Writing with Pictures: Poetic Advice

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Stanly Kunitz, in the August 1988 issue of The  Paris Review, described well the process of getting art from the head to the page. As a believer that illustration is “writing with pictures,” I often find advice from writers to be particularly use in my teaching and professional practice.

“The poem in the head is always perfect. Resistance starts when you try to convert it into language. Language itself is a kind of resistance to the pure flow of self. The solution is to become one’s language. You cannot write a poem until you hit upon its rhythm. That rhythm not only belongs to the subject matter, it belongs to your interior world, and the moment they hook up there’s a quantum leap of energy. You can ride on that rhythm, it will carry you somewhere strange. The next morning you look at the page and wonder how it all happened. You have to triumph over all your diurnal glibness and cheapness and defensiveness.”

Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) won many awards for his writing including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Pize. He was the U.S. Poet Laureate in 2000.

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In Other Words, Illustrating = Writing with Pictures

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For years, I’ve accepted the analogy that illustrating is writing with pictures. It’s not surprising then, that I find the observations and advice of writers so relevant to my work and my teaching. A simple translation from the literal references to the visual, is all it takes.

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Narrative art must be clear, but it must also be mysterious. Something should remain unsaid, something just beyond our understanding, a secret. If it’s only clear, it’s kitsch; if it’s only mysterious (a much easier path), it’s condescending and pretentious and soon monotonous. Stephen Sondheim
In other Words
Narrative art must be clear, but it must also be mysterious. Something should remain unshown, something just beyond our understanding, a secret. If it’s only clear, it’s kitsch; if it’s only mysterious (a much easier path), it’s condescending and pretentious and soon monotonous.

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Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have “essential” and “long overdue” meetings on those days. The funny thing is that, although writing has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it. Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance. I must therefore guard the time allotted to writing as a Hungarian Horntail guards its firstborn egg. -J.K. Rowling
In Other Words
Be ruthless about protecting drawing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have “essential” and “long overdue” meetings on those days. The funny thing is that, although illustrating has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it. Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and create the pictures, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance. I must therefore guard the time allotted to drawing as a Hungarian Horntail guards its firstborn egg.

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Nice writing isn’t enough. It isn’t enough to have smooth and pretty language. You have to surprise the reader frequently, you can’t just be nice all the time. Provoke the reader. Astonish the reader. Writing that has no surprises is as bland as oatmeal. Surprise the reader with the unexpected verb or adjective. Use one startling adjective per page. -Anne Bernays
In Other Words
Nice drawing and painting aren’t enough. It isn’t enough to have smooth and pretty pictures. You have to surprise the viewer frequently, you can’t just be nice all the time. Provoke the viewer. Astonish the viewerImages that have no surprises are as bland as oatmeal. Surprise the viewer with the unexpected situation or depiction. Use one startling detail per image.

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It’s too disturbing to read a writer with a good style when you’re in the middle of putting your work together. It’s very much like taking your car apart and having all the pieces on the floor when somebody rides by in a Ferrari. Now, you may hear a note in the Ferrari that isn’t good and say, That motor needs a little tuning. But nonetheless the car is there and yours is on the floor. So while I’m working on a book, I rarely read more than The New York Times. -Norman Mailer
in Other Words
It’s too disturbing to see an artist with a good style when you’re in the middle of putting your work together. It’s very much like taking your car apart and having all the pieces on the floor when somebody rides by in a Ferrari. Now, you may hear a note in the Ferrari that isn’t good and say, That motor needs a little tuning. But nonetheless the car is there and yours is on the floor. So while I’m working on a picture, I rarely look at more than The New York Times.

Further Observation

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These illustrations are by the late-great Saul Steinberg. In this series, Steinberg draws variations on a theme: playing with the stationery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, while serving as the institution’s first and only artist-in-residence in 1967. 

Quotes used are from the inspiring blog Advicetowriters.com.