Sunday, January 3, 2010

Painting Over Mistakes on a Still-Wet Canvas

"Have You Forgotten Their Wet, Sleepy Fragrance?" by Erik Hansen

By Judith A. Ross for Talking Writing

There are no shortcuts to well-executed art – be it painting, writing, music, or photography. The artist must be well-grounded in and attentive to every step of the process.

In their book, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles and Ted Orlando write, “Even talent is rarely distinguishable, over the long run, from perseverance and lots of hard work.”

Knowing one’s craft and putting in the hours of work may not reap commercial benefits, but it can result in work that has both quality and depth. According to Bayles and Orlando:
“The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. One of the basic and difficult lessons that every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential. X-rays of famous paintings reveal that even master artists sometimes made basic mid-course corrections (or deleted really dumb mistakes) by overpainting the still-wet canvas.”
In an environment where new media provides numerous opportunities for experimentation and self-promotion, it is especially crucial that artists and writers be well steeped in the basics of their craft.

The ability to first recognize mistakes and then edit and correct one's own work will make the difference between experiments that take others to new and exciting places and ones that leave them mired waist-deep in muck.

Nowhere is this tension more clearly illustrated than in the new online literary magazine, Electric Literature (EL). Some of EL’s experiments are more successful than others.

For example, EL recently delivered to its readers a short story by Rick Moody over Twitter. While the piece may never have made it into traditional print, it wasn’t meant to.

Instead, Moody crafted a story that fit into the new context. Two people meet online and then the ensuing May-December romance is described from each of their perspectives through a series of 140-character tweets sent out every ten minutes over three days.

While the format was difficult to follow, I continued to think about the story long after the final tweet. As one reviewer noted, these two could have been real people sending messages about a real encounter to anyone willing to read them.

Moody didn’t just dash this off, it was a carefully calculated experiment. In an interview with PBS Newshour, he explains how the story took shape, noting that it took as long to write as a traditional short story.

The EL blog, on the other hand, seems to feature writers who are trying to improvise complicated jazz riffs before they can successfully play a basic scale. These folks don’t yet know how to self-edit the way that Moody does. And this is where some outside editorial advice and shaping would help the writers and their readers.

The title of one blogged story, “Jeffrey, Vincent, Jeffrey and Vincent’s Father and the Woman in the Photograph” is a preview of run-on sentences and dense paragraphs that suffocate rather than enliven. The liberal use of the four-letter word for excrement was another turn-off.

This isn’t literature, electric or otherwise, but rather the kind of self-conscious, stream-of-conscious, navel-gazing more appropriate for a personal blog rather than an online magazine.

Other parts of EL’s site also strike me as work that should have been painted over while the canvas was still wet – starting with the artwork on the homepage.

Judgments about art and literature are subjective, of course. Even so, the more you develop your “chops” in any particular discipline, the better your work will be. Take the photograph now posted on this site.

Erik Hansen has been a commercial photographer for many years. Everything he learned during those years informs his art – as does his knowledge of history, politics, film, literature, and a whole bunch of other stuff.

I happened to be in his studio when he was developing the image at the top of this post. He builds a model and then with lighting and other techniques brings the small-scale scene to life. He does not digitally manipulate his images: The magic happens before he clicks the shutter.

There may have been one or two happy accidents in making this image, but only a skilled photographer would be able to create and then capture the elements that make it so evocative – such as the funnels of light, the shine on the water, and the textures of the land on either side.

And that’s just the technical portion of his work. The ideas behind his photographs inspire viewers to superimpose their own stories over these imaginary landscapes.

That intent wrapped up in photographic expertise is what transforms this shot into a work of art. Erik not only enjoys every step of his process, he has practiced each one many, many times. As a result, he can make images that soar.


  1. Very interesting post, Judith, and mostly I agree, especially about Electric Literature and its atrocious blog. I guess what makes it atrocious, however, is all the hype around EL and its claims to being "literature." What literature with a capital L means in the blogosphere is highly contested.

    One way I would contest the notion of editing and practicing and all that has to do with personal blogs. Those who do daily or even semi-weekly blogging are, in essence, practicing and (perhaps) learning the trade of writing. But I'd also argue that in some of the more wonderful blogs out there the daily, imperfect nature of them is what's so appealing.

