How NOT to be a Poodle


There is a saying in writer’s workshops:

Kill All Your Poodles.

A “Poodle” is some bit of wordcraft that you, their writer, are in love with; a sentence or metaphor that you wrote and think is precious. “Wow,” you say to yourself, “Nobody has ever written anything more beautiful in the English language than what I just wrote here!” You imagine winning a MacArthur  Award, and having the New York Times call your prose “luminous”.

And you protect that Poodle through many re-writes, you save it even when it no longer fits the style, tone, mood, or plot of your piece. You are so infatuated with your own cleverness that you will do anything — screw up your narrative, sacrifice your pacing, confuse your theme — to preserve your Poodle.

The truth is that any bit of writing that you think glows with your genius is probably showy, pretentious, easy, and/or cliche. At the very least, it is weak. I know because I’ve done it: there have been sentences — even sentence fragments — that I’ve written that I think are so splendid that I will waste days andweeks of re-writes to defend my Poodle’s right to life. And then I’ll finally, reluctantly, exhaustedly, wise up. I’ll kill my Poodle. And release my writing from the muzzle I’d put on it.

Well, it’s the same thing with art. And for the purpose of this blog, I’m calling “art” any bit of drawing and painting that one (me) does for public consumption. “Art” is a short-cut word: for the time being, let’s not make any value judgements about what is  and isn’t art, as much as I love getting in on those conversations…

Where was I? Oh, right: Poodles in the Art World.

decc 1

When I was writing my book (When Wanderers Cease to Roam) I came up with an idea for the December chapter that I had a lot of fun with. I spent weeks painting  Christmassy vignettes: candy canes, wrapping paper patterns, holly, cardinals in the snow, etc. And I assembled them into half a dozen collages — that’s two of them (above). I love painting peppermint candies. Try it: and there are at least 10 different ways to paint candy cane stripes and they ARE ALL FUN.

So there I had my December chapter, all gussied up with Seasonal Cheer. Yay!

But then I began to get a bad feeling. For all the other chapters for the other 11 months of the year in my book I had avoided, on purpose, any discussion (visual or textual) of holidays. I had decided that using holidays was a bit of a cheat: you can, as a writer or illustrator, let holidays do the “work” for you — that is, you can let their many ready-made associations (images and messages) fill up space for your reader so that you don’t have to come up with anything original.

For instance, I would have loved to have been able to use Valentine’s Day in February to fill a page or two of that chapter because February is suuuuuch a boring month. And March: jeeze. March is even worse. I wish I could have used some bunnies and colored eggs to brighten up that chapter.

But no. I wanted to write a book that was about a year in my life, a year that was all mine. ALL MINE. Not bought from the Five and Dime, not pre-packaged by Hallmark, not mandated by acts of Congress. So I delved into my true mind set for February (it’s the time of year when I make desperate travel plans) and March (Tea. I need a lot of Tea Times in March). Making my year (and by extention, my life) my own: that’s what my book is about.

So I began to get the sneaking suspicion that I would have to throw out all those Christmassy collages for the December chapter if I wanted to stay true to the book I set out to write.

Well, maybe if I make it less Christmassy I can get away with it,” I told myself, looking for a compromise. So I came up with this (below), my “Happy Winter Holidays” illustration, as if the whole concept of Winter Holidays was something I’d invented all on my own.

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You can see that I tried very hard not to kill this particular Poodle.

But yes, in the end, I did. I slaughtered that dog and faced all those blank pages and asked myself, “Yo Vivian, What is really up with you and December?”

What’s up:  I like the cold. I like Winter. I like the way my beloved Long Island Sound looks in the snow. I love the look of bare trees. I love the silence. I love the austerity and the honesty of the season. I adore coming inside to a hot cup fo tea after a walk in the freezing rain. I delight in the animal tracks I find when I think I’m the first being making my mark on fresh-fallen snow. I am entranced by snowflakes; it amazes me that there are so many different ways to paint a convincing one . I marvel at the color of shadows at this time of year. Etc.

Who needs Christmassy “filler” when you’ve got eyes and ears and a whole month of December days to celebrate?

Kill your Poodles, my friends. Kill your fussy, fancy, first-thought, fake Poodles, in thought, word, and deed.

P.S. I love poodles. They are smart, loyal, loving, and gorgeous. There is no finer dog than a Standard Poodle. Or any poodle — they are all marvelous dogs. I KNOW. But you all know what a metaphor is, right? And as metaphors go, “Poodle” is fun to say.

Thank you, everyone, for your wonderful notes — I’m still dizzy with excitement. And yes, I am practicing my acceptance speech for the  MacArthur Award.

5 comments to How NOT to be a Poodle

  • tippy

    You can write AND paint. One in a million can do that. ( in other words; not many).
    Superb on both points.

    Thanks for info on how to make our own writing better.

  • Whew! I thought you weren’t going to like the dog breed of poodles and they are my very favorite dogs! I do understand your idea of killing the poodle. When I know something isn’t working I try to sleep on it. It seems to work itself out while I’m not so busy trying to redeem it.

  • Susun

    When anything becomes too “precious”, it’s time to toss it out. Thanks for another inspiring read. And how do you get that wonderful color in your drawings, or is that prying into your magic?

  • Thanks for giving me an idea about a future post — I’ll show all the equipment I use to make ALL my illustrations; it’s the simplest stuff out there. No magic, excepting what my muse, Ron, gets me in the mood for.

  • Shelley

    A muse named Ron?! I’m intrigued now for sure. I’d love to know more about your illustrating equipment AND your muse!

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