How art has saved my writing

Writing has been hard for a long time. There, I said it. Even finding the motivation to write a weekly blog post has proven tricky. I have a hundred ideas and write them all down in the journal marked ‘Future blog posts’ but when it comes down to sitting in front of this screen and knocking out 500 words, something just doesn’t click. Of course, the irony that I am now going to knock out 500 words on this topic is not lost on me. But it needed to be said. I have been finding writing hard.

For the past eight years, I have been close to completing one novel and have started five others. The start is always good. I get a good number of words down in the initial burst, then it peters out and I hit a wall. This embarrasses, saddens and frustrates me in equal amounts. I am not the kind of person who sticks around for things that are hard. Usually, if it’s too hard then I accept that it is not in my wheelhouse and I move on. But I love to write! So, what’s the deal? 

It is also not this hard for all of my writing. With poetry, I catch a scent of an idea, I put pen to page and let it flow then edit and assess as needed. I can fill books with poems. I can write flash fiction. I can even finish a short story fairly painlessly, but when it comes to anything over 10,000 words, I have only managed to finish something once.

For the past few years I figured it was because I just didn’t have the endurance for novel writing; that perhaps my wheelhouse really only included the short stuff, the stuff I could get done quickly. After all, not everyone has a novel in them, do they? But in these past few weeks, when I have been sat at home with a bit more time on my hands, it has dawned on me that the problem isn’t so much with the length or the amount of time, but that I have been missing an important step in my process. And the answer to this riddle has come about as a result of my other passion: art.

Image copyright J. Beckford

I realised in one of those blinding moments of clarity that my creative process for art was completely different from my process for writing. With writing, I have a certain expectation of myself. Once I have an idea and an outline, however meticulously planned it may be, then the words should flow like honey from my fingertips. A first draft is always rough, sure, but it should already be mostly spun gold with just a bit of straw to weed out.

When I sit down to paint, however, my expectation is much lower. And, very importantly, I need a place to start. A place from which the rest will flow. It is allowed to start out ugly because no matter what goes down first, I can always go over it with another layer until it is right. In fact, the first layer is never more than just blocking out shapes and colours and lines; working on composition; moving things around. Then there’s about four ugly stages until I start to feel like I’m getting somewhere.

Stupid me. This is exactly what I should be doing with writing… and I’ve heard it before a hundred times. The first draft is only supposed to be me telling myself the story (I think Neil Gaiman said that). But it wasn’t until somewhere on layer three of my most recent painting that it hit me.

5 thoughts on “How art has saved my writing”

  1. What was it someone we both know used to say? “Don’t get it right, get it written.” A lovely 500 words on essentially just that, Jo. I like the way it is your art that’s taught you that. And about the expectations thing? The beauty of writing first drafts is that you don’t have to show them to anyone. The only person who needs to see them is you, so it’s at ‘layer 3’ as you put it, that you can decide whether it’s worth pursuing. Lower those expectations and maybe the flow will be released.

    1. Thanks Ms P! Yes, it is rather interesting how expectations can cloud your own knowledge of how things work. Even though I have heard all the maxims for writing many times, I couldn’t really visualise what that meant until I started looking at my art process.

  2. Aha – I’m glad I read this when I did. Because I’ve just been talking to a good friend of mine, Phil (@motelacid on Twitter). He’s a writer and generally creative person, and is about to publish three previously published and connected novellas as one work (Rum Hijack – get it at the end of this week, it’s great!). He has accepted, after many attempts, that he doesn’t have the sticking power for writing a novel. He’s fabulously talented, writes great blog posts, essays, shorts, etc, but doesn’t have the application to write a novel. This, he has now accepted.

    The thing is, writing a novel is HARD. You need a lot of material, and it WILL get difficult. No, the words won’t flow like honey from your fingertips, but I know you know that, ha ha! Sometimes, you might spend a whole week having to drag them out. It all depends on how much you want to get the damn thing done, I suppose! I totally see what you mean re your process… but maybe writing a novel isn’t the right thing for you AT THIS TIME. Maybe try a novella? Lots of writers start with a story of 20-40K words – not so daunting, and it gets you in the rhythm of working out a story, pacing and so on. Hope this helps!

    btw, it was Terry Pratchett who said that!

    1. Of course it was Terry Pratchett! I should have known 🙂
      Thanks for this reply! It is indeed very possible that I may never get past 45,000 words with my current WIPs, and I am okay with that. The thing that was really missing from my process, though, was the visual element. I do really need that blocked out skeleton down before I start, and that’s something I have been leaving out of writing but doing well in all other artistic endeavours, so I am hoping that by adding in that step, the writing will be more disciplined. It will always be hard. All good art is hard. But at least with this extra step, I shouldn’t get too lost on the way to the end 😉

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