One of my side jobs is helping to manage a small gallery in the Sawyer Free Library in Gloucester. I'm one of a committee of three that select artists to exhibit each month, and one of us participates in the hanging of the show. We choose artists in all media—oil, acrylic, printing, photography, multimedia, and small sculptures or dioramas. For many artists this is their first juried exhibit, but far more are seasoned professionals. But every one faces the same problem—choosing what to exhibit.
I spent Thursday morning working with our current artist. I kept thinking how similar selecting work for an exhibit was to shaping a manuscript. In each work, the artist or writer has to choose what to keep and what to omit. The artist can’t hang every single work unless he wants the exhibit to look like a nineteenth-century salon. And the writer can’t include every special turn of phrase, every quirky or interesting minor character, unless she wants to turn her traditional mystery into the farce subgenre (and even then, there are limits).
Each choice brings with it limitations on what is still available. Does the artist choose by subject matter—landscapes or portraits? Does the writer choose by setting—a gritty urban tenement or a quiet suburban neighborhood? After the first question come others, and more limitations. If the artist has three large but superior pieces, do those take over half of the limited space? If the writer has one major character around whom all the action swirls, does she cut away the subplots involving other, minor characters? Does the artist choose five paintings that show variation on a theme? Does the writer choose a group of characters, such as a family or the guests in an isolated farmhouse? Each choice shapes the work.
The joke among college writing instructors used to be about beginning students who signed up to write the great American novel. This is akin to buying an easel and canvases to prepare to painting the great American scene. There is no one story, no one great character, in American life, just as there is no one great image that captures all of the United States.
My choices as a writer shape the kind of story I will tell, and those choices in turn determine the readers I will attract. No one story will appeal to everyone, but each story honed carefully will reveal the clear, definite direction the author has chosen, and the craft of creating the story will come through.
You can view the artwork of Nancy Molvig at the Matz Gallery in the Sawyer Free Library during the month of October.