Ruminations on Kafka


Reading a great story is similar to eating a delicious sandwich. One great sentence, like a delicious slice of salami, can be all it takes to satisfy. When we taste the relationship fresh, crisp cuts of lettuce have with the other ingredients, we taste the demands the sandwich maker made on their product before delivering it to us. Those of us, who never worked in the industry, don’t know the symbiotic relationship these ingredients should have with one another, but we know it when we taste it. Those of us who worked in the industry, and have some familiarity with the art of making a great sandwich, know that even the perfect symbiosis of the freshest, most delicious ingredients don’t matter if the sandwich artist doesn’t have great bread. The quality of the bread is the great divide between an average sandwich and a delicious one.

The consensus on author Franz Kafka is that he didn’t write great sentences. His prose was characterized by a Stanley Corngold as “luminous plainness”. I understand the ambiguity of that description, but while I concede that there are very few, there are some great lines. Anytime we read a great story, like Metamorphosis, our inclination is to add some “could’ve been, should’ve been” lines. Every time we think we found one, it just doesn’t quite fit. In the course of those efforts, Kafka’s style is unveiled, his economy of words, and the meticulous choreography of his story.

I would love to see some early drafts of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, just to see what he added and deleted in the course of editing. Did he have great sentences in the first draft only to realize they damaged the otherwise “luminous plainness” feel of the story? Did Gregor Samsa’s family have greater, more comedic reactions to Gregor transformation into an Ungeziefer ‘a beast unfit for sacrifice’? Did he vie for some greater entertainment in the story, or did he have a religious passion for the mundane feel for the story? My guess is that in the early drafts of this story, Kafka had to battle with an egotistical need to add something more to Metamorphosis to make it more. Did he initially have one of the characters make an incredibly insightful comment about humanity that illuminated for us how insightful Kafka was? Most authors cannot avoid the conceit of informing their readers how smart the writer is/was, and they do so by making indoctrinating their characters smarter, more intelligent, and brilliant. Were the characters funnier, more charming, more compassionate, more wonderful, or more something that every author wants their authors to think of them in those initial drafts? My guess is that Kafka probably had hundreds of versions before it reached final form, and that the final form we know today is an exhibition of the ego-less restraint he employed.

Great writers work through their strengths and weaknesses in pieces no one will ever see. Some of them learn that their path to a great story hinges on great sentences. Others find that devotion to ideas and style pays greater dividends. Some might suggest this is an author finding their voice. They do so in the course of reading others, trying to duplicate them, and eventually realizing what they’re greater strengths and weaknesses are.

I might be wrong, but I don’t think any reader will finish Metamorphosis with a “Holy Crud!” reaction. The reader might start the story in that vein, but Kafka diminishes the shock of a human transforming into an Ungeziefer with a level of choreographed reality the reader might find mundane. Thus, when we finish the story, it sits on a shelf in our mind like a preserved meat, until we process and digest it, in the manner we will a great sandwich. It might take a while, it might take an incident, but at some point concept of the story will hit us, and we’ll realize what a unique, and uniquely crafted story it was.

Whenever we read a great story, like Metamorphosis, we seek a reference point, a doorway into the mind of the author. Most great stories are about us, in some tangential manner. Some stories are so foreign to our experience that we cannot find a reference point, because we can’t possibly find ourselves in such a ludicrous story. The brilliance of Kafka is that his writing relies on an axis of narcissism and objectivity. Is it narcissist to believe that every story is about us, or is it narcissist to believe that none of them are? How do we define a great story? How does a great story define us? Do we know someone for whom the author speaks, and do we wish they would read Kafka to understand themselves a little better? How would they do that, what do we hope they might understand, and are our answers to those questions autobiographical?

To paraphrase author David Foster Wallace, readers should imagine a door when they approach a Kafka work. We seek a doorway into Kafka’s mind so that we can understand his works a little better. We seek a reference point, a point of entry. When we think we’ve found the doorway, we start “pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it, we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and pushing and kicking, etc. That, finally, the door opens … and it opens outward: we’ve been inside what we wanted all along.” 

