Why Sketching Matters

ImageOne of my wonderful writers shared with me something picture book author Candy Fleming told her: to keep in mind that most of what we write will be crap. Natalie Goldberg and Julia Cameron also remind us to feel free to write the worst garbage in the world, especially first thing every day. What I like about the idea of “writing sketches” is that we can explore all kinds of things in quick sketch form. Writing sketches are much like the sketches artists do for a painting. Before uncapping an expensive tube of alizarin crimson oil paint an artist will do page after page of sketches, often looking directly at a subject in different poses, different lights, on different days. That’s what it takes to truly understand a boy dressed in blue or a woman draped on a couch or a vase of sunflowers or a starry night.

If we think of quick writes to explore place or character or emotion or tension as sketches and realize that we’ll do many of them before we find the best way to write something, we’ll be polishing our skills the way artists polish theirs. I’m reading The Monster Calls by Patrick Ness which has the most amazing illustrations by Jim Kay. On his web site Kay writes about doing 30 sketches of the boy for one scene. 30! How often do writers write something 30 times trying to get it right? Ever? Few of us do. We are too attached to the way our words first fall on the page or we think we are supposed to be able to get things down perfectly the first time. We even feel like we’re not really writers if we don’t.

That’s just weird, really, when you think about it. How many times must a choir rehearse a song or a violinist practice scales? What I think now is that we’re not really serious writers unless we sketch as much with words as artists do with pencils. We writers haven’t developed enough ways to do writing practice nor have we required it of ourselves. As if out of all creative types we are the only ones who can (and must) get it right either the first time or after a few little tweaks.

Let go of that! Give yourself permission to write and write and write some more knowing that among the sketches will be some things that might become masterpieces. It might be the way the girl at the next table keeps laughing as she reads her journal or how the cold coming off the plate glass window beside your table has seeped into your bones or the fact that the man standing in line for coffee wears light gray pants with creases sharp enough to cut paper. Think about this—if you’re not doing lots of writing sketches, your stories and books will have the quality of a first sketch. And that, my writing friends, will not a masterpiece make.

And if you’re tempted to submit a manuscript to an editor before you’ve done enough sketching, just take a look at Leonardo da Vinci’s journals. You’ll be inspired, I hope, to buy and carry around a writer’s sketchbook. And if you use it, I promise your writing skills will begin to shine. And you’ll have a lot of fun, too!

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Sketching for Writers

Melanie Hall, Bridge and Fish

Fresh back from teaching Mastering Setting with Kelly Going (K.L. Going), I am excited about a concept that arose and wanted to share it with my writing peeps. On Friday evening, we were fortunate to have Melanie Hall as a a guest. Melanie is an illustrator whose work I would characterize as musical and flowing. Every illustration reveals a dreamscape of some kind, in a very Chagall-like way. As it turns out, Chagall is one of Melanie’s major influences.

One of the things I most love about having illustrators as guests for writing workshops is that artists are wonderful at showing process. They bring sketchbooks along and show us how many drawings it took to get to a final characterization or composition.

Melanie’s sketchbooks gave us a great opportunity to talk about the concept of “sketching.” I pointed out the difference between artists–who do sketch after sketch after sketch–and writers, who seem reluctant to change a word once they put it in on the page. I wondered if there could be an equivalent of sketching for writers, and we talked about Julia Cameron and her idea of “morning pages”–quick writes first thing in the morning as writing warm-ups. Those are great for getting the writing juices flowing, but I don’t think they are the equivalent of sketches.

What is a sketch? It’s a way to try things out. It’s a way to search for different ways into a subject. It’s a way to train the eye to “see” clearly and in detail. It’s a way to explore elements–perhaps you draw a hand over and over and over, or an eye, or a fingernail. Sketching is loose and fluid; it’s not meant to be “final.” It’s a prelude, an entry point.

As writers, we seem to think that every word we put on the page must march in lockstep toward a finished product. We don’t give ourselves room to sketch. But what if we did? What if we carried around notebooks and sketched–in words instead of pictures. Free, loose, meant only to closely examine and capture something in particular.

