Friday, June 12, 2015

Visual Art as Metaphor for Writing Process - Guest Blog by Buffy Shutt

Good morning. Sorry about the enormous gap between entries. I went on vacation. And I have to admit that I took a break in my 250 words a day. Today I begin again.  As George Elliot says, "It's never to late to be what you might have been." 

For the next three weeks, in addition to the Beyond Baroque Workshop, I'll be at Camera Obscura in Santa Monica on Thursday evenings from seven to nine. We had a great group last night. It's fifteen dollars to drop in, or forty dollars for four sessions. At this point you are better off going on line and signing up for the whole thing. It will cost less in the long run. Type Santa Monica Cultural Affairs Laurie Horowitz into your browser and it should come up right away.

Today we have a guest blog from the phenomenal Buffy Shutt. Among her many accomplishments, she produced the film BLUE CRUSH, and co-authored the non-fiction book COMING OF AGE...ALL OVER AGAIN: THE ULTIMATE MIDLIFE HANDBOOK and wrote the novel CREATIVE DIFFERENCES published by SOHO Press. 

Buffy, take it away....

Laurie and I share the notion that other art forms can illuminate the writing process for us in unexpected ways.

This week, two unrelated ideas connected visual arts to writing for me.
On Sunday, I read in the New York Times about blind contour drawing.  I had never heard of this method before.  

Here is what blind contour drawing is, courtesy of Wikipedia: The student fixes his or her eyes on the outline of the model or object, then tracks the edge of the object with his or her eyes, while simultaneously drawing the contour very slowly, in a steady, continuous line without lifting the pencil or looking at the paper. Blind contour drawing may not produce a good drawing; however it helps students to draw more realistically, rather than relying on their memorized drawing symbols.

I mulled this over all day.  I don’t draw (at all), but I thought this idea could spark me to try writing with a different mind (and heart) set.  Writing  “without relying on memorized symbols.” And not worry that it might not “produce good writing”.

I am going to try writing with an untethered eye and ear. I hope to be less reliant on what I know so well, less dependent on “memorized symbols” and I think this experiment may help me to write more freely, less judgy.
Then today I went to see the Turner Exhibit at the Getty. Fittingly entitled: Painting Set Free.  It is a beautiful exhibit of curated paintings by Turner from 60 until his death at age 76.  So inspiring. (He had a Yeats, Verdi, Maya Plisetskaya thing going on.)

One of his many sea paintings, Snow Storm, was roundly criticized when it was first shown at the Academy in 1842. People said it was disruptive; the horizon was all-wrong, the sea was confusing, no distinction between sea and air. What was going on?  In response to his detractors, Turner said,  “ I don’t paint to be understood.”  How great is that?  I love that!!
Of course, I want people to understand my writing, but to be able to shed some of that want would help me be freer, more honest and bolder in my writing.  And then if I can write without looking…

 Bottom of Form

Friday, May 8, 2015

“Nobody Asked You to Write this Novel.”

I read the above words in the New York Times Book Review today (early email of Sundays edition). Jane Smiley said that her friend taped Nobody asked you to write this novel above her desk. Im sure I have said this or something like it, and while it is no doubt true, it still sounds a bit punitive to me. Would anyone say, "no one needs another painting, or no one needs another symphony or no one needs another beautiful building?" Smiley also said in the same article, "What we do as writers is voluntary, so don't complain." True enough, but it may be easier for her to say it than it is for a writer who does not have her fame, money, literary cred, or status on the bestseller list. She goes on to write that when she saw Balzac's manuscripts for the first time, it was a revelation. She could see how hard he worked, how hard writers must toil to produce superior work. I think Smileys inference is that writing, like growing old, is not for sissies.

I try not to complain too much about writing. Whether my work is good or bad that day, it gives me purpose in, I imagine, the same way faith offers meaning to those who are spiritually inclined. Writing is my practice. It gives me something to do every day that I feel is worthwhile whether or not anyone has asked me to write or not. And no matter what I write, the days I write are better than the ones when I don't.

