"The Dancing Couple," 1663, by Jan Steen

“The Dancing Couple,” 1663, by Jan Steen

Right up my alley – writing and art, in the same place: A two and a half hour “salon” led by local playwright Mary Hall Surface in which we find a story in Jan Steen’s 1663 genre painting “The Dancing Couple.”

The group gathered last Saturday in gallery 46 of the National Gallery of Art here in DC. Once seated on folding stools in front of Steen’s painting, Mary Hall said that in “The Dancing Couple,” Steen has given us Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man”—with lots of descriptive detail—the building blocks of a complex, layered story.

Jan Steen painted everyday life in the bustling new country of the Netherlands (recently liberated from Spain). He was a tavern-owner and put himself in many of his paintings. He’s seen here at the far left, grinning broadly and chucking a lady-friend under the chin. A fun-loving guy, he was fortunate to live in a time and place that celebrated artists. Wealthy and middle-class merchants could buy paintings for about the same price as a solid piece of furniture, so many families owned as many as ten to fifteen canvasses. As after-dinner entertainment, a host would invite his guests to contemplate one of his paintings. In the same way, we were invited simply to look at this picture, at first not making judgments, or interpreting the action.

Gallery 46

Gallery 46

To get started, we wrote declarative sentences about a character in the painting and what he or she is doing: “A young man dances a jig,” and “Three men talk on the other side of the fence.” Next, we “mapped” the sounds, smells, tastes, and sensory feel of the various objects in the painting. We wrote “spilled flowers,” “wine barrel,” “tobacco,” and “ham.”

Next, we wondered out loud what might be going on. My favorite, “who misses their youth and who wishes they were older.”

So how would we start the story? I wrote:

Bella had been married to Willem only fifteen minutes, but she couldn’t take her eyes off her lover, Johan, the inn’s proprietor, nor could he keep his off of her.

Next, she asked us to write the central question of our story. I had several: Will Bella’s new husband figure out he’s not the father of her baby? Will Bella give up her lover? Can Bella find happiness with a man who wears a cap with a cock’s feather on it?

In Exercise One, we were to tell the story of the couple from the point of view of a character in the story. Sticking with Bella, I wrote:

Bella could feel the new life growing within her. The child hadn’t moved yet, but she guessed it soon would. The sounds of the party tormented her: the clattering silverware, mugs banging on the long table, her cousin’s spoiled daughter’s cries, the maddening fiddle scraping and the tootling flute. Soon she would be forced to dance with Willem as if she were the happy bride everyone thought her to be. Her hand grazed Willem’s fingers. His touch repulsed her. Good lord, his fly was open! How would she bear being married to this sweating oaf? Just as she was about to allow herself to be drawn into a hellish jig, Johan caught her eye and raised his goblet. No, she would not give him up, no matter what happened.

Mary Hall Surface leads the Salon

Mary Hall Surface leads the Salon

Okay, not exactly deathless prose. More purple than deathless.

Exercise Two: Dialogue, in which we were to choose one of the other couples in the painting and imagine what they’re talking about. We were to refer to the central couple during the dialogue while trying to make the characters’ voices distinctive from one another.

I chose “Johan,” the leering fellow with the glass goblet on the right side of the painting and the woman in green with her back to the audience. I named her Cornelia.

Cornelia: Keep your eyes to yourself, husband of mine.

Johan: I’ll watch what I like! She’s a lively wench with a pretty bosom, nothing more to me, my chicken.

Cornelia: Everyone can see what kind of girl she is. And everyone can see the state she’s in.

Johan: She’s a fun-loving girl, unlike you.

Cornelia: And how much fun have you had with her, might I ask?

Johan: Why don’t you have a glass of wine, loosen your corset, and have a dance with me?

Cornelia: Dancing is the devil’s pastime!

Mary Hall then asked us to imagine what happened next and to write it in an omniscient voice.

Bella yanked her hand away from Willem’s. She stamped her elegantly shod foot. “I will not live with this boor!” The music stopped. The crowd quieted. Willem continued dancing for a few more beats until he stopped at last, a puzzled expression on his face. Indeed, it could be said—and was being said by everyone at the tavern—that Willem was not the sharpest tack in the box.

Bella, with a long look at Johan, the tavern’s proprietor, burst into tears, and fled.

