Writing Through the Lens of an Artist

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

You learn quickly as a published author that each of us reads with a very personal lens—what is engaging and fluid prose for one reader might be boring and stilted for another—never mind the myriad of themes, tropes, characters and plots that fill all the many stories we have. As individuals, we are likely to react differently to the same story. Why wouldn’t we? We read with our personal histories and filters.

One of the most interesting pieces of advice that I have heard for writers is: Write the story that only you can tell. I agree with this. Although I think the majority of stories indeed have already been told, what a writer brings to the table is storytelling through their own voice, experiences and lens. This is unique and is what makes a familiar story fresh time and again.

I’ve been a student of Chinese brush painting for nearly two decades. I can hardly believe it myself as I write this, but it is an interest that has brought me much joy through the years and also changed the way I viewed the world. As a beginning brush artist, you learn by copying, whether from famous artists or guide books. In a class of a dozen brush painting students all painting plum blossoms using the same example, there will be twelve very different paintings at the end of the evening, because every artist will develop their own style just as every writer will develop their own (that elusive thing called) “voice.” This is what makes us stand apart as creators.

When I wrote my debut Silver Phoenix, it seemed natural for me to make my heroine Ai Ling a student of brush painting as well. Silver Phoenix was the first novel I had ever written, and what easier way than to have your heroine view the world in similar fashion as you would?

That night she dreamed of wandering alone in the bamboo forest. But instead of a lush green, the bamboo was ink black with leaves in gradations of gray, like a painting by the old masters.

“Bamboo” by Cindy Pon

But in my Serpentine duology, my heroine was an uneducated handmaid, unlike Ai Ling who was a treasured daughter of a scholar. Still, my world of Xia is filled with flora and scenery reminiscent of traditional Chinese paintings. From Sacrifice, the second book in the Serpentine duology:

Daybreak unfurled across the gray horizon, tendrils of light illuminating magnificent jade peaks, their sloping and jagged points dissolving into mist. Skybright had seen these famous Xia mountains painted by artists on vertical scrolls—the masterpieces hung in the main hall of the Yuan manor. She remembered being mesmerized by the paintings in ink, touched with the subtlest hints of stone green or accents of red.

“Blue Mountains” by Cindy Pon

When it came to my fantasy writing, the connections between the classical settings of a Chinese-inspired kingdom abundant in the popular subjects (bamboo and landscape) that have been painted for many dynasties were obvious. But how would it translate in my first non-fantasy novel WANT, a near-future thriller set in a pollution choked Taipei?

Because the history of Chinese brush painting is tied closely with the scholarly class—those who were educated and privileged—it wasn’t a leap to have my WANT heroine Daiyu, the daughter of the richest man in Taiwan, study the art:

The card inside featured a traditional Chinese brush painting, a single pine tree perched on a rocky ledge, its needles laden with snow…. Turning the card over, it simply noted the title of the painting in the front as “Wintery Solace” by Jin Daiyu.

“Pine” by Cindy Pon

But what of my hero Jason Zhou? Orphaned at thirteen and living on his own—a junior high school dropout? He had little time for art when he was merely trying to survive on the streets on his own. And yet my eye, my way of seeing the world—the colors and beauty in nature—still made their way into the text, even from his perspective:

It was the tattoo I had gotten in memory of my mom—a single calla lily—on the left side of my chest, above my heart. It had been her favorite flower. She’d take me to the calla lily festival every spring on Yangmingshan, to admire the sea of white flowers surrounded by dark green leaves.

“Lily” by Cindy Pon (Author’s note: Not a calla lily)

I am an intuitive writer, and although I knew everything I had said in the first few paragraphs of this post—that what makes us unique as both readers and writers is our individual perspectives on the world—it was definitely enlightening to go through my novels and find specific moments in text where I was writing from an artist’s lens. But then, writing is a form of art as well, and all our interests and loves are intersectional, just as our identities can be.

Cindy Pon is the author of Silver Phoenix, which was named one of the Top Ten Fantasy and Science Fiction Books for Youth by the American Library Association’s Booklist and one of 2009’s Best Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror choices by VOYA. Serpentine, the first title in another Chinese-inspired fantasy duology, is a Junior Library Guild Selection and received starred reviews from School Library Journal and VOYA. She is the cofounder of Diversity in YA with Malinda Lo and on the advisory board of We Need Diverse Books. Cindy is also a Chinese brush painting student of over a decade. Learn more about her books and art at her website.

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