Writing and Artwork
I’ve been spending the past few months working on a novel. Along the way I’ve hit the general bumps and roadblocks: outline issues, stress about characterization, plot reworks, and so on. Still, I think I’ve been at least mildly productive. Recently, especially, I feel like I’ve hit a flow. I can sit down, and with a relatively small amount of effort, I can get into the story and set to work on expanding it. It’s not perfect, or particularly easy, but it’s productive.
Writing a novel while working on ImageHex has been a sort of strange experience. Not necessarily because the act of coding and the act of writing are dissimilar — indeed, I’ve always maintained that the opposite was true, and that programming is a lot closer to fiction writing than most people would expect. Instead, it has been strange because of the two types of art I must focus on: visual art, such as drawing or painting, and writing.
When I work on ImageHex I need to think about the experience of an artist. I need to think about what problems an artist may have and what the solutions to those problems can be. I’ve actually sent messages to a few artists requesting a bit of help on that front, and I’ve been very grateful for the responses I’ve received.
When working on the novel, however, I am living the experiences of a writer. An amateur writer, sure, and somebody who is likely to never get anywhere with their writing, but still a writer in the technical sense of the word.
Writing and artwork have a strange, intertwined relationship: similar in some ways, vastly different in others. My current life has given me a lot of time to think about these differences.
If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably spent around two minutes reading what I’ve written. Really, 120 seconds is not that long, but in the context of the internet it can seem like a lifetime. There’s a reason why long posts are less popular than gifs, and why fanfiction is less popular than fanart: reading takes time.
Looking at art, of course, can take time as well. You can spend all day staring at an amazing painting or charcoal sketch, and keep finding new and interesting things within it. The difference is that reading requires time. If one desires, they may experience a surface-level overview of a piece of artwork in two or three seconds before moving on to the next post on their dashboard or tweet on their feed, and they may feel perfectly satisfied. They saw the whole picture, after all, and that’s good enough for them — even if they missed the details.
With writing, this is impossible. I could provide a “Tl;Dr”, of course, but that’s something I as the author must provide. With art, the Tl;Dr is built in: simply look at the piece for a shorter amount of time.
This is not, of course, to suggest that writing is superior to art, simply because it takes longer to experience. Indeed, for many things, writing is frankly inferior to artwork. The phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” exists for a reason: art can be vastly more efficient at conveying information than the written word. If I want to set a scene, for example, or describe a character, it will most likely take me a few paragraphs to do it in detail. An artist, meanwhile, merely needs to draw a picture, and the audience can learn everything they need to know near-instantly. As somebody who hates writing physical descriptions, I am more than a little jealous of artists for having this ability.
Writing’s inefficiency for certain tasks is not always detrimental. It takes more time to convey information, yes, but it conveys that information in little chunks instead of all at once. This makes writing a lot easier to modify — to change an aspect, just change one of the chunks.
Let us say, for example, that I have written a scene where a person is sitting on a couch and reading a book, and I wish to change the scene so that he is standing up. This, most likely, will not be extremely difficult. In some cases, yes, I may have spent the time to describe how he cannot get comfortable in the chair, how he’s annoyed that one of the springs is out, how the fabric itches against his skin, and so on, but I will most likely only do this if the chair is an important detail. If the chair is merely incidental, a decoration, changing it is trivial: remove the sentence where he sits in it, and the sentence where he rises again.
With visual artwork, this is not the case. If I were to paint a portrait of a man reading a book in a chair (something which I am nowhere near capable of doing), modifying it so that he is standing will be nearly impossible. In almost all cases it will be faster to simply draw another portrait in the correct pose.
Now, of course, this example is slightly contrived. There’s not many cases where an artist will decide that they want to change a pose after finishing a drawing or painting. In those cases where such a change is desirable, though, written artwork has a large advantage.
A lot of people feel like reading is a chore.
Now, in some cases, they can be right. Trying to decipher a complex technical document, or even a particularly difficult piece of literature, can be extremely difficult.
If I’m being honest, perhaps it is not only “some cases” where people with that opinion are validated. It is, after all, an opinion — entirely subjective. Reading does require some amount of effort. Literacy is something that is taught, not innate, like listening or vision. Truly appreciating a piece of visual art requires effort as well, of course, but (as I mentioned previously) it is possible to view artwork without this appreciation.
It is not merely the mental difficulty of reading that that causes this perception. Reading is, for most people, quite easy, once you know how to do it. But even without the difficulty, the perception can remain, the result of years of English class. Now, I personally enjoyed most of the novels I read in my high school English classes, but for many people that is not the case. Still, regardless of enjoyment, many people have had the experience of being forced to read. Their primary experiences with the written word was one of being coerced.
In the minds of many, reading does not occupy the same space as music or movies, but the dim, grimy corner that contains Math and History. It’s not a pleasant experience.
Now, in modern society, the average person interacts with written words more than ever before. Between the internet and text messaging I would not be surprised if the total number of words read annually has been skyrocketing since the late 90s. Still, there is some degree of difference between those interactions with writing, and interacting with long-form pieces, such as novels.
Still, I think that there must be some overlap. The number of books that seem to get extremely popular seems to be much larger now than at points in the past. Young people especially seem to be reading far more often than other age groups.
It’s a development I, of course, welcome. Perhaps in a few years this point won’t stand anymore.
I feel a bit weird writing a blog post comparing writing and visual art without doing any kind of base-level comparisons. Obviously, the largest difference between writing and art is, well, that one is visual and the other isn’t.
Still, I think comparing them on a slightly more abstract level has some benefits. At the very least, putting a pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) has helped me organize my thoughts on the matter, and, in at least some way, increased my understanding of both forms of art. Hopefully I can use that understanding to improve my writing, and to make my website better for artists.