The Art Form:

Sense and Imagination – June 11, 2017

Word pile

All art forms bear a certain similarity to each other. For example, they invite creativity: they allow for the expression of individual and personal tastes and interests; they celebrate the introduction of new constructions or combinations of existing ideas and forms; and they expect the artist to explore new methods, stretch current standards, and try novel perspectives and viewpoints. An artist working in any format is presumed to differ in substance and style from every other artist and to explore new ways of interpreting his or her art.

Almost all art forms appeal directly to the senses. For painters and photographers, it’s the visual sense associated with color, proportion, and perspective. For musicians, it’s auditory sense associated with timbre, harmony, and tempo. For perfumers, it’s smell and the associated scents of flowers, organic pheromones, and other chemical-based memories. For chefs, it’s taste and texture, associated with flavors, scents, and the visuals of presentation.

Writing is different, however. In reading a written piece, the image of the type on the page or the feel of the book’s binding is a minor sensory note that is not particularly related to the story. Writing appeals not to the senses but directly to the intellect and the imagination. That’s one reason why books as bound paper, electrons on a screen, or a voice reciting from a loudspeaker can equally carry the content of the work.

Other arts might also tell a story. Tchaikovsky’s ballet Sleeping Beauty presents the recreated visuals, with associated melodies and harmonies, of the classic fairytale. But one can watch the dance for just those graceful movements, or listen to the music for just those blended tones and tempos, and enjoy the ballet without knowing the story. Similarly, one doesn’t have to know the story of Peter and the Wolf or Lieutenant Kije to savor Prokofiev’s works. Indeed, a Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev symphony has no story thread at all, and it’s still comprehensible and enjoyable.

Similarly, you can look at a painting by Monet or Bierstadt and learn something about the environs of Paris or the grandeur of the American West. But you can also enjoy these works just for their color and their use of light and shadow. Indeed, you can also look at any abstract painting for its blend of shapes and colors, because it has no recognizable object and may not even have a unifying idea, and it’s still enjoyable.

When a writer tries to emulate an impressionist painter’s approach in telling a story, the reader is often left unsatisfied. That’s because most readers treat what they are encountering in the words on the page as a form of concrete reality that only differs from real life in that it is simply occurring inside their heads.1 Even a work of fiction draws on images, ideas, emotions, and dialogue that the reader can treat as if they were a form of reality.2 Vague imagery and surreal dialogue—meant to convey foggy or drug-induced impressions and half-remembered memories, without that hard-edged sense of concrete reality—usually create only uncertainty and confusion in the reader’s mind. And when a writer tries to emulate an abstract painter’s disconnected shapes and colors, abandoning story and sense for the sake of pretty words, like a Dadaist poet, the work becomes virtually unreadable. Either that, or it can only be appreciated by readers who care more for innovative and daring stylistics than they do for immersing themselves in the story.

And there, I believe, arises the power of writing over other art forms. More than painting or music, the written word requires the active participation of the reader. A gallery patron can wander from room to room, appreciating this painting, ignoring that one. A concert goer can listen intently to the music or ignore it, letting the blend of sounds wash past his or her ears while thinking of something else. A diner can wolf down an exquisite meal without savoring its flavors or appreciating its presentation. But a reader cannot follow the thread of an article, argument, or story without focusing on the words, absorbing them, interpreting them in terms of his or her own vocabulary, knowledge, and experience, and helping the author create the logical or imaginative structure—the relationship of ideas, or the embodiment of character and plot line—inside his or her own mind.

Unlike the sensual arts, which can stay outside at the limits of our ears and eyeballs, or pass quickly over our tongues, the rhetorical and literary arts must pass through to the brain and work their magic directly on the reader’s insight and imagination. This is where the conscious mind builds its perceptions of the world. Unless this active collaboration proceeds, the words remain inert marks upon the page or sounds spoken into empty air. This need for reader collaboration creates a particular challenge for the writer.

Any artist faces a certain amount of audience resistance. Gallery patrons tend to focus on and gather around paintings that have some familiarity for them, something they can approach as they have approached it before. This is why artist retrospectives and museum exhibits of famous paintings from another era are so successful: the public already knows that it will like and understand what it sees. But the new painter, striving to present some of that individual taste or explore those stretched standards, presents even the most active and receptive viewer with a question mark. “Do I like this?” “Do I understand what the artist is doing?” And ultimately, “Do I care about this?”

