If we’re friends on Goodreads—friend me, I’d like to see what you’re reading—you may know that I’m (slowly) wading through Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit. Don’t interpret my glacial pace with this one the wrong way. The book is just full of gems. I keep putting it down to make notes for a post. At a certain point I just had to give up. Go read the damn thing along with me. It’s about painting, sure, but if you squint it’s about writing books and about everything else you might want to create.
I picked the book up—in Portland’s legendary Powell’s Books, naturally—because David Lynch always points to it as having played a pivotal role in his own development as an artist. What’s good for David Lynch is good for me, except for cigarettes, transcendental meditation, and buttoning the top button of your shirt without a tie, of course.
Henri was an art teacher a century ago. This first excerpt is from an address he made to students of the School of Design for Women in Philadelphia in 1901:
I know men who were students in the Academie Julian in Paris, where I studied in 1888, thirteen years ago. I visited the Academie this year and found some of the same students there, repeating the same exercises, and doing work nearly as good as they did thirteen years ago.
At almost any time in these thirteen years they have had technical ability enough to produce masterpieces. Many of them are more facile in their trade of copying the model, and they make fewer mistakes and imperfections of literal drawing and proportion than do some of the greatest masters of the art.
These students have become masters of the trade of drawing, as some others have become masters of their grammars. And like so many of the latter, brilliant jugglers of words, having nothing worth while to say, they remain little else than clever jugglers of the brush.
Jugglers of words. Yes. This is a big problem. Do you have something to say? Worry about that first, especially on your first draft. Technique is utterly secondary. Usually, phenomenal technique on the page has a lot more to do with revision—i.e. quantity thereof—than with any innate ability to write masterfully on the first go. Get it down and get to the point.
From another essay in the book:
Insist then, on the beauty of form and color to be obtained from the composition of the large masses, the four or five large masses which cover your canvas. Let these above all things have fine shapes, fine colors. Let them be as meaningful of your subject as they possibly can be. It is wonderful how much real finish can be obtained through them, how much of gesture and modeling can be obtained through their contours, what satisfactions can be obtained from their fine measures in area, color, and value. Most students and most painters in fact rush over this; they are in a hurry to get on to other matters, minor matters.
This is the same advice I give every one of my authors. Figure out the big pieces and get them sorted first. The rest of the project will figure itself (relatively) easily out if you get this right.
One last, and then I’m done:
It is harder to see than it is to express. The whole value of art rests in the artist’s ability to see well into what is before him. This model is wonderful in as many ways as there are pairs of eyes to see her. Each view of her is an original view and there is a response in her awaiting each view. If the eyes of a Rembrandt are upon her she will rise in response and Rembrandt will draw what he sees, and it will be beautiful. Rembrandt was a man of great understanding. He had the rare power of seeing deep into the significance of things.
Hint: the model is your idea. Get it?
During nearly every first editorial discussion, an expert (who isn’t a total phony, anyway) will express the concern that some aspect of his or her book has been “done before.”
What authors don’t understand is what Henri expresses here. The idea is wonderful in as many ways as there are pairs of eyes to see it. Different readers need to hear the same idea expressed differently. You are not Malcolm Gladwell. (Unless you are. Loved that thing you wrote about ketchup.) You can’t write like Malcolm Gladwell, nor should you want to. Write like you. Cultivate the “rare power” to see deep into the significance of things.