I’ve been giving a great deal of thought recently to what we can learn about writing from other writers and also from other forms of art. It started in New York, and the time I spent in art museums. It’s been building in my head every since.
So today, I’m going to write a bit about five of my favorite works of art — a novel, a movie, a painting, a photograph, and a piece of music — and what we might learn from them about writing.
Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner, 1971 — As with all the mediums to follow, choosing one favorite novel wasn’t easy. I purposefully went out of our genre, although I can’t really explain why. I suppose I wanted to use an example that was a bit removed from my own work. For those of you who don’t know this book, I really can’t recommend it highly enough. It is Stegner’s greatest work, which is saying something, and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. It tells the story of Lyman Ward, a retired, wheelchair-bound historian who is determined to write a biography of his grandmother. In reading her old letters, and trying to tell her story, he is confronted with reminders of his own failed marriage, his infirmity, and his slow descent into old age. It’s aquiet book, beautifully written and deeply compelling. But most of all, Angle of Repose is a tour de force of narrative. The book tells two stories at once: Lyman’s and his grandmother’s. The narrative threads are interwoven almost seamlessly; each plot line propels the other, until, by the end, the stories are so integral to one another that it’s hard to pull them apart. In attempting to piece together his grandmother’s life, Lyman winds up dissecting his own. Narrative, Stegner understands, is more than telling a story. It is the blending of story and character; it is the understanding that in relating a tale the teller becomes part of the story. Neither Lyman’s story nor his grandmother’s would be enough to sustain the novel. But taken together the two threads resonate powerfully. And in repeatedly carrying his readers from one era to the other, Stegner breaks down the barriers of time and generation to create a single narrative about family, about love and conflict, about aging and death.
L.A. Confidential, directed by Curtis Hanson, 1997 — Okay, I never said that I was going to be consistent in my tastes. L.A. Confidential is about as far from Angle of Repose as one can get, but both of them are, in my opinion, masterpieces. This is a violent, sexual movie and not for the faint of heart. But it might well be the finest example of pacing that I’ve ever seen anywhere. I’m not going to give you a plot summary — it’s a cop movie, filled with betrayals and double-crosses. But what makes it work is the way Hanson allows his story to unfold. The movie is fairly long — about 2 hours and 20 minutes — but it feels much shorter. On the one hand, Hanson develops his story and his characters with great care. He rushes nothing. He takes time to give little details that make the 1950s setting come alive and to set up the twists and turns that make the movie so much fun. And yet, while the narrative develops at a leisurely pace, by the time the movie reaches its climax you’re totally breathless. Telling a faced-paced story doesn’t mean that you have to rush your narrative. Sometimes just the opposite is true. Sometimes we should savor the building of tension, the development of all the plot lines that will come together at the end. The big downhill in a roller coaster ride is fabulous; but so is the anticipation as we climb that huge hill.
Rouen Cathedral, by Claude Monet, 1892-94 — Yes, I’m cheating here a little bit. Any one of the paintings Claude Monet did of the facade of the Cathedral at Rouen is gorgeous. But in this case I want to consider the series of paintings as a whole. What made the paintings work, what made similar series that Monet painted of haystacks, lines of Poplar trees, and the water lilies on his pond in Giverny so powerful, was the artist’s recognition of how shifting light can change dramatically a single perspective on a single subject. What does this have to do with writing? For me it speaks to point of view and its relationship with character. Just as the cathedral looks different as the light changes, plot lines, characters, settings, etc. should appear different as point of view shifts from one character to the next. Each character can and should have his/her own unique responses to events, to conversations, to matters as small as a change in someone’s facial expression or in a speaker’s tone of voice. Point of view isn’t just a way to get from one plot point to the next; it’s an opportunity to develop the voices of your most important characters, to show how each person’s perspective colors the view of what is happening in your story.
Sand Dune, Namib-Naukluft Park, Namibia, Art Wolfe — This might have been the hardest single piece to choose. I love Art Wolfe’s photography and I would be hard pressed to name my 100 favorites photos, much less a single representative piece. But this photo is not only one of my favorites but also one of his best known. Note the simplicity of the image, the way the photo is actually a blend of just a few basic shapes and colors. Just brilliant. For me, this piece is about the use of imagery and detail. When I’m writing descriptive passages, I try not to get bogged down in too much minutia. Doing so can slow the narrative and distract the reader from more important storytelling points. At the same time, though, inserting a few key details — a glimpse of the embroidery on a noble’s cloak, or the glimmer of a pendant hanging from a woman’s neck — can be incredibly powerful. Look at that photo again. Yes, it’s a simple. But there are certain key details: the tree in the center at the base of the dune, the dead tree at the right edge. These details are key to the success of the image as a whole. They anchor the photo, giving your eye a point on which to fix at that key spot where the dune line meets the ground. They give perspective, telling you just how huge that dune is. And as sparse as they are, they accentuate the harshness of the terrain. In the same way, when we write we have to choose our details carefully. It’s not enough to catalog them; they have to have purpose. They have to bring out the larger points we’re trying to drive home with our narrative.
Appalachian Spring, Aaron Copeland, 1944 — No piece of classical music moves me the way Copeland’s masterpiece does. To me it is incredibly evocative and achingly beautiful (I’m actually listening to it as I write this). The power of it, for me, lies in its use of recurring themes. Some of those themes are of Copeland’s making; but perhaps the piece is best known for its incorporation of the classic American folk song, “Simple Gifts.” By reiterating these themes in slightly altered ways, Copeland gives the entire piece a feeling of familiarity, even for those hearing it for the first time. That’s part of its emotional power; it feels like a homecoming. Themes in a novel can do much the same thing. A book I completed earlier this year takes place in a port city in a world that consists of islands. Throughout the novel I use water imagery in my descriptions, my metaphors, my explanations of emotions. I rely on the water themes to reinforce my worldbuilding and to give cohesiveness to the narrative. Similarly, the piece I’ve been working on recently is set in the American Southwest, and throughout the book I use desert images. I use heat imagery in writing about my antagonist, cooling and water images when writing about the good guys. These themes are subtle; I make certain not to overdo them. But they add power to my storytelling, and they reinforce the things I do with character and narrative.
This is a very long post, and I apologize for that. But I would love to hear about your favorite works of art and how they inform your writing. Try to keep your comments brief — a sentence for each work of art. What art inspires you?