writing, painting and Tolstoy

I am more than half way through Anna Karenina now, and I had an ongoing draft blog about several things that struck me. However, this morning I read Tolstoy’s description of an artist letting visitors into his studio to look at his latest painting. Tolstoy writes about the moment that the artist, unveiling the painting, sees it anew from another’s point of view. “…he saw it with their indifferent, estranged, new eyes and found nothing good in it.” He saw banality and a “heap of defects”.

The idea of their attention excites the artist, the smallest praise, the slightest suggestion of defects affects him deeply and alters his own judgement of his work. The fact that he had assessed his visitors fairly accurately on sight and knew that they were unlikely to offer him constructive comments does not alter their effect on him.

Although Tolstoy is talking about painting, every word can be translated to written work. Since I started writing I have been baffled at how one day you can read a piece you have written and be surprised how well it reads and a few days later the same passages will strike you as banal or defective in some way. Pick up the book a year later and you could have either of these reactions. It is as if some malign optician is forever changing your glasses until you have no idea when you are seeing straight.

In October I will be meeting a reading group to discuss a novel about an opera singer I published in 2008 (Unseen Unsung). I will have to re-read it. Will I be appalled, amazed, embarrassed? I really wish I knew.

6 thoughts on “writing, painting and Tolstoy

  1. Yes, I downloaded War and Peace on my E-reader a few weeks ago. It was free and even though I read it many years ago, I still love reading it again. As for being pleased with having written words one day and not so the next, tell me about it. You are doing well and as for doubts, don’t worry, they are your words and no one else’s.

  2. Very strange, isn’t it? I’ve had the same experience myself, but I suppose your mood affects the way you view things and it’s extremely difficult to be objective about your own work. It’s nice on the good days when you feel happy and satisfied with what you’ve created, but I know it can be pretty demoralising when you feel the opposite. It’s good to question what you’ve done though, rather than stumble on blindly thinking everything you do is outstandingly good. I’m sure every successful artist, of whatever sort, goes through the same thing.

    • Yes, but it was kind of Tolstoy to put it into words. The brain is extraordinarily adaptable, and my guess is that it is more than mood that creates this volatile reaction – though what more I can’t fathom. Writing is clearly a lifelong learning curve, so twenty years and counting is nothing. I find long-suffering reading friends a great help and then I save up for the professional impartial opinion provided by a literary consultancy. I’ve learned a lot from these, but they are still one person’s opinion.

      • I’m interested to read that you’ve used a professional literary consultancy. I’ve avoided doing that because of the expense and the fact that, as you say, it’s one person’s opinion. It’s wonderful to have friends and family who will read and criticise (kindly!), and I agree with you that writing is a lifelong learning curve. The good thing is that the more you do it the better you get, like anything else you practice I suppose.

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