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What Writers Can Learn from Leonardo da Vinci

6 ways to nurture your creative genius

large picture of The Mona Lisa over a writer

More than the Mona Lisa

What do you think of when you hear the name Leonardo da Vinci?

Some of you youngsters out there — if you’re honest — may immediately think of a Ninja Turtle. You might think of the painting, The Last Supper. Most probably, you’ll get a vision of The Mona Lisa, that woman depicted with an enigmatic smile. (You may know this already, but I was dumbfounded when years ago, I went to the Louvre, stood in a long line, waited my turn for entrance into the exhibit gallery, and discovered that The Mona Lisa is SMALL. The painting is a mere 30" by 21" inches and encased in glass, dwarfed by masterpieces many times its size on the surrounding walls. In some ways, the fact that she is tiny inspired me. As only a petite woman can, I took pleasure that a work so small could have such an impact on the world.)

Don’t be fooled by the prominence of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa reputation. Yes, he was a masterful painter who changed the art world, but Leonardo da Vinci was not just a painter. He was a sculptor and portrait artist. He was an expert in architecture, armaments, aerodynamics, anatomy, construction, design, machinery, botany, geology, physics, and astronomy.

Four hundred years after da Vinci’s life, the English Poet Robert Browning would articulate Leonardo’s philosophy:

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”

Leonardo da Vinci wanted to know everything. He was insatiably curious, developing crazy ideas, and working on multiple projects every day.

He was the greatest genius of all time, someone who gave advice that writers today — five hundred years later — can use to nurture their own creative genius.

1) Believe in your ideas

You know that murky idea floating around in your brain? That embryonic thought that just won’t leave you alone? Leonardo wouldn’t have doubted it, feared it, or squashed it. He would have explored it by reading, sketching, and observing anything about it he could. In his journal, da Vinci wrote,

“The knowledge of all things is possible,” and “I wish to work miracles.”

Leonardo’s belief is a motto for writers. We need to believe that we can learn anything we set our minds to and that we can work miracles. We can learn from Leo that it is better to attempt something that not. Completing the project is not as important as starting it. As Michael J. Gelb explains in his book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci,

“No one has ever attempted so much in so many areas, and yet much of his work was left unfinished. He never completed The Last Supper, The Battle of Anghiari, or the Sforza horse. Only seventeen of his paintings exist, a number of which are incomplete. He never organized and published the massive amount of information in his collection of notebooks as he intended.”

(Would it have helped if he had read this article on “Conquering Your Notebook Chaos?”)

As many writers know, even if we start a project and don’t finish it, it is there, aging like fine wine, waiting for us to return to it and tweak its words, massage its lines, and play with the plot until it becomes a finished work and personal masterpiece.

Closet filled with notebooks

2) Take notes on everything

Learn from Leo, the quintessential notetaker of all time.

Five hundred years after his death, more than 7000 pages of Leonardo’s notebooks still exist. (I think I’m an avid notetaker and notebook-filler, but I haven’t done 7000 pages!)

Leonardo’s notes contained financial records, an inventory of his clothes, drawings, jokes, musings on the ideas of people he knew, plans for inventions, and sketch after sketch. Some ideas keep recurring in different sections and later notebooks. His pages are filled with questions and unrelated thoughts, some written horizontally along the edges, and others written as sidebars.

Writers take note. Literally. If you want to generate ideas, you have to write them down continually for years. If you do, you’ll have a stockpile of inspiration when you need it most and a legacy of thoughts for your ancestors.

3) Use Leonardo’s three-angle approach

Looking for an interesting hook or your next big idea? Try Leo’s three-angle approach.

Whenever da Vinci was studying something, he drew it from at least three angles. What he said about studying the human body works for writing about human nature, too.

“…if you wish thoroughly to know the parts of the man, anatomically, you, or your eye, require to see it from different aspects, considering it from below and from above and from its sides, turning it about and seeking the origin of each member.”

Use the three-angle approach with your writing to develop fresh perspectives on your topic:

  • Investigate your idea from the lens of the past, the present, and the future

  • Consider your topic from the viewpoint of at least three different people: an old woman, a young teacher, an aggressive drunk, a shy child, a sophisticated woman executive, an ambitious politician, a rebellious teenager. You choose.

  • Compose your subject in at least three different genres. Satire, parody, poetry, epistolary, journalistic, biography, fiction. Whichever pricks your imagination the most.

4) Build your vocabulary

Da Vinci wrote a 62-page manuscript called the Codex Trivulzanius that he created as an attempt to improve his education. (Sadly, only 55 pages of that document remain.) In these pages, Leo made studies of military and religious architecture, but he also made LONG lists of words he found that he didn’t know. Some were new, some were phrases from other languages, some were neologisms, (a recently coined word).

Writes would do well to emulate Leo. His list of learned words was over 9000 words long! And do you know what he said?

“I possess so many words in my native language that I ought rather to complain of not understanding things than of lacking the words to express my thoughts properly.”

5) Be a people-watcher extraordinaire

Leonardo wrote in one of his notebooks:

“Oh that it may please God to let me also expound on the psychology of the habits of man in such fashion as I am describing his body!”

da Vinci was a great watcher and observer. So are writers. How can we write about things if we haven’t studied how they work? How can we expound on the beauty of nature if we haven’t observed it? Do writers need to watch people to know how they behave? Yes. Leonardo da Vinci filled his notebooks with observations of everything, giving writers good advice five hundred years after his death:

“When you are out for a walk, see to it that you watch and consider other men’s postures and actions as they talk, argue, laugh, or scuffle; their own actions, and those of their supporters and onlookers: and make a note of these with a few strokes in your little notebook which you must always carry with you.”

6) Be persistent

Even though Leo was a genius, he was not without failures. He was paid by the Signoria of Florence to divert the Arno River, a failure of epic proportions when the riverbed he had dug was too shallow. When water was released into it, the channel backed up, destroyed a dam, and flooded the farm grounds necessary for farmers to feed the city of Pisa.

Maybe he was just too far ahead of his time, but da Vinci was never able to build the flying machine he had envisioned in his head. He failed in his attempts to create a new technique of painting when the primer he used on the wall beneath The Battle of Anghiari and The Last Supper didn’t stop the moisture and caused the paint to flake off within fifty years. He even tried to automate a kitchen for a big reception serving two hundred guests. Each course was designed to be a miniature work of art. To prepare for the event, Leonardo built a more powerful stove, a network of conveyor belts to move the plates along, and a sprinkler system for the kitchen.

What could go wrong?

The kitchen staff wasn’t capable of doing the fine carving Leonardo had envisioned, so da Vinci invited a hundred artists to help. Too many cooks in the kitchen, for sure, and too much activity on the conveyors. The conveyor belts broke down, causing a fire. The fire activated the sprinkler system, which washed away all the food and destroyed the kitchen. And that was the dinner that da Vinci built.

In his journals, Leonardo wrote these “anti-failure” remarks:

“I do not depart from my furrow.” (Next to a drawing of a plow.)”
“Obstacles do not bend me.”
“Every obstacle is destroyed through rigor.”

Great advice for writers, indeed. To create, to succeed, to follow our dreams, we have to be persistent and not let the obstacles of our profession — rejection, criticism, slow progress, low income — bend or break us.

Creative genius comes from never giving up.

Crowds at Louvre take pictures of The Mona Lisa


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