Story and Metaphor in Art Form: How Writing and Painting Whisper or Shout Their Truths

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world—C.S. Lewis

conifers in the mistA short while ago I painted on a canvas for the first time in over twenty years…okay, thirty years. It was a thrilling experience but also refreshing and freeing to use a different medium to express myself and tap into that place—that force—that resides inside us and speaks to us.

Part of the thrill was that I was being coached by a good friend of mine who is a master painter and teacher. What’s interesting is that while she instructed me on some of the painting methods, it struck us both how many similarities existed in composition, technique and structure between visual art and storytelling.

Take direction, for instance. A writer uses plot and subplots to move a story and its characters through a textured and colored tapestry of theme. According to my friend, every painting flows, often directionally (like many photographs) from the lower left to upper right, leading the eye from one place to another, exploring a theme, idea or emotion. Plot is motion. So is the paint brush.

You think only writers tell stories. Well, look again at visual art. Every work of art expresses an artist’s feelings, thoughts and emotions; an artist’s story. We are all stories, after all, and we all have many stories inside us. The writer’s medium is the word; the painter’s is the visual image. Isn’t it a truism that a picture is worth a thousand words? The range and type of story varies equally in both media. For instance, writing ranges from poetry or poetic prose (e.g., Ulysses by James Joyce) that requires substantial interpretation to allegory (obvious symbols) or creative non-fiction (like this blog post) whose artistry lies mostly in its composition and reporting style. Paintings also display a range from the poetry of abstract or surrealistic art (e.g., the surrealism of Salvadore Dali), which requires more interpretation, to realistic “photographic” art whose interpretation lies more in its composition (e.g., the detailed realism of Tomislav Tikulin).

The “language” that writers and painters use finds its parallels in form, structure and intent.

For example, let’s take metaphor. The writer uses one concept or image to evoke the feeling of another; “raining cats and dogs” for instance. The painter can evoke the feeling of one medium with another, achieving the same effect through metaphor—producing a stronger more compelling image through oblique metaphor and another perspective. For instance, a painter using acrylics may evoke the tone and emotion of a watercolor by using soft brushstrokes or another medium (e.g., using a sponge or cloth to apply the paint) and lighter softer colors to achieve that signature wash.

A story’s depth is achieved through animating three-dimensional characters that reflect a multi-layered theme. A painting’s depth works through the dance of light, shadows and textures and the use of techniques like fading and detail. Chiaroscuro in story and in painting play on contrast, perspective and the interplay of light and color to pull the viewer and reader deep into the artwork.

Painters echo elements from one part of a painting to another to make it cohesive and provide a “complete” piece that is ultimately satisfying to the viewer. Painters do this by using repeated elements like shapes, curves, and color schemes to get the same flow, or using a faded version of a similar image elsewhere. Techniques that writers use to achieve the same echoing effects for a satisfying story include parallel plotting, mirrored plots, framing (particularly of story promise with climax and dénouement), and themed beginnings and endings.

You’ve heard of writer’s block? There’s also painter’s block; the painter staring at the white canvas, paint brush poised to make that first stroke. Luckily, there’s something called painting-over the dry; not unlike editing a paragraph using the control-shift “x” and “v” key on the computer. Writers continually revise their first drafts, cutting out extraneous exposition and adding thematic details. The writer’s revision process is all about fine-tuning, simplifying and polishing. Painters also “edit” their art through similar means. We even use similar language for both media: “polishing”, “adding color”, “making it flow”, “adding texture”, etc.

conifers in the mistEvery artist is a reporter of life and truth; every artist chooses the medium that best expresses his or her art. I started out in the visual arts. I was all ready to pursue a fine arts degree in university to become a commercial artist. Then, right on registration day, I opted out of art altogether and went into the science program. Heck, I went all the way to getting a Masters of Science degree, taught university science courses and consulted in the environment. Now, here I am writing science fiction and eco-fiction and teaching writing to engineers and scientists and science fiction writers. Cool, how we choose our path…

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Moving From Prosaic to Spectacular

woman-writing-a-bookWhat makes some writing stunning and other writing lackluster? Mostly, it’s the language—the words—you use. And, it isn’t just what words you use; it’s how you use them. Here are a few things you need to consider when translating your work into something that “sings”.

Use Active Verbs and Reduce Modifiers

Many writers, not just beginners, slide into the pattern of using passive and weak verbs (e.g., were, was, being, etc.). Then they add a modifier to strengthen it. It doesn’t. Actively look for strong, vivid verbs. This is the key to good writing. Active and powerful verbs move a story forward. For instance, which version is more compelling?

Jill was walking quickly into the room.

or…

Jill stomped into the room.

The second example not only more quickly and efficiently demonstrates how Jill entered the room, but demonstrates with what attitude. There is no substitute for the use of powerful, appropriate verbs in sentences.   