One of the primary duties of every writer is to elicit emotion in the reader. How well they do this defines them. For one writer, it might be about the sentences, and for another it might be the idea that story is sacred. Some stories elicit instantaneous reactions, and some require some slow roasting. Some people don’t want to think too much. They want instant stories that provide a clear path from clear A to Z that culminate in an exciting conclusion. Millions of these books move from writer to reader, and the readers love them. Some of us prefer stories, like the ones Franz Kafka wrote, that reach in and fiddle with some different switches embedded deep in our psyche.

Kafka was an impersonal writer who chose to ground his greatest fantastical tale in reality. Prior to Kafka, and since him, most writers felt a need to form the basis for the fantastical with the fantastical. It just doesn’t seem realistic that something so uncommon should happen in a common home of common people. Kafka doesn’t fight against commonality in the manner some will by suggesting that the common can become uncommon. He chose to wrap his ingredients of “luminous plainness” in a bread of ideas and style.  

The Quest for the Great, First Sentence


This sentence is the most difficult sentence to write. It has troubled writers since they started writing to entertain readers. Writers often sort through hundreds to thousands of words to find a great sentence, and no sentence is more important than the first. The quest can be humbling for even the best writers. They consider it so difficult that if they write one great sentence a day, it’s a good day, and they figure that about 1% of the sentences they write are great sentences. If that’s the case, what percentage of that percentage are great enough to be provocative first sentences? Some of the most famous admit that they spent so much time (months and even years) trying to find that one great sentence to start a new book that it’s no wonder why so many of them turn to drink?   

I wrote a great sentence once. After I wrote it, I couldn’t believe I wrote it. I even took some time out to stare at it and appreciate it. I was so proud. Wow, I thought, that is a great sentence, and I wrote it. It can take writers pages to say what we want to say, and some of the times it takes paragraphs. Every once in a great while, we do it in one clear and concise sentence. When that sentence falls out of our head, no matter how hard we worked to achieve it, it almost seems like an accident.

The problem, I realized soon after I spent a minute appreciating that moment for what is was, was that the great sentence didn’t happen until the conclusion. It felt wasted, because I know that if I am lucky enough to have a reader click on my article, most of them aren’t going read all the way through to the conclusion. With that in mind, I tried something revolutionary for me. I put that glorious sentence in the intro, and I rewrote the entire article accordingly. It paid off in this particular instance, for not only did this new, revised article become one of the best articles I’ve ever written, but it also attracted a number of readers.

If the average writer is anything like me, arriving at a conclusion is a journey. I don’t know how other writers operate, but nine times out of ten, I won’t know my conclusion until I get there. Some writers refer to this journey as the joy of discovery, and this journey often involves writing so much, so often, that a great sentence almost falls out of us every once in a great while. 

***

What is a great sentence? Great sentences, by my definition, are not better than anyone else’s are. We do not write the words great sentence from an egotistical perspective. A great sentence is a relative term, defined by the writer, as the perfect way of summarizing and synthesizing everything we want to say. It is also the payoff for all the hard work we’ve done leading up to it. When we put in the work to read and understand another author’s point, we do it hoping that there will be a payoff, or an ultimate clarification often found in the conclusion. Writing, or at least my writing, is as much about discovery as it is for readers, and the payoff for all the hard work I put into writing the article is that one great sentence that clarifies everything I was trying to say, wraps it up, and puts what I consider a final, gleaming cherry atop the pie.   

There are also some cathartic feelings we attach to “nailing” that certain something that plagued us before we wrote that great sentence. When we write, we’re attempting to achieve some higher level of clarity on a topic, and when we’re able to clarify what we’re trying to write to the reader in one, great sentence, it helps us clarify it for ourselves. 

Great sentences do not arrive in the birthing process. Every writer has probably arrived at a great sentence in the first draft once or twice, but it happens to rarely that we don’t remember it. Great sentences usually arrive after the framework is complete. They often happen after the mild illness that drives us to write so often is somewhat satisfied that we have the foundation for a story, article, or novel. It usually happens after the self-imposed stress, anxiety, and obsessive behavior we have relaxes. We’re less robotic in this stage, more creative and more emotive, and that’s where the great sentences achieve life.

“What’s the perfect way of wrapping all this up?” we think while trying to wrap our article up with the perfect conclusion. When that “Aha!” moment finally arrives, and the writer writes a sentence that could be one of the best lines they’ve ever delivered, it can change the theme and scope of an article. It can also make us think that every hour we spent writing to that point was a waste, unless we realize that we found a better article than the original one we wrote.

