Five Works of Art

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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?

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14 comments to Five Works of Art

  • Very thought provoking post, David! I too believe that all artists can learn from each other no matter if your medium is music, paints, words, et al.

    For me, what immediately came to mind was the painting, Umbrellas by Auguste Renior (you might recognize it from my Livejournal avatar). It mimics my writing well and the emotions I try to convey. The painting depicts a world of dreariness with points of brilliant color and emotion shining through.

    Also I like Sympphony No. 9 New World by A. Dvorak for not only its consistantuse of a prevalent theme, but for the raw emotions that the symphony convey. You can not only hear but FEEL the composer’s mized emotions of joy and excitment at the opportunities of teh New World in America, but then you hear the longing calls of his homeland echoing his heartache at leaving it behind. This theme of future excitment with past loss is one which I explore often in my writing.

  • Thanks for the comment, Mark. I have noticed the piece you use for your avatar and I’ve wondered about it. Nice to finally know the story behind it. And yes, that Dvorak piece is remarkable. My brother is a professional artist (too late it occurred to me to wonder if he’s going to be ticked with me for using Monet instead of his work…) and I love talking shop with him because we often grapple with similar creative issues.

  • First off, L.A. Confidential is a great film but an even better book by James Ellroy (which came first). I highly recommend Ellroy’s work. It can be difficult to stomach as he most often deals graphically with the corrupt and twisted lives of L.A. police in the ’50s; however, as a writer, his prose is sharp, clear, evocative, and powerful. A must for any writer.

    Music-wise, I have to put in a good word for my all time favorite genre — the blues. Particularly guitar blues since I play the guitar. Listen to Robert Johnson, Son House, Muddy Waters, Albert King, and all the other greats. At first it sounds simple, but the more you listen the more you see how inventive, subtle, creative, and playful they can be with the same 12-bar, three chord structure. They bring endless nuance and excitement to what could have been the most boring sound ever. Instead it is so infused with emotion that it spawned just about every form of American music including all of jazz, country, and rock. As writers (especially genre writers) we have to do the same. Our genre can try to limit us in structure and pattern. We have to find ways to be inventive, subtle, creative, playful, and exciting.

  • Great comment, Stuart. I’ve heard that Ellroy’s book is terrific; I’ll have to check it out. And yes, the blues. You and I have talked about our separated-at-birth similarities many times. I play guitar, too, and have a lot of jazz guitar in my collection and my writing music rotation. I need more blues in there. Inventive, subtle, creative, playful, and exciting. Excellent goals for any writer. Thanks, my friend.

  • When I was a little girl, I had a game called Masterpiece. The game wasn’t much fun, but I spent hours sorting through the painting cards. My favorite was Eugene Delacroix’s Combat of Giaour and Hassan. I loved the richness of the colors and the way it always seemed that the men and horses would resume their battle any second. I would stare at it forever, letting my mind wander into that place we as writers know all too well. Why were the men fighting? Where were they? Who is that man on the ground? The man facing away is holding a magic wand, isn’t he? I made up so many stories about them in my head, and there are probably more that will pop in there the next time I take some time to stare at it again. That painting remains my favorite piece to this day.

    I could go on and on about other things that excite my soul, things like Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates, Antonio Gaudi’s final construction, La Catedral de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain, or Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (with the cannons, please – I can’t bear it without them) but I think that was your point. *grin*

  • Okay, I LOVED that game — but I’m pretty sure that marks me as a total nerd….

    Thanks for the comment, Misty. That was my point. Art inspires — it excited the soul, as you put it — and being able to turn that excitement into art of our own is kind of cool.

  • David said Okay, I LOVED that game — but I’m pretty sure that marks me as a total nerd….

    I could never get anyone to play Masterpiece with me. My friends always wanted to play Mystery Date or Clue. Maybe if you and I’d lived on the same street as kids, I might have had a different opinion of the game. *grin*

    By the way, you need to bring the guitar next time we’re all going to be together at a con or something…

  • I was never a big board game player, dubbing them “bored” games instead. Though there were two that stuck out. Which Witch and The Dark Tower. Neither very art-filled, but fun.

    It’s hard for me to pick favorites on various works. I love a lot of things for different reasons, and not all of it is older works. Anything from some classical music to celtic folk/rock to some occasional Death Metal will strike a chord with me for the sound and creativity involved.

    Recently, a song from an anime hit me hard. I was listening to a CD from an anime called Gundam 00, trying to keep myself focused on my WIP, and the title song just leapt out at me, latched on and wouldn’t let go. It just has this triumphant, exhilarating quality I related to, especially in the writing I was working on at the time. The Japanese in general have some pretty interesting music.

    I guess for classic painters, I’ve always had a fondness for Seurat. He was basically creating pictures with pixels before anyone knew what a pixel was. It was a new and creative way to go about creating pictures and that’s what I like to strive for in my own works, new and creative ways to do something from writing to special effects. I like to kind of break away from the stereotypes and create things that not only will people enjoy, but I’ll be proud of doing.

  • Re. the guitar….we’ll see…. You have to ask really nicely….

    Daniel, Seurat is a wonderful example of an artist who can teach us so much. His willingness to innovate, his ability to work through minute details while retaining a firm sense of the project as a whole. Great choice. Thanks!

  • David, I have been thinking over this all week long. Your love of the arts marks you as an educated and thoughtful and complex man. You evaluate and critique art and even see art in nature in a far deeper way than I ever will.

    I am not an artsy kind of person. (big duh) I’ve always been a tomboy and finally have the health to get back to who I really am, meaning that I’d rather tackle a Class III river or go fishing than go to a museum. I don’t go to movies very often. Never to plays. But I do love books and I have a few classical music and art faves. I don’t know what they say about me at all and I’d be kinda afraid to find out, frankly, but here goes:
    SHIBUMI by Trevanian
    BELINDA by Anne Rice
    CRY TO HEAVEN by Anne Rice
    Fav classical composer is Rachmaninoff
    Fav classical artist Jeanne-Francois Rafaelli
    The hawks are screaming out back. Gotta go see what they are into.

  • It’s so funny, Faith. I don’t think of myself that way at all. My brother is a professional artist; I wish I knew a fraction of what he knows about the visual arts. Our best friends here in town are both musicians and music scholars. I usually feel like a neophyte when discussing music with them. And I have always felt that given my profession, I should be much better read than I am. And if I had the choice of two vacations — a week in NYC with unlimited access to museums, plays, concerts, etc. or a week in Canyonlands with my camera and binoculars (or in the Cascades, or the Northern Rockies, or anywhere else in the Southwest, or … well, you get the idea) — I’d choose the hiking trip without hesitation. I do think about the little bit of art that I know, and I try to learn from it. But I think you and I are more alike in this regard than you think. I just feel more comfortable discussing things about which I know nothing at all….

  • >>I think you and I are more alike in this regard than you think.

    Nope. I think it shows you are more well rounded and better educated than I. My best friend Joy has double majors in the arts, and when she starts talking, I just sit and nod.

    >>I just feel more comfortable discussing things about which I know nothing at all….

    If we could only get you doing that while wearing a kilt.(laughing)

  • That’ll take some single malt….

  • That can be arranged…