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"Working on a Novel About an Artist? Write Like a Painter"

Literary Hub, 2019


When Pablo Picasso was 19, his best friend killed himself. The struggling artist soon began wandering from the Montmartre apartment where he was crashing in 1901 to the Saint-Lazare women's prison and sanitorium. The bleak facility's inmates often had been arrested for solicitation or petty crime, then detained because they carried syphilis, which back then was an incurable disease that might lead to blindness, disfigurement, madness or death. Tumbling into a cavernous depression, Picasso decided to paint the people he found confined here, many of them mothers locked away alongside their children.


While writing The Blue Period, a novel exploring the years during Picasso's youth when he depicted the downtrodden in nocturnal shades, I drenched myself in these haunting Saint-Lazare portraits—Femme aux Bras Croisés, Femme Assise au Fichu, Maternité—and reflected on the means by which the canvasses so concisely express the troubles of our existence.


How might writers, I began to ask, bring such poignancy and pathos to the page?

Novelists and painters each endure trials in rendering experience and attempting to convey meaning. The latter calling, however, gives rise to some distinct fixations: using light, shadow, color, contrast, texture, perspective, gesture and facial expression, for example, to evoke viewers' strong sentiments. In addition, canvasses provide tightly constrained spaces for painters to accomplish their work, so composition becomes paramount. Writers will relate to these challenges, but we don't always confront them with such fanaticism—until we set out to write about artists. Then arrives the obstacle of trying to absorb these obsessions so that our books share the same intensity as those indelible pictures we covet.


To draft her novel about Vincent van Gogh, for instance, Nellie Hermann pored over a trove of his letters, hung prints on the wall, and went for long walks just as the artist had—all while visually deconstructing everything in sight. It was during one such trek in the countryside that Hermann paused to look out at a field of tall grass—watching the way the light hit it, scrutinizing how the rhythmic movement of the blades blurred their individual colors.


When I read the breathtaking passage in The Season of Migration that this meticulous dissection inspired, I could only compare my feeling to the frisson of rounding the corner at a museum and suddenly gazing upon one of van Gogh's works.


In studying van Gogh's correspondences, Hermann said, it's clear how closely he observed everything inside his environment, which is a quality writers should strive for.I phoned Hermann in Paris recently to let her know how much her novel moved me after my years of endeavoring to write like a painter. We talked about Williams Carlos Williams, who might be considered the patron saint of such pursuits, and I told her that her book frequently reminded me of the poet-and-sometimes-novelist's insistence, "Say it, no ideas but in things"—to shun concepts, that is, and instead find significance in constellations of objects, people and animals, just as artists have done for centuries.


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