Cubism, The Trompe L’oeil Tradition, and Writing Practice

If you’ve been following this space for a while, you know that I often draw inspiration from various museum exhibitions I patronize throughout the year, (And if you’ve not been following for a while, I bid you welcome.) Writers can learn a lot from other creative professions, and I am particularly drawn to the way painters approach their artistic practice. I’ve often written about lessons I’ve learned from famous painters (including this post about Matisse and dealing with impossibility of perfection), and Miro’s description of his creative process in I Work Like a Gardener matches my own. It is no surprise, then, that upon visiting The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cubism and The Trompe L’oeil Tradition, I found something I could relate to my writing practice. While the show, which showed the influence of Trompe l’oeil on the cubists, featured many exquisite paintings by the great cubists Picasso, Braque, and Gris, it was a picture of marble texture from a French painting manual which caused me to consider my own writing practice.

Consider the following picture:

A picture of marble from a French painting guide

It is a full-page example of how to paint textured marble from a French painting manual contemporary with the time Georges Braques was learning to paint. A classically-trained French artist was expected to be able to replicate the look of various materials so that they looked realistic. There are similar examples in the manual which show the materials and techniques needed to paint wood, paper, stone, etc, realistically. The French painter was expected to be able to replicate these materials in their work to such an extent that viewer would not be able to tell the difference between the imitation and the original.

According to the exhibition, the goal was to emulate Parrhasius, who according to Pliny the Elder, entered into a competition with Zeuxis to see who could paint the most realistic painting. Zeuxis painted grapes so realistically that a bird flew up to it (thinking they were real grapes). Parrhasius’ painting appeared to be behind a curtain, and Zeuxis requested that the curtain be drawn so that he could see the painting, except the curtain was actually what Parrhasius had painted. Zeuxis admitted defeat and said that while he had deceived birds, Parrhasius’ painting was so realistic that he had deceived another artist.

While this level of skill might seem mythical, the trompe l’oeil painters got pretty close. Consider this painting of two chipped, plaster reliefs by Jean Etienne Liotard from the exhibition:

Trompe L’oeil, by Jean Etienne Liotard

Braque, being trained in the tradition, was expected to achieve a similar level of skill.

While the cubists did not paint realistic, representational art, they were classically trained. One can see the skill they had for imitating materials and textures, especially, in the works presented in this exhibition. The challenge presented by the gallery cards early in the exhibit was to try to figure out which elements of each paining were painted, and which were collaged. It was often nearly impossible to tell.

Take for example, this painting by Picasso.

Painting By Pablo Picasso

In order to achieve this level of skill, an artist would have to spend hours painting entire canvases of textured material, like the one presented above. Its inclusion in this show not withstanding, no one is hanging a picture which imitates a slab of marble on their wall. But, to achieve the requisite skill and become a master artist, painters like Braques and Picasso would have to spend hours in the studio working on pieces that were not intended for exhibition or sale, whose only purpose was to help them hone their own skill. Only by spending hours practicing, could he become the artist they wanted to be.

So, what does this have to do with writing? As I’ve written about before, writing advice tends to focus on product rather than skills: How many words are you going to write each day; how much time are you going to spend writing; how many books/stories/poems are you going to finish/publish/submit this year. These types of goals are important, but they neglect a key component of improving as an artist: intentional practice. While the current theory of writing instruction, from K-12 to the post-graduate level is that writing makes you a better writer is likely true to some extent, it neglects skill development as an important part of a writers’ development. What little skill-based advice there is tends toward over-simplified, trite advice like avoiding alliteration or eliminating adverbs. While I’ve criticized these one-size fits all approaches to writing advice in the past, they are symptomatic of a the larger issue. Skill-based advice and instruction gets boiled down to this type of shallow nonsense because most writers do not take the time to authentically and intentionally work on aspects of their craft as writers for fear of falling off the hamster wheel of productivity.

When was the last time you worked on your metaphors? By this, I mean not trying to come up with a perfect metaphor for a story your working on, but just sitting down and writing a series of metaphors (or similes, or personifications, etc) to get better at the actual skill. When was the last time you wrote dialogue that was unconnected to a character you were already writing? I bet it’s been a long time.

Years ago, I did an exercise from The Creative Writers Notebook where I had to come up with as many portmanteau as possible. Portmanteau is not a device I use often in my writing, but that was all the more reason to do the exercise and to expand my tool box as a writer. It’s been too long since I’ve done those kind of exercises regularly.

