Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Autumn Creative Harvest

I love Autumn. Absolutely love it! Every day there seems to be so much incentive to create, explore, start new projects--and the holidays are some of the best. This month I'm trying #InkTober (haven't skipped a day yet!), and next month will see me celebrating NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) again. I've lost count of how many years I've participated in NaNo, but win or lose it's always been a productive experience.

So besides the chance to try out new pens, journals, sketchbooks and unfamiliar materials, some of my other reasons for being crazy for Autumn include:
  1. The weather is near-perfect, quite a bit cooler than summer, but here in New Mexico we can still wear T-shirts in the afternoon. As far as I'm concerned, there's no better time of year for sitting outside to read, write, or paint--especially as all the bugs have magically disappeared.
  2. Along with the more comfortable temperatures, the autumn scenery is magnificent. Talk about inspiration! The colors are at their absolute best: amethyst, pomegranate, yellow gold, black plum, pumpkin orange, and every shade in between.
  3. The stores are full of "back to school" sales; the discounts on stationery and other supplies are massive. Buy those gel pens! Grab those glue sticks!
  4. Some of the best new movies and books are released in the fall. (Which can also be something of a distraction when you're trying to fill pages with your own work.) But giving yourself a few hours to read or watch a new movie makes a good reward for meeting your daily word count.
  5. The flavors of autumn are so conducive to story-telling: spicy warm drinks, buttery cakes and cookies. Just don't forget to go for a nice long autumn walk to burn off the calories!
  6. Misty, foggy, rainy, nippy: my favorite books and stories have always contained a Gothic ambience that I like to include in my own writing. I can't think of a better time to write than when you're cocooned inside against the elements.
  7. Shorter days mean less time to be outside playing or lounging in the yard, which means I have a little extra time to write or draw every night before dinner or before going to bed.
  8. Although the weather can be a bit colder in the morning, it's not too cold to get up and still write my morning pages in relative comfort.
  9. There's a sweet sense of harvest in the air, making this a great season to examine and appreciate what you've accomplished in the previous months. If you find there are still some items on your goal-list, the good news is we all still have time to catch up before the New Year.
  10. I don't know about you, but I always think sweaters and socks are just cozier to wear while writing. (Especially my cat ones.)
  11. Bonfires. The other day at my writing group I tried to explain my memories of Guy Fawkes and the 5th of November, but I guess you have to be from a British background to understand "A penny for the Guy" and why English and Commonwealth children commemorate a centuries-old attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament. No matter; fire pits, barbecues, and Homecoming and Halloween bonfires are good American traditions, too, and there's nothing nicer than toasting marshmallows or tofu-dogs on a moonlit autumn night.
  12. Travel--consider taking your WIP or sketchbook to a new and/or foreign setting. The fares are lower, hotels have more rooms available, and most tourists are back at work or back in school. The only problem is choosing where to go!
Whatever season you prefer, each one, or all four, can become the cornerstone of your creativity: painting a single scene in four versions of summer, fall, spring, winter; or using seasonal transitions when you're trying to invoke a sense of time, place and character in your manuscript. Even jewelry and ceramic work can reflect the changing seasons: blues and greens for summer, reds and oranges for fall. Each time of year has its own associations, many of them unique to our own memories and tastes. For me, it will always be autumn, hence my new Autumn Pinterest board. Enjoy the scenery!

Tip of the Day: How about creating a seasonal sketchbook or journal to record your favorite memories? Try some collage, or use natural elements such as leaves or seashells for printing and stamping. Write or draw on toned paper with colored inks. Make each turn of the year a season to remember.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Sprains, Strains, and New Directions

New Akashiya Sai Watercolor Pens: the full set!

Two weeks ago I sprained my ankle. I was on the way to my writer’s group at the Albuquerque Museum and while I was walking through the car park, I stepped on an extended sprinkler head hidden by a covering of gravel. The pain of the event is indescribable: a spike through the ball of my foot, sending me into a contorted loss of balance, that then resulted in a totally twisted ankle and foot. Somehow I limped to my meeting, managed to converse for the next few hours, and then went home to collapse. Ice and pain killers got me through the worst of it, but my foot is still very tender as is my other foot and leg, as well as my back and shoulders from all the strain of hop-hop-hopping along every day to get from A to B.

