Category Archives: writing

Repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, etc.

I’ve begun to wonder why writers seem so hung-up on reusing the same tired words in and the same troublesome scenes. Perhaps this is only my trouble: a persistent habit of revising drafts not by using the rough as a vague blueprint from which to rewrite the entire story, but by lopping off a paragraph here, bloating a scene there. Maybe for some people it works, but for me it doesn’t seem to.

Pen sketches.

In painting, studies (often many, many studies) are often integral creating the finished work. When create a study, it is usually in order to get out all my worst ideas first:  boring composition, anatomically incorrect angles, badly chosen palettes and other rudimentary problems. Studies also help me to establish what is working well, visually, so that I can reproduce it in the final work.

Finished painting.

Why is it that this repetitive process seems less frequently used by writers? The late great JG Ballard rewrote his novels using the previous draft not as gospel but as a reference or rough guide. His process strikes me as more useful than what I’ve been doing up until now: trying to tweak large, unwieldy slabs of story, becoming frustrated when nothing quite works, when nothing really fits.

Some of the studies I create toward finished paintings engage viewers on their own; many have at least a few redeeming features (for example, I like the position of the feet in the studies; but, due to sizing and proportion issues, I didn’t paint any feet into the final work). However, they tend to pale in comparison to the final work, because they contain many of the problems that have been resolved by the time I set out to create a polished painting.

I’m going to take a leaf from Ballard’s book (not literally, of course), and try to apply this method to writing as well. I suspect that it may yield good things.

I bet there are a million of you out there talking about this, just like me–so “if you see something, say something.” That is to say, if you’ve been thinking or working along similar lines, don’t hesitate to chime in.



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When I first learned to paint I was timid. I had to learn to trust what I saw and the ability in my hands. Like most beginning artists I had trouble recording what I actually saw. My frustration wasn’t so much with inaccuracy in my work as a lack of beauty. If sunlight fell a certain way on a table, I became happy if I could capture at least some of the depth and ebullience of the light. I was much less perturbed about things like perspective and where the tables legs lay. Those sorts of things you can practice. But putting down the life of an object or a scene is a process of learning the language of your own vision.

I think writing may be similar. Often when I write I’m discouraged by my inability to tell the truth about the things I know about a scene: sight and smell, the things that occur during speech, underneath it. (For example, the second to last clause didn’t capture what I wanted to say about the thing that occur underneath speech! I had this image of people exchanging small folded notes in a dimly lit room, maybe a black market pub, windowless, and everything is made from exposed wood with ridges raised like angry lines of welts and just as raw to the touch. The exchanged notes are tattered, the people sit across from each other with their whole backs clenched, and their forearms stiff with fury. Their hands move fast and pluck like frightened, hungry birds. Sharp. It smells like wood and sap and that smell I can never explain except that it’s “what cold smells like when you’re outdoors at night in a small town on a street where everyone’s indoors and all the people and radios are at a low volume, and the snow has just fallen and all the smells in the word and tamped down to the ground so the air is clear almost as though the stars flood pure oxygen down to you and the whole sky is clear and the stars shimmer like tears in a dark room and you’re alone and wearing your winter coat but going someplace that is indoors, the light a dim claustrophobic red and yellow, and other people are there but they’ll be drowsy and it’ll smell like the hair and cigarette ashy collected on your thick carpet for several months, and remembering this smell so sharply the air outside is even cleaner, so clean it shakes your body like high pitches in singing.”) My senses know all of these details simultaneously but the translation is so arduous it’s almost painful. Sometimes it doesn’t even make sense. I can’t tell whether it’s making sense to anyone but me.

But I do think it might be like painting or drawing. When I started a curved line took many tiny marks to make, and the whole was unsatisfactory. Sometimes now when my eyes and hand move in tandem the mark is single, swift and right. Most of the time it doesn’t feel that way. Most of the time I’m frustrated with myself. But maybe if I practice the patience of translation and the trust of my senses and tools what I see will become what I record more often.

I hope.

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