“I’m as tall as the sky!”
That’s what my three-year-old nephew told me while I was watching him over the holidays. And, for some reason, the phrase has really stuck with me ever since. I’ve even gone as far as starting to develop the bones of a short story just so I can use that line for some dialogue!
I don’t know why that line resonated with me so much. My nephew only said it because he’s going through his “I’m a big boy” phase. Still, I like the imagination behind it. He didn’t think he was as tall as a house or a tree or even a skyscraper (though, I doubt he knows what that even is). Nope, my nephew didn’t even bother with those piddly things – he went straight to his source of measurement, the sky.
In the art world, painters most commonly refer to the negative painting technique and the positive painting technique. Without going too far into an art lesson, negative painting is the area around an object and the positive painting is the actual object, itself. There are many great tutorials, I for one love Dina Wakley’s DVDs that explain this concept excellently using stencils, but here’s a good blog post about it, too.
What I’m getting at is that my nephew is still at that age where he can paint his words without even thinking about it. We’ve all heard the phrase, “out of the mouths of babes,” but never has it struck me so intimately as a storyteller. My nephew didn’t just see the positive painting of life but, in that moment, he was seeing the negative painting and he was able to relay all of that to me in one simple phrase.
It clearly got me to thinking – about everything. I spent an entire eight-hour car ride thinking about how I automatically paint the world around me using the positive technique like the majority of the population. Basically, I look at the obvious picture, like most people do. But, in one split second, my nephew taught me how to look at the world using the negative technique.
I know I’m probably babbling, especially to those of you who don’t know much about art. Trust me, I was in the same camp once. However, to those of you that do understand where I’m coming from, it’s a pretty awesome technique to apply not just to one’s art but also to your writing. For instance, how many times do writers immediately go into describing a person instead of describing the environment around them?
I remember a college professor once saying that writers needed to describe the main character relatively quickly once we start a story. Many students in my class were annoyed because, after returning their papers, the teacher complained that their descriptions were way too obvious – and they were. Why, you ask? Because they were using the positive technique instead of the negative one.
Using the positive technique, they described what the person looked like: eyes, hair, teeth, height, etc. So audiences received a basic human description. However, what my teacher wanted and, more importantly, what audiences secretly crave are the hidden details that hold so much more meaning. For example, the positive description would say: “He was tall compared to the others.” Whereas, the negative description would infer: “His shoulders were hunched over as he, once again, tried to blend in with the crowd.”
Basically the negative technique begs readers to figure out the obvious on their own by giving them enough details using the surrounding environment. Whereas, using the positive technique, most readers just see what you want them to see with no context that could further hint at a more elaborate past, inner feelings, or etc. In the first sentence, the guy is just taller than the others. In the second sentence, readers can also infer that he’s self conscious about his height. Most writers understand this to be the “show, don’t tell” rule that we’ve all grown to obsess over at some stage on our writing paths.
Regardless of what you choose to call it – it’s important. It’s the difference between being as tall as a tree or being as tall as the sky. My nephew didn’t want to be just tall – he wanted to be grand! And being as tall as the sky told me that in a way that him saying he wanted to be as high as a tree never would.
So maybe, for the first time in my life, I’m going to use a little negative thinking to get some positive results!