By the third day of hoppity-hop I wanted to know WHY this had happened to me. Besides knowing that I wasn’t looking where I was going (I rarely do), I wondered if there could be some sort of symbolism or metaphysical lesson to be learned here. I did a quick Google search and got the same message several times over: a sprained ankle is an indication that you are to seek out a new direction. 

Sitting with my foot elevated and my stack of books and journals handy, I decided that the only new direction I wanted at that moment was to close my eyes and nap all day. But apparently the universe had other ideas. Almost immediately after reading several websites each saying the same thing about following new paths, the mail arrived and I received some new pens I ordered online several weeks earlier: a twenty-color set of Akashiya Sai Watercolor Brush Pens, along with a sampler set of eleven black drawing pens. Thirty-one pens in total. For a minimalist such as myself, the number was mind-boggling, and thoroughly distracting. It was like when I got a ball of Silly Putty when I was five and had chicken pox.

Right away I forgot about my nap and started to try out my new pens. After all, my journal was right there in front of me. As I was doodling, I then naturally got some new ideas (no, no, please no new ideas): 

  • Why not try Inktober this year? Similar to NaNoWrimo for writers, Inktober is a challenge to produce, and post on social media, an ink drawing a day for the entire month of October. I've always wanted to try it, but never had the courage to post daily. While I was thinking about this, I then had the idea to:
  • Finally start that children’s picture book I’ve been dreaming of since last year, which involves:
  • Learning to draw horses and ponies (the most difficult subject I can think of). 

Three new directions that are entirely do-able, don’t interfere too much with my already carefully-laid plans to work on my new novel, and if anything, enhance what I’m doing already. For instance, I draw every day anyway—so why not just work with ink for a month? And although I am currently marketing my picture book based in Barcelona, wouldn’t it be a good idea to be able to tell editors I am working on a second book? 

An interesting side note about learning to draw horses is that horses have delicate legs and ankles. Their feet must be considered and cared for in a serious and responsible way. Where they walk, how their shoes fit, and how they're exercised all matters. It made me think that what I need to do until the end of the year is to keep my eyes open, pay attention, and sit still long enough to get my work done. 

Thankfully, I can report that my own foot is on the mend and I'm certain I'll be  back to my old self in another week or two. But I also understand that there’s plenty of room for a new self, too--especially the one that gets to sit down all day!

Tip of the Day: According to metaphysical practitioners, there’s a lot we can learn from illness and injuries. In my case, despite the pain and inconvenience, I feel I’ve come through with some valuable insights and renewed energy for my art and writing. The next time you’re under the weather, ask if there is anything you are meant to understand or explore on a deeper level. Like me, you might be surprised at what you discover.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

September Sketches

Sunday at the Albuquerque Rail Yards Market.
Kuretake Watercolor, Sakura Micron Pen

How has your summer been? For me it went a little too fast. Thankfully here in Albuquerque it's still sunny and warm, but there is definitely a tinge of autumn in the air. Which means it's time to buckle down with a "back-to-school" attitude and get back to my main WIP, Ghazal. I also want to get back into a dedicated sketching schedule that fits in with all my other projects.

Two things that are currently helping me get there are my writer's group summer art journal project and my outings with Urban Sketchers. Starting with my writer's group, because we've been meeting at the Albuquerque Museum we've been able to stay inspired by all the amazing art exhibited throughout the halls and galleries. Several weeks ago we had the idea to set out individually to find a painting or installation that could be the basis of some of our art journal pages. 

For me it was coming across an entire room devoted to the travel sketches of New Mexico-based architect, Antoine Predock. The extensive collection ended with an intricate proposal for a southern branch of the Palace Museum in Taiwan (unfortunately never realized), but I was so taken with the loose and easy style that led up to this final, intricate fantasy that I had to go visit the exhibition three more times over the next month. Predock's example and implied advice to scribble, go for color blocks and bold lines, and to follow what you feel about a place and its landmarks, rather than what you're "supposed to see" was exactly what I've been trying to achieve on my own for the last couple of years.