Avoid Excessive & Meaningless Prose

Novice writers often use too many words to describe an event, action or scene. An overabundance of words slows down the story and obscures plot and action. Excessive prose includes:

Repetition: many beginning writers will often first tell then show in a scene. You don’t need to do both; trust the reader to get the “show”.

Extraneous words: e.g. “he started to think” instead of “he thought”; use of the obvious such as “she saw the big man lying on the bed” instead of “a big man lay on the bed” (“she saw” is implied through her POV). This second example also demonstrates how you can shift the readers’ attention from “her seeing” (in the first phrase) to “the man lying” on the bed (in the revised phrase). This simple change can create a much more powerful sentence through the seamless shift in reader attention.

Dull description not related to plot: I recently edited a writer’s over 400-page urban fantasy that contained far too much ordinary detail. Detail that, in small doses, may have enlightened the reader on the qualities of the protagonist; but in larger doses ground the narrative to a boring halt.

When you look for a more efficient and purposeful way to say something, you cut out unnecessary detail. Remember that virtually all description should be related to the plot and theme of the story.

Alliteration, Metaphor, Simile, Personification

These devices bring lyricism and cadence and powerful imagery to your prose. However, as with anything powerful, you need to use these judiciously. Use them where you wish to convey a strong image and to punctuate your prose.

Be Mindful of Word Accuracy

More often than you might think, a writer inadvertently misuses a word to convey an idea or emotion. For instance, let’s consider the following sentence, which describes a character’s reaction to a dog being cruelly mishandled:

“What are they doing?” Jack said crossly.

The modifier crossly suggests that Jack lacks compassion; it infers petulant annoyance.

“What are they doing?” Jack scowled.

Scowled still suggests the same icy disdain, though it may have been delivered with false bravado or through genuine discomfort from a hidden compassion. If the writer wished to convey shock, disgust or compassion, the following would better represent that sentiment:

“What are they doing?” Jack said, eyes wide.

Or:

“What are they doing?” Jack stammered.

Avoid Using Words like “Felt” or “Seem”

These “telly” words prevent the reader from directly experiencing the story by imposing a level of interpretation. For example, “he felt himself falling” can be improved to “he fell”. If you want to spice up the phrase, use another verb: “he toppled” “he stumbled” or “he crashed”.

Read your Writing Aloud & Punctuate Your Pauses

It isn’t just a clever metaphor when they say your writing style is called your “voice”; because your readers “listen” to what you write. Reading out loud helps define cadence, tone and pace of your prose and streamlines your writing. When you read aloud, pay attention to where you naturally pause. You may wish to put in a comma, semi-colon or period there.

Size and Vary Your Paragraphs  

Paragraphs are visual elements that help people read; they break up text on a page in logical places to provide white space for reader ease. I’ve heard people quote the “two-inch” rule for maximum paragraph length and I concur. This is one of the reasons some passages are harder to read than others; long paragraphs are more tiring to the eye. Find those logical breaks and put them in. Varying paragraph length creates a more interesting story “landscape” for the reader. Don’t be afraid to go to some extremes like using the one sentence – or even one word – paragraph.

Size and Vary Your Sentences  cool texture

As with paragraphs, overly long sentences can try a reader’s patience and you may lose them entirely. Too many short choppy sentences can also reduce your prose to a mundane level. Varying your sentence length in a paragraph creates the lyricism and cadence that makes prose enjoyable to read.

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Read Nina’s climate/eco-fiction Darwin’s ParadoxAngel of Chaos and Natural Selection.

 

 

Are You a Closet Synesthete?

archetypes01“A person with synesthesia might hear and taste her husband’s voice as buttery golden brown, feel the flavor of food on her fingertips, sense the letter J as shimmering magenta or the number 5 as emerald green,” says the introduction to David Eagleman and Richard Cytowic’s 2009 book Wednesday Is Indigo Blue. The book explores the neuroscience and genetics behind the multi-sensory experience called synesthesia.

In a strange and compelling May 2008 article in Wired Magazine entitled “Poetry Comes from Our Tree-Climbing Ancestors”, Brandon Kelm asks where synesthesia comes from:

“Perhaps [synesthetes] are under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs…Or maybe they’re simply good with metaphors,” he suggests irreverently. Kelm is actually pretty close to the truth, according to neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, who stressed that “what appears as metaphor is a literal sensory experience for synesthetes.” This may explain why synesthesia is eight times more common among poets, artists, novelists and women than the general population. According to Eagleman and Cytowic, one in twenty people experiences synesthesia in a palpable form.

