Sunday, March 16, 2014

Another Look at Style, Courtesy of an Artist

In an earlier post on WORDS ON THE LINE, I wrote that style is the sum of syntax (word order) and diction (word choice). This idea should prove helpful to business and technical writers, but novelists would say that such a definition is too limiting. While they would agree that choosing syntax and diction contributes to the definition, they would insist that a missing third element is the most important one: choice of content. The truth of their point is clear to see in the work of many a great stylist. For instances, think of the influence of characters, time, place, and plot on the style of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, and Ken Kesey's One Flew over  the Cuckoo's Nest.

Writers reflecting on style would also do well to look at the work of American artist Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), who created remarkable stories through several series of paintings, in part because he strongly believed that a single painting cannot tell an entire story. His most notable series are:

  • The Life of Toussaint L'Ouverture (1938, 40 paintings)
  • The Life of Frederick Douglass (1939, 32 paintings)
  • The Life of Harriet Tubman (1940, 31 paintings)
  • The Great Migration (1941, 60 paintings)
  • The Life of John Brown (1941, 22 paintings)
  • The War (1946, 14 paintings)
  • Struggle ... from the History of the American People (1954-1956, 30 paintings)
  • Harriet and the Promised Land (1967, 17 paintings)
  • Eight Studies for the Book of Genesis (1989, 8 paintings)
You can see nearly all 254 paintings in these 9 series at the Jacob and Gwen Knight Lawrence Virtual Resource Center. But nothing beats the real thing. The collage above is from photos I took yesterday at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In depicting the impact of war on American families, Lawrence's distinctive style—his use of color, space, lines, and depth—makes his stories what they are, quite simply masterpieces. Once studying them, a viewer is likely to feel that Lawrence's abstractions appear more real than photographs.

Of course, writers' tools are different, but content selection most definitely contributes to style for fiction writers and even essayists. Sometimes it even drives the style. Thanks for the reminder, Jacob Lawrence.