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Instant creativity – an example of writing en plein air

February 11, 2011

Need a shot of originality? All ideas gone bye-bye? Your words as dull and lifeless as unwashed hair? Nothing but clichés (like ‘dull and lifeless as unwashed hair’) across your page? Worse still, no words to sully the page at all? Grab a notebook and pen, go outside, and write what you see. In my post Why you should write en plein air, I explained this simple and incredibly effective technique. But you need more evidence that it works, yes?

So here’s an example from my friend and fellow-scribe, David Spitzkowsky. He’s just sent me this piece of writing en plein air, and I have to share it because it’s wonderful. On his recent overseas trip, in his hotel one day with a few minutes to spare, he took up his pen and… well, I’ll let his words speak for themselves.


Inside the dome of St Isaacs Cathedral

I move back down into the hotel lobby. Wine, and blue cheese in delicate pastry and outside, always, looming, the Cathedral. Consecrated to the Byzantine Saint. Half a million built it. An unknown architect came to this town and made a life. Defying all the building standards of the time he raised the arches first: marble towering up on pulleys and the strength of more than two dozen men. Baltic men. The men of St. Petersburg.

Outside, the Cathedral looms. It becomes a Museum of Atheism; they hang Foucault’s Pendulum from the ceiling, from the dome of God. They completely fuck it up.

During the siege, the staff of the Hermitage are busy. They catalogue everything; they put it in crates and somehow get it to the Urals. Professors and groundsmen, they gather and toil in the snow. Bombs are falling. Some items cannot be moved: they bury them in sand in the basements. The windows, all thousands of glass, shatter and rain down into the freezing spaces. People shelter in the basements with the buried treasures. Starving.

Just months after the war ends, after the fighting ends and all the rest begins, they start to rebuild. During the siege, artists have sketched the shattering panes and the crumbling walls. For afterwards.

For this moment. A German boy is outside the city of Stalingrad. He is frostbitten and betrayed. His lips would bleed but they don’t. Later, a Russian boy will put a trembling pistol to the German boy’s head while he mumbles ‘Bitte…bitte…’ His mother will sit in a shell of a city. She, too, is starving. No-one will have any idea what it means. None of them will have a single shard of sense to grasp in their bony fingers. ‘Bitte…Bitte…’ he will say, a pure white piece of ice pushed up by history. Then there will be a ruby hole in his head: perfect in its simplicity.

There are pieces of glass in the Cathedral, glimmering above with gold within. Mosaics of breathless beauty: the Eden, the Epiphany, the Saints and there is our Christ Child golden bathed in light and Blessed his mother. Our saviours all. There: the Resurrection, looming above the Sanctuary with its golden doors and secrets and priests, the Resurrection all the Righteous to his right: white and faces uplifted. And there, to his left: the fallen. Muscular and writhing and falling into the Abyss.

Tell us a story. Show us the relic on a special day.

From the top of the Colonnade we see all of Saint Petersburg. Glittering, endless along the River Neva that thickens and crumples and pushes its ice upwards to their God. We climb the steps and see their City. And we wonder. Here, this is a city. The palaces and the houses of aristocrats, and their minders all, the vision rising all around in a gloaming sky in an early winter while someone shovels snow and scrapes the ice off the ledges on high, it falls down beautiful into the dirty sludge on the street below.

During the siege, as soon as the Germans are coming, as soon as the dreadful truth hits the city: all the staff of the Hermitage are summoned. Mostly, they come: all of the possibilities from gardeners to Chief. They begin to number and name, they begin to sort and crate, they will protect the treasures of the Tsars. And the windows shatter and the walls are smashed: trembling in the basements with treasures afar and their children thinning.

We think we know the price of art…

I once was cold: crying on a ski slope in New South Wales, with warm mittens and warm mother and warm dinner at a lodge. Better I would hide my face in shame. Birth: luck and chance. History and opportunity. Chance and luck. Bushfire and snowstorms. Bombs and blue cheese.

Outside, still, the Cathedral. Business deals and high finance, ballet visitors and bowls of olives. All the finery, all the furs. And all the jewels and gemstones, all the suffering history of the City of bridges. City of the Tsars. City of my icy face and wide eyed wonder, city of the Revolution.

They take the family, and across the grand nation they travel in a train car, adrift. Everyone hates them. Later, they are taken out into the snow in Siberia – blue glowing wondrous water from heaven – and they are shot in the head. Perfect in its simplicity.

Foucault’s Pendulum: swinging, swinging.

Dead children in the snow.

By David Spitzkowsky

Bombs and blue cheese

I love details like ‘bombs and blue cheese’ and the ‘muscular and writhing’ fallen.  These images occur to a writer who is there, whether they are overseas or in their own street, at a cathedral or a cafe.  The drama of the German boy mumbling; ‘Bitte… bitte’ with the Russian pistol trembling at his head is also the germ of a story, and there are others.  All within a few 100 words written in a few minutes.  If you want to see how notes like these get turned into a beautiful story, check out the latest edition, Issue 8, of Page Seventeen, a literary anthology that supports new great writers.  It includes one of David’s stories.

But is the vision true?

Here are some further comments from him about doing the en plein air exercise:  ‘I can’t seem to keep myself out of it, and then there’s the near impossibility of not ending up ‘back there’ or ‘up ahead’ or sideways or wherever it is when it’s not en plein air. And I’m wondering about those impressionist painters too: we can never be sure they weren’t actually standing in one garden and painting quite a different one altogether.’

Exactly, and my response is that what we see is always filtered through our mind – our imagination, our world view, our experience.  The vision is never pure, always interpreted.   (See Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason!)  But that’s not a problem.  Giving our senses new stuff to feast on simply broadens the mind, and that in turn broadens the ideas and the images and the language we draw on to write stories.  Sometimes it even comes up with that most ideal expression for a writer – the description that makes a reader say, ‘I feel like I’m there.’

Photo: JimG


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