Earl Schofield: Writing In The Arts

The 10 Commandments of (PHOTOGRAPHY) Writing:

  1. Thou shalt not write boring papers.

  2. Thou shalt learn to write interesting papers about boring things

  3. Writers make interesting papers, not interesting subjects

  4. Thou shalt worship the senses for we learn all from them

  5. Writing is structure know where you are going!

  6. It is the writer’s job to show me what she wants me to see, to make me feel what she wants me to feel. Everything in a piece of writing should serve this goal, so…

  7. If it isn’t doing anything to help with the authors goals, cut it out

  8. Be clear or be ambiguous on purpose, but never be ambiguous about things you should be clear about and learn to know the difference.

  9. Thou shalt write multiple drafts

  10. “If it doesn’t have ambiguity, why bother,” Sally Mann   If what you are writing is self-evident why bother? What have you learned or what do you have to offer? Can you show us the complexity of the issue or subject you are writing about? Can you present both sides of an issue or defend your statements against what you know others will say about them who do not agree?

There are two types of writing essential to the artist. Writing about art requires one to write to convey ideas and express emotions; analytic and “expressive” writing.

Expressive writing is by far the more difficult to teach. We will focus primarily on analytic writing here because it is a critically important tool for learning.

The first step to writing is often (but not always) to have some idea of what you are writing about. There should be a point you are trying to make or a goal to achieve with every piece of writing, even if the goal is, “ just”, pleasure. Once you have a clear goal in mind, you are ready to proceed. Most of us don’t get in the car and start driving without first deciding where to go first (although that can be profitable in certain circumstances both literally and metaphorically when applied to the journey  of writing).

Let us first establish the limitations of the written word. Writing is linear or time based. That is, it has a beginning, a middle and an end. Even so called “non-linear writing”, cannot be read, except in a linear fashion, start to finish, like a piece of music or a dance. Why is that important? Because we do not think in a linear fashion. Or at least mostly we don’t. We similataneously experience many things at once with all our senses and ideas can bounce from one to another in a way that does not always seem to be clear. This  “association” and “divergent learning”, is valuable, in creativity especially, because it allows us to search for new patterns and to make connections where none were seen before.  But it is a difficult way to convey or transfer ideas between people and that is what writing does. It transfers ideas and emotions between people.

Drawing                        Writing

Look/think                   Look listen feel taste smell /think

Analyze                        Analyze

Weigh                           Weigh

Break down                     Break down

Order/edit                      Order

Reconfigure/edit/alter                Write/reconfigure/edit/alter

Edit                            Edit

LOOK, listen, smell, feel, taste: sharpen your instrument

An artist has to practice to increase the sensitivity of her eyes, a musician needs to become more discerning with his ears, a chef discerning with the sense of taste, a dancer develop and become sensitive to the movement of the body. A writer must do all those things too, and learn to “translate” the experiences of these senses into words. Writing starts with careful observation and careful thinking about ideas.

LOOK and ANALYZE and LOOK again

Because we do not think in a linear fashion, we must first gather ideas the way they come to us first. These ideas can be jotted down as bullet points, mind maps or even drawings at first. We can now look at our ideas and begin to assess them. Are they related, how do they connect to each other. Do they agree or support each other or are they in conflict some how. Now think about what you are trying to do with this piece of writing. What do you want to accomplish? Will these ideas help? Do some of the ideas distract from your goal? If so, cross them out. Do you have enough ideas? If not, find more through more thought, research or observations, until you do have enough. Finally, expand on anything you can that you already have written down.

For some of us, this is hard. It may be better for you to just start writing anything and everything all at once, in no particular order as it comes to you. This is exactly like “sketching”, in drawing. Nothing is nailed down yet. From there, take the mess you made and start turning it back into the bullet points or mind maps.

WEIGH or create hierarchies of importance.

Which ideas are the most important, secondary, tertiary, which support which?

Which will I focus on, drop, expand, augment?

BREAK IT DOWN

Write down your biggest points first and connect them with supporting ideas. Very statement should be supported with evidence, even if the “evidence” is your own observations. Break your ideas down into smaller, more specific elements until you are at the smallest unit needed to express your idea. In English class this is the part where you write an outline. Big idea first, followed by smaller ideas, which lead to smaller and specific details. But it does not have to be an outline yet. It can still be clumps of writing. The great joy of writing with a word processing program, is the ability to instantly copy and move a sentence or paragraph to a new location.

ORDER

This is the tough part for most of us. Like I said before, we don’t experience the world in a  nice neat linear fashion. Ideas don’t always fit so neatly into our little boxes. So start with an idea tree instead and draw out a map that shows how your ideas connect in a non-linear way first and THEN start to tease them apart to figure out how to express them in a linear way, the best you can. This is like when an author switches back and forth between different story lines in a novel. We understand the “action” is simultaneous but we have to read it in a linear fashion. The same may work with ideas. Part of an explaination or argument may proceed all or part way, then another part is expressed and they are not tied together until after that. One way or another, you have to take the cars in the train yard and get them all on one track eventually. Two ideas you want side by side will have to be turned into two ideas one after the other and it is up to you to decide which goes first. Which NEEDS to go first, and why.

RECONFIGURE

I say “reconfigure” instead of configure or write because in one way or another, you are not building something from nothing. You are essentially “copying” down an idea that exists in your head. It may be fuzzy, you may not see the whole yet, but it is basically there, waiting to be built in words and now you have a sort of map to help you get where you are going or plan help you build what you are trying to build. Just as with a complex, fully rendered drawing, writing happens in “layers”.

EDIT<EDIT<EDIT<EDIT

Drawings grow more detailed and specific with each pass or layer and so will your writing, but only if you allow yourself to keep comparing your writing to what you are trying to express just as an artist constantly looks at his subject all through each layer or a drawing. Each pass or draft of writing focuses on something different from the last until it is complete. You will know you are done when you don’t see anything else you need to do to improve your argument or you are satisfied enough to let it stand given what ever time constraint you have. My favorite answer to “how long should it be is still, “The same length as a skirt. Long enough to cover the topic but short enough to still be interesting.”

Other Notes on Writing:

The more you read, the easier it is to “see” what it is you want for a finished product. Artists look at past artists and figure out what the artist did to finish a painting, then use the same pattern, structure or material themselves but use it to express their own ideas. Writers do the same.

Listen to the Voices in Your Head! When you talk with someone, you use your hands, your face, your eyes, the environment and situation or context you are in to communicate and the other person responds giving you feed back about what they have received and understand and what they don’t, and they are trying to help you make them understand. When you write, none of that is happening. But in some ways, that is why writing can be so powerful, you feel like you are “in someone else’s head” when it is done right. At the least, you feel like the author is talking to you. So, always keep in mind you are writing this TO SOMEONE. You must be as generous as you can with this person. You must assume they have only what you give them in the writing. You cannot assume the reader has any particular bit of knowledge unless you are writing to a very specific audience. And of course, when you are writing to different people, our language changes. It is not appropriate to write the way we speak with friends hanging out at a church gathering or in the doctor’s office. You have many voices in your head, listen to them and remember who you are talking to!

Read your own writing-OUT LOUD, or to a friend. It makes a HUGE difference and helps you gauge your voice and how well you are getting across to your audience.

There is not a professional writer alive who does not have a list of “readers” they show their work in progress to for feedback. You are not writing to yourself!