***

The internet is a blessing and curse for modern writers, as we can now reach an audience of hundreds of millions by clicking a mouse. The curse is that everyone else enjoys that same privilege. How do we separate ourselves from that overcrowded pack and write a quality article that attracts attention? A remedy, as opposed to the remedy, might be to take the conclusion we worked so hard to sum up our article and make it the lede.

It’s not hard to write an intro in a first draft, as it is often proves to be nothing more than a bridge between what we have in our mind and what we type out onto a screen or page. Yet, we might accidentally appreciate those words for helping us start that we assign them a precious quality. When we find a halfway decent start, we might want to show our appreciation to those words for helping us start by rewarding them with their righteous place at the top of the article. We might think it’s good enough to be good enough, and once the intro is complete, it’s completed. We’re grateful that we don’t have to obsess over it anymore. It did its job of moving the idea from mind to screen or paper, and it’s time to move on and worry about the rest. If it’s good enough for us, we think, it should be good enough to attract the reader. If the reader is attracted to it, we’ll reward them with a knock-your-socks off conclusion that might leave a great impression on the reader, a reputation in the reader’s mind, and a click on the subscription button.

In the editing process, however, our focus should turn to the reader, because we know that our readers don’t know how hard it was for us to write the article, and they honestly don’t care. They won’t care how precious those words were to us, and they don’t care about our process. The writer either writes great sentences or they don’t, and if they don’t, the reader heads on over to the dreaded (‘X’) that closes our web page.

Another reason it’s a little depressing when our best sentence doesn’t arrive until the conclusion is that if it’s that good it might transform the article, and if we want to write an article that supports that great sentence, we’ll have to spend another couple hours redoing the entire thing. If we recognize it for what it is, however, we should recognize that at least we found it. At that point, we should drop any facade that we’re a great writer, release ourselves from the leash of the preciousness of our words, and rewrite the whole thing according to that new article we found nestled within that great sentence.

It might sound counterintuitive to make the conclusion the intro, as some sentences have an intro beat to them and others sound more like conclusions, but a great sentence is a great sentence. What is a conclusion, if not a sentence, or series of sentences that summarize the most important elements of a story? What’s the difference between a great intro, or lede, and a great conclusion? Some of the times, a conclusion assumes that we already know the information expressed in the article, but more often than not, that’s an easy fix. It almost goes without saying now that in this age of hundreds of thousands of writers writing millions of articles, it’s vital that we captivate them with a great, first sentence regardless when we find it.

If a writer finds a great sentence in the midst of writing, they will need to find proper transitions, of course, but if they are able to accomplish a seamless transition between the paragraphs, the writer might be able to maintain the reader’s attention for at least two paragraphs with the new lede transitioning to our former, dynamic intro.

Most writers know how essential a great first line is, and some of the times, we might find hints of that great it in paragraph three and it might not hit us until the conclusion. The point is if we work hard enough at it, a great sentence might accidentally happen, and if it does we should feed and nurture it in the manner we do any of our other loved ones.

The problem arrives when we supplant that first lede with the original conclusion, and we work to a new conclusion. Does this second conclusion have a sentence greater than the first? Should we supplant the new lede with this second conclusion? Should we rinse and repeat, in other words, and keep repeating this process until we have a 1,400-word article of overlapping conclusions? I’ve yet to encounter such a problem, but if my next, edited conclusion is better than my first, I might go back and do it again, and again, as often as it works. This process doesn’t always work, of course. As I wrote, some conclusions assume too much to be quality intros, but I think that in the age of hyper AD-HD, internet readers, writers have to do whatever we can to attract readers and keep their attention, and this was but one way I found to do it when I was writing an article and I created one beautiful and intoxicating great sentence. 

Looking for Emotions in All the Wrong Places


“Looking for love in all the wrong places can be dramatic, exciting, and fun,” nobody said. Nobody says this, but a number of us have a number of ten minutes to midnight relationships, and while some consider come of them exciting and fun, they know they aren’t built to last. The music stops at midnight, as we all know, and the curtain closes on our carefully crafted production. We take our costumes and makeup off and prepare them for the big reveal. 

