Saturday, January 19, 2013

Not Writing Stories

Jan. 12, 2012
Stories take time to write …and rewrite into compelling forms. The deeper I get into illustrating children's books the more impressed I am by what children's book authors do. And if writing stories wasn't daunting generally, the narratives in picture books are brief and they often encompass a moral and emotional world that doesn't have room for the details and elaboration that longer story forms allow and require. I'm not totally inept: I can write a caption to go along with a painting. However, ask me to make up a story about my favorite characters and I am soon adrift and "in irons" on a sea of possible narratives. The question is: Why do writers write?

Our brains are creating stories all the time: assembling meaning out of a torrent of experiences that our senses capture. Our eyes and ears (and other organs!) are like fishermen hauling in net after net of shining silvery fish in every waking moment. Making pictures augments and focuses this flow of information. Some artists decide on the meaning (a story) before they set chisel to stone or brush to paper. They do lots of sketches and planning. They illustrate their own life perhaps, after the fact. Others, like me, paint first and ask questions later.

And so, the painting above was the result of a cascade of little artistic problems that got solved as I moved through the process of making it. It began with abstract multicolored lines scrawled along the bottom edge of the paper. I then superimposed the stair-step black charcoal lines. Some painting happened next. Watercolors delineated the basic space of the picture: rocky cliff, distant sea and the yellow sky.

It started getting more compelling for me once I added the bird on the left. He was soon accompanied by a big bear which wasn't drawn very well. So I drew the big black tree to hide the badly drawn bear, Finally, I added another bird to offer some sort of counter-point to the first bird.

But what is going on? The viewer will, with prodding perhaps, ask questions about my little picture.

  1. Are the birds friends?
  2. Are they thinking the same thing?
  3. Maybe one bird likes to look out to sea while the other prefers the safety of the massive tree?
  4. Will they sleep together in the tree and keep each other safe and warm at night?
  5. Are they marooned on the island? Is it even an island?
  6. Are they even the same type of bird? What sort of relationship do they have?
  7. Maybe the bird on the right is shy and wants to be friends with the other one?
  8. Maybe, like actual birds, we really have no business assuming their emotions are similar to humans.
  9. And the tree, it looks very important. Does it symbolize some human ideal: strength, longevity or wisdom?
  10. If I were to make another picture for this story, what should it be??
Indeed! If I were to make another picture, a "what-comes-next" type of picture, I think I would have one bird fly away and the other stay by the tree. Ouch! That seems rather sad doesn't it? I might just avoid the whole thing and make a different picture altogether. And that seems to be my dilemma. I make many many pictures similar to this one. Each one suggests a story. But one story after another is carried away on the next wave before it's ever completed. Maybe I need to stop making pictures. Or maybe I just need to figure out a way to write stories. Where to begin?

2 comments:

cp said...

Ah, I think there is some potential narrative tension in this image. My reading of it is the birds have not seen each other . . . what will happen when they do?

thanks for another lovely image!

Rob Dunlavey said...

I think their lives will change forever, for better! Thank you cp, you made me see the glass half-full!

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