According to Ramachandran, synesthesia developed to help our ancestors climb trees. “Doing so requires a vision-informed mental map of the branches before us,” says Kelm, “as well as a touch-informed mental map of our limbs’ positions. Somehow these have to correlate. Which is quite a trick, when you think about it. Once early primates pulled off that feat of abstraction, it wasn’t long
– evolutionarily speaking — before we were drawing on cave walls and whispering sweet nothings and holding Shakespeare revivals,” Kelm adds pithily.

Synesthesia comes from syn, for together, and aisthêsis, for sensation or perception in Greek. People with synesthesia experience a blending of the senses (e.g., sight and hearing) or of characteristics in a sense modality (e.g., associating colors with written letters). According to Eagleman and Cytowic synesthesia occurs when “a triggering stimulus evokes the automatic, involuntary, affect-laden, and conscious perception of a physical or conceptual property that differs from that of the trigger.” Synesthesia can involve not only the union of two or more different sense modalities, but also different dimensions of perception, such as spatial extension, personality or gender.

Synesthetic Metaphor in Literature

According to Lakoff and Johnson, “[t]he essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another”. However, “… metaphor is not just a matter of language, that is, of mere words. … [O]n the contrary, human thought processes are largely metaphorical” (emphasis in original).

We use synesthetic metaphors all the time, without thinking about it. Examples of cross-sensory (synesthetic) metaphors include: “loud shirt,” “bitter wind” or “prickly laugh”, “dark sounds”, and “sweet smells”. Many of these cross-sensory terms have been so often used to become cliché.

I first made intentional use of synesthesic metaphors in my space thriller trilogy The Splintered Universe. The main protagonist was the human galactic detective Rhea Hawke, who’d been tecked as a young girl with the ability to smell emotions. The premise opened up for me an entire suite of delicious possibilities to describe feelings and emotions through metaphoric imagery and cross-senses (another reason I so love the genre of science fiction).

In the following scene Rhea goes against her first rule of engagement and lets a man into her life:

“Rhea, stay with me, here,” Serge whispered into my hair with sudden excitement. “Move in. Stay.”

I smelled his enticing fragrance of strawberries and musk and knew what I wanted to say.

“I’ll think about it.”

In the next scene, Rhea challenges new boyfriend, Serge, whose past she knows nothing about and he responds:

His face flushed and he smiled carelessly. “I must have dreamt it,” he said, emitting a burst of confusing aromas, a complex mixture of sweet meadow flowers, fishy smell of a lake, and the musk of bog and cottonwoods.

In the scene below, having determined that Serge is not an innocent bystander but a calculating spy, Rhea chases him to haul him into the precinct:

Then I spotted Serge. He’d run to the far end of the room.

Upon hearing me enter, he’d turned and met my gaze head on.

“Rhea!” he shouted, obviously feigning delighted surprise.

I knew he’d recognized me earlier during my pursuit. I’d smelled his spike of excitement. Now I felt him emit yet another smell, a rather pleasant mixture of fermenting fruit and young wine, and felt a thrill surge through me in response. I didn’t show it and pointed my MEC steadily at his chest with my lips pursed in venomous resolution.

A hunting dog will eventually lose its life on the mountain—old Chinese proverb.”

 

The Unity of the Senses

Synesthesia is far more common in children than adults. It is also thought to occur universally in infants during their first few weeks of life, reflecting a brain that is still in the process of differentiating their combined sensory experiences.

Mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz once wrote that our sense perceptions are occult qualities, whose familiarity does little to clarify their essential nature.

Writer Oyang Teng tells us that “long before brain imaging technology showed that even basic perceptual acts involve many different areas of the brain, common observation (and common sense) showed that there is no strict autonomy of any of the senses; rather, they each exist as interconnected aspects in a continuum of perception.”

In his 1927 paper, “The Unity of the Senses” Erich von Hornbostel adds that, “looking more closely, the apparent exception becomes the rule, and one must search in order to find the private property of any one sense.”

Cytowic and Eagleman argue that perception is already multisensory, though for most of us its multiple dimensions exist beyond the reach of consciousness. Reality, they point out, is more subjective than most people realize. Synesthesia is a window on the mind and brain; highlighting the amazing differences in the way people see the world. “The difference between synesthetic and nonsynesthetic brains is not whether cross talk exists” Cytowic and Eagleman note “but rather its degree.”

How about that tingly feeling you get when you hear music you like, or the fact that you salivate when you see salty food? Synesthesia.

If you’re interested in whether you have more synesthesic tendencies than the average person, go to Kelm’s May 2008 article onstone stairway in forest Wired Magazine and take the test. Then let me know…

P.S. The Wired Magazine article is not available on the Internet (I read it the old fashioned way: in print). But here is a site, The Frog Croaked Blue, that will give you similar questions to answer to determine whether you’re a synesthete. When I took the test recently, I was diagnosed as not being a synesthete but with good visual imagery and a rare trait that goes hand in hand with synesthesia.

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.