The fairy tale romance is out there, and we know it. We’ve read about it, we’ve seen it in the movies, on TV, and we’ve heard about in rock and roll songs. We’ve heard about the turmoil and tumult that occurs in some relationships … in country music songs, but who wants to live like that? We shouldn’t have to settle. We might be embarrassed to admit that lust just doesn’t do it for us anymore, and we’re done trying to play a role in Gone with the Wind. We lick our wounds, we help them lick theirs, and we set about building our Frankenstein’s monster. We want someone funny, but not mean; somewhat skinny but not lean; dramatic but not traumatic; and nice but not sappy. We search far and wide, until we find that person who wants to get to know us while quietly watching reruns of the Andy Griffith Show and Three’s Company with us, eating a turkey sandwich and a bag of Lay’s original brand of potato chips.

When those after-the-show conversations casually morph into mundane conversation, we realize that some date-worthy people are normal, and they don’t mind listening to what we have to say. They also appear to be doing so with genuine interest. Our friends might not want to hear about the nights we spend with them, discussing the unheralded comedic genius Don Knotts, and they might even remind us how exciting and sexy our exes were.

We enjoyed those relationships for what they were, but they always find a way to transfer their toxic, emotional baggage to us. They affect and infect everyone in their wake, until the dating pool becomes an emotional, as opposed to physical, manifestation of the Cantina Bar scene in Star Wars. In our search for the perfect mate, we uncovered a precious commodity we never considered before normalcy. We never put the normal bullet point in our search engine, because we spent so much time condemning the normal. “Who wants to be normal? Normal is boring, and my parents were normal, and I’m anything and everything but,” we said various strains of this joke so often that we began to believe it. After all of the whirlwind romances leave us in an undefined state, somewhere near unstable, we begin to prize normal people. We seek someone who can yin our yang that might lead to a stable foundation that we can use to build something year by year, day by day, and hour to hour. We realize that the best romance is a “Little bit country and a little bit rock and roll.”

***

Elijah Wood and Tobie McGuire are two different people. I knew this on some level, but when I searched for a movie I just finished, to recommend it to a friend, I searched for Tobie McGuire. It turned out Elijah Wood read the screenwriter’s lines for the character of that movie. I used to know my cultural touchstones so well. Am I slipping? Who cares? We do. Knowing cultural references is important to us, and in many ways we think it defines our intelligence. As I’ve written elsewhere, in Abraham Lincoln’s day, it was vital to a person’s existence that they know The Bible and Shakespeare so well that you could drop and spot all references; in the 1990’s, it was The Simpsons and Seinfeld; and now with devices and streaming, the cultural touchstones are all over the map. There are still some cultural references everyone must know, however, and if a foreigner wants to assimilate into the American culture, they would do well to learn some of our cultural references. I slipped in one of mine, and I told a friend about this. She said, “That’s great, but I don’t know who either of those people are.” As someone who knows cultural references but doesn’t care too much about them, this placed me at a fork in the road. I used to care a great deal, and I once met a person who was as knowledgeable as I was in cultural references. She even topped me in several areas, a novelty I enjoyed. I had a crush on her, based almost solely on this area of her expertise. Our relationship didn’t last long however as she personified, for me, the idea that when selecting a mate in life, cultural knowledge might be on the tail end of the top 100 most important pieces of the pie in my decision making process.

***

“I’M MAD!” I yelled.

“No one cares!” my dad yelled back. Among the many things my dad taught me, one of the primary ones that stuck is no one cares when we’re mad. No one cares when we’re happy, no one cares when we’re sad, and no one cares when we’re mad. “If you choose to sit in the corner with a mad face on, that’s fine, but remember that’s your choice,” he said.

It was all quite frustrating at the time, but I now think my dad was probably, accidentally or incidentally, onto something. I now add to my dad’s emotionally callous response, “While you’re over there, in the corner, remember that it’s up to you to teach the world how they can help you avoid such messy displays of emotion. If you’re so mad that you’re now ready to tip the apple cart, ask yourself why you didn’t do, or say, something sooner. If you’re raging mad now, chances are you’re probably mad at yourself for your inability to do, or say, something sooner, when this was nothing more than a simple disagreement. We were all rational back then, and we probably would’ve listened to your solutions. Shoot that stuff at the source, and you might not ever have to be so mad again. If you’re mad at something someone said, or did, it’s your job to tell them about it.”

“But, they won’t listen to me,” the collective ‘we’ respond.

