ABC’s of Writing (for Beginners): E for Ekphrasis

Posted by on Sep 20, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

art_hsjSimply stated, ekphrastic work is a written response to another form of art. A painting inspires a novel. A photograph inspires a poem. A piece of sculpture inspires flash fiction. It creates a kind of indirect dialogue, in a way, in which one artist honors another’s work with a fresh, creative response. So, let’s get started.

Step One. Go to a museum.

Yes, there are other ways to begin, but please trust me on this one. Start here. You can expand later. So – go to a museum. Do not take a guided tour. Wander. Oh – quick legal caveat – wander, but NOT into places that will get you the attention of the guards, resulting in your immediate removal from the premises. That would defeat the purpose entirely. That goes for the kinesthetic learners too — touch only the allowed touchables. Otherwise, you’ll be standing on the street, writing only about the building’s architecture. Which may or may not be something you want to do anyway. But really, why limit yourself? We’re just getting started!

As I was saying, browse the museum. Stop in front of anything that intrigues you. Make notes on everything that draws your eye, whether it is a piece of sculpture, a painting, a photograph or even a woven piece. Consider anything that resonates with you fair game. Notice the details. Look at the brushwork, look at the textures. Write down any questions the piece raises in you, any imagery or stories that start forming in your head. Does the piece speak to you? What does its voice sound like? What is it saying? This will form your outline, your “line sketch,” in a way.

If photography is permitted, take a photo of your chosen object and of the description that accompanies it. It will save you time, and your phone’s camera has more memory capacity than you or I ever will. Between your notes and the image, you can get to work.

Step Two. Research.

Oh, did that throw you? Perhaps you thought I was going to say, “Write.” Well, you could. In fact, you should. Why not? That’s the point of why we’re going through this exercise anyway, isn’t it? Of course it is, so try starting there. We’ll come back to research in a minute.

Step Three. Write.

Write based purely and solely on your visceral and immediate reaction to a particular piece. Go from your notes. What did you write when you looked at the texture of that Chihuly glass chandelier? What were the words you jotted down? What were your first thoughts on seeing that armored helmet from Napoleon’s era, the one with the giant spearhole gaping through the left eye and out the back? What type of story did you start imagining regarding the person who wore it? Or the strength required to pierce that metal so completely? And — what happened to the horse below him?

Start drafting your piece – poem, prose poem, flash fiction, novel. Just get the immediacy of your reaction down on the page. Don’t edit anything. Think of this as your pencil sketch. Just write.

You can go back and revise it later. You can either keep it as pure reaction, or you can do some additional research (aha – told you we’d come back to this!) to help you as you flesh out your piece more fully. Of course, if you decide to write a novel about it, research will become essential. Sometimes the only research you really need is right there in the museum, on the placard next to the item of interest. You get the title, the time period, the artist, and some description. Sometimes you can create your entire piece without any further investigation at all.

But sometimes you may find it’s difficult to start writing without it. You find that a piece raises unanswered questions in you. You’re haunted by wanting to know more, about glass-blowing, or the making of armor, or how war was waged in that particular century. Did they even use trebuchets yet? THIS is where research is really helpful. It can help you block in the color around the outline you’ve created from your initial impressions.

Not everyone feels this step is necessary. You certainly can write an ekphrastic piece without it. However, if you want to know more about the artist, the piece, or even the time period to help you craft your ekphrastic response, research will help you weave in those details with accuracy, which will make your piece feel more true (and more alive) to the reader. My suggestion? Try both approaches. Then compare the pieces you’ve created, see which is stronger.

Step Four. Write.

Wait, you say. I thought that was Step 2. Well, it was. Unless you did research first, before writing. Then it would have been Step 3. Are you getting the point here? You need to write. You may need to revise using research. You may need to use research before you can write. You will need to revise, regardless. If you don’t revise, you’re just being lazy. Snap out of it; get down to work. At this point, you’ve only just done your initial sketch, with some color blocking (to stay with the visual art metaphor). Keep writing. Keep adding the layers, working the paint of your imagination into the canvas of your words.

And really, that’s all there is to it. (That and the entire mystery of creation.) If you’re interested in learning more about the history of ekphrasis or its origins, try your search engine or library. But if you’re looking for some examples of ekphrastic work, check out the following:

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Heidi St. Jean received her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing/Poetry from Fairfield University, where she was selected as the recipient of its 2013 Academic Achievement Award for the M.F.A. program. She was the poetry editor of Theodate, an online poetry journal. She also previously worked as managing editor for the literary journal Drunken Boat, and was one of two poetry editors for Mason’s Road. Her poetry and essays have been published or are forthcoming in SpryRock & Sling; Afterimage: Inklight; The Lyon Review; The Barefoot Review; Long River Run; Mason’s Road and Theodate. Her ekphrastic poem, “The Lawrence Tree,” was selected as Third Prize winner in the 2013 Al Savard Memorial Poetry Contest, sponsored by the Connecticut Poetry Society. (The judge was Russell Strauss, past president of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies.) Her poem, “Surrealistic Dream of the Synesthete,” won Honorable Mention in the Maine Media Workshop and College contest, displaying in Maine Media Gallery’s “Dreams” exhibit during Spring 2014. She has been working professionally as a writer and editor since 1991. ABC’s of writing for beginners

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