Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Fall in Love with Your Personal Project


Happy Valentine's Day! And what could be a better day for celebrating all the passion and love we pour into our manuscripts, journals, canvases, and sketchbooks alike? However, as much as we might be crazy in love with our work destined for publication and gallery showing, how much attention are you giving to a "personal project"? You know, the one that might never end up on a bookstore shelf or win a prize in a juried exhibition? Chances are, it's probably your very most favorite. I know my personal projects certainly are.

In case you're wondering what exactly is a personal project, I thought I'd start by explaining what it is not: it's not a dud. It's not something so bizarre or scary you keep it hidden, afraid of what people will think of it or your sanity. And it's certainly not something so poorly done that you're ashamed of it. Rather, it's a project you love in spite of the market, an effort that you attempt fearlessly, trusting your instincts, knowledge, and personal taste to carry you right through to the end. In other words, it's your absolute heart's desire: The book you want to read. The painting you want to hang on your own wall. The volume of sketches that feed your soul and imagination like nothing else you have ever encountered.

Often a personal project can take the form of an art journal or similar, there's usually a more structured process going on. For instance, you might want to create a children's picture that you both write and illustrate, as well as design the size, format, and covers from front to back including the end papers. Every single element of the book is uniquely yours. Other examples of personal projects could be things such as:
  • A themed and beautifully executed sketchbook. It could be based on a nature study, birds, travel experiences, fashion . . . whatever you love.
  • An experimental or graphic novel along the lines of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.
  • A blog or website. Yes, your blog can definitely be a personal project, used as a place to explore, try out new ideas using new technologies, testing and challenging your digital skills.
  • A series of craft items: pottery, jewelry, sewing, weaving, etc. Any project using materials, colors, or mediums you would usually bypass for not being "commercial" enough but that you've always wanted to try.
Some of my own personal projects have fallen into all of these categories: my altered book project (still a work-in-progress); my "Silly Little Birds" sketchbook; my "30 Days of Kimono" art journal, and my current Asian-inspired painted ceramic work. I have no idea if any of them will ever be "For Sale" but they are all projects I had to work on, or lose my sense of self.

The best part of working on a personal project is it can get you through times of creative slump or ennui. As my husband loves to say: A change is as good as a rest, and working on a project miles out of your comfort zone for no real reason other than you love it can be a creative life-saver. If you're unsure of where to start or how to decide on a project, consider some basic guidelines:
  • Choose a subject you love, but have never felt confident enough to sell.
  • Use your personal project as a way to create daily rituals, discipline, and find pleasure in going to your studio or home office. This can be especially valuable during the times you're not feeling as inspired or motivated as you'd like to be.
  • Refrain from avoiding the work or even beginning it because it's "not for sale." Instead, unless you're on some impossibly tight deadline to complete a commercial project, try to give your personal project top priority. It's a great warm-up exercise before returning to other manuscripts or assignments you're working on.
  • It's fine to dive into the middle of a project, wanting to do all the fun parts first, but try to give the project a sense of coherency with an eventual beginning, middle, and end. Work toward giving the project a sense of being a finished body of work. Don't cut corners, become lazy, or feel you can be stingy with supplies because "no one else will see it." 
Most of all, keep in mind that your personal project should reflect the very best of you and your creativity. Make it shine, make it sing, and give it as much TLC as you can spare. Go for it!

Tip of the Day: Although the whole idea of a personal project is to make it personal, I'll bet you a silk pajama (to borrow from Ogden Nash) that some of your favorite published work started out as a project the author or artist wanted to keep private and not for sale. At the end of the day, there's nothing wrong with submitting or selling what began as a personal project if that's what seems appropriate when you're finished. Just don't let the idea of selling scare you from starting or falling into the "perfection" trap, one that keeps you from expressing yourself fully with all the individuality you can muster.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Lessons from an (Unused) Travel Sketchbook



I've just returned from a week-long business trip to Southern California. Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to draw, paint, and write, I had absolutely zero time to even open the small sketchbook I took with me. Not being able to dive into some on-the-go creativity was heart-wrenching: all those palm trees, coastline views, Mediterranean mansions. . . all to be abandoned as on to the next meeting I went. 

