Tuesday, August 2, 2016


guest post by Mary P. Donahue

Lynn chimes in first:

You meet the nicest people...

One of my favorite things about the writing life is the people I meet along the way. I met Mary in June at the Storycatcher Summer Writing Workshop and Festival at Fort Robinson and Chadron, Nebraska. I heard excerpts from Mary's captivating memoir-in-progress and had the opportunity to take a peek at images of her artwork (on her laptop). 

As I have always been intrigued by the intersection of different creative forms, I asked Mary to muse about how her art informs her writing and vice versa. What follows is the result, and I think, like me, you'll find it enlightening. 

“Nebraska Pine Ridges Series: Near Mile Marker 68 on Highway 20” 
by Mary P. Donahue (detail),
oil on canvas, 12” x 36”, 2016
Write what you see...

“Draw what you see. Not what you know.” This is what I say to beginning art students when we are drawing or painting from life. I am a visual artist, designer, and college art professor by education and career but I have often found myself writing as well. In writing, one hears what might be considered the opposite advice—“Write what you know.” When I posed this quandary to Dr. Kathy Bahr, a writing partner and retired English professor, she immediately saw these statements as similar. However, she found the word “know” to be restrictive because one could still write authentically about situations they did not experience firsthand. My eyebrows furrowed. I am going to have to figure this out.

Bret Anthony Johnston, in his essay, “Don’t Write What You Know,” (though he does not heed his own title advice and goes on to give examples of writers writing what they know) mentions the possibility of this cliché originating with Hemingway and becoming altered in the repeated telling. What he did find Hemingway said was, “From all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive.”

“Spirit Tree II: Fort Robinson, Nebraska,”
by Mary P. Donahue,
oil on canvas, 25” x 31”
The reason we tell beginning art students to draw what they see is so they leave behind the assumptions they have about their visual world. Forget that tree is a tree, I tell them. Or they will draw what they think and assume is a tree—a vertical trunk with a round bunch of green on top. They take a few looks at the tree and then stop looking. What they end up with is not visually accurate and, most likely, and maybe more importantly, not that interesting to look at because it is not emotionally authentic. Because they have not taken the time to observe a real tree. To look closely. To understand it. To be curious. To wonder about it. To use their senses to experience it. And more than just their eyes. 

This experience of the sensual becomes even more crucial now when so many have their nose buried in a digital device.

What kind of tree? What shape are the leaves? How do the branches divide? This is important and complex stuff. The irony is that those details actually open up new explorations and questions. The goal is for the artist to express their response to what they are looking at. By choice and focus, those details lead to the creative response—the essence of what the artist is trying to say. Some of us spend a lifetime understanding just what it is we are trying to say.

It is the same in writing. The details tell us everything and it is up to the writer to choose which details are important to include, which details propel the story, flesh out the essence, and paint the image. You must know what you are writing about in an intimate way so that those details and feelings can be expressed with authenticity.

All children start out drawing. Why is it that so many of us stop drawing? One unfortunate thing about “growing up” is that we think, in order for a drawing or painting to be good, that it must capture what we are looking at in complete realistic detail. Impossible. This was a recent discussion that I had with my former high school art teacher, Dr. Clar Baldus, who is now a clinical associate professor of art education and art education area coordinator at the University of Iowa as well as a visual artist. She offered this: “When children first start drawing, they draw what they know (based on visual memory) as they construct their own knowledge to make sense of their world. As development continues, they move toward trying to draw what they see (which is when many stop drawing because their skills can't keep up with what they are trying to draw—realistically) and they impose this standard of needing something to look "right" to be "good." We try to remove some of the bias in the rendering and achieve accuracy when we practice "seeing" through direct observation (And shut off our visual memory and the verbal processing of our brain that wants to label everything)."

“Spirit Tree III: Fort Robinson, Nebraska,”
by Mary P. Donahue,
oil on canvas, 27” x 39”
So by getting students to look at the angle of the branches, that the spaces between leaves and branches have distinct shapes (negative space), this curve relative to that curve, the proportion of the trunk to the other branches, the color and value of the ground compared to the sky or the tree, the placement in space of objects on their paper or canvas, we get them to think in the more abstract terms of the formal elements of art: line, shape/mass, color, value, form, size/proportion. To get them to intuit these things, to understand what they are seeing in visual language. This is the practice of skills before one can give shape to the intangible things of the heart.

And so the artist, as Clar says, can shut off the verbal processing which allows those intangible things of the heart to be said through the expression of their line, the play of shapes, the feel of color.

