Writing is Art

I know a number of people who don’t get the power of Picasso’s work, or who mock modern art. The most common comments I hear center around the premise that Picasso couldn’t draw, which is blatantly false. Picasso himself was a remarkable artist and he didn’t embark on cubism until the later period of his life. By that time, he had the tools he needed to explore new avenues in his art.

He mastered his skills before he distorted them. He could draw, paint in oils, watercolors and a host of other media. He learned them all.

About a month ago, a post by Natasha Ahmed reminded me that one of my favorite American screenwriters was Aaron Sorkin, not just for the great stories that he comes up, but with the staggering command of language that he wields in each of his shows. He’s most famous for A Few Good Men, Moneyball and The West Wing, but I am currently waiting breathlessly for the next season of The Newsroom. He also wrote at least one other show that I know of, Sports Night. If you watch each of the shows, you can see Sorkin refining his tools, his control of language, much like Picasso’s works map his gradual mastery of his tools.

Unfortunately, I’ve found very few fellow fans of The West Wing, even fewer who recognize the sheer genius of Aaron Sorkin (I’m speaking of my own circle of friends within Pakistan—I may be completely wrong about you!). Shows like Friends, How I Met Your Mother, The Walking Dead, TBBT, Game of Thrones, Pretty Little Liars and Grey’s Anatomy are amongst everyone’s favorites lists. But not The West Wing or The Newsroom, which is a great pity because he can take the most mundane topic and turn it into a work of art. I think that if he chose to write about a rock, I’d be riveted!

One of the best examples of Sorkin’s skill with words is an episode from The West Wing called Galileo. He takes an ordinary, poorly written speech and shows us how to turn it into something magical:

BARTLET: [reads] “Good morning! I’m speaking to you live from the West Wing of the White House. Today we have a very unique opportunity to take part live in an extremely historic event which…”

Whoa, boy…

SAM: [waves and smiles] How you doing, Mr. President?

BARTLET: Who wrote this intro? 

TATE: I did, sir. I’m Scott Tate from NASA Public Affairs.

BARTLET: [gets up and shakes his hand] Scott. “Unique” means “one of a kind.” Something can’t be very unique, nor can it be extremely historic.… Sam?

SAM: Yeah.

BARTLET: [to Tate] He’s gonna make some changes.

TATE: [following Sam] You’re going to clear them with me?

SAM: I doubt it. [to a recording staffer] Write this: “Good morning. Eleven months ago a 1200 pound spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Eighteen hours ago it landed on the planet Mars. You, me, and 60,000 of your fellow students across the country along with astro-scientists and engineers from the Jet Propulsion Lab in Southern California, NASA Houston, and right here, at the White House, are going to be the first to see what it sees, and to chronicle an extraordinary voyage of an unmanned ship called Galileo V.”

You have to watch this scene to appreciate the depth of these words; Rob Lowe does them justice. From ‘an extremely historic event’ to ‘chronicle an extraordinary voyage of an unmanned ship called Galileo V’, this is the kind of writing that should be taught in schools.

A writer’s tools are words. And great writing is all about wielding those words in new and unusual ways that will delight your reader. Picasso may not have delighted everyone, but he was in total control of his tools when he painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. He was enticing us to view the world through his eyes, because a two-dimensional painting is flat—perspective and depth is an illusion created by an artist equally adept at his or her art.

Words create atmosphere, they paint pictures, they reveal harsh realities and images of great beauty. Words create an illusory depth, like Rembrandt, or they can be starkly transparent like Picasso. Both require control of words and lots of practice!

Every published, established and popular around the world will give one common piece of advice to new authors: read. I’m adding to that and saying, watch great shows. Read their transcripts. Specifically, watch Aaron Sorkin’s shows. Reading other books, poetry or plays gives you new ways to approach a scene, a description, a dialogue. It doesn’t mean that you should copy them—even though everything we write has been written before—but be inspired by them.

Sorkin, by the way, is also the master of an understated, low-key humor that requires a double take:

TATE: Look, I don’t want to step on your toes. You don’t want to step on mine. We’re both writers.

SAM: Yes, I suppose, if you broaden the definition to those who can’t spell.