The blank screen. The blinking cursor. The sudden, irresistible urge to dig out that last chocolate bar from the Halloween stash in the back of the pantry. Writer’s block can take a lot of forms, but it still plays the same old tune, a tick-tock insinuation that maybe, this time, the words are really gone. In an age of distractions, an age where any writer can drown the pain of a stalled imagination in a YouTube kitten video, the solution to the blank page might just reside in another medium entirely: the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age.
Every artist starts with a blank canvas, a work unbegun. The best painters of 17th-century Holland made masterpieces out of minutia. These are the works of Vermeer, Hals, and Rembrandt, the peasant scenes of Jan Steen, the wintry landscapes of Hendrick Avercamp. They are intricate narratives, stories in paint. They are works that demand a roving, inquisitive eye, begging the question, “What happens next?”
As writers, we want the same response. A good story, a good painting, pulls at the fringes of where we stand, unlevels the platform of what we know. We want to captivate the reader but, in the midst of writer’s block, captivation seems to have us by the pen – or the keyboard. So how do we get from the blank screen to the perfect scene? For the best painters of the Dutch Golden Age, the answer was all in the details. Every ship mast, every leaf and twig, every strand of hair had its sharp delineation. Precision creates depth, a texture that draws. We are caught by the nap of a painted dog’s fur, the sheen of silk, the delicacy of lace.
The flatness of an empty page is no match for this rich texture of particulars. In a novel by Anne Patchett or John Irving, commonplace details evoke a human landscape that is achingly familiar. We love authors who give us their finest brushstrokes – the bluish tint of new milk, the slightly acrid scent of cut grass, the warm bitterness of dark chocolate, the echoing ring of a phone in an empty house, the crepe-paper dryness of a grandmother’s hands. Great writers summon ghosts with a mislaid spoon, the moan of a distant train whistle. Details give dimension. In the normal progression of my non-writing day, I try to catch these smallest of things, these slight observations, and preserve them for those days when writer’s block tells me that scrubbing the toilet would be more rewarding.
If details are where the painter/writer begins, then tension is what gives the story its momentum. Painters invoke tension by showing an act half-complete – the hand about to fall, the branch about to snap. Writers create tension by giving us bits of the story, fragments of a whole, leading us on with exquisite crumbs. We turn the pages, Hansel and Gretel, looking for the candy house, the place where everything reassembles. In Room, Emma Donoghue embeds this tension within her five-year old narrator’s naïve point of view, so that every shift in the story’s progression seems to hang on the tip of a pin. Jennifer Egan creates dramatic tension in A Visit from the Goon Squad by presenting her characters in bits and shards, reconnecting them through chains of memory that defy the “goon” of time. These types of fragments and extremes – of character, perspective, setting – are an anecdote to writer’s block. Summon up Poe’s beating heart in the floorboards, then stretch the tension so that each moment has the same resonant boom. That’s the place to be.
Tension can also emerge out of contrast, the slippage between perspectives. Every struggle must have at least two sides. For the painters of the Dutch Golden Age, the most important contrast was shadow and light. Light seeps from their frames. You can drink it, breath it in. Every small thing is rendered – a castoff shoe, a creeping snail, the glint in a mouse’s eye. There is nothing too small for this light, as if the eye of divinity had taken the form of a sable paintbrush. Yet the light itself is never absolute. It is always framed in shadow, in some degree of darkness.
If the contrast between light and shadow helps to structure the figures of a painting, in a novel, it fuels narrative tension. In Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders, an interplay of light and darkness animates the characters themselves, as their village struggles to find meaning in an untenable situation. The story rides the back of their fears and passions, their sacrifices and grasping. Similarly, in David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet or in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, small acts of hope and charity stand in stark and striking relief to dark rifts of human brutality. Contrast spurs imagination, engagement. Unforgettable books, like unforgettable paintings, offer up Dickinson’s “certain slant of light” where “shadows hold their breath”. When writer’s block has got me by the throat, I look for contrast and conflict to break the hold. I start with something simple and then ask, “What if?”
History is the ultimate “What if?”, a narrative canvas open to wide re-imagination. The seventeenth-century was a Golden Age for the Netherlands in finance, speculation, and trade, as well as art. Its landscapes are ripe with windmills and fat milk cows, tales of prosperity and national pride. Trading ships boast Dutch flags all along the harbor edge. The smug wealth of a velvet burgher, the tumbled chaos of a peasant’s house, and the fringes of an unpopulated landscape all beg the viewer to step into a specific, particular moment in time.
Similarly, great literature pleats strands of history with loops of the familiar and personal. This is Tolstoy and Faulkner, of course, but also Willa Cather’s plains and Jane Austen’s drawing rooms. It’s Jamie Ford’s depiction of the Japanese internment in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and it’s Colum McCann’s brilliant slice of New York history tangled in Let the Great World Spin. When we read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, or Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, or Jeannette Walls’ Half Broke Horses we get a personal story stretched on a loom of history. The shuttle whirs. The brushstrokes fly. None of my blank pages have been able to withstand the fascinations of history unfolding. Writer’s block caves in the face of the daily news.
Still, the biggest events in history are always grounded in individuals, in the particularities of character. This is a writer’s trompe l’oeil, a trick of the eye. For painters trompe l’oeil is a matter of deception, a trick of perspective, an illusion of three dimensions where there are really only two. Though not confined to the Dutch Golden Age, trompe l’oeil was a well-used technique of the period, showing itself in windows that open to wide expanses and small creatures that transgress the rim of the frame.
The literary version of trompe l’oeil is deft characterization – from Katniss Everdeen to Scarlett O’Hara, Jay Gatsby to Harry Potter. The best characters compel belief through their faults as well as their strengths. They persist in the face of unraveling worlds, fierce declensions. Like painted dragonflies on the edge of a Dutch window frame, they pull us into the scene, with all its cracks, its rumbling fault lines. We depend on characters (as writers, as readers) to help us traverse a heaving terrain.
In the brutal luminescence of Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, the Mirabal sisters walk a high-wire of political tensions while we crane our necks, breath suspended. Joanne Harris places us, with Vianne Rocher and the priest Reynaud, at the collision point of magic and faith in Chocolat. In The Last Will of Moira Leahy, Therese Walsh’s witchery twins hone a double-edged blade of guilt and forgiveness. Sarah Addison Allen uses magical realism to stitch the seams of lives both fabulous and flawed. In Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters, trompe l’oeil is the thrum of a first person plural point of view, the “we” of her characters’ hidden failures and their inevitable disclosure.
What we often love most about great art and great literature is the feeling of anticipation, that tingle that occurs when we step out of ourselves and into other skins. Tricking the eye – in paintings or stories – is a diversion of faith, a deepening of perspective, falling into other times, other lives. Great writing casts a spell, divining worlds from scribbles and keystrokes, imaginary beasts. When I’m faced with a looming wall of blocked creativity, I follow the masters in through the cracks. I exploit the crevices of character, of history, those unexpected curvatures within a presumed linearity. Small details can snake between cursor blinks, wedge open the pause between tick and tock. Like a laughing dog nearly lost on the edge of an Avercamp river, I find myself, my stories, in the in-between, the apparently trivial, the white space on the empty page.