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Eyes half-closed

The Japanese Bridge at Giverny

When Claude Monet completed his work ‘The Japanese Bridge at Giverny’ he was almost blind.

Edgar Degas suffered from an eye disease which warped his vision.

When Ridley Scott brought ‘Alien’ to the screen the suffuse light he employed turned H.R. Geiger’s design for a rapacious predator from a man in a rubber suit with a head modeled on a human penis into an extremely convincing creature of menace.

I used to build scratch models for clients.  Since the primary motive was money, I quickly learned that ‘toys’ are despised and the differences between enthusiasts’ objects of fantasy and commercially produced pieces of plastic are very clearly defined.  A successful replica must not only conform to requirements of scale and detail, but also fit into the diorama of their imagination.  The subtleties – knowledge of their planned light source as well as the general ambience needed for the piece – introduce an ‘attitude’ you must follow precisely.  Whilst applying finishes the model must be placed in correct light in the client’s desired position and color used to emphasize areas of light and shade.   Agents often need to be added to the paint – talcum powder and so on – to lend texture.

Even with so much attention to detail, I would not have avoided the ‘toy’ accusation, had it not been for the advice of an experienced (and very good) modeler.  While you apply the finishes, he told me, you should deliberately blur your vision.  Work with eyes half closed.   Imagine the ship behind the spray of a storm, or the transporter approaching through swirls of dust.

  ‘Toys’ become ‘models’ by dimming and blending; by creating an effect which is as strong or even stronger than the subject.  The detail is the layer behind the truth.  The truth is the dust that gets in your eyes, the storm that brings confusion and danger.

It is my belief that the abiding view most of us share of life is an impressionistic one; not that we go around with our eyes half closed but that we gain only a fleeting essential core of information from the things we see.  In the course of a day we see so much!  Detail overload, I am sure, is a mistake too many writers are prone to make.

Yes, the detail needs to be there, and it needs to be accurate, but it can mostly be implied rather than stated.  Writing a landscape does not and should not require depiction of every bend in every road, or every house, or every hump and bump.  These are our gifts to the reader, for him to do with as he wishes.  However, we should have a map, and the few references to specifics we make must conform.

Descriptive writing should appeal to all the senses: sure, but once you place dog pooh in front of the reader you don’t need to tell him it stinks.   Once you tell him the top of a hill is shrouded in mist he does not need to be told it is a high hill.  A room wherein a voice echoes describes itself. As long as he knows the letter is written on vellum he knows how it will respond to his touch.

Too often we force information on the reader that should be left to his imagination.  Our writing should be the fuel, not the flame.  Our art is to provide focus upon the vague shape in the mist that will become the character he loves; the character who will come alive inside his head.  Our gift, if we have it, is to offer Degas’ quirkiness of form,  Monet’s fierce defiance, or Van Gogh’s exuberant hand.