I kept all of that in mind last Sunday when I went with Urban Sketchers to the Albuquerque Rail Yards Market for two hours of morning sketching:

Albuquerque Rail Yards--abandoned but not forgotten!
Kuretake Watercolor and Sakura Micron Pen

The more I go out with the group the better I'm becoming at relaxing and losing my self-consciousness. I care more about the experience than the results, and consequently I'm drawing more than I ever have before. I love it!

Kuretake Watercolor, Fine-line Sharpie,
Akashiya Sai Watercolor Brush Pens

I then wondered how this approach could work with writing and I found it fit perfectly. For instance:
  • Go BOLD. Don't hold back; don't edit, mince your words, or fear critique and censure. Let go and let the words flow. 
  • Similar to a "gesture drawing," capturing the essence of a subject rather than the details, try gesture writing. First thoughts, first attempts, first drafts contain a lot of energy--energy that can transform your voice and writing into something only you could write. 
  • Write hundreds and hundreds of pages. I was impressed at how many sketches Predock had made, many of them simply a few lines in the center of the page, but each was so strong and effective. His examples reminded me to not skimp on materials, ideas, or any step that will express where I completely want to go.
Good ideas for some good writing time! Enjoy the season.
Tip of the Day: Thinking of editing your work? Whatever you do, please don't kill the sketch. Whether you're sketching towards creating a more polished painting, or freewriting dozens of vignettes and character studies for your novel, screenplay, or short story collection, don't go crazy with the polishing. Yes, weed out awkward phrases, lines, and repetitions, but stay true to what made you fall in love with your ideas in the first place. Stay loose.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Book Review: Not Dark Yet, by Berit Ellingsen

Not Dark Yet by Berit Ellingsen
Two Dollar Radio
ISBN: 978-1937412354
Fiction, 202 pages

I don't review a lot of books, but when I do it's because I really want to--I want to share something important and real that I think other writers and readers will enjoy and benefit from. That's why I'm  taking a look today at Not Dark Yet by author Berit Ellingsen, a writer who has enriched my world and inspired me to keep writing, keep striving, keep going, and always take the time to read a good book.

I first heard about Berit via Twitter, the best source I know for discovering books and authors I wouldn't usually have the chance to learn about. Thanks to so many bookstores disappearing from my neighborhood (three more have just gone bankrupt this past month), social media has become my primary source for literary browsing, and when I read a post about Berit and her collection of short stories: Beneath the Liquid Skin, I had to order the book, prontoNothing in my extensive reading life had prepared me for the power and originality of those stories, so naturally I couldn't wait to read her novel, Not Dark Yet. I don't think anything else I've read before or after can compare with either of these books.

Berit lives in Norway, and her work reflects a beautiful sense of place, an isolated starkness that is in direct contrast with much of my own experience. Even desert-y Albuquerque doesn't have the sharp, cold lunar feeling I get from her descriptions. Coupled with this strong geographic presence is a staggering sense of precision to every word she writes, an exactness that has me re-reading many of her sentences for the sheer pleasure of it. In many ways I consider her a "writer's writer" and after I finished reading Not Dark Yet I sat down with my journal to examine what it was that made me love this book so much. Here goes:
  • Setting. An unspecified future; a mysterious Nordic city; a world without clear boundaries, countries, or cultures: the world of Not Dark Yet is a mystery. Yet despite the deliberate masking of time and place, I don't think I read a a single description that left me wondering where I was, or what the characters were experiencing. As I read, I felt every needle of rain, every clod of mud, every veil of mist--and I was actually sorry that I couldn't live there--and this was a depiction of a world in chaos and dangerous change! I mean, what kind of skill makes an awful world attractive?
  • Characters. Main character Brandon Minamoto isn't your everyday protagonist (thank goodness). A complex near-loner with a troubled military history, Brandon is torn between the need to form relationships and the need to be true to himself. I sympathized with his plight every step of the way and was heartbroken when I had to say good-bye on the last page.
  • Plot. I hate plot-spoilers of any kind so I won't drop even a single hint, but I was hooked right from the beginning. I HAD to know: WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO BRANDON?? You'll have to read the book to find out, but his story arc kept me glued to my seat.
  • Writing Style. Oh, wow. There is a zen-like simplicity and clarity to Berit's voice and style that I admire immensely. Seemingly matter-of-fact and terse on the surface, each sentence builds toward the next, roiling on your sub-conscious like some menacing monolithic disaster threatening to change everything you know or believe is true. It's rare to come across so much power in a deceptively plain-spoken sentence, and I found myself constantly wondering how she managed to control it.
  • Subject Matter. I hesitate to call Not Dark Yet science fiction, but I can't think of another category that would fit as well. Sci-fi isn't usually my first choice when choosing a book, but when it goes in the direction of also being character-driven literary fiction, I'm a fan. Not Dark Yet is an excellent example of how to blend (and bend) genre distinctions to good advantage, and one I wish more books would emulate.
  • Metaphor. I've always been impressed with Berit's use of metaphor and symbolism. Whether the focus is on food, the weather, or just getting dressed for a holiday--each scene, story event, or snippet of back story is rich with added-value meaning and subtext.
  • Discussion Points. Which brings me to my favorite thing about this book: I could talk about it all day. It's a book that makes me think. Good literature should lead to great (and memorable) conversation, and I can't imagine anyone not having an opinion or strong feelings about what happens to Brandon and the rest of the cast. In other words, it's the perfect book club book--especially if club members enjoy digging deep and aren't afraid to not always agree on social issues, character motivation, or "what would you do?" if placed in Brandon's shoes. Strong stuff.
So with all that said, I think I have to read the book again. Not Dark Yet is quirky, original, and packed with secrets--the kind you can't wait to unravel and sit with for a long while after. I found the book extremely compelling and one that has stirred my curiosity and desire to learn more, write more, and even try my hand at some fan-art. Highly recommended for readers who enjoy an authentic book of ideas and a serious voyage of self-discovery. Five stars from me--six if I could!

