Tuesday, March 26, 2024

13 Reasons to (Not) Cut Up a Magazine

Hello! Happy Spring! The last two months have found me on a blogging hiatus and for a very good reason: I was busy revamping my website, Valeriestorey.com. It was time for a change, and most of all, time to start selling my beaded bookmarks, jewelry, and artwork online. Hope to see you there!

Now that's done, however, it's back to blogging and one of my favorite topics: using magazines as a source for art and writing prompts.

I love prompts for any kind of creativity, even for game playing. Over the years I've used prompts in so many ways I can barely remember a time when I didn't use them. From Susan G. Wooldridge's Poemcrazy and her idea of creating "word pools," to simply having stacks of photo references for NaNoWriMo, magazine prompts have been my go-to method of writing forever. In my opinion, nothing matches an intriguing photo or a mysterious phrase to get a new scene or manuscript really going.

There's just one small problem: I can't find enough magazines! Always in the past free magazines seemed to be everywhere I went. I found them in local tiny libraries or for the grand price of twenty-five cents in thrift stores. Friends would happily give me several at a time, saying, "Oh, you like to cut things up. Take these--please!"

But lately my sources have dwindled. People don't subscribe like they did before, or they read online. So when I do come across a magazine full of great pictures or stories, I don't automatically grab my scissors. Instead, I'm keeping the pages intact and using every little thing they have to offer.

The upside to keeping magazine pages whole rather than shredded is I have a fresh outlook on how I use them, almost as if they were a type of multi-purpose reference book. I've discovered that I can more easily carry an individual magazine with me any time I choose to write outside or at my favorite cafe--no more dropped cut-outs scattering each time there's a breeze. Another benefit to working from a single magazine is I've discovered each issue will have a certain consistency that brings cohesion to a theme or a "look" for when I'm searching out characters or settings. For instance, take:

1. Characters. Because so many magazine issues are built around a single theme or subject, especially the month-by-month issues, it's easy to find groups of people (characters) who belong together. Whether they're all on vacation, all bankers, all celebrating Easter, or all wearing the strangest clothes ever designed in the whole of human history, page after page will feature people in related poses or situations. Regarding them as a group can create a cast of characters with a natural reason for knowing or meeting each other. Even the people and pets in the ads can fit into this united gathering.

2. Settings. Travel destinations. Art galleries. Home improvement. Magazines dedicated to single subjects will have multiple articles and ad repetitions of offices, bathrooms, bedrooms, kitchens, gardens, hotel rooms and restaurants providing so much detail, detail, detail you might never stop writing. When these details come from the same source, you once again have a more unified vision of where your characters interact and why.

3. Phrases. Article titles or ad-copy headlines are perfect for structuring story themes, or even adding to dialogue when they share a common purpose. For instance, art and design magazines will use a lot of technical references; literary magazines tend to be more poetic. Having a full list of phrases from a single source can be an excellent way, for instance, to title chapters or create a logical plot.

4. Found poetry. I love found or "black-out" poetry, taking shortened versions of existing phrases or lines out of context and placing them into new--often startling--arrangements. My personal preference is to use food magazines, but any magazine focusing on just one topic can provide an underlying consistency to your work, resulting in a more complete and better-crafted poem. To keep the magazine in top shape, consider photocopying the pages so that you can experiment with different ideas more than once.

5. And speaking of food . . .  Recipes! It's rare for a magazine that includes recipes to simply present a grab-bag of ideas somewhere on the back pages. Individual issues will instead usually choose one food type, such as salads, pasta, or a thousand-ways-with-eggs to complete each month's edition. "Recipe groupings" are great sources for character "show, don't tell" when you want to describe any of your characters' food preferences, dislikes, or allergies. They can eat the same thing over and over but cooked in a variety of ways, or avoid certain dishes with valid authority rather than "I don't like it."

6. Respond to a magazine's theme. Study each page and/or article as a whole and freewrite your feelings about what you read or saw. Sometimes the general color scheme alone can inspire a wealth of emotional response.

7. Add your own article or story. When you're finished reading a magazine, write something of your own to add to it. You might even want to write a piece in the voice of one of your characters to explore what truly interests them or how they feel about any given subject.

8. Get mad! Conversely, something about a magazine might bother you. You don't like the message, or how it was presented. Get snarky, be rude! Throw it at those horrible people in their dreadful glass houses with too much furniture and artwork. Let 'em have it. And make sure your characters behave even worse.

