Boston Breaks for Writer’s Block: Finding Your Voice at the Museum of Fine Arts

Rembrandt_The_Artist_in_his_studioI identify with Rembrandt in his early self-portrait, The Artist in His Studio. This is pre-socialite Rembrandt, not the velvet-robed, amply mustachioed burgher of his middle period, or the fading ghost with the watery expression of his late self-portraits. In The Artist in His Studio, young Rembrandt portrays himself as a button-eyed doll, dwarfed by the ominous eruption of a canvas and easel in the foreground—one that, though it faces away from us, throbs with untapped potential: a blank, white glow.

When I go to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I always make a point to visit young Rembrandt in his dingy attic. Although the expression on his face is barely sketched in, to me it is unmistakable. It’s the look of an artist facing a blank page, so overwhelmed by the monumental task at hand that he is all but invisible to himself, just a pair of eyes as empty and black as the canvas is clear and white. What the hell do I do now? he’s asking himself. It’s a classic case of what I know as writer’s block.

Looking at art is a great way to open the door on the world you are creating, or are about to create. Actually standing in front of a work of art can set off a fusillade of responses and associations, something that rarely happens when just looking at images on a computer screen. When I go to the MFA—or any art museum—I like to let my mind play with the images I find there. Is the world that I am creating an impressionistic one, with forms emerging out of something that appears very chaotic at close range? Or am I going for all out Surrealism? Can words convey Minimalism, and be as crisp and geometric as an Ellsworth Kelly? What about something harder to classify, like JMW Turner’s swirling, frenzied maelstroms, or Van Gogh’s portraits that seem to vibrate and slither with particulate energy? On just about every trip to the museum, I find at least one artwork that transfixes me: I stand in front of it and think, “I want to write like that.”

Once I’ve been stopped in my tracks, I look at the artwork in several different stages: basically, I try to pick it apart and see what makes it tick, and then I think about how I can use what I’ve learned as a writer.

  • First of all, describe the artwork: ask yourself, “What do I see?” One person might see figures in a landscape, and another might see lines and colors. Either way, it will tell you how the painting or sculpture is working upon you—not just your visual sense, but also that subtle emotional shock that led you to it.
  • If the painting is narrative, or strikes you as narrative, tell yourself the story. Pay attention to the details that lead you to make decisions. How do the objects, forms, or figures in the painting relate to each other? What is it about these relationships that construct that particular story in your mind? In your writing, how do you use imagery to create relationships or associations, and how do these in turn carve out the emotional landscape of your story?
  • Find the “event” in the artwork. However the image first grabs your attention is, in most cases, the event, but not always. You can think of the event as a climax or as a catalyst, depending on how you’ve constructed your narrative. Is the event a facial expression? A gesture? An interruption of one color with another? A dissolution of form? Pay attention to everything surrounding the event—how does the whole composition build up to it? As a writer, how do you use emotion, action, and imagery to support the big events of your story?
  • Finally, think about the medium, and how the artist has used it to convey strong emotion, or elicit a powerful reaction. Every work of art has a story behind its creation, and even if you don’t know the history of a particular artist, you can imagine him or her at work, making decisions, choosing what to emphasize and what to blur out. The medium is akin to the structure of a story or a novel—as a writer, you make the same choices using different materials.

All of the above exercises are essentially workouts for your inner eye—but what about that most crucial building block of literary images, voice? No matter how impeccably you magnify the most important details, if the voice falls flat you’ll be left with tedious, clinical description.

When I feel like voice is the problem, I’ll imagine that I am an art critic, writing an article for a low-budget publication that can’t afford to use images. How do I describe the artwork to a reader who has never seen it before? Even more importantly, how do I describe it to best reflect my own unique interpretation of it? This is the same problem we all face as writers when we sit down in front of that first blank page, and then again every time our protagonist looks through a window, or walks through a door. It’s not just about making your readers “see” a picture—it’s also about making them understand why you made them look.

Of course, the MFA is just a starting point: Boston offers plenty of inspiration to the afflicted writer. Sometimes, doing the work means staring down that blank canvas till it submits—but often, doing your best work means stepping outside the studio.

5 comments

  1. Rob Wilstein

    Beautifully written, Hesse. The ‘eruption’ of the canvas in the room is brilliant. As a painter I have faced down many a blank canvas with the same trepidation. My offering is to make one mark, one gesture, react to it and the rest will follow. One word, one sentence, and there you go. Thanks for a thoughtful and helpful post.

  2. Cynthia Johnson

    I’ve heard someone say that writers are usually connected to other art mediums, so your post confirms that idea. You’re asking us to take time and see beyond the canvas, and consider where and how it was made. I love that, Hesse, because it deepens the experience and demonstrates the life beneath/behind the creation. Thank you for a wonderfully insightful post!

  3. Carol D. Gray

    “It’s the look of an artist facing a blank page, so overwhelmed by the monumental task at hand that he is all but invisible to himself, just a pair of eyes as empty and black as the canvas is clear and white. What the hell do I do now? he’s asking himself.” Yes, good question and one I can completely relate to. Glad to know the answers are so close by!

  4. Lisa Birk

    Man, can I relate to feeling dwarfed by that gigunda “eruption” of a canvas.

    I love how you look at art, Hesse. There’s something really inspirational to me about cross-genre chats. I heard Mad Men creator, Matthew Weiner, say (to Terry Gross???) that he often has a picture of the season ender in his mind and he then writes the arc to that picture.

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