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Why you should write en plein air

July 31, 2010

Photo by Sukhjeet Batth

The concept is so simple and always makes for better writing.  I don’t know why it’s hardly ever mentioned as a technique.  Perhaps it’s obvious, but many writers don’t bother doing it.

What is writing en plein air?

‘En plein air’ is French for ‘in the open air’.  It was first applied to impressionist painters, who took their easels outside the studio so they could paint colours exactly as they saw them in changing light.  Applied to writing, the idea is to describe a scene while being in that scene, whether it’s outdoors or not.  If you’re writing about an altercation in a car park, write in the car park.  If you’re writing about a game of poker in a pub, write in the pub.  Sit in a church to write about a first communion.  Go to the beach to write about building sandcastles.

I’m not suggesting you write only en plein air.  Your scene in a dark alley will definitely need desk time.  And it doesn’t have to be your first writing place.  It was Roddy Doyle apparently, the great Irish Booker-prize winner, who said that if you want to write about India, you don’t have to go there.  Visit your local Indian restaurant and soak up the atmosphere instead.  Fair enough.  Certainly, don’t wait to go to India to start writing your novel set in Calcutta if an idea strikes, and don’t let a lack of access to the inside of a space ship stop you writing your space odyssey.  But, at some stage in the drafting, visit the place of action and infuse your writing with it while you’re there.  Or approximate the place.  Obviously, you have to approximate with historical writing.  Go to a museum and finger the clothes they wore in those times, then sit down right there on the floor beside the wax dummy and write.

So why bother with it?

Half an hour ago, I tried an experiment.  I wrote for ten minutes about the car park outside my house while sitting at my desk staring at my computer.  Then I went outside and sat on a wall in the car park and wrote about the same scene for another ten minutes.  The writing at the desk felt vague and difficult, and I quickly ran out of ideas.  I kept coming up with clichés.  The writing outside felt effortless, and I could have gone on for ages, as more and more images and ideas came to me.  This is always the difference.  Let’s see if it shows in the writing itself.

Here is the first car park piece, written at my desk:

The car park was a grey city box, a void junked up with commuters’ baggage, wheels and steel, rubber and rust.  And litter.  McDonalds’ wrappers, butts, used tissues and other unsavouries braced against the edges of the space, my garden mostly.  An office worker in smart heels marched to her hatchback, murmuring into her phone as her eyes slid over me and away.  I was a queer old figment of the past, standing in my garden in my walking shoes, a speck of pre-modernity that would soon be blown away in a blast of exhaust fumes.

Here’s the second, written in the car park itself:

A block is hollowed out of a square of buildings.  Blockish it is – the bricks, the marked-out parking spaces, the windscreens, the closed slats in the Venetian blinds of an office.  They were trying to keep the sun off computer screens or perhaps just hate the view.  There’s brightness in the darkening afternoon; the yellow of exiting headlights and red.  Three red cars.  Different makes – a sports car, a tiny two-door, a P-plater’s bomb – but the same red, as if there’s a rule about it.  Graffiti on a wall says, ‘Find me!  Find me!  Find me! Find me!’  In front of the wall, a man grimaces as he takes two quick last draws on his cigarette.  He flicks the butt under his wheels then reaches for his driver’s door, already hassled by peak hour.  Overhead, the chugging of a news helicopter crew escaping the traffic.

So, with this example in mind, what are the benefits of writing en plein air?

1.       Specific images rather than clichés

McDonalds wrappers, used tissues – they make it feel like a typical rather than an actual car park.  On the other hand, there really are closed Venetian blinds in the windows of the office block looking onto my car park.  Think about the difference between a news reader relating a war story and a report from an ‘on the spot’ journalist.  Behind the news reader are shots of burnt-out buildings and kids throwing petrol bombs.  The ‘on the spot’ report shows you the same scenes, but when you also notice that the man being interviewed has dyed blonde hair and a nervous hyena laugh, you’re there.  It feels authentic.  Which leads me to my next point…

2. The incidental image

Arnold Zable (Australian writer and great writing teacher – read about him here) talks about the importance of finding the incidental image, that one detail that makes a description memorable.  To illustrate it, he uses an example from The Faber Book of Reportage of a 19th Century account of the Irish potato famine.  The image that nailed the report was not of distended stomachs or crying babies but of green mouths.  People’s mouths were green because they were eating grass.  The unusual and shocking image is the horror of the famine – and it would never have occurred to someone who wasn’t there to witness it.

In my own example, the graffiti on the wall saying, ‘Find me!’ over and over is, I suppose, the incidental image that lifts the piece.  At my desk, I didn’t think of graffiti at all.  (Not on the same level as green mouths, I know, but I did only have ten minutes!)

3.         Using all the senses

In making it up, we tend to rely on sight, but when we’re in the scene we can access all the senses, which gives us scope for a richer picture.  When I was in the car park, I heard an engine in the sky, looked up and saw the helicopter.  As my ten minutes ended, I was starting to notice other sounds, smells, the gathering cold – and these would have given me heaps more material if I’d stayed out longer.  Which brings me to…

4.         Getting ideas easily

Things happen when you’re there.  You don’t just have to make them up.  At my desk, I was struggling after ten minutes to get anything more out of the description.  My grumpy gardener character was bored and boring.  In the car park, however, a small child climbed out of the otherwise empty sports car, which I thought was odd.  The helicopter was circling us, for some reason.  And just who was it that wrote that graffiti?  The car park was buzzing with stories!

5.         Richer language

Specific description is always richer than clichés.  I saw the man throw his butt under the wheels of his car.  If I’d merely imagined it, I would have written that he threw the butt ‘in the gutter’, which is more of a cliché and just not as good.  And I quite like ‘blockish’ and ‘a P-plater’s bomb’ from the en plein air piece.  Nothing like that occurred to me in ten minutes describing the car park at my desk.

Take your notebook wherever you go!

Writers are always told to keep their notebooks handy in order to jot down anything interesting that happens.  Ever notice how that’s almost never?  The next time you’re in the podiatrist’s waiting room, don’t just sit there bored, hoping in vain for something exciting to occur so you can whip out your notebook.  Whip it out anyway and write a detailed description of the scene, right down to the long fingernail on the receptionist’s right pinky, which shows she’s a guitarist, and the smell of vinegar pervading the room.  Before you know it, you’ll have ten stories in your lap, and just the realism you need to bring them alive.

Photo by sukhjeet

5 Comments leave one →
  1. David Spitzkowsky permalink
    October 2, 2010 9:11 pm

    Fran I laughed hard at ‘Ever notice how that’s almost never?’
    That about sums up the vagaries of waiting for a story, looking for a plot or ‘struggling with writers block’ (yech) compared to, well, doing some writing. Thanks, I’ll do some now…

    • October 3, 2010 7:38 am

      Hi David, I’m glad you were inspired! I look forward to reading some plein air pieces from your trip.


  2. April 22, 2011 9:43 pm

    Hi, I recently wrote a blog post “Writing ‘en plein air'”. I decided to find it through Google and found your site and your post on the same subject. Different points of view on the subject, but related. I learned more about it through your blog.


  1. Instant creativity – an example of writing en plein air « Staying on Story

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