Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The differences between creating visual art and writing fiction.

This subject line came up in my browsing through facebook.

I have several sides to my approach to the topic. On one hand I have a background as a stone mason, working with stone as both an industrial and aesthetic material of expression. On another I have been for a long time a writer, and for me that definition is someone who writes. I started with a desire to be a poet. I move on from there to short stories, flash fiction, novels, essays, magazine articles, list serves, e-mails, business correspondence, yada yada.

Too many years ago I was idle and had not much to do with myself and began doing paper cut collage. I was frustrated in my writing and was trying to figure out a different approach. Regardless, the collages caught on extremely quickly and before I knew where I was at I had a one-person show in a respectable book-art gallery. I sold work. It seemed fitting that combination of books and graphic arts. I got some interest in the collages from a curator at the Hirshhorn Museum. For various reasons I promptly quit doing collages. I did not quit writing, though, and what I learned from the collage work I incorporated into my writing techniques.
What I was working on with the cut paper collages was the delicate line between conjunction of disparate images that when placed next to each other create a narrative mirage... an idea that there is a narrative to be understood -- as you express it is this 'suggestion' of a meaning that in turn the reader of the text needs to fill in. Though an author composes a text, a linear progression for the most part, it is the reader of the text that needs to fill in the meaning. As it is people are hard wired in their nervous system to be either visually or linguistically oriented, and based on that hard wired tendency there is the opportunity for folks to learn to perceive higher levels of complication in the selected media.

For me at this stage in my life it takes me 1-2 years to construct a short story. I do not consider this a problem, particularly, as what I am interested in, starting with the assembly techniques of collage, is to explore the capabilities and characteristics of text that is not translatable to other media... to explore narrative form that by nature forces an exclusion from translation say into film, or music, or painting. I say an exploration of as there are fuzzy lines between what works, and what does not work. I am not so much intent on total exclusion, as to a developed sensitivity to where the boundaries between a word text and other media reside. This exploration I suspect is one of the reasons that for some readers my short stories can come across as inaccessible as in part I am trying to work patterns that break down, slow down, and fragment reading comprehension while at the same time providing an illusion of usually expected narrative techniques. I do not say that this is a good thing. I say that it is what interests me in the art media of text.

I know quite a few accomplished fine artists, sculptors and musicians and find myself moving in and out of their worlds. As a result in my stories I have characters that are artists, or want to be artists.

One character that I remember in particular was a fellow who was doing art by chewing on cucumbers then spitting them out. Most of his work was hopelessly obscure public installations. He was doing this predominantly in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He got two lesbian MFAs who had a front room apartment 'art gallery' to let him do a show with radishes but they all got drunk and ate his work then passed out. Eventually his GF talked him into getting a real job with airport security.


  1. I made a comment on someone's blog recently – God alone knows who (I lose track) – but they were presenting writing as the sculpture within the block of marble. I immediately wrote back and presented an argument similar to the one you do. Not all my writing is constructed this way but the novels and short stories are. The hard thing is getting that original core, thread, whatever you want to call it and then the fun stuff comes, grafting on the details. I suppose some people might just think of it as editing because it incorporates editing but it's more than that. And it can take years.

    I think a lot of younger writers are afraid to leave their work in case it somehow goes off. I watched an interview with John Irving last week where he explained how he works. He in fact welcomes interruptions (usually these come when he need to drop everything to work on a screenplay) because, he says, when he return to the work he always sees things he would never have noticed when he was in mid-flow. I just pasted in a block of text into my latest project that I wrote about eighteen months ago, long enough to practically forget everything I originally wrote. Thankfully it still stand up to scrutiny.

  2. I like your collage a lot. Could you post a few more?

    -- John L.