Meanwhile, artists post pictures of their figure work, or their progress drawing a particularly difficult body part like hands. Intentional practice and skill development, is a part of their tradition, and it is not, to the same extent a part of ours.

If we look toward non-creative fields, we would see the same thing. A boxer works on the speed bag to improve hand speed, but they do not come into the ring spinning his hands the way they hit the bag; a basketball player works on dribbling drills to improve ball-handling, but the intricate patters they practice are made to improve coordination rather than be practical, in-game moves; a musician practices scales, but does not play those scales straight through in performance. As writers, we should understand that, much like these other pursuits, practicing the component skills of our craft is an essential component of growing in our art.

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On Discipline

I had shoulder surgery back in 2010. I detached my labrum, got misdiagnosed, and then spent a full year doing the wrong kind of physical therapy which made my injury worse. When I finally was diagnosed properly, my shoulder was so messed up that the surgeon who fixed it told me I’d never be able to do a push-up again.

At the time, sports was a big part of life. I was doing martial arts three times a week, playing and coaching basketball, and going to the gym regularly. Needless to say, I was extremely frustrated by the way the injury was restricting me. One day, I expressed these frustrations to my chiropractor, who, in response, gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received: If you can’t do the best thing, it doesn’t mean you have to do the worst thing. If you can’t do the best thing, do the second best thing.

I might not be able to do certain exercises, but there were others I could do. Working on the chest press machine might not be great for my shoulder, but it wasn’t as harmful as push-ups; I might not be able to train in the style of martial arts I had been training in, but that didn’t mean I had to quit martial arts: I might not be able to rest as much as the doctors would have liked, but I didn’t have to push myself to the level I had pre-injury.

I think about that advice a lot.

There is a tendency among writers to have an all-or-nothing mindset. Write every day. Hit your word count, or else. Post x amount of times a day on social media. update your blog on weekly, on the same day, at the same time. Finish a full novel during nanowrimo. Aim for 100 rejections a year.

There is tendency to give up if we don’t achieve our goals. If we miss our word count one day, it tends to snowball. If we don’t write one day, we might not write for a few day (weeks?) as we wallow in shame and self doubt. If we don’t finish that novel in November, we put the project aside as a failure and to add it our ever-increasing pile of unfinished manuscripts.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Some days life happens. Some days, writers block happens. Can’t write your 750 words today, maybe only write 400, or 150, or 50. Can’t write at all today? Send out a submission or two. Do some research. Even read a book with a writer’s eye.

Only write 23000 words during nano? That’s 23000 words you didn’t have before. There’s no law that says you have to finish your novel by The end of November, or December, or the following November, or, if you’re George RR Martin, 10 years from now. Just don’t throw it away. Make incremental progress over time. Write many words some days, fewer words others.

That is what true discipline is. It’s not always doing the best thing, or even the second best thing. It’s about not doing the worst thing; not doing nothing. Will there be days you cheat on your diet? Yes. Will there be days you can’t train? Of course. Will there be days when you don’t write? That will happen too. The most important thing is to keep going, to make incremental progress over time. If you take two steps forward for every step back, you’ll reach your destination eventually.

On Goal Setting

This time of year, there’s a lot of talk about resolutions and goal setting. Here are some things to think about when setting your writing goals for 2022:

–It is important to set goals with outcomes you can control: For example, a goal of making X amount of submissions is better than a goal of being published by a specific publisher or having your work accepted for publication X amount of times. In the first case, you are in control of whether you achieve your goal. In the second, someone else controls the outcome.

There is nothing wrong with dreaming big, with wanting to be published by a specific publisher or publication–I have a few myself, just like any writer–but the best way to get there is to focus on what you can control rather than worry about what you can’t.

–Focus on the process, not just on the product: You need to hone your skills and develop the attributes of a successful comics creator. In addition to goals about completing projects, submitting, and publishing, commit to improving an area of weakness in the new year. Perhaps you need to work on writing more realistic dialogue, better metaphors, etc. Maybe you need to improve your business skills, such as marketing, social media management, crowdfunding, etc.?

Athletes develop their attributes by training to run faster, jump higher, or lift more weights because they know that these exercises will translate into better on course performance. Chess masters study specific, isolated “problems” in addition to playing full games. Professionals, like lawyers and teachers, are required to complete many hours of professional development classes to maintain their licenses. It behooves creators to develop their skills, as well. Practice intentionally, and your work will improve.

Here is a blog post I wrote a couple of years back in which I discuss goal setting and intentional practice in greater detail.

