In my early days of fiction writing, the notion of “style” eluded me.
“What exactly is style?” I repeatedly asked myself. “Where does style come from? Is it something that you purposefully develop, or does it somehow manifest by itself?”
I researched this question in books and asked my various writing teachers about it, but never got a satisfactory answer.
The reason I became so obsessed with style is that I knew that the successful artists of all types—painters, musicians, writers, etc.—have a unique, instantly recognizable style. (See blog post about this)
If I had no style, how could I possibly become a successful writer?
When I developed my fiction writing skills to the point where agents and editors started taking me seriously, I still saw no style in my work. I had learned to tell a tight, engaging story, but stylistically, was it very different from anyone else’s?
If so, I could not see it.
What compounded this problem was the voluminous amount of criticism I received from these publishing industry professionals when I sent out books. There were no patterns to the feedback. Much of it was contradictory. “Very well-developed characters.” “Unbelievable characters.” “Crisp, catchy dialogue.” “False dialogue, not like real speech.” “Too much description.” “Not enough description.”
I pulled out my writing books and tried to make sense of it all. I couldn’t.
It seemed to me that the answer had something to do with style, but this was little more than a vague feeling.
I didn’t know what to do. I finally became so fed up with all the rejection that I decided to take a long break from my writing. To clear my head, I decided I needed a dramatic change of surroundings.
I ended up moving Russia for a year, taking a part-time teaching job to pay the bills.
I moved to St. Petersburg, an amazing city, Russia’s artistic center. I rented a modest apartment just a block from the spectacular Hermitage Museum, which boasts one of the most impressive art collections in the world. The first few weeks I spent many hours strolling through it, and became fascinated with the Impressionist collection—they have hundreds of paintings by Picasso, Monet, Gauguin, etc. I was particularly impressed by Picasso’s work. Talk about a unique, instantly-recognizable style! After spending a just little time looking his paintings, I could recognize a Picasso at 100 yards.
Outside the museum, on the magnificent Palace Square, street artists would set up to draw portraits of tourists for money. I often stopped and watched the artists at work.
Observing this activity stirred something deep inside me. When I was 6 or 7 years old, I went through a rather intense period where I wanted to be an artist. My grandmother, who was Hungarian, was a talented oil painter and watching her work inspired me. This dream didn’t last, but it persisted long enough for me to take drawing lessons every Saturday at the art museum in Cleveland, Ohio, where we lived at the time.
There was portrait artist on the Palace Square in St. Petersburg who stuck out above all the others—his portraits were awe-inspiring and looked exactly like the subject being painted.
His name was Andrey. I paid him to do my portrait, and as he worked, I made some small talk. It turned out he was a graduate student at the prestigious St. Petersburg Art Academy and made portraits some afternoons for pocket money. He spoke English, but just barely. When he finished my portrait, I mustered up the courage to ask him if he would teach me how to draw portraits like he did.
He eyed me skeptically—a middle-aged American tourist asking him to do something like this?
“I took drawing lessons as a kid,” I said.
He shrugged. “Why not? We may try.”
I’ll never forget my first lesson. I wanted Andrey to come to my apartment, where we would have privacy, but he insisted that I come over to the Art Academy campus on Vasilievsky Island, to one of the formal studios. “We need many material and good light,” he said. “Better I learning you in studio.”
To say that I was nervous is an understatement. I was 38 years old and hadn’t picked up a drawing pencil since I was seven. My apprehension quadrupled when I arrived at the spacious studio and found out that some of Russia’s most famous artists had used it, including Ilya Repin, the man after which the academy was originally named. On top of that, Andrey had arranged a live model—an undergraduate art student—to pose for me. There were several other artists milling around the studio, too, which only added to my anxiety.
Andrey stood next to me as we gazed over the top of the blank paper at the model, a beautiful 20 year old girl with a classic Russian features. She sat on a stool, perfectly still, her head turned, peering back at me.
Andrey put a charcoal pencil in my sweaty hand. “First step—draw outline of face.”
I swallowed, and barely able to keep the pencil from shaking, slowly started sketching the oval. Yet, oddly—within 30 seconds—I began to relax, the soft scratching of the charcoal against paper calming me. The sounds took me back to my childhood, and I actually remembered the sounds and smells from the Cleveland art museum.
“You draw not badly,” Andrey said, looking relieved. “I think I learn you ok.” He began coaching me through the drawing. When it was done, it was pretty bad, but wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared. At least, nobody in the room was laughing.
I was soon taking lessons from Andrey three times a week, at first at the studio, and later, at my apartment, after I’d bought the requisite easel and materials.
I threw myself into this work, experiencing one of the most powerful bursts of creative energy I’ve ever had. I drew portrait after portrait after portrait, very detailed works, sometimes completing 2 or 3 a day. Andrey spent many hours explaining in painstaking detail all the techniques used to draw eyes, noses, lips, ears, cheeks, necks, hair, sideburns, mustaches, wrinkles, birthmarks and so on. He also arranged for me to buy an actual human skull and taught me all about the anatomy of the head, the bone and facial muscles beneath the skin, the cartridge of the nose and ears, and how all this effected facial structure, shadows, and so on.
