Friday, December 4, 2009

A Work of Art

Who would walk up to a work of art by Cezanne or a Rembrandt say, "Well, if he'd just added a little more white here, or turned the figure in the other direction, it would be a much better picture." I just finished critiquing the manuscript of one of our group members. She's an excellent writer, and except for noting the occasional typo, I think very carefully before making a suggestion, because like a Cezanne or Rembrandt oil painting, a good writer's work is indeed a work of art.

But the challenge for writers is different than for artists. One or two words in the wrong place can confuse or lose the meaning of a sentence. And if the sentence doesn't work, neither does the paragraph. If a character rages on every page, the reader stops caring, and if nothing much has happened in three chapters, the reader may may not bother to read the next three. Yes, artists can paint over their work, but at some point the picture cannot be changed. Luckily for writers, words can be added, dropped and moved.

I was facinated by the picture in today's New York Times showing the many, many revisions Dickens made to "A Christmas Carol." I read Dickens with great pleasure, never finding him dated or tiresome. Only today did it strike me that this is because he understood revision.

So my present to myself this December is to take the time with my own writing that I take with the work of others. Revision itself is a work of art, and thank goodness, I'm not writing with oil paint.


  1. I'm in the middle of revisions on two different YA projects. Revision is where the "real" writing lives. It's my favorite part, and also the most exasperating, because, as in painting, there is such a fine line between "balanced" and "overworked".

    I love the art analogy.
    You reminded me of a CSPAN broadcast I watched years ago, in which a particular congressman was lobbying for heavy budget cuts to the NEA. He berated the quality of the art being funded, basically saying "we're not talking about Van Gogh here."
    I found that ironic, because Van Gogh of course painted and died in total obscurity, and in his day, there's no way he would have been given an NEA grant.
    Yet all these years later, he's synonymous with great art.

  2. I like your comparison of a writer's work to Cezanne or Rembrandt and am going to take it to heart since I presume it was my manuscript that you'd just finished reading before writing this post!

    Revision is a challenge but it is made easier with a good critique group!

  3. I love revision. I'd rather revise than pound out a first draft. I love moving scenes around, waking up new plot threads, killing off characters. And I think I spend way, way, way more time revising than drafting.

  4. I love the first few revisions of a novel. After that I begin to wonder if I'm editing the life out of it. I lose my perspective. That's where I am at the moment. I'm really ready to finish revisions and send it out. I want to start something new!

    Great post!

  5. I'm still working on learning to love revising. I know critique groups are supposed to be helpful, but I had to drop out of one because I got so any conflicting suggestions I lost sight of my own story, one that I really liked. It's been sitting now about 6 months waiting for me to come back to it and undo all the changes.

  6. Love your art analogy also and it got me to thinking - art restorers can pick up a painting and use x-rays to discover all the changes in design that lie beneath the top layer of oil paint.

    Wouldn't it be fun if we could do the same thing with a printed page in a book?

  7. I took to heart your second paragraph in this post. Sometimes I know I'm reading a good book, but I can't get past small quirks or mistakes.

  8. i need to find that article on dickens - sounds great!