Artists are unfaithful creatures. As soon as they finish writing “the greatest story I ever penned,” they’re off pledging undying love for something new. Most are serial monogamists. They will at least wait until one passion is spent before finding another. Others, though, will hop from one story to the next, keeping both — or even more — going at the same time. Oh, the infidelity!
It’s not just our own projects that we’re unfaithful to, either. Many of us will spread our affection around many other arts, too. We put down our pens and pick up a paintbrush or a camera or a guitar. We’re not sluts, we’re just… adventurous.
Founder of the Beat Writers movement, William S. Burroughs, used to shoot into paint cans in order for them to spray canvases. To each his own, I suppose. Sylvia Plath studied art and produced many paintings and drawings. Henry Miller was a watercolourist.
Some writers have their flings with music. Have you ever heard of a band called the Rock Bottom Remainders? Over the years, their members have included Mitch Albom, Dave Berry, Stephen King, and Amy Tan. Writers, all.
When it comes to art, the multi-set Venn diagram is pretty crowded. When you get down to it, it’s not just writers who like to play in other artists’ playgrounds. Musicians paint pictures; actors take photographs or write poetry (well, they call it poetry. Bless), and much more besides.
Why do we do it? What’s the allure in dipping our toes in other waters?
A way of dealing with frustration
Art in any form can be frustrating. The words don’t flow the way you want; the story you spent three months writing just got rejected. Again. The royalty cheque you were counting on is less than you’d expected, or is late. When you think about it, it’s amazing so many artists keep going. Of course, many do not. The artist’s life might sound glamorous, but you eat better as a shop assistant or a banker. Still, if you don’t give up on your dreams and passions, you will need to vent you anger and frustration in some way.
Now, I bet you’re thinking: why not just write it all out. Good question. And I think most of us do, eventually. The problem is, when you’re too steamed to think straight, you’re probably also too steamed to write.
You don’t have to shoot at innocent paint cans in order to vent. You could doodle their characters and make them look silly with strange hats or outfits; or just draw huge knives sticking out of their heads. Look, we all find the therapy that suits us. You might do better beating on a set of drums (don’t, for pity sake, tell your mother I suggested it). Or perhaps you’d like to bake exquisite little cakes. (You can tell mummy about that one.)
One thing these outlets have in common is they are word-less. They give the writer a chance to vent emotion in a way that won’t rob the work of its power. You have to have exactly the right about of energy if you are to produce good work. Too much, and the mind races. It’s impossible to concentrate, to find a way through all the voices in your head. Not enough energy, and all the words seem flat and lacking in passion. It’s at times like these when indulging in another art form can provide you with just enough of an outlet so your work can continue.
A way to explore our own art
Edward Gorey, James Thurber, William Blake, and Edgar Allan Poe all produced illustrations to go with their stories. Or stories that go with their illustrations, if you prefer. If you have a talent for drawing, you may find doodling your characters brings them to life in new ways. Or you could, if you are so inspired, compose a melody that matches a character or a scene. You could do a dance to help you explore your heroine’s feelings, or, well, you get the drift.
Taking a break from writing by exploring other arts can bring enormous benefits to your own discipline. For instance:
You’d don’t have to be the next Benedict Cumberbatch in order to tread the boards. If you’re really shy, you don’t even have to join a theatre company. I will say, though, that there are huge gains to be made by doing just that.
Being part of the company will help you explore plays, and, consequently, drama unfold. It will reveal structure, dialogue and how to build a scene in ways you cannot even imagine. Not to mention, you’ll be in an ideal place for your plays to be performed, should your writing take you in that direction.
One of the most important things you will take from joining a local theatre is you’ll learn how to overcome any discomfort in speaking before a group of people. You’ll be glad of that if ever have a book launch or signing, or need to read your work in public.
Even if you don’t take your thespian interests all the way, you can learn a lot about developing a character by studying how actors approach the task from their perspective. You’ll learn what dialogue works and what does not. And you’ll start to develop a sense of timing, which is massively important in prose of any sort.
