Characters Tell Their Own Stories
Creatives live creatively. Artist Elaine Weiner-Reed draws parallels between her art and other facets of her life. She notes that the lives of creative people tend to reflect their style and originality in many ways – from how they entertain or cook a meal, to how they teach their children, put together a work outfit, manage a project, or decorate their homes. In this article, Elaine connects her painting to her writing – specifically now that she has begun her latest adventure – novel-writing. Read more to discover what Elaine means when she says that her characters sometimes take control to tell their own stories in their own unique way – whether on paper or on canvas!
The Characters Tell Their Own Stories - When We Let Them
I have noticed that creativity in one domain often impacts or connects to other creative dimensions of our lives, sometimes establishing common threads between endeavors. My style of cooking maps to my style of painting, for instance. Using the materials I have at hand, I contemplate what I have and what I feel like eating or making. I might do a little research regarding cooking times for different types of seafood or ingredient possibilities. Then, after a bit of thought and kitchen prep work, I connect to my intuition, giving it the lead. I assess progress and success along the way, taking pictures, tasting, and using as many senses as possible (taste and presentation matters).
Intuition and imagination converge and alternate taking the lead in any given piece and at different stages of the creation process in my painting and writing, as well. I find that the art is in connecting the planned and the unscripted elements of a creative activity so that 1) the end product meets my standards and 2) I enjoy the process and journey itself. With imagination, anything is possible. At different times in our lives, our focuses change, and different limitations or opportunities present themselves. So, after dreaming about doing it for decades, I have finally seriously begun writing my first novel. I simply asked myself “if not now, when?” and the rest is history. As I periodically “write about creative writing,” you can expect me to draw connections to my artwork – for the parallels I’ve noticed already are mind-boggling.
Language as Art
Background: I have been engaged in creative writing and the visual arts since my teen years, usually creating poems or short stories. When my parents were alive, many of their holiday and birthday cards from me contained drawings and poems I had written – many formed in rhyme and often including my vocabulary words of the week. My father especially liked the father’s day card where I referred to him as bellicose. In response to his puzzled look as he read the word aloud, I timidly instructed him to “Look it up, Dad,” privately fearing his reaction when he discovered it meant “warlike.” Surprisingly, he left the room chuckling, apparently pleased to have his “lesson” come back to him. By way of explanation: “Go look it up!” was one of my Dad’s favorite recurring lectures, a refrain that flowed from his lips whenever I asked “What does that mean?” or “Who invented that?” Although at the time I suspected Dad hadn’t known the answers, I now think (being a parent) that he genuinely sought to teach his children to fish rather than give them all the answers. Learning was a golden rule in our household.
Think of how we approach painting: We think about something. Ideas come to us or we mine our hearts and experiences for ideas, plots, or subject matter…until finally hitting on what we want to paint next. Do we jump right in and start to paint? Sometimes, but not always. Sometimes we hesitate on the precipice of… greatness or failure? Regardless, we generally pause as if waiting for divine intervention to guide our hand to the exact right spot for our first marks. The first stroke or word is always the hardest, is it not? Many years ago I realized that failure is not a problem or a bad thing. Risk and courage go hand-in-hand and I believe we personally need to redefine “failure” as an unrecognized award of courage and achievement. Seriously. When someone fails at something, at least they TRIED something, DID something - regardless of the outcome. They took a risk and that should embolden and bolster them and encourage the rest of us to do likewise. I believe that trying equates to progress and eventually winning.
How are writing and painting connected? In my world, everything is connected to my art – sooner or later. My brain just does that. If you recall, I was able to make a seamless connection between playing golf and painting in my article Finding Our "Effortless Power". I am a life-long writer but have never taken the plunge and written a book. Tackling a whole book and the 70,000 or more words that generally comprise a novel seems daunting, especially before or as we begin. Besides the actual work and art of writing, there is an entire universe of other things in the field to research and learn about: publishing, finding the right agent, locating a good editor and critique group, etc. I can understand why some people procrastinate and never put a finger to the keyboard, but what is there to lose, really?
