Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Never Give Up: 12 Reason Why


"Never give up!" That's been my voice to myself this entire year and I'm glad I listened. It hasn't been an easy time (hence my absence from blogging) but now the sun is shining, I'm back in shorts, sandals, and T's and the difficult winter days seem a long way behind me.

So here's what I learned while I've been gone:

1. Whether it's your writing, artwork, or latest beaded necklace: You can't sell what you don't submit or offer for sale. Forget about fear or lack of self-confidence. Just get your work out there.
2. Creativity gives you something to do every day, in other words, a life purpose. And that's a beautiful thing when it seems like the clouds will never part and nothing will ever change. You were born to be creative. Keep going, one foot in front of the other. It will change.
3. Creativity can be an important and nourishing spiritual practice. Julia Cameron explains this well in The Artist's Way, one of my favorite books.
4. Showing up to do your work means you set a good example to others, especially those too anxious or afraid to take that first step. Encouraging others helps you to encourage yourself.
5. Creativity is fun--and who doesn't want to have fun? You don't have to be perfect, professional, or even prissy. Just enjoy yourself and make a big mess.
6. Once you embark, and stay on, the creative path, you will meet many, many wonderful people and kindred spirits. For every type of writing, art style, craft, or creative interest your may have, there is a myriad of organizations as well as more informal groups to foster your interest and motivation. Shared creativity can often be the foundation for an entire lifetime of  friendships.
7. Following your creative instincts gives you a good excuse to "people watch" and observe the intricacies and wonders of the world with more than mere curiosity. It's all great material--be sure to use it!
8. Taking your creative project(s) with you wherever you go will give you something to do while you're waiting. And waiting. And waiting.
9. And the more you practice while you wait, the better you'll get.
10. At the end of the day, and when you're feeling your most rejected, you can always self-publish, self-represent, and self-express. Take charge of your own work. There is absolutely no need to wait endlessly for permission or approval from the gate-keepers.
11. Creative people are authentic, interesting, and inspiring. What a great group to stay in touch with. Why would you ever quit or leave their company? 
12. Finally: When you work on a creative project, you have an excellent reason to take time for yourself. You're allowed to be alone; just you and your book, canvas, or beading board. A luxury none of us should ever take for granted!

Tip of the Day: Giving up on a creative project often has a lot to do with burn-out, the feeling you just can't give another ounce or minute to what you used to love but now avoid at all costs. Burn-out is natural and can be a sign you're doing too much, worrying too much, and aiming too high for near-impossible perfection. Take a creative break: write a romance novel for fun. Paint bunnies. Make children's clothes. But whatever you do: Don't give up!         

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Art of Unfolding

This has been a strange month: everything I set out to do mysteriously morphs into something completely different than my original intentions. Whether it's writing, artwork, or my day job, my so-called plans have been no use whatsoever. 

Thanks to my writer's group I've discovered a solution of sorts: The Power Path, a website based here in New Mexico one of our members suggested I take a look at. Every month the site centers on an inspirational theme, and this month's theme is "Unfolding." 

The idea of unfolding immediately makes me think of a box. One of the things we have to do at my day job is fold boxes, lots of boxes, for shipping. I’ve become pretty good at seeing a flat, unfolded square of cardboard and then figuring out how to put it together: e.g., flap A gets bent over to slide into slot B after flaps C and D have been creased along their respective lines, etc., etc. Over the years I've learned it truly is an art to fold a box correctly and efficiently. 

Unfolding, on the other hand, sounds easy enough, but for me, there are some fundamental problems, like when I unfold a map. On the surface this is almost too easy: just open it up and study the required section. But then comes the hard part: folding the map back up again. No matter what I do even the smallest tourist map remains a wadded-up mess I can never force back into shape. No wonder I tear them up for collage!

The reason I get so frustrated with things like maps and fitted sheets is that at heart I am a folder; I like things folded. I will fold an unruly sheet or towel twice, three times to get it "right." I'll do the same with T-shirts and sweaters.  Heck, I even like the word folder when it refers to an organized filing system. Unfolding, at least to me, means making a mess. Unfolding also means letting go, and worst of all, being open, revealing what’s inside. Pretty scary stuff! 