The best I could do on any given day was try to memorize what I was seeing and hope to use some of those memories at a later, and more convenient time. My fingers were itching to get out my watercolor pencils, but to no avail. There was always another place to be, another traffic jam, and the weather was freezing!

Now that I'm back home, I'm evaluating what it meant to not have any restful down-time during my trip. Maybe there was a good reason for the extreme lack of playful opportunity. Rather than fussing and lamenting over my situation, maybe I was given the chance to experience:
  1. Acceptance. From the stop-and-go traffic, to the food on my plate (as usual, a lot of sandwiches and pizza thanks to my very limited vegetarian choices), to having a cold, and then having to move hotels after the first night (the resort we'd booked was anything but), I found it was easier--and more restful--to go with the flow rather than bemoan the hiccups. Even without the chance to draw (or read, for that matter), everything turned out good. In fact, it was better than good: it was interesting. That's a valuable attitude to bring to any creative project: allow myself the chance to observe, take it all in, and accept whatever happens without expectations.
  2. Curiosity. Although I'm a former California resident and frequent visitor, it's been several years since I've been back. A lot has changed--it always has been a dynamic place--and I wanted to see and investigate absolutely everything I could. In some respects it became more important to keep moving, searching out new places to see and experience, rather than to sit in one spot and draw. I felt alive and inspired by the constant movement, even if I couldn't take advantage of that feeling in the way I wanted to.
  3. Nostalgia. It was strange to discover many of my favorite landmarks demolished or boarded-up, or so gussied-up they were no longer recognizable. Memories of the past and especially of my childhood hit me with every step I took, strong and powerful feelings I know I want to put into both my writing and my artwork. Packing them away for "later"will, I believe, only make them richer and riper for when I'm ready to use them.
  4. Contentment. Two of my afternoons included quick stops to both South Coast Plaza and Fashion Island, two of the ritiziest malls in existence and where much of my old Cali-life centered around . However, on this visit I had no desire to shop. Instead, I was content with people-watching and admiring the architecture and window displays. It was nice to know that I had everything I wanted in life and couldn't be tempted by more, giving an extra sense of appreciation to when I do have the time to sit down and create art with my favorite supplies.
  5. Focus. Unable to capture anything on paper, I had to look at the world around me on a deeper level and with a different perspective. Many of my reference books on Chinese painting encourage artists to build up their "memory muscles" in order to make their paintings more individual, less rigid, and more personal than simply attempting to photocopy "reality." Without a camera or a pen in my hand, I was forced to "paint in my mind" and really remember: everything!
It was a productive trip, and I enjoyed every minute of it, but there's also no place like home. My own food, my own bed, my own bathroom, and my own studio--ah, and the time, the wonderful time to write and sketch and play again. The best feeling in the world.

Tip of the Day: "Not painting" and "not writing" days can be just as valuable as the days we get to sit with our journals or sketchbooks for hours on end. After all, to quote Natalie Goldberg, "When you are not writing, you are a writer too. It doesn't leave you." The same goes for painting, beading, collaging--whatever fills your passion. The next time you find yourself hampered by time and circumstance, keep in mind that you don't have to come to a complete stand-still. There's always a creative response we can make to every so-called "problem."

Monday, January 2, 2017

Happy 2017! Happy Goal-Setting!


Here we are: 2017 and ready to write, draw, paint, bead, dive into the mud and best of all: stay creative every day. It's become something of a tradition of mine to list and share my goals for the New Year here on my blog, and this year I hope to inspire many of you to do the same. Not only does listing my goals help me to achieve them, but my list also helps me to map out how to get there, especially when I use my journal to further discover my "goals within goals."

The main thing I've learned from this annual practice is to keep everything simple and centered on the goals I really want, rather than any tasks or chores I (often mistakenly) think I should, or have to do. 

