Describing Art

I took in most of the SculptureWalk in downtown Sioux Falls tonight.  It’s fun to check out the artwork, especially when there are as many animal sculptures as there are this year, and a couple of them are really wonderful.

It also got me thinking about describing art.

On each sculpture there is a little blurb from the artist about the piece.  For a couple it’s as simple as “I wanted to make a butterfly” but for most of them it is a chance to describe the work or even go into the symbolism and meaning of the piece.

When it’s the artist who is explaining, you know it’s a pretty credible explanation.  After all, that is the person who created the piece explaining what it means.  When I start questioning descriptions of meaning and intent is when it is done by someone other than the artist.

I’ve only seen this a few places – a particular piece at the Modern in Fort Worth springs to mind – but when there is a long description written by an art historian or critic describing what the artist meant, my first reaction is to ask how they would know.  I realize that the person writing the commentary is likely someone with an extensive background in art and a good familiarity with the artist in question, but I’m still not convinced.  It seems a bit like putting thoughts or words into someone else’s mouth.

Honestly, when it comes to art, I will read the description.  (I’m a reader, so my eyes are always drawn to words.)  I’m not going to base my opinion on the piece itself on the words, however.  I’ll base it on the art itself, which is (hopefully) what the artist intended.

Incorrect Word Assumptions

One of my mom’s pet peeves is the word “orientate.”  One of mine is “conversate.”  These two words have the same thing in common: someone has made an incorrect assumption about how the source words work.

In The Unfolding of Language, Guy Deutscher calls this process analogy, and he uses a classic example.  A little kid who has only ever seen forks with four tines may call a three-tined fork a “threek,” because of the coincidental sound of the number “four” in the word fork.

We’re used to the following relationships:  the noun education and the verb educate, the noun communication and the verb communicate, the noun fornication and, well, you get the idea.

Here’s the problem: the rule applies in the verb-to-noun direction.  Verbs that end in “-ate” turn into nouns that end in “-ation.”  Indicate becomes indication.  Vacate becomes vacation.  It doesn’t apply in the other direction, and most of the time we get it.  Interpretation comes from interpret, not interpretate.  Deprivation comes from deprive.  Exploration comes from explore.

In the cases at the start of this post, conversation comes from converse.  And orientation?  It comes from orient.

So what happened with the two I mentioned before?  Easy.  Someone didn’t know the right base verb, and they made an assumption based on how they knew other verbs worked.  Guy Deutscher argues that this force of analogy is one that helps to not only create new words (my spell check has no issue with orientate, for example) but that this is, in fact, a very good candidate for how complex language structures came into being.

Words and language can be so much fun!

A Lack of Layers

If there’s one thing most readers notice about fantasy novels, it’s that there’s a lot going on.

Multiple story lines.  Intricate subplots that tie in to the main plot in unexpected ways.  Detours to follow side characters.  Details that seem unimportant but reappear with earth-shattering consequences three books later.  Rules for magic, for governing, for courtship.  Many (sometimes many, many) people to keep track of, relationships to remember, places and faces and societies and who was that again?

Some authors even give us a character list (Jacqueline Carey) or glossary (Robert Jordan) to help when we’re confused, because there is so much going on.

This is a problem that I’m trying to address with Mara’s story (and, by extension, Gretchen’s story and Andi’s story).  The original Butterflies tried to cover too much, too quickly, so I’m dismantling it and making it a series.  I would like to give each of the three girls a separate story, at least until their lives intertwine and the stories coalesce.  There is enough in each life to make it worth the effort, but I’m finding that  now I’m going to simple.  If all we’re doing is following one character as she grows up, where’s the complexity?  Where’s that layered look fantasy readers are used to seeing?

I don’t want to use existing parallel subplots, because they will seem unrelated until the stories come together in a later book.  Perhaps what I need to do is find some side characters from the early lives of the girls, so we can have some subplots that resolve within each tale.

Great, Leigh, make this very challenging process of rewriting even more complicated than it already was.  Nicely done.