In my editing business, I am always looking for the buried treasure at the heart of a clients piece. I try to help the author unearth it. I can tell you one thing I never say I never say: quit your bitchin'; no one ever asked you to write a book in the first place.

Perhaps the world does need another book. Maybe it needs your book. Maybe the reason you want to write is because what you have to offer will enrich society the way any piece of art can. Has anyone ever said, "No one needs another work by Mozart. No one needs another work by Rembrandt. No one needs another piece choreographed by Twyla Tharp."

Maybe someone has said, "No one needs another book by Jane Smiley," but I doubt it, even though I was ready to say it after trying to read TEN DAYS IN THE HILLS.

No one asked you to write a novel but why not act as if someone did.   

Monday, May 4, 2015

Free to Be Bold

Today I wanted to keep on going with my writing after my requisite word count. I discovered that sometimes even doing 1,500 words is like breaking sticks. There were days in the past when I did much more, but in those days, I wasnt doing this exercise therefore, I wasnt counting. I don't know if any of what Im writing now is any good, but I'm letting myself go, creating characters so heinous that you can't help but laugh at them.

I am not being careful about anything I'm writing. I'm not trying to make it good -- I was going to write especially good, but I took out the modifier. Taking out the word really every time I'm tempted to use it seems (is) (is or seems you be the judge) the best thing I can manage on a first draft without over-editing myself. By axing words like seems upfront, I am becoming more sure-footed as I go along.

This is fiction -- so why do I ever have to use the word seems? It either is or it isn't.

Be free to be bold.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Process is as Important as Product.

I reached 10,000 words today. They may be terrible words. Each one might have to be rewritten more than once. Still, when I think that I'm an eighth of the way through my goal, and weve only  been at this for about ten days, it makes me hopeful about what can be accomplished when you are consistent.
As I mentioned last night at the Beyond Baroque group, I'd like to see how I can morph this into a method I can use for projects I'm taking more seriously than this one. Or, do I have to pretend, in my own heart and mind, not to take the current story seriously if I don't want to be too paralyzed to write it. Let's face it. No one needs another book. Even though a few people have asked me when I'm going to have another one out, legions of people are not waiting for my next masterpiece to hit the bookstores. This is not being negative. It is right-sized thinking. We write because we want to and because we think we have something to say. Whether we are tortured artists or not probably has little impact on the work. We are what is inside us. We have inspired moments, but good work will likely best be accomplished my mastering the skill.

Mastering anything takes practice. If I wanted to master a martial art, I wouldnt show up just twice a week for an hour and think I'd be a master by the end of the year. If I wanted to learn to cook or to draw, I would have to practice. If I want to get fit, I can't just watch other people on treadmills. Believe me, I know this from experience.

Writing is an action. You might think about writing in the shower or while doing the dishes or exercising, but thinking about writing is not writing. You may dream of penning a bestseller and having fans want to bed you, but, unfortunately, that is not writing.

This exercise we are doing is practice like any other. One of my favorite books is Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel, 1953, it is a great disquisition on how "practice" works. Herrigel learns about life and mastery through archery. You have chosen writing. Practice will enrich you no matter what results from it.


Saturday, April 25, 2015

Where Have Books Taken You and What Have You Brought Back?

Though sometimes it may feel that way, writing is NOT like climbing Mount Everest in the dark. You can die climbing Mount Everest. You can get caught in an avalanche. You can come back down to find a whole city decimated by an earthquake.

There is real tragedy in the world. Today, I am not going to moan about having to write, I am going to be grateful for being able to write. It is, after all, in most societies (and ours is no exception) an indulgence. That’s ironic because stories help us understand our world and are, therefore, essential. They also allow us to escape reality when we don’t like it. At their best stories are art, and perhaps things of beauty. I believe art raises us up, even if only from somewhere subterranean to the sidewalk. Sometimes, it brings us higher—much higher.
So, write. Write your hearts out. Write as if you’ll die if you don’t. Or, write because you are a person on this planet, and you believe you have something to contribute. And if you have no reason to write and can’t come up with one, write anyway. If you don’t make writing your enemy, it can be a  very reliable friend.

