I learned how to write fiction by understanding the language of visual art. As an artist, I was trained to capture the nature of my subject by amplifying the qualities that make that subject distinct or noteworthy. I may choose, for example, to accentuate the white of shimmering moonlight on the ocean, or exaggerate the droop of the lower eyelid to capture a downtrodden mood. When I paint or sculpt a character, I need to recognize what gives a face a certain expression or a body a certain gesture. I need to decide which features to heighten in order to fully capture the character. When I write, I do the exact same thing.
At Rhode Island School of Design where I studied, we spent a full semester learning about color. If you put one color up against another, both change. Light changes color in surprising ways—you can see a wider range of it on an overcast day. The high, bright light on a sunny day tends to wash out color. And any artist knows color affects mood. Red evokes heightened emotion: aggression, anger, and embarrassment. Reading the word, ‘red’ (or any color) has the same effect on the brain as seeing it. Why, then, aren’t writing programs teaching color to their students?
I took figure drawing and anatomy in school. I understand how a body moves through space and how to capture a gesture with very few lines. As a fiction writer, I use this skill all the time. Body language can reveal more about character than almost any other detail. Over half of what we understand about a person, we understand through body language.
Before I became a writer, I had a long career as a sculptor, sculpting superheroes and cartoon characters for DC Comics, Nickelodeon, and others. The many years I spent adding and subtracting and carving away bits of clay were exceptional training for the work of a writer. The process of finding a character in a hunk of clay is the same as finding a story on a blank page. You must work a piece from all angles and recognize the danger of focusing too quickly on details when the structure and form have not yet been fully established.
Color, shapes, forms, contrasts of light and dark—these are my native language, but the truth is, this is the language of literature, too.
Unlike other art forms, the writer has nothing to interact with. There is no clay or paint or instrument, there is no stage set or audience. What the writer has to work with is the brain. Once the writing is done, the artwork comes to life in the reader’s mind as he or she encounters it. The experience of literature is a singularly cognitive one and so long as this is true, a keen sense of vision should be more important to the fiction writer than any other skill, because cognition is predominantly visual.
We see with our eyes but also, and often more powerfully, with our imagination. Think back to the radio drama “War of the Worlds,” the October 1938 episode of The Mercury Theater on Air. Adapted from H. G. Wells’s novel and narrated by Orson Welles, the controversial broadcast painted such a vivid picture, it had some listeners convinced that an actual alien invasion was currently taking place.
Language can elicit a vast array of sensory perceptions, but what it does most effectively is elicit images. This is why great literature inspires us to reimagine it into other visual art forms—films, plays, comics. When we read or hear a story, we build pictures in our brains to make sense of it. This ability is stored deep within our DNA. The first written stories were told with pictures through cave paintings. Our brains have evolved to understand the world through images.
Visual writing has power beyond mere image making. How well the writer makes the reader see has a direct impact on how much the reader feels. How moving a story is has little to do with the writer’s command of language and much more to do with how well that writer can make the reader see.
When characters and their stories are written so that we can see them, mirror neurons fire off in our brain allowing the reader to empathize with what they are experiencing. In fiction and in life, these empathy neurons, as they are often called, give us the ability to feel for one another and are activated by what we see, not only with our optical eyes but also with the eye of the mind.
When we see Serena Williams lean back, raise her racket, and set her stance for an over head slam, mirror neurons fire off in our brains and make us feel what it’s like to smash that ball ourselves. For just one minute we get a glimpse into what it must feel like to have such power.
Seeing doesn’t just unlock our ability to feel excitement and pleasure. It unlocks our ability to feel the pain of others. It’s why we flinch when we witness someone fall.
Mirror neurons literally allow us to enter another person’s point of view, which is a premium in storytelling.
Flannery O’Connor once said this: “Everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it.” When we truly see each other, we see ourselves. And in that reflection, we see everything.
Understanding this was part of O’Connor’s brilliance. It’s what allowed her to write about the Misfit in her famous story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” with such compassion. He kills an entire family with no remorse. But because O’Connor wrote that character so we could see him, we feel for him. Our hearts break for him, even if just a little.
O’Connor attributed her “habit of art” as a writer to the skills she developed as a visual artist. “Any discipline can help your writing: logic, mathematics, theology, and of course and particularly drawing. Anything that helps you see, anything that makes you look.” O’Connor often spoke about fiction writing as if it were a visual art. And in my view, it is.