Thursday, July 14, 2011

Writing, Origami, Netflix Instant

Several times I've watched this awesome origami documentary called Between the Folds (available on Netflix Instant). I just watched it again yesterday. It's really mind-blowing, and I highly recommend it.

In it, a number of the best origami artists in the world give their opinions on the art form. One statement that has gotten me thinking every time is, "Painting and sculpting is art by addition. Carving wood or stone is art by subtraction. Origami is art by transformation."

The reason this line gets me thinking is because I've always briefly tried to apply it to the art of writing. At first, it seems that writing is art by addition. You add words to a page. In the case of a long piece, like a novel, a writer can really feel this building process. I write by scene, so besides word after word, I become very conscious of building the story scene by scene.

But honestly, I think that it's at least as accurate to call writing art by subtraction. Whether a writer is trying to describe something from the real world or something from out of their head, it's impossible to tell everything. Proust tried his damnedest. Sometimes Stephen King does, too. But really, one of the skills that often separates really awesome writing from adequate writing is a knowing what NOT to say. You take your vision, and you carve away from it until you have its essence. You figure out how to transmit it to the reader with as little as you can.

I think that's why I like minimalism so much. It's impressive to me when a writer can make every word count, or even make a word do double or triple duty. It's also why I suspect most of the great writers have loved short stories. You have to write novels for the readers, but when it comes down to challenging yourself artistically, the short story is where it's at.

The characters in Psychomancer are way out there: the luckiest man in the world, the world's most powerful psionic, and a guy with CIPA who writes a column about strange deaths. So I chose a maximalist voice. I simply piled on thought after thought until the characters were realistic, despite their very fantastic or strange natures. Given enough words, you can make any character believable, which is good, because I'm both a character writer and a strange writer (writer of the strange, writer who is strange...). But the character depiction I'm probably most proud of is Keith Harris in Burden Kansas. A number of people have told me that he's realistic enough to remind them of uncles and grandpas, even though he's doing wild stuff like capturing vampires. I consider it a big accomplishment that I managed this in his own minimalist, hardass, completely external voice.

So I'm not sure if writing is more addition or subtraction. Physically its addition, but mentally it's often subtraction. I don't think it's transformation. But maybe.


  1. Mental subtraction. Math for writers. I like it.

  2. Dear Alan,

    I reviewed "Burden Kansas" on my site and submitted it to the other forums where I post my review. You can see it at:



  3. I like the metaphor of subtraction. Something I read once that's really stayed with me was a description of minimalist music: it's not just the musical notes that make a piece work, it's the space between the notes.

    At the time, I was reading Ray Carver, and the parallels were obvious.

    Perhaps the best fiction subtracts enough to let (make?) the reader do the transformation.

  4. That's a good idea about the transformation taking place in the reader.

    And what really makes me think you have something there is that that's exactly what makes minimalism scary to write. You have to really trust your reader. I don't think any style of writing is as polarizing per individual piece as stark minimalism, because so much depends upon the reader.

    And I guess the real talent is letting the reader feel like they're making big discoveries while you're actually orchestrating them.