Music has a lot to teach the budding writer, too. I recently saw Irish playwright Enda Walsh being interviewed on RTE’s The Works (one of the best arts shows around). Enda said even before he has a story or a character, he knows the rhythm of the play. He demonstrated with an improvised drum beat. That’s not an approach I’ve ever used, at least not consciously, but now I can’t wait to give it a try. That’s the thing about studying all the arts: the stuff you can steal, uh, borrow, for your own practice. Oh, the thinks you can think!
Rhythm is important for novelists, poets and even non-fiction writers. There’s a cadence to sentences. Some are very long with clauses, and sub-clauses, and waffle on for several agonising lines, stealing even your will to live before they come to the point.
Even if you can’t sing or play an instrument, the writer can learn a lot from listening to music. I, personally, cannot write when there is music playing. Conversation doesn’t bother me, but music… Before I know it, I’m following the rhythm and I have a whole chapter that echoes Ravel’s Bolero or Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
Sometimes you want your writing to build to a crescendo, so perhaps listening to the Rhapsody isn’t a bad idea. Even without the writing motivation, listening to that particular piece of music is never a bad idea. Give it a try, but be warned: It will activate brain cells you never knew you had. Like all great music, it tickles your visceral level. The impact is similar to great writing, but the stimulation occurs in a different part of the cerebral cortex. And the more of your brain cells you can make light up, the better an overall artist you’re likely to be.
You can also learn a lot from people who are masters of a musical instrument. How many hours a week do you think Hozier practices? How much time did Michael Stipe spend writing his music when REM were still around? Eric Clapton, Yo Yo Ma, Yehudi Menuhin – it doesn’t matter what type of music you’re talking about, or the specific instrument, the lesson remains. You must practice. Why do so many authors assume they can just pick up a pen and produce Ulysses, even though they only write once in a while when the mood strikes?
Writing is a solitary exercise. It’s also a sedentary one. Dancing, on the other hand, is a great way to get the motor running. It’s good for the cardiovascular system and it gets you out of your head, something most writers really need to do. Unlike writing, you can do it with other people. So go on, grab your honey, put on some sixties’ music and start jiving.
Look, you may be colour blind. Perhaps you don’t know an oil from a gouache. We can’t all be Philip Mould. But tell me you don’t feel a certain zing when you apply paint or pastel to a board. There is something primitive about our need to make pictures.
How can painting, sculpture or photography impact your writing? Well, they can teach you a lot about reflecting the world around you. Try sitting before a landmark and paint it. Start in watercolour, then try pastel, next charcoal. See what different representations you get each time? Or use the same medium and paint that scene at different times of the day. Now think about your writing. Could you take different approaches to a particular scene in your novel? What mood would work best? With respect to Wallace Stevens, there are more than 13 ways of looking at a blackbird; there are more than 13 ways of looking at everything. Find the one that’s right for your scene.
The visual arts always remind me to be true to my own vision. Van Gogh’s paintings were nothing like Gaugin’s. Constable and Turner are vastly different. They each paint what they see, but even when they’re painting the exact same thing, the result is different.
The thing about painting, sculpture, or hand-crafts such as tapestry or knitting, is that you slow your brain down. You’re all about the images that are appearing before you. Play with texture if you don’t know how to draw, but let your hands decide. While you’re getting sticky with making jewellry or clay, your brain is relaxing, healing. You know, there’s a reason why art therapy is so often used in mental institutions. By the time you come back to your writing project, you’ll find yourself refreshed and better able to continue.
I’ve dabbled in many different art forms from one time to another. I’m tone-deaf, so that leaves music out, but I paint, dance, take photographs, embroider and crochet, to name but a few. These each work on my brain in different ways. They allow my mental rhythms to settle into a state where writing becomes possible. OK, I’ll never be Margot Fonteyn, and Pauline Bewick has nothing to worry about, but I have fun. Here are a few of my pieces. Be kind!