Piet Mondrian and the Fourth Grade
Tomorrow I’m going over to Barton Hills Elementary school, here in Austin, to talk to the fourth grade about the writing process. They’re starting to do some pretty intensive writing and editing and I feel like it is my mission as both a writer, and as someone who has suffered through forced writing assignments, to explain to them how writing can still be fun, even if standardized testing is trying to suck the life out of it.
I know the teachers over there are doing a great job keeping the kids interested in reading and writing, and I applaud them. There’s such a delicate balance between teaching fundamentals and tipping kids over the edge of “Argh, writing sucks!” With so much grammar and punctuation and sentence structure and vocabulary, it’s hard to sit still when all you really want to do is write a story about aliens taking over the elementary school cafeteria. (Or maybe I’m projecting a little bit here…)
This got me thinking about art. (Weird? Bear with me…) As someone who majored in art history, and who is married to a painting major, I have seen the same kind of “I just want to create! Leave me alone!” impulses from artists. And, of course, we’ve all heard the whole, “My 5-year-old could paint that, I don’t understand why it just sold for $5 million,” complaint.
I think, what a lot of people don’t realize about art and artists is that some of these modern and post-modern and abstract artists have extremely impressive technical skills. (You see where I’m going here, don’t you?) Someone like Piet Mondrian is famous for his abstract art; his lines and colors, intersecting in an attempt to show what infinity might look like. When you think of Mondrian, you don’t think of life drawing, or technically proficient realistic paintings. Yet, Mondrian had the skill and the background to create this kind of realistic art when he wanted to.
Knowing the whats and hows and whys of painting and art gave him the foundation he needed to develop his own theory and his own style of painting. The same can be said for writing. Sure, you can throw yourself into your writing without any training, but if you don’t know how to format a paragraph, or punctuate a sentence, it’s going to be difficult for you to develop a robust and unique style.
If you have the foundation, you can choose to go against it. I know that I am not supposed to start a sentence with “and”. I know that I am not supposed to capitalize random words in the middle of a sentence. I know that “you’re” is not spelled “ur”. But because I know these things, I can now choose whether I want to follow the “rules” or not. Having a technical foundation gives you more freedom as an artist because you have the knowledge to break the rules on purpose – and to argue why you’re doing it.
I’m sure someone can debate this point with me, but I think the idea is pretty interesting. I think talking to fourth graders about why they need to learn writing technique – other than “because it’s on the test” – is important. I think showing them that artists and writers have an unlimited amount of freedom in their craft because they understand the rules, is something fun to mull over.
I also think that showing them the editing process of a book – how a chapter has gone from notes in a spiral, to first draft, to second (marked-up) draft, to third (even more marked-up draft), to fourth, to ARC, to finished book – can be something that gives weight to what they’re doing everyday. It shows them that even grownups who get paid to write still edit and revise and make mistakes.
I’m really looking forward to tomorrow and I hope the kids are, too. I will try not to bore them with my talk of art and punctuation. Hopefully I can distract them with my rocket ship skirt and then… wait for it… launch into my frenzied, hand-waving discussion of how fun it is to write.
Also, I’m going to bring my fourth grade yearbook and a book I wrote when I was 10. That should keep them interested, and embarrass me just as public speakers should be embarrassed!
I can’t wait!