Writing a Painting

Below are examples of when I first began to think about how to write a painting. These are from early drafts of my first novel The Age Of Certainty (Unpublished.)

Hesus gathered his notebooks and carried them to his car. The day was heating up pleasantly. The dew hiding in the warm breeze caressed his arm and face. He held the wheel around a wide curve and crossed over narrow gauge tracks, sped up to the crest of a hill where he could look down onto the village. Behind each house plots of irregular rectangles were carved out of the forest, shaggily defined by slanting grey plank fences or low stone walls, filled with cabbage and potatoes and onions, straight laced corn and sleepy sunflowers. Occasionally a few solemn cows grazed in a plot, balancing awkwardly up the steep hillside. It was as if the entire village was a static landscape limited to his current point of view, like a painting that so catches the essence of its subject that the viewer forgets it’s only a representation playing on his unconscious assumptions.

Hesus gathered his notebooks. The warming air was pleasant, though dew still hid in the breeze, caressing his arms and face.
Hesus held the steering wheel around a wide curve, bounced again over narrow gauge tracks, stopped on the crest of a hill. He looked down to see the road split the village roughly in two. Low stone walls behind each house held back the forest in irregular plots tilled and filled with gardens, rough grey sheds, listing corrals, and the occasional solemn cow grazing awkwardly up the hillside. Farms wrapped over the undulating horizon, small orchards and rows of vines alternating with wide expanses of corn, wheat, and golden breasts of hay scattered dazzling under the sun. It was as if the village was a static landscape limited to his current point of view, like a painting that so catches the essence of its subject that the viewer forgets it is one representation stuck in time, playing on his unconscious assumptions.

And later in the novel:

He was driven into that catalytic space between day and night where your perception is mutable and it’s all too counter to your experience to quite believe, like a painting that catches the truth of a sunset yet is so unique and poignant that no one would believe it was real unless it was a photograph, but you know that there is no way a photograph of what you are witnessing would ever evoke the feelings you are having and then you realize the experience might depend on being who your are at that moment in your life so it would be impossible to adequately describe to anyone anyhow when they passed through the second checkpoint and he was handed over to Sadiq. He was deep in Taliban country now

His handlers drove him into the dusk, into a position so counter to his experience that it was hard to believe, like a painting that catches the truth of a sunset yet is so poignant that no one would believe it was real unless it was a photograph, but you know a photograph could never evoke these feelings, and then you realize the experience might depend on being who you are at that moment, so it would be impossible to adequately describe to anyone else anyway, when they passed through the second checkpoint and he was handed over to Sadiq. He was deep in Taliban country now.

Compare to more recent passages from my novel in progress, Reuel, where the main character is more painterly to begin with:

Through a more or less closed door Reuel discovered a piano and a futon couch. He could see Mrs. Justice’s prints on the ivory keys and foot petals, some jilted to the left, some to the right, as if her elbows and knees stuck straight out whenever she made a sound. Reuel tapped one of the middle keys.
“Me me me,” he sang into a mirror on the far wall. It was out of tune, as if he lived in another world. “So so so.” In the mirror he looked through a window, saw the eagle gently deposit Mr. Justice into a Pena-purple bed of forget-me-nots in the backyard. He decided to explore the mysteries and romances behind the other doors.
Mrs. Justice’s closet smelled of mothballs and cedar. When Reuel stuck his head in each dress bristled, each pair of sheer gold stockings winked daintily along a stair step of horizontal rods. Virginal, never-buttoned buttons on her blouses smiled expectantly, and skirts lifted at the slightest touch. Inside a shoebox was a jumble of delicate red straps and spikes like poison darts. Another box contained elegant black pumps stuffed with tissue paper and out of another tumbled sandy rubber sandals that smelled like fish. Reuel closed his eyes and dreamed of soaring like a seagull over a beach, salty wind sweeping his sepia locks across the frothy ocean.


The man swung his legs over the far side of the futon and pulled on his underwear, then a pair of slacks dark and blue as shadows turning slightly cooler just before dawn. Salt and pepper hair formed a tornado from the top of his head down his back. Anabel slipped into a pair of bright green flats. Reuel remembered the green triangles perched on a wooden ledge like parrots staring at him from the canopy of a tree while he read her diary. He could feel the wet jungle air, see her gathering her brushes, folding her easel, failing to completely reveal herself on the canvas. When he opened his eyes the futon was a couch again and no one was in the room.


He started reading the first story in the book, about two lonely people who dreamed of finding true love.
The lonely woman and lonely man lived very close to each other in the same city. They both loved animals, classical music, reading, were shy, and used proper etiquette even when only with their pets. The words were crafted into sentences and paragraphs that fit together in poetic harmonious purple-slate rhythms. Reuel ran his eyes over the pages like reverent fingertips over an intricately patterned melancholy-blue lined buttery marble surface polished to a smooth slippery sheen. Every time he was sure the two lonely people were about to come together some higher purpose made one turn a half a block too soon, the other look away just at the moment of truth.
Reuel decided where he wanted to be was to believe in miracles. One day the lonely man went to the art museum to see a large exhibition of his favorite artist. He walked for hours amidst the largest crowd he had ever seen at the museum. Finally the lonely man realized he had been standing in front of one painting for so long he wasn’t sure what time was. The author described the painting with such acumen Reuel saw it on the page, felt the woman’s eyes staring out tall windows in her wedding dress, felt the tension in the leg muscles of the man she was watching. He blushed, embarrassed that other patrons had been looking over his shoulder and maneuvering around him to see the masterpiece so as not to disturb him. For a moment the lonely man felt claustrophobic, he could feel someone’s breath on his ear, a tingle down that side of his body. It’s mesmerizing, the breath whispered. He turned to see the chamomile voice. Yes, he said as the lonely woman’s hazel gaze fell deeply and without qualm into his. Her skin was that melancholy-blue lined buttery marble surface, his face the perfect intricate pattern of her dreams, and his reverent fingertips ran over the love of his life for ever after.
The creative force of his paintings, Reuel decided, is greater than him yet contained within him, and can be shared by anyone, if only they realize dreams are more than mere wishes.