Scary or not, I know I need to work more with this concept of unfolding; I want to jump out of the proverbial box and if possible, abandon the need for maps altogether. I want to be okay with letting things happen without a panic attack when they don't go the way I've planned. 

One way I thought I could apply the concept of unfolding to my creative life is to let my artwork and supplies stay out in the open. This might sound a little weird, but I’ve suddenly become very self-conscious about my art-making, especially since I’ve started working on “real" projects starting with the drawings and paintings for my proposed picture book, The While Pony and my series of doorways for my literary novel,  Ghazal. I’ve become so nervous about any kind of potential critique that I’ve started putting rubber bands around my sketchbooks, a bad move as it makes me reluctant to remove the band! Without realizing it, I’ve set up unintentional boundaries keeping my art so private I almost have to ask permission to go into my own studio. 

To counter this, I'm making a radical move this weekend; I'm going to set up my art table with a dozen different mediums, pencils, paints, and a big pad of paper, then start an art piece that I don't put away. If I leave the unfinished piece out in the open I might be more inclined (tempted??) to simply sit down and doodle on it over the coming days until it's finished. Then I'll start another one using the same process. It will be messy and I'm sure it will feel totally unnatural to not clean up after myself, but my resistance could be a very good sign that this is exactly what I need to do. I also want to try letting each picture unfold the way it wants to without too much interference on my part. 

Tip of the Day: Ever since I decided to work with the concept of unfolding I keep seeing references for origami patterns. Talk about ironic! My basic interpretation of this is that there is a time to fold, and there is a time a time to unfold. Both of these make great journal as well as sketchbook topics. Get out your pens, make a big mess, and let me know what happens!

Thursday, February 8, 2018

February Check-in: Revisions

Happy February!  It's the start of revision time for me, taking last year’s edits on my current work-in-progress novel, Ghazal, and putting them into action. According to my notes, there's a lot to do, but I'm more than ready to get the show on the road.

For those of you new to this project, the plot of Ghazal centers on thirty doorways that individually figure in each chapter, and two relationships between two couples. The first couple is comprised of a married, middle-aged businessman and a young woman who has recently abandoned her choice to live in a convent. The second couple is made up of the young woman’s next door neighbors during her growing-up years, two retirees who once spent a magical summer in France and have never forgotten. Together and separately the characters discover what it is they truly believe in, discarding along the way the many lies they have told themselves and each other for decades. 

While the plot is continuous and involves the same group of characters, the chapters can also be read as stand-alone short stories. I realize it's experimental, unconventional, and all of the worst things an editor or agent wants to hear, but it's the direction I'm the most drawn toward. Writing about my characters' lives and decisions in the form of short stories has allowed me the freedom to explore areas and themes that might not work in a traditional novel. For instance, one chapter is about a high school ski trip gone wrong; another is about seeing the Alamo at midnight as a child; while yet another is about the sudden death of a friend in a swimming pool. At first glance these events might not have much to do with each other, but taken as a whole, they can be considered as beads on a cord that eventually ties together in just the right way. 

My self-imposed deadline is to have the manuscript ready for submission by the end of the year, a much wider frame than I'd originally wanted, but I want to fully craft this novel; hasty decisions and speed-revising won't work this time around. I'll be thrilled if I do finish before then, but I want to stay as mindful and focused as I can on this project and not feel pressured to get it over and done with.
One of the things I'm doing to make the revising more interesting is I'm drawing illustrations of the thirty doorways I mentioned earlier. I’m still undecided on my final medium, style, and color palette (or if I'll even use color at all), but that's half the fun. Another trick I’m using is to keep a daily “writer’s log," tracking not only my daily progress, but also my thoughts and emotions about the entire revision process. Alongside these are my notes on what I hope to achieve within each chapter as well as a record of my characters' names, ages, backgrounds, and anything else that I need to refer to as I continue to re-write.

As much as I love freewriting and getting that first draft down on paper, I must say there's really nothing better than having those pages finally assembled into a revisable manuscript. At least you know you do have something to work on and improve. The only hard part after that is knowing when to stop polishing, tinkering, and changing every other word so you can finally declare: The End!

