Writing Process as Painting

I’ve had this idea in my head lately, as I’ve begun the process of zero-drafting a new project, without much in the way of plans before I started.  This is a metaphor that’s been marinating for a while, and as I’ve taken on this new project, I’m watching it prove itself to me in real time.

The metaphor is this: writing a book is like painting.

Obviously, there doesn’t have to be anything especially deep about this idea.  When you’re writing something, you creating something where before, there was nothing.  You do the same thing when you paint, even if its a different kind of creation and a different kind of creative process.

And I’m not trying to say that this is universally true for everyone either.  For one thing, I’m sure there are as many ways to paint a painting as there are to write a book.  Specifically, I’m talking about my own writing process, which is something I think about a lot.  Maybe too much — the argument could be made that I spend too much of my energy intellectualizing everything I do instead of just doing it.  But I thought that maybe this idea would ring true for someone else out there too, so I figured I’d share it.

I first started to draw a correlation between writing and painting when I began to follow Ruth Speer on Instagram.  She’s a painter who primarily does fantasy-inspired portraits, and while she paints with and on many mediums, her primary material is oil paint.  She is so fabulously talented, and I often get lost in her paintings, but one thing that’s cool about her Instagram is that she sometimes shows the process of her paintings, how they start out as sketches and then all the steps from that phase to a completed project.

What first struck me was her use of under paintings, which I soon learned was a common technique used by a lot of visual artists, especially those who paint with oils.

I’m not much a visual artist myself, but from what I understand, the basic idea is that you might put down a thin layer of background colors, maybe a few background colors depending on the kind of painting you’re doing, and you might sketch out in pencil the broad strokes of what you plan to paint.

For me, this resonated so much with the idea of a zero draft, which was how I had begun to think of my first round of working on a new project, where I would sit down and literally write out the story.  This step stopped feeling like a “first draft” a long time ago, because despite the knowledge that all first drafts are “shitty first drafts,” I had moved away from even writing readable drafts.  When I first start writing on a new project, what I come up with by the end is not something I would ever show to another human being.

It’s messy, usually filled with notes to myself about things I’ve already decided to change, very often the characters are only just beginning to come together at that point, and the number of times I will have used the word “was” is both staggering and embarrassing.

As a result, this “first” draft was really more of a “zero” draft — almost a placeholder for the real thing.

In my MFA program, I learned how to revise for the first time.  I had done edits to my work before, but previously, when I wrote a new piece, I would take my time with it.  It was a slow process, and when I finished the writing, I felt like I was more or less done with the piece.  I would make tweaks and adjustments, but I wouldn’t make any big changes.  In my MFA, I quickly learned that this wasn’t going to cut it anymore.  That for my work to really shine, I had to learn how to embrace major, developmental revisions.  I was told that eventually, I would not only be able to do this, but I would fall in love with the process.

I’ll be honest with you, I thought that idea was laughable.

But after I graduated from my program with new revision skills in my tool belt, I wrote a novel.  And while I loved the process of drafting that novel, so much that I wrote the whole thing in less than three months, it was clear that it needed some big work in order to resemble the story I had in my head.

I worked on it off and on for more than two years after that, and now it’s the thing in my life that I’m proudest of creating.  It’s undergone massive revisions in that time, and here is where painting comes back in.

What I love about watching Ruth Speer’s whole painting process is getting to see the way she moves from pencil sketches and general color washes to then blocking in more vibrant patches of color in the general shapes she’d laid out, and then she adds another layer where she starts to really define those shapes, and then another where she adds in the smaller details.  Then she starts putting the finishing touches into the painting, the varied hues and highlights that bring a face to life and the tiniest details that make everything come together, and you realize that without ever seeing her put a fully realized portrait on the page in one go, you are nevertheless starting at a detailed, beautiful portrait.

Watching this process a few times, and admiring the final result of it so much, made me see my own artistic process — my writing process — in a new light.

I realized that my drafting was not the act of putting down a fully realized idea onto the page.  That I didn’t even necessarily have in my mind an image of the final result when I began that process.

Instead, if writing a zero draft was my equivalent of creating an under painting, then all of the following revisions were the same as layering up the paint to slowly build a finished painting.

None of this is really new, of course, and I’m not trying to claim that I’ve broken open the whole revision process.  But thinking about my own writing process in these terms helped me realize something: the process isn’t drafting a story and then tidying up that story to make it prettier.  In other words, it isn’t putting down a fully-realized painting and then just cleaning up the line work and adding a few details here and there.

Rather, at least for me, the revision is the primary process through which the final result is created.  A painting is built, layer upon layer, with finer and finer detail work added as the artist goes along.  And for me, the art of writing a story is the same.  The initial drafting process is just the base layer, the place where I block in the general shapes of the story I want to tell, the place where I lay in some color to work from.  It’s an essential piece, because I need something to build from, but the rest of the work, all those added layers, is where the magic really happens.

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