“Yeah, you’re probably going to have to do it a lot, and you might have to do it so often that it could lead to some form of confrontation or some sort of altercation, but if you don’t, you’re going to end up like Michael.”

Some twenty years prior to the day I met Michael, bullies were laying into him. The bullies were so relentless that whatever they did to Michael affected him twenty years later, when he told his story to a group of people who never met him before. These bullies picked on Michael so often, in his high school years, that he sought the assistance from an authority figure. That authority figure offered some advice that few authority figures would today. “Pick out the toughest one of the bunch and punch him in the mouth as hard as you can,” the priest, in charge of discipline at the high school we went to in different years, said. “He’s going to punch you back, and you’ll probably get beat up, but they will all leave you alone from that point on.”

“What did you do?” I asked after a pregnant pause.

“I didn’t do anything,” Michael said. “I couldn’t believe that a priest was telling me to punch someone.”

That was the end of Michael’s story as far as Michael was concerned. For those of us who never met Michael before, it was only the beginning of our understanding of him. If Michael found a forceful way to rebuke those bullies, his life from that day forward might be different. If Michael reached a point of desperation that required him to punch the biggest bully of the bunch, and he did it, he was probably a different man from the one we met that day. As the priest said, the big bully would’ve punched him back, and it would’ve hurt. Worst-case scenario, Michael ends up in a hospital, but most bullies simply punch back one time and leave their victim on the floor. Worst-case scenario, Michael ends up in the hospital, and he has to get his jaw wired shut, but Michael walks out of that emergency room a man who believes he knows how to handle his own situations. He doesn’t have to rely on the relative ineptitude of authority figures. He can handle himself, and he’s his own man, as opposed to the man we knew some twenty years who stepped away from his fork in the road.

As the years rolled along, in our working relationship, we learned that Michael was a seething ball of hatred. He hated certain people, until they came around. He said the meanest, most awful things about them, but when they stepped near him, he didn’t know how to express himself. Most of us have issues with confrontation, but most of us find a healthy, non-confrontational way of voicing our concerns. Michael didn’t even have that, and when I witnessed it firsthand, I wondered how different he might be if he followed that priest’s advice. It’s possible that Michael’s meek nature was a result of so many instances that one such instance wouldn’t make a dent in his approach, but it might have started the ball rolling.

It’s our job in life to teach others how to treat us. We might have to do it so often that they mock us for repeating ourselves, but we can add, “If you knew how I wanted to be treated, and you did it anyway, why do you continue to do it? What did you hope to gain?” We might have to repeat ourselves with such force that it results in what everyone fears most a punch in the mouth, but what’s the alternative? Where our we now? We’re so mad now that they’re under our skin. If people treat us poorly, we should recognize that as our inability to instruct them properly. Telling everyone that we’re mad, or giving them the silent treatment, is a complete waste of everyone’s time, including ours.” 

We didn’t enter into this argument with Michael. We simply felt sorry for him, but what if we had? We can imagine that Michael would’ve been able to counterpoint our every point. We would’ve argued, and he had twenty years of justifications for his actions. At what point in an argument, do we realize we’re doing more harm than good? At what point do we reach a zero point? We argue because we want everyone to know how smart we are. We argue because we want to persuade others to our point of view. We also argue to save our friends from themselves. At what point, do we realize the other party disagrees with us so much that no matter what we say, we’re never going to persuade them to our point of view? At what point do we realize there’s no point in continuing? Even when they’re demonstrably wrong, it makes no sense to continue the argument, as we can see that they’re not going to change their mind. We can also see that we’re insulting them at some point, and we might be damaging whatever relationship we have with them. As much as it pains us, we realize that some of the times it’s just better, less frustrating, and less maddening, to walk away.

Leonardo’s Lips and Lines


Hyper-vigilance is not a switch an artist turns on to create. It’s less about what an artist does and more about who they are. If this is true, we could say that the final products of artists, their artistic creations, are less about some supernatural gift and more about a culmination of hyper-natural observations of the minutiae that others often miss that we call hyper-vigilance. Thus, in some cases, the final product of an artist’s vision is less about an artistic vision and more about using that product as a vehicle to reveal their findings. Did Leonardo da Vinci’s obsessions drive him to be an artist, or did he become so obsessed with the small details of life that he become an artist?