Sorry this is so sappily encouraging and not even funny, but the earthquake in Nepal made me take a hard look at my blessings today.
Let's read novels about people in places who don’t have as much privilege as we do. I recommend THE WOMAN WHO LOST HER SOUL by Bob Shacochis, published by Atlantic Monthly Press. It is long (over 700 pages in hardcover). It is convoluted, but it is sometimes transcendent and will likely never leave you. Please recommend more books in the comments section. Let’s hear what books uplift you and change you, which books don’t allow you to look at a country the same way ever again. The stories don’t have to be about foreign countries. I was never the same after reading BROWN GIRL, BROWNSTONES by Paule Marshall or Amy Tan's THE JOY LUCK CLUB. 
Where have books taken you and what have you brought back?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The CRITICIZER: Friend or Foe?

I believe this is day seven, and I just wanted to report in on how it is going and encourage anyone who is doing this with me.

I have reached 6,390 words, all on my iPad with its handy-dandy Zagg keyboard. Have I felt like doing this? Do I ever feel like doing anything? Today, if you asked me, I'd say I rarely feel like doing anything, and I only manage by stint of taking unusually tiny bites out of everything, except food.

They way I am making sure to keep up with this is by making my 250 or 500 words be my dessert after editing other people's work. I write whatever the hell I please, and I try not to think about it too much. The self-doubt and self-criticism are likely to squeeze the breath out of me if I let it. I have sent the CRITICIZER on vacation. I don't know where she went, and I don't care, but I hope she is having a terrible time because that's what she deserves. I hope that every time she goes into a restaurant, the food is bad. I hope that if she goes into the ocean, she gets bit by a man-of-war. If she goes hiking in the desert, I hope there are plenty of poisonous snakes. Maybe she won't come back. Oh right. I need her to come back to help me write the second draft. But in the meantime, I hope her trip takes her down a peg, and she returns with a right-sized idea of her own importance.

So, the question today is: what would you like to do to your CRITICIZER?  No fate is too terrible but remember, eventually you'll need the bitch or bastard to help you on the next draft.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


Okay, I admit it. I missed a day. Yesterday. I worked nine hours on a client's project and after that went to lead the writer's group at Beyond Baroque. That was as much as I could accomplish in one day. In fact, it was more than I could accomplish. I was wiped out and stayed up half the night watching Columbo. Peter Falk was so cute when he was young, despite the rumpled funky suit and raincoat. Raincoat every day. In Los Angeles. Why do we like Columbo? I think it is because he defies expectations. He fools everyone by pretending he's incompetent. It usually isn't too long before the culprit figures out that he or she is being scammed. Still, we love to watch the supposedly underfunded buffoon put one over on the rich murderers.

I read somewhere that there are two ways to do a mystery show. One is like Columbo. You know who did it right from the beginning. The fun part is watching him figure it out. The other kind of mystery is the one where you don't know who did it, and you have to figure it out along with the detective. The question I'm asking today is why do I like Columbo so much when I know from the beginning who the culprit is? This is what I posit as an answer: I think I read and watch things more for character than for story - particularly television. I do love a story, but I think when it comes to TV, it's the characters I return for. The other trick to Columbo is that the writers give him worthy adversaries. It's brain vs. brain, and since Columbo plays such a convincing underdog, we want to see him win. Another tricky thing about Columbo is that every once in a while we end up liking the murderer. It's a great example of a protagonist and antagonist who are well matched, and maybe that's why I like it so much.

So, the question for today is why a story structure like Columbo works and if you don't like it or don't think it works, do feel free to say so. I won't be hurt if you disrespect my beloved Columbo.

And again, I admit that I missed my pages on April 20, 2015, but because we each have a day off a week, I'm getting right back on the horse.