Is writing Art?

Questions you are unlikely to ever hear:

  • How close to the edge of the canvas can I apply acrylic paint?
  • If I’m sculpting the bust of Zeus, at what moment should I work on his nose?
  • Is it okay to drum the body of an acoustic guitar with my fingers rather than pluck the strings?

Painting. Sculpture. Music. Three of the myriad art forms where practitioners typically acquire some degree of training, and then step away from that training to develop  their own style.

Art comes where the rules end

Art comes where the rules end

Questions you can fully expect to hear:

  • In a 90-page screenplay, on what page should the inciting incident occur?
  • In a poem, should I complete a thought within a line or break it up into two or more lines?
  • Can I describe more than one character’s point-of-view within a scene in my novel?

Writing.

Every day, billions of people across the planet write. Post-It notes. Shopping lists. Emails. Love letters. And perhaps because of this ubiquity—perhaps because writing is rivaled only by speech as a form of expression—the world tends to view writing in a different category from all of the other arts, assuming people see it as an art form at all.

Everybody writes, so how special can it be

Everybody writes, so how special can it be

Obviously, there are better writers and worse writers, but more often than not, that reality is viewed as difference in skill, not art or craftsmanship. It is as though the world believes that if we all applied ourselves a little more, we could all write a great novel or play.

If asked, I am confident few would think that the only difference between them and Mozart, Yo-Yo Ma or the guy playing bassoon in the subway (my friend Jeff Burke) was time in.

Certainly, most acknowledge the greatness of Shakespeare, Dickens, Moliere, Hemingway (forgive my Western bias), but those are seen as rare exceptions to the norm.

Art comes where the rules end

Art comes where the rules end

People will buy paintings on the roadside. You will sometimes stop and listen to a musician in the park. But how many of us will stop and buy a novel or collection of poems anywhere other than the bookstore or online?

And sadly, this sense that pretty much anyone can be a writer pervades the writing community itself in insidious ways, and is particularly debilitating to new writer artists timidly trying to develop their craft.

Unlike almost any other art form, to my eye, writers get hung up in the right way to do things, as suggested by the questions above. As an example, this post was prompted by similar questions raised by a novelist blogger I follow.

It is okay to emulate aspects of others’ writings, to follow certain conventions of grammar and syntax. But at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself why you write; because it is a passion within you or to please the universe?

“Write the way you want to write,” was my advice to her questions on acceptable style (my italics). “As your colleagues suggested, this is just your style and will either be liked or not liked by your readers.”

“Never be afraid to be yourself…your readers will respect that in you,” I concluded, “and anyone who doesn’t is frankly not your reader.”

No one questions the difference between the skill of painting a house and the art of painting a landscape. Why should the same not be true for writing a Tweet and writing a poem?

Writing is an Art Form, to answer the title question, and you—the writer—are an Artist.

Learn from those who have come before and who practice now, but be brave and divine your own path.

Faces of the ROM

I have been on a face kick of late, watching sculptures, paintings, images for signs of life and personality. My recent trip to the Royal Ontario Museum was no different.

Holiday Dinner at the Royal York

As much as it pains many people I know, for the last four years, I have spent my Christmas dinner at a local hotel, The Fairmont Royal York in Toronto. The splendid buffet is held in the hotel’s Imperial Room, a small hall that once hosted musical legends (back in the day when you dressed up to go to a show).

For the first two years, I went with my wife Leela, whereas more recently, I have been sitting on my own (interestingly at the same table). That being said, when you’re surrounded by dozens of families, a troupe of carolers, a balloon artist and Santa Claus, are you truly alone?

The lesson I learned this year: Don’t watch people (adults as well as kids) use the chocolate fountain…you’re better off not knowing.

Monstrous Toronto

While wandering the streets of Toronto yesterday with a couple friends, we stumbled through the Kensington Market region in the downtown core, which becomes an urban pedestrian market every Sunday.

At one end, a series of creatures emerged from the overgrown garden of a house, catching my eye and my imagination.

I haven’t been through the artist Moses Kofi’s web site, but offer it (and some of his creations) here for your amusement and intrigue.

PS I am in no way connected with the artist…I just really like his stuff!

Onward creative spirits

Image

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.Henry V III, i, 1

In his thrilling speech to his troops (see excerpt below), who stood exhausted before the walls of Harfleur, Henry V challenges them to try yet again to take the city, that now is not the time to back off. Keep moving forward.

As it was expressed dramatically about war, so it is with Art and with life itself. It is vital that once you gain some momentum, you should do everything in your power to maintain that momentum.

Several years ago, I took up running. I hated it. I hated every living moment of it. But I was trying to improve my health and I knew that it was important. And so every couple days, when I would head out for my run, I had but one thought in my mind: keep moving forward. I knew that if I stopped, I might never run again.

As it was with running, so it is with writing. I write because I desire to, but also because I fear that if I stop, there is every chance that other aspects of life will creep in and keep me from it. My fear of losing writing is bigger than my fear of writing crap.

