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Learning from Matisse

I finally made it to the Metropolitan yesterday, to catch Matisse: The Fabric of His Dreams. The exhibit was about the artist’s lifelong fascination with fabric, and how it inspired his art, and so it struck me as an amazing lesson in creative process.

Over the past few days on Freelance Success, a writer’s board that I occasionally participate in, there’s been an interesting discussion about ideas, and how writers get them and develop them. So I posted this on there today:

If you look at the fabric as an analogue for the little scraps and snippets of information that we collect –newspaper articles, statistics, overheard conversations, etc. — I think there’s much to learn from how Matisse (and other artists too) wrestle with turning inspiration into completed works.

So, the first thing is that Matisse took the search for inspiration very seriously. He looked for fabric everywhere, and bought what seemed interesting to him even when he couldn’t afford it. He took a great deal of care with his collection, and called it "his noble library of rags". For writers, this ties into taking the search for those little scraps very seriously, always checking in with the gut to see whether something that you’re observing is worth writing down, whether a book is worth buying, whether a person is worth talking to for a bit longer.

Second, and this ties into the question about developing ideas, he would not just let the fabric sit there, but he would stare at it, think about it a lot, and soon, draw many little sketches, or studies. This is something that visual artists do, as a matter of course, and I think that’s the step that I was trying to articulate in my post the other day.

The analogue to writing is taking out the notebook, and generally writing about the idea that you’re developing, taking stabs at different ledes, for example, raising different questions, saying to yourself "what if I tried this piece as a profile of XYZ. I’d start like this…nah, it would be better as an overall trend piece, and the nut graf might go a little something like this…" And also, pushing to come up with interesting questions that you haven’t yet considered, and possible research/reporting approaches. "What if I tried to track down an expert in abc, and asked her 123?" And then you go out and do some reporting, or if you can write the query, you do, or if it’s not yet ready, you leave it to simmer a while longer and come back and try it again another day.

When a writer makes a study, or in some cases, many studies, in a notebook, s/he is playing around with the idea, exploring, not making it go out and earn its keep right away. Not every study is going to turn into a story, at least right away, and that has to be okay. This is something that fiction writers are more likely to make time for than nonfiction writers, but especially for longer form, narrative type of stories that are all about original ideas, I think this is an essential, and often overlooked step.

And yes, eventually the idea will be dressed up for sale. But you can return to that study when you’re doing the article, and you can return to it for reslants, if you’re so inclined. And the nice thing is that sometimes you make connections between the different studies that you’ve done on an idea, and bam! you’ve got something entirely different. This also provides a way to let an interest develop over time–which can be hard in our next story, next story, next story, frenetic freelancing lives.

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