Writing Tip: Write Like a Painter

Written by Brandon O'Brien on August 15th, 2013

After a conversation with my granddaddy about his process for painting portraits, I realized that his creative process and mine are quite similar. Maybe he paints like a writer. Or maybe I write like a painter.

1. Start with composition. The first thing a painter does is lay out the composition of his subject. Granddaddy does this by sketching lightly in paint where the primary objects will be; deciding what’s in the foreground, what’s in the background. The purpose of this step is to prioritize. What in the painting is most important, and how will you ensure it receives the focus it deserves?

I do this in my writing—especially when I have a strict word-count limit—by outlining. I’m currently writing a book review that can be no longer than 1250 words. This is how I started:

Intro: 125 words
Summary: 600 words
Commentary: 400 words
Conclusion: 125 words

My parameters are established. There’s a good chance I’ll break my own rules. But this keeps me mindful, at the very least, that the hero of this assignment is summary —it gets the most words. Everything else is background and shadow.

2. Apply color in layers. Granddaddy works in layers. The first application of color is fairly flat. Depth and dimension is added gradually, layer by layer. The same is often true for my writing. My first layer of text is usually quite colorless. My goal is simply to get the information on the paper. Here are the things I think, in no particular order. For a book review, the prose might be as boring as, “They use 19th-century sources.” That’s true, but it ain’t pretty. That’s okay. Depth and dimension come later. By the way, that sentence eventually became, “They lead us on a brisk walk through 19th-century sources.” Better.

3. Walk away. “If you look at your painting long enough,” Granddaddy told me this weekend, “your eyes can convince your mind that everything looks alright. But if you go away for a couple of hours and come back, the mistakes just jump right out at you.” Walking away is an important part of my writing process. When I’m mired in an unsatisfactory draft, I usually need 24 hours’ worth of distance to regain clear vision. Sometimes it takes several drafts and several periods of distance before I see clearly.

4. Hone, sharpen, and define. The final step in portraiture is sharpening crucial details so that the viewers eye goes where you want it to go. At this point in my writing I pay attention to alliteration, sentence structure, or repetition. My goal is to identify how specific writing tools will draw the readers eyes to the right places. A couple of short sentences prepare the reader for a long sentence, in which the truly important information is communicated. A metaphor from the introduction and stitched through the paragraphs can be tied off in the conclusion.

I’ve said more here than I know about painting. But I do know this for sure: a simile can save a writer. Write like a painter.


Portrait of an Artist: Granddaddy

Written by Brandon O'Brien on August 13th, 2013

Studying a book on portraiture

My granddaddy retired very young. I have vague memories of his retirement party; I was very young myself. But for the better part of my thirty-something years of life, Grandmother and Granddaddy have been retired.

Since they retired, Grandmother and Granddaddy have taken taekwondo, learned to speak French, criss-crossed the continental U.S., traveled to Europe, expanded their home from two bedrooms to three (with their own four hands—and my two in the summers), cared for aging and ailing family members, and have generally made the most of their time. They have been models for me of lifelong adventure and constant personal enrichment. And quiet, unassuming determination.

Even before they retired, Granddaddy was an artist. It was not his job, mind you. He was an electrician in the Navy during the Korean War. He was an inventory manager for a manufacturing company that made things for the military. He wrote a couple of computer programs. But he was always an artist.

And, in my opinion, he is and always has been a true artist, because he is an artist for art’s sake. He draws and paints beautifully, and most people never see his work. He does not create things with hopes of fame or fortune, but simply because he wants to create lovely things. That’s something I find hard to do. These days I rarely spend time writing unless I’m trying to meet a deadline or unless I have some reasonable expectation that someone will pay me for my effort. I think that’s why I hesitate to call myself an artist. I have a hard time creating something simply for the sake of creating it. My time with Granddaddy this weekend challenged me to take up my quill and write something beautiful, regardless of whether anyone else will ever read it.

This is Granddaddy’s eightieth year of life. His current project is painting small portraits of his parents and siblings. In order to do this well, he is poring over books about portraiture, taking painting classes, learning new techniques. Because anything worth doing is worth doing right, even if no one else will ever see the final product.


What Difference Does Tradition Make?

Written by Brandon O'Brien on August 6th, 2013

My people on all sides of the family are low-church anti-traditionalists. Many of them bend in an anti-institutional direction in general. They like their privacy. They don’t like to be told what to think or how to behave—not by Hollywood, not by the government, not by dead Christians they’ve never met.

This is the earth I was grown in.

Some of these convictions stuck with me. My autopsy (and my writing, too, I hope) will reveal a deep vein of populism running head to toe. But despite my anti-traditionalist upbringing, I’ve found great comfort and guidance in the Christian tradition. Here are just a few ways I find tradition makes a difference for my faith.

