I have probably bored you to death over the years with my endless protestations that I would have been an artist if only I could paint, or I would have been a musician if only I could find a finger among my ten thumbs.
But in reality, the writer’s lot when it comes to the art world isn’t always that of the yearning wannabe. Ekphrasis is one of the oldest and most respectable practices in the writing toolkit. So old, in fact, it even has a Greek name, literally meaning “speaking from” or “out of.” What it entails is easy to state, and something we all do – but what I want to look at in more detail here is how we can use it to bring a little magic to our work, to add extra layers and resonances that we would only usually expect to find in other branches of the arts.
Ekphrasis is, in straightforward terms, writing that is inspired by a particular artwork, or a piece from another art form. It is often a painting – the most famous example would be Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring – but it could also be a song (as in David MacArnold’s extraordinary poem Almost Blue, based on Chet Baker’s piece of the same name) or anything else. It is often used as an exercise in writing classes because it is excellent for getting you to look at the world differently, for training your eyes to create seamless imagery and emotional potential. We rarely use it quite so consciously outside of the classroom setting, though we should. Because when it’s done well, it is precisely the qualities of imagery and metaphor that can lift our writing to another level entirely.
I want to look at three ways in which a piece of art can add to your writing, not by writing about it so much as by looking at what it is you first responded to in it. It is always easier to work with an example in these situations, so I will share with you one of my favourite photographs from one of my favourite photographers (and my long-term collaborator) Veronika von Volkova (http://www.vonvolkova.com).
This is a photograph of a shop window in Paris’ Rue Charlot, which is probably best described as what Bond Street would be like if it was relocated in Dalston.
Veronika’s photographs have been known to inspire whole poems of mine, and I’ve set the mood for more than one collection around her images, using them as a compass to guide my selection – if a poem or story fits with how a picture makes me feel then I include it, if it doesn’t, I discard it.
But since I have returned from the world of poetry to that of novel writing, I’ve been surprised that I’ve found myself using her work as inspiration even more, when I want to get the tone of a passage right, or to focus in on an aspect of a scene to find the one detail, a single metaphor for my character’s journey I need to give the reader.
One of the hardest things to do in a novel is to control your emotional tone. This can present itself in two ways. It could be that you are having a problem with a particular scene. Or it could be that you are finding it hard to maintain an emotional consistency across a sustained piece of writing. These are, of course, very different issues, but going back to a piece of artwork can work wonders in overcoming each (this is one reason I recommend people create detailed mood boards consisting of playlists, pictures, pretty much anything before they start their books – it creates a perfect anchor for moments when you feel the wheels coming off – and tools like Pinterest make it very easy to do).
One of the reasons emotional tone is so hard to convey in writing is that a page of prose lacks the immediate impact of a picture or a piece of music. Words are filtered, and all work together over the course of many paragraphs to create a particular effect. It is, therefore, hard to keep track of exactly what we are doing. Take an action scene, for example. It is very easy to convey tension or excitement in a piece of music – think the crescendo of Bolero, the pizzicato of Psycho. Or in a photograph – jaunty angles convey motion, a panoramic shot of a climber on a precipice conveys an instant message, and so on. But with words we often falter because of the greater filtering necessary to understand their impact. So, we can believe we are creating tension and excitement in a passage only to find either (most commonly) we have extracted all tension by over-describing exactly what is so exciting (“I could hear the footsteps of the man chasing me. They were going even faster than mine and that meant I knew he was catching up with me. I still had 200 metres before I was safe but he was catching me so I probably wouldn’t reach safety.”); by telling the reader rather than showing that the scene is exciting (“I was so scared that he would catch me. I could feel the tension grow with every step I took.”); or by grossly overegging something that, in moderation or a different context, would work incredibly well because you are unable to grasp instantly when enough is enough like you would with a picture (“I ran. Footsteps on concrete. Not mine. Quicker. The sound of blood in my ears. Cars rushing by. Lights flickering. Footsteps approaching faster. Faster. Muscles cramping. Blood roaring. Sentence fragment piling on sentence fragment.”)
What taking your lead from an artwork will enable you to do is to analyse exactly what it is that conveys the emotion, and armed with that knowledge you can apply the same mechanics to your writing – the mountaineer appears so vertiginous because of the close-up detail of his fragility against such a wide backdrop, for example; and the violins of Psycho are so shocking because they burst in so suddenly and leave just as quickly. By reverse engineering an artwork, you can find the ingredients to transfer to the scene at hand.
When it comes to the broader question of the tone of the work as a whole, it can be even harder to see when something doesn’t fit. After all, it’s crucial that scenes have variety, otherwise they lose all impact. But that variety comes within a context, a voice, a tone, something quite subtle that you want to provide the overarching structure for your work. If you can find a piece of art or a song that conveys that structural mood, you will have the perfect way of ensuring that all the component parts behave themselves.
Veronika’s photograph of the Rue Charlot conveys the mood of my current work in progress absolutely perfectly. The mix of melancholy, strangeness, reflection, loneliness, decay and possibility all converge to create a feeling with which I want the novel to be infused. Within that there are scenes that will be exciting, heartbreaking, touching, funny, hopeful, exhilarating. But all of those individual emotions are drawn from the same palette. Making sure a scene fits that palette, just as I would do when selecting poems for a collection, enables me to create something that works as a whole and not just as a collection of scenes.
It sounds rather obvious to say that art can help you with your imagery. But actually, it is in our descriptions that we often commit our most heinous writerly sins. Our finest phrases are often contained in descriptive passages. And they often lose all of their effect because we drown them in a sea of detail.
Description is, to illustrate the point by saying what I’ve already said well enough, the pudding we most frequently overegg. And the reason for this is simple. We find it hard to get a handle on how much detail is enough. And so two very understandable traits combine to suck the power from our prose – the desire not to leave the reader floundering, and the desire to recreate in full the splendour we see in our heads.
My characters often walk the city streets at night. And city streets are my all-time favourite landscape. I could go on for page after page describing the detail of the neon, the cracked concrete, smeared windows, sweet sickly smells, disfigured flyers and decaying shop fronts. And if I’m not careful, I do just that. Which is great. And I create some unctuous sentences in the process. But they are almost all unnecessary. Which is where I find Veronika’s photography so helpful. She has a particular eye for cityscapes. I can almost always find a picture of hers that says exactly what I want to say. And analysing it, I will almost always find particular details that makes it work so well.
In Rue Charlot, there are two things that make the photograph so evocative, such a perfect metaphor for a character wandering the streets in search of her identity. First, there is the flattened palette disrupted only by the distant lights. And second, there is the use of reflection, drawing our attention subtly to the fact that we are looking through glass that separates us completely from what is on the other side. By picking up on those in my writing I can avoid all need for interior monologue (the street becomes a metaphor for my protagonist’s inner state).