“Writing as a Painter”

My father was trained as a painter, and my earliest memories are filled with the smell of turpentine and oil paints, the sound of a brush stroking canvas or graphite rubbing against sandpaper. A painter was the first thing I wanted to be when I grew up. I imagined conjuring dark, swirling canvases like my father’s own gothic landscapes; I imagined myself perpetually in overalls, painting in vast lofts or picturesque barns. It wasn’t just my father’s work that prompted this dream. I had my diaper changed on gallery benches while shows were hung around me, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a favorite destination for family outings. I didn’t even know what I liked about paintings, only that I liked them. They felt like home.

I’m not a painter, though. I’m a tolerable amateur, I can do a little with light and shadow, but my talent is for words. Yet my earliest exposure to an artistic process was the overheard conversations in studios and galleries, conversations that focused not on the perfection of a single canvas but the direction an artist was taking: the new techniques they were trying, the experiments being carried out over multiple works.

In fiction writing, the story’s the thing; in genre fiction perhaps even moreso. The value—and it is a quantitative value as well as qualitative, measurable in payments, awards, comments—is placed on the finished product, its plot and characterization, its scope and architecture. There is an understanding that the story you submit is your best work, the current acme of your abilities. The story is then read and judged, and it has to speak for itself; it has to be whole in itself, perfectly formed for its purpose.

But that never seemed to be the case in painting, especially not with my father. Put him in a show and he will give the grandest canvases their due, but he will inevitably gravitate towards the smaller pieces, the sketches and the studies that worked out details for the more formal, polished paintings. For him, it’s in these fragments that you can really see the artistry at work—how a single twisting line can evoke a face contorted with emotion, or how a few brushstrokes can create an entire field in bloom. I learned to value these works, and to understand that they were all part of the same body of work. They echoed each other; they spoke to each other.

 

***

 

It’s not surprising, then, that I have a hard time thinking of my stories as singular, discrete narratives, to be ranked by publication, monies earned, awards won. It’s never felt comfortable as a framework; when I’ve tried to put myself in that mindset I’ve only felt unbearably anxious, a particular flavor of anxiety that recalls teenaged feelings of inadequacy, unpopularity, not fitting in.

Too, this focus—on the story as an end product and what it might achieve—necessarily moves attention away from the process itself, and from the understanding that it is all one process, that each story is part of the trajectory of one’s creative life, that all the stories are part of a greater story which is forever changing and growing as the writer changes and grows.

This is not to say that I don’t polish my tales, or that I don’t care about where they end up. Like every writer, I want to write as well as I can; like most writers, I want to be read, and as such I pay attention to where and how I publish my stories. But the more I dig down into the minutiae of pay rates and award consideration, of reviews and online ratings, the more muddled my perception of my work becomes. Most disconcerting is the sense that one story could make or break your career, and the increasing emphasis on numbers—rankings, followers, votes, sell-throughs.

Instead, I prefer to think of my stories as part of a body of work: not a culmination but a progression, not the sum of this month’s numbers or this year’s numbers but a lifelong creative exploration.

 

***

 

There was an online discussion thread some time back, in which writers were debating the pros and cons of having a bingo card. You may have seen the Jane Austen or Haruki Murakami bingo cards, where you can check off repeated themes and motifs for their books. (I am especially fond of the Murakami bingo, which has three different categories for cats: cats, speaking to cats, and vanishing cats.)

The idea that one’s writing could be reduced to a checklist provoked a great deal of anxious commenting, something I well understood. There is a pressure to be original, to say something new every time, to perpetually challenge and stretch yourself. But as with the focus on numbers, such an emphasis doesn’t allow for any kind of sustained exploration; you will be forever chasing your themes, not immersing in them. If I want to write, say, a dozen stories where women become monsters, shouldn’t I do so? Couldn’t each of those stories be valuable in and of itself, and worthy of publication? And couldn’t they say something more when placed side-by-side, reflecting and refracting each other into some kind of greater whole?

 

***

 

These are some of my writing anxieties:

 

That my work will never be read.

That my work will be read, only to be derided and scorned.

That my work will be read, but no one will give a fuck about it.

That I will run out of things to say.

That I will end up repeating myself, without variation or progression.

That I will write one story that will become The Story, the award-winning, bestselling, Year’s Best story that will become the standard by which all my other stories are judged and found wanting.

 

Instead, I tell myself:

 

There is the immediate story, and there is the body of work, and at all times I am shaping both.

No story is perfect, but it becomes closer to perfect as part of the greater work.

There is virtue in flaws, in rehashed subjects, in failed attempts—these are the sketches and studies that have as much to say as the more polished stories; they are also what make the polished stories possible.

To view all these pieces together is as important and valid a form of creative work as a single, edited story.

To view these pieces together, as a body of work, is to get closer to something I have no words for, something ineffable, than I can in any one story.

 

***

 

Not the story, then, but the work. Not one project but several, always, developing simultaneously, talking to each other, stealing from each other, giving to each other. I am returning to the vignette and the prose poem even as I push ahead with a trilogy of novels and dabble in every length between. Small and large, rough and polished, following the trajectory of all that’s in my head. Writing as a kind of painting; painting, but with words.

About L.S. Johnson

L.S. Johnson was born in New York and now lives in Northern California, where she feeds her cats by writing book indexes. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Long Hidden, Year's Best Weird Fiction, New Haven Review, and other venues. Her first collection, Vacui Magia: Stories, won the 2nd Annual North Street Book Prize. Harkworth Hall, a gothic romance and the first part of a duology, will be published on August 1, 2017.