Andrey and I got along marvelously and became close friends. But by August, I sensed something was wrong. I was beginning to feel comfortable enough to deviate slightly from all the rules and techniques he had taught me.
“There is only one correct approach to drawing,” he stiffly told me one afternoon.
In late August, just as the weather started to cool, our relationship underwent a dramatic, unexpected rupture.
I was in the middle of drawing a portrait of one of my friends, John, an American about my age, with Andrey looking on. Andrey was supposedly there to give me pointers, but he was strangely silent. He hadn’t said one word the whole time.
Suddenly, he pointed at the paper. “Nose is wrong!”
I studied the nose I’d just sketched, glancing back and forth between it and John’s nose. I didn’t see anything wrong with it. “How so?”
“It is simply wrong!” Andrey shouted.
I glanced at John, then back at Andrey. “I really don’t what’s wrong with it. It looks just like John’s nose to me.”
Andrey stomped his foot on the floor it so hard that it sounded like an explosion.
“You no listen me! I your teacher!” He pounded his fist into his chest.
“Calm down,” I said.
“I need some water,” John said, scurrying into the kitchen to get the hell out of there.
Andrey was staring at me, breathing hard. He pointed angrily at the drawing. “You change nose!”
Now I was beginning to feel stubborn. I didn’t see anything wrong with my rendering of John’s nose. “I’m not changing it. I like it the way it is.”
“Then you find new teacher!” Andrey bellowed. He stormed out of my apartment, slamming the door behind him.
I felt terrible the next few days. I really liked Andrey—I called him a couple of times but as soon as he heard my voice, he hung up.
I wandered back out onto the Palace Square and tried to find another teacher, but no other artist seemed even remotely as good as Andrey.
Meanwhile, my friend John had hung the portrait I’d made in his living room—he really liked it. “Are you sure you need a teacher?” he said. “It seems to me you’ve had enough instruction—can’t you just develop your skill on your own?”
I mulled this over and decided maybe he was right. I continued to make more portraits, hiking over to the art academy campus every morning and hiring new students to pose for me. I cranked out drawing after drawing and kept steadily improving. At least, I thought so.
One day I decided to put all my latest portraits on display in my studio. I had dated each one, so I started with the most recent and worked my way back, until I had covered all four walls with them, and even part of the ceiling.
A short time later one of my student models asked to buy the portrait I’d done of her. This was an awesome moment for me—it was the first time anyone had actually offered me money for any of my portraits. I decided to give it to her as a present.
She was delighted. “My mother is a curator at the Hermitage Museum,” she said proudly. “I will show it to her.”
Uh-oh, I thought.
She and I became friends, and the next thing I knew she wanted to invite her mother over to my apartment to see all my portraits.
A curator at the Hermitage Museum? A professional art expert? No way!
I kept making up excuses, but she kept pressuring me. One day we met for coffee and her mother happened by, on a one hour break from work. “I would love to see your portraits,” she said. “If you have time.”
As we walked up the stairs to my apartment, me knees felt weak. “Look,” I said, turning to the lady, “I’m just an amateur. My stuff really isn’t worth seeing.”
“Nonsense,” she said. “You must learn to be more confident.”
Bracing myself, I led the two of them into the studio.
The woman stood there in the middle of the room, slowly turning around, taking in one amateurish portrait after another. I wanted to crawl under the easel.
“These are wonderful!” she said, looking back at me. She passed her gaze over the portraits again. “You have already developed your own style!”
“Style?” I muttered. I looked around from one charcoal portrait to another, dumbfounded. I had no idea what she was talking about. All the portraits looked exactly the same to me. I saw no more style in those drawings than I did in my novels.
“There’s no style,” I said. “It’s just the way I dra—”
I never finished the sentence. It was one of those rare epiphanies that hit me with such force I was nearly knocked off my feet.
It’s just the way I draw.
As soon as the two of them left my apartment, I pulled out my oldest portraits, the ones that I had made under Andrey’s strict instruction, and compared them to the ones I was doing now. They looked completely different. I found the portrait that Andrey had made of me, the day I met him, and compared it to the others. What had happened, so gradually that I hadn’t even noticed, was that I had veered from drawing the way he taught me to drawing in my own way…the way that I thought was best. And in so doing I had developed my own style.
That’s not to say that Andrey’s instruction wasn’t necessary. He was (and perhaps still is) an incredible teacher, and I’m certain that without his expert guidance and training, I would have never been able to draw a charcoal portrait that was worth looking at. Mastering the fundamental skills and techniques of any art form is crucial—as the old saying goes, “An artist must learn the rules in order to break them.” But at some point, you have to set yourself apart from the teachers and follow your inner voice.
I had no intention of becoming a professional artist. But as soon I arrived back in the States, I felt renewed energy about my writing. I dove head-first into my next novel. This time, I told myself to forget about all I had learned in my writing classes, and all the well-meaning criticism and advice from the from agents and editors.
I just wrote the story the way I thought it should be written.
The book was called Wild Child.
The rest is history.