Wednesday, April 18, 2012

P is for: Portraits and PHHHTTH!!!

"Inspiration is for amateurs."
Chuck Close

So yesterday as I spoke with my mom about my current WIP, she blurted out, "Inspiration is for amateurs." I was a bit taken aback by this, since my mother is never derogatory about me or my efforts. She immediately clarified her statement, saying she'd recently heard of this artist named Chuck Close and shared his story and why this statement of his is profound in more ways than one. Mr. Close, born in 1940, suffered through several difficulties as a child and youth, including losing his father and discovering he had Prosopagnosia. It's a neurological disease where his ability to recognize and remember faces is almost nil. Yet look at some of his art:
What looks like a large photograph, even in the extreme close up of the eye, is in fact acrylic on canvas. Mr. Close has, for his entire career, painted hyper realistic portraits. For him, this need to recreate faces in fact helps him recognize people. That minute focus, constant concentration on bits and pieces of a face eventually brings the whole face into view.

But in 1988, his life crashed around him. During an awards ceremony, he felt a pain in his chest. After the presentation, he crossed the road to the hospital, where he suffered a such a severe seizure he severed his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. After years of therapy he has regain the partial use of one arm. An assistant tapes a paint brush to his wrist (NOT his hand, which is unusable), and Mr. Close continues to paint.

From far away this portrait is still amazingly accurate, though in a more pixelated way. But look at the close up of the eye. Each of these "pixels" is precise, its colors chosen with care, its intensity and placement deliberate. Is his art "less" or "more" now because up close you can see the forms used in it? In my mind, they are both masterpieces.
I wanted to bring these two pictures up to make a point. When I was a reader only, looking at books as some mythical creature springing forth in perfect form from the mind and hands of an author, books seems like the first picture. I could see no flaw, no spot where the skeleton was visible. And when I started writing, even as recent a few months ago, I would look at the books I would read, and even at the rough drafts of other writer's work, and wonder, "How did they do that?"
But like his post injury paintings, the underpinnings of writing are becoming clear to me. It is obvious now what I must do to get from A to Z. There is no waiting for the muse to come to me, baring a platter of sweet morsels to tempt my writing palate. No waiting for inspiration to strike. Instead you have to do the hard work. You have to create the portrait of your character pixel by pixel, brush stroke by brush stroke, until the whole picture becomes clear. And it doesn't matter how long it takes (these portraits took years to do). What matters is that you write everyday. Everyday. EVERYDAY. Even if, like me, you don't write on the weekends (that's my family time), I still write other things like journal entries. 
Then you can, like I am beginning to, give a great big PHHHTTH  to the lousy idea that you had to wait for your muse to show up whenever she wanted. It's the other way around. She was always there, she's just waiting for your butt to be in the chair. You practice listening to the whispers of the muse by using your writing muscles every day. Period. And that's when inspiration comes, when you are in the throes of wrestling with your WIP, when characters reveal aspects of themselves they would never have if you'd just come once a month like half hearted visiting teaching. Who are you going to bare your soul to: the people who say as they run out the door "Call me if you need anything", or the friend who sits with you, listens to you, cheers you on in the good times and holds your hand through the bad? It's the same with our characters, plot, and whole story.
So sit down. Write. 'Cause inspiration is for amateurs.


  1. What a great comparison! I know what you mean about being able to see the "underpinnings" of writing. I've discovered that I'm far more critical of writing now than I used to be. I am currently reading New York Times Bestseller, in fact, and getting irritated because some of the secondary characters are so 2-D. I mean, I know they're not really central to the story (they just kind of facilitate certain parts of the action), but their flat personalities are such a contrast to the depth of the MC. It's irritating me! It's helped me to see how important it is to give everyone their own voice in my WIP, even the minor characters.

    I really love your comparison to Visiting Teaching at the end- I love the idea that by writing every day you build a relationship with your WIP and that it can "trust you" with its secrets. I will remember that. :-)

  2. What an amazing artist to quote from. I agree, inspiration is for amateurs. I feel like the inspiration comes after you put in the work, or while we are putting in the work, wrestling with our WIPs, as you said.

    Thanks for the "inspiration"!

  3. "She was always there, she's just waiting for your butt to be in the chair."

    So true!!! Thank you for sharing your thoughts.



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