I mentioned in my last post that I took Hemingway’s advice on creating real characters and the places they inhabit a step further.
I started a painting of my children years ago. Their teenage years were fraught with a lot of self-doubt regarding my ability to parent effectively. Thankfully, we all came out of it relatively unscathed, but one of the habits I developed while trying to figure out how to deal with the issue de jour, was to work on the portrait of the child in question. My friends recognized this habit before I did. “What is going on with him this week?” they’d ask nodding at the painting. I soon discovered that painting in this supportive studio environment was highly therapeutic. Not only did I get lots of free advice from veteran moms, but in painting my children, I worked through issues.
Likewise, alternating painting with writing in my own studio helps me build stronger characters. Again, this dawned on me as I was painting a live model, and a particular character in the sequel to House Key started to emerge more fully.
I was excited to return to the atelier where the same model was posing again today and continue working on the painting that will reveal more about the person I am writing. This is totally in keeping with another piece of Hemingway’s advice that one should write about real people for them to be believable in a novel. Hemingway argues with his contemporaries that one must write about a person truthfully, and though I agree about portraying someone honestly, I can also see how that path might be fraught with peril. I would argue that while painting a model, the artist has free rein to interpret the features, gestures, mannerisms and attitude of the model into a new character that becomes an independently real and true person in the world you create.
This isn’t a new concept for me. Many years ago when I lived and worked in Boston I commuted on the T. Rather than fall asleep and have the conductor wake me a the end of the line (it happened), I developed the habit of studying other passengers and inventing stories about them in my head. It helped pass the time, but it was this sort of practice that now makes it easy for me to paint a model as point of departure for a new person to come alive in my imagination. The act of drawing or painting gives the subject a life of its own, a way of making characters real.