What You See Is What You Get

The other afternoon my wife was giving our son Sawyer his Language Arts class when he told her he wanted to draw a portrait of a space terrorist. How this fit into Language Arts, I don’t know, but when you are homeschooling Sawyer it is best to follow whatever stream presents itself. He hunkered over a piece of paper and produced his first effort. He had drawn only the head. It was round, like Charlie Brown’s head, there was a kind of gray mask across the too-large eyes, and then something black over the ears reminiscent of ear muffs. There was no mouth or hair or helmet. The lines were uneven.

He was dissatisfied. His drawing didn’t look like a space terrorist at all. It looked like a child’s cartoon. It was neither threatening nor militaristic. Jen suggested he Google images of soldiers. For fifteen minutes he looked at pictures of marines and paratroopers and astronauts. He decided to give it another try.

The difference was startling. He drew the second portrait beside the first. Now the space terrorist appeared in profile, and there was the chin, and the nose beneath a mask, and the helmet with a kind of brim, and goggles and headphones with antennae. The lines were crisp and straight and everywhere was detail. Instead of a child’s cartoon it looked like something a comic book artist might have drawn.

If you had not known the truth of it, you would have guessed the images were drawn by an older and younger brother. Or you might have thought Sawyer’s artist mother had given him a lesson, as I had when he first showed me the two portraits. Yet he had received no lessons at all. All that had changed was his perception. The first drawing was vague, as if he had seen the space terrorist through an unfocused telescope; the second drawing as clear as what he had Googled.

I know how important it is to learn craft, and to hone our sentences, and trim our paragraphs, but an artist’s job first and foremost is always to see clearly. No matter how good a writer you may be, if you cannot see what you wish to write, you cannot write it. Instead you will write a vague imitation of what you wish to write, and you will dress the imitation in the fine robes of craft, and wonder why no one else can perceive your genius.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. "A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.

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