    I've been an editor and writer for a long time, and I believe in the kind of self-editing you're talking about. But it's also possible that it gets in the way of certain kinds of blogging--and I don't just mean blogs that are the equivalents of personal journals. I think the self-reflexive, ever-changing discussion of life offered in the best blogs is affecting online writing, in general, even magazine feature-writing.

    Everything is in flux, and it's exciting to experiment. What isn't exciting is excessive hype about the "innovativeness" or high art of your experiments, as reflected in EL and its sophomoric blog.

  2. Martha,
    I agree that blogging presents wonderful opportunities for experimentation. That is why I suggested that the stuff on EL's blog was better suited to a personal blog rather than being made part of a literary online magazine.

    Any publication that is promoting itself as a literary magazine, electric or unplugged, needs editing. That is how writers learn to be better. That is how they learn to let go of the things they most want to hold onto that really don't add to the story.

    Where would we all be without someone to help us shape our work? I fear that younger writers aren't going to have that advantage.

  3. My name is Jeff. First-time commenter on Talking Writing. Until recently, I was an Associate Editor at Electric Literature, and have published a few pieces on EL's blog, The Outlet, including two book reviews waiting near the top of the page on the other side of the above link.

    To sing the praises of self-editing is well and good--heaven knows, everyone could stand to improve their prose!... except maybe Marilynne Robinson, or Joan Didion--but the danger of obsessive self-editing, I'll hazard, is becoming possessed of one's own aesthetic to the exclusion of all others. EL's site offers fiction from writers as varied in their compositions as Shya Scanlon, Helen Phillips and James Warner.

    To be clear, I don't speak for EL and have nothing to do with what gets selected for The Outlet. In fact, not every piece up there even appeals to my own taste. But there is something to be said for each, I think.

  4. This is an interesting discussion as I read it about creative process, product and public viewing. As a visual artist and teacher, I believe that the final product, whatever it be, is most exciting where the process has been thorough and informed - AND where risks have been taken. It can be further enhanced as the artist matures and his/her skills and personal vocabulary have increased and layered with rich complexities. Unfortunately that doesn't mean that all of the process needs to put out there for public consumption as seems to be the trend on the internet these days. Self-editing is what I would call maturity and self-restraint. I have worked decades to advance my personal vision and educate the public in visual language. As the avalanche of public "navel-gazing" grows, the dialog about what constitutes good art seems to decline - or worse, seems to be deemed irrelevant. More than ever I hear "my kid could do that." And yes, he or she can do the some of the stuff artists do in sketch stage -and we hope so!( this is called teaching to "artistic behavior" see link to ) but do not mistake this for a finished product. Kudos for this dialog we are having here!

  5. The definition of maturity in an artist: "The ability to first recognize mistakes and then edit and correct one's own work" in order to "make the difference between experiments that take others to new and exciting places and ones that leave them mired waist-deep in muck."

    There's a line to walk here. One can edit one's work to the point of paralyzing oneself and the creative process. Alternately, one can think that everything should be put down on "paper" just as it comes out of the brain. The process of maturing as an artist is knowing when something needs more work and also when it is as done as it's going to be. Practice, learn to listen to helpful external voices (good readers & editors), learn to listen to the helpful internal (the non-sabotaging self), and practice some more. Or, as it's put above, paint over the canvas.

    Thanks, Judith, for a thought-provoking post.

    Jane Ward

  6. Thank you for opening up this discussion. I haven't looked at EL, but now I will. Without directly addressing your main points, I will just say that as an older person testing out Facebook, Twitter, etc., I think it is hard for anyone to say right off the bat what such innovations are worth. Time -- and the way people use the tools -- will tell. Twitter is a good example. As is this blog. Twitter seemed so silly to me as a new user. Then the fraud-plagued June 20, 2009, Iranian election took place, and Twitter began to be the most important source for what was going on--with tweets being confirmed later or discounted, but much revealed in real time. Twitter was so important then that the White House intervened when it looked like the service was going to do maintenance while there was daylight and violence in Iran. Emily Rooney's Beat the Press crew on WGBH, usually so well-informed, were clueless about the Twitter contribution because it didn't look like journalism, with journalism's demand for two reliable sources. So I say, let's wait and see.


  7. Jeff, I went back to the Outlet, and checked out your Pynchon review, which is much more what I'd expect on a blog like EL's. But maybe your point is that we have a new medium here, and that experiments in writing should be allowed to run, even under the imprimatur of a literary journal.

