Sunday, May 16, 2021

Painting the Novel

I always wanted to be a novelist.  I did write four or five, but only one of those actually saw print.  As a novelist, I consider myself a failure.  This failure, interestingly, turned me back to painting.

You may ask, how hard is it to write a novel?  When you read one, most times it seems that the writer hardly struggled at all.  Well, that's the trick.  No matter how hard he works, the writer aims to make it look easy.  He wants the reader to enjoy a smooth experience.  One word follows another; reaction follows action; and the plot cruises along like a finely-tuned automobile on new pavement. Sure, you might flip back a few pages to remind yourself who said what, but your progress generally goes from point A to point B.  Barring exceptions in highbrow literary fiction, a novel reads like a straight line.

But that's not the case for the writer.  A novel contains an imaginary world that is multidimensional, consisting of space and time, a world that the writer can move freely in, up and down or left and right in space, or back and forth in time.  This world, while in the messy process of being invented, quickly becomes a tangle of alternate realities.  Plots develop pointless detours.  Characters swap personalities.  Time behaves unexpectedly.  But eventually, the writer cleans things up, paring away the alternate realities until only one remains:  the right one, the one the reader will come to know and love.

Crafting a novel requires that the writer hold this new world, even in its chaotic formative state, entirely in his head.  Sure, you can pin your plot outline and character notes to the wall or keep a 3-ring binder packed with details on your desk, but that's not enough.  (I did all that.) You must be able to visualize this world and all its myriad connections holistically, and to do so instantly.

Well, I couldn't.  I found my mental buffer was way too small.  Before I began to write each day, I had to re-read every page I'd written so it'd be fresh in my mind.  It didn't matter if I'd logged 20 pages or 200 pages.  But even so, my brain just couldn't hold it all.

It took me awhile, but I came to understand that painting is different and, for me, easier.  On the canvas, I can see everything laid out before me clearly.  In a single glance, I can see how a new mark, a new color or a new erasure affects the whole.  In a single glance, I can see the relationship between all the parts.  In a single glance, I can comprehend the painting's complex beauty.

Don't think there's no similar challenge in painting.  As a painter of representational landscapes, I certainly wrestle with time and space.  But I find the task of collapsing all that into the two dimensions of a canvas easier and, ultimately, more rewarding.  Today, I'm content to read novels—not write them.


Helen Opie said...

I cannot write fiction either, and my reading is slowed by my awe that another human being could do this. I am also dyslexic and have physical difficulty reading. Interestingly, when I listen to a book I am able to visualize it and take in the whole easily and with pleasure. However, my visual problem which makes reading a challenge also makes seeing a challenge. I cannot readily take in an image as a whole in some way that I now understand others can. I prefer the visual challenge in drawing and painting to that of reading and writing. This difficulty makes me a terrible student, but perhaps a better teacher because I know that people perceive what they see in almost as many ways as there are sighted people. I have accumulated a vast reservoir of analogies for teaching anything I have ever taught, because I know that there are so many, many varieties of perception. Vivre les arts! Long may you teach and inform us!

This winter I learnt a great deal about writing of the personal sort when writing essays for my forthcoming coffee table book Aboard Picton Castle, a painter's journey. It is a full-size facsimile of the 9x12 sketch journal I made when sailing for about 3 weeks aboard the tall ship Picton Castle, published by MooseHouse Press, Granville Ferry NS. Available at all Maritime independent bookstores and through Chapters. And I still read all fiction in awe of the accomplishment.

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

Excellent thoughts, Helen! I'm glad you're able to find a way to enjoy the world that satisfies you. And I look forward to your book!