So with that in mind, my goals for 2017 are to:
  1. Sell, or independently publish before the end of the year, my novel The Abyssal Plain. 2017 is the year!
  2. At the same time, I want to edit and have ready for 2018 publication my novel, Ghazal.
  3. When I'm not writing, I want to complete the illustrations for my poetry collection based on my 2015 trip to Taiwan (publication planned for either this, or next year). I hope to include at least twelve (maybe more) of these paintings depending on the cost of full-color printing.
  4. And when I'm not writing or painting, I plan to continue making pottery and jewelry, but this year there will be a twist: I'm making items themed to go with my existing fiction and non-fiction books. For instance, ceramic pencil cups and holders to fit with my how-to, The Essential Guide for New Writers, and/or necklaces and earrings my main character, Sara Elliott, might wear in Overtaken. It's a fun way to come up with fresh ideas for both beading and marketing, even writing, and I've already bought some new beads and charms to make the first necklace. (Hint: it includes a tiny bejeweled Eiffel Tower.)
  5. Read more non-fiction. A few days ago I finished reading the fourth book in the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan series: The Story of the Lost Child. I was so overwhelmed by the power of that particular story and the rest of the books in the series that I felt I needed a break from reading fiction; after all, what could compare? Consequently I found myself at a loss without a bedtime book until I realized I might prefer nonfiction for a change. I went to the library and on random impulse picked out a biography on Mao Zedong--a complete surprise to me. So far I'm finding the book very interesting, encouraging me to expand both my knowledge of world events as well as taking a chance on other books I might usually pass by.
To round out my goal list, I also have a word for the year: Poetry. It came into my head out of the blue, and at first I wondered if it simply related to my Taiwan poetry manuscript and art project. But soon after "hearing it" I realized it meant that I wanted to keep the year poetic, filled with metaphor and symbolism, and a personal dedication to using those metaphors in all I do, from journaling to cooking dinner. It's an interesting concept, and one I'm still exploring. I'll let you know what I find out as the year progresses.

In the meantime, I want to wish you all a very Happy and Exciting New Year--may all your dreams be poetic, strong, and achievable!

Tip of the Day: Goal-setting is a valuable practice no matter what time of year you choose to start, but to my mind there's nothing more positive and practical than listing your goals in January. To add extra sparkle and creativity, rather than just listing your goals on a sheet of scrap or binder paper, how about treating yourself to a new journal, some fancy and colorful pens, and a package of collage items? Create a vision board in your journal to go along with your written goals. And don't forget to share: leave a comment or two here at my blog to let us know what some of your plans are. Have a great year, everyone!

Monday, December 12, 2016

Happy Holidays 2016!

Happy Holidays from Me to You! How will you spend the next few weeks? My plans include:
  • Watching Game of Thrones Season 6. I've been waiting for this for a long time.
  • Reading Book 3 of the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan series: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.
  • Decorating the clay pieces I made last month. I'm still working with an Asian-inspired theme: tiny landscapes, goldfish, and all embellished with beads and coins.
  • Making jewelry: earrings, necklaces, bracelets--using up more of my beads!
  • Being more present and aware with my social media friends: leaving comments on blogs, retweeting their tweets, and really getting to know who everyone is.
  • While I'll be busy online, I'm also taking a small break from all my various writing and art groups until February 2017.
  • Preparing more manuscript submission lists to agents and editors to use in the New Year. (Mindful submission is so much better--and more rewarding--than going willy-nilly through agents and editors A-Z "just because they're there.")
  • Goal planning. One of my favorite year-end tasks! I'll be deciding and finalizing what I really want to do in 2017. (Hint: it's going to include a lot of painting!)
  • And finally, despite the ginormous and very tempting sales in all the stores, I'm NOT buying any new journals, sketchbooks, or any art and writing supplies for myself until I've used 100% of what I already have. And that's a promise!
I hope you've had a happy and miraculous 2016 and that you'll use the holiday season to unwind, relax, and enjoy all the wonderful moments of this beautiful season. I'm so grateful for everything that has come to me this year, and I'm grateful for all of you for sticking with me and reading my blog so faithfully. Thanks for visiting and I'll see you soon. Until then, drink cocoa, stay warm, and remember to stay creative every day!

