We had good friends visiting from Venice, California last week—both artists; a painter and a designer, whose unique perspectives and sharp observations always make for lots of stimulating conversation.
On the top of their to-do list in San Francisco was the Gertrude Stein exhibit at MOMA. After several hours of braving the crowds and pondering the art, we adjourned to a cafe for a glass of wine to discuss the show. At one point, Tom, the painter, mentioned that, although he loved Matisse, he felt he was a lazy painter. I rose to Matisse’s defense—how could such a prolific artist be considered lazy? Well, apparently, he used paint directly out of the tube, never bothering to mix a color of his own. Oh, well.
Coming from an art’s background, I could sort of understand. And as a writer with a painting background, I am always noticing the comparisons between the visual arts and writing. Not only do they share a common vocabulary, (tone, landscape, shape, allusion, illusion, portrait, well drawn, colorful, bland, abstract, delineated and on and on) there is much in the creative process that applies to both. I couldn’t help but think about what makes one a ‘lazy’ writer?
The use of cliche is the obvious, whether it be that tired phrase or the easy stand-in for a real emotion. Cliches simplify what is complicated. And then there's the use of sentimentality instead of digging for authenticity. Honestly conveying real emotional complication is a lot of hard work!
Which is why revision is so essential to the writing process. I constantly have to remind myself that it’s okay to use that cliche in early drafts—a cliche is a place marker for areas that need to be deepened and made authentic. Using cliches in early draft work isn’t lazy, it’s practical. But not doing the work to deepen in revision is unforgivably lazy.
I'm not actually sure that's a very good analogy. Using paint directly from the tube is more like using the simplest, most obvious word. Was Gertrude Stein being lazy when she said "a rose is a rose is a rose"? ( or was she just being weird?) A rose can be many things; it can be called by it's Latin name, Rosaceae, it can be described botanically as floribunda polyantha, it can be specific as in Damask Rose or Glowing Peace, Betty Boop or Livin’ Easy. But sometimes just 'rose' is enough. Sometimes the simplest word is the best choice.
Thinking about words and being lazy, I'll confess a rather odd and irrational habit of mine—a pathology for ‘saving’ letters. When I’m editing, say changing the word ‘slither’ to ‘glide’ I feel compelled to save the ‘li’ and the ‘e’, even though it would be easier to delete the whole word and type in the new one. Is that being lazy? Or a little crazy?
But back to Matisse—was he really a lazy painter? I don’t know. Maybe he just happened to like the colors the way they looked right from the tube. And really, what's so wrong with that?