Thursday, 21 June 2012

Give Your Drab Scene The Norman Rockwell Treatment

When I was a little girl, my family and I would spend every Easter holiday on Prince Edward Island at my Grandmother's little bungalow on Willow Avenue.

Aside from the marshmallow-coconut squares and Froot Loops she'd have waiting for me, she also gave me all the pennies she'd collected since I'd last seen her—these were quickly spent at the candy store, one block up, past the blue house with the barking dog.

However, my fondest memories of those visits were looking through her collection of coffee table books. In particular she had a phone book thick edition of Norman Rockwell prints.

I spent hours sitting crossed legged on her living room floor, with that massive book open on my lap. I studied each image, amazed at the detail and sometimes suspiciously wondered if it was really a photograph instead.

Marriage License
photo credit,
But it wasn't only the technique I admired, it was the character in each picture that was so charming; the bride standing up on tip toe to sign the bridal registry, or the plastic flowers in the old woman's hat, intent on saying grace in a smokey and crowded diner.
Saying Grace
photo credit,

These touches of personality hinted at something more, something bigger...something alive. To me, each picture was a snap shot of someones life, and I had the feeling the story kept going, long after I closed the cover.

Sadly, Granny passed away many years ago, but I still have that book, and when I flip through it's pages these days, I look at it with my writer's eye.

Normal Rockwell once said that if he hadn't become a painter he would have liked to have been a movie director. This makes perfect sense because after all, movie directors tell us a story.

Happy Birthday, Miss Jones
photo credit,
Steven Spielberg, who is no stranger to story telling, has this picture in his hallway.

He says out of all the art work in his home, Happy Birthday, Miss Jones, causes most people to pause for a few minutes.

What do you notice first?

The teacher? The girl with the pretty yellow bow? The boy with the eraser on his head?

Look at the expression on Miss Jones' face, she seems genuinely warmed by the surprise. The teacher is neither young or pretty and my writer's mind wonders if this is the only birthday greeting she'll receive.

Perhaps later, after a supper of toast and tea in her little apartment, she'll blow out one candle on a cupcake she bought herself. What would her wish be? Or maybe this is her happy ending—the unruly class that she struggled with all year, finally show some gratitude. 

And what about the little girl with the big expensive looking bow in her hair? Was it her idea to surprise Miss Jones, or was she the one to step on the piece of chalk, crushing it into the floor?

I'm guessing the boy sitting up straight and tall with the eraser on his head, is the one who impishly wrote the curly 'y' making her last name spell 'Jonesy'.

I wonder whose story this is and if it's the beginning, the middle, or the end.

It's the small details that bring this scene to life. There are so many possible stories taking place in this one picture, it's simply brilliant.

I try to remember Norman Rockwell when I'm writing. I step back and look at the big picture (pardon the pun) and try to imagine the little elements of personality I can add to help make the scene come alive.

photo credit,
Let's play a game. Consider this piece entitled, The Homecoming.

Who do you focus on? What catches your attention? Whose story do you want to know?

Break this scene down into one sentence and leave it in my comment section. It's amazing how many different ways writers can look at the same thing.

And since no one ever wants to be first up to the buffet, I'll dive in and get the party started.

She leaned against the wall, feeling the heat of the bricks through her thin dress, please let him think I'm still pretty, she wished.


Kimberlee Turley said...

On the birthday greeting painting--I think I remember reading in my art composition class that the eye will first be drawn to words/letters before any thing else.

As for the Homecoming picture. The brightest colors are the mom's white apron and the clothes on the line. These frame around the returning soldier and naturally force your eye to him. Then, the clothesline and the line beneath in the dirt surrounding the soldier create a wedge shape that ultimately bring the center of focus of the whole image to the girl pressed against the bricks.

I like how it's all subtle, but clearly intentional.

BR Myers said...

Holy Hannah! You smart lady. You'd be fun to tour the book store, critiquing covers. Interesting about the eye being drawn to words/letters first.

Kathryn Rose said...

I totally had a different take on the last photo! I imagined this (and included PROPER spelling ;) ):

Before she could register that her boy was home from what she'd thought would be his certain death, ecstasy burst inside of her and her arms flung open to embrace him. Damn what the neighbours might think--her boy was HOME.

BR Myers said...

...and her arms flung open to embrace him.

Love it, Kathryn!

LisaAnn said...

This is a wonderful post, Bethany; I will never look at Rockwell the same!

I'm with Kathryn that I was more drawn to the mom and son than I was the girl. I didn't even notice her at first, actually--although I'm sure I would have if the photo were bigger.

My take was that there's so much joy in the picture, despite so much poverty. I was hoping the son wasn't standing there thinking, "This place is a lot shittier than I remember." That would have totally broken his mother's heart.

BR Myers said...

You're hilarious. I just spit out my coffee laughing at what the son is thinking.

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