Monday, December 01, 2014

How to Make a Picture of a Fact

One of my favourite books is a little manual by Oliver Senior called How to Draw Hands. He begins with a simple assumption, namely, that you always have a model, ahem, at hand. That is, if you want to learn how to overcome the "notorious difficulty" of drawing hands, there's nothing for you but looking at your hand and trying to draw it. Senior, whose own illustrations in the book amply demonstrate his mastery, can then help you along by getting you to notice particular aspects, and suggesting exercises for you to practice. He emphasizes, as I do in the case of writing, that you're not going to learn how to draw hands simply from reading his book. You are, precisely, going to have to practice. If you do, you're likely to improve.

Wittgenstein famously said that "we make ourselves pictures of the facts." I've been trying at this blog to increase his fame in this regard. I think it is a profound statement about what we do when we come to know things. After all, it is one thing to be able to recognize a hand when you see one and quite another to be able to draw one accurately. Indeed, as Senior notes, we're all willing to play along when an artist, having run into his limitations, gives us, at the end of what is obviously an arm, what looks more like a bent fork or a bunch of bananas for us to interpret as a hand. In a similar way, we are often inclined to "get" the meaning of a piece of writing even when it is not very competently written. We know what it is trying to say.

I think we can all agree that learning how to draw your own hand also teaches you how to draw anyone else's hand. If you spend, say, 30 minutes every day for a month drawing a fresh sketch of your hand in various positions, then you'll be in much better shape to draw a picture of mine than if you hadn't practiced. Your mind will be, as Senior puts it, "better informed" by your practice sketches of your own hand. Even if you've never before taken a very close look at my hand and even if mine happens to be in a position you've never seen your own hand in before.

I want to apply this insight to writing by suggesting, first, that you know a lot of facts. Each of these can provide you with a "model" to study. There are many different kinds of fact, of course. It may be a fact, for example, that Michel Foucault worked out a theory of neoliberal discourse. It is certainly a fact that the world economic system faced a financial crisis in 2008. And it is a fact that Bernie Madoff went to jail. It may be a fact that you have closely studied the coverage of Madoff's fall from grace. It may, finally, be a fact that the reception of Madoff's confession was shaped by the reigning neoliberal discourse of public risk and personal responsibility. Your analysis may have shown this (I'd like to see that analysis, actually.) All these facts may be known to you in a detailed way. Some of them may be less known or altogether unknown to your peers. In any case, you'll want to be able to write them down.

You want to be able to make "pictures" of such facts. Consider, again, a picture of a hand. There's a difference between merely recognizing a drawing as a hand and learning something interesting about the hand from the picture. Is it the hand of a child? Is it injured? Is this fist clenched in anger? Are these fingers holding something fragile? Are these two hands engaged in a handshake or an arm wrestle? It's one thing to get four fingers, a palm, and thumb down on the page. It's quite another to indicate the wear and tear of a long life or some temporary dirt under a fingernail. People spend a lifetime perfecting their ability to draw such things. As Senior says, the problem is that of representation within the limits set by the two dimensional surface of the paper.

Consider, then, the terms of the problem posed by a paragraph. Given at least six sentences and at most 200 words, how will you represent the fact that Bernie Madoff went to jail? How will you represent what he did? How he got caught? How many paragraphs do you need to explain how the press covered the case? How many facts are involved? Remember that each paragraph will state a series of facts (usually at least six) but these will add up to one larger fact (stated in the key sentence). Literary pleasure is all about passing from a sequence of words on the page to an clear image in the mind. It does not have to be a visual image. It just has to be an arrangement of things into facts. A paragraph is a picture of a fact.


Jonathan said...

That reminds me of an old post from Bemsha Swing:

Thomas said...

Yes, very relevant. I just finished learning how to play Bach's 13th Two-Part Invention on the piano. It took me over a year and a half, but I'm now at least able to play every note. It's part of a personal project of mine called "How to Do Things with Your Hands". I think I'm going to follow your lead and go back to drawing a hand every day. It really does do something for your brain.