Free Writing

Tonight I used a journaling technique called free writing, which I will explain more at the end of the post.

I have red toenails.

This is not usual for me.  In fact, the only reason that my toes are red is because when I took off the polish from my sister’s wedding, I wanted to re-paint my nails.  The only polishes that I own are a blue that is remarkably similar to the color I was removing and red.  So I went with red.

The only reason I even own red is because of a New Year’s Eve party/performance I went to a couple of years ago.  I wore a snazzy red dress and open-toe shoes, and given the company and setting I needed my toes to look good. So I bought red polish to match the dress.

In fact, a couple of weeks after that we were at Disney World.  Red is so unusual for me that my mom noticed and commented on them on the way to the pool.  After I explained why they were red, she was surprised (in a good way) that I had polished them myself.  Apparently I had done a good painting job.  This time they don’t look as good.  In fact, it’s probably time to remove the polish.

I think I’ll go back to blue.   It will match more of my clothing, which is dominated by cool colors.

Free writing was taught to me by my favorite high school English teacher.  She encouraged us (or assigned us, whichever) to keep a writing journal daily.  When we claimed we didn’t have anything to write, she told us just to write whatever came to mind.  “I hate this assignment” or “abcdefg” or anything that appeared was valid, as long as our hands were writing.  Tonight’s post is a form of that; in the shower I noticed that my nails were red, and so I just followed where my mind wandered.  Other than typing down my thoughts, this has not been edited in any way; that’s the concept of free writing.

Self Portrait 1

It’s hard to describe yourself, especially from memory.  Here is my first attempt, with a few visits to the mirror for assistance.

Her dark, chocolate hair was pulled back into a careful ponytail, the ends just brushing the top of her collar.  A few stray pieces near her face caught the breeze, but didn’t catch her attention.  Dark brows had been expertly trimmed, but not recently.  Unconcealed by makeup, the tone of her skin betrayed inconsistent and unintentional sun exposure, but save one or two small blemishes her face was clear and smooth.  Her nose and chin were of a size and shape to fit with her features, and rarely elicited mention.  Her mouth, too, was unremarkable, at least until she smiled.  A grin would reveal neat, white teeth and never failed to reach her eyes.

It was her eyes that drew attention and comments.  Framed by dark lashes, they were large and clear, and a blue that was vivid in any light but striking when they caught extra color from her clothes or the background.  Observant and aware, her eyes always carried a hint of intelligence, and sparkled when she was amused.

She considered her eyes to be her best feature.


Seven Sentence Sequel

Check out the Seven Sentence Story for the first part of this tale.

She had been sitting just long enough for anxiety to eclipse anger when an average looking man appeared in her peripheral vision.  Snapping her head around, she got a good look at him as he raised his right eyebrow.

“A clever one; this could be interesting,” he said, quietly enough that she suspected he was talking to himself.

She sat, stunned, and watched him unlock her ankle manacles before she found voice enough to ask, “What’s going on here?”

He freed her wrists, a slight smile on his face, before he stood and replied cryptically, “You should know that he does not want maidens for food, but he does crave their attention.”

She must have seemed utterly confused, for he added, “We’ve come to collect you for your year of service.”

“Who-” she started to ask, but the word died on her lips as a huge, scarlet dragon lifted into the air behind him.

I Know What Happens, But…

Tonight I was planning to write a follow-up to last nights’ Seven Sentence Story.  I know what happens next, so I thought it would be fun to share it with you.

Turns out that knowing what happens in general is not the same as knowing exactly what happens, and that difference can mean a lot.

I will admit that I often sit down to write with a general concept and let it develop as I work.  Sure, I might have a specific line of dialog or a few sentences of action in mind, but I don’t necessarily start with the thing fully formed.  That’s how I was planning to do this one, but it didn’t work.

I’m not sure if the problem is that I’m tired, or distracted, or just simply that I’m out of practice writing, but tonight the details wouldn’t come.  I think I’ll have to keep developing it in my head for a while and see if I can fill in a few more details before I try to write it up.

Hopefully I’ll have it for you soon…

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