Simple Geometry

By William Zinsser | April 23, 2010

A few years ago I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see an exhibition of paintings and prints by Henri Matisse that had been inspired by African textiles. The vibrant colors and patterns in Matisse’s work were unlike any that he would have seen growing up and living in France; a trip to Morocco added them to his visual vocabulary. On an accompanying panel Matisse was quoted about his infatuation with what he called African cloths. He said, “I never tire of looking at them for long periods of time and waiting for something to come to me from the mystery of their instinctive geometry.”

I love the instinctive geometry of Matisse’s sentence. Every year I read it to the students in my writing classes. I don’t tell them what it means–how it might apply to their own writing–because I don’t know. I just want them to think about it. Writers get so fixated on the mechanics of writing that they forget how much they can learn from the other arts about line and the uses of empty space. Good writing, like a good watch, should have no unnecessary parts, and that’s what great art shouts at us: Tell the story with no unnecessary parts.

Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” a melody instantly learned and forever remembered, uses only the first five notes of the major scale; he didn’t need the other seven. Beethoven would develop that melody into the majestic chorale that concludes his Ninth Symphony, but he could have saved himself the trouble; he told the whole story in the first 16 bars.

The Japanese artist who paints one bird on one branch in one corner of his canvas, leaving the rest blank, feels no obligation to provide the tree itself and its surrounding shrubbery. That’s unnecessary information, and the blank space itself becomes an element in the composition.

Al Hirschfeld’s caricatures of actors, which adorned the Sunday theater section of The New York Times for more than 50 years, needed only a single line to catch a star in his or her unique complexity. In February a bronze sculpture by Alberto Giacometti called “Walking Man 1,” an attenuated figure with stick-like legs and not much of an upper body, sold for $104.3 million at Sotheby’s in London, breaking the record price for an auctioned work of art.

Think about it. Tell your story as plainly as you can, with no extra parts.

(Copyright 2010 by William K. Zinsser)

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