Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Teapot and the Glove:Thoughts on Composition

When I got to drawing class last week, our teacher, Irina, was putting the finishing touches on a still life: an umbrella, a book, a teapot, a candlestick, a hat, two vases (tall and short), and a wreath of dried flowers arranged against the backdrop of a brocade cloth.

I wasn’t the only one who freaked out at the prospect of trying to draw it.

But (Thank God!) the lesson wasn’t about trying to draw all those objects in perspective; it was about choosing what to draw.

“Each person is drawn to different objects,” Irina said. “Choose the objects that interest you, arrange them in ways that please you. Experiment.”

We watched her draw six boxes, some with a vertical orientation, some horizontal, on a big piece of drawing paper, then watched her choose and arrange a set of objects in each one. A vase, the umbrella, the teapot. The candlestick, the book, the wreath.

She taught as she drew: always an uneven number, no object right in the middle, remember the rule of thirds, there must be a sense of story. I loved her little pictures, how deftly she drew them. How, once a drawing was in place, she cleverly rearranged the lines of the box to frame the objects in the most effective way.

The series of drawings on the big page looked like the storyboard of an artist’s sketchbook, a visual representation of Irina’s thinking, her process—and I had another one of those light bulb moments.

Choosing and arranging objects to create a still life is exactly like choosing and arranging the elements of the story. The world offers up objects; the choices you make and how you combine objects or scenes to make a painting or a story are guided by who you are.

While I was still in the thrall of this new piece of information about the creative process, Irina drew a teapot in one of the boxes, then stopped and looked at. “The teapot needs some gloves,” she said, and drew a pair beside it.”

At which point the drawing took on a life of its own, just as a story does when the characters come alive and start to tell you what to do.

Holy cow! I thought.

Sketching is like freewriting: you start with what you have before you and wait for something interesting to happen. It’s like revision, too: you try and fail at capturing something you feel until the objects (some real, some imagined) fall into their right places.

Later, drawing my own little compositions, there was the same pleasure I often feel, tinkering with the bits and pieces of a story; the same struggle to let go of what’s already there and trust my right brain to supply a piece of the puzzle.

“Too vertical!” Irina said of one of my drawings. “You have the two candlesticks, why not a third—but not the same. She drew a little candelabrum in the foreground, changed some lines, added a window.

She regarded the flowers I’d added to the vase. “Break the flower!” she said and, in a stroke, made a flower whose long stem swooped down and pulled the objects more closely together.

I left class that day, my mind reeling.

The exercise had been a lot like shuffling scenes on index cards to explore sequence.

Like considering all the points of view from which a story might be told.

Like regarding everything you’ve ever written as a rich mine from which you might pluck an abandoned character to make use of him in another story.

I pondered what Irina meant when she said, “Look for the story,” and it occurred to me that, while a painting might present the suggestion of a traditional narrative, the actual story of a painting is in how color, light, line, shape, proportion, and perspective of a series of objects connect visually to say something about themselves and about the artist who arranged and rendered them in that particular way.


I’m still not sure about so many things about how paintings are made and how they work. But it is so cool to be challenged by this wonderful drawing class, to be…


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Drawing Boxes: Thoughts on Perspective and Point of View

My friend Marilyn Yahnke, who’s a wonderful painter, has been trying her hand at writing the past few years. I’ve been trying my hand at painting and drawing. When we talk (which isn’t often enough), we marvel at how much the same they are. How seeing the world, really seeing it, is fundamental to both. How both have a set of rules and conventions you must commit to learning if you ever expect to get any good—and how learning them earns you the right to go your own way when going your own way seems the only possible solution to creating the painting or story in your head.

Perspective, composition, color theory; Grammar, punctuation, the elements of fiction are the good bones on which any good painting or story is made.

So I signed up for “Drawing for Future Painters” at the Indianapolis Art Center this winter, determined to get better at that "bones"thing.. “Everything fits in a box,” my teacher said on the first day. “If you can draw a box, you can draw anything.”

That is, if you can draw a box…in perspective.

Which is a lot harder than you might think.

But I love getting lost in the lines and angles, trying and failing to get one box right, then the one next to it, and the one behind. It’s like writing. You need to keep remembering that you’re trying to draw a certain box, the one in front of you—right now. If you move, the composition changes, and if you’re not careful you’ll find yourself drawing a whole other set of boxes.

Sort of like when you hang one strip of wallpaper out of plumb, which affects the next strip and the next and next and next until you get to the end, where the wallpaper meets the end of the wall in a very unfortunate slant.

Sort of like when you start out writing a story and go off on a tangent, eventually realizing that you’ve lost the focus, the thread. The characters are all over the place, doing and saying things that make no sense whatsoever based on what you were trying to accomplish.

Anyway. I’m struggling with staying in one place to draw the boxes, trying to master that little pencil trick artists do to figure out the proportion of one line to another. My friend, Marilyn, is struggling with point of view.

“What is it?” she asked. “For example, Beloved by Toni Morrison. I am getting the thoughts (things only they would know) of several main characters—Sethe, Paul D. Denver, Beloved. Is it okay to allow several characters to have their voice, but with the distinction of page or chapter breaks? This has puzzled me in several books, the really deep, good ones."

