Archive

Tag Archives: viktor lowenfeld

I was once or twice asked to speak to a writing class at a local community college. When you write for the daily newspaper, you get such invitations. I always tried to oblige.

As I spoke to the students, who ranged in age from teens to retirees — that is the way it often is in two-year schools — it became clear that I wasn’t saying what the course teacher had wanted me to say. She was clearly tapping her nails on her desk and looking more an more consternated. 

I wasn’t trying to undermine her curriculum, but it was obvious from her comments that she had hoped I would talk about writing outlines, topic sentences, supporting arguments and perorations, all the usual paraphernalia of learning how to put words in order so as not to embarrass yourself to your reader.

But, I’m afraid I had something different in mind. In fact, I started out by laying out only one rule for good writing. And it had nothing to do with not ending a sentence with a preposition; nothing to do with making notes and organizing your thought; nothing to do with spell-check or grammar.

“The most important requirement for good writing,” I told them, “is having something to say.”

It is surprising how many people sit down in front of their computer keyboard and assume that writing is somehow a substitute for having something to say, as if fancy words would bamboozle your readers with flash and mist. It is not hard to imagine where they might get this notion: So much public discourse, from political speech to blathering 24-hour news, is filled with verbiage meant to fill time and space without divulging anything meaningful. Rhetoric, which once meant effective speaking, now is an insult meant to expose empty speechifying. 

You can read online the two-hour speech that Edward Everett gave on Nov. 19, 1863 at the dedication of the soldiers’ cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa. It is a 13,000-word behemoth of rhetoric and panegyric. It was carefully wrought, organized in just such a way as to make impressive points at calculated intervals, rising to climaxes, falling back and rising even higher. It was a masterpiece of construction; unfortunately, all that great scaffolding rather hid the edifice behind.

“Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies  dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed; — grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.”

Two hours of this. Geez. 

There were references to Ancient Greece, the glory of war and the bravery of soldiers, and a good deal of mention of blue skies and rolling green fields.

It was a memorable performance — at least, that is what people thought at the time, although almost no one remembers it now, except in dim contrast with the words Abraham Lincoln then spoke, with a ratio of words, compared with Everett, of 1-to-50. Lincoln’s words barely fill half a page of typescript.

The difference: Lincoln has something to say.

What is surprising is how few people actually have anything to say. Oh, they jabber on endlessly, but it is mostly prattle. And it is mostly rehash of what others have already said. Original thought is a rare commodity.

What does it mean, having something to say? It can be the recounting of a meaningful experience, it can be a fresh insight, it can be an opinion.

There is a lie that is a cliche (how often they are twins), that opinions are like (I’ll use the word “noses” here to be polite, but you know the familiar wording) noses: everyone has one. But this simply glosses over the fact that almost no one has a true opinion, but rather restates some glib bromide that has been heard from someone else. These are not opinions, they are bumper stickers; they are T-shirt slogans.

A genuine opinion comes from deep experience, probing consideration and formulation of thought within a coherent world view. You can tell the difference easily: If you imagine a meme on Facebook printed in fancy text over a picture of a cat, it is not an opinion. If it a quote questionably ascribed to Mark Twain or Albert Einstein or Mahatma Gandhi, it is not an opinion. If it favors one political party or candidate over another, it is not an opinion. Sorry. 

But I am overplaying opinion. Having something to say is much greater than merely weighing options in a dilemma and reaching a conclusion. In many ways, having something to say is more compelling when it is not trying to persuade us of anything, but to convey to us the experience of something. Or telling us a story. Or discovering something you had not previously known and now feel compelled to share. The compulsion is the all.

Writing is a compulsion. You have something to say; it needs to get out, get down on paper (the legacy version — now we get it down in bits on a laptop screen). Good writing is an overflowing, like a fountain. Questions of creating an outline, or fretting over sentences with prepositions as the ending of, simply don’t come into play.