Beet red in the face, Bella’s father signaled the musicians to play again, shouting, “Just a girlish tantrum! Wedding night jitters! Everyone, eat and drink and enjoy this festive occasion!” As the musicians began to play, if with a degree less enthusiasm, he leaned down to hiss in his wife’s ear, “Go after her, for God’s sake. Talk some sense into her or she will be ruined!”

Something about this painting induces melodrama. Perhaps it’s the symbolism!

Exercise Three: Symbolism in Steen’s art.

Mary Hall dashed my hunch that this was a wedding celebration. Although the scholarship is mixed, it likely depicts a country fair, maybe an engagement. But I was vindicated in another way. All the symbols in the painting point to—you guessed it: sex. Broken eggshells, the spilled pail of cut flowers, hmmmm? Less obvious, the empty barrel smack in the middle of the action refers to a proverb in vogue at the time, “A full barrel does not resound.” Steen saw Bella and Willem as empty, foolish people. Above the older couple on the left hangs a cage holding two doves. Another popular saying of the day was, “Instead of freedom, safety.” I guess Bella wasn’t paying attention to that either. Spectroscopic examination of the painting revealed that Steen added a chicken in a basket perched the head of the fellow between our dancing couple. In case you weren’t aware, the Dutch word for chicken and the Dutch word for sex sound much the same.

Discussing character in a Picasso

Discussing character in a Picasso

With that, Mary Hall wrapped it up. All in all, it was a fun experience. I’d recommend the series to everyone, not just writers, when it resumes in the fall. Past salons have focused on setting by examining a Hudson River School landscape and on character in a Picasso. The sessions fill up quickly, so if you’re interested, check out www.nga.gov/writing salon.

Mary Hall Surface’s play about Alexander Calder, “A Perfect Balance,” will be performed on November 5 – 6, 2016 in the Calder room at the NGA. Not to be missed!
























typewriter11“… beginner’s mind is what we must come back to every time we sit down and write. There is no security, no assurance that because we wrote something good two months ago, we will do it again. Actually, every time we begin, we wonder how we ever did it before. Each time is a new journey with no maps.” — Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones.

I’m shifting gears for this post to participate in a blog tour called “My Writing Process,” at the invitation of blogger extraordinaire, Marci Rich. (#mywritingprocess) I first met Marci at the 2012 James River Writers’ Conference in Richmond, VA where she inspired me to launch my blog on art, dance, and design. Since then I’ve enjoyed her “Midlife Second Wife” blog – and so will you: http://www.themidlifesecondwife.com.

If Natalie Goldberg is right and there are no maps for this crazy process known as writing, there are at least some sign posts, rest stops, and cairns that other pilgrims have left along the way.

typewriter8The organizers of this tour have posed questions that participants are asked to answer:

What am I working on?

I’ve just finished an overhaul of my debut novel, Still Life with Aftershocks. The newest version starts a couple of years earlier than the preceding draft. Readers now meet my two protagonists when they are (relatively) happy and healthy and living their normal lives. The event that, early on, shatters their lives has not yet happened. I’m hoping that readers, having known these characters a bit longer, will sympathize with them more deeply. What has amazed me about this last draft is how the material I’ve been working on for many years feels fresh and new and exciting.

typewriter9How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Well, this is a tricky one, since I have no idea what genre I write. It would be easier to say that I write paranormal romance with dystopian overtones, but nope, not me. I suspect my work straddles the line between literary and commercial fiction. I enjoy writing stories in which things happen: people go to work, do the laundry, use the john, get in trouble, go to bed with the wrong people, truss a turkey. So I probably don’t fall into strictly literary territory. I like plot too much. But my true métier is the emotional landscape in which my characters operate, how they grow, change, persevere, survive, and triumph–or not. I’m fascinated by hidden motivations, secrets, obsessions, creative expression, and food.

typewriter6Why do I write what I do?

See above for part of the answer. What I write reflects where I want to dwell. Can love be found in this cynical world in which we are all in some way damaged goods? Can we break free of the past and chart a new course, a course that will allow us to find the meaning we seek in life? At the same time, I want to tease out the humor lurking in the darkest aspects of life’s travails.

How Does Your Writing Process Work?


