There’s a scene in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Mystère Picasso, a 1956 documentary that shows the artist Pablo Picasso at work. The artist starts with random lines, splashes of color. There seems to be no method in what he’s doing, but soon a few recognizable images emerge — a boat pulling a water skier, a woman in a bathing suit, people at a café. As he paints, the details coalesce, but just as everything seems to come together, something goes wrong.
The artist seems to lose control of the work. The painting changes, grows darker, loses continuity. Finally, the master stops, assesses his progress, and says: “This is going badly, very badly, very very badly.”
“Whoa! … That CAN’T be right!”
There’s something therapeutic in that comment. It’s reassuring to know that even the masters stumble, or — as critic James Wood tells us in his sometimes abstruse, often insightful book How Fiction Works: “It’s useful to watch good writers make mistakes.” Both Picasso and Wood remind us that the creative process isn’t linear. It’s rife with experiments, setbacks, and dead ends that often force us to reevaluate and possibly scrap work that has taken hours, days, or longer to complete.
When that happens, consider doing what Picasso does next.
After reassessing the work, he says, “Now that I know where I’m going, I’ll get a new canvas and start over.” And so he does. And this time, his artistic vision clarified from hours of experimentation, he completes the painting.
This week, as I lay down the first exploratory lines of what I hope will become a new writing project, I find myself reflecting on Picasso’s approach. It’s useful to remind ourselves that art requires exploration, and exploration takes time and an ability to step away, reassess, and learn.
Sounds like a good resolution for the new year.
Picasso. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Mystère Picasso, 1956. Spider Cartoon. Gary Larson. The Far Side. Trailer for Le Mystère Picasso.
So it’s December 1997. I’m driving north out of Oakland, toward Bigelow Boulevard and downtown Pittsburgh. It’s a gray day, light snow falling. Colored lights trim some of the buildings along North Craig Street, but it doesn’t feel like Christmas.
Then I see him.
I clear the rise toward Bigelow Boulevard, and there he is—fourteen-feet high and smiling down from a roadside billboard atop the snowy hillside. Red suit, white beard. It’s Santa. Or is it? I do a double take. This guy’s wearing rollerblades, sporting a Mohawk haircut, and throwing a peace sign. I slow down. Look again. That’s not Santa. That’s my dad!
Backstory: My dad lived a double life. Most of the time he was all pullover shirts, chinos, loafers, conventional haircut. You’d never look twice if you passed him on the street. But every now and then he’d get a call from the modeling agency. When that happened, all bets were off. He could become anything, and for a few years back in the mid-90s, one of those things was a kind of new-age Santa for the shopping district of Pittsburgh’s South Side. He’d go in for the shoot, they’d transform him, and a few weeks later—after he’d gone back to his quiet, nondescript life—his bigger-than-life persona would enter the world on billboards throughout the city.
In some ways, it’s much the same for writers.
There are exceptions, of course. Writers like Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal come most readily to mind. But most of us prefer living behind the curtain, working the craft’s hidden levers and switches like the great and powerful Oz. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” we say, speaking through the grand illusion or our creations. It’s the duality that drives our writing lives–the desire to create characters more interesting than ourselves and send them into the world to be known, read, and appreciated while we remain safe behind the veil of fiction.
Which brings us to the picture below.
It was taken at a gathering for a new project that I’ll be sure to tell you about in a future post. But for now, what you need to know is that the picture shows directors Alejandro Brugués and Ryuhei Kitamura in the front, writers Sandra Becerril and the 21st Century Scop in the middle, and directors Mick Garris and Joe Dante in the rear. We all appear to be on our marks, but something isn’t right. I noticed the discrepancy days after the photo was taken. I looked, then looked again.
Can you see it? Look closely.
Is that Mick Garris’s hand on Alejandro Brugués’s right shoulder. Is that Joe Dante’s on Sandra Becerril’s left? No, that doesn’t make sense. The positions and poses don’t line up.
Looking again, I realized something that should have been obvious. There were eight of us in the photo. Writer Richard Christian Matheson had been standing right beside Sandra, but when the rest of us turned to face the camera, he ducked down and assumed the position of the great and powerful Oz–masked from view but nonetheless manipulating the image, adding touches that revealed his hidden presence. Now there’s a writer’s writer.