What goes on in the mind of an artist? That question has plagued us since Leonardo da Vinci, and before him. Those who don’t understand the complexities and gradations of artistic creation love to think about an “aha moment”, such as an apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head. Others think that brilliant artistic creation often requires one to mix the chemicals of their brain up with artificial enhancements, or that they ripped off the artists who preceded them. These theories combine some elements of truth with a measure of “There’s no way one man is that much more brilliant than I am” envy. As an aspiring artist, I can tell you that nothing informs the process more than failure, or trial and error. There are rarely “aha moments” that rip an artist out of a bathtub to lead them to type a passage half naked and dripping wet. What’s more common in my experience involves the search for an alternative, or a better way. Rather than intro a piece in the manner I’ve always done, maybe I should try introducing another way, maybe I should build to the conclusion a different way, and all of the gradual, almost imperceptible changes an artist makes along the road to their version of the “perfect” artistic creation. 

To the untrained eye, The Mona Lisa is a painting of a woman. The Last Supper is nothing more than a depiction of the apostles having a meal with Jesus. We have some evidence of da Vinci’s process in his notebooks, but we don’t have his early artistic pieces. Due to the idea that they probably weren’t great, either da Vinci trashed them, or they’ve been lost to history in one way or another. These pieces would be interesting if, for no other reason, than to see the progress that led him to his masterpieces. Of the few da Vinci paintings that remain, we see a progression from his first paintings to The Mona Lisa. His paintings became more informed throughout his artistic career. This begs the chicken or the egg question, what came first Leonardo da Vinci’s artistic vision or the science behind the paintings? Put another way, did he pursue his innovative ways of attaining scientific knowledge to enhance his paintings, or did he use the paintings as a vehicle to display the knowledge he attained?

On that note, anytime I read a brilliant line I often wonder if the inspiration for the line dropped in the course of the author’s effort, or if the brilliant line was the whole reason for the book. Was the book an elongated attempt to verbally shade that brilliant line, in the manner da Vinci did his subjects, to make the brilliant line more prominent?  

Whatever the case was, the few works of his we still have are vehicles for the innovative knowledge he attained of science, the mathematics of optics, architecture, chemistry, and the finite details of anatomy. Da Vinci might have started obsessively studying various elements, such as water flow, rock formations, and all of the other natural elements to better inform his art, but he became so obsessed with his initial findings that he pursued them for reasons beyond art. He pursued them for the sake of knowledge.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book capture an artist’s artistic process as well as Walter Isaacson’s Leonard da Vinci biography has. The thesis of the book is that da Vinci’s artistic creations were not merely the work of a gifted artist, but of an obsessive genius honing in on scientific discoveries to inform the minutiae of his process. Some reviews argue that this bio focuses too much on the minutiae involved in da Vinci’s work, and there are paragraphs, pages, and in some cases entire chapters devoted to the minutiae involved in his process. In some places, I empathize with this charge that the book can be tedious, but after finishing the book, I don’t know how any future biographer on da Vinci could capture the essence of Leonardo da Vinci without the exhaustive detail about the man’s obsessive pursuit of detail. Focusing and obsessing on the finer details is who da Vinci was, and it is what separated him from all of the brilliant artists that preceded and followed him. 

Some have alluded to the idea that da Vinci just happened to capture Lisa Gherardini, or Lisa del Giocondo, in the perfect smile for his famous painting The Mona Lisa. The inference is that da Vinci asked her to do a number of poses, and that his gift was merely in working with the woman to find that perfect pose and then capture it, in the manner a photographer might. Such theories, Isaacson illustrates, shortchange the greatest work of one of history’s greatest artists. It leaves out all of these intricate and tedious details da Vinci used to bring the otherwise one-dimensional painting to life.

Isaacson also discounts the idea that da Vinci’s finished products were the result of a divine gift, and I agree in the sense that suggesting his work was a result of a gift discounts the intense and laborious research da Vinci put into informing his works. There were other artists with similar gifts in da Vinci’s time, and there have been many more since, yet da Vinci’s work maintains a rarefied level of distinction in the art world. 