    It's a fair point. And it's an interesting discussion. My initial response to seeing earlier blog posts was how badly written they were--but they aren't all badly written, so what the heck am I doing, passing judgment like some authority from high?

    Maybe the other point is that as bad as any given post may be it's ephemeral on a blog, and striving to make posts more "solid" is the wrong approach. This new medium is process-oriented, and it's the process that gets us to the finished art Judith is talking about.

    Hmmmm. I'm thinking...

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  9. This is a very interesting dicussion. Thanks, Martha, for letting me know about it on my blog. I'm fairly new to the blogging world, but I feel there is a difference between those who blog for fun and writers who are blogging to create a platform, build a presence on the web, etc. As writers, we should take our writing as far as we can, then we call on the editing professionals to make it better. With blogs, we can't do that, so we do the best we can. The writing is not going to be as polished as a published piece would be. Technology is changing the way we do everything, isn't it?

  10. Thank you all for your comments!

    Jeff, I think that obsessive self-editing is a real hazard and I agree that some of my aversion to the EL blog may be a matter of taste. But bad writing is still just that and I would encourage EL's editors to bring that portion of the publication up to the same level as other parts.

    For example, I love the tweets which have alerted me to articles and other sources I would otherwise have missed.

    I wholeheartedly agree with Jane that a mature artist knows the difference between something that is as done as it is going to be and something that's not quite there yet. And with Kathleen that the ability to self-edit is a sign of artistic maturity and self-restraint.

    Like Kathleen I also fear that discussions about quality are in danger of becoming irrelevant. And I agree that true art involves risk. As an artist matures and refines her approach and intent that risk has the potential to be more daring and reap more exciting results.

    Finally, I personally love that I can post some little snippet on my personal blog. No one has to read it if they don't want to -- and frequently no one does!! And though I've been writing professionally for more than 15 years, I am excited by this new landscape and am eager to see how it evolves.

  11. There are many who considered, and probably still consider, early Pynchon to be "bad writing." Which, decades later, doesn't make his fiction any less meaningful, or "literary," in the sense of having merit in the arena--or museum--of literature proper.

    Though, that word, "literary," as far as I can tell, is one at which young Pynchon would likely have recoiled. And who knows? Maybe still.

  12. What a compelling discussion! Thank you, Judith, for your evocative post.

    If you’ve read my comments to previous posts, or my posts themselves, you know I am a stickler for accuracy when it comes to the written word. I dislike stumbling over misspellings, typos, or poor grammar and usage, especially in published work—electronic or hardcopy. I maintain that if a writer is earnest about our craft, it is imperative that he or she take seriously the all-important task of self-editing before posting or submitting any work for publication. Period.

    When Picasso first began to study art, he had to learn the basics, such as the rudiments of perspective and the color wheel, and he had to experiment with his various brushes in order to discover what each would do for him as he applied paint to canvas. In Picasso’s early work, one easily recognizes the basic elements of classical realism and tradition in his pieces. My point? Picasso worked hard to learn the basics of his craft. Only after decades of rudimentary practice and study did he find his niche, the soul of his genuine self, and became the famous Pablo Picasso, the cubist.

    Perhaps the cavalier or blasé attitudes toward poorly written posts on blog sites is a form of modern-day ‘60s rebellion against the Establishment. After all, it can feel pretty wonderful, by way of anything-goes Internet posts, to thumb our noses at the current publishing industry who for decades has forced authors to jump through some pretty complicated hoops. However, I truly believe this excuse for sloppily crafted writing shouldn’t occupy even an inch of space in the traditional literary arena. This is not innovation, it’s poor writing, plain and simple. Ugh. Okay, I also have to say here that if beauty weren’t in the eye of the beholder, Nicholas Sparks wouldn’t be a multimillionaire today.

    A quick comment on Jeff’s post and EL: EL, whether you merit every story they publish or not, at least understands writers and their current plight! I applaud EM for paying their five monthly authors $1,000 each for their work. I applaud them further that they require no submission fees, that simultaneous submissions are okay, they do not require a cover letter (the story should speak loudly for itself), that they publish through every venue technologically available, and that they respect all genuine artistic expression. Thank you, Jeff, for weighing in.

  13. I think the main thing is to just keep at it. Perseverance.


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