A few months ago I enjoyed a most unusual interview: I got to spend an hour with Tina Bohlman, a well-respected landscape artist in Waxahachie. Now, I had interviewed talented artists before — painters, filmmakers, musicians — but what made this visit unusual was that in a way, I also felt as if Tina was interviewing me. At least, she seemed to understand the writing process well enough to draw parallels between my work and hers.
As she spoke about her objectives as a painter, she compared them with those of a writer. (These are all connected and overlapping.)
1. Tina (and I) wish to convey emotion rather than a mere likeness. For her, that means taking time to absorb the atmosphere of a place vs. just snapping a photo and leaving. For me, it means going beyond a Q&A session, letting my subject talk as I pick up hints about what makes him / her tick. (As a beginner launching into fiction, I spend time with my “imaginary friends,” sorting out their strengths & weaknesses, needs & motivations.)
2. She (and I) want to present a story, not just a set of facts. Again, for Tina, a snapshot of, say, an abandoned commercial building won’t do. She wants to hint at things like: What kind of business was it? Who worked there? Why did it close? That’s what I like to do, get behind the subject’s featured activity and learn the heart of his / her story.
3. Tina talked about giving an intimate presentation vs. an objective, “behind-glass” look at a place’s shapes and colors. For me, again, that means learning and writing about who a person really is. Subjects sometimes call me a “reporter,” and that always surprises me because I see myself as introducing a new friend to the community, not really as gathering news.
Tina also saw how the process of learning to paint well mirrors that of learning to write well.
1. Learning to see what’s there. (Observation skills. We all need them.)
2. Learning to paint what you see. (As a writer, I started out with non-fiction, putting facts into words to practice the basics of communication.) Tina observed that just as I was taking written notes on our conversation so I could remember the details when the time came to write, she uses paint to take “color notes” on location so she can later render bricks, sky or plants accurately.
3. Learning to interpret what you see. (Even in non-fiction, you often have to go beyond relating actions and words to convey the drama in an argument, the tension during a moment of danger, the joy in a reunion.)
4. Learning to paint what works. For Tina, it’s about being flexible with the composition of a painting. She might paint that ugly air-conditioning unit as a shrub or barrel instead, or move things around to better convey the atmosphere of a place. Me? I also have to decide what to omit (I never bother describing my magazine subjects’ mundane activities or irrelevant comments). I also choose what to “plump up” by getting into my non-fiction people’s heads, adding details about the setting that they did not actually tell me (research helps here), or using dialogue where possible rather than just stating what happened.
Perhaps the reason I got so excited about this conversation is that Tina led me to see writing more as an art, like painting, than I had before. Now as I practice and improve upon my skills, I often remember the restful or forlorn or simply lovely scenes that Tina paints so well. It pleases me to think that, in my own way, I also have the soul of a painter.
Thanks for reading,
PS: I’m linking up with my Soli Deo Gloria sisters this week.