–Strike a balance between goals that are attainable and goals which challenge you: There has been a movement in goal setting recently which encourages people to set attainable goals. Setting attainable goals builds confidence, which is important, but it is also important to set goals which challenge you. If your goals are too easily achieved, you are not pushing yourself enough. While not reaching a challenging goal could be disappointing, upon reflection, you may find that you’ve advanced further by partially achieving a big goal than you would have set a lower goal. As always, it is important to strike a balance between the two extremes, and…

–Know yourself: Are you the type of person who needs the confidence boost of a series of smaller, achievable goals, or are you a person who does better when you challenge yourself? Are you being honest with yourself about your current skill level? Your strengths and weaknesses? Your assessment of your previous year? Only by knowing yourself can you set the goals you need to take your creative journey to the next level.

On Resolutions and Goals, Part 3: Goal Setting And Practicing With Intention

Shaquille O’Neal was one of the greatest basketball players of all time, but he had one glaring weakness: he was a poor free-throw shooter. While he was a dominant force in most other aspects of the game—one of the most dominant of all time—his inability to shoot free throws was so glaring that many teams adopted the strategy of fouling him on purpose, sending him to the line for a chance a free points because they would rather take the chances that he would miss than let him try to score against their defense.

Now, Shaq knew he had this weakness. He worked to correct it by shooting many, many practice free throws and by working with a plethora of shooting coaches. One offseason, it was reported that he was shooting thousands of free-throws a day. His coach, however, was not impressed.

“If he’s shooting them with incorrect form,” his coach, Phil Jackson, said (I’m paraphrasing here), “he’s not going to get better. He’s only reinforcing bad habits.”

This story, I believe relates not just to basketball, but to most skills, writing included. The quality—and intentionality—of your practice is just as—if not more—important as your volume. As I wrap up my series on new year’s resolutions and writing goals (part 1 here; part 2 here), I want to look at the types of goals we set as writers, and whether these goals are the best approach to improving at our craft.

Most writers, as I detailed in the previous posts in this series, set word count or writing time goals. Write a certain amount of words or a certain amount of time per day, and your writing will improve. If you want to be a writer, you have to write, the common platitude goes. And so we write. We add to our work in progress, slog through our first draft of our novel, but do we really improve as writers? Are we improving at our craft? Are we better today than were yesterday? Or, are we, like Shaq, reinforcing bad habits?

If we answer the question honestly, I think we will find that most of us are not growing as much as we could. We have random spikes when hit on something great, and, occasionally, we might actually learn something, but that growth is often random and passive rather than intentional. Imagine how much better we’d be if we were purposeful in our practice and worked to address our weaknesses.

That is the fallacy in the 10-thousand-hour rule. Instead of shooting 10000 free throws, shoot 1000 shots sitting in a chair, shooting with your wrist and working on your follow through. Master that, then work on aligning your elbow. Figure out which part of your form is off and isolate your practice to focus on that aspect.

There are two types of practice: practice that mimics performance, and practice that builds the necessary skills and attributes which are necessary to perform successfully. In writing—and this is true not just for aspiring writers, but for the way writing is taught from elementary school through the university level—we tend to focus on the performance aspect, the final piece intended for publication, at the expense of the skill and attribute-building aspects. This sets writing up in opposition to many other fields where skill and attribute training reign supreme. No one questions the utility of the speed bag for building hand speed and coordination for boxers, yet no boxer goes into the ring and tries to hit his or her opponent with the same technique that they use to hit the bag. Serious chess players do not just practice by playing games, either against each other or against a computer, they work at problems and exercises designed to isolate the strategy needed in certain situations. So why don’t writers, by and large, spend their writing time practicing their similes, working on their sentence structure, and their meter, their dialogue? Perhaps we should.

Recently, I spent an evening completing a writing exercise where I had to list and define as many portmanteaus as I could within a certain amount of time. This list, which was based off of an exercise James Joyce would do, was not designed to produce a publishable piece of writing, but it allowed me to improve at a device which was not one I commonly use in my writing. I expanded my toolbox, and actually wrote a passage in one of my works-in-progress recently that had two portmanteaus in it.

One exercise that I often suggest to young writers is mimicking a writer whom they admire. Try to write a paragraph in the style of that author, about any subject. Focus on the model’s sentence structure, literary devices, etc. This exercise is unlikely to produce a publishable piece of writing (unless you, unintentionally, create a brilliant satire), but it will make you more aware of any author’s style and allow you to begin to critically evaluate your own. There is a great passage in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in which she mimics the style of famous male and female authors of the 19th Century. Internalizing author authors’ style will expand your own and make you a better writer.

