“These are not books, lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on the shelves. From each of them goes out its own voice… and just as the touch of a button on our set will fill the room with music, so by taking down one of these volumes and opening it, one can call into range the voice of a man far distant in time and space, and hear him speaking to us, mind to mind, heart to heart.” –Gilbert Highet
I find nineteenth century impressionism utterly fascinating. Perhaps it’s the life of the artists, the subjects or even the stirring up of the traditional art world during its heyday. Mostly, though, I believe it’s the composition that moves me.
Think about it.
Look closely at a Monet, a Cezanne or a Van Gogh. All you can see, for the most part, are individual brush strokes, appearing as if paint has been haphazardly splattered across the canvas with all caution thrown to the wind. “What is this garbage!?” you’d be justified in asking. “A kindergartner with finger-paints could do better than this!” Then, you take a few steps back. With each step, you begin to notice an odd pattern emerging, and by the time the whole canvas is in focus, you realize that each individual brush stroke has come together to create something truly beautiful and moving.
However, though you can see the entire canvas, you can never truly unsee the individual brush strokes. Most likely, you’ve gained an appreciation for the artist’s labor and realize the effort it takes to make a recent creation seem as if it’s been here for eternity.
I, for instance, applied it to my own craft of writing.
“What do you find most important when you read a book?” someone once asked me. “Do you look at the plot first, or the story, figuring out how everything lines up, or do you come up with a setting and populate it with characters?” There are so many opening moves in a written composition, that beginners (myself included) often find it daunting and challenging just to stare at an empty page. However, I surprised the inquisitive person by offering my own method.
“I look for unity of design, first of all,” I replied. “You must begin by having something to say. This is your theme. Your thesis. Then, you must create characters to support or argue your thesis. After that, your story writes itself. The challenge is to follow through and never lose focus.”
“But where must the focus be?” that someone asked.
“Characters.” I replied. “It’s all about the characters.”
Characters are to a writer like brush strokes are to a painter. These streaks on the canvas are the result of different brushes dipped in different hues of different consistencies. Though it is perfectly acceptible to blend them seamlessly into a clockwork world, they are far more fascinating when they are constantly juxtaposed and arguing, much like painter’s strokes are more fascinating when they’re bold and fearless. Must they always argue against each other? No, but they must always argue with or against the theme. Who do they represent? Where is their position? For what do they stand? This must be made apparent from the outset to see the brush stroke for what it is.
The reader begins the book at an inch’s distance from the “canvas”. All he sees is a group of people haphazardly grouped together with no common purpose in mind. The further he digs into the book, however, the further away he stands from the canvas and the brush strokes begin to merge into something tangible. Toward the end, the entire canvas is in focus and the reader can see each characterization, each brush stroke, for what it is: one vital part of a beautiful word image. What is that image? Ultimately, it is up to the writer, and if you are a writer, it is up to you.
(No pressure, no pressure.)
Often, I wonder if that’s what God means for us. Often, we only see chaos and bold, fearless, haphazard brush strokes because we are only an inch away from the canvas. “I can live my life better than God can,” we boldly claim, not seeing the whole canvas. The more we learn, though, and the more we strive to become closer to Him, the further back he pulls us, and we see that everything, even the ruddy, mud-colored splatters, work together to create a beautiful work of art. What does it mean? We must pursue the Master Artist to find out.
Perhaps this is why I feel most worshipful and at peace when I put a pen to paper and glide the ink across the page. The more I hear the familiar scratch of pen on paper, the closer I feel to Jesus, because I know that slowly but surely, I am becoming more like Him every day.