On Writing

I always approach writing as if, were it a painting, I must paint each square inch individually, one after another, from the top of the canvas to the bottom, row after row, perfecting each little square before moving on to the next. But that’s not how you paint. You sketch out the project broadly, then add detail, then more detail, constantly revisiting and revising the work as a whole until what you have in front of you resembles what you are trying to convey.

It’s less time-consuming, though, to evaluate a painting as a whole than to revise a long-form piece of writing. Each re-read takes hours and hours, maybe days, just to be able to say, “Here’s what I’ve got.” Although you might look at a painting in a moment and say, “It’s done,” you can’t do that with a book. It never “looks” done. I would say it never feels done, either. It’s never going to be done if it reflects real life. (Some of my favorite authors end their stories abruptly – no resolution, no dénouement – because they are writing about life, and life just keeps going no mater what happens.)

So what are you after if not the straightforward beginning/middle/end of story? I’d say an impression, like a great painting or a photograph. When you look at a Van Gogh, you can see his process. But what you’re looking at, as a whole, is the final impression the artist wanted to create. Thus “Starry Night” does not look like a starry night to me, it looks like whirwinds in chaotic heavens. Goya’s “3rd of May 1808” horrifies me not so much because of the subject (we’ve all seen thousands of war images) but because of the impression I get, the bold angled “spotlight” coming from nowhere, shining brightest on the white shirt of a man about to be murdered by another man, about to become not bright white but red with his blood, a distillation of abstract “war” down to its base human outcome: people murdering each other at close range, over and over, for no good reason.