As an example of Leonardo’s obsessiveness, he dissected cadavers to understand the musculature elements involved in producing a smile. Isaacson provides exhaustive details of Leonardo’s work, but writing a couple of paragraphs about such endeavors cannot properly capture how tedious this research must have been. Writing that da Vinci spent years exploring cadavers to discover all the ways the brain and spine work in conjunction to produce expression, for example, cannot capture the trials and errors da Vinci must have experienced before finding the subtle muscular formations inherent in the famous, ambiguous smile that captured the deliberate effect he was trying to achieve. (Isaacson’s description of all the variables that inform da Vinci’s process regarding The Mona Lisa’s ambiguous smile that historians suggest da Vinci used more than once, is the best paragraph in the book.) We can only guess that da Vinci spent most of his time researching for these artistic truths alone, and that even his most loyal assistants pleaded that he not put them on the insanely tedious lip detail. 

Isaacson also goes to great lengths to reveal Leonardo’s study of lights and shadows, in the sfumato technique, to provide the subjects of his paintings greater dimension and realistic and penetrating eyes. Da Vinci then spent years, sometimes decades, putting changes on his “incomplete projects”. Witnesses say that he could spend hours looking at an incomplete project only to add one little dab of paint. 

The idea that da Vinci’s works were a product of supernatural gift also implies that all an artist has to do is apply that gift to whatever canvas stands before them and that they should do it as often as possible to pay homage to that gift until they achieve a satisfactory result. As Isaacson details, this doesn’t explain what separates da Vinci from other similarly gifted artists in history. The da Vinci works we admire to this day were but a showcase of his ability, his obsessive research on matters similarly gifted artists might consider inconsequential, and the application of that knowledge he attained from the research. This, I believe, suggests da Vinci’s final products were less about anything supernatural and more about an intense obsession to achieve something hyper-natural.  

Why, for example, would one spend months, years, and decades studying the flow of water, and its connections to the flow of blood in the heart? The nature of da Vinci’s obsessive qualities belies the idea that he did it for the sole purpose of fetching a better price for his art. As Isaacson points out, da Vinci turned down more commissions than he accepted. This coupled with the idea that while he might have started an artistic creation on a commissioned basis, he often did not give the finished product to the one paying him for the finished product. As stated with some of his works, da Vinci hesitated to do this because he didn’t consider the piece finished, completed, or perfect. As anyone who experiences artistic impulses understands, the idea that an artistic piece has reached a point where it cannot be improved upon is often more difficult for the artist to achieve for the artist than starting one.

What little we know about da Vinci, suggests that he had the luxury of never having to worry about money. If that’s the case, some might suggest that achieving historical recognition drove him, but da Vinci had no problem achieving recognition in his lifetime, as most connoisseurs of art considered him one of the best painters of his era. We also know that da Vinci published little of what would’ve been revolutionary discoveries in his time, and he carried most of his artwork with him for most of his life, perfecting it, as opposed to selling it, or seeking more fame with it. Due in part to the luxuries afforded him, and the apparent early recognition of his talent, most cynical searches for his motivation do not apply. As Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonard da Vinci implies, it’s difficult to find a motivation that drove the man to create the few works of his we now have other than the pure, passionate pursuit of artistic perfection. 

After reading through all that informed da Vinci’s process, coupled with the appreciation we have for the finished product, I believe we can now officially replace the meme that uses the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album to describe an artist’s artistic peak with The Mona Lisa.

https://leonardodavincigallery.com/what-is-leonardo-da-vinci-sfumato-technique/

Da Vinci’s Sfumato and Chekov’s Razor


Leonardo da Vinci introduced a mindset that every author should be employing in their writing, if they are not already. This mindset resulted from a technique da Vinci used in his paintings called sfumato, or “gone up in smoke”. I use it so often that I don’t think of it as a technique anymore, but I found it interesting to read the explorations of it by one most famous artists in history. The basic tenet of the sfumato technique da Vinci made famous, was to avoid using specific and concrete lines in his paintings. This might not sound like a novel technique to the accomplished artist of the day, but it was groundbreaking in its day. Da Vinci did not invent this technique, as some evidence suggests it dates back to the chiaroscuro effects used by ancient Greeks and Romans, but da Vinci took it to another level. As author Walter Isaacson wrote, Leonardo was so obsessed with using shadows and reflected light that he wrote fifteen thousand words on the topic, “And that is probably less than half of what he originally wrote,” Isaacson opined.

