Writing with an Artist’s Eye

Three years ago, I took a course called “Visualizing Words and Worlds” through the PA Writing & Literature Project (PAWLP) and this past July, I had an opportunity to co-teach the class for the second time at the James Michener Museum in Doylestown (a fantastic museum, by the way!).  The premise of the “Visualizing” course is simple: by integrating art and other visual activities into our instruction, we can help students become better writers and readers.

If you think about it, this makes sense. After all, we learned how to read by first looking at pictures, and when we teach younger students how to write, we often ask them to draw pictures next to their sentences. Too soon perhaps, we begin to rely on text only. Pictures disappear from books and doodles are relegated to the corners of notebooks when students are bored in class.

To get teachers thinking more deeply about art-reading-writing connections, every day during the course, a visiting artist comes in to teach, with each artist working in a specific medium.  We learned how to paint using watercolors, sketch a human face, make original prints, and finally, create our own found object sculpture. Although none of us were certified art teachers, the connections between art and reading and writing became more clear with each passing day.  An illustrator who draws a picture uses a variety of brushstrokes to achieve a specific effect. In the same way, a writer can “paint” a picture in the reader’s mind by using his own set of “brushstrokes”—a dramatically short sentence, a sentence fragment, a metaphor, a pun.

Children's book illustrator Peter Catalanotto's sketching workshop

Children’s book illustrator Peter Catalanotto’s sketching workshop

Even some of my best student writers struggle when I ask them to “show not tell.”  What does it mean to show?  Visual artists, however, are always “showing.”  The concrete details of their art—the choice of subject, the flurry of each brushstroke, the precise shades of color—work together for an intended effect.  When we think visually when we write, it’s easy to see how it’s the simple concrete details that can speak volumes.

In an essay for Now Write: Nonfiction, NPR contributor and teacher Christine Hemp writes:

William Carlos Williams dictum about things being the life of poetry holds true in creative nonfiction. . .  The essay teeming with “stuff” is much more memorable than one that floats in abstraction.  A piece about love doesn’t end up in our cells unless it is grounded in the softness of your lover’s neck as it disappears into the collar of his sweatshirt.  Or what about that scab you picked while you were crying on the phone to the man you knew would leave you by spring?  Just like the strong poem, the strong piece of prose is rife with metaphorical power—from your mother’s out-of-tune piano to the orphan sock that keeps showing up in your tangled underwear drawer.  When we turn to things, the truth comes at us through the back door, and we are surprised by ideas and emotions we didn’t know we possessed.

As Hemp points out, it’s the visuals that create meaning for us as readers.  And thinking visually means thinking—and writing—with an artist’s eye.

Printmaking workshop (with artist Jean Burdick)

Printmaking workshop (with artist Jean Burdick)

Taking and even teaching the “Visualizing” course also reminded me also of what it’s like to be on the other side of the classroom as a student.  You could measure my level of artistic ability with your pinky—that’s how talented I am!—and as such, being asked to sketch a human face on the first day of class is an intimidating experience.  But my nervousness with drawing is not unlike the trepidation many students feel with writing.  Working in the visual arts, as opposed to the language arts, forces me out of my comfort zone into a place where I have to take risks. And isn’t that what we want our students to do, too?

Finally, the course has inspired me to try taking integrating more visuals into my writer’s notebook as well.  Like I said, I’ve got pinky-sized artistic talent, so we’ll see where this goes…

To view more images from the course, click here

Special thanks to all the artists who gave their time to work with our teachers, and to Adrienne Romano, Director of Education, New Media, and Interpretive Initiatives at the Michener Museum, who is instrumental in making our course happen.