The tension is between abstraction, like a dream you are trying to remember, and coherent narrative. A well crafted painting does a good job of balancing the tension. My goal is to achieve this balance in a narrative form without slipping into poetry.



Nough said? The real question is: Are we encouraging technically competent fiction over great writing. I certainly get the feeling that one of my problems getting published (besides running two companies and having to steal hours in the middle of the night to write at all) is that my fiction does not conform to what editors look for. They want to check off the boxes. Below is one suggested structure by Philip Brewer.

  1. a character,
  2. in a situation,
  3. with a problem,
  4. who tries repeatedly to solve his problem,
  5. but repeatedly fails, (usually making the problem worse),
  6. then, at the climax of the story, makes a final attempt (which might either succeed or fail, depending on the kind of story it is), after which
  7. the result is “validated” in a way that makes it clear that what we saw was, in fact, the final result

There’s nothing wrong with this kind of structure, and certainly any aspiring writer should be able to do it. My wishful thinking has been: As soon as I publish enough stories that fit the model and develop a following, then I can stray from the approved norm. It reminds me of freshman composition: write a beginning, middle, and end. It’s easy to understand, tells a story, and it’s great for freshman comp or a newspaper article.

But my stories don’t always follow this path. At a recent conference I workshopped a book of short stories. Yes, they weren’t all as polished as I would have liked. Yet many of the stories were exceptionally well received. They were uplifting, inspiring, clever, upsetting. The instructor said, “Start sending these out. I love it. You’re taking chances.” Toward the end of the workshop I met with an agent from a top NYC agency who had read two of the stories. She remarked, “Very creative. I really like the endings. You’ve never published, so here’s what you do. Send them out like crazy. It’s a numbers game, a full time job. After you get three or four published I can pitch the book to a publisher with the promise of a novel to come. Here’s my card.”

I was ecstatic. And I’m also building up a nice collection of rejections. The problem, it seems to me, is the stories are missing some of Mr. Brewer’s elements. They are creative yet easily readable (one of my problems in the past was asking too much of the reader.) Sometimes the main character is somewhat passive while the supporting characters react to her/his reactions. The endings are poignant, but often not validating, though always relevant (I must admit here that I find many endings, in all forms of published and even celebrated fiction, disappointing.) In short, I’m not playing the game.

Methinks there are many of me out there. I’m not a young aspiring writer. I’m a middle aged (whatever that means these days) man who has a modestly successful career and is prudent enough to not risk my family’s future over a Twilight dream. I shouldn’t have to get another degree or to move to NYC to be taken seriously.

Yes, I am still learning how to write, but the writing is good. The stories are fun, the reader can identify with the characters and still leave their world for a while. Some are more serious than others, and they all have an original voice. Maybe too original.

The debate is really MFA OR NYC, not VS. I don’t fit into either category. I’ve been in workshops with MFA students who have the same dream as I, are younger, but unfortunately have little chance of developing into good fiction writers. They’re being sold a bill of goods, and this is why many people are led to the cynical view that the MFA system in America is basically a for profit industry. An industry must have standards, and if the nuts and bolts of your product are metric it will be hard to sell. Strict standards are fine for freshman comp, but this is a Masters of Fine Arts. It’s supposed to be creative.

It is a shame that even most good fiction writers must teach to earn a living. That’s a statement about what capitalism values. The internet should provide an outlet for more creative endeavors. It’s done a fairly decent job as an outlet for the visual arts, but visual artists have for a long time been granted more license than fiction and even poetry.

MFA or NYC, Walmart or Target, TGIF or Olive Garden, Hampton Inn or Motel 6, available on any E-reader along the information interstate.

Do we feel validated now?

BloggingTo Myself

9th January, 2014

Coffee, half a cinnamon role, same news I heard last night, yesterday afternoon, every outlet on the planet.

Stayed in bed so long don’t have time to work on my novel before work. Maybe I should just write poetry. Short, malleable, vague. Mysterious and deep, like Ulysses or a computer chip. Alas.

I could believe in something. Get a reason to get up, daily chores with aplomb, happiness. It’s a new year, after all.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s lots of fascinating things in the world to occupy time. And time’s, my time anyway, is finite, a necessary condition of mortality, uh, meaning.

I could believe in something. Helps with family relations, standing in the community, lessens tension at cocktail parties. Path of least resistance.

Another cup of coffee, half a cinnamon role, same news as last night, yesterday, same stories all over the planet.