What I Learn About Writing From Painting

by Nicole Trilivas

I miss painting

I miss painting

In my senior year of high school, I took AP art, which basically meant I could pick my own projects. Somehow, I ended up doing a huge 5′ x 3′ portrait of my face in oil paints, which upon retrospection, is like, pretty damn narcissistic. (I mean, you’d think I wasn’t a whiney self-conscious emo kid, right?) Anyway, I stretched my canvass, “sketched” a rough outline in ochre paint and just sort of dove in. I started with the mouth, and I had to say, I was kicking ass: the lips were perfection! I got that shapely glisten just right and my shading was life-like, subtle but stunning.

So my art teacher comes over, and I was all like, “Yup, I know. They’re amazeballs!” But instead he took my arm and lead me backward, about 15 feet away from the massive canvass. And that was when I saw it: the lips, although perfect in coloring and shading, were totally freakin’ crooked. So crooked that I either had to turn it into a Picasso pastiche or paint over them. So that day, I ended up painting over some of the best painting I had ever done.

I learned a hard lesson, and it’s a lesson that I now apply to my writing. In the initial stages of a project, don’t get too precious. Don’t polish it to perfection. Don’t fixate. Because you haven’t seen the whole shape yet, it may end up changing, and that stellar work you did may just have to be trashed or painted over.

We call first drafts word vomit because it’s just about getting the story down. Then we play chapter Tetris and re-arrange everything. Words get sacrificed, paragraphs get sliced, chapters axed, and characters killed. That’s just how it goes. And so this is the story I use to remind myself not to take my writing to a level of finality until I am sure of its place.

Ah, life lessons. They are a bitch.