Author and artist Isobel Wohl discusses how her artistic craft has influenced her relationship with language.
I could practically see it. I felt like I was really there. What writer doesn’t dream of reactions like these from their readers? If only we could find the right word for the pink of our protagonist’s humiliated blush, or spin the perfect phrase to capture the shape of the port-wine birthmark peeking out from beneath the sleeve of the beautiful, cruel entomologist. We’d love nothing more than to offer readers the vivid experiences they crave, but what exactly does one do in order to achieve that immediacy? A writer needs strong images, we heard, so we lobbed details at our prose. Omit needless words, said the celebrated academic, and grimly we reached for the hacksaw. Nothing we try seems to give our work the precision and force we dared to imagine when, giddy and near trembling with secret awe, we scribbled the inklings of our brand new idea in our journal, or opened a blank document and typed the first words of a story we couldn’t wait to tell.
So much of what I know about writing comes from my second practice as a visual artist. In the contrasts between the two disciplines, each sheds light on the other. As an artist, I have worked with so many different materials, from paint to silkworm cocoons to panes of glass to garbage; I have seen what happens to the palest shades of blue when you swap walnut oil, clear as vodka, for the typical honey-dark stand oil or straw-yellow linseed, and I have stitched wasabi-green puffs of compostable packing material to discarded German compression stockings, and I have failed, time and again, to draw a perfect circle. Years of practice and play with physical materials have taught me how incomparably challenging it is to work with language—a medium so subtle that most of the time you’re not aware you’re using it, and yet so powerful that it runs your whole life.
Painters don’t talk to themselves in dioxazine purple. If a sculptor opens the fridge to find it bare, they don’t register the lack of food in terms of clay or molten bronze. We writers, on the other hand, manage nearly every function of our lives through the same material we use to make our art. For us, as for almost all humans past toddlerhood, language suffuses every waking moment: a conversation about when breakfast will be ready, a chat with your brother, an explanation for high prices at the market, the news, emails, the family text chain, quarterly reports, your favourite podcast, a chat with your cousin about your brother, and, most incessant of all, the nattering voice in your mind. Throughout all this, we’re not focusing on the words themselves but looking through them to their instrumental meaning. No matter how devoted we are to literary craft, the amount of time any writer spends actually thinking about words—weighing their sounds and shapes, their valances and quirks, the consequences that follow from each choice—is nothing compared to how much time we spend using them as simple tools: hand me that bunch of spring onion or Could you meet at 3:15 instead? All day long, we inadvertently train ourselves to be numb to our art. When we sit down to write, the numbness persists.
Our first challenge as writers is to wake up to language again. The visual arts have much to teach us here. Most art students are given some version of the following assignment: go on a walk and find something to draw, or pick up five objects along the way and arrange them into a sculpture. Practice taking your writing out into the world with you. You might collect five words on the walk home from the bus, or wander your neighborhood and find something to describe—not with any intention of keeping your sentences, but as a form of training in seeing, the way artists sketch. Actually sketching is excellent too. Try this as an experiment: describe an object in your house, then draw the object, and then write a second description and compare the two. Which one do you like better? Scrap them both and write a third.
At the desk, there’s so much you can do to clarify your vision of your own writing. I like to map out my sentences on paper, highlighting the different clauses and parts of speech until I can truly see how the sentence is put together. Or can you find a paragraph you love—your own, or that of another writer—and figure out how to make it much, much worse? (If you can ruin it, you’ll have discovered what made it tick.) Love your computer but be wary of it—it’s brilliant because it’s convenient and flexible and keeps all your work, but it’s dangerous because it’s convenient and flexible and keeps all your work. Lacklustre or clichéd phrases can slip from draft to draft without your noticing. You might have cut or changed them if you’d been forced to copy them over again.
No sentence, phrase or image can be vivid objectively or in general; what is vivid is only vivid to someone. To create strong sensations through writing, we have to work with attention: first our own, and then the reader’s. When we take a patient and friendly approach to this difficult challenge, we are showing generosity and respect towards those who spend their time with us on the page. The reader, after all, is not only our audience but also our indispensable companion and colleague, since our work comes to full fruition only in their mind. A good image might be this: notice what you are offering your reader with as much eagerness and care as if the two of you were working together in a foundry, preparing to pour molten bronze into a new cast.
Isobel Wohl is a Brooklyn-based writer. A native New Yorker, she lived in London for seven years before returning to her home city.
Her first novel, Cold New Climate, was published by Weatherglass Books in April 2021 to excellent reviews. Lamorna Ash, writing in the TLS, described the book as “exceptionally good” and Wohl’s writing as “beautifully delicate.” In the Guardian, Lara Feigel wrote, “We’re left asking with pleasure: what will Isobel Wohl do next?”
Wohl is also the author of a short story collection, Winter Strangers (MA BIBLIOTHÈQUE, 2019). Her essays have appeared in Emerge, The Irish Times, and LitHub. She is also a visual artist. She is currently working on her second novel.