So what kind of writer are you? Do you foster a public persona to help promote your work, or do you prefer living behind the curtain? Drop me a comment if you have a moment. Facebook and email links are open (see the icons at the top of this page), as are the comment boxes below. I’ve received some terrific responses on my previous posts in this writer-at-work series. Sometime soon, I’ll have to post a compilation of those comments. Until then, watch out for Santas on rollerblades … and scop on!
J. L. Connolly as South Side Santa. 1997.
Frank Morgan as The Wizard of Oz. 1939.
Alejandro Brugués, Ryuhei Kitamura, Sandra Becerril, the 21st-Century Scop, Mick Garris, Joe Dante, and the hands of R. C. Matheson. 2016
“The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”
C.S. Lewis gave that advice in 1937, in an article titled, “Breaking in Print.” But it didn’t originate with him. He got it from his mentor Mary Heaton Vorse, who seems to be the source of the oft-repeated advice.
You may have heard that advice in its more condensed form, a terse little maxim attributed to writers as varied as Oliver Stone and Stephen King:
“Writing equals ass in chair.”
As with most maxims, it’s short, simple, memorable, and frequently offered as sound advice to up-and-comers.
But I’m here to tell you: It isn’t so.
As reported in my previous post, I spent the past six months at my desk, working to finish a book that had been hanging fire for far too long. Taking inspiration from Neil Gaiman, who had put off writing The Graveyard Book for 20 years before realizing he’d reached a point of now-or-never, I decided I either needed to finish the darn thing or admit to myself that it wasn’t going to happen.
So I went to work.
At first, I sat. It seemed like the way to go. Although I often switch off between standing, sitting, and kneeling (in an ergonomic chair), I figured the conventional seated position would help conserve my energy, enable me to channel all my effort more effectively over the long haul. I was wrong. I soon found that rather than channeling energy into the writing, sitting diminished the intensity of the work. Worse, at the end of the day, I felt achy and spent—worn out from maintaining a posture counter to the one that humans are designed for. Before long, I was back to standing.
The changes were dramatic. Aches abated. Focus improved. Page count increased. I didn’t feel spent at the end of the day–a big surprise since my plans to finish the book by the end of the year required spending six-to-eight hours at the desk each day. But best of all, standing improved the book’s pacing, enhanced its action scenes, made me feel like a participant in the adventure rather than a chair-sitting observer.
These were not new revelations. I had been more-or-less aware of them before. But my brief return to sitting had confirmed them. And I’m not alone. Other writers have recognized the benefits of standing. Among them, Ernest Hemingway is perhaps the best known stand-up writer, thanks in part to an iconic image published in Life Magazine (above right) and an interview in an early volume of the Paris Review. But there are many others— Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth, Thomas Jefferson (left) to name a few. And the benefits of standing and writing have been documented for centuries, as noted in an 1883 article from Popular Science. Written by physician Felix L. Oswald, the article “The Remedies of Nature” tells us that “literary occupations need not necessarily involve sedentary habits” and suggests “the alternative of a standing desk.” Clearly, my preference for standing is nothing new.
But where does one get such a desk?
Mine is improvised, cobbled together from found materials–an inverted drawer from a large bureau, the center pad from a dining-room table, a table-mounted armature for a flat-screen monitor. It works surprisingly well. But there’s no need to scavenge and improvise. With more people discovering the benefits of standing, retailers are now offering a variety of standing desk options, from modular add-ons that fit right on your existing desk to standing units designed to completely replace your existing work station. If you’re adventurous, you might even opt for a combination desk and treadmill, which some users claim reduces standing fatigue (which I haven’t found to be a problem). Moreover, if you’re a do-it-yourselfer, you might check out these instructions from the January 1967 issue of Popular Mechanics, which gives detailed instructions on how to assemble the setup pictured here (on right). Naturally, you will probably want to replace the typewriter with your laptop or keyboard-enabled tablet. Lots of options.
Of course, you could just keep on sitting, but before you do, you might want to check out the video below, which presents a compelling argument for getting out of the chair and standing up for your writes. Take a look and let me know what you think. As always, you can chime in via the comment box below or at any one of the contact buttons above.
Until next time, whether standing or sitting … scop on!