Gestural Writing

James Hayman:  As the husband of an accomplished practicing artist who often works with the figure, I know my wife often begins what often ends up as a finished drawing, print, encaustic or oil painting with a quick gestural sketch of her model.  A sketch that may take only a minute or two and is intended only to capture the line, the sense of movement, the energy of the model and not the details like hands, feet or facial features.  Beginning with these gestural sketches leads Jeanne’s finished piece to share their energy and focus and have far more life than starting with the finished work might offer.

Though I had never thought of the comparison before the idea of applying the same technique to the art and craft of writing is a natural one that I intend to try in practice. I think anyone who is serious about writing might benefit from the approach.

For those of you who missed it in the this week’s NY Times,  I wanted to offer you a chance to read an interesting and perceptive piece by a writer and sometimes artist’s model named Rachel Howard.  Here it is in its entirety:

(The following is reprinted from The New York Times, MAY 25, 2013, 1:21 PM)

Gesture Writing


Five years ago, I walked into a third-floor art studio on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, climbed atop a wooden stage covered in stained padding and dropped my ratty yellow bathrobe. A panel of strangers asked me to pose, and then to freeze. I had never modeled for artists, and had no idea how I would feel standing naked as people I had just met stared at me. The idea held some bohemian appeal, but more urgently, I needed to supplement my income as a freelance writer while I worked on a novel.

I made the cut, and became a member of the Bay Area Models Guild. I had hoped this gig might earn me grocery money. I soon grew to love the freedom and strange relinquishment of status that comes from offering your nude presence to artists. What surprised me the most, though, was how profoundly it changed my writing life.

Soon I was sent out on bookings, mostly to introductory college drawing classes. The professor’s approach was always the same. I was asked to do many sets of active one- or two-minute poses.

“Find the gesture!” the instructor would shout, as the would-be artists sketched. “What is the essence of that pose? How does that pose feel to the model? The whole pose — quick, quick! No, not the arm or the leg. The line of the energy. What is that pose about? Step back and see it — really see it — whole.” And then, my timer beeped, I moved to a new pose and the students furiously flipped to a clean page.

This “gesture” idea was fundamental. In painting classes, where I held the same pose for three hours (with frequent five-minute breaks, thank God), the paintings that looked most alive were built on top of a good gesture sketch, a first-step, quick-and-dirty drawing in which many crucial decisions about placement, perspective and emphasis were made intuitively.

In a gesture drawing, a whole arm that didn’t matter much might be just a smudgy slash, while a line that captured the twist of a spine might stand in sharp, carefully observed relief. The “gesture” was the line of organic connection within the body, the trace of kinetic cause-and- effect that made the figure a live human being rather than a corpse of stitched-together parts. If you “found the gesture,” you found life.

I was, during those early days of art modeling, struggling to find the life in my stylisticallychoppy novel. At home alone, I heard the drawing instructors’ voices.

Find the gesture. Don’t worry about the details. What is the essence of that pose?

I left my laptop at my desk and moved to the other side of the room to sit on the floor with my notebook. I chose a scene that involved a woman and a man sitting at a table with a priest, going over the results of a premarital counseling questionnaire.

I knew what happened in the scene, and what each character said, but when I’d tried to write it on my computer, the results were clunky. I kept trying to make the scene better by adding more about the woman’s thoughts and tinkering with the dialogue.

Step back. See it whole. Sitting on the floor with my notebook, I didn’t worry about words, about sentences. I thought about how the woman and her fiancé were sitting next to each other at the table, how the priest was wearing a high-necked orange sweater, how the woman’s fiancé assumed the priest didn’t know about “intimacy” with a woman . . . click. Yes, it was so much more interesting from the husband-to-be’s point of view!

Where’s the line of energy? What is the essence of what you see? Quick! I wrote all over the page, a line of complete dialogue followed by a place-holder phrase of exposition, a one-word reminder of the next action followed by an arrow to the margin where I’d scribbled a description of a key image. The page looked a mess. But I had captured the movement of the scene, not one line of dialogue connected clunkily to the next action. There was the whole. It made leaps. It had perspective. It had emphasis and connection. It had life.

