I learned how to write fiction by understanding the language of visual art. As an artist, I was trained to capture the nature of my subject by amplifying the qualities that make it distinct or noteworthy. As a fiction writer, I do the same thing.
At Rhode Island School of Design, where I studied, we spent a full semester on color. If you put one color up against another, both change. Light changes color in surprising ways—you can see a wider spectrum on an overcast day, whereas the high, bright light on a sunny day tends to wash color out. And all artists know that color affects mood. Red evokes heightened emotion, and reading the word “red” has the same effect on the brain as seeing it. Shouldn’t writing programs be teaching the art of color?
I took figure drawing and anatomy in school. I understand how a body moves through space and how to capture a gesture with very few lines. As a fiction writer, I use these same skills. Body language can reveal more about character than almost any other detail.
I had a long, amazing career sculpting superheroes and cartoon characters for Nickelodeon and DC Comics, among others. And the many years I spent adding and subtracting and carving away bits of clay were exceptional training for the work of a writer. The process of finding a character in a hunk of clay is the same as finding a story on a blank page. You must work a piece from all angles and recognize the danger of focusing too quickly on details when the structure and form have not yet been fully established.
Painting a picture in the reader’s mind may be the fiction writer’s most powerful tool. In the recent paper “You See, the Ends Don’t Justify the Means: Visual Imagery and Moral Judgment,” Harvard professors Elinor Amit and Joshua D. Greene argue that we are hardwired to respond emotionally to pictures. If I were to ask you whether it’s better to kill one person to save four people, chances are you’d say yes.
But what if you read or heard the following instead? An old man stands next to you waiting for a bus. He stoops, looking at his shoes. He holds a plastic bag in one hand. His bus ticket is in the other. Wisps of his thinning hair catch the fading sunlight. He lives across the street but he looks as if he’d walked a hundred miles. Would you push this man in front of the oncoming bus and kill him if it meant saving four people on the other side of town? The answer now may be less clear. With the eye of your mind, you can see him, and seeing unlocks our ability to feel for one another. It’s why we flinch when we witness someone fall. Mirror neurons fire off in our brains, enabling us to feel the pain or joy of others. Show, don’t tell. It is the writer’s surest way to earn the reader’s empathy.
Fiction writing for me has much more to do with the disciplined skill of seeing than with the study of literature. Seeing has little to do with language. In fact, true seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees. It is looking at a piece of paper and seeing a tree, then seeing the man who chopped it down, his hands, his face, how he walks. Hidden inside those visual details is the story of his life.
I am a visual artist. The word “writer” may always feel wrong to me. Color, shapes, forms, contrasts of light and dark—these are my native language. But the truth is, this is the language of literature, too, and I have spent my whole life learning how to use it. Now, when people ask me how I learned to write, I tell them, “by sculpting superheroes.”