I am a visual artist. The word “writer” feels wrong to me. I had a long career sculpting superheroes and cartoon characters for the likes of DC Comics and Nickelodeon. Every time I leave my writing desk and pick up a paint brush, I feel as if I’m coming home. Color, shapes, forms, contrasts of light and dark, these concepts make up my native language. In fact, language itself never came easy to me. As a kid, I struggled with dyslexia. Memorization was hard. Information was slow to sink in.
By fifth grade, I was still having difficulty reading. But that year, when I got my first writing assignment it was as if a secret door opened up inside my brain. Well before I wrote a single word, I was drawing. To me there was no question what a pencil was for. It was for making beautiful, fantastical pictures. So I took my pencil and drew a picture with my words. The two descriptive paragraphs I wrote about the creek behind our house must have been pretty good because the teacher who taught the class kept me after and asked where I’d copied it from.
In high school, I don’t remember being able to finish reading a single book, but I could take the bits and pieces of what I’d read and heard in class, I could see the shapes of how this thought and that thought fit together like puzzle pieces and in my book reports, I could weave them into something relevant and new. But the emphasis my early childhood education placed on reading skills and certain learning styles left me feeling like a fraud. To this day, when I pick up my copy of The Southern Review and see myself in the contributor’s notes among professors of english and Ph.D.’s (sculptor of super heroes, reads my bio) I think for sure they must have made a mistake.
But the mistakes kept happening. In my effort to convince myself that my successes were not mere flukes, I began to ask myself this question: What is writing? As a sculptor and painter I have had to master and understand my material so I can manipulate it as I please. A dancer does the same with his body, a singer uses her voice, but what do writers use? What is a writer’s instrument? The answer I came up with is the brain. Unlike with other art forms, the writer’s material exists completely inside his or her head. And once the writing is done, nothing exists outside of the reader’s cognitive experience of it. If reading and writing belong to the realm of the brain, a keen sense of vision is more important to the art of writing than almost any other skill because cognition is predominately visual. Eighty percent of everything we perceive is visual information. It is why we commonly refer to the mind as having an eye.
Written language can elicit a vast array of sensory perceptions—sounds or even smells, but what it does most powerfully is elicit images. It is why so much literature has been adapted into films, plays, comics and other visual art forms. The first stories ever told were told with paintings and in some ways we have not evolved too far beyond that. When we hear or read a story we make sense of it by building pictures in the brain. Language only opens up the door and allows us to see them.
Flannery O’Connor was deeply interested in this relationship between language and image. This was not only clearly evident in her writing but also in her cartoons. She often attributed her “habit of art” as a writer to the skills she developed as a visual artist. “Any The Power of Visual Writing discipline can help your writing: logic, mathematics, theology, and of course and particularly drawing. Anything that helps you see, anything that makes you look.”
Visual artists are trained to see. At Rhode Island School of Design where I studied, we spent a full semester on color. If you put one color up against another it changes both. Light changes color in surprising ways; you can see a wider range of it on an overcast day. The high bright light on a sunny day tends to wash color out. And any artist knows that color effects mood. The color red evokes heightened emotion and aggressiveness. If you’re angry or embarrassed you turn red. Reading the word red (or any color) has the same affect as seeing it so why then aren’t writing programs teaching color to their students?
I took figure drawing and anatomy in school. I understand how a body moves through space and how to emphasize the leg that bears the weight with a darker line. As a fiction writer, I use these skills every day. Body language can reveal more about character are than almost any other detail. And the years I spent sculpting—adding and subtracting and carving away bits of clay— proved to be exceptional training for the work of a writer because in many ways 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 dangers of focusing too quickly on details when the structure and form have not yet been fully established. Sculpting taught me how to work through self doubt when at the end of the day no discernible shape had taken form. It taught me how to be patient and persistent and to sometimes let a character emerge on it’s own.
As an artist, I know how to capture the nature of my subjects by amplifying the qualities that make that subject distinct or noteworthy. I am trained to see the essential features of an image and discard redundant detail. Is this not what fiction writers strive to do? Language is paint. It is the means by ~which to build a picture. But visual writing has power well beyond mere picture making because it is through the pictures we paint that our readers fall in love and feel.
More than any other sense perception, our sense of sight triggers empathy. Neuroscientists have known for years that our motor command neurons fire when we perform specific actions. In the 1990s researchers at the University of Parma in Italy discovered a subset of neurons called mirror neurons. When we watch someone perform an action these mirror neurons mimic motor command neurons as if we were performing the action ourselves. Sometimes referred to as the “empathy” neuron, mirror neurons are what make us flinch when we see someone fall. Through our vision we are literally experiencing what we see. We are empathizing with someone else’s point of view.
For avid readers of fiction it will come as no surprise that mirror neurons are activated not just by watching actions, but also by reading words describing them so long as that description evokes a visual experience. “Show don’t tell.” It’s more important to writing than we ever dreamed.
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 establish that we are hard-wired to respond emotionally to pictures. If I were to ask you, is it better to kill one person to save four people chances are you’d say yes. But what if you read this:
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. And then I asked you: 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? You know little to nothing about him but the answer now would probably be less clear. Why? Because you can see him and through seeing him we gain empathy for him.
Flannery O’Connor once said this: “For the writer of fiction everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it.”
Vision begins with the eye; a singularly focused detail. But it does not stop there. It enters the brain where it unfolds in the eye of the imagination until it involves the whole world. Seeing has little to do with language. In fact, true seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees. It is looking at piece a paper and seeing a tree, then seeing the man who chopped it down, his hands his face how he walks, because hidden inside those details is the story of his life. Telling that story has less to do with the study of story telling or the reading of literature and much more to do with this disciplined skill of seeing.
I took up writing later in life than maybe I would have had I known this early on. But the truth of the matter is that seeing is writing and I have spent my life learning how to do it. Now, when people ask me I tell them I taught myself how to write by sculpting superheroes.