Prose and Picture

Here’s something I like to point out to writers whenever I can. Writing is like drawing in the sense that it represents something on a page. What is represented, of course, doesn’t actually have to exist. We can describe a fantasy just as we can draw a unicorn. In both cases, we mark a page to indicate an image. We use imagination to see it.

But there is a straightforward sense in which writing is harder than drawing, more difficult. The typical case of drawing involves representing a three-dimensional object in a two-dimensional space. There is an art to this and some people are very good at it. The trick is to learn how to make do without the third dimension, how to use two dimensions in the viewer’s experience to indicate a complete, three-dimensional object. Interestingly, however, this object is normally frozen in time. It is not a four-dimensional object.

Now consider writing prose. Here, a typical case is that of telling a story. That is, the “object” is often four dimensional, occupying both time and space. But prose itself is wholly linear: one word follows the other in a sentence. Once sentence follows another in a paragraph. A text is, we might say, one-dimensional. If the draftsman reduces a three-dimensional object to two, a writer reduces a four-dimensional object to one. Here, again, there is an art to it, and some people are better at it than others.

You might ask whether this post, too, is a representation of a four dimensional object in a one-dimensional space. I would argue that it is indeed. I had to describe the acts of writing and drawing. If you look closely you’ll notice I told a little story about drawing and writing. You probably formed images in your mind accordingly. You may have pictured a unicorn in your mind’s eye. (I’ll leave your fantasies to you.) And now, in this last sentence, I’m telling you a little story about you as a reader of this post, and me as a the writer. (Notice the “now” that I just invoked.) I’m writing this in my office in Copenhagen. Be well, dear reader, wherever you are!

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