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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.

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Don’t Get Attached

I studied art in high school (or, the British equivalent: O’ and A’ Levels). We had three-hour classes and I would pour my heart and soul into each work of art, even something as mundane as a painting of a clay pot. I loved it. I loved my finished pieces—my parents loved them, my teachers loved them. We’d get them framed and put them up (to this day, a pencil sketch of mine still hangs in the principal’s office of my old high school). My parents showed them off to every unlucky visitor who happened by. Our teachers taught us to respect our own work, to love it, and to love art. Life, and school, were sickly sweet and I was on top of the world.

scrapsThen, I landed in art school. I now attended day-long drawing classes, and the work was intense (anyone who says art school is easy has never spent a whole day drawing).  I loved it, until the day, after a grueling session, we were told to rip up our works of art. What? Yup, that’s right. Rip them up. Into tiny little pieces. Throw the pieces in the trash. Start over.

This, of course, was after the ‘crit’ sessions we had. See, it worked this way. After each session, everyone put up their finished artwork on the wall, and the whole class (about twenty people), would gather round and criticize each other’s work. Occasionally, the teacher would call in reinforcements—other teachers from other disciplines (sculpture, design, language)—and we’d all learn, in front of the whole class, just what we had done wrong, and how we could improve ourselves. It was a shocking reversal from high school, but it was a valuable life lesson.

At the end of the day, our foundation year in college was just that—learning how to improve. We weren’t allowed attachments to a way of working, or to a particular piece. We no longer thought of them as our ‘creations’ or ‘works of art’, because we knew that if we could do it once, we could do it again. It was drummed into us, in every class, that we could always, always do better.

I never studied creative writing, but I suppose it must be pretty much the same. Every sentence crafted by a writer must be like a work of art, and to have someone come along and rip it apart must be like tearing up a painting.

But it takes a little bit of confidence for a writer to recognize, like we did in art school, that writing, like drawing, is a skill easily replicated and improved upon. You may have written a beautiful paragraph, but know that with a little bit of help, the next paragraph will be better, and the next book will eclipse your first one. Like art, writing requires practice and an impartial eye to allow us to be all that we can be.