When you have something to say, the order with which it spills out onto the page will almost certainly be the most effective order. Yes, you can arrange ideas rhetorically, and certainly, if you are not a natural writer, you may be helped by a course in creative writing. But writers are born, not made. Some people have a talent for mathematics, some for music, some for sports. You can teach people the rote version of any of these, but those with the inbred talent will find the best expression for any of these fields. I know that no matter how much I study trigonometry, I will never be a mathematician. I may get the gist, but never the pith.

I suppose you can teach enough rudiments to non-writers so they will not humiliate themselves when they are required to write something down, but you cannot make them writers. And I suppose you can take a raw, unformed writer and make him or her aware of things they hadn’t considered and help them develop their natural ability, but you cannot take a lump and turn it into a gem.

But even talented writers have to have something to say, or they are just spinning their wheels. Think of Hemingway’s later books. 

Something to say requires a life paying attention, a life with an open chest, willing to soak things in. This is filling the well so it may be drawn on later. In the old days, writers like Thomas Wolfe or Hemingway sought out adventures, signing on to merchant ships; or taking cross-country road trips, like Jack Kerouac; or shooting lions; or stabbing a wife, like Norman Mailer (this is not recommended); or leaving America and living out of trash bins in Paris like Henry Miller; in order to gain material for books. Not so much for autobiography, as for the sheer volume of experience that could inform their prose.

The larger you are on the inside, the more pressure for the accumulated steam to escape in words, precious words, delicious words, excited words, needful words.

That is having something to say.

Like so much else, this is something I learned from my late wife, who taught art for so many years to first-, second-, and third-graders. Too many art teachers spent their classes with the color wheel, or with masterworks of art history, or — much, much worse — project art, such as outlining your hand to make Thanksgiving turkeys, or with golden-macaroni Parthenons.

But what my wife did was bring live animals to class and let the children play with them for 20 minutes or a half hour, asking them to sit quiet and observe the bunny or the hermit crab or the turtle; to feel their fur or carapace; to look them in the eye; even to talk to them. She might have them sit in a circle on the floor and put the rabbit in the middle of them and ask them to sit still and try to draw the bunny to them.

Children respond to the animals so strongly that all you have to do is put a piece of paper in front of them after their exposure to the beasts, and give them some paint and brush, and they will be mad to paint their response to the experience. You cannot stop them from making masterpieces. You do not teach them technique, you fill their insides with something real, and they transmute it into utter expressivity. It is a miraculous thing to see.

Educator Viktor Lowenfeld said that given sufficient motivation by experience, the children will find their “adequate means of expression.”

It is the same with writing. You don’t need topic sentences (I snooze at the prospect), you need content. You need enough life in you that you become a conduit for it. It is written because it needs to be written.

An earlier version of this essay originally appeared on the Spirit of the Senses webpage on  Aug. 1, 2017. 

kids art 11

As a professional art critic for more than 25 years, I saw a lot of art — everything from cowboys in leather to nude men dressing themselves in raw meat. But none gives me such consistent pleasure as children’s art.

Mostly, I’m thinking of art made by first-, second-, and third-graders using humble tempera paint and large skeins of paper on which to flow their ideas.

You only have to watch a first-grader in the process of painting to know how deeply committed an artist he is. Every muscle is involved — his very toes are poised in relation to how the tip of his brush moves. He is not distracted by questions of style, of whether the painting will be marketable, of whether his is better or worse than those around him. There is only the fundamental necessity of getting down on paper whatever it is that needs expression.kids art 15

Curiosity and joy are inseparable. Which is more than you can say for many adults out there trying to make a living.

I used to be one of those people who condescended to children’s art. Charming, I thought, but not really art. I have learned better. A child artist is in no respects any different from an adult one; he does the same things, goes through the same processes and creates something as worthy.kids art 08

Some artists and critics with open minds have recognized just such. Alfred Stieglitz hung children’s art in his New York art gallery in the 1920s. The Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Va., has also done so, without any belittling labels. When the art is properly framed and presented, no one could suspect that the works were not by a respected artist with a New York name.

Picasso has said, ”Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”kids art 19

A direct link

Children pursue the creation of art with a purity of heart, and a courage that fails many as they grow older. It is a rare artist who recognizes that his duty to art is the duty that the child accepts without question.

