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On artists who write and writers who art: Part 2

As I said in my first post on the subject, Patty and I started this class after seeing how certain artists and writers used another medium – a writer who drew, or an artist who wrote. There are some writers whose drawings and paintings are well known – the nineteenth century English writer of nonsense verse, Edward Lear; Winston Churchill; D. H. Lawrence. After doing further research, we turned up some names that really surprised us.

A lot of authors from the nineteenth century left behind paintings and drawings in their notebooks and archives. Some of them, like a competent watercolour by Charlotte Bronte, probably came about because middle class women of the time were expected to be able to paint a little, play music a little, sew a little, instead of getting a formal education. Now that time has raised Bronte far beyond the intellectual level of her male peers, we can look at the painting not as a genteel diversion for a Sunday afternoon, but as a form of expression that was related to the main channel of her genius.

Sketch by Mark Twain

Many other authors of that time who did not have Bronte’s technical competence nevertheless felt compelled occasionally to turn aside from writing and try to draw something in their notebooks. Mark Twain drew caricatures. Dostoevsky made drawings in pen and ink in his notebooks of buildings in St. Petersburg, and characters from his stories. Joseph Conrad drew can-can dancers. Coming into the twentieth century, we discovered fluid paintings by Hermann Hesse, a scribbled self-portrait holding a beer glass by Dylan Thomas, a stunning etching by Gunter Grass illustrating his own novel “The Flounder”, detailed pen and ink drawings by Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Wolfe, bright splashy paintings by Henry Miller . . . the list goes on.

Etching by Gunter Grass

Why do so many writers draw, sketch, or paint? There are several answers. Some writers, such as D. H. Lawrence and e.e. cummings, painted often, and made it known that they placed as much value on their painting as on their writing. To them, writing and painting were two sides of the same coin. But they share something in common with the writers who drew in their notebooks: they turned to visual art, whether for a few seconds or for hours at a time, as a way of getting down on the page something that they couldn’t do in the writing. Something that they were seeing in their mind and wanted to represent more quickly than with words.

Painting by e.e. cummings

In our classes, Patty and I talk a lot about this ‘seeing in the mind’. It is one of the key concepts of the Story Workshop method used for teaching creative writing at Columbia College Chicago. In the writing class, students are encouraged to pause before they speak, to see clearly in their mind’s eye what they are about to tell, to see specific details, additional details, details from all the senses. Then they voice it, put it into words, tell it, to the whole group who act as an audience for this first telling, which is also a kind of first draft. Some of the drawing exercises we do follow a similar procedure: looking first before drawing, drawing the shape in the air before touching the page, drawing on the page while keeping the eyes on the object, looking again at the object to find something else to add to the drawing.
Student's observational drawing

We also ask the students to draw characters, scenes, words related to some of their writing-in-progress. When they have completed the drawing, we might ask them to go straight back to the writing. Often this detour from writing to drawing and back to the writing produces all kinds of new discoveries to do with scene and character. I imagine that this effect was similar for the published writers mentioned above, too: drawing provided a temporary outlet, a break from writing, a shorthand way of capturing how something looks, and also a way to return to the writing with a more defined picture existing in the mind’s eye.

In the next post, I’ll talk about the other side of the fence – why visual artists put aside their brushes, chisels, or video cameras to express themselves in words.

On artists who write and writers who art: Part 1

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