Lessons about writing from Claude Monet
November 24, 2018
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This is the time of year when many businesses give out free calendars, with illustrations in varying shades of kitsch. As a counterbalance, I like to buy at least one calendar each year with pictures I will enjoy looking at as the months go by. This year it is a calendar with photographs of paintings by Claude Monet.
Monet is regarded as the founder of the French impressionist school of painting. He was definitely the most prolific of the group. Impressionism was a label invented by scornful critics and it stuck, no matter how much the artists themselves disliked it.
Impressionism is not abstract art, it is representational art with an emphasis on light, colour and movement, with all unnecessary details left out. Impressionist paintings are not posed indoor scenes. They were almost all painted outdoors and depict objects and people as the eye would see them. Close up, one sees only a jumble of short brush strokes and vague shapes in these paintings, from a distance, the scene is vivid and clearly identifiable.
It struck me that the techniques of impressionism apply to writing as well.
Lesson One: Leave out all unnecessary details. If a grandmother is puttering in her flower bed to calm her anxiety as she waits for her granddaughter to arrive for a visit, it isn’t necessary to describe the leafs and petals of the petunias. We are not writing a botany textbook. Show the grandmother pulling every little weed she can find, checking her watch, going into the house to see that everything is still just right, coming back to the flower bed, examining each leaf for signs of insect damage or disease, checking her watch again.
Lesson Two: Show the effects of the light. When granddaughter arrives, don’t tell us details of genealogy and history, show the love and concern these two have for each other by their hugs, tears and questions.
It takes a long time to learn the lesson that good writing is just as much about knowing what to leave out as it is about what to put in.