9. Get published. Why not? Magazine editors are always complaining about submissions that have nothing to do with a magazine's theme or requirements. But if you like a magazine, have studied it thoroughly, and think you have something to contribute, write a piece and submit it. Contact information and submission guidelines are usually listed in the first few pages.

10. Don't just sit there--read. With a magazine in your sketch- or writing-kit, you'll never be bored and will always have something to read wherever you go. You can't do that with a folder full of cut-outs.

11. DIY. Fashion, decorating, style--the things we're attracted to might be things we'd like to imitate or make ourselves. Creative prompts aren't exclusive to writing or painting. Ideas for knitting, pottery, or sewing can be as readily based on a magazine prompt as a story.

12. Art school. On a completely different note, magazines are fun to sketch with. I like to copy, trace, or find color palettes as exercises to fill my sketchbooks.

13. Break the rules. Draw on the pages. Add doodles, improve the view, change the colors of everyone's clothing. Use gesso to glue pages together and turn the whole thing into an altered book for more drawing or collage. (Of course you now have to go find a new magazine for new prompts, but at least you had fun!)

Tip of the Day: If you haven't already, gather a limited number of magazines that inspire you. I find six is a good number without being too cluttered. Personally I like to have a combination of art, fashion, interior design, food, and some kind of subject I wouldn't normally choose, say, a pet magazine. A good literary magazine is essential too. And don't overlook shopping catalogs. When you're ready for a new collection, simply pass your used copies on to your other writer friends and start all over again!

Friday, January 19, 2024

2024: My Year to Keep Going!

Even if you only have 60 seconds for a gesture drawing, take them!

Happy 2024, everyone. A whole new twelve months to explore, create, and discover an entirely new set of favorite whatevers.

I can't believe it's been a full year since I shared the most difficult post I have ever written: My Year of Letting Go when I wrote about losing my husband. In that post I talked about how much he would have wanted me to build a good life, not only for 2023, but for every day of my future. One year later, I hope I have made him proud:

  • I sold our business.
  • I sold his car restoration projects--one of them all the way to Germany!
  • Sold my daily driver. (Had to. The thing blew up on me.)
  • Filed the last business taxes ever. (Can't say I have too many regrets about this one. Tax preparation was often the worst part of any year.)
  • Dealt with every scrap of sadmin, from closing bank accounts to setting up my own cable and internet accounts.
  • Found and joined an amazing grief group centering on support rather than therapy (which I didn't want).
  • Made a focused and joyful effort to participate in adventures with friends at least once a month.
  • Sold a painting for the first time! Thank you Twitter Art Exhibit (recently renamed Postcard Art Exhibit). The 2023 show was for the benefit of Canadian Native Youth, a cause I really appreciated.
  • I completed Camp NaNoWriMo--50K words.
  • Took part in Inktober--31 inky sketches.
  • Nearly completed NaNoWriMo--43K words I can't wait to edit.
  • Learned to make breakfast at last. (Whoever knew toast could be so difficult??)
  • I blogged. Eight times!

It was a lot to do and there were many days I had no idea how I could do any of it, but not a minute was wasted, not a second lost. If I had to list what I've come away with, it would be:

1. "Stay Creative Every Day" is still one of the most important goals I believe worth having. Daily painting, drawing, journaling, and writing will always give my days structure. meaning, and purpose.

2. Don't worry about the how. Rather than worry, just sit down, stay in place (tea and chocolate helps), and start doing something--anything! Before you know it, you've done something good.

3. Don't worry about sequence. If Chapter One seems overwhelming, write Chapter Thirty-three. If you can't think of what you want to paint, throw some color on paper anyway. If you have to write a business email, just say what you want to say in the worst possible way in a draft and send it later when you're ready to fix your grammar. The point is, just begin at any point in the narrative; go where your steps or the mood takes you.

4. Go fast. Write fast, draw fast--at least in the beginning when you're resistant to starting. Set a timer if it encourages you to speed up and get going.

5. When you're tired, rest. As much as I want to build Rome in a day, I've had to acknowledge both physical and mental exhaustion more often than not. I tend to be impatient about lots of things anyway, including healing from grief, yet some of my most productive ideas have come from forced stoppage, allowing myself to rest, read, and yes, even sleep!

Something that came into my possession last year was a pen with the words "Take More Risks!" printed on the side. At first I thought it was silly, but as the year went on, I began to consider the message more seriously. I'm not exactly prone to do things like jump off tall buildings or even run with scissors, but there are definitely areas I could dive into on a deeper level, such as offering more artwork for sale, or submitting my writing to places I always thought too difficult or edgy to approach. I'm excited to at least try some new things in 2024 and I hope you will be too. 