It offers a framework for questions.
When I was a teenager, I often got the impression it was unfaithful to ask faith-related questions. And boy did I have questions. What I’ve learned from tradition is that there’s nothing wrong with questioning. But there are wrong ways to question. (Here’s a great recent book on just this topic.) The Christian tradition gives me a stable place to stand while I ask my hard questions. Not to mention lots of examples of faithful questioners.

It gives direction for discipleship.
In every age Christians decry certain vices and celebrate certain virtues. It can be very easy to convince ourselves that we are good Christians because we don’t cuss or because we vote Democrat or because we have deep convictions. Tradition reminds us that the things other generations pursued—like holiness and justice and simplicity and compassion—are as important today as ever, whether we recognize it or not.

It points out my presuppositions about Scripture.
If you’ve seen this book you’ll know that I think we sometimes get Scripture wrong. The cheapest way I know of to have a cross-cultural experience is to read old writers. Tradition helps us see what we take for granted; it illuminates our blind spots. Reading texts from other centuries has taught me more about myself than anything written in my own generation. And the better I know myself, the better I read the Bible.

It helps me make sense of the present.
At some point I began to wonder why the faith community I grew up in believed what we believed and behaved how we behaved. This book by Nathan Hatch explained it. Our instincts in the twentieth century were formed by debates and battles from a hundred years before. The tradition helps me understand why things are the way they are so I know how to live faithfully in the present.

It gives me hope for the future.
God has been at work through his church for two thousand years. We face real challenges today. But history bears out the truth of Scripture: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” There is hope for the future because God has been faithful in the past.

I’d love to hear from you. What difference does tradition make for you?


The Arkansas Connection in Music

Written by Brandon O'Brien on July 31st, 2013

One of the fun parts about returning to my home state as an adult is that I’ve discovered there was more going on here in Arkansas than I realized while I was growing up. For example, although I drove past the billboards darn near every time I left Northwest Arkansas, I didn’t realize until a few years ago that Arkansas is home to quite a few wineries and vineyards. Arkansas wine country—who knew?

Because I’m enjoying these little discoveries, I plan to promote them here as I come across new gems worth sharing. One such gem is Arkansongs, a syndicated program (and website) produced by Arkansas Public Radio. It features short historical accounts of notable Arkansas musicians—like Johnny Cash—and their influence on national music trends. It also highlights more obscure musical influences that originated in Arkansas or songs and movements of more regional interest.

In any case, I commend this to you. I think you’ll enjoy it.


Writing Tip: Delete Most of the Words

Written by Brandon O'Brien on July 29th, 2013

Clear writing is usually concise. The more words we use, the more likely we are to miscommunicate. Or to over-explain something simple. Or to flat out say the wrong thing. That’s why the Bible says, “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise.”

Unfortunately, many of us are trained by reading bad writing to believe that writing clear and concise sentences is a sign of intellectual weakness. (Or some such nonsense.) This is especially true if you’ve spent much time in academic circles, where bad writing abounds. Academics often use five words where one or two will do. In this way they sin, if I’m reading Proverbs 10:19 correctly.

So for the sake of clarity and your own sanctification, delete all the words you can without losing meaning. Most manuscripts easily could be reduced by 25% without sacrificing any crucial content. Of course you want to delete the right words. But that isn’t hard to do. Here are some tips (illustrated with real-life examples):

Simplify redundancies. “In our minds, we thought…” is not a false statement. Our mind is where we do our thinking. But because our mind is the only place we do our thinking, the prepositional phrase “in our minds” is redundant. Just say, “We thought.” No one will wonder if you did it with your toes. (Note: we reduced the word count by 60%.)

Beware of prepositional phrases. Sometimes we’ll be tempted to address an issue “in a broad manner” when we should simply address it “broadly.” Prepositional phrases are bland. Why say someone arrived at his point “in a roundabout way” when you could say he made his way there “circuitously”? (Note: in both cases we reduced the word count by 75%.)

Trust your verbs. Don’t use the noun (nominal) form of a word when there is a verb form: Instead of “provide a reorientation,” say “reorient” (a 33% reduction in length). Instead of saying “There is no possibility for success,” say “success is impossible” (a 50% reduction). Instead of  “to be a deterrent,” write “to deter” (another 50% reduction). Letting your verbs do the work keeps your prose clear and active.

Another strategy is to give yourself a strict word limit and stick to it. I’ve committed to spending no more than 500 words on these posts about writing. It’s good practice—a small step toward godliness and good writing.

(395 words)