Why we should find the gesture

Word count: 321 words

Reading time: About 1.5 minutes

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help writers. Today, I discuss a New York Times “Opinionator” piece by Rachel Howard.

When I attended my first-ever writing workshop, more than 30 years ago, one of the speakers recommended the book Ways of Seeing by John Berger.

Being keen and anxious to prove myself, I raced to the bookstore and immediately bought a copy. I read it very quickly and found myself thoroughly befuddled. What did this book — about how we see art, how we value it and what we learn from looking at it — have to do with writing? I was still too young to understand that all our writing is fed by our powers of observation.

The writer Rachel Howard already understands this. Her compelling essay, “Gesture Writing,” in the May 25 “Opinionator” column in the New York Times, describes her experience as a life model. She explains how instructors would ask her to do many sets of active one- or two-minute poses.“ ‘Find the gesture!’ the instructor would shout,” she writes, “as the would-be artists sketched. ‘What is the essence of that pose? How does that pose feel to the model? The whole pose — quick, quick! No, not the arm or the leg. The line of the energy. What is that pose about? Step back and see it — really see it — whole.’ ”

Howard argues, convincingly, that writers need to do the same thing as artists. Instead of focusing on sentences, we should find the “gesture” or the “line of energy.” And we need to do this quickly, “no measuring,” she says. Why? Because, before we can write, we need to see.

Maybe it’s time for me to re-read The Way of Seeing? If you haven’t read Howard’s piece, be sure to have a look at it now. 

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