When Ernest Hemingway was asked who his “literary forebears” were – who were the people he had learned the most from? – he answered with a long list of names that included not just writers but painters and composers too.
This isn’t an old dull question. It is a very good but a solemn question and requires an examination of conscience. I put in painters, or started to, because I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers. You ask how this is done? It would take another day of explaining. I should think what one learns from composers and from the study of harmony and counterpoint would be obvious.
Learn The Craft of Creating
The idea of not just taking inspiration from people in different mediums, but of learning the craft of writing from them, is a really interesting one. Especially when looking at it spoken of by Hemingway of people like Bach, Mozart and Van Gogh (a master learning from masters). Because that’s what we’re all doing, learning a craft, and no matter how great they are, they are all craftsman in their chosen fields, doing work, and we can learn a lot from them.
When you look at it, the work writers do in comparison to painters and musicians isn’t really that different:
Just like writing, music and paintings have to be composed. They are made up of different parts, some of them being the focus of the piece, and all of these parts must be composed and structured in such a way that the sum of the work is greater than all of those separate things.
This is exemplified in the best works of art and music, in that upon seeing or hearing it, you are left with a sense of something. The work as a whole means something – maybe not something tangible – but something that works as a whole. This comes from great composition, and is true of the best works of writing too.
When we write, we are trying to create an emotional response in our readers. That might be to cry, to be happy, to get angry, or even change their opinion or to buy a new product. We have to create that emotional response from somewhere, just like painters and musicians do. On a simple level: the use of light and dark colours in a painting, the shifts of major and minor chords and keys in a piece of music.
Such things are artists using what they have at their disposal to cause something to happen in their audience. What writers have at their disposal may be different, but they work in the same way.
No painter starts with the final oils in the perfect place – they sketch out their work, begin at the bottom layer, work in the background, build up layer upon layer of paint to create depth and detail. No composer stands in front of an orchestra and tells them immediately what to play – they start with a melody, maybe picked out on a piano, and then adds instrument upon instrument, shifts the tempo, changes the melody, repeats the melody.
You can’t just write everything straight away. You have to build from the ground up – start with an incident, a question, a “What If…?” Only then can you build up the layers of character and plot, theme and symbolism and everything in between to create a compelling, interesting story.
We Are All Creators
Don’t just take inspiration from the stories you see told by painters, musicians, film-makers and other creatives, learn about your craft from them too. For they are all creators, exactly as you are, and they have to start from nothing, exactly as you do.
Do you look to other disciplines to learn more about writing? How have you learned your craft from creators of all kinds? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Image courtesy of Dhilung Kirat.