Tip of the Day: Celebrate the season with a special outing for your writing or art group. In my case I was able to spend a wonderful get-together yesterday with my writer friends at the oh-so-amazing St. James Tea Room here in Albuquerque. (Highly recommended if you're ever visiting New Mexico.) The decor was 100% English Victorian and the December menu was based on Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. It was all so authentic I thought I'd traveled to the UK--and without any jet lag! Find somewhere special in your own neighborhood to gather, rejoice, and share your 2016 successes and your 2017 goals.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Didn't Win #NaNoWriMo? Don't Worry, Be Happy!


I didn't win NaNoWriMo this year, and guess what? I'm not one bit sorry. In fact, I'm actually celebrating that I took care of myself and my sanity this November. Instead of stressing over word counts, I simply made sure I wrote a little every day, kept sketching every day, and just stayed on track with being creative every day. It was more than good enough--it was fantastic!

There were a number of reasons why this year's 30-day, 50K challenge didn't work for me, but the number one thing going on was a serious case of "monkey mind." Every time I sat down to work on my NaNoWriMo manuscript, I wanted to collage and paint it rather than write it. Or I wanted to find new writing prompts from old magazines. Or . . . or . . .  I just couldn't settle on one way of working on it. At the same time, I still wanted to express what was running through my head: images, colors, even musical themes, but I just needed to play with my subject matter rather than write it. So I followed my heart and:
  • Made 7 new pieces of pottery inspired by my story.
  • Finished the art journal I started earlier this summer with my writer's group by adding collages based on my story.
  • Finished an art journal I started three years ago by writing poetry connected to my story. (Yes, three years is a long time for one journal, I know, I know.)
  • Practiced drawing the horses that were part of my story.
  • Went through a stack of magazines for new pictures and ideas for writing prompts that I can keep using next year for my story.
  • And yes . . . I wrote 19,252 words of my NaNoWriMo story! Not so bad, after all.
Why I'm glad I chose this route:
  • I now have enough greenware to fill my kiln for a bisque firing.
  • Finishing my art journals got rid of my guilt at neglecting them and boosted my energy. And I love having collages to go with my plot, characters, and settings.
  • I've won plenty of NaNoWriMos over the years to know I can do it, but now I also know when to say "no." A very good lesson.
  • And it was still fun to participate, even on a minor scale. I enjoyed following the progress of other writers and encouraging them to continue. I was part of a writing community and it was a good place to be.
It's difficult to balance our real world obligations with our creative desires--sometimes near impossible. If you're anything like me, from the minute I get up in the morning I feel besieged by an entire litany of unrelated tasks: Buy milk; go to Staples; return library books; write Chapter Four. When I threw NaNoWriMo into the mix (write 2900 words today or die), all I wanted to do was go back to bed. That's when I decided to a) go slow, keep writing, but stop chasing the 50K. And, b) make sure that I sat down for at least an hour every day at my art table and just played. It was a good plan. Now I just have another 30K to go, but entirely at my leisure.

Tip of the Day: The key to accomplishing any goal is one step at a time. It doesn't matter how big or small that step is, just give yourself the space to do it. And if you did win NaNoWriMo this year: CONGRATULATIONS!! My hat's off to you. Enjoy your victory!

Monday, November 14, 2016

#InkTober Round-Up


I made it: All 31 days of InkTober 2016. Some days were easier than others, some days were total disasters, and every day presented a new challenge, mainly: how to use ink in an effective and interesting way. I learned much more than I expected to, and in spite of wanting to give up more than once, I think I've come to appreciate ink and the artists who use it more than I ever have before.

The best part of the challenge though, was the set time frame of an entire month. I've always enjoyed taking on creative projects with some kind of pre-set deadline in mind, even if I only give myself a few days, a topic I covered in "The Value of a  5-Day Challenge." Concentrating on ink for a month was an entertaining, and educational, road trip and one I'm glad I followed.

