From the front lines: The magic of ekphrasis

Sometimes, good writing is about the pictures.

Ekphrasis
Yi Shun Lai explains how describing art or ekphrasis can help with writing.

I get lost in the writing weeds regularly. I have a lot of ideas, and that creates a certain amount of paralysis. I’ve tried many different techniques to shake this paralysis, but there’s really only one tried and true solution for me: I go look at some pieces of visual art.

I do this for a few reasons: First, it usually gets me out of the house; second, it gives me a reprieve from thinking too much about what’s happening in the story I’m trying to write; third, it allows me to immerse myself in the story of what’s happening in the painting.

What I’m referring to is the magic of ekphrasis.

Aside from the fact that I’ve just this morning learned I’ve been mispronouncing the thing my whole life (it’s EK-phrasis, not ek-PHRA-sis), ekphrasis is, and always will be, one of the best tools in my writer’s arsenal.

Many of you have heard of it before. It’s derived, naturally, from the Greek word for “describe;” we use it in modern parlance to mean a literary description of a piece of visual art. Here’s how you do it: Think of your favorite piece of art, and then describe what’s happening in that painting or photograph. Bang! Ekphrasis. You’ve probably been doing it for about as long as you’ve been looking at art. You might do it when you speak out loud to the person standing next to you at the art gallery: (“What is that? Do you know what it means? It looks like a papal mitre on a banana,” say.)

But it wasn’t until writer and educator John Brantingham used the term in a class I was taking that I understood that it was actually a thing and not just an idle exercise in imagination.

In Brantingham’s exercise, which took place at a local art gallery, he encouraged us to page through some dusty volumes of art catalogs and compendiums, select a painting from one of them, and then write a story to go with it. It was a nice exercise and a great way to shake loose some cobwebs. I didn’t get anything publishable out of it, but I enjoyed it as much as I would a good prompt.

The benefits of ekphrasis go further than that: What it does for writers is allow us to take a break from the drudgery of constant text, because sometimes even writing longhand isn’t enough distance from your keyboard. Further, ekphrasis makes us good reporters, something I believe is lacking in our awareness of how we write.

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In Amy E. Herman’s very good Visual Intelligence, she describes how she’s helped everyone from trauma nurses to FBI agents get better at their jobs just by having them wander around a museum. In one exercise, she has them spend 15 long minutes staring at one painting. Herman is the former director at The Frick Collection, so she knows her art; but she’s also a trained lawyer, so she understands the importance of objectivity and how subjectivity plays into everything we do.

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I’m a sucker for both paintings and for the art of observation, so I naturally took to Herman’s ideas, but I was pleasantly surprised to make the connection between Herman’s theories and my work as a writing instructor and writer. On a class field trip to a museum recently, I used Visual Intelligence to teach some creative writing students to be better observers. We used the classic journalist’s trick of the five W’s: who, what, when, where, and why. We discussed the persons in the painting; the items in the painting; what time of day the painting was depicting. We talked about what we could extrapolate for the whys behind the actions or expressions of the people in the painting and how we might deduce more about the wheres of the work. My students said they’d never noticed so much before.

This then dovetailed into a lesson on our own unconscious bias – is what we’re seeing in the painting actually there, or are we filling it in because of the constructs we’ve built for ourselves over the course of our lives? In other words, is what we see accurate, or does it just feel right? The former makes us good writers by way of allowing readers to see what we’re seeing, experience what we’re witnessing. The latter allows us to bring the reader closer to the emotional truth we really want to impart to them.

Writers can describe what’s happening in a scene with total accuracy, but what we choose to omit or include can tip the reader toward one emotional truth or another. This is the difference between accurate and right.

In a panel I was on recently, I extrapolated this further: Writers can play, I said, in the space between what’s right and what’s accurate. We can exploit the differences between the two, but all of this comes with a caveat: We must understand which part of what we’re seeing is our own bias, or interpretation, and which part is actual reportage.

Knowing the difference means that you can better parse what everyone else sees and then better relay what you want your readers to see.

Ekphrasis allows us to take a break from the drudgery of constant text.

Here’s an exercise to help you notice the difference:

Take a spin through Google’s Arts & Culture portal, or, better yet, the online catalog of your local arts institution. Pick a work of art; it doesn’t matter if it’s a painting or a photo.

Take a long look at it. A really long look. Write down – longhand, please, so you’re not toggling between windows or apps – what you see.

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Then review what you’ve written. How much of that is subjective? How much of that is fact? In one of van Gogh’s self-portraits, for instance, we might write that it’s a painting of a man with a bandage over his ear, but we also might say that the man with the bandage looks sad or melancholy. That would be a subjective observation, though, and not an accurate one. It would be more accurate to say that he’s looking directly at the viewer and that his cheekbones are prominent. His lips are tightly pressed together. 

In Herman’s book, she encourages us to ask ourselves questions after we’ve studied a work of art: Am I being influenced by my own personal set of experiences? What about my education or geography? Further, what am I tuning out, and what might others see that I’m missing?

Knowing the answers to these questions can help us to be better communicators. They can help us to be efficient in the messages we need to convey, and ultimately, this can help us to swim through the muck that is penning a first or second draft.

When we can know the difference between what we see and what we want others to see, our writing becomes that much more distinct and compelling. One way to get there is by looking at pictures, and not words.

 

Yi Shun Lai is the fiction editor and co-owner of Tahoma Literary Review. Read about her writing coaching and editing services; her novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu; and her daily adventures at thegooddirt.org.

Originally Published