Tip of the Day: Be sure to check out Berit Ellingsen and her wonderful books. After all, to a writer it's love and reading that makes the world go 'round!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Pushing Past the Middle

Writing a series of poems based on my trip to Taiwan last year wasn't on my 2016 to-do list. It really wasn't, but now that it's appeared, I can happily say I've battled through and my first draft is well and truly finished. Yay!

That said, it wasn't an easy journey, especially when I reached a place several weeks ago where I was well and truly stuck: right smack dab in the middle. I was uninspired, tired, and beginning to worry that the whole project was a major distraction and a waste of time.

Reaching the middle of any project rarely feels like a victory. Instead, all I can usually think of is how much more work I have to do to finishSo when I found myself in the middle of A Taiwan Sketchbook (my working title) rather than writing the second draft of my new novel, Ghazal, I suddenly realized how long it had taken me to get to where I was, and how much more effort I had to put into the project before I could type THE END. Just thinking about all those hours of work ahead of me sent me to the couch and a headache.

While I was lying there, feeling both guilty and utterly defeated, I thought of all the stages of my project that had brought me to where I was, starting with my GRAND IDEA:
  • The excitement of STARTING. It was so much fun. I love starting new projects. All that anticipation, planning, preparing new notebooks and buying new pens. Nothing better!
  • Once all my tools were in place, the next stage centered around starting new rituals, new schedules, new dedication--writing every day, staying on track, marking my progress on a calendar.
  • And then . . . I had to skip a day. An appointment, having to stay late at work, no food in the house . . . 
  • So I had to put in double-duty the next time I sat down to write to make up for lost time.
  • Which meant: this is starting to feel like WORK. Where'd the fun go?
  • Before I knew it, I was in the MIDDLE of a project and it all seemed like chaos and hell and something that would take me the rest of my life to complete, if I ever survived to tell the tale.
The thing about all this, however, is it's happened to me so often it's nothing new. I know in advance that there will always come a day in my writing when resistance looms large, quitting sounds wonderful, and I'd rather be reading or painting. I've been on that same couch with the same headache so many times before, and yet, guess what? I've always started writing again. Here's how you can too:
  • Give up--yes! At least for the moment. Stay on the couch, read, watch a movie, take a break. If you really have reached the middle of your work, you deserve a little time off!
  • When you feel rested, start back at the beginning when you got those nice writing supplies. Organize what you have already accomplished into new folders and binders; brainstorm and create lists of what you need to do to finish.
  • Forget about order and following an outline. Write the scenes or portions of your work you want to write, don't worry about transitions or a table of contents.
  • Concentrate on your ending first. Write your last scene (or poem, or paragraph depending on what it is you're working on) and craft the rest of your story to fit your conclusion or theme.
  • Calculate how much time it took you to reach the middle. Now assign that same amount of time, plus an extra few weeks or so for emergencies, and give yourself a deadline. Write it down on a calendar.
  • Work fast. Remember this is first draft stuff. Just get there--it doesn't matter how!
If you've tried all this, though, and do discover that your heart truly isn't in a project, give yourself permission to stop, maybe even quit. Don't toss any of your work, but simply put it away and move on to something new. And if you find yourself missing the project at a later date, but you're not sure how to re-start it, evaluate what it was that kept you from continuing. Was it your choice of genre, voice, or style? Were you being too ambitious and trying to add too many (and superfluous) elements to your story-line? Were you trying to please readers rather than yourself? Spend a few days journaling about your situation and then see if things are really as bad as you thought they were. With any luck and a lot of determination you should be able to find some valuable solutions. 