I am not talking here about that god-awful ”project art” that some kids are forced into making — like tracing your hand and making a turkey out of it, or building a golden macaroni Parthenon. When all the children in a class are forced to make the same art, or are shown the accepted method of solving an art problem, all the joy — all the genuine art — is sucked out of it.kids art 02

I am talking about that direct link between experience and expression that comes when a child is given a bunny to hold and then given a paintbrush. The child cannot but attempt to express the experience in the most truthful and direct way. He does not need to be taught about design, theory, or worse, art history, to paint the rabbit. He finds his own “adequate means of expression.”

Consider what happens when the teacher takes a turtle to class, lets the children handle it and play with it, give it a name and study its anatomy and its habits. Here are some of the results. Notice how varied their approaches, and how beautiful the designs and the color harmonies.turtles 01

kids art 04 -- turtleBad children’s art — just like bad adult art — is most often made using formulas; good art is made when artists discover their own solutions. No good tree was ever painted using a sponge; all good art is reinventing the wheel.kids art 24

Creating a well to draw from

Using art to understand experience is what it is all about. It is how art comes to enrich, inform and deepen the child’s inner life. And that inner life is important because it is a sanctuary and a source for the rest of his life — a place he can draw strength and resources from.kids art 12

Formulaic art informs that inner life no more than television — it is busy work.

Solving the art problems, learning to see and to express experience, are all a part of the process of growing. Art is no different from reading or arithmetic in this. Children do it enthusiastically. We should take a lesson from them.

After all, we are not supposed to stop growing simply because we’ve reached adulthood.

The bottom line is that children are the heroes of their own lives. So should we all be.

Egerton 737  f.1

The writer was asked to speak to a creative writing class about what he does. He feels uncomfortable, because he does not much think about what he does; instead, he does it. For more than three decades, he’s been doing it.

But, because he was asked so nicely by the teacher of the class, he agreed to try to explain what he does. 

So, he gets up in front of the class of college-age students, each of whom probably intends to be the next Hemingway, or maybe the next Perez Hilton: It’s hard to know nowadays. 

He speaks:

I was flattered to be asked to speak to you, but I’m not really sure why you asked me, because I really don’t think that I am a very good writer. I am certainly a writer; I get paid for it. But, I’m certainly not a normal writer. I can name a dozen people at my newspaper, for instance, that I admire for being able to accept an assignment, do all the research and distill it into a readable and entertaining article.

I can’t do that, or at least not very well.

On the other hand, I must admit, I don’t find myself reading those stories all that often. I’m simply not that interested in what this week’s celebrity has to say about the vegan diet, or why red suspenders are making a comeback in men’s haberdashery. I’m proud to be a journalist, but I’m not really a journalist.

That could be said for a lot of people these days, especially those writing blogs online. Have you tried reading most of that stuff? It’s like trying to eat an old mattress. Indigestible, self-serving, and just outright bad writing. I don’t really care whether you like boiled eggs or not, and why do you think I care?

But in preparation for coming here, I did some thinking about what makes good writing. Or at least, what makes the kind of writing I want to read and the kind I attempt to do.

And the bottom line is this: What makes good writing is having something to say.

The world is full of “hired guns,” who can turn out PR with the surface lubricity of an eel. The world of journalism is full of such writing: Reporters gather their information, marshal it into rank and file and parade it past the reader in perfect order.

Such writing is found by the car load in the bottoms of parakeet cages.

And blogging has turned instead into public journal keeping, as if we needed to know your every movement. There are some great blogs out there (my favorite is “Think Denk” by pianist Jeremy Denk, who is about the best music writer out there. It is often comic, but it has substance, too. He says real things about the music). But the majority of blog writing is a waste of server space.

Writing that matters — and I cannot see why one would want to write otherwise — writing that matters happens when the writer has something to say, something he cares about, something he knows about.

And I don’t mean, knows about in the sense of having learned a few facts, but I mean knows about, the way you know how to ride a bicycle or the way you know how it feels when you’ve dug a garden: The feeling in the bone, under the muscle. That is knowledge. The population of the Detroit metro area is mere fact. The experience of living in Detroit is knowledge.