Tip of the Day: If you haven’t tried keeping a daily log of your writing or other creative projects, you might like to start one now. One easy method is to use a calendar (especially now that all the 2018 ones are on super-sale!) and write down your word count or similar into each date square. Many calendars have room to write extra notes for the month too, and you can always write on the picture page as well.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

January De-Clutter

January is a great time for "out with the old, in with the new," something I've been attending to with vim and vigor this past weekend. For the first time in years, I decided to not save any leftover holiday wrapping, gift bags, ribbons and bows which then encouraged me to scour through the house to see what else could be tossed or recycled. It was amazing what I found, especially when I consider myself to be an expert minimalist! Some of my top get-rid-ofs included:
  • Books. For the last couple of years I've held the rule that for every new book I buy, an old one has to go. This has been an excellent practice forcing me to use the library more, read used books I find on giveaway piles, and curb a life-long habit of buying books because they're for sale. But this weekend I went way beyond a single book or two. I got rid of dozens of titles I won't be reading again for pleasure or using for reference. It was wrenching, but, oh, those shelves look good.
  • Gift wrap and more. Besides getting rid of the 2017 Christmas wrapping and bags, I cleared out all those other types of gift bags I'd kept for sentimental reasons or that I'd intended to use "one day." The thing is, one day never came, or at least not the day when I wanted to put a gift in a bag from a store that the gift couldn't possibly have come from. The same with leftover Christmas cards from several years ago, as well as worn-out holiday decorations. All gone.
  • Clothing. If I haven't worn something for a few years, chances are I never will again. And thanks to our unseasonably warm Albuquerque weather this winter, I was able to clear out several bulky and not-so-favorite items I'd been hanging onto just in case the next Ice Age arrived overnight. And if some freak mega-blizzard does arrive in the coming months, I can always layer with what I decided to keep.
  • White elephant gifts. My writer's group used to swap unwanted, unneeded, or duplicated items at our annual holiday party until we eventually ran out of things to share. However that was several years ago and in the interim I've somehow managed to collect some more. I think (I know) I'd been storing these things out of sheer guilt: (It was a present!). Not this year. Off to the thrift store they went.
  • Art supplies. I love to experiment with new supplies, but more than once I've had to learn the hard way that new doesn't mean it's for me. Which is fine--my local recreation center loves donations. Giving away several sets of unloved pencils, pastels, and brushes will help someone else discover their true artistic self this year. A real win-win for everyone.
  • Old art work. My biggest weakness. You'd think parting with failed paintings and drawings would be easy, but for me it's like getting rid of my soul. I painted that! It took me hours to get it all wrong! My current compromise has been to save my entire collection of sketchbooks (I will NEVER part with those), but I decided to get ruthless with everything that was truly for practice or not very skillful. What didn't go into the trash I tore and/or cut into small pieces for collage and art journaling.
  • Old manuscripts. This task is still a work-in-progress, but I'm going through all the freewriting stories that I wrote for . . . freewriting . . . and will never even attempt to publish. The ones that I like I'm transcribing onto a flash drive. The ones that I don't, out they go with the not-so-great artwork. I'm doing the same with old drafts of projects that are now in the final draft stage. I don't need physical copies of the originals and in many instances I don't need digital copies either. Delete, delete, delete!
  • Bills and paperwork. I like having only one filing cabinet and I like keeping it neatly labelled, uncluttered, and easy to close. I only file copies of household bills for a year, tax materials for five, and after that, off to the shredder I go.
  • Stuff. This seemed to be the most esoteric of my categories and also the most ridiculous. Included in what I managed to sort through and toss were keys that opened locks that no longer existed, a 20-year-old pair of glasses and their broken case, and a ceramic bear without a front leg. Several more items were so peculiar I couldn't even recognize what their original purpose had been, e.g., a strip of blue plastic. What was it? Where did it come from? Why was I keeping it?
De-cluttering always makes me feel good. The challenge, however, is not allowing the clutter and excess to accumulate in the first place. With that in mind I'm hoping to approach this new year with a firm refusal to allow unwanted belongings enter my life at all. The stores won't be happy, but I'm looking forward to a year of Zen-like shelves and closets. No more three-legged bears for me!

