that turned out to be my first work of fiction ever published. The person who published the piece said I should write more about art. An agent who read the story agreed. So I’m fond of writing about art.

Writing about art shares skill sets with all writing, of course, but I do have some tips that can help you make the journey from yearning to write about art to actually doing it. In fact, I’m so convinced that there are hints and tips that can help that I’m writing an Ebook about it. Until it’s out, here are my top tips. While they can be used for writing in general, they are more art writing centered and because I write about historical art, can be applied to historical writing as well.

1. Print eight by ten photos of the main paintings you are writing about and put them in a binder. Print them on photo paper, not on regular paper. It will be so much more inspirational. Trust me.

2. Break out the old school notecards and rubber bands. There’s nothing wrong with using typical research recording methods for fiction. It just likely will not be enough.

3. Have a binder for essays as well. While you’ll make your notes on notecards, sometimes just revisiting old territory will yield a little gem you missed the first time around. Or perhaps you just want to capture the tone of the essay.

4. Keep a record of all of the books and websites you consult. You may not end up citing them all at the back of your book, but then again…in any event, you can always include them on your website. (You do have a website for your book, don’t you?)

5. Draw your notes, to make sure you keep your novel image driven — you’re going to want to do this with art, right? Seriously. Even if you’re not a great artist, try it. Bonus tip: as you read, pick out startling or vivid images to open and close your book with.

6. Google “art terms.” Learn them. Use them liberally in your works. Those who know them will respect you, and those who don’t know them will learn and be in awe of you. 🙂

7. Make timelines of art and artists during the time period you are writing about. Because no one (or at least I can’t) can keep all of those dates straight without a little help. This is also a bit of an outline, brought to you courtesy of history.

8. Dig into all the key players and some who aren’t. While I’m certain that your main character is fascinating or you wouldn’t be writing about her, be sure to delve into the background of secondary characters to complicate your plotlines.

9. Consult any surviving family. It’s a longshot, but maybe…while the last two artists I’ve written about sadly did not marry or have children, you may have better luck. Even a cousin could be a great resource for family lore.

10. Make things up if you don’t contradict facts. I was actually told this in a workshop where I was gently chided for writing too timidly in spots where I had no information. I quickly realized my workshop leader was absolutely right, and I now make up anything and everything with abandon if there isn’t contradictory evidence. It’s quite freeing.

These are only ten of the top tips I have to share about art writing. While I don’t have a definite release date for my Ebook, I’m guessing it will be within the next three to six months. Look for The Grammar of Painting coming your way in, say, September. Or sooner! If you’re an art writer (or just a wannabe!), what do you need help with? I’d be glad to take a try at addressing your need in my Ebook.

P.S. Clearly the photo on this post is not of my forthcoming book. But it’s cool, because it’s a book from 1891 that shares the proposed name for my book.

A Backrub Book Review: Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement

Valley of Amazement

I adore Amy Tan. There. I said it. Call me biased, but there isn’t a word she has written that I don’t just love. And in case you doubted her coolness ratio, she’s also in a rock band!

Her latest novel, The Valley of Amazement was a Christmas gift from my husband, Barry. We were lounging in bed when I finished reading it, so I rubbed his back and talked about the book. I giggled and said I had just given a “backrub book review.” Alas, Dear Reader, I have no backrubs to offer just now, but I will gladly tell you what I told him.

As always, Tan wraps her readers immediately in a nimbly crafted world. She is a story teller bar none. Her prose is dainty and well conceived, but also rather invisible, as it should be. Her threads are silken, fine. While a large part of Tan’s appeal is the exotic nature of her tales, happily she addresses the universal.

Set partially in Shanghai in the early 1900’s, the book was particularly charming to read because I will be visiting Shanghai (accompanying my business-traveling husband) this year.

The main character, Violet Minturn, is brought up in her mother’s high class courtesan house, until circumstances cause Violet to be separated from her mother and forced to become a courtesan herself. (I can’t say too much more about how they become separated.) Violet, half Chinese, learns to embrace that newly discovered side of herself in order to survive the horrors of her life.

In this story of tragedy, misplaced trust, and, finally, quiet hope, Tan gives Violet a substitute mother, Magic Gourd, a woman Violet’s mother kicked out. Violet ends up at the house where Magic Gourd has gone, and the woman takes her under her wing, making her a well-sought after courtesan.

The story is nicely paced, beginning with a first person section in which we hear from a young Violet. This shifts to a clever second-person POV chapter titled “Etiquette for Beauties of the Boudoir.” It gives us all of the background information we would like about courtesans and their ilk without info dumping or trying to artificially fit it into dialog.

I must admit there was one spot where I stopped and shook my head a few times and asked Barry if he thought it was fair of Tan to reintroduce Violet’s mother after page 400 and tell us her backstory. For a few pages I fought it, but soon I was immersed in her story, and was rather sad to leave it to return to Violet.

I was also concerned that with only about two hundred pages left, Tan wouldn’t be able to satisfy her reader if she wandered away from Violet, but she did. I should never have doubted her.

Although he appears to be a shadow of a character in this book, I am more than a little interested in the artist Lu Shing. So forgive me if I shift now from a traditional review that you could get anywhere into a meditation on Lu Shing.

Violet’s father (a man Violet knows virtually nothing of), Lu Shing, is a second-rate artist who basically copies the work of masters and adds a detail or two, often at his customer’s request. Violet, having come into possession of two of his paintings, doesn’t like his work, but Magic Gourd keeps rescuing the paintings.