Similarly, W. H. Auden would give his students poetry exercises where they would have to use certain combinations of metrical feet in each line and to use different types of rhymes at proscribed points in the poem (see picture below). This exercise was not designed to produce great poetry—and if you look at Auden’s poetry, he does not often combine that many different meters in a single poem—but it is designed to teach students the various possibly combinations of rhyme and meter. It is similar to the athletic exercises delineated above.

Choosing which exercises to do—which skills to focus on—requires you to analyze your own writing. Internalize the feedback you get from others and read yourself critically. Maybe you are prone to simile and want to practice metaphor or allusion; perhaps you want to work on writing realistic dialogue; maybe your writing is too structured and you want to loosen it up and make it more natural; maybe you write stream of conscious and want to gain more control over your style. Whatever your goal, whatever your weakness as a writer, there are exercises that you can do to improve each of these skills—and any other area you on which you desire to work.

There are exercises you can do to improve your attributes as well. Engage in speed writing to see how many words you can put on a page in a given amount of time; read the dictionary to improve your vocabulary (Both John Gardner and Chris Bohjalian as a warm up exercise before you actually start your writing session for your work in progress). Diagram a complex sentence (say one of Faulkner’s famously long ones) to gain a better understanding of grammar.

By engaging in these types of skill-and-attribute-building exercises, you will improve as a writer. You must choose your exercises intentionally; you must analyze your strengths and weaknesses honestly—which is hard—but you will improve faster than if you just write for the sake of hitting a word count goal.

Now, engaging in this type of practice may seem like it might slow your progress. You will likely end up with fewer finished pieces, and your word count totals on the pieces you intend to publish might suffer in comparison to what you’re doing now, but the ones you do finish, will be better and you will notice improvement from one piece to the next as you build your writing toolbox.

Notice, that these exercises take time. You will still be working those 10 thousand hours, but 10000 hours will help you grow as a writer rather than just turning your wheels like Shaq with his free throws.

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.

Keeping Up With Your New Year’s Resolutions, Part 2—On Discipline

As I detailed in last week’s blog, by now, about 80 percent of people have given up on their new year’s resolutions. One of the most common reasons people site for this is a lack of discipline. While it is true that one needs discipline to stay on track with one’s goals, the way that most people look at discipline—as an all or nothing proposition—makes it difficult for most people to achieve this virtue. I would like to present an alternate approach.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received was given to me by my chiropractor, Dr. Stephen Howard Cooper, when I was recovering from a martial arts injury. My orthopedist had suggested that I restrict my physical activity and exercise following the injury to an extent that I knew I couldn’t follow, and I asked the chiropractor, who is a martial artist himself, for advice about how I could modify my activity in a manner that would allow me to keep practicing kung fu.

  “If you can’t do the best thing, do the second-best thing, not the worst thing,” he said.

The specifics of what that statement meant relative to my injury and kung fu practice are a bit “inside baseball” for this forum, but the advice, which I’ve applied in a myriad of other situations is powerful, nonetheless. To illustrate its import, I would like to look at a common new year’s resolution that has nothing to do with writing.

Let’s say you’ve resolved to lose weight and to eat better in the new year. As part of your plan, you’ve decided to cut out snacking throughout the day. Three o’clock rolls around, and you’re really feeling sluggish. The afternoon malaise is setting in, and you know that you are going to have to eat something or risk falling asleep at your desk and not get your work done. Losing weight is an admirable long-term goal, but staying employed is higher on your immediate hierarchy of needs. There goes the resolution, right? Wrong!

Many people, when faced with this situation would completely abandon their goal, consider the resolution a failure, and opt for an unhealthy snack, like a doughnut or a candy bar. After experiencing this situation a few more times, they would give up on their resolution altogether.

Now, let’s say that instead of eating that doughnut, you opted for a healthier snack, say a banana or an apple. Is that ideal? Of course not. Your goal was to eliminate snacking, and you have not done that, obviously. But, is it better than eating a doughnut or a candy bar? It most definitely is. You’ve made a healthy choice, which is something of which you can be proud, and which is something that might help you achieve your larger goal of losing weight and living a healthier lifestyle.

You didn’t do the best thing, but that didn’t lead you to do the worst thing either. You have made progress, which, hopefully, will keep you focused on toward your ultimate goal.

It’s easy to see how this advice applies to writing goals. You come home from a tough day at work, cook dinner for the family, and struggle to put your kids to bed. You’ve resolved to write 500 words tonight, but you just don’t have the energy or focus. It’s late; you’re tired, and you just want to relax a bit before conking out yourself. Your daily word count goal is gone. Your resolution has failed—and it’s not even the end of January. Might as well give up, right? Wrong!