If I’m working on a screenplay and hit a creative sticking point, I try to move around it rather than dwell on it and lose the forward momentum. Sometimes, moving around it means writing another scene elsewhere in the same screenplay, but more often, it means jumping to another screenwriting project, developing another blog post or riffing wildly on Twitter or Facebook. My poor keyboard owes me nothing.

Even when I am simply writing some notes for a scene yet to be written, I do not allow the “correct” word choice to block me from writing…I simply add a placeholder where the right word should be and keep the thoughts flowing onto the page. The placeholder can be a blank underline (fill it in later) or a close enough word so I will know what I meant later, or it can be the word “shit”. It doesn’t matter.

It’s the artistic version of Newton’s First Law of Motion: An object at rest remains at rest unless acted upon by a force. An object in motion remains in motion, and at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a force.

In this case, the object in question is me and/or my creative spirit.

In fact, forward movement doesn’t even have to be the same art form. I often use photography to keep me going. But you can also read a book, see a movie, sit in a park. Do whatever it takes to keep the creative parts of your brain and soul moving forward.

But how will I ever get anything done if I keep flitting back and forth from distraction to distraction?

Unless you’re specifically working to a deadline for your creative project—and there will be times when this is true—creativity is about the process, not the product.

Most artists (and we are all artists) live and act to create, not to have created.

And even if you are working to deadline, forcing your way through a challenge will likely result in a work that requires significantly more reworking than if you had simply let the creative spirit take you where it would. Thus, I don’t know that you’ve really gained much by pushing on something that isn’t coming naturally.

The natural direction of the universe is forward. You have it in you to continually move forward. Why would you give that up?

 

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height.
– Henry V III, i, 3-17

(Image used without permission.)

Death by a Thousand Meetings

Committee (n): 1) a group of individuals specializing in irreversible creativity vivisection; 2) last known location of a good idea. See also: elephant’s graveyard.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing anyone creating art is less the generation of new ideas and more the knowledge that at some point, you will have to release your art to an awaiting world; aka, relinquish control.

Now, we can (and have) discuss the illusion of control at any phase of the creative process, but there is no denying that if you want your art to be appreciated by others, you will have to pass your newborn into someone else’s hands…or worse, someseveral else’s hands.

For writing—my predominant area of interest—that moment can come quite early in the creative process, whereas for other art forms, such as sculpture or painting, it may appear quite a bit later (please correct me, if I under- or misstate things).

You must respect your art. You must protect your art. But you must also realize that if you intend to share your art, and perhaps even make money from it, you must be somewhat flexible with your art. When you bring it to the world, it ceases to be all about you.

A teacher once suggested that upon completing a play, Shakespeare merely became another critic of the work. His opinions on meaning and significance within the play were simply one more voice and held no more sway than those of any other critic. I don’t know that I agree—what self-respecting writer would?—but I see the point.

When I write a screenplay, I need dissenting and diverging voices to ensure that I am not leaving things out or glossing over important plot or character points that are clear in my head. At the same time, I must be sure that my vision is protected, lest I start writing someone else’s screenplay.

I understand, however, that if I want to turn this screenplay into a movie or television episode, I will have to relinquish some of the control to the hands of studio executives, producers, directors, actors, directors of photography, sound teams, and in all likelihood, the third cousin of the guy who runs the craft services table. I have to be comfortable with the idea that each of these people wants to (actually, must) contribute in some way to the final product to give them a sense of ownership. They too are artists.

I am struggling at this stage with several television projects I have been developing. I have a computer filled with TV series concepts and/or pilot scripts, and I am trying to decide with what production companies to share my babies. Like Smeagol, I stroke my precious and have a rampant distrust of everyone.

How do I know the company I choose shares my vision, will protect my baby, isn’t just a group of ravenous Orcs? I don’t. I can’t, ahead of time.

What helps is watching fellow writers who rabidly protect their newborns at a much earlier stage in development. Who in a reading group, spew buckets of foamy spittle while savagely defending the use of the word “vivisection”, or primal scream that their protagonist’s motivations are obvious to anyone with half a brain.

I am doing the same thing with my projects, only at a later stage and mostly in my head (and possibly with just half a brain). Just as they have to learn to let go or at least lighten up, so do I.

In writing this post, I am coming to realize that my art is in the writing of the screenplay, not in the making of movies or television. Thus, when the screenplay is ready to move on, I must let it go and hope it flourishes…even if I am not ready to let it go. The art must grow and breathe, regardless of my personal reluctance and fears.

Committees are still evil…you will never get me to say otherwise…but unless I am willing to do everything on my own, which would not do justice to my babies, committees are a necessary evil and less dangerous to my babies’ successes than on overbearing, overprotective parent.

 

For a humourous take on the evils of meetings, please also see the recent blog post by Ben’s Bitter Blog: Meeting Bitterness.

The match

As I strolled through the streets of Washington, DC, I came across this amazing sculpture, although to call it simply a sculpture or statue was to short-change the artist.

Before my eyes (and the lens of my camera) a small scene played out despite the participants’ inanimacy.

(Yes, I make words up. I’m a writer, it’s what I do. Same relationship as intimate to intimacy.)