When I was young, I distinctly remember my mother telling me that “simple is beautiful”. Her words resonated because I was old enough to recognize the conviction with which she shared her wisdom and because she is an artist who works with engravings, a meticulous undertaking of detail and precision.
(An example of such work is pictured above, but I do not have a picture of my mother’s work, yet.)
She engraves away the blank parts of the canvas, so to speak, erasing everything that is not a part of her vision, and letting rise to the surface all the nuances that collectively capture something beautiful.
My favorite work of hers is a collaboration of family photographs that she unified in a print: me as a seven year-old boy flexing my muscles and my father, his brother and their mother laughing together. That moment didn’t happen. By the time I was seven, both my uncle and grandmother had passed away.
But like story-telling, the importance is not with technical accuracy. My mother portrayed something true to life. She captured my father perfectly. He has a mischievous kind of laugh loosely covered by his hand, with smiling eyes. She captured something about his character in that print: his joy.
This is was vision can do.
I believe what she accomplished with her work is the strength of fiction in telling a story. There are few movies with the capacity to maintain a simple theme, and The Shawshank Redemption has the simplest of all. With just one word you can tell anyone what the story is about, if they haven’t seen it already. And yet people still talk around the subtext, 19 years after the movie was released in theaters.
Where so many movies have failed is in their vision. They have failed where The Shawshank Redemption was successful: only giving rise to those parts of the story that point to its underlying meaning. That’s where I see the power of simplicity: the ability to show what words merely describe. Every little scrape on the block of the engraving had just one standard to be measured against. Each scene in The Shawshank Redemption had just one theme to which it continually pointed. Both remove the meaningless and leave only those details that capture the beautiful. Vision in story-telling is the connecting tissue that joins matters of the heart to a portrait of words.
The crows feet, the hand that loosely covers his smile and the dimples around it had to look like my dad when he’s laughing. The idea that simple is beautiful works because it relies on the idea that life provides its own context.
When Andy and Red talk about hope, we clearly understand them because hope, like joy, is a context all its own.
After many weekends of suffering the psychritic, bent over a desk with nothing but a headache to show for a morning’s efforts at a portrait of words, I suddenly realized that my characters were not of special significance to me- a terrible and humbling recognition.
After a minor breakdown, my wife had to point out to me, with love and patience in her eyes, that I was missing out on the stuff of life. Beauty itself is held prisoner when one makes self-importance the warden of our vision. I suspect fewer people of my generation concern themselves with vision than the generation prior, and the preceding generations may be even less concerned. Our vision of beauty today looks nothing like the intangibles that constitute our character. Instead, we are very much driven by the temporal, the meaningless.
We were never meant to be institutionalized. But institutions are increasingly what America looks to for vision, like Brooks. Without vision, beauty is the synthetic knock-off of the intangible; a toxic substitute that makes us think how we feel defines us.
Try writing a simple character. The norm for amateurs like myself is 500 words per day. Trying to keep it simple is immensely difficult. It is the simple that forces us to delve deep into a singular theme, and it is exactly my aim as a writer: to tell the story about a failed suicide and the real fears a man faces when he embraces the uncertainty of life. Or a couple seeking marriage counseling while keeping up appearances for Christmas. With a simple plot, there is only one direction to go, deep. Therein lies the challenge that most movies desperately avoid.
I hope to change that too. With your help, readers. What is your vision?