02 July 2018


by Janice Law

I’ve been thinking about recognition lately, although not in the form so close to writers’ hearts as great reviews, editorial interest, and large checks. I’ve been considering it in connection with inspiration, the most mysterious part of the creative process. In particular, I have been trying to figure out the relationship between the two arts that interest me a great deal, namely writing and painting.

The Big Y florist who tripped the switch
It is not uncommon for people to be serious in more than one art. At least two of our Sleuthsayers colleagues are active in both music and writing. Recent Nobel laureate Bob Dylan paints respectably, while an older laureate, Gunther Grass, did really fine etchings. Going the other way, Vincent Van Gogh wrote some of the world’s best letters, while the term renaissance man (or woman) reflects the wide interests and capabilities of what were often primarily visual artists.

On the other hand, if I have a spell of painting, where I am finishing a picture every week or every other week, I have no ideas for anything creative in writing. PR releases for the local library are fine, but anything requiring imagination as opposed to craft is simply absent.

The change from one to the other is abrupt and apparently not under my control. This makes me think that while writing is basically an auditory art, and painting, a visual one, the roots are the same, and at least in my case, there is only so much of the right neural stuff available for work in either one.
That leads to the question of what inspiration in writing and painting have in common, and that
brings me to recognition. In both cases, I seem to recognize something useful. For example, recently I noticed one of the florists at our local supermarket wheeling out a cart of plants. A little mental click and I knew this was a painting. Why not any one of the dozens of other people in the store that day? That remains mysterious.

But that recognition of the pictorial possibilities had a further effect. I painted a whole series of images of the Big Y store personnel, so that recognition triggered a spate of painting and cut off any literary inspiration. Seven or eight paintings down the road, that impulse dried up.
Then various news stories about the Alt Right led me to revisit a story I had begun a number of years ago and abandoned. Again, I recognized something I could use and the result was the completion of that story and at least two more. The verbal switch is apparently now on. How long will it remain? I have no idea, but at some point I hope to see something that says ‘paint me’ and the cycle will start over.

Does this sound familiar to anyone? I would love to know if painter/ musicians or musician/ writers have similar experiences.

Having two arts is lovely, although there is one drawback. Instead of worrying about a lack of inspiration in one field, one gets to worry about two.


  1. Janice, for me I find that I can work on multiple things at sort of the same time. Meaning that I can work on A on Monday and B on Tuesday, whether A and B are two writing projects or a writing project and music or whatever. But it's hard to work on them on the same day. I need that space between them.

    And since you mentioned Dylan, I'm listening to him as I write this, and was all day off and on. The song that's on now is Boots of Spanish Leather.

  2. Janice,
    Interesting post. I hadn't thought about how many of "us" explore other art forms besides writing before, but we do, don't we? I started as a frustrated musician and writer. In the 80s, I was enticed into theater and directed, acted, produced, or designed for over 100 productions in the next 25 years or so. It probably helped me with both structure and dialogue for the writing. It's also where my wife and I met.

    Over the last five years or so, I've paid more attention to guitar than I have in decades. I'm also trying to learn piano, which I've always wanted to play. Occasionally, this ties into my writing because of the music in many stories, but I'm finding now the writing ideas are coming more slowly than before.

    I have a solid third draft of another novel that may be out before the end of this year, but whatever comes next is still a collection of semi-connected ideas and characters. Two or three years ago, both books would have gone through at least one revision and a third book would be taking shape.

    Two or three friends have reminded me I always wanted to play piano and suggest that my brain is moving back in that direction and away from the writing. I'm not sure yet. I still get lots of pleasure from both of them, and my wife still performs in several plays a year.

  3. I wonder if age also impacts the process and if one's primary art comes more to the fore as one gets older. Best of luck, Steve, with the piano. I have been playing the violin for many years and I figure I will be pretty good just about the time my fingers and shoulders go!

  4. Interesting. My friend Jim Sallis (author of DRIVE and the Lew Griffin New Orleans mystery series THE LONG-LEGGED FLY, MOTH, BLACK HORNET and others) plays in a band 3-Legged Dog. The only thing I do well beyond writing is taking naps. I am a world-class napper. Probably a better napper than writer.

  5. Great post, Janice. I know I've explored music - I played the guitar and wrote a lot of songs in my youth, including for a local rock band in Georgia; weaving; painting; and I consider baking a high art. :)


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