Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Cross-training for Writers

the view from Power House, our home at Windhorse Farm

A couple of years ago I took oil painting classes. They really helped me with understanding how to build a novel. How? Because I did the same thing on my paintings that I did on my novels which was to concentrate on one area and neglect the rest until I had this perfectly polished tree that stood in stark contrast to the feebly executed  field around it. Or I got down my subject's eyes exactly right but the rest of their face and body wasn't right. My teacher (the ineffable Christopher Webb) taught me to work on all areas of the canvas each time I went to my easel. There were other things I learned too that helped with my writing - things like 'don't try tricks until you master the techniques' and 'paint what is actually there instead of what you think is there' but that first one was the most helpful for me.
Cross-training is a technique employed by many athletes. Football players take yoga and find it increases their concentration and balance. Wrestlers swim, basketball players run and so on. Sometimes you don't need to go too far afield to cross-train.
Monday and Tuesday I went to Windhorse Farm with a playwright and four actors. We took the playwright's play and she and I developed a way for the actors to work with it so that the playwright could see where the writing could use some work. It was intense, joyful and surprising in many ways. It got me to thinking about how one could do something similar with a novel.
Playwriting is a highly collaborative art form. The playwright begins with an idea and may write the entire play without any feedback but that's about it - once it is chosen to be produced the playwright better park her ego and prepare to see her play transformed. The directors have opinions, the actors want things a certain way, the producers, the stage-managers, the set designers - all of the creative team will have its way with the play. The best way that I know to work with this is whole-heartedly. Abandon your preciousness - don't even worry about killing your own darlings because others will be happy to do so!

the creative team goes for a walk in a blizzard!
That is one reason I decided to attend to fiction writing in the last few years. I loved the process but it is rather daunting from time to time. But...
on the other hand...
the energy that the four fabulous imaginative actors brought to the script was VERY good. They were willing to embody a process that the playwright and I had pretty much invented. We wouldn't even let them read the play until we'd worked for eight hours. We got them to improvise certain parts of the play and really start to understand their characters first. How might I do that with my novel? I'm not sure but I am going to put my mind to it.
Any ideas?
By the way - I'm definitely going to figure out a way to go to Windhorse Farm for a good long writer's retreat - fantastic place.

30 comments:

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I love the idea of cross-training for writers. :) Thanks for sharing what you learned from art classes and your theater experience. I think of books as a collaborative effort--so much goes into them from so many different people (from editors to marketing people to art departments.)

Margot Kinberg said...

Jan - What a terrific idea! There's no doubt to me that unleashing one's creativity and expression in one field can help in another, like writing. Thank you for sharing your art/theatre experiences - what a great way to "light the flame" :-)

Carol Kilgore said...

Your days at the farm sound perfect - and such a great idea. When you put minds together, it's amazing what you can achieve.

I'm a pantser who has decided to become the best non-pantser I can be. I'm already creating lists and ideas for my next WiP. I always have trouble with my protagonist, so I've decided to let her blog - in her own Word file only - to better learn her voice and about her. I hope that works. I'm also going to brainstorm with my CP's and my sister to make sure GMC's work and to fill any plot holes, which usually dot the landscape of my first few drafts.

Words A Day said...

Sounds wonderful, and I enjoy your ideas about cross training for writers - Flannery O Connor took life drawing lessons to improve her writing...you're in good company! I agree that they way we approach a painting is similar to the way we approach our writing...I hate to know how either will turn out in the end, I tend to work instinctively and quickly, and then spend ages figuring out what its all about...standing back works well at that stage, or turning the work on its head...its funny you posted about this, its exactly how I tried to solve a problem in my novel and I wrote about it in my stylish blogger post!

Stacy Post said...

Jan, you find the most amazing places! I want to go too! :) I love the idea of cross-training, I just wish I had more time to do it. Maybe when the chicks leave the roost?

Hart Johnson said...

Oh, this sounds like a great experience! I like your painting lessons, too. I don't have any other talents, really, so can't turn to painting or sculpting or something, but maybe other KINDS of writing. I tend to get tunnel vision and have to do one thing at a time and just do my work in layers.

Tina Laurel Lee said...

I love this post. The cross training makes so much sense to me. I always want to draw my novel - although I never quite know what this looks like. But I have never thought of it this way - as a way to see myself and how I work differently - I have always seen it as a way to see my novel differently. Your post makes me think I have been approaching it all wrong.

This exercise with the play is brilliant, so generous of you all to take the time. Feedback and ways of seeing our work are so essential. We should all have a weekend locked up with our characters!

Suzanne said...

What a great example of taking a painting class to improve your writing. (You're lucky you got a good class. I once took a really lousy painting class.) Why not just treat your novel like it's a play and let actors work it out? In their reading to get a feel for their parts, they should notice some holes.

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