He figures into the story when Violet’s mother, Lucia, at the age of 16, falls in love with him in the United States, seduces him, and follows him back to China, while he protests continually that though he loves her, he will never be able to marry her or be with her.

Here’s the thing: Tan’s women are strong. They survive the grossest indignities, but they are their own worst enemies when it comes to loving men. They love unreservedly and ill-advisedly. In fact, their greatest passion in life seems centered around men, and it always causes them and those they love immeasurable pain.

In fact, these women often fall in love much more so of the idea of these men than the men themselves. That’s the case with Lucia and Lu Shing. We know before Lu Shing ever tells Lucia that his passion is for art, and that his passion even for that is pale.

The book’s title comes from one of Lu Shing’s paintings. The painting makes Violet feel uneasy when she finds it: “I felt certain now that the painting meant you were walking into the valley, not leaving it.” What she doesn’t know is that Lu Shing paints this same scene again and again, altering it at the whim of customers. She also doesn’t know that while the painting is a copy of an old master, the place is real, and it is a place she will visit and will have to escape.

Lu Shing seems muted, even when he paints. The women in the book ultimately take on this same muted quality when they are older. True, they survive. But they do so at the cost of vibrant feeling.

When Lu Shing is still in the United States he is asked “How do we capture the emotion in art?” His answer is telling: “The moment is altered as soon as I try to capture it, so for me, it’s impossible.” It’s also telling that he comes to the States as a young man to study with a landscape artist. There’s a stark, uninvolved, observer quality at work here that is, nevertheless, not without its own beauty.

There is no easy, happy ending to this book. Reunions happen, but not rosy, tearful ones. The strong women remain adamantine, and because of that, emotion is not something that they can afford to spare.

Just as Lu Shing has only walks through a life of shame at his weakness, so the women survive, but their connections seem both strong and tenuous. They are fiercely independent and yet devoted to the idea of one another. While we believe they stay in touch, the infrequent nature of their contact makes us believe they would survive just as well without one another. And yet this is a novel well worthy of a second read. What better message than that while we are connected, we are also strong enough to survive on our own?

Did you happen to catch the short story “The Frog Prince” by Robert Coover in last week’s New Yorker? What he writes toward the end of the story is true of this novel: “…and they found a certain contentment, living more or less happily ever after, which is what ‘now’ is while one’s in it.” I couldn’t sum it — or life — up better myself.

There is so much more to this book. I wholeheartedly recommend it. In fact, perhaps it’s time I read it again. Have you read it yet? Do you intend to read it? What else of Tan’s have you read?

P.S. I anticipate revisiting this book once I am back from China, so look for an update then.

Unmasking the Sprezzatura of Writing: What’s Under My Bed?

Ireland 2013 220

If sprezzatura means to express art in such a manner as to convey a supposed effortlessness, then let’s unmask that, at least in regards to my writing. (I say this with much tongue-in-cheekedness; I am not saying my writing is that good, but hey, how else am I gonna work up to what I really want to talk about: what I found under my bed this morning?)

(Note of interest: I took the above photo of Vermeer’s “Lady Writing Letter With Her Maid” in Dublin this past summer.)

While my goal is to one day get writer friends of mine to share honestly with us what’s under their beds, I guess I will have to show you mine first, so here goes:

This morning while cleaning the bedroom (it started with cleaning my writing room and spread from there), I decided to duck under the bed and pull out everything on my side. I am not going to share what I found under my husband’s side. Not because it’s so bad, but because I am respecting his privacy. NB: My dear husband said this could make one think many things if one reads it. All I mean is that while his side looked much like mine, I will let him choose to reveal or not any clutter there may or may not have been under his bed. 🙂

What was lurking under my side? Plenty of Kleenex that had missed its mark, I am sorry to say. Two issues of Poets and Writers. Two art books. Three library books, two of them wholly untouched and likely to remain so — they grow stale, don’t you find? Several paperbacks. A Woman’s Health. A pair of headphones. Three pair of socks. A marked-up manuscript of my novella. A printed copy of a topic that once interested me but now does not. Toss! A filled journal.

A sprezzatura is, again, supposed to hide, not reveal, the sludge of creativity such as what I found under my bed. In the painting above, we see a carefully staged scene. We don’t see the lady worrying because she can’t find the “mot juste” for her letter. Do we want to see our writers struggling for just the right word?

If you happened to have read and enjoyed any of my stories, know that all of those things (and more!) hiding under my bed go into making up one of my stories. The books are self explanatory. The socks merely keep my feet warm — I can’t stand being cold, and I often am. 😦 The filled journal is deceptive — I am probably the worst journal entry writer ever. I record petty, mundane activities or I rant. I unload the mind. I am not trying to impress. I read the journals of famous people, of those with great minds, and I flinch. Still, my journal entries work for me — if I didn’t empty my mind, there would be no room for anything else.

There might have been a few other odds and ends under the bed that I’ve forgotten: I think there was a hanger, and maybe a neck pillow. Oh and a plastic bag. Neither the hanger nor the plastic bag aided my writing, though: they were just part of the flotsam and jetsam that whatever creative creature lives under my bed pulls in. (Maybe you’re getting the impression that I’m not tidy. Well I’m not. I’m not a slob, but faced with the choice between writing or cleaning, guess which I’ll choose, every time? Ok, almost every time.)

So, who’s first? What’s lurking under your bed? And if you’re a creative type, how does it contribute to your art? Go!