Artistry in words

To my great astonishment, I’ve begun learning how to teach writing. I’m astonished because I enjoy it, and work has seldom been this satisfying.

In hearing writers talk about their work, I was again struck by how much time it takes to read each sample, and the reading can’t be usefully hurried. I can’t stand across the room and get an overall sense of the writing or see the shape of its elements. I can’t glance at the pages and learn the relationships among the parts. I have to read it, one word at a time. That’s the nature of writing: one word at a time, and in the right order, too.

Painters have it easy. If painters get a little behind schedule, they can always use a bigger brush, and painters don’t even have to cover the whole canvas anyway. A daub here, a streak there, and it’s a “painting.” It could be a few square inches and one color straight out of the tube. It’s still a painting, with all the flimflam and tradition and hooey attached thereto. As for sculpture, don’t get me started. Found, uh-huh.

Even if the background is solid red, 10 feet wide, writers have to paint it one word at a time. No big swaths of color and no white space. Even if the words’ meaning doesn’t amount to a cup of warm spit, like a thin wash that’s indistinguishable from bare canvas, all of the words have got to be there, maybe making some kind of sense, maybe not.

Based on my experience in the art world—and the less said about that, the better—I’m sure many a painter who planned to lay in a rainforest in the background of the current work in progress when faced with all that emptiness has opted for a clear blue sky instead, a shameless and undetectable short cut. No wonder so many unsuspecting youth are lured every year by the easy money in the art racket.

We writers are made of stern stuff, though. Although our only brush is the tiniest available (you’d think big words would help speed up the process, but they don’t), no matter how much ground we want to cover, we keep at our everlasting pointillism. I think I’m whining here.

The other thing teaching writing reminds me of is how easy it is to lose the thread of a piece, even though we may have worked long and hard finding out what the thread was going to be. Writing can deal with a lot of threads, and in the thick of things it’s hard to know which thread will take you where you want to go, which is why devoting some thought to where you want to go is always a worthwhile effort, even if you’re not writing anything at all.