One of my favorite paintings is Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window by the 18th century Dutchman Johannes Vermeer. When I was fourteen years old, my mother enrolled me in an after-school art class where we were each assigned a painting to recreate. It was love at first sight: the girl in the painting seemed to reflect a familiar form of solitude, and there was something mysterious in her lowered lids, her misty reflection in the window pane.
Being fourteen, I was not only full of wonder but also foolish faith that I could recreate the same exact mystery, or close to it, on my own blank canvas.
I did everything right. In pencil I drew a grid and outlined where each item in the painting should go. I ruler-lined the window, made sure proportions were correct. So it was baffling to me how I could have failed so utterly, in the end, when I placed my painting against Vermeer’s.
I realized then I was no Vermeer-in-training. Mostly I blamed my limited talents; partly I blamed the oil paints. I preferred drawing with pencil, or maybe a hard, thin charcoal. I had done some good things with scratchboard, using an Exacto knife to etch fine white lines onto paper coated in India ink. My whiteknuckled grip on the knife kept it from making mistakes.
Looking back, I think my success in scratchboard was due to the fact that I was, and sometimes am, a creative control freak. I hated paints for their runny waywardness, the shades and tints you couldn’t predict. I was a chronic planner, whether recreating Vermeer or writing a story.
Somewhere along the way, I gave up painting and focused on fiction. At Harvard, I took as many writing workshops as I could, glutting myself on constructive criticism. (I couldn’t get enough of it!) And just like with Vermeer, I tried copying as many different writers as I could, from Salman Rushdie to William Faulkner to Bharati Mukherjee. I remember discussing with my professor one story in particular—a tightly plotted mystery with a twist ending—which went over well with my classmates. But my professor gave me the sort of advice that, upon closer inspection, can extend across all aspects of life:
She could see the effort I had put into designing the plot, dropping hints and red herrings. She could see a steely control in the writing, and my role in it as the grand and all-knowing architect. When I look back at my writing notebook from that time, I see five-point plans for short stories whose plot points I detailed before ever setting down a line. Nothing wrong with that, my professor said. But try another way. Try letting the story discover itself.
There are loads of writers—myself included, at times—who rely on outlining their essays or novels, to beautiful effect. For me, as I set out to write short stories, it was a way of avoiding the possibility of mistake or failure. Thinking back on this, I’m reminded of what the critic Joan Acocella called “a moment of courage:”
[Young writers] imitate their elders, and not admiringly, but grudgingly, in the spirit of “I can do it, too.” In fact, they can’t do it, because they don’t really believe in it, but neither can they do what they’re meant to do, because the moment of courage has not yet come.
I bore no grudges, but that can-do-too spirit is familiar enough.
I’d like to say that piece of advice instantly changed my work but it took years and pages for me to begin to understand and apply it, to write toward whatever excited or scared me, even if it strayed from the original plan, to take risks even if they would result in a dozen pages I’d eventually have to throw out, even if it meant the story might collapse like a bad souffle. Spontaneity can only serve the artist, even when the art itself fails. Children come equipped with that knowledge. They color elaborate landscapes of house and tree and family. Spaghetti stain in the corner? No problem. Spaghetti stain becomes the sun.
Vermeer knew this, when he painted Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. X-rays taken of the painting revealed a putto painted in the top right corner, which he later covered in the olive green drapes you see now. What is a putto, you ask? What exactly did the great Dutch master insert into his masterpiece?
Art scholars have suggested that the Cupid was meant to hint at the amorous contents of the letter. It probably seemed a good idea at the time, an obvious answer to the painting’s central mystery. To me, there’s something rather whimsical and wonderful about the hiding putto, a nod to the risks that every artist should take, even if a drape has to be drawn across the results.