Another benefit I derived from my ink-splattered journey was the chance to learn more about ink--what it is, how it's used, and why. For a writer, ink is as necessary, and as natural, as breathing and eating, but I don't think I'm alone in being in constant pursuit of the "perfect pen." Over the years I've gone through fountain pens, felt-tip models, roller-balls, gel pens, purple ballpoints--you name it, I've tried it! Thanks to InkTober, though, I've fallen in love all over again with Pilot Precise V-5 and V-7 pens, and was also able to discover Tikky Rotring pens. Along with these I added my favorite Akashiya Sai brush pens as well as my perennial go-to combination of bottled sumi ink and a sharpened bamboo stick. (Nothing like the basics.)

So . . . some random thoughts about the month and what I got from it:
  • Prior to the challenge, my daily drawings were solely for practice, nothing fancy, just simple sketches no one but me would see. However, InkTober required that I post my drawings every day on social media--eek. I therefore had to explore subjects that could be drawn up in 30 minutes or less yet still appear finished. My most successful efforts turned out to be small sketches of Taiwan based on my photos from my trip last year, and studies of trees drawn with a distinct Asian influence. In other words, I found a voice and method I liked.
  • Sticking to ink-only was a challenge in itself. I craved variety. Even though I often added color from other mediums to my drawings (mainly watercolor background washes) it was difficult to stay so rigidly adhered to one type of drawing tool. The day the challenge was over I threw myself into oil pastels, charcoal, graphite--anything but ink! Consequently, I learned I am for sure a "mixed-media" artist, a good piece of knowledge if I ever need to describe my artist-self in a professional manner.
  • One of the more trivial things encouraging me to take up the challenge in the first place was that I wanted to use up a sketchbook I didn't like. (Out of the negative, find the positive!) There really was nothing wrong with this particular book--it was filled with cold-press watercolor pages and quite expensive--but I just never jelled with it. It order to get it out of my life and stick with my daily plan, I decided to just draw on those expensive pages and the heck with results. This approach turned out to be a lot of fun--especially as I could never truly control the lines my pen made due to all the natural irregularities common to watercolor paper. So rather than waste the book or leave it to molder over the years, I used it, enjoyed it--and now have a good record of my InkTober experience.
  • Finally, as much as I often resisted using that particular sketchbook (some days I just had to go back to my old favorites) the "bad sketchbook" allowed for two new drawing styles to emerge. The first contained a child-like whimsical quality, with the second being a loose and easy "just get the idea down" style. Both of these could be great for illustrating children's picture books, and I definitely plan to explore them further.
Now that it's November I'm immersed in--you guessed it--NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, but I'm still taking a daily 30 minutes+ to work on my drawing skills. It's amazing to me what can be accomplished in such a short amount of time, but just like sitting down for half an hour to freewrite, you can only get the work done if you take the time to do it. It's that simple! Whatever length of time you choose, five days or five months, keep in mind that the whole point is to give yourself a unique opportunity, one that will help you achieve your goals, especially those you've been too afraid to start (or finish).
Good luck and stay creative every day!

And just to prove I did my homework, here's some samples from my InkTober sketchbooks:

Jiufen Tea House, Taiwan

I was supposed to be practicing drawing horses, but zebras were more fun.

Taipei residential neighborhood.

Dreaming on a Sunday.

Portugal seaside. Fun to travel by pen!

Tip of the Day: Similar in spirit to National Novel Writing Month, InkTober is a chance to be part of a world-wide creative support group: one that wants you to succeed and meet your goals. Over the last few years all kinds of equivalent challenges have sprung up: Picture Book Writing Month, Poetry Month . . . even A-Z Blogging Month. Now is the perfect time of year to decide which one (or two or three) you'd like to try in 2017. Google some topics you might be interested in, find a group challenge, and then block out a schedule on your calendar for next year--it's never too early to prepare.

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.