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Structure: The Lost Art?

I started college as an art major. I lived in a small town and began a long educational stint at a small college, which had exactly two art professors. One was the 3D instructor—pottery and sculpture, which I was not so into. I wanted to draw and paint. So I spent most of my time with the 2D art teacher—a gruff, critical guy who seemed to never be able to explain exactly what was wrong with a piece, just that you hadn’t put enough of your “soul” into it, or you needed to “color outside the lines” more. He was also into trash. “Found objects” were his medium, and he could often be spotted rooting through the bins outside the art building scavenging treasures to incorporate into his “art.”Found Art

I say “art” in quotes, yes, because I could not tell exactly what his art was. One creation he displayed proudly in his office was a board nailed on the wall holding a tangle of red wires, some prickly stuff that looked like steel wool, and clumps of brown feathers. His students dubbed it (behind his back) “Road Kill in Mixed Media.”


One day, when we were reading about Picasso and how he’d progressed from realism to abstraction during his career, I came across a line that went something like, “Realism provides the foundation for mastery which then allows artists to expand in whatever direction they choose.”

There. That’s what I’d been sensing all along. I pointed this out to my professor and said, “I feel like I need to know how to paint something realistic first, before I try to weird it up.”

He was, to put it mildly, offended. More like defensive. Actually horrified. He blurted out that this was a bourgeoisie concept that had been around for centuries and it was, essentially, crap. Learning the basics, he said, would only enable you to produce cookie-cutter, formulaic art. Then he fell back on his favorite dada-ist phrase: “Anything the artist spits is art.”

Okay, really? Not only is this gross, but come on. Whatever you throw out into the world is golden just because you proclaim yourself gifted? That’s crap.

I ended up changing towns and colleges and majors until I finally got a degree in creative writing. I took countless workshops, all of which were eye-opening and useful. Yet in all the talk of novel writing (and there wasn’t much—we concentrated mainly on short stories) there was still very little teaching of structure.

I still feel kind of bitter—okay, plenty bitter—about that. Because to this day I’m still struggling with it. I get that people don’t want to teach something considered too conventional. But I’ll take formula over floundering any day. Like Picasso said, I’d rather come to learn something so well that I can then break apart its underlying foundation and have it still support all the crazy cube-like heads and feet above.

The book I’m reading now (Save the Cat!, which I’ve mentioned previously) gives such strict guidance on structure it tells you on what page a key element in your story should take place.

Actually, your script—this is a screenwriting book. I wish this guy would write a how-to on novel structure and tell me on exactly what page my main character should make a life-altering decision, or bottom out, or find enlightenment.
No spitting

My old art professor would spit his artistic saliva at me for that one. But I’d rather have the tools to create what will stand upright and endure, not what’s become a mass of wires and feathers that I have to now go back and try to pry up from the roadside.

It’s so much easier if you build the foundation from the start. Structure, I’m starting to think, is EVERYTHING.

What do you think?

–Cathy

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3 thoughts on “Structure: The Lost Art?

  1. aj hillyer on said:

    Cathy, I think you (and Picasso) couldn’t be more correct. You have to understand the tried-and-true before you decide you need to deviate from it. There is wisdom in practices that have stood the test of time for centuries of artists, and incredible arrogance in believing one doesn’t NEED to understand what has happened before.
    This all reminds me of some really good advice a fiction workshop leader once gave our group about grammar and deviating from it, etc etc. “You better damn sure know the rules before you depart from them. Then depart all you want if it works in your story.”
    You know what he means: A reader can tell the difference between a writer who doesn’t know grammar and one who takes artistic liberties with it….it’s pretty obvious….

  2. I want to know the rules. I gain insight and inspiration from reading fine literature. But I don’t want to be handed a blueprint. Nor be told, “Here follow this to the letter and you’ll achieve story.”
    No, I want to get mucky; I want to experiment. Because I know the first draft might be crap but it does get better… And I also know how much fun walking the unmarked trail is. It…it—okay, there’s no other way to say this—fulfills me.

  3. AJ, we love your fiction workshop leader–Learn the rules, then send them crashing down. Leanne, we love your chutzpah and your quest for fulfillment. It all works toward the same end: Do your damndest to make it work in whatever way you can. Thanks for chiming in!

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