Writing In Colors


It’s hard to know how much to expose. There is a skill to knowing how much to let through our filter. The truth and character of a piece of writing come from how honestly we express what’s in ourselves – the same way the tooth of paper under drawing pencils becomes a texture full of meaning, the same way hissing reverberations and creaking wood of a grand piano, played between the notes, bring a piece of music into life and give it character. Expose nothing and your words become stiff, artificial, and trivial. Expose everything and they become confessional, gushing, bloody, indulgent.

Even aside from matters of craft, there are bits of our minds that are likely still not ready to meet the light, beliefs and regrets and desires that could cause social or economic or even legal repercussions that we are as yet unprepared to face. It can be difficult to open the gates just a crack – to open them just far enough for the help you need to get through, without allowing them to be forced apart by the hurt you hold inside and voided heedlessly into text. There is a time for writing like that, but for most of us its time is not now, and its place is not to be before an audience.

There is also a skill to knowing which parts of ourselves to let through. A crippling fear of mortality is probably not the best emotion to bring to the table when writing musical numbers for Sesame Street, and an obsessive and perturbing rubber duck fetish likely be a distracting thing to bring up in a story about a boy attending a military funeral. Having a sense for which components of your mind to expose is something developed through practice. We write with shades of ourselves. Experiences, ideas, emotions and memories, these form the palette from which your words are painted onto the page. Knowing which to use is emotional color theory.

Sometimes it isn’t obvious what will work best. Competent writing is achieved by avoiding inconsistency, but to exceed mere competence there must be a bit of dissonance. Without this we’re just making muzak instead of playing music, without this we’re just sketching caricatures instead of drawing characters, without this we’re just burning dough instead of baking bread. Sometimes the hint of death can add something deep and true to light entertainment and elevate it, and sometimes a weird quirk of personality can add humor and humanity to an otherwise crushingly somber story. We shade the dark areas in complementary tones, blue against orange, a skill of artifice which never stops feeling wrong but which looks convincing, real, meaningful, in ways the obvious approach could never achieve.

There’s no way to teach the hard parts, it’s only possible to teach which parts are likely to be hard. There’s no way to find the right touch, the appropriate mix of honesty and artifice, of deep ugly truths and inspirational lies, of deep ugly lies and inspirational truths, beyond experimentation and experience. There is no way to know what you really sound like but to listen to yourself every day.

All you can do is listen, and create.


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