Tip of the Day:  Keeping old, unwanted stuff isn't an obligation or a social duty. Instead, clear out, clean out, air out the past and make 2018 the year to let go. Holding onto items you mistakenly think you have to only sets up resistance and resentment. This also goes for any unloved, unfinished creative projects you don't want to work on any longer. Be brave, take a deep breath, and make the new year a clean slate.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Happy Creative 2018!

Happy 2018, everyone! It's great to be starting a new page, a fresh chapter, and even an entire book if that's what we want to do. The possibilities are endless.

2017 was a good year for me; I accomplished many of my goals, added some new ones, and discovered what it is I truly love to do: write and draw, of course!

Some of the year's highlights included:
  • Travel to southern California for business, and travel to Corpus Christi, TX for sheer fun. Both trips were welcome get-aways, but later in the year when hurricane damage struck the Texas coast and California suffered such terrible fire damage, I could only think myself fortunate to have missed the devastation. I can't imagine what the residents of those states have had to endure these last months and I hope the recovery goes well for them.
  • On a more positive note, I wrote a collection of poems based on my trip to Taiwan several years ago. This is the first time I've written enough poems centered on a single theme and narrative to make a good-sized chapbook.
  • Once I was finished with the text, I then finished a series of mixed-media paintings I had started about 18 months ago, also based on scenes from Taiwan. Using watercolor, sumi ink, colored pencil, and oil pastel I tried to evoke many of the emotions, sights, and sounds I experienced in that country. My plan is to use the pictures as illustrations to the poetry when I'm ready to publish it all in book form.
  • My novel, The Abyssal Plain, went to several agents, and is currently being read in full by request right now! I had very much hoped to publish it this year, but having a positive response is a close second.
  •  I completed the first round of edits for my next novel, Ghazal, getting it ready for a second draft I'll begin in February. (I like to let drafts sit and settle for a bit before tearing them apart again.)
  • July saw me attending Camp NaNoWriMo--a side journey I never meant to take, but there's nothing like going off the beaten trail. Rather than working on a novel, I used my time and word count to write short stories, a format that fit the challenge well.
  • Overseas visitors! Friends from New Zealand made the summer special. It was so much fun to show off Albuquerque and see my town from a fresh perspective.
  • I created a new art journal, concentrating on Asian themes for future writing and painting. Similar to a journal-style "mood board," I filled the pages with my favorite colors and images for both inspiration and reference.
  • Reading. What would I do without books? The best I found in 2017 were Elizabeth Kostova's The Swan Thieves and a biography of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek by Laura Tyson Li.
  • Ink became a real mainstay for me, and I used it for much more than journaling. Ink pens, ink brushes, sumi and bamboo sticks . . . Line and watercolor wash became my full-time sketching technique, something I'll be continuing throughout this new year.
  • Last, and perhaps my favorite: I blocked out a first draft and dummy for a children's picture book, The White Pony. Learning to draw horses hasn't been easy, but I'm getting there!
So with all that out of the way, my goals for 2018 are plain and simple, no frills attached:
  1. Publish The Abyssal Plain. (I hope, I hope.)
  2. Submit Ghazal to agents and editors before the end of the year.
  3. Turn The White Pony into a ready-to-submit manuscript package including illustrations.
Accomplishing these three milestones will require a number of mini-goals, i.e., draw every day, market every day, edit and write every day. I'll be busy, but it's doing what I signed up for and I'm grateful for another year to keep working on my dreams. In the meantime, wishing you a world of joy, creativity, and achievable goals of your own. Happy New Year--may the celebrations last until December!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Baby Steps

Here it is the last day of November and I'm finally finding a chance to write a blog post for the month. It's been hectic around here to say the least, but I'm doing my best to stay focused using one of my old stand-bys: baby steps

"Baby steps" are one of those things that tend to come up a lot in self-help books: Want to be more productive? Take baby steps. Want to give up a bad habit? Take baby steps! But what does taking baby steps really mean? And when do you get to graduate to long-distance running?