That napkin on the table: it has thousands of little puffy pillows in it. From my vantage point, looking down at the napkin lying flat on the table, those thousands of puffs look like snow-covered mountains seen from a plane cruising at 30,000 feet.

The brick wall beside me, no not simply brick. Rough red bricks embedded in concrete. Not all one color: maroon and burnt sienna and chocolate brown, some scuffed with charcoal . . . some glazed, glowing, reflecting the track lighting shining down on them. Others dull like chalk, broken, chipped . . . The shiny ones feel smooth to the touch, the dully ones raspy.

  • Sketching forces a writer to observe the details, and in detail lies the difference between rich writing and writing that lacks substance.
  • Sketching frees the writer from the confines of structure, plot and character and tension and climax.
  • Sketching allows the writer to develop fluidity and skill.

If you sketch 100 characters in coffee shops–in words, only words–what will you know about people that you don’t know now? If you sketch emotions on faces, what can you reveal without saying “She was angry”? If you sketch settings, what will you be able to bring to your work that you can’t bring now? Sketch the smells, the sounds–the clock that just chimed, the hiss of the coffee steamer, how many questions the barista must ask of every customer. Does her voice sound interested or annoyed?

Sketch conversations: “I have to do homework today,” says the barista . “When I came in today, there was this homeless guy sleeping on the patio.” “What do you think about that hazelnut?” “I wouldn’t say it’s bad.” “It’s soy, right?” “No. It’s hazelnut. It’s actually made out of hazelnuts.” “I thought it was hazelnut flavored soy or something.”

Sketch physical characteristics: The barista is quick, mouselike, her long hair caught back in a wheat-brown tail that whips from side to side as she moves from customer to espresso machine to pie case to toaster to cash register . . . over and over, scampering about behind the counter.

I offer you this concept: sketching for writers. Just as sketching makes artists better at what they do, sketching with words will make you a better writer. And some of those sketches will inevitably find their way into your work–characters, dialogues, settings, sensory details, all of these can come from sketches.

I hope you’ll share some of your sketches here, but maybe you’ll keep that sketchbook to yourself–or share it someday when you teach a writing workshop!

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Chocolate Whipped Cream

Sean's Whipped Cream Experience

Today I’m thinking about chocolate whipped cream and that, sometimes there really can be too much of a good thing. I asked the young barista at Bloomsbury Coffee House in Ashland for “just a little” whipped cream. She proceeded to pile a chocolate whipped-cream mountain atop my almond milk mocha. I’m not quite sure why she did that. Maybe she wasn’t listening. Maybe it just looked pretty to her. Maybe she loves whipped cream and despite the “just a little” she thought–more is always better. Maybe she just wasn’t paying attention.

My favorite barista of all-time, Diana, back in Honesdale, PA, was the queen of whipped cream. Her whipped cream was all about connection–the more she loved you, the more whipped cream you got. As we became friends, getting a mocha from Diana was like getting a mugful of Mt. Vesuvius in full eruption. You had to have a saucer under the cup and then you had to take big gulps out of the saucer or it would run over onto the table and spread across the floor and out the door onto the sidewalk and down the street all the way to the next town. Yes. Diana had a love-affair with whipped cream. And it didn’t matter that most of the coffee boiled out of the mug with the whipped cream. What mattered was that the gesture warmed my heart and made me feel as if someone out cared that I existed.

Human connection . . . really, that’s what writing is all about. The writer connecting with the reader, or the writer revealing something about her inner world, or the writer illuminating something about what it means to be human. If your stories don’t say “human” in some way, then dig deeper. Put yourself inside your characters. Is the young barista passively aggressive? She really hates her job and does the opposite of what customers ask because she wishes they’d just go the heck away. Is she generous? Does she want to make an impression? Is she hungry? What emotion is behind all that whipped cream? Without emotion, humanity, the writing will be flat. So next time you sit down at your keyboard, write yourself a whipped-cream eruption.

