Saturday, October 21, 2017

Lessons from paint-by-numbers

When I was little, I loved paint-by-numbers sets. If you don't know, they were a template with numbered shapes marked on them, accompanied by numbered paints. Match the numbered paint with the numbered shapes on the template, and you would essentially be "coloring in" a painting, ending with a beautiful oil masterpiece!

It sounds simple, but the more complicated versions used very small shapes to get a finer gradation of shading and a picture with more depth. With such small shapes, the printer often couldn't fit the shape's paint number inside the shape, so s/he would put it in an adjacent, larger shape, with an arrow pointing to the shape in question. The problem was, if you painted the colors in the wrong order, you could paint over a number and arrow before getting to use it as an indicator for its neighboring shape.*

I got very frustrated with one such project while staying at my grandmother's. I was very much a perfectionist who couldn't stand when things weren't working the way I thought they should, and when I couldn't do something I thought I should be able to do. I may even have thrown a bit of a tantrum.

After calming me down, my grandmother suggested a solution: use a pencil to write in, myself, the color numbers inside each shape, making all those infernal arrows unnecessary. (I could write smaller than the printer could print.) Then I could paint in any order, not worrying about painting over a necessary number. Thank God for Grandma.

It was my Bird by Bird moment (if you know the allusion to the Anne Lamott book in which her father told her overwhelmed brother to write his big school report on birds by taking it "bird by bird"). So many times, a task that seems impossible can be broken down into simpler steps. We can find workarounds, solutions that fit our own way of working. These skills come in handy in writing, because there are so many different ways to write, and not every way works every time. And in the end, no matter how big or complicated the project, we can only write it one word at a time.


*It is possible that if you painted the colors starting with #1 and proceeding from there, the arrow problem didn't crop up. Believe it or not, it never occurred to me to paint the colors in numbered order--not until years later did this possible solution come to me. At the time, I chose to use the colors in the order that made sense to me then, and for simpler pictures it didn't matter what order you used. Only the complicated pictures used those arrows. But I'm glad my grandmother came up with this more innovative solution, because I think I learned more from it.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Revealing just enough

One of my favorite parts of revision is balancing what I want to spell out explicitly with what I want the reader to figure out. How big are the bread crumbs I should leave, and how far apart can they be, for the reader to still be able to follow the trail?

Some things I only want to suggest, to hint at, to foreshadow. Some things I want the reader to have the thrill of discovering--or even of deciding. Yet I can't be too vague.

I'm doing such a revision now, deleting repetitions, trimming where I've over-explained, cutting back to make room for the reader. I'm also adding a few words where I realize I haven't been clear, have assumed too much. Seeking, the whole time, a perfect balance.

Friday, October 6, 2017

For love of reading

We've seen great upheavals in the world of publishing and bookselling in my lifetime, and especially in the last ten years. Reading has changed fundamentally, with so many of us doing so much of it on screens--reading texts, tweets and other social media posts, snippets of articles, all of it mixed with photos and videos. 

For me, there is still a fundamental pleasure in unplugging. In taking a print book on a train or plane, or in settling on my back porch with a magazine or a paperback. I do spend hours each day reading on screens. And then I indulge in my not-at-all-guilty pleasure: grabbing a book and sitting for an hour on the porch, stopping now and then to smell the pine needles, watch the play of light on leaves, listen to the birds or the cicadas. Then I plunge back into the book (its pages so blissfully free of pop-up ads and autoplay videos) and re-engage with the story. 

The ways in which we produce and transmit stories and compensate their authors have changed through the centuries. There may come a day when all my reading is done on the screen or by audio. And still at the heart of the experience will be the best part, the part that hasn't changed for most of human history, even as technology has changed: our love of story, our need to communicate.