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 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.

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