First of all: I try to show up every day. Carolyn See, in her lovely and nurturing book, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers, recommends writing 1,000 words a day when you’re in the heat of a first draft, or for three hours a day if you’re revising. For the most part, this works for me. At times, I’ll get swept up and not be able to stop after three hours or 1,000 words, but this isn’t the norm. Usually I’ll just run out of gas and realize I need to stop.

Secondly, I try to read every day. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, you can learn a lot just by reading. At one point in my career, I had to stop writing because my time at my day job ballooned and sucked all the air out of my motivation to create. What saved me was that I didn’t stop reading and once I was writing again, I seemed to have gotten better at it. Stephen King writes in the morning and reads in the afternoon. Works for me.

typewriter5I am at heart a “pantser” when it comes to outlining, as in seat of the pants. Let it rip, throw off the shackles, go for it, and then see where you are with respect to plot. Having said that, for the next novel I’m going to spend more time up-front, crafting the story, learning its twists and turns, braiding together the plot lines, developing characters, before I put my eager little fingers on those keys. I think I’ll save myself a lot of grief and time. Hard to cut those babies when they’re alive and breathing on the page.

typwriter8In my experience, dialogue grows out of the characters’ interaction and the events they get caught up in, although for dialogue to sound natural, it has to be distilled from the way people really talk. Like, radically distilled.

When first conceiving a character, I create a “character chart” that outlines how the character looks, what he wears, what movies she loves, books he reads, and so on. This exercise can be very helpful in teasing out motive, and I return to the charts from time to time to make sure I stay true to their natures. At times I add to the chart as the character becomes more fully formed in my mind.

I like a traditional three-act structure. Within that structure, I tend to think in scenes, all moving the story forward, or falling to the knife. As the plot takes shape, scenes written on index cards or some other flexible medium, can be moved around at will. There are several apps out there, so I hear, that can help you do the same thing. Maybe others on the tour will have had experience with them.

typewriter4How do we decide what to write? “Write what you know,” has come under fire these days. There’s such a thing as being too close to your subject. Carolyn See says, “Don’t write what you know; write what you care about.” David L. Robbins, the author of many successful thrillers, says, “Write what you learn.” I don’t worry about “themes” as such, finding that if I set the action in motion themes appear and deepen as I plow through the revisions. With each one I find more ideas that infuse the story. I knew I was writing about thwarted love, abuse of power, coming of age, class struggle, but didn’t know I was writing about spiritual growth, redemption, or indomitable spirit. If you start out thinking you’re going to write about lofty themes such as those, I suspect you’ll seem preachy, or worse, boring.

Finally–I need to be a part of a community, to find inspiration, hone my craft, and escape now and then from my garret. I’m not an MFA person, and sometimes I wish I were, but there are untold workshops, conferences, writer’s groups, and on-line groups that offer rich experiences and convey profound knowledge. My favorites are The Writers’ Center in Bethesda, MD.http://www.writer.org/ and James River Writers, Richmond VA, http://www.jamesriverwriters.org/


Next up:

D. A. Spruzen, who grew up near London, U.K., earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte, and teaches writing in Northern Virginia. Her poetry collection Long in the Tooth was published by Finishing Line Press in July 2013 and her poems and short stories have appeared in many online and print publications. She is currently seeking representation for her novel The Blitz Business, set in WWII England.  The first two novels in her Flower Ladies Trilogy—Not One of Us and Lily Takes the Field—and Crossroads: Two Novellas are available on Amazon.com. Dorothy has also worked in the visual arts, hand-painting furniture and silk, as well as watercolor. www.daspruzen.com

Kris Spisak is a writer, editor, and founder of K. S. Writing, a company designed to bolster the literary community by connecting professional creative writers with businesses in need of their communication skills. When she’s not writing small business blogs or ecommerce copy, she is attempting to save the world one comma splice at a time on her Wednesday Writing Tips blog. Her first novel explores abortions, eugenics, and the life of a young women caught somewhere in between.

Linda Ensign writes fiction (mystery, fantasy, and science fiction) and poetry.  She reads voraciously but piles of textbooks and scholarly articles have sidelined the pile of fiction and non-fiction books waiting to be read as she whizzes towards her Masters degree.   She manages, and is a regular contributor to, the Mostly Mystery group blog where five mystery writers provide glimpses inside the mostly sane world of mystery writing.  Her official website isLindaEnsign.com. Linda was a techno-maven long before the word geek entered popular vocabulary, and now runs her own software development company,Yellow Hare Inc.