Bit by Bit, Putting it Together

I don’t remember exactly when or where I saw Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Sunday in the Park with George. It was most likely at the Seattle Rep in the late eighties or early nineties, but I’m unable to fact check that at the moment. Maybe one of my SERs (sharp-eyed readers), the folks who are always happy to notify me of typos appearing in my books or blogs, can step in and track that one down for me.

Be that as it may, I did see the play. It recounts the history of a guy named Georges Seurat, a post-impressionist painter from France. He was born in 1859 and died in 1891. Until I looked him up just now, I had no idea he was only 32 when he died. The fact that he passed away at such a young age may well have been an important component in the plot of the play. If so, it went right over my head. My takeaway from seeing Sunday in the Park was something else entirely.

Seurat’s preferred art form is called pointillism, which is to say, he painted with tiny dots of pure color. For him, every image consisted of literally thousands of individual points of paint, placed on the canvas without mixing any of the colors together. That way, the mix of color happens in the viewer’s eyes rather than one the canvas. One of the major pieces of music in the play is a song called “Putting it Together.” I believe the Seurat character sings the song as a means of explaining what he was doing to an umbrella carrying young lady in the park. (As far as I know, his various portraits of the Umbrella Lady are considered to be his most iconic paintings.)

I trust you’ll forgive me for not remembering many of the play’s plot details, because the moment I heard the song “Putting it Together,” I was too gobsmacked to pay attention to the story. Instead, once I heard the words, I sat in the theater covered with goosebumps and completely thunderstruck by the realization that I do exactly the same thing. I don’t create paintings by putting thousands of individual dots of color on a canvas. I tell stories with my kind of paint—by keyboarding thousands of individual words into my computer.

I always thought that somewhere in the song the singer made mention of starting with a piece of sky. But I googled the lyrics just now, and no mention of the word “sky” is anywhere to be found. I’ve tried adding the link to this post, but it doesn’t work. If you look it up yourself, be sure you’ve got the Stephen Sondheim version of the lyrics. When you read through them, you’ll see that the song isn’t only about putting colors on canvas. It’s actually about creating any work of art—a book, a painting, a musical comedy, a play, a statue. You do it bit by bit, one piece at a time, and that’s what I’m doing this week—I’m putting the first points of color into the next Ali book.

When an artist painting with oils screws up a canvas, he or she can use Gesso, a paint that reconditions the canvas by erasing everything that was there before—an artistic version of what used to be every secretary’s best friend–old-fashioned White Out. My personal Gesso is the delete key on my computer keyboard. Actually, that’s not quite true. When I first started writing I belonged to a writer’s organization called Seattle Freelancers. Betty McDonald was gone by then, but her surviving sister was a member in good standing, and she told us more than once that the most important thing Betty had taught her about writing was this: Never throw anything away.

When it’s time to Gesso something in a manuscript, I cut and paste it and move that passage or passages to my “Extra file.” After all, there must have been a good reason for my writing it in the first place, and maybe there’ll be a spot later in the manuscript where this bit or even tiny pieces of it will fit back into the story.

This week, while writing the Prologue for Collateral Damage, the next Ali Reynolds book, I met a character I’d never encountered before, an airport shuttle driver by the name of Hal Holden. As I said, this was the first time I met him, and as soon as he started telling me his life story, I started liking him more and more. Unfortunately, by the end of the Prologue, he’s been in a terrible traffic accident and is on his way the the ICU. Is he going to make it? I don’t know because I have yet to get to that particular bit.

In the meantime, I’ve got 15,512 words that feel like they’re going in the right direction. 79,488 to go.

Or, as someone else once told me, “By the inch it’s a cinch.”