I worked in an art studio for almost a decade, a haven for creativity, wisdom, and expression. We exchanged profound words over coffee as we took a moment to distance ourselves from the canvas. And now, with some modification, I apply my teacher’s wisdom to writing.
- “Learn what you love to paint write, because if you create it and others love it, you will be painting writing the same style for the rest of your life.”
- “Paint Write every day. There is no day off when you choose an artistic field.”
- “Even if the brush isn’t on the canvas you aren’t writing, everything you view will become to be broken down into shapes and color story fodder.”
- “A child, when taught piano, is given old masters to learn from before s/he is expected to understand techniques and compose on his/her own. A painter writer is given a brush and a canvas pencil and paper. Their teachers fear squashing their creativity, and end up hobbling them.”
I learned my painting had no voice. I could recreate others’ ideas, but composition lay beyond my grasp. Then I found writing. And my voice.
When you go to a gallery and see a Renoir, you can identify it, as easily as Sinatra on the radio. Likewise, you expect a certain language, genre, and tone when you pick up a book by Shakespeare or Agatha Christie. In the arts, most beginners are given basic rules and tools with little instruction on how to create outcomes in a misguided attempt to prevent crippling creativity that often becomes a shackle to growth.
We have a voice. Our goal as writers is to uncover our best voice and share it with others through our writing.
Other art fields are good examples of how to hone our own unique voice. Music education stands out from the others on how musicians and composers are trained to find their voice. They have a process to follow in order to compose, however there are exceptions. Teachers do not expect 5-year-olds to sit down and create masterworks (though many may dream of finding Mozart). They show their students how to evoke emotions with techniques and tools.
Voice, piano, or oboe, all musicians must be familiar with their tools and aware of when they need to be maintained or updated. The same holds true for artists, who should stay knowledgeable regarding their canvases, brushes, and mediums available.
Writing tools are in an era of transition. We no longer sit and write by candlelight with a sharpened quill pen and inkwell. Vocal software allows you to speak your words onto the page. Scrivener is one of many new writing software programs that help format your words for certain sales venues and can help organize your books by scenes. There is an ever-expanding need for knowledge of social media for a writer’s platform, and methods of honing your craft. There are blogs devoted to writers’ tools. A few posts to get you started:
Like a clarinet player with a cracked reed, don’t focus on the search for a new tool. Know where to look, fix the issue, and then move on. Educate yourself, but don’t let it take time away from creation or creativity.
The devil is in the details. Those little dots and lines of black tell the musician when to play what note, for how long, and how loudly. The notations tell us what the music is supposed to evoke and separate the choppy from languid.
Writers have their own theories. We call them grammar and the rules of writing. Two of the most famous references for these are The Elements of Style and The Chicago Manual of Style. Of course, we can play with and push these boundaries – after we understand what we are breaking, why, and to what effect, just as music students can push the boundaries at competitions. They may play beautifully, but how they push those boundaries will determine if the audience and judges think they are masters making the music their own – or just sloppy. It’s a tricky dance, in rhythm or grammar. If your critique group thinks it’s a typo, your audience probably will as well.
Play the Masters
Teachers make musicians play Beethoven, Chopin, Bach. They slip them some Gershwin, John Williams, and Guns N’ Roses. They expose their students to composers, to learn and expand their repertoire. As writers, we do this through reading. Read quality literature often.
As an exploration, I challenge you to write practice sentences, paragraphs, or short stories in the style of your favorite greats. Then review.
- Who was the easiest to mimic? Tolkien? Twain? Woolf? Dickens? Hemingway?
- Who was the most comfortable? Why?
- What made you uncomfortable?
- Was a specific genre and voice painfully hard to write?
- Is there a genre you are drawn to read?
- What were the most powerful moments in your favorite books?
- Did your writing bring those same feelings to the fore? Why or why not?
- What image and style do you want to pass on to your audience?
- What kind of word, grammar, plot, and character choices will make that happen?
Short exercises show how, why, and when the Masters used the words they did to evoke images and emotion and may lead to the style that will define you to your readers.
Write frequently, strive for improvement, and you will find your voice along the journey.