Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Genius, Explain Thyself

Writing about music, Martin Mull is supposed to have said, is like dancing about architecture – Implying that the application of one discipline to the other doesn’t necessarily make sense.

That’s what came to mind when I read Matteo Pericoli’s piece “Writers as Architects” in the New York Times’ Opinionator column, in which he describes his MFA students working with architecture students to create visual representations of the underpinnings of a short story or novel.
While there’s an awful lot of gobbldedygook in his essay, and in the descriptions his students offer of their architectural renderings of, say, Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” – is there really “magic,” as he says, in bringing “two students from very different disciplines coming together, now sharing a common language, knowing exactly where to meet, and why”? – I applaud the basic tenets of the exercise: Studying a novel or short story to examine its basic structure in order to understand if the structure itself lends to the story, its longetivity, its readability, and how readers relate to it.

I’m not much of a planner when I write – I just like to see where things go. Sometimes, they go nowhere, which reveals the shortcoming of my writing style. On the other hand, I have tried to be much more meticulous in planning things out and researching them, and find, for the most part, I’m not able to write the story. Maybe I’m the kind of writer who has to get stuff out on paper before I can discern the structure a story is going to take. That’s why we have drafts – and that’s why architects design their buildings time and again, consulting with engineers and such, on paper before any dirt is ever moved. I could learn from this concept.
I have done some visualizations – line drawings, character trees, etc., as I write, in order to help me see things. I have done some very rough storyboarding as a way to help me see more visually. So I get the concept that getting something on paper besides words is a great way to help a writer be better at the art of writing. But the craft still has to be there.
I’d be interested in being a fly on the wall in one of Pericoli’s classrooms, seeing how and if his students take the concepts they’ve learned and apply them to their own writing. Looking at how other writers write is well and good, but until you can look objectively at how you write, and how you could improve your writing through such analysis, such classes and such projects are really only meant to employ MFA instructors and keep the local arts and crafts supply warehouses with steady customers looking for knives, glue, and cardboard.
That’s the thing, though – is this a useful exercise that gets novels written? One rather snarky commentator on the article says this:
Sometimes when I read the NY Times I feel very inadequate. This is one of those times. I just don’t equate writing with architecture.
I just completed my first novel and am trying my best to get it published. Perhaps I should add a drawing in my query letter to agents. Maybe I’ll get lucky! The novel is titles Passports Out of Crazy Town, so I could construct a few buildings that are slightly askew and a bridge leading to another group of buildings that are perfectly balanced. So much for wracking my brains to write a decent synopsis, just a rendering of this may work wonders. I’ll keep my fingers crossed!
Obviously, a writer who spends too much time with the pre-visualization but who never actually goes on to the writing is probably better off working as a model builder, not as a writer.
Here’s an example of what I mean (once you get past the clichés – doesn’t everyone “push the limits” of their craft? Well, they should. But they shouldn’t say it that way).
I think this is what Pericoli is shooting for in this class and exercise, but ironically he’s too interested in explaining the process to help us connect the dots as to why this is a valuable exercise for writers: Visuatlization leading to better, more vivid writing. I hope he helps his students connect the dots between the exercise and their own writing.

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