In 2012 my husband and I visited Spain and spent a few days in Barcelona. The buzz of old-world art was intoxicating – being surrounded by the surreal architecture of Gaudi, the art of Miro and Goya and Picasso – I came away inspired to create. The most memorable part of the trip for me was our visit to the Picasso Museum, an entire building devoted to one of my favorite artists. I learned recently that Picasso completed over 135,000 works in his lifetime, an absolutely outrageous number to contemplate. But having walked through the museum, seen all of the sketches and practice pieces he did before creating any one of his masterpieces, I can believe it.
The biggest takeaway for me was just how much Picasso practiced before he even began working on a piece and how that practice was key in his absolute mastery – not only of painting but of sculpture, book illustration, and set and costume design. Without dozens or even hundreds of sketches Les Demoiselles d’Avignon or The Old Guitarist wouldn’t exist (you can see some of the sketches he did here. ) Sketches helped him figure out placing, subject, line. I loved seeing all the iterations, all the subtle changes that went into the sketches that preceded the completed piece, how Picasso worked out each and every detail.
It’s hard to contemplate the equivalent of this sort of practice in writing. One doesn’t normally think of a writer as a sketch-artist, creating a piece over and over again, subtly changing characters, dialog, setting before starting the actual drafting. Most people have a concept of a writer as a person who sits at a keyboard or with a pen and paper and just starts drafting. I’ve had a hard time myself trying to figure out how to apply the lessons I learned from all of Picasso’s experiments.
But even as I’m writing this I’m beginning to see that all the prework I do as a writer – the character sketches, the babbling to myself about what-ifs, the half-formed dialog and scenes, the arrangement and re-arrangement of the pieces of a work – those are like Picasso’s sketches. You sketch as much to practice as to figure out what does and doesn’t work, to find the right combinations that lead to the masterpiece. Without that practice, there can be no mastery.
Editing, then, is a sort of equivalent of the artist adjusting as he is creating the actual piece. Scraping paint off that doesn’t belong, adding shading or changing colors mid-work, eventually leading up to the finished product, much as a writer changes words, scenes, scrapes out the pieces that aren’t working, and tightens the prose. All leading the writer to her own finished product, the final manuscript.
It’s tempting to look at all this struggle, the hours that feel like little is happening, the notes that never make it into a book, the characters lovingly created and then abandoned by the side of the page as waste. I’m extremely guilty of this – if I’m not drafting I feel like I’m wasting my time. But when you look at it compared to what Picasso did, it becomes clear that all this struggle is the thing. It is the lead up to the masterpiece, the work that has to go into mastery.