Recalibrating the writing eye

I always find when I leave drawing for a little while that, when I come back, I have to retrain my eye. Drawing and writing are both about observation; seeing what is in the world, reproducing it in a different format. Once that’s understood all craft looks like domestication. Taking in images, decomposing them, reconstituting them so somebody else can see what you see or understand something you want to tell them.

The main error I commit is drawing essentially my memory of what others have drawn. Not recalibrating against the world. I’ve gathered from talking with folks who don’t draw that the difference between these two ways of seeing isn’t always obvious to those who haven’t practiced both, and I’m not saying I have a high confidence in my ability to distinguish them in other peoples’ work. But I can feel, in my own drawing, when I’ve lost sight of what’s real and am just putting down a muscle-memorized symbol for an eye, a hand, a jacket, a pair of glasses, or whatever. It’s sort of masturbatory. I’m not drawing a hand, I’m drawing the set of strokes that I drew at another time to represent a hand.  So on and so on until the original image from life is basically lost.

Which is because brains are bad at remembering things. A memory of an event can be changed by the act of recalling it–which is the act of recoding and reinterpreting it and then putting it back in storage–and memories of images are distorted every time you have to pull them up from memory. Like a gun in a video game degrades every time you shoot it and eventually you need a new gun. You know, science.

So I was thinking about this when I was counting all the times in a particular story I used the phrase raised his eyebrows. When I write that down, I’m not really thinking about eyebrow-raising; I’m just trying to convey mild surprise or alarm. And eyebrow-raising is a kind of shorthand or symbol for that.

Sometimes there’s no point getting more precious than shorthand. The shorthand doesn’t fail to communicate; also, the pace at which a reader assimilates a shorthand is different from the pace at which they assimilate a new object, because shorthand is predictable. So designing the pace that a reader engages with new information in prose requires one to use some amount of shorthand.

But it is worth remembering that it’s a minor error of calibration; it’s reproducing a copy, reproducing other writers, reproducing past phrasing, instead of reproducing life. Even though people raise their eyebrows all the time, that isn’t the be-all of the actual experience of feeling somebody express mild surprise or alarm. Leaning on those shorthands too heavily is a signal to me that I’m not engaging thoroughly with the events that I’m trying to reproduce.

So when I do want to chase a new reproduction of an actual experience or image, that requires recalibration. In drawing, you always reference real life. And for some reason, it hadn’t occurred to me to do this in writing.

For one particular story, I had an image of a helicopter in my mind, and was composing everything in the scene around this helicopter. But then when I looked up helicopters to verify a minor detail, I realized that, in the first place, I had no fucking idea what helicopters look like. I had the symbol of a helicopter in my mind, but it wasn’t calibrated against real life; it was the image of my memory of my memory of a helicopter. Actual helicopters look totally different.

My process has generally been to learn as much as I can about the real world and trust my creativity brain-algorithms to Google Deep Dream it all up into something new. But algorithms can train in the wrong direction. Just good to remember that and set aside time and space to recalibrate.




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