Tagged: writing


Labels on sight

People are built to see and then categorize what they see. This applies to all our senses. Research, and observation, support this. Look at how many books there are!

Nature and nurture aside, we are not hunted by vicious animals anymore. I think we get in our own way, impede our journey to peace, by living in the labels.

I want to relate something I was taught by an art instructor when I was a teenager.

I was taking a drawing class, the sort of thing that was run by the county as a continuing education program. The teacher was well known locally, and quite accomplished. If you’re up on your fine art styles, his paintings rode the line between Impressionism and Realism. You might be able to call it Painterly Realism, and get even closer to what his art looked like.

Regardless, he was good.

The class in question was “Figure Drawing,” but we spent more time on portraits. Let me tell you, self portraits are murder. I’d like to tell you why: we have trouble drawing what we see in the mirror.

I believe there are two excellent reasons for this, and they share the same root: judgment.

My teacher taught me, and I’ve discovered this to be true, that you can’t apply a name to the subject of your drawing. When you apply a name, a category, or definition, you have produced a story from everything you know about that thing.

I’ll give you an example. The model for your drawing is in front of you. You look at it, recognize it, and use the proper name. Let’s say it is a sunflower. Identification and categorization occur instantly: this is a yellow flower, with big seeds that you can roast and eat. Other things follow in short succession, if not just as quickly. They grow very tall, and they grow in the summertime.

When you put brush or pencil to paper, you draw the image of your expectations for what a sunflower is TO YOU.

Your accurate, but weighted, judgment has impaired you. You are not seeing the lines, unique colors, position, and shapes, in front of you. Artists call this a “cartoon.”

Returning to a self portrait, when you see yourself in the mirror, it is terribly difficult not to self-identify. I see my face, and I know that I’m James. You see yourself, and your know your name. In that moment, we begin a process similar to drawing the sunflower.

My reflection, and identification, carry the load of however I feel about myself. I see my wrinkles, gray hairs, poor self image, and the man who has hurt himself, and others. The burden of my stories has been activated by what I see, and subsequently, name.

When I put pencil to paper, the cartoon that emerges bears the same weight. I exaggerate my flaws, because I’ve paid great attention to them for years. If I capture anything at all, it will be the hurt my face shows…still, it is not at all accurate.

To render what I see in the mirror, I can’t name what my eyes see. There are only lines, shapes, and colors. These things are impersonal, un-judged, without category, or meaning, beyond understanding what is to be repeated by my hand.

The flower, and I, the cartoons, arise from the same place: what my mind has labeled them.

Sunflower, and me, without the editorial part of my mind, are unknown, yet accepted. I act to draw what I see. I do not act to define.

Peace comes from a place where labeling does not exist. In drawing, there is the movement of your hand, which is driven by your eyes, and whatever it is you see. You are a vessel that information passes through, changing state from three dimensions to two.

To reach that place, there is a choice you must make: to identify, or not. This is as much intention as it is actual work. For us, dropping labels is hard.

The payoff is worth it.

When you feel that place where your judgment no longer exists, you enjoy the same experience that Zen masters enjoy. It is the same as a Hindu mystic communing with the All. You reached a beautiful place that is difficult to discover.

You can call it “dissolution of self,” but I wouldn’t. Why? Calling it that draws story out of you, which leads to expectations of what that experience ought to be. Also, those words are frightening to the Western mind. We are all about the self, individualism, and personal power.

Instead, try words like, “this thing I felt, “I experienced this,” or “I did it.” They are not as fine an expression as simple silence, but we are creatures of words and communications.

Equally, do not judge the perceived quality of the drawing. Those lines you drew are true. Those shapes you rendered are true. Your skill level might dictate how well they resemble the thing you drew, but skill, training, and quality of art supplies, are meaningless. There is reality reflected on that paper, on that canvas.

For a time, you were at peace. You became art. It is within you to experience this.


People watching

When you’re building a story, don’t hesitate to populate it with people you’ve seen. In fact, I encourage writers to carry a notebook wherever they go. I do…usually…I forgot it today. That’s part of why I’m writing this post; I want to remember her.

There’s a woman in the coffee shop, sitting on the opposite side of the store, and there’s something about her that inspires questions. I’ve watched her look at every female customer that’s come into the shop, and it isn’t a gentle glance. I think she’s sizing them up.

Why is she doing it?

That’s the first question I’d answer in order to start building a character. There’s a wealth of material right there. I’ll show you.

She evaluates the other women because she’s vain. It is important to her that she’s the most desirable person here. Why? Someone in her past addicted her to that feeling, whether by constant praise, or frequent humiliation.

Because I write stories that are often dark, this woman might have more to her than these things. She’s not just sizing them up for looks, but for how easy they’d be to feed on. This person is a vampire who only preys on women.

That’s a whole story that arose from observing another person’s behavior! I didn’t even touch on what she looks like, or the sound of her voice. Let’s look at those things.

She’s wearing a middle-green sundress, with a sheer bra (or none at all, based on…what can be seen) and visible panty lines. Her shoes are brown, leather, strappy sandals. The dress has a bow in the back to further define the waistline. A necklace, thin gold chain, with a tiny pendant that matches her earrings.

Her hair color is what I call “fried chicken,” a shade between brunette and blonde. He eye color looks hazel.

Her body is interesting, a long torso. If she were two inches shorter, and even thinner than she is, I’d call her a waif.

At a guess, I think she’s 30 or younger, but not any younger than 26.

She’s spoken to the man she’s with a couple of times, and her accent isn’t typical Northern Virginia.

Oh, she just snapped at the man. There’s a temper in there!

Back to her voice, she almost sounds European, but not so much that I’d lay a bet on it. Maybe Canadian. Failing that, she could be from New England, but there’s nothing that would give me an idea on location.

Here’s the point I’d like to make: there is a whole book in any person you see. Observation and creativity are the best tools in a writer’s shed.

Art and writing

I did a great interview with this crazy man, Jeff Brown, and he got me thinking about the place where writing and fine art dovetail. You’ve seen me do it on occasion, when I’ve posted little paintings and sketches of things or characters, but I’ve barely considered WHY until now.

Sometimes, I need to have an image, or words, or a picture in my head to understand how I feel about something. Sketching a character tells me something about who I’m hoping he’ll be. Doodling a villain does pretty much the same thing.

I wanted to show you a great example of this in action as I develop a new idea.

The working title of this project used to be “Fluid Exchange,” but I was having real trouble trying to find a geographic setting that would meet my needs. Thanks to a friend in NYC, the location was settled. There’s an area of Staten Island called “Great Kills,” and that is so perfect for the book, I have to use it…but, how do I feel about it? What does that name add to the plot and tone?

I had to draw those words and see…a little obsessively. There are other sheets of paper laying around, trust me.

Great Kills sketches
Great Kills sketches

If you’re a movie buff, artist, or graphic designer, you might know where the style I’m trying to mimic comes from. If you’re a beer drinker, take a look at Flying Dog’s branding and labels. Familiar, isn’t it?

This is as close as I can get to the lettering of Ralph Steadman. I idolize him a little.

The words (in this style) are brutal, raw, and precisely what I need to help me sense the atmosphere I want to create. I can SEE this. More than that, I felt it while I used the brush to draw the letters. The action felt violent and dirty. Perfect!

Of course, there’s an added benefit to doing something like this: it might help a designer (whether it is me or someone else) create cover art that accurately reflects the manuscript.


Now, go out there and buy a copy of “Manleigh Cheese!”