Later, I could go back and do what artists call rendering — working the drawing, adding detail. But now I had a solid gesture sketch to work from. And this had happened in five minutes.

Perhaps this shouldn’t have been a revelation. According to “The Writer’s Notebook,” an eye- opening collection of writers’ actual notebook pages, the novelist Ethan Canin made lists of “assignments” — future scenes to write — before choosing one and typing out quick-and-dirty sketches of the whole in sentence fragments. Charles Johnson, the National Book Award winner for his novel “Middle Passage,” scribbled pages with sketches like:

So it was done; I was the new captain of the Republic. It figured, in a way, that a Negro wouldn’t gain control of the steering-wheel until the ship was leaking like a basket, damaged damned near beyond repair, and everyone ready to bail out.

The Allmuseri behead Falcon. Later, when R. sees him on the Phantom ship, his head keeps falling off.

Allmuseri have no fingerprints. (identity)

What are writers who quickly jot down such messy sketches doing if not “gesture writing”?

Realizing that writing is a lot like drawing gives us a deeper approach. Because really, before we put a word or a mark on the page, both writers and artists must first step back and see. And seeing is not simple. As the writer and teacher Ellen Collett has written in an excellent article on “narrative inflection”:

As fiction writers know, every story is told by a narrative voice, and voice reveals itself by what it sees. Voice is a synthesis of seeing and speaking, of sight and syntax. While syntax — the mechanics of diction — can be made to toe the line and conform to a particular “style,” seeing is trickier to control. Seeing is choice. It’s inherently personal.

To see in the way that Collett is describing, to see deeply enough to capture the vibrancy of life on the page, a writer must move her consciousness out of information organizing mode into an intuitive way of seeing subtle organic connections and capturing them in bold strokes.

And let us not forget the reader. I didn’t know of Viktor Shklovsky’s classic (and complex) “Theory of Prose” when I began art modeling, but his use of visual metaphors to describe the work of artistic prose captures the difference between flatly rendering information in words and making those words serve deep vision. He writes, “And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition.” He goes on to say, “The purpose of the image is not to draw our understanding closer to that which the image stands for, but rather to allow us to perceive the object in a special way, in short to lead us to a “vision” of this object[.]”

Narrative prose, Shklovsky argued, doesn’t simply rearrange what the reader already thinks she sees. We’re talking about a shift in consciousness, for writer and reader (and for artist and viewer) alike.

Sounds mystical — and impossible. But the pleading shouts of Life Drawing 101 instructors offer a simple, effective practice. How can we get over looking for every finger and toe, of aiming for lifeless “accuracy,” and get out of our own way? What is the essence of what you see? No measuring! Quick!

The age-old artists’ practice of gesture drawing suggests a new practice, might we call it “gesture writing,” that can train us to “see” the whole before we write.

No nudity required.

Rachel Howard is the author of a memoir about her father’s unsolved murder, “The Lost Night,” and is finishing a novel.


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4 Responses to Gestural Writing

  1. MCWriTers says:

    Wow, Jim, this is fascinating. I really appreciate finding new ways of looking at things..and my artist friends often supply that for me.

    I stunningly unartistic. I once took an art class and while everyone else was trying to find the “gesture” I was trying to get the elbow right. I learned a lot about myself as a writer from that elbow.

    I think this post is one I’d better save to reread from time to time.


  2. Lea Wait says:

    Brilliant. Definitely one to think about. Thanks for sharing, Jim.

  3. Barb Ross says:

    Thank you, James for adding to my writing vocabulary. I can definitely see me admonishing myself to “Find the gesture!” the next time I am in a conundrum about a character or a scene.

  4. Pamela Oberg says:

    Wow. This is insightful and inspiring. Thank you for sharing!

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