Monday, January 12, 2015

On the Art of Writing

I often lament—mostly to myself because I would not subject my friends and colleagues to my lamentations—the sad fate of having become an artist as well as a writer. True, this seems like the best marriage of talents. I get to write and draw! I do not need to seek out a collaborator to bring my fictional worlds to life, I can do it all on my own (though, I still enjoy working with a collaborator now and then, but that’s a blog post for another day)! They are perfectly complementary skillsets. One supports the other. But I do find that they can sometimes conflict just as well as they work together.


For one thing, it takes so bloody long to get anything done. Writers, you know what a challenge developing a story can be. The first conception, the research and world-building, the character development and plotting, and then the execution of the thing! The eloquent marriage of exposition and dialogue in a well-paced, harmonic arrangement. It can take a long time to get a story just right.

Yes, well, let’s add art to that. Novels, of course, don’t always require art, but consider visual stories like children’s books or comics (I do both). Art and words do not simply support each other, they need each other. To remove one would be to change how the audience interprets the story, to change the medium altogether. Writing can take a while, but in my experience, art takes much, much longer.

I sometimes find it difficult to find the right balance between the two. I love doing both and wouldn’t ever give up either, but now and then I think of how much more I could accomplish if I just focused on one. Think of it: if I were to commit myself entirely to art, then I could use the time I take for writing to further develop my craft and draw more, faster. The same with writing—who knows how many more worlds I could have created by now. Doing both means you must split up your time between the two, and not always equally. It’s very rare that I manage to do both in one day. More often, I will spend long blocks of time—days, weeks even—focused on one or the other. I’ll work on the art for a while, then switch gears, put art on the back burner, and focus on writing.

Why do I work this way? In the recent blog post The Immersion Factor: Comics + Novels, comic writer and novelist Marjorie Liu talks about a similar gear switch in writing comics versus novels. I think it’s the same thing for me in terms of writing versus art: these are activities that occupy slightly different parts of my brain. I need to keep them separate because I think about them differently. In fact, when I’m in the middle of writing a novel, I refuse to draw any part of it. For some creators this is an excellent exercise—but for me, I fear locking down the visual look of my story will stifle my prose. Why work to describe a setting or a character in just the right way when I have a drawing of them? So while the story is in progress, I focus solely on the words.

It’s nearly the same with my visual stories. I will write the script first without worrying about art—for the most part. This is never a completely clean divide because with comics and picture books, the words and art are intricately linked. At times, I cannot plot and write notes without also sketching. And once I have a script completed, I print it out so I can draw thumbnails all over it. As I’m drawing and figuring out the staging and acting, I might make changes to dialogue. It’s a more fluid process. One cannot work without the other.

And can I draw without writing at all? Certainly, and I do all the time. But weirdly enough, I have trouble coming up with stories for those pieces, and they end up existing solely as works of art.

How about you guys? Do you find yourself struggling to balance two skills, and if so, how do you deal with it? 

~Nilah

5 comments:

  1. I may have an ethical question in the background of a story, such as utilitariansm. Is it right to sacrifice the few at the expens of protecting the many. So in that sense, sure its hard as you don;t want to offend a large group of readers. But history is filled with such events, and I remind the reader that such an act is nothing new but still should be questioned and weighed.

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  2. I wish I was a fine artist. So often I have a visual in mind but my lack of artistic skills means I can't transfer it to the page. I can see how writing and drawing can make it more time-consuming to produce a finished product. You're an amazing artist, Nilah. Seriously.

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  3. I wish I had two talents to balance! However, in my corporate career I had to wear many hats at the same time, so I know what you mean. Like you, if I really wanted to make progress I had to dedicate blocks of time to one thing at a time. I found it was easier for me when I scheduled the blocked time on my calendar, then I knew that would be when I focused on that one item. I love seeing your art - just wow.

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  4. So glad you shared artwork, Nilah! I am in awe of ppl who can think something and just draw it. I have minimal (very minimal) drawing skills, but they only work if I look at something. Is there a term for this I wonder? Besides just bad, lol! I've never thought about how doing the writing and artwork would make something take so much longer- but it's certainly understandable! As for two skills, nope. My other passion besides writing is planning and hosting events, but besides birthday parties, I rarely entertain.

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  5. So the two pictures that were included, I've got to know the stories behind them. Or are they the storyless "pure art" you were talking about?

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