First Draft Issue 1: Restraint
Thanks for signing up for First Draft, my first newsletter, begun as I prepare to launch my first novel, Endpapers, into the world in February. I'm looking forward to connecting with you every few weeks with a brief reflection about writing—some aspect of craft or publishing—or maybe just to check in to make sure we're all taking care of ourselves and one another on this creative journey.
Recently, I took a staycation with my family and we went for a day trip to the Rockwell Museum in Corning, New York. It was the first art museum I've been to since the lockdown in 2020, and I didn't realize how much I'd missed being up close and personal with visual art. So I've had art on the mind since.
At the museum, the painting "Sketch in Yellow" by Isadora Duncan caught my attention, and it reminded me of my favorite art teacher, Mikhail, at the Center for Book Arts in New York. It was actually through my explorations with book art after college that I began writing creatively.
The thing I remember most fondly about Mikhail is that he taught me the power of restraint. He liked what I achieved with bold, simple lines and encouraged me to focus on those over small details. He urged me to imagine that my drawings could fit on my thumbnail so that I would include only what was absolutely necessary for clarity.
I've always loved to draw people, and Mikhail's advice inspired me. Soon I understood that sometimes there are better ways to convey emotion in a subject than by rendering the details of their expression. In fact, even when omitting their facial features altogether, as in "Sketch in Yellow," it's possible to convey clear expression through movement, posture, color, and context. Sometimes it's even the negative space around the subject that does most of the expressing.
For one book project I was working on in Mikhail's workshop, I was trying to fill a large spread with the perfect image to suggest "waiting." After weeks of trying and failing to get it right, I tossed a couple of my attempts on the floor and covered different parts of them with blank paper. It wasn't until I was left with only a quarter of my original drawing that I was finally satisfied with it. I never ended up finishing that project, but you can see a picture of my mock-up with the test print for the final image below.
For the past few weeks, since I've seen "Sketch in Yellow" at the Rockwell and dug up my old book mock-up, I've been thinking about how when artists strategically leave things out, they invite the viewer, or reader, to fill them in with their own imagination, creating deeper intimacy with the work.
Now, when it comes to writing, I'm not advocating that we all run wild slashing and burning every scene we're drafting. But what if this week we all try a little experiment? As you sit down to write, whether there's a scene that's been refusing to take shape or you're about to start something new, try approaching it with restraint (or more restraint), just to see what happens: What can you strip away or leave out for greater impact? How can you reduce that scene to a size that could play out on your thumbnail?
I hope you enjoy experimenting, and I look forward to next time!