 “Dakota Landscape: Tree and Rock,”
by Mary P. Donahue,
oil on canvas, 22”x 30”
It is the same in writing. As I relearned in a recent writing workshop with writer Kim Barnes and poet Robert Wrigley, honing the skills of syntax, rhythm, the sound of words, diction, imagery, and managing the choices of scene, setting, character, action, and dialogue are important in the craft of writing. With any discipline, one needs to develop the skills that ultimately enable us to express more completely the truths, the creative thinking—things that we know or feel but have not given form to, be it in art, writing, or scientific ideas. It is these intangible things of the heart that allow our human endeavors to transcend time and place and these lonely, separate vessels we call bodies. In Kim Barnes’ discussion of vertical versus horizontal movement in narrative, she sums up the role of all art in this way: “To EXIST is to abide by linear laws; to LIVE is to exist inside the spatial (the why of the story) and story must bring these two experiences together in a horizontal/vertical way.”

Robert Wrigley related frustration when asked by someone unfamiliar with poetry, “What are your poems about?” Life. Death. Everything.

What moves me to create a painting or write a story is something I experienced. Moments that made me feel. The reaching ache of a snag’s branches or the blue shadows cast in winter. Writing about when you take your aging mother for a drive on an open road surrounded by blue sky and pillowed clouds and sunshine and it feels like you are taking her to heaven.

In the book, Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People, authors Robert and Michéle Root-Bernstein examine how creative thinkers in a wide variety of fields from the arts to science move from imagination to realization. Their examination of writers, artists, scientists, and other creatives yield interesting similarities:

“The artist is not a man who describes but a man who FEELS,” wrote the poet e.e. cummings.

Georgia O’Keeffe wrote, “I long ago came to the conclusion that even if I could put down accurately the thing I saw and enjoyed, it would not give the observer the kind of feeling it gave me. I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at—not copy it.” 

Gary Snyder talks about reliving the whole experience… "re-experiencing, recall, visualization, revisualization. I’ll live through the whole thing again and try to see it more clearly.” 

Robert Frost called his poetry a process of “carrying out some intention more felt than thought…I’ve often been quoted: ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.’” 

Robert and Michéle Root-Bernstein sum this up by saying, "Once the poet or writer has relived inspiring or troubling images and feelings, the problem is the same one shared by scientists and artists: how to translate these internal feelings into an external language other people can experience."
Yes, the problem we all share. How do we connect to others from these mortally separate containers? How do we reconcile the things we know and the things we don’t know?

“Spirit Tree IV: Fort Robinson, Nebraska,”
by Mary P. Donahue,
pastel on paper, 19” x 25”
As Clar concluded in our discussion, “I believe skillfulness or talent in art (and writing) is the ability in drawing or writing to switch between knowing and seeing—using it to one's advantage to get meaning across. Much like a metaphor, it is the essence that is the meaning and beauty, not the description of the words or accuracy of the lines.”

This is when we progress to drawing and painting what we know…to be true. And writing what we see…inside the truth of our own emotions. This is when a tree becomes more than roots, branches, and leaves.

Mary P. Donahue is a professor of art at Chadron State College in Chadron, Nebraska. Originally from northeast Iowa, she has spent most of the last 30 years living near the western border of Wyoming or living near the eastern border of Wyoming. In between, she has put in many Wyoming miles, hiking, backpacking, and driving. 


Johnston, Bret Anthony. “Don’t Write What You Know.The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group, Fiction 2011  Web. 8 July 2016.

Baldus, Clara M. “Re: Research.” Message to Mary Donahue. 24 June 2016. E-mail.

Root-Bernstein, Robert and Michéle. pg. 8, Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999. Print.


  1. Oh! Wow!! Another home run, Lynn, at least for me. Professor Donahue has said so well, what I seem to struggle with. I remember taking my one and only painting class and struggling with highlights on logs on a cabin in Gatlinburg, TN. Nothing seemed to work until the instructor, a good friend, told me to really look at a highlight. He asked what color is it and I said brown, because the logs were brown. He asked if it wasn't really white, and then I began to see.

    It is the same with my poetry. A word comes easily to the page but doesn't feel right because it is brown, not white as I actually feel it. I still struggle in my writing with really seeing rather than just looking. Reading this blog made me realize that a poem I thought I had finished yesterday needs work.

    Thanks for another great blog. And thanks to professor Donahue for helping me see and know better as my friend did 45 years ago. Now to find Sparks of Genius.

  2. I love the cross-pollination between art and writing. So many creative endeavors have a connection if we look for it. Thank you for your words.

  3. Love the paintings!

  4. Thank you Art, Susan, and Kathy for the kind words. Yes, Susan...maybe it is like crocheting and writing as you wrote about.
    And Art, thank you for making the great connection between poetry and words and colors. That made me think of choosing words and poetry in a new way! Sparks of Genius is an excellent book. I had the pleasure of meeting the authors through Clar whom I mention in this post. Fascinating folks. Your guest blog from 2014 on writing and healing is so true. I am working on that myself. You understand reliving and writing what you see and, more importantly, feel. Even when it is difficult. Thank you.

    1. I am so glad that my guest blog has been useful to you, Mary. I'm sure that you have felt the same release of emotion or the ability to better deal with an emotion though your painting and writing. I have Sparks of Genius coming from Amazon.


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