Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

“Gesture writing”

with 2 comments

Very interesting piece by Rachel Howard in the NY Times:

Five years ago, I walked into a third-floor art studio on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, climbed atop a wooden stage covered in stained padding and dropped my ratty yellow bathrobe. A panel of strangers asked me to pose, and then to freeze. I had never modeled for artists, and had no idea how I would feel standing naked as people I had just met stared at me. The idea held some bohemian appeal, but more urgently, I needed to supplement my income as a freelance writer while I worked on a novel.

I made the cut, and became a member of the Bay Area Models Guild. I had hoped this gig might earn me grocery money. I soon grew to love the freedom and strange relinquishment of status that comes from offering your nude presence to artists. What surprised me the most, though, was how profoundly it changed my writing life.

Soon I was sent out on bookings, mostly to introductory college drawing classes. The professor’s approach was always the same. I was asked to do many sets of active one- or two-minute poses.

“Find the gesture!” the instructor would shout, as the would-be artists sketched. “What is the essence of that pose? How does that pose feel to the model? The whole pose — quick, quick! No, not the arm or the leg. The line of the energy. What is that pose about? Step back and see it — really see it — whole.” And then, my timer beeped, I moved to a new pose and the students furiously flipped to a clean page.

This “gesture” idea was fundamental. In painting classes, where I held the same pose for three hours (with frequent five-minute breaks, thank God), the paintings that looked most alive were built on top of a good gesture sketch, a first-step, quick-and-dirty drawing in which many crucial decisions about placement, perspective and emphasis were made intuitively.

In a gesture drawing, a whole arm that didn’t matter much might be just a smudgy slash, while a line that captured the twist of a spine might stand in sharp, carefully observed relief. The “gesture” was the line of organic connection within the body, the trace of kinetic cause-and-effect that made the figure a live human being rather than a corpse of stitched-together parts. If you “found the gesture,” you found life.

I was, during those early days of art modeling, struggling to find the life in my stylistically choppy novel. At home alone, I heard the drawing instructors’ voices.

Find the gesture. Don’t worry about the details. What is the essence of that pose?

I left my laptop at my desk and moved to the other side of the room to sit on the floor with my notebook. I chose a scene that involved a woman and a man sitting at a table with a priest, going over the results of a premarital counseling questionnaire.

I knew what happened in the scene, and what each character said, but when I’d tried to write it on my computer, the results were clunky. I kept trying to make the scene better by adding more about the woman’s thoughts and tinkering with the dialogue.

Step back. See it whole. Sitting on the floor with my notebook, I didn’t worry about words, about sentences. I thought about how the woman and her fiancé were sitting next to each other at the table, how the priest was wearing a high-necked orange sweater, how the woman’s fiancé assumed the priest didn’t know about “intimacy” with a woman . . . click. Yes, it was so much more interesting from the husband-to-be’s point of view!

Where’s the line of energy? What is the essence of what you see? Quick! I wrote all over the page, a line of complete dialogue followed by a place-holder phrase of exposition, a one-word reminder of the next action followed by an arrow to the margin where I’d scribbled a description of a key image. The page looked a mess. But I had captured the movement of the scene, not one line of dialogue connected clunkily to the next action. There was thewhole. It made leaps. It had perspective. It had emphasis and connection. It had life.

Later, I could go back and do what artists call rendering — working the drawing, adding detail. But now I had a solid gesture sketch to work from. And this had happened in five minutes.

Perhaps this shouldn’t have been a revelation. According to “The Writer’s Notebook,” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 May 2013 at 11:13 am

Posted in Writing

2 Responses

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  1. I’m familiar with the writing style, I write better longhand, then ‘render’ on the laptop.
    Don’t know about posing nude, better put it on the bucket list, just for the hell of it.
    And yeah, this is an interesting story indeed.

    dereklubangakene

    29 May 2013 at 12:18 pm

  2. You’re doubtless familiar with the writing exercises suggested in Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers. The idea of finding (and writing) the critical “gestures” of a scene reminded me of those.

    LeisureGuy

    29 May 2013 at 12:35 pm


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