Oh, boy, I thought. Toni Morrison is not a good place to start learning the fundamentals of point of view. Talk about breaking the rules when the rules don’t fit what’s in your head. She’s a freaking genius at it.

The point of view in Beloved changes constantly from one main character to another. Now and then whole new points of view are added, when Morrison needs them to say something she wants to say. And as if that weren’t enough to drive an aspiring writer crazy, the novel doesn’t tell a linear story, but offers the reader fragments of shattered lives and asks him to make sense of it.

I was about to write back to Marilyn and say, “Forget Beloved.” And suggest some novels that treat point of view traditionally, as a way of getting a handle on how that element of fiction works.
Then I thought about how, drawing a still life, you have to keep looking at it from exactly the same place and it occurred to me that point of view works exactly the same way.

If you choose to tell a story from one person’s point of view, you have to keep seeing the world through his eyes. If, suddenly, you start looking at it through somebody else’s eyes, the world shifts—and the effect of that shifting is as jarring as a wrong angle.

Yes, you can tell a story from more than one point of view. But once you’re in one person’s point of view, you can’t jump in and out of others at will. When multiple points of view work, it's like crossing a river on stepping-stones. You move from one to the next, telling what needs to be told from that place. Then you move on to the next one and tell that part of the story.

Not unlike how you have to draw one whole box before moving on to the next one, whose placement will be dependent upon it.

Sometimes people confuse multiple points of view with the omniscient point of view. This point of view doesn't allow the characters any say in telling their stories. Instead, the story is told by an unnamed being who's not in it. Somebody who stands above the story, like a sentient God, who sees everything like an aerial photograph set in motion. "He" shapes and tells the story, making choices about which parts of the big picture to reveal and how to reveal them based on what the reader needs to know to understand the people and the situation they’re in.

Like I said, Beloved breaks all the rules.

Think of Picasso fracturing the world and putting it back together in way that’s all wrong…but absolutely right.

And Paul Klee's notebooks, filled with landscapes and figures rendered in perfect perspective juxtaposed against a gallery filled with his whimsical paintings.

So, Marilyn, does that help?

And thanks for the question, which made me see something I hadn’t seen before.

Perspective and point of view are exactly the same thing.

Dang! Who knew?

To see Marilyn's paintings, visit: www.marilynyanke.com.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Fabulous Indiana Writers: Nicole Louise Reid

First: Is this a cool book cover, or what?

Second: Who could resist a book titled, So There!

And—good things come in threes—the stories inside create whole universe, strange, compelling and absolutely real.

Take the opening story, “If You Must Know,” which begins, “These are the early cicadas, four years ahead of schedule, chirping, shrilling, blistering through their skins. Thirteen years ago the night was electric with their noise, and one burrowed right into me—that little flab of skin beneath the arm socket. Thinking me a tree because I lay so still at the thought of what we’d just done beneath the water oak, Wallace and me. It broke through my skin and climbed deep within, planning to live there for its next seventeen years, sucking and sapping what it can from me. And so there must be something in people akin to the marrow of a tree’s sweet pulp, because my locust is alive and waiting.”

The girl, who’s become a young woman by the time the story begins, absolutely believes that the insect has been living in her body since that moment, “…a completely enveloped thing three quarters of an inch long and a half an inch wide, hard and slightly humming.” It’s a reminder of the time she spent with Wallace, something to hold on to since he left. She’s been “…skating along just mediocre” when he appears at the Kroger, where she works as a checkout clerk.

Of course, when he takes her arm she goes with him—and in no time at all they’re right back where they left off. “He was gripping one of my hips hard, letting his other hand climb up the front of my blouse, letting himself rumple the rayon and tug at the buttons, letting himself pull down one of the cups of my bra.

“’What do you want?’” she asks him, knowing, “Any boy’s more than likely to opt for the I’d like you to suck me silly interpretation, versus the I want you always and forever, you’re my girl and I want you with me something bad.”

He’s a journalist now, and what he wants is to write a story about her.

I’ll leave you to imagine that heartbreak that comes of it.

One way or another, every character in Nicole Louise Reid’s universe of stories is a victim of a yearning for tenderness, her own or someone else’s. It overwhelms them, not unlike the black swarm, the whirring of the cicadas in that first story overwhelm the natural world. It’s mirrored in the lush landscape and steamy heat of Louisiana.

For those of us who live in our heads more than in our bodies, these stories are a revelation. Oh! I thought. So that’s what it’s like to feel that way.

When I closed So There! and put it down, I knew more about life than I did before I opened it.

Good books do that.

Nicole Louise Reid is the author a novel In the Breeze of Passing Things, and two fiction chapbooks If You Must Know and Girls . Winner of the 2010 Dana Award in Short Fiction and Burnside Review Fiction Chapbook Competition, her stories have appeared in the Southern Review, Indiana Review, Meridian, Quarterly West, Other Voices, and elsewhere. A graduate of the M.F.A. Creative Writing Program of George Mason University, she now teaches creative writing at the University of Southern Indiana, where she serves as director of the RopeWalk Reading Series, editor of RopeWalk Press, and fiction editor of Southern Indiana Review. She lives in Newburgh, Indiana.