If you’re like me, you might feel overwhelmed even before you seriously sit down to write or paint. True confessions: I often feel overwhelmed when I stand in front of a new “virgin” canvas. What to do? Where to start? So very many choices! What if we mess up? Consider this: Messes serve as starting points and are often gateways to progress and breakthroughs. We fear so many things as creative people – judgment, lack of ideas, failure to deliver, etc. But seriously, isn’t it better to begin, to take that chance rather than to just long to do it for a lifetime? Picking up that brush or pen is brave. It is a commitment to create, to explore, and to expand our horizons. There is never a negative side to that! Most of us writers will probably not win the Nobel prize equivalents of writing awards. Most of us artists will likely not be voted into major art museums. So, faced with fewer years ahead of me than behind me, in August I asked myself “If not now, when?” I have wanted to write a mystery novel for many years and have been jotting down ideas for it for 5 years or more – notes scattered throughout the house in copybooks, sketchbooks, and binders.
In late September, I took the first step: I started writing my novel on the computer, letting the characters form in a place in time. Jumping right into a scene and free-writing seemed fresher, more active than starting with my old notes or storyline ideas. Something told me it was best to do this freestyle writing and brainstorming before correlating and typing up any older notes and ideas. Gradually, my notes have been entered into an online notes file and I started bookmarking research areas based on my character’s situation and needs. My second official step was to join the Maryland Writers Association, followed immediately by my third step – which was to register for my first all-day writer’s seminar (scheduled in early October). What better way to start than to jump in head-first, right? And talk about an immersion! It was an amazing and exhausting 9-hour day. We had hands-on writing challenges throughout the seminar which was focused on addressing how we might consider incorporating emotion in our stories. Not surprisingly, I half-filled my notebook and will later type up keynotes to add to my online character files.
As with my art, I have to discipline myself to do it – to write. Perhaps my biggest challenge in the near term will be to correctly divide and balance my time and schedule, eventually mapping out weekly realistic and regular time frames during which I will paint, sculpt, and write, respectively. My fourth step was finding all the notes and story threads I had around my home – pieces on plots, characters’ backgrounds and families, and even mini-bios for a few of my protagonist’s friends. Then, my job was to type it all into a computer file. My fifth? People recommended I get into a writers’ group, so I hope I can soon find a good one in which we will help each other fine-tune our respective books.
Art as Language
Think about this: A painting is a consolidated or aggregate short story or novel – a universe in one image. It is up to each viewer to imagine the prequels and backstories underpinning any given scene on canvas. Consider writing in the same way you might think about a painting. Both require a theme and have a foreground (setting), background (history), and some combination of subject matter (characters). There are colors (think style, mood), perspective (Is it subjective, an intimate setting, or are we looking at a never-ending vista like the Grand Canyon?), and composition (how we arrange or organize the “things” – think chapters, events). Overall, how would you describe it (think genre and plot): Is it calm or agitated, moody and mysterious, surreal, gritty, etc.?
As an artist, I want my characters to come alive and distinguish themselves from one another. It is either my and their joint story or their individual tales that I am relating, so I try to let these key actors “take the lead” when possible to shape their own stories. In other words, during the painting process there are times when intellect rules or guides my choices, but at other times, I allow intuition to guide me. I may have one color palette in mind when beginning a piece, but at various stages of the creative process, evolutions are taking place and there is a shift. The piece must work together as a whole, and I must always be willing to sacrifice one beautiful shape or color or part of a painting in order to make the entire piece work in harmony. In my paintings during the creation process, my figures often change places, colors, postures, and positions on a canvas. They move from foreground to background, sometimes even leaving the scene entirely. They are in sharp focus at one point and blurry or shadowed in another. These shifting energies or colors compose the layers of meaning critical each finished piece.
What I find interesting at this early stage of novel-writing is that the characters developing in my mystery story are evolving in much the same way as the figures in my paintings. With each word I write about my protagonist, I am getting a clearer picture of her personality and dimensions of her life and character. Thanks to intuition and something called automatism, which I also employ in my painting, my character has already surprised me. (To learn more about automatism, these links from the MOMA and Tate Art museums will provide explanations and examples in art.) In time, I hope that my characters formed of words will take shape on paper as they do on canvas, defining their own stories and capturing the imaginations of the audience. In closing, I would like to encourage you to pursue your creative outlets (painting, sewing, dancing, cooking, writing, singing…) boldly and not limit yourself or your possibilities. Remember: While it is true that we cannot do everything simultaneously, we can do many things within the same phases and timeframes of our lives – and we can do those things quite well. We have nothing to fear and nothing to lose.
If in doubt, ask yourself: “If not now, when?”