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Join the Wild Girls

I just finished reading The Wild Girls by Pat Murphy, a writer whose work I had never read. It’s a middle grade novel about a girl who moves across country–from Connecticut to California–the friend she makes, and the stories they begin to write. It’s a book about writers and it’s a book for writers. There are lessons about writing in this book that are the equivalent of taking a writing class at Berkeley (the setting for some of the scenes). To tempt you further, you’ll meet the Queen of the Foxes, visit the Circus of Chaos, walk on stilts, and paint your face with lipstick to give yourself the nerve to read your writing in front of an auditorium filled with people. You know you can’t resist! Once you read it, I want to hear about what insights it gave you into how to tell stories that matter.

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Grounded (in a good way)

What is it about moving that sets one off track for months? I was thinking about that question this morning, and how since I moved to Ashland I have done almost no writing. I’ve been settling in, trying to master the new job, enjoying the new town, trying to get my (adult) kids on track after the move. Reading a ton of books! But not writing.

For me, writing takes a kind of equilibrium I don’t have when I’ve just moved. Thinking about the question, I decided that when you move, you tear your entire existence apart–literally. You put it in boxes and shove it in a truck and drive down the freeway with it rattling around in the back. The self is dismembered, existence as you knew it gone, everything familiar a memory. Who you were in that place fades as the miles pass beneath the U-Haul’s tires and you leave the old you behind in the carbon monoxide haze you can just glimpse in the sideview mirror.

Once you arrive at your destination, you have to unpack your self, bit by bit. First, object by object. You arrange things in your new house, trying to turn it into a home. That’s the easy part. But the soul parts…those that were connected to the old place. Not so easy. The parts of you that had a certain way of being in the world don’t quite fit in the new place…not yet. They’re uneasy, unsettled, restless. You feel something stirring, something hungry, but in this new place you don’t know how (or where or what) to feed it.

Five months after the move to Ashland, I’m just beginning to feel grounded. I’ve replaced old routines with new ones. Replaced my favorite writing haunts with new places where the people steaming coffee now know my name and preferences (God bless baristas everywhere!). I have a library card. A map of the town’s geography in the soles of my feet. I still have a long way to go. I have joined no groups. Made no friends. For me, those things always have to wait until the connection to the physical places firms.

As Chautauqua approaches, the gnawing in my belly has become impossible to ignore. It’s the older hunger, the hunger to write. I know I will have to feed it soon or it will chew me up from the inside out.

I’ve talked a lot about the importance of place in writing. That characters must come from a specific place, a specific time, and that their experiences are circumscribed by places: those they grew up in, those they’ve lived in, the one they live in now–the story world you have created. I hammer on this because without place characters are like holograms hovering in the air above the ground. You can put your hand right through them because they don’t really exist.

I guess that’s what happens to me when I move. I have to recreate my existence. Become solid in the new place. Stop wavering and coalesce. Well, here I am. At last.

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The Prize Egg

So…it’s been a while since I’ve blogged. That’s because I’ve been bogged…down…with…moving and settling in. I’ve just begun to feel a bit settled, although maybe the sunshine filling the valley this morning has perked me up. The hills outside my window are spotlit with morning sun. Clouds hang low, tickling the ridges awake. The puddle on my balcony is shrinking and maybe someday soon I can actually sit outside of a morning and write!

Meanwhile, in the new job, I’ve been learning a new kind of writing. I feel a lot like you guys must feel as I get draft after draft back from my new boss with question marks and comments. Not funny. Done it already. And the occasional Funny! that makes me hope next time there will be fewer edits. Some days I wonder if I’ll ever make the Uncle John’s voice a part of my writing DNA.

Learning to write in someone else’s style is the opposite of what I invite writers to do at Finding Your Voice. During that workshop, I’m guiding everyone toward opening themselves to what is unique within them. Writing in someone else’s voice feels like trying to put on a pair of shoes that don’t really fit. They’re made of leather, so they’ll stretch a bit to let your foot in, but you’ll never feel as if you’re barefoot in the cool green grass. Finding your natural voice is sole-to-grass wonderful. You stretch your toes and think, “Hey! This writing session made me feel like a kid again. I was finally able to forget all that adult stuff that gets in my way.”