Tip of the Day: Stuck in the middle of your WIP? Brainstorm! Create a list of 100 new "what-if's" and scenes. See which ones can inject fresh energy into your manuscript. And always keep in mind, once you've passed "the middle," it's all downhill from there!

Monday, July 25, 2016

Shake Up Your Writer's Group!

This month my writer's group is trying something new: art journaling together. It isn't the first time we've "changed the rules" and jumped into fresh territory, but adding artwork to our writing is a bit of a departure for us. 

To start things off, we agreed to each choose a special sketchbook or journal to work in. In keeping with many of my "how wrong can this go" attempts to get things right, I chose a sketchbook that came with impossible-to-remove stickers on both the front and back covers. After an hour of attempting to remove them, I ended up with a thousand little bits of paper still clinging on like limpets, as well as some deep gouges and tears in the cardboard. Solution? Start my art journal with some cover collage!

Lemonade out of lemons, right? 

Despite my somewhat rough start to the project, I think it's going well. We've had two art journal-based meetings so far; chosen themes for our journals (I've only changed mine twice); written down our intentions for our journaling practice, and started filling pages.

Regardless of whether we're working on journaling, short stories, or poetry, our group meets every two weeks, usually in a bookstore or museum cafe, and the one thing we've always done is have fun. The second objective that has kept our group strong and lively is that we concentrate on writing together rather than critiquing. It's made a difference to a) not have "homework assignments" between meetings; b) be able to support each other's creativity without playing editor, imposing our opinions where they don't really belong, and/or stifling a work at any stage of the draft-process. 

Writing together has had all sorts of benefits, new manuscripts being the least of them. More than anything we've learned to: 
  • Write on demand regardless of where we are, how we're feeling, or how lousy we think our work is at any given time. 
  • Be fearless. After we write, we read aloud. Although we've always provided the option to not read if something feels too personal or too raw for sharing, I've never known any one of us to use that option. 
  • Ink. In every color of the rainbow. We write by hand when we get together, and the results have never been anything less than impressive. (Hear that, writer's group? You are fantastic writers!!)
Some of the other ways we've kept the inspiration high has been to:
  1. Write flash fiction or poetry using word and picture prompts cut from magazines. Sometimes we'll all use the same picture, e.g., a strange setting, an evocative character, or an unusual object. At other times we'll combine them, or have a little package of our own (passed out during the meeting) containing two or three individual images. I never cease to be amazed at how different our stories are, or how publication-ready the writing is. 
  2. Go for timed writing. We give ourselves anywhere between thirty to forty-five minutes to write. Once the time is up, it's pens down. 
  3. Take field trips. We haven't had as many of these as I would like (note to group: take more trips!), but the trips we have taken have been unforgettable. I'm especially thinking of the time we all went up to Santa Fe and back by train. 
  4. Bring pot-luck brunch and meet at someone's house. Yum. 
  5. Treat ourselves to a restaurant lunch. No clean-up involved. We had pizza last time. Super yum. 
  6. Watch a how-to video together. Great for discussion (and eating. We combined the video with another pot-luck.). 
  7. White elephant parties. We got so good at this we've had to give them up, but essentially what we did was bring unwanted items from home, play a silly game to hand them around, and anything we didn't want was collected and taken to the thrift store the next day. Now that we're all beautifully de-cluttered, we've decided to keep our homes as junk-free as possible meaning the parties are over, but they were entertaining while they lasted.
I can't wait to see how our art journaling experiment works out. Although we are pretty much trying a free-form approach, we are also using this helpful list of 50 ideas I found at Blacksburg Belle for when we get stuck and need a small prompt (or a big shove). This motivational blog is loaded with lots of other excellent creative tips, so I highly recommend a visit. In the meantime, get out those glue sticks, write your hearts out, and keep the lemonade flowing.