Similarly, a musician trying out new rhythms and new blends of harmonics risks having the audience react at first as if they were hearing mere noise. Two hundred years ago, the public and the music critics both reacted to Beethoven’s now-beloved symphonies as discordant and a caricature of other, more familiar composers.3 This may be one reason why many 19th-century composers like Dvorak and Holst took their themes from folk songs and country dances. In many ways, because a piece of music flows across time and at first hearing cannot be stopped, studied, and analyzed the way a painting can, the audience for a new musical work has less chance of asking those probing questions about liking and understanding.

The writer’s challenge is that readers are even more selective. While a person in a museum might glance at a Dali painting, even though he or she cares nothing for whimsically impressionist art, or a radio listener might catch part of a song from a heavy-metal rock band, even though his or her tastes run to country music, a reader is much less likely to pick up a book or a magazine full of stories devoted to an unfamiliar or disliked genre. A person who avidly reads science fiction might never encounter a romance story, and vice versa. And unless the reader opens the book, focuses on the words, starts giving them attention, and follows the thread … the magic does not happen.

Even when the tastes and taints of genre fiction are not involved, such as a straightforward think piece on some popular scientific, political, or economic question, the reader’s mind may have already erected barriers based on his or her previous thinking about the subject. So, to be read at all, to even start the reader’s mind along the thread of the article’s logic or the story’s plot, the writer must create a breakthrough moment. The article must start with a claim or a question that the reader has not thought about before or that ignites new impressions jarring his or her ordered sense of the world. The story must begin with piece of action or a mystery that draws the reader deeper into the plot and characters. And even before that, the book or magazine seeks a dynamic piece of cover art or a gripping blurb to draw the reader inside to the words on the page.

Writing in its appeal to the imagination and understanding, rather than the senses, differs from the other art forms in another way as well. It’s the only form that has no raw materials and uses no instrument in its expression. The painter buys canvas by the yard and pigments by the tube. He or she prepares one canvas at a time and sells it to one buyer only. The photographer and the digital artist might do a little better, in that a pixelated image can be copied, reproduced, and sold many times to many different buyers. The musician plays an instrument or sings inside a venue once for a paying audience whose size is limited by the capacity of the club or concert hall. He or she may have the performance captured as sound waves on tape or in digital format and sold again and again. The chef creates a meal out of selected raw ingredients, working in a single kitchen space, and then sells the product at the rate of one plate to a customer.

The writer, in contrast, has no physical raw materials. Well, in the most basic form, a pen spreads ink lines across a piece of paper, and for a novel that’s a lot of ink and paper. Most writers these days use a computer, where the ink lines become typed characters that flash briefly on the screen, become stored as ASCII codes in dynamic memory or on a hard disk, and get translated into electrons traveling through wires and across the air to the reader’s screen, or become imposed in patterns of ink or tone powder on a roller and spewed out in multiple copies of printed pages. The physical form is irrelevant. Some writers even compose most of the story and dialogue in their heads before ever setting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.4 The writer’s stock in trade is invisible, not even as tangible as the sound waves the musician or the singer produces. The “stuff” of an article or story is built wholly out of the writer’s vocabulary, his or her sense of grammar, syntax, and structure, and an act of pure imagination.

As an idea, the writer’s art from is conceived and produced, and as an idea it is received in the reader’s head. All the rest is energy and electrons. And that is the mystery of being a writer.

1. Actually, all reality occurs solely inside our heads. Our brains make up what we think of as objective reality from visual, auditory, tactile, and other cues brought in through nerves connected with our various sense organs. Yes, the “real world” does exist outside of us, but our perception and understanding of it are a construct as ephemeral—existing only in our short- and long-term memories—as any fairytale.

2. And when that seeming reality tells a story with fantastic, imaginative, or magical imagery, elements, and insights—as if the story constituted a part of the reader’s everyday world—then the pleasurable effect is heightened. At least, it is for some readers.

3. A view that I personally maintain—minus the aspects of caricature—for most of the works of Dmitri Shostakovich. But, ah! I do love his Symphony No. 10 in E minor.

4. I can’t do that, of course, but I still must have some pieces of the story, fragments of sentences and paragraphs, and the voices and partial exchanges of my characters swirling around in my head before I can sit down to write my fiction.