My husband and I visited the High Museum of Art in Atlanta over the Thanksgiving weekend and saw the exhibition “From Picasso to Warhol – Fourteen Modern Masters.” I enjoy modern art, though I confess to not being very literate about it. But I learned something at this exhibit that got me thinking about the similarities between arts and writing.

There was a Jackson Pollack piece (Number 1A), one of his large canvasses that he painted on the floor. The description next to it noted that when Pollack painted this way, he incorporated his entire body as though choreographing his painting. That idea struck me and actually helped frame for me what the artist must have been connecting to as he painted. It was a full-body interpretation of what his inner music was expressing through him as he spun, pitched, and pirouetted over his creation. This dance, this rhythm, runs through all of us, perhaps at different frequencies and vibrations, but make no mistake, we are all swaying to a universal, all encompassing pulse.

I could picture Pollack painting (it helped that, a couple of years ago, I saw the movie with Ed Harris playing the artist), and I became curious if there was an applicable way to harness that approach in writing, which then led me to contemplate the familiarities between different types of writing and drawing/painting.

For instance, Matisse could place a few lines on a page – some squiggly, some gently curved – and voilà, a woman’s face emerges. It’s the proverbial finger pointing at the moon, the same as in haiku, which in just a few syllables offers awareness of one moment. Both techniques provide the clues, but it is up to the viewer to read them and enter into the mind of the artist/writer.

More complex sketches provide more context and story. Take Massacre of the Innocents by Poussin. Still light on details, but immediately one recognizes the great brutality and the horrendous grief and terror. Poems beyond haikus offer us just that by using sparse, influential language that opens up wide vistas of comprehension.

A painted portrait, landscape, sidewalk scene, bucolic farm, battle ground, or family gathering tells a story caught in the confines of space/time. A short story, if you will. Both take place in the “present” but provide hints of what came before and what may ensue after. Think of the story available in Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth: the young woman, dragging herself through the field to reach the house on top of the hill. We ponder her circumstances, her motivation, and her ability to reach her goal.

But what of a Pollack-size canvas, filled with swirls of paint, patterns, and focal points turning back in on themselves, creating a pathway for the view to enter and return, enter and return? Isn’t this the breadth of a novel? A huge canvas to engage all the possibilities at a deeper level, by returning to certain themes, ideas, motifs? I have seen canvases so full of irony, subplots, and subject matter painstakingly placed in an effort to help the viewer cut through to a unified meaning that connects all its seemingly disparate parts. Or take Georgia O’Keeffe’s Sky Above Clouds, which, on first blush, appears to be so simple, but is pregnant with meaning of what is not only easily available to the viewer, but leaves room for the person’s own interpretations of what may be. Novels, when well done, do exactly the same thing, whether they are chock full or lightly drawn. Both the paintings and the novels are journeys we engage ourselves in.

Pollack, I believe is about breathing and releasing, about unfettering ourselves into expression. How do we get that play in a novel? How do we choreograph our personal dance into sterile white pages? How do we full-body paint text that captures the swaying, spinning, lilting, crashing ballet of our lives unbounded? We have 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks as our only tools, so we are enormously dependent on our ability to try new ways of using them and making them more flexible.

Here’s an exercise that may be helpful. Click here to go to it.