How many of you have been
Well, viva Mexico! Here we are in New Mexico, Nuevo México.
On this panel, with Dawn Wink and Kathryn Ferguson, it seems
we are all about Mexico. I write both fiction and nonfiction,
most of it about Mexico because that is where I have been living
for most of my adult life that is, the past 30 years
married to a Mexican and living in Mexico City.
But in this talk
I would like to put on my sombrero, as it were, as an historical
novelist, and although my novel, The Last Prince
of the Mexican Empire,
is about Mexico, I dont want to talk so much about Mexico
as I do five simple, powerful techniques that have helped me,
and that I hope will help you to see as an artist and write across
I start with
the premise that truth is beauty and beauty is truth, and that
seeing clearly, seeing as an artist, is what brings us towards
My second premise
is that through narrative we become more humanand that
sure beats the alternative.
My third premise
is that writing about anyone else, anywhere, is to some degree
writing across a border. The past is a border. Religion is a
border. Gender is a border. Social class is a border. Language.
Physical conditions people who have peanut allergies are
different than people who do not have peanut allergies.
is this: As Walter Lippman put it, For the most part we
do not first see and then define, we define first and then see.
And I would agree with Lippman that in our culture, for the most
part, and of course, with oodles of exceptions, we are not educated
to see, then define. Ironically, the more educated we are, the
more we as literary artists may have something to overcome in
The poet e.e.
cummings put it this way: An artist is no other than he
who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.
Betty Edwards, the artist
who wrote Drawing
on the Right Side of the Brain, calls seeing as an artist a different,
more direct kind of seeing. The brains editing is somehow
put on hold, thereby permitting one to see more fully and perhaps
How many of you
are familar with Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain?
How many of you
have tried that exercise where you take a black and white photograph
of a face, turn it upside down, and copy it?
the picture upside down tricks your brain to get past the labels
of that is a nose, or, say, that is an eyelid, a wrinkle, a cheek...
You are just drawing what you actually see, this weird jumble
of shapes and shadows.
You turn it right side side up and, wow... its Albert Einstein!
And why is seeing
this way, seeing as an artist so important? Because if we as
writers cannot see as artists, with that wide open, innocent
sense of attention and wonder that would see first.... and then,
maybe, define, whether we are writing about a Mexican or a Korean
ballet dancer or a Texas cowboy or the old lady who died in the
house next door one hundred years ago... whomever we are writing
about, if we cannot see that human being with the eyes of an
artist, our writing about them will not be fresh, it will be
fuzzy, blunt, stale, peculiarly distortedin a word: stereotypical.
It will be distorted
in the same way that people who do not know how to draw will
make the eyes too big, the foreheads too small, and ignore most
of the shadowsthe face they draw looks like a cartoon,
not the way the face actually looks, because the left side of
their brain was busy labeling things.
Seeing as an
artist, on the other hand, is seeing without filters. Radical
seeing. For us as writers this means seeing without prejudice,
without bias, without the... shall we say, enduring presumptions.
It is, to quote
the artist Betty Edwards again, an altered state of awareness.
And This shift to an altered state enables you to see well.
So how do we
get to that altered state? And then see?
FOR RADICAL SEEING
with slowing down, being here now, in your body. Breathe in and
breathe out, slowly, keeping your attention on following each
breath, in and out. In and out. Five to 10 of these usually works
just fine. If youre really stressed out and distracted,
maybe more. Whatever works for you.
This quiets the so-called monkey mind. Using a pen
and paper, and using the present tenseusing the present
tense is keysimply writing down what you want to set aside
for the duration of your writing session.