Tip of the Day: Break out of the box. Even if you love your writer's group exactly the way it is, it never hurts to shake things up a bit. Meet somewhere new, read a book together, brainstorm some fresh possibilities. Drop a line a let me know how it's going.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Break Out of Your Shell!

"Mussel Shells"
Faber-Castell Polychromos Pencils
on Canson Pastel Paper
The drawing challenge from my color pencil group this month was to draw seashells. As you can see, I tackled four of them including the inside surfaces. Despite my initial resistance (too hard, too repetitive, not my thing, etc., etc.), I learned a lot from this exercise, much of which can be also be applied to my writing life, starting with practice, practice, practice. 

Thanks to my reluctance to start, I procrastinated like a pro. I answered email, cleaned my house, wrote more poetry; anything to avoid drawing. Finally the day came when I either had to get to work or go to my group empty-handed, aka "being a quitter." Not my favorite option. So with deep misgivings I started in with just one. Hmm. Not so bad. So I tried another. And another. And before I knew it I had drawn all four. Hey, I did it! Which made me realize:
  1. Repetition is valuable. One of the main things holding me back was fear of boredom: how could I draw four similar shells without losing my mind? The truth, however, was very different: first, the shells were NOT similar, and second, by repeating the process several times my technique improved as I got to the last shell. Practice, practice, practice! Whether you want to improve your drawing, write exciting action scenes or learn the intricacies of arranging a pantoum, it takes more than one attempt to get it right.
  2. Don't hide away in your "I can't do it" shell. Rather than setting yourself up for failure by aiming for the most incredible work in the whole of human history, start a dreaded project by drawing or writing in your most basic style: just get some shapes or words down on paper. Once that's done, tweak a little here, add a little there--before you know it your right-brain will be engaged and intrigued with all the possibilities. At this point, I dare you to stop.
  3. Shells make great writing and art journal prompts. The first time I wrote about a seashell in my art journal was an entry about playing with my grandmother's collection of shells from the Gulf of Mexico when I was a little girl. I loved holding those shells to my ear and "listening to the sea." You might have a similar memory, or you might want to write about your first trip to the beach, or your own collection of seaside finds. On the fiction side, including a seashell in a short story, poem, or novel could trigger all sorts of themes, associations, and plot twists--especially if the shell is rare and valuable!
  4. Artwork isn't always about drawing. How about brushing some ink or paint onto a shell and using it as a stamp in your art journal or mixed-media piece? Or pressing a shell into earthen or polymer clay? Drilling a hole into the top of a shell to add to a jewelry piece? Or simply painting and/or collaging the shell itself for a whole new look? 
  5. Using shells for meditation and mindfulness. No matter how small or seemingly insignificant, there's something profound about a seashell. Whether it's the patterning, the colors, or just the fact it once housed and protected some small and distant creature, shells make a good start to pondering life's mysteries. Add them to household altars, your writing room or studio, your garden or any other kind of creative sanctuary you like to visit. Personally I like to keep them all over the house in various nooks and crannies. 
Shells have always fascinated me, but that's no reason to take them literally and hide out inside one of my own. The drawing challenge for July is to draw green leaves. I'm so fired-up by the prospect I'm going to start and base an entire art journal on the subject. No hesitation, no holding back, just going for it. Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme! 

Tip of the Day: One of the things I love about drawing is how it relaxes and pulls me into what I could almost call a different dimension. Memories; new ideas for writing; the book I'm currently reading: my mind seems to just float along with the tide. While I was working on my seashell piece I was reminded of one of my favorite books that I hadn't thought of for a long time: Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea. If you've never read it, or haven't read it for a long time, I can't think of a better text to check out for summer inspiration. Enjoy!