I think most writers feel free when they’re first starting out, but begin to feel the pinch when they realize this writing for kids gig isn’t as simple as it looks from the outside. Writing for kids isn’t kid stuff—it’s hard work. But when it hums, it’s as magical as finding the plastic Easter egg with the five dollar bill in it. There’s only one thing I know of that can take you from tight to limber—stretching those writing muscles my writing a lot. Every day if you can!

I think we should all get the prize egg today. The secret, of course, is to be out there searching for it. So hop up, my bunnies…take off your shoes, stretch your toes, and do some gut-tingling writing.

(Oh, and here’s a news flash from Uncle John: The Easter bunny was arrested at the Philadelphia airport, for cracking a confetti-filled egg over a TSA agent’s head. I kid you not! Those guys have no sense of humor.)

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The Worst of Times? The Best of Times . . .

What happened this weekend in Arizona had me despairing about the state of my country. Will we never learn to swim above it all? The violent rhetoric, the us-vs.-them mentality that leads one human being to hate another because of the difference in political affiliation or church membership or income level or skin color?

While the madness has been going on outside my house, inside I have been reading The Help. Even though it’s a “big people” book, I recommend it to you all. It’s a novel about the relationships between wealthy white women and their black maids in Jackson, Mississippi and it takes place in the ’60s. I grew up in the south during those tumultuous times, but the book reads like historical fiction (in 2011, I guess it is). The point I’m trying to make is that it keeps hitting me over and over that the time the author is writing about is MY time–my childhood, my formative years. A time when KKK members stood on the street corners of MY neighborhood in their pointy hats and masks with buckets for collecting money the way firefighters in small towns now stand with their boots to collect change to fund their work.

The things Kathryn Stockett writes about in her novel are so horrific: a teenage boy blinded for accidentally using a white restroom; someone whose tongue was cut out for “agitating”. These things are so awful that every time I remember that these were MY times, I feel as if an electric shock has gone through me.

This is a blog about writing, about books, so let me move on to why I’m sharing these thoughts today. This morning as I read a few chapters of The Help and tried to get my mind around the fact that these things happened during my childhood, I also thought about the fact that in the same lifetime–mine–a black man has been elected President of the United States.

Then I went on to read the announcements from ALA of the authors and illustrators winning awards for their work. On that list were many blacks and hispanics, as well as whites of who-knows-what ancestry. I thought about what a wonder it is to live in this time, this place. Bryan Collier can win a Caldecott honor for Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave; Barack Obama is the man in the White House offering condolences to those who lost loved ones in Arizona. All around me, humanity still exemplifies the best in itself more often than the worst.

Books may not seem important, but they are–in fact, they’re vital. Books are the way we tell our stories to one another in the 21st Century. They are the way we remember our history and the way we avoid repeating it. They introduce kids to Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as Abraham Lincoln, Frida Kahlo as well as Mary Cassatt. They show our children what it would be like today if people had not fought and died to end segregation.

This is why I tell you over and over to write the truth, write the important stories, write the stories that are yours to tell even if it hurts to write them. I tell myself this over and over again, too.

And lest you think I’m saying we all have to write The Help, I’m not. I’m saying bring light into the world. Bring hope into the lives of kids. Bring joy, laughter, friendship, love.

Here are some of my favorite books that show young people what it means to be human, in the best sense of the word:

  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy
  • Wringer
  • Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse
  • The Hunger Games trilogy
  • Where the Wild Things Are
  • Maniac Magee
  • Inkheart
  • The Book Thief
  • Shooting the Moon
  • The Absolutely True Tale of a Part-time Indian
  • A Girl Named Disaster
  • Number the Stars

This is a very short list; the list could go on forever. Share a few of your favorites with the rest of us and never forget how vital what you are doing is and why it must be done with awareness and care and, most of all, the knowledge that you are writing for the most impressionable of us all: children. Maybe one of your books will be what saves some future young man from being confused by the hatred coming from the mouths of the adults around him. Maybe your stories will soften his heart; maybe your words will show him what it truly means to be human. Maybe your books will be part of what makes future times even better!

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