Monday, December 04, 2006

Paint...or Write...By The Numbers

My wife Kay, whom I call my "second blessing," brought sunshine back into my life after the death of Cynthia, my first wife. I knew that Kay was loving, understanding, and patient, but I didn't know until after we were married that she could paint. I don't mean painting as in "I'm going to paint the house," although she can do that, as well. I mean paint as in "Here's the picture I created from these photos we took on our vacation." She studies and has mastered a number of techniques, but in the end the pictures she creates are her own. No "paint by the numbers" kits for her.

The picture I've posted here is a "paint by the numbers" version of the Mona Lisa. You can see that the general shape has been reproduced, but the master touch of Leonardo da Vinci is missing. It's the talent of the artist that makes the difference.

My friend, Dr. Hugh King, was disappointed when our professional academy decided to "standardize" the lectures at the courses we (and others) taught. The argument was that this way there'd be no variation in what the students were getting. Hugh's reply was, "You can't give somebody the script for 'The Ten Commandments' to read and expect them to be Charlton Heston." In other words, the material may be the same, but the talent of the person involved in the process will make the difference.

What does this have to do with writing? I've just finished reading Elizabeth George's excellent book, Write Away. In it she lists four basic patterns of plotting a novel, plus variations. I was interested to find that my first novel conforms to the pattern of "The Hero's Journey." It also pretty well goes along the lines of Jim Bell's LOCK system, as explained in his classic book, Plot and Structure. But this particular novel was written before I'd read either of these works. Instead, I'd been a voracious reader of good fiction, and I'd apparently subconsciously noted the devices those writers had used. What I did after reading these works, and hearing some very talented writers speak, was to further refine what I'd written, but always trying to keep my own voice and style intact. I didn't just "paint by the numbers."

One of the disturbing things about George's book is that she includes page after page of book excerpts to illustrate styles that she discusses. These are by talented writers whom I could never hope to emulate, and it got sort of depressing reading them. About halfway through the book, I decided just to read the excerpts for enjoyment and appreciation of the talent displayed by the writers. I'll never be a Hemingway, or for that matter, an Elizabeth George. But I can read their work, note devices and styles that might work for me, and then put those into practice using my own voice.

I guess the message here, at least the one I've chosen to believe, is that if I conform to a cookie-cutter style and outline that works for someone else, I'll be like a painter trying to reproduce the Mona Lisa while painting by the numbers. As the late Grady Nutt said in his little book, Being Me, "I am me, and I am good, 'cause God don't make no junk."

You're good, too. Go out and paint your own picture. Follow the guidelines, but don't forget to follow the voice inside you, too. God put it there.

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