This article in today’s NYT is all about art, but it made me think all about writing. It’s about, essentially, the way we tend to collect digital photos as evidence of places we’ve seen, without really absorbing the experience of being there. Whereas in the eighteenth century, “Travelers who took the Grand Tour across Europe … spent months and years learning languages, meeting politicians, philosophers and artists and bore sketchbooks in which to draw and paint” — by now, “Cameras replaced sketching … convenience trumped engagement, the viewfinder afforded emotional distance and many people no longer felt the same urgency to look.”
In class last week, as I gave my students one of their final writing exercises of the quarter, one writer asked whether I do these types of writing exercises myself. The answer: Yes. But as I read this article this morning, I realized that I’m not unlike those who snap photos of the Mona Lisa and then move on to the next famous work of art — I tend to do writing exercises as a way to get me through a story, to solve a problem I’m having with a character or a scene, not for the simple joy of language, of writing something completely random. The last time I did that was so many years ago I can’t even think about it because it makes me feel too old.
The article does take a step beyond visual art: “At one time a highly educated Westerner read perhaps 100 books, all of them closely. Today we read hundreds of books, or maybe none, but rarely any with the same intensity.” As writers, we read books, stories, and poetry carefully — but is this in order to learn more about writing or to enjoy the work itself?
As the article notes, “Artists fortunately remind us that there’s in fact no single, correct way to look at any work of art, save for with an open mind and patience.” This is a good way to approach reading and writing as well. (Writers are generally known for having open minds, though I’m not so sure about the patience part.)
So here’s my Monday morning challenge: Take some time today to write for no reason whatsoever. Write something you’ll never use for anything other than enjoying that one moment in time in which you’re writing. And while you’re at it, read something — a poem, a story — for no reason other than to enjoy it (that is, whatever you do, don’t think about how the author juxtaposes images or develops character).
And let me know how it turns out.