Dec 17, 2010

The Art of Language by Stephen Parrish

Stephen Parrish’s story “Bridget” was the inspiration for Saying Goodbye, an anthology of thirty-one true stories about “saying goodbye” to the people, places and things in our lives. For more information, visit

The Art of Language by Stephen Parrish

I grew up among artists who encouraged me to draw and paint; my room always smelled of turpentine and linseed oil and my pants were often streaked with charcoal dust. Since I write visually—I first see the scenes in my head and attempt to record them faithfully—it was only natural that I come up with an approach to writing that paid tribute to all those canvases I sacrificed.

First I “scribble” the scene by brainstorming, by slapping words and expressions down and trying to empty the vision from my head:

start with where she lived
then the train station at the end of her street
it was where you last saw her alive
something about the dirtiness of the place, for contrast
cigarette butts, old newspapers
the train emerging from the fog
after a pregnant pause, you’re in each other’s arms
(this can go on for pages)

An advantage of scribbling is that I ensure my purposes are comprehensively addressed; I vent everything that comes to mind. Another is that I get to fill up blank paper at little creative cost. After scribbling I “sketch” the scene, placing elements in the right order, fleshing out, filling gaps:

you start with the street she lived on, how it wound around obstacles long since removed, how the remaining buildings seemed tired, seemed to lean over the sidewalk. at the end of the street was the train station where you last saw her alive. the floor of the platform was covered with cigarette butts, old newspapers, and grime.

as the train approached the station you saw only its distant headlamp through the fog. when she stepped onto the platform the two of you paused as though waiting for enough joy to fill your eyes. finally the joy overflowed and you were in each other’s arms. one last time, you felt her skin beneath your hands.

only time is inaccessible, never place. you can always go back to the place. you write to preserve moments in time.

I write only in lower case, and I use no indentations or quotation marks. Consequently the piece feels like a draft and I don’t have to worry about how it sounds. If you’re a perfectionist like me, this will spare you obsessive tooling. Finally I “draw” the scene; I go final.

I keep a journal. I think everyone should: a journal is to language what a sketchbook is to art. The scribble-sketch-draw analogy has helped me fill quite a lot of empty paper.

But that’s not what this post is really about.

A painting is a window to a world the artist has created. Likewise when we write a scene we attempt to describe a world in a way readers can grasp. The writer needs to provide just enough detail for readers to draw the lines and paint the colors in their imagination. Some details the writer will insist on: the scar was on the left side of the bad guy’s face. It was rain rather than crickets the lovers heard, or rather didn’t hear.

Most of the details, however, the readers must decide for themselves. I have little patience with writers who want to show me exactly what a character looks like, by inventorying traits and dimensions, by scanning figures from head to toe. If you tell me the bad guy has a scar, I’ll fill in the rest. Likewise, if you tell me the lovers don’t even know it’s raining, don’t even notice they’re getting wet, I can pretty much guess what’s on their minds. A visual artist who skimps on detail risks failing to achieve his goal. A writer who is heavy on detail stands little chance of achieving it; the reader doesn’t even make an attempt to engage.

When I paint, I fill my canvas with color. I leave no spot untouched. When I write, I provide as little information as I can get away with; less is more.

Still, that’s not what this post is really about, either.

Anyone who has been moved by a great poem knows the art of language has as much to do with sound and rhythm as visual detail. With rhyme and alliteration. With contrast, the foundation of all beauty. When it comes time to draw, after you’ve scribbled and sketched, there should be only one thought in mind: to push your work beyond what you’ve visualized; to take chances; to wrestle with the fear that no one will understand you, no one will be moved by your words or will share your vision of light and shadow:

You start with the street she lived on, how it wound narrowly around obstacles long since leveled by bankruptcy and wood saw; how it shouldered stayed and acquitted buildings that retained most of their dignity, except now they seemed to cant forward slightly, like opposing rows of aging chess players.

You describe the train station where you last saw her alive. The paint was yellow with age and smoke and the sour smell of unclean men. It peeled in the damp air and fell to join the cigarette butts, the empty bottles, and the foot-trodden newspapers; litter that clothed the cement floor no better than the rags on the men who drank and dreamed there.

The first you saw of the train was its headlamp, floating ghost-like over the fog, then the engine broke from the mist and rumbled into the station where, here, the sun had burned the valley clean and the trunks of the Bruchweide were amber columns of light. When she stepped onto the platform the two of you stood apart at first and let the smile fill your eyes. Like spring-fed wells. Until the wells overflowed and you were in each other’s arms.

The first time was outdoors, as all first times should be. You felt her flesh beneath your hands, soft, pliable, giving, welcoming. The pine needles against your back. Her voice, the rhythm of her chatter, a tonic, the day washed of its drabness. The smell of cut grass, of burning leaves, of moss and humus and primeval soil. A visceral sense of early and distant rain. It’s only the time that’s inaccessible, not the place, not even the person. You write to preserve moments in time. That’s what art is for. You write to capture the love you felt before it broke something inside of you. The volume set too high, yet never high enough. A timeline, a Cartesian grid, curved space, a forest of stars, darkness at night, and an abacus in the hands of a man gone mad.

That’s what this post is about.


Stephen Parrish is one of the contributors of Mike O’Mary and Julie Rembers’ literary collection, Saying Goodbye, by Dream of Things.

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