And then you must have the missionary zeal to want to broadcast this knowledge.

This needn’t be a soapbox that I’m talking about. Novelists of worth burn to tell us what it feels like to be alive.

But without the need to say something, you have journalism, you have blog-blather.

This is a problem not only in writing. I am an art critic by trade and I see it constantly in galleries: Someone has decided for whatever misguided reason that he or she wants to be an artist. So he learns how to make a painting and creates an art that looks just like art, feels just like art, but isn’t art, it is only the imitation of the way art looks.

The drive in such cases is not to say something but to be recognized as an artist, to be acknowledged as being a member of a certain job description. It is a bureaucratic ambition.

A child in the first grade, for instance, has no interest in being the next Picasso. The fame of art, the sex, the openings, the white wine — these simply aren’t why he makes art.

No, he has been given a bunny rabbit to hold and his eyes light up. The rabbit “kisses” his nose, he feels the fur under his fingers and he simply bursts with the need to express what he has experienced. You put paper and paint in front of him and he will find his “adequate means of expression.”

That phrase, from art education pioneer Viktor Lowenfeld, describes for me what good writing is.

Viktor Lowenfeld

Viktor Lowenfeld

You are burning to say something and you will find the best way possible to say it: its adequate means of expression.

The contrast is the writer who churns out news stories or magazine articles not because he has something to say, but because he thinks it would be neat to make a career out of being a writer.

That’s not to deny there can be a certain romance about being a writer. The exotic myth of downing gin with Hemingway or having sex with the jeunes filles of Paris with Henry Miller. “I admire such and such a person, so I want to be like him. He writes, so it must be cool.”

But Hemingway or Miller were not journalists. They wrote because they had something they were burning to say.

There is a related problem, which is the belief that writing is  somehow different from thinking, that writing is the clothing of thought. It is not, it is the thought itself.

Writing isn’t something applied to a subject, like peanut butter on a slice of bread. It is not how you express thinking: It is thinking.

One cannot think through a subject, come to a conclusion and then say, “Well, now, I guess I’ll write it down.”

No, the writing is how you find out what you think; it is how you come to a conclusion. It is also why you rewrite. If you don’t rewrite, you haven’t done your job: You always write and rewrite, think and rethink.

And again, style is not a fancy evening dress with sequins you put on before going to the dance: Style is that adequate means of expression and it flows naturally from your personality and your way of thinking.

Style is the sum total of your faults, is how Hemingway put it. It’s not your goal, it’s an accident you cannot prevent.

But today, more and more people, the result of years of reality TV and fashion magazines, believe style is the reason you’re in the business to begin with.

It is not. Style is the death of art, it is the death of writing.

You must be as direct as you can be, without distorting what you need to say.

If what you need to say is baroque, the style will naturally be baroque, also. If what you have to say is sophomoric, the style will follow suit.

There are things to look out for and chief among them is formula:

Journalism is full of formulas and many writers use nothing but. But good writing is always done fresh, from the ground up, each time. When you start doing formulas is when you know you are burned out and need a career change.

Each subject must generate its own form; it suggests what is important, what should be left out. There are writers who complain that  this is reinventing the wheel and my only answer is that it is vitally important that we do reinvent the wheel.

It is only when I invent the wheel for myself, and not borrow someone else’s wheel, that I understand the wheel.

To the extent that you use someone else’s words, or someone else’s form, to that extent, you don’t know what you are talking about.

And finally, I must say something about that old writers’ canard: Write what you know. I recall some great writer — I think it was John Updike — saying on the contrary: Write what you don’t know.

My synthesis of the two dicta is this: Write what you know about, but always on the level of what you don’t know. In other words: I write about art because I know something about art. But I try to write about art I don’t yet understand. Through writing about it, I come to understand it.

One should always work at the limits of your ability, at the edge of your knowledge. Writing only what you are thoroughly familiar with will make for academic writing. Writing only what you know nothing about at all will lead to saying really dumb things.

But take what you already know best and seek out the far corners of that universe and explore.

Then you will really have something to say.