For a long time I confused baby steps with doing the easy parts first: "I'll just buy a new journal," or, "I'll learn to draw leaves before I try a full landscape." Not that there's anything wrong with this approach, but recently I've learned that baby steps are much bigger, and far more important, than they first appear. They're so important that I don't know what I'd do without them, especially with the way they help me stay organized, a key ingredient to goal accomplishment. And while they may not be as exciting as waltzing through the streets of Vienna or ice skating down a frozen canal, they sure are reliable. Some of my favorite steps include:

Baby Steps for Writers:
  • Buy supplies in advance (yes, do buy those journals!). Notebooks, pens, Post-it notes, paper--buy in bulk whenever possible.
  • Got some downtime? Make lists of potential agents, editors, and publishers.
  • Write and work on your query letters and synopses anytime you can't get to your actual manuscript. Update as you edit and/or make changes to your story line.
  • Create a work-in-progress binder with character bios, notes on setting, and any research material you need. Include a section for prompts and images cut from magazines or similar. Use for freewriting and brainstorming scenes and plot lines.
  • Be prepared! Set up submission files of 5-, 10-, 20-, and 50-page manuscript excerpts in advance of querying. Individual agents have different requirements. You'll save time by having each type of submission ready to go.
  • Make notes of what  you will write during your next available writing session: e.g., Chapter Three; a description of your main character's neighborhood; a biography of your story villain.
  • Find thirty minutes somewhere in your day to freewrite, whether it's to work on your manuscript, your journal, or a "just for fun" piece.
  • Edit and revise a limited amount of pages a day, say, three to five. Go for three passes: one to check on consistency in names/dates/settings/back story/character goals and motivations; another to ensure your story makes sense and builds to a satisfying conclusion; and a third to weed out typos and awkward grammar.
Baby Steps for Artists:
  • Create an art table or space that invites you to spend time there.
  • Get to know your supplies. Learn what they can and can't do. Experiment with pencils, brushes, and various papers. Forget about "making art," just scribble!
  • Keep your supplies to a minimum so you can get to work faster. Settle on one type of medium, one type of paper or other support per project.
  • Limit your subject matter for a while  to a single theme: still life, autumn landscapes, a trip abroad until you've exhausted all the possibilities and are ready to move on.
  • Work from one how-to book from start to finish.
  • Sketch for 15 minutes--anywhere, any time of day. 
  • Watch a how-to video once a day or week.
  • Lay out your supplies and references the night before you start to work. Make a note of what you want to accomplish the following day.
Baby Steps for Bloggers:
  • Brainstorm a list of topics.
  • Create an editorial calendar.
  • Prepare a file of photos or artwork to go with your posts.
  • Write your drafts by hand at a set time and day.
  • Set aside specific days and times to visit and comment on other people's blogs.
  • Print out your blog posts and save into a binder for future reference.
  • Keep a blogging journal: ideas, drafts, and reminders of why you are blogging in the first place.
Baby Steps for Crafters:
  • Settle on one discipline for a set period of time, e.g. ceramics for the winter months; knitting a sweater from start to finish.
  • Join a class or independent group of like-minded individuals.
  • As with art, limit your supplies to what you really need. Don't get tangled up in extra yarn you won't use for a year or two.
  • Set aside a dedicated day or time to work only on your current project.
  • Keep a journal with photos to remind you of what you made, what you need to purchase, ideas for future projects, and a list of what you'd like to achieve later on: e.g., ten pairs of earrings, a set of garden tiles, three skirts, an afghan for a holiday gift.

Once you start working with baby steps, no matter how many times you fall down or bump into the furniture, I can promise you won't want to give up. Baby steps remind us to stay focused, stay determined, and stay playful, and before you know it--you've run, and won, a marathon.

Tip of the Day: The first and foremost baby step you can take today begins with a list. Starting now, make a list of 12 steps you can use to keep writing and creating during the holidays. If you discover you absolutely can't create in the midst festive chaos, then make a list of actions you can take starting January 1, 2018. For further inspiration, read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, one of the best books on the subject I know!