Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Light and Shadow

Lana is a graphic artist. She’s shown me many times the importance of light and shadow in painting. Too, we often sit on Sundays to watch the artist Bob Ross’s TV show, and I see his brush illustrate the importance of highlights that bring trees and mountainsides to life, and of shadows that create the mystery of a forest.

Descriptive writing is not much different. Light and shadow are critical to word art, as well. It is critical in a literal sense, for one. Read some favorite descriptive passages from books you love and I bet you’ll find the play of light within the play of words. “In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun…” (Hemingway). “That country…where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay” (Bradbury). Any page from Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard.

But light and shadow are critical as metaphors, as well. Whether you call it good and evil or black and white, or whether you speak only of “shades of gray,” you are dealing with light and shadow, with the juxtaposition and interrelationship of things that people often think of as opposites but which are not. Light is the mother of shadow, and shadow is not the absence of light, but the muting of it.

I realized after my Monday entry that the core of that scene was about light and shadow. And it began to occur to me how important this relationship is in all my writing. I bet it’s true for you as well. And if it isn’t, I’d like to know what replaces it for you.

“Kainja looked up from the ruins, past the vultures with their bladed wings, past the darkening valley to where a chill wind swept like a broom across the snowfields of the Himalayan Range. There lay the swelling curve of the Khumbu Glacier, bright in the sun, with white Everest to the east. He would have to go up that glacier, but the trail would be easily followed. It would be marked by the smell of shed blood.” (From “Wanting the Mouth of a Lover.”)

“The moonlight settled over the December beach like snow birds coming in to roost on an arctic plain. And the midnight world was brush-stroked in white, the white of sand and shells and stones, the white of bones and ghosts. In the midst of that white was a splatter of black, or what could have been red in brighter hours. It reminded Kyle of a snowflake in negative, and he thought it was incredibly beautiful until he realized what it represented. Then he dropped the cigarette that he'd walked out on the beach to smoke, and he reached down with his thumb to unsnap the strap that held his Colt Trooper in its holster.” (From, “Splatter of Black.”)


Lisa said...

Because of the kind of painter Scott is and how big a part of his work light and shadow play, you know I completely relate to this post and I wasn't even conscious of using light and shadow as description and as metaphor in my own work until I got a piece critiqued this week and people commented on it (in a good way). This is really a great topic to post on Charles. I think a lot of people probably use it intuitively, but it's nice to recognize when it happens -- I think it makes it even more powerful.

RK Sterling said...

I hadn't thought of it in quite that way, Charles, but I think you're on to something. Just tonight I was going through an old WIP and came across several passages where light and shadow were a large part of the scene and recalled how much I enjoyed writing those bits. I worked hard to get that light play just right.

cs harris said...

Interesting post. The old dichotomy between ight and darkness is often used carelessly, almost cheaply in fiction, but it will always have a place. The trick is to use it creatively, and in an original way.

the walking man said...

The envelope was 60% recycled paper, after I was shoved inside and it was sealed closed there was no more light. Being in the dark ain't so bad I thought at least until I went through the machine that automatically cancels the stamp.
Then either way I jumped I knew i was going to red, either by being forced downward through the feed track or upward where the stamp gets punched against while resting against a steel backing plate.
It is at that moment that dark and light have no more meaning.

what can i say i write cheaply

Bernita said...

Your examples are very beautiful.
To me, the light and shadowe are an essential metaphor.

Michelle's Spell said...

Hey Charles,

I think it's really smart to think about art in relation to writing. Sometimes the words get so tiresome (I read a thousand million student papers and at least three books a week -- it's my real addiction) that I just sit and look at pictures for inspiration, especially photography. I'm really loving Robert Frank right now.

Charles Gramlich said...

Lisa, I know I've always used it intuitively but hadn't really thought of how important it was until just recently.

Kate, once you notice it it jumps out at you from everywhere.

Candice, I like that dichotomy in developing characters, but rather than having one dark character and one light, it's fun to develop a character with both sides.

Mark, gives a whole new meaning to "going postal."

Bernita, thanks. I think it's essential because it is how we humans are built biologically.

Michelle, although I've always enjoyed art and photography, I never thought of it consciously in relationship to my writing. Now that I'm beginning to watch and look at art for the connections I'm finding them everywhere.

Steve Malley said...

'From one thing, know a thousand things' --Zen proverb

I'm a real believer that there's much to be learned from one art form to another, and that there is no essential difference in the creative act, whatever the media.

Great post, I'm sorry I somehow missed it!