The sfumato technique also applies to writing. When an author begins writing a story, they characterize their main character with bold lines through unique, individualistic, and semi-autobiographical lines. The more an author explores that character, the more they chip away at strict characterization and allow the character to breathe for themselves in a manner that adds dimension. They characterize with shading and reflection, or refraction through supporting characters, until they have done little to characterize the main character except through their interactions with others and events. Their main character becomes more prominent through these literary devices, until the central character becomes the literary equivalent to an eye of the storm.

In writing, we call the sfumato technique “the show don’t tell” technique. The author uses supporting characters and setting to define their main character, and they use all of this to bring the events involved in their stories to life. The takeaway might be that the optimum characterizations are those characterizations that appear more organic to the reader. In other words, the author should be working his or her tail off to make the work appear so easy that the reader thinks anyone could do it.

Chekov’s Razor

The aspiring writer should also know the principles of Chekov’s Razor that they employ them so often in their writing that they don’t realize they’re using it. The idea of Chekov’s razor is that the first three paragraphs, or pages an author writes, are for the author, and the rest is for the reader. 

Anyone who knows anything about the writing process knows that the blinking cursor, or the blank page, can be daunting. To defeat the blinking cursor, the experienced writer starts writing. We can call this the discovery phase. In the discovery phase, the writing is gibberish that no one but the writer can understand. This is the “all play no work” phase for most writers, as it allows them to be creative. They love to write with an ending in mind, and they love the process of working to that ending. While working to the ending, the creative mind might change the ending, based on little points of discovery leading up to the original ending. Once that ending is changed, however, some of the little points leading up to it need to be changed. 

The greater takeaway for aspiring writers is to get the idea down before you forget it. Don’t worry about sequencing, chronology, grammar, spelling, or if this story is the base for the next great American novel. Just write it down and worry about all the editing later. Just writing a bunch of gibberish down, only the writer understands, opens them up to the subject matter. Once the author is in, the material might have the wherewithal to be in a near proximity to where a story lies, but the real story could take paragraphs, or pages, to develop.

Chekov’s razor focuses on threes, the first three paragraphs, and/or three pages of a manuscript, short story, or essay, but I’ve found this length arbitrary. When I begin a story, I think I have a full-fledged introduction on my hands. I don’t think anyone writes gibberish just to write gibberish, it feels like this could or should be the story at the time. I lock myself up when I try to determine if the writing is up to my standard, or if it’s going anywhere. I unlock myself by writing it and deleting later if necessary. 

 Chekov’s razor comes into play when we go back and delete if necessary. In those opening paragraphs is the gibberish that the writer used to familiarize them with the material. It was the entry point to defeat the blinking cursor.

In the course of writing past the blinking cursor stage, we discover pivot points that take us to the next stages of the story, but we don’t consider them anything more than what they are at the time. In the course of rewriting, however, we discover that the pivot point is the story. The frustration falls on two tracks, the first is that we fell in love with that original idea, and it’s tough to just walk away. The other is that we “wasted” so much time writing “the other” story that we loved. When writers achieve the ultimate point of objectivity, when they realize story is sacred, they begin sacrificing all the information they love to leave information you will. 

Thus, I don’t believe there is magic in the power of threes in employing Chekov’s Razor to storytelling. A central idea, or pivot point arrives in the course of writing, but the point of Chekov’s razor is to dump and delete the useless information the writer used to write the story.  

An important note to add here is that if most authors work the same way I do, we do not write for the expressed purpose of finding the core of our story. Our perspective is, we think we already have the story, and that the only chore involves building upon it. The discovery of the core of story often humbles the author and slaps them back to the realization that no matter how many times we write a story, the art of writing involves mining the brain for ideas rather than having a brain loaded with brilliant ideas. That conceit eventually reveals itself to those willing to write a lot of material, and it’s up to the author to recognize the difference for what it is, if they want a quality story.

It happens in the course of writing it, editing it after we’re done, or in the daydreaming stage that can last for days, weeks, or months. I do not enjoy deleting the chunks of material I’ve written, and I don’t think anyone does, but the quality author will develop the ability to recognize what portion of the story is for them and which portion is for the reader, and they will crib note or delete the part of the story that is for them.

I don’t consider the revelation of these techniques a glamorization of my process. I think it demystifies the process by suggesting that anyone can do this, as long as they write as often as they need to discover what should become the central focus for the reader. Every author needs to move past their conceit of their self-defined brilliance to find the story they’re trying to tell, and learn how to work from within it.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the most prominent use of Chekov’s razor can be found in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis