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.”

21 thoughts on “Bit by Bit, Putting it Together

  1. It was announced yesterday that Tucson Festival of Books is live next year! Yea! A good reason to see you back in Tucson?

  2. I love learning a writer or an artist’s process. I find it fascinating. My computer skills are low level. My partner puts things in a folder if I need that. Which is a real cop out, like having a personal secretary. Hardly the independence I claim to the world. I’m going to step it up. Thank you!

  3. I love the idea of putting it together with tiny dots.
    I was, and am, ‘only a housewife.’ I’m 79 years old. When I was growing up I was told it was stupid for a girl to go to college. Spend all that money on an education to stay home and raise kids. Unfortunately, my first husband was a very macho guy who believed the same thing. I stayed home and raised two children. That marriage only lasted 24 years. He was an alcoholic. At that point My children were raised. I realized that there was more to life than that.
    I am not an artist or author. But I am a mother and housewife.
    Raising children is one day at a time. Love, hugs, kisses, guiding, and punishing is one on top of the other. Consistency.
    Housekeeping is the same one dot upon another.
    Cooking is definitely one dot at a time. You take that pound of hamburger and one day it is Hungarian goulash. The next it is Italian spaghetti. Then English shepherd’s pie. It is all in how you put those dots together.
    I guess maybe I am an artist. Thank you.

    • Yes, you are an artist–painting lives. I don’t know if you’ve read my book of poetry, After the Fire. I think you would find that we have a LOT in common.

      • I have started listening to After the Fire. It is strange listening to you talk about your mother.
        I was reading the first os the Joanna Brady series a couple of weeks ago. I called my sister. Told her that I was reading this book. The woman’s mother sounds just like our mother. “What will the neighbors think?”

      • My mother was a painter and particularly loved the Impressionists-
        I am very fond of Seurat- However, it is quite daunting to think that he created the images point-by-point! I wonder how long it took him to
        paint one canvas- I hope that writing a mystery is not as laborious a process as working with pointillism!

  4. To know the kind of research you do and the emotion you invest in your characters helps me understand why I love your books so much. Thank you so much for your time and attention to detail – especially saving the “Extra File”. It might be the literary version of a junk drawer for all those things we MIGHT need later.

  5. I was on a trip to Paris with a college class in 1975 and visited the Jeu de Paume Museum where there were paintings by Monet, Renoir and Seurat. His “The Circus” was there. It was mostly blues and reds with the frame also done in blue. I could get very close to see the dots.

    I had been shopping before and had bought an umbrella. The tip was sticking out of my bag. A guard came over and touched the point and shook his head. He said not a word, but I got the point. ( Pun intended.) .

  6. I’ve read all your books and keep them. You might say I live in each one. I have a few authors I keep. I had to move recently (down size).55+community MH. My son thought I should get rid of all my books. But ofcourse I didn’t, they’re in boxes in my storage shed. Young people. Ha. I love my books,holding,smelling,losing myself in them. Thank you for your wonderful stories and I do enjoy your blog. I do live in Tucson and it all relates. From Miami,Fl. Been here since 94. With all its aches and pains I do love it. I know this was silly but I just wanted to say thank you for all the good stories. .my family history also goes way back.the Vikings and the czars. Have a Blessed day.

  7. Sunday in the Park with George was at the Seattle Rep May-June 1990. I was not there, but I’ve listened to the audio only, suggested by a friend who had heard me talk about my writing process. ?

    FYI: Hal Holden bumped me as being a little close to Hal Holbrook. May I suggest Harris? LOL… yeah, I’m feeling ballsy today!

  8. Sorry, Jan. I’m sure Hal Holden’s parents gave him that name for the same reason Hal Holbrook’s parents gave their son the name they chose–because the two H’s worked well together. My character first showed up in my head as Hal Holden and he’s staying that way!

  9. About two hours after I read your explanation of pointillism I was doing a crossword puzzle and one of the clues was that! Some coincidence! Love all your books. I live in Fountain Hills AZ just east of Scottsdale.

  10. What a great article! I love the way you relate painting to writing! I had the pleasure of meeting you at a Killer Nashville conference several years ago. It was a highlight for me since you’re one of my favorite authors.
    I write romantic suspense and have learned to save everything as well.

  11. My mother was a painter and particularly loved the Impressionists-
    I am very fond of Seurat- However, it is quite daunting to think that he created the images point-by-point! I wonder how long it took him to
    paint one canvas- I hope that writing a mystery is not as laborious a process as working with pointillism!

  12. I have a question. I know you write on a computer. Do you print off a copy at the end of the day? As a former teacher I think you might want a hard copy to make notes and corrections on.. I know corrections are easy to make on the computer, but it is good to have a hard copy, too.


    • No, I do not print out copies of work as I go. I’ve bee writing books on computers since 1983.

  13. Harry has always enjoyed your books! Especially the J. Piedmont Series!

    He read most of Erle Stanley Gardiner’s books – Perry Mason Series!

    Harry has your ” Unfinished Business” – a gift from my family.

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