Of Museums and Writing Unseen

de Young Museum fŸr schšne KŸnste in San Francisco, USA, Architektur von Herzog & de Meuron, de Young Tower, AdministrationsrŠume des Museums und Ausssichtsplatform in der 8.Etage | de Young Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, USA, architecture by Herzog & de Meuron, de Young Tower, administration officies and observation deck on 8th floor
de Young Museum, San Francisco

“I’m especially interested in people who quit drawing a long time ago and hoped some would be interested in the class. I have a theory I’m trying to work out about bringing drawing back into someone’s life—which is different than teaching them to draw. I’m interested in using the drawing that is already there, is still there in spite of everything.”  (Lynda Barry, Syllabus)

When people ask me how my writing is going, I sometimes tell them that I’ve been learning how to draw. That is, I’ve been learning how to write what I see and don’t see. There are many ways to do this, but there’s one way in particular that I return to over and over:

I go to a museum or art gallery, pencil and notebook in hand, and study the art. Artists (painters, photographers, sculptors, collagists, etc.) give writers a tremendous gift; they have spent months or years crafting a compelling scene. And in this scene is: composition/setting, facial expressions, body language, clothing/costuming, hairstyles, historical context, a snapshot into a unique moment of time. For writers, not having to invent all of these elements whole-cloth in a written scene is a huge energy and time saver.

Borrowing from artists provides more than just interesting scenes, however, something I did not anticipate when I went to the De Young several years ago and did my first draw-writing exercise. It was a crowded Thursday. Midday. I had to peer over the heads of clumps of sixth graders ogling at paintings of bare-breasted women holding babies. I was writing quickly, focusing my eyes on each painting and not looking down at my notebook as I wrote. I studied each painting with the zeal and energy of someone who needed to do this to breathe. I let the sixth graders bump into me as they moved about. If someone tall stood in front of me, I stretched my neck and kept my eyes laser-beamed in on the painting, feet firmly planted. I kept this up until I finished all of the exhibits. I didn’t read the work until I sat down to eat my sandwich at the café.

Oakland Museum front
Oakland Museum of California (OMCA)

For the most part, I didn’t recognize what I’d written. Sometimes I recognized times when I’d been distracted for a moment, and in order to return to my focused zeal I just wrote lists of things that I saw in the painting or heard around me. Most of my sentences were fragments; just a handful were complete sentences. But what surprised me was the lyricism in the prose. Until trying this experiment, I hadn’t felt that my writing held much music. My observations about the world had been relatively flat. But when I saw what I’d draw-written, I was astounded at the odd (in the very best way!) word-pairings, the compelling contradictions, the vivid descriptions, and the sometimes very funny idiosyncrasies that I’d invented for the characters in the paintings… all written by my own hand!

For several years now I’ve been going to museums with the purposeful intent of doing this exercise. And I call it an exercise because I’ve also taken this practice out of the museum. When I write at home, I sometimes type without wearing my glasses. Those of you who also have -7.5 vision will know how terrible my eyesight is. So I write in this sort of haze, write until my fingers are tired. If you have perfect 20/20, you can also dim your computer screen until it’s blacked-out and try typing without seeing! Or, for those of you who cannot touch-type, this exercise was made for you. Your only goal while typing: don’t look up! F*#k the home row!

In relation to Carson’s fabulous piece on Revision, I sometimes set aside what I’ve just typed “blind” and don’t look at it for a day or so, maybe a week, a month!  I’ve found that typing without seeing helps me to turn down my internal editor, the one that wants me to fix every comma, misspelling, or seemingly nonsensical sentence, that strictly forbids sentence fragments. The more I do this, I’ve found that when I return to writing with my eyes wide open I do so with a little less constraint, a broader vision, and less pressure.

OMCA interior
OMCA interior

If you try these exercises, I hope that, first and foremost, you will have fun! There is no way to get these wrong. And if you are interested in practicing more techniques to get you writing or seeing the world in different ways, come and check out my East Bay workshop series in August, Stone and Story. I hope to see you there!

A money-saving hint: At museums, flash a student ID to receive a discount on your tickets. Or go with a generous friend as their guest (as I have done with the poet-writer-artist extraordinaire, Rayne O’Brian) who has a yearly membership pass. Or attend on a free day!

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