The importance of sketching

Because my mother was an artist, sketches were something I became accustomed to seeing around the house, as a child, in the same way you might see shopping lists, to do lists, receipts or bills.

Of course, I saw those things as well.  Often they were mixed up with the sketches, and sometimes they were on the same piece of paper.

My mother had finished pieces of work, some mounted on the walls, more stacked up in the boxroom waiting to be mounted or framed, and I was used to seeing the designs she had completed in her paid work as a graphic designer, but it was the sketches I was always fascinated with.  It was often in the sketches, I found, that a particular stroke of the charcoal or the pen had captured an expression, a movement, in a person or an object that it seemed to me told a story much larger than its mere physical space would suggest.

To me these sketches often held more power, were more dynamic, than the finished pieces.  They represented the moment when my mother had become interested enough in something to want to interpret it, and that interest told a story of my mother’s relationship with the object, or the person.

And it was through a form of sketching that I first discovered writing.  I was fascinated with the patterns of words and the way they linked together to create meaning beyond meaning.   Two well chosen words can create a picture in our minds.  A simple gesture can describe a person.  A line of dialogue reveals a character, a relationship, a whole story.

Many of the new writers I have taught on creative writing courses have been very concerned with structure.  I know how to write, they may say, but I don’t know how to structure a story.  I don’t know how to structure a novel.  This is reinforced by the dependence of the publishing industry, the film industry, on the power of story structure to stimulate and guide us from one end of the book or film to the other in a satisfying, predictable, and hopefully profitable manner.  I myself remember feeling exceptionally guilty when after years of writing I seemed to have nothing to show for it but fragments of stories, unpolished, unstructured.

I learned, to some degree, to take my sketches and to work them into finished pieces, to polish them with metaphorical linseed and lacquer and work them into the kind of thing that is expected of a story.

But sometimes, looking back at those early word sketches, I see a rawness that if we are not careful, as writers, we are in danger of losing.  Every so often we need to take some time, to go out with our notebook, or sketchbook, and write without structure in mind.   Short descriptions of people and places, sections of dialogue, a character drawn from head to toe in coloured words.  We don’t know in advance what we’ll choose, but afterwards we see that each sketch has its own story to tell, and to my mind, that’s how the best stories begin.

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