Maybe you could bring yourself to write 250 words, 100 words, or even a 50-word paragraph. Perhaps, if you feel you’re not in the frame of mind to add to your primary work in progress, you could do a writing exercise (there are many books and websites that offer these; I like this one) or a journal entry, which is a lower-pressure way to work on your writing because the stakes aren’t as high.

Maybe you’re too tired–or your creativity is too drained–to write at all. Maybe tonight’s the night to send submit a short story or two to a literary magazine. Maybe you could do some research. Instead of watching that dumb sitcom, maybe read a book (which is an essential, and often neglected part of the writing process). Have to watch that tv show? Fine. But keep some notes on the decisions the writers make regarding, characterization, dialogue, storytelling, plotting, etc.

There is a wide variety of activities that will make you feel like you’re making progress toward your writing goals instead of giving up because you missed out on one mile-marker.

Do the second (or third, or even fourth) best thing rather than the worst thing, and you will feel like you’re making progress. You will come back stronger the next day, ready to tackle your next challenge as you proceed to achieve your larger goals.

Discipline is not about being perfect. It’s about staying consistent with your principles to achieve your goals and not giving up. Sometimes that involves doing the second-best thing instead of the worst thing. Making good choice—even if they’re not the best choices—can help you achieve the kind of consistent progress you will need to move forward on your journey, both with writing and in life.

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.

Re-examining New Year’s Resolutions—Part 1—Reassessing Word Count Goals

Research shows that, by now, over 50 percent of people have given up on their new year’s resolutions. By the first week in February, that number will jump into the 80s. While those numbers refer to all resolutions (and you can click through to the articles for the whys and wherefores), I can only assume, based on anecdotal experience, that the numbers for writing resolutions are very similar. Over the next three weeks, I will present some ideas to help you stay—or get back—on your path to success for the rest of this—still young—year. This week, let’s take a look at writing consistently and hitting your daily word counts.

The most common writing resolution seems to be “I will write X amount of words (or time) every day.” This affirmation stems from the idea that to be a writer, one must write, and the related idea that one must practice if one wants to improve one’s craft. There are myriads of famous, successful writers who shout some version of these statements from the hilltops and present it as their first piece of writing advice for aspiring writers.

While writing consistently is a virtue, this advice is somewhat disingenuous. It is easy for a professional writer whose primary source of income is their writing, and who has an agent on retainer to search for and submit to venues for their writing, to say that you need to write a certain amount a day, but for the rest of us, life happens. Work exhausts us; family obligations arise; health situations must be considered. Moreover, this type of goal prioritizes quantity over quality (more on that in the coming weeks). How does research and reading fit in? To what extent should one prioritize actual writing—keeping your pen moving—over researching, querying, and submitting?

I would like to suggest an easier way to achieve your word count goal: Instead of setting a daily goal, set a weekly goal. Let’s say you set a modest goal, 250 words a day. Two hundred fifty words is approximately one double-spaced page. If you can write just one page a day, the thinking goes, you will have 365 pages by the end of the year, enough for a full-length novel. That’s all well and good until you start missing days. Given the very common issues delineated in the above paragraph, it is easy to find yourself falling behind and feeling disheartened.

Consider, instead, setting a weekly writing goal. Instead of setting a 250-word a day goal, set a weekly goal of 1750 words. If you hit the goal, you will have written the same amount of words, but if you happen to miss a day due to circumstances beyond your control, you can still achieve what you set out to do, as long as you make up those words by the end of the week.

A weekly goal will also allow you to schedule time around your own individual schedule. Perhaps you have a big family dinner every Sunday, or your wife works late on Thursday nights. You can work around those (and other similar issues) by scheduling writing time when it is more convenient both for yourself and for others in your life. Need to block off a day for editing, querying, submitting, an/or working on your author platform? A weekly goal allows you integrate these activities with your writing schedule and to stay consistent with these other areas of your writing practice as well.

Why a weekly goal instead of a monthly or longer-time-period goal? Well, writing consistently is still important. A weekly goal still sets a regular, measurable deadline. If you have to hustle to reach your goal on a Saturday night, good. That’s why you’re setting goals for yourself in the first place. I believe that weekly goals provide a good medium between consistency and achievability.

What is you still fall behind? What if your word count goals push you toward quantity over quality? Tune in next week for my proposed answer.

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.