So glad I risked sending this to TAE '23 . . .

 Tip of the Day: As an exercise for the year, try creating your own set of inspirational challenges designed just for you. For instance, instead of following along with NaNoWriMo because "it's there," think outside the box and try "April is Collage Month" or "Found Poetry Month" in August because that's your cat's birthday. Write your ideas down in a calendar or a planner and start brainstorming how you can use the year to "take more risks" and see how far you can go.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

NaNoWriMo '23 -- It's All About Me! (And You Too!)


So here we are again: November and National Novel Writing Month and the eternal question: Why am I doing this??

Because I love it, I suppose!

Whatever the reason, this year has found me throwing myself into creative challenges with more than reckless abandon. I had barely recovered from July's Camp NaNoWriMo when I decided to go for Inktober '23 (31 days of daily ink drawing with mandatory social media posting) and then the next thing I knew I had to do "the real" NaNoWriMo . . . and off we go.

When I first thought about signing up for NaNoWriMo 2023, my intention was to simply continue the story I had started in July. Although I had reached my 50K goal, the manuscript was in no way complete, so it made sense to think November would be a good time to write another 50K to finish things off. 

That all changed several weeks ago when I couldn't sleep one night and got up to write instead. Suddenly I was immersed in a new story, one I hadn't expected to write and one I didn't really want to write. Working on a "shiny bright idea" with so many other projects calling for attention felt like a very bad idea. But there it was and it wouldn't go away so I thought, use it for NaNoWriMo!

While it was easy enough (maybe too easy) to switch gears into a new plot and theme, the abruptness of the change didn't give me any time to assemble my usual scrapbook-style journal of prompts and photo references. I had a great journal full of mood boards and creepy settings to use back in July, but there wasn't a single item I could use toward my new story. Very quickly I had to come up with an entirely fresh approach: rather than rely on my usual magazine cut-outs, I could dive into my own life and make the prompts all about me! (Sort of.)

I was inspired by the example set by one of my Twitter (X) friends, writer and poet, Janis La Couvée, who is currently exploring memoir writing. Her recent tweets on the subject reminded me of a workshop I had taught while I was living in Carrollton, Georgia: "Write Your Memoirs, You're Never Too Young To Start." It was a fun class and I know of several full-length manuscripts that were written for both family record-keeping as well as more general publication. However, other than a blog post with the same title, I haven't thought of memoir for a long time until it occurred to me that using prompts from my own daily life and memories could be what I needed for NaNoWriMo. 

In other words, I'd be "memoir writing" but with a twist. I could assign my memories to fictional characters who could take them wherever they wanted to go. For instance, as a small child I wanted to be an archaeologist, something I obviously never did (unless you count Albuquerque yard work as a trial run), but a fictional character could actually work for a museum.

With that direction in mind, I've made a quick 30-day list I'm happy to share for any kind of writing you might be doing this month yourself, whether it be NaNoWriMo, a genuine memoir, or even a month of poetry.

Taking the words: "base a scene on," or "your main character remembers (something from the list) which then triggers (action or emotion)," try:

  1. A favorite song.
  2. A disliked poem.
  3. Most hated childhood food.
  4. Most frightening moment.
  5. Happiest day.
  6. Three items inside your handbag or pockets.
  7. Three items of clothing you love.
  8. Three items of clothing you never wear.
  9. Favorite pet.
  10. Worst day of school.
  11. Your best childhood friend.
  12. A letter you never wrote.
  13. Favorite book: go to page 93 and use the first line you read.
  14. A restaurant you would never go to and why.
  15. Your attitude to shopping.
  16. A hobby or skill you would love to have.
  17. A place you have always wanted to travel to.
  18. Favorite color.
  19. Most disliked color.
  20. Your last argument.
  21. Something you're allergic to.
  22. Your car (or lack of one).
  23. An item in your house you wish you could get rid of.
  24. An item you wish you still had.
  25. Greatest fear or phobia.
  26. Housework.
  27. Favorite movie.
  28. What you are wearing this very minute.
  29. What you really want to say to your neighbor(s).
  30. Your daily routine as it is now, or how you'd like it to change.

And there you go: 30 prompts for 30 days! Feel free to use them in daily order or for a more spontaneous writing session, mix them up and use at random. Or add your own ideas; after all, you know your own life best!

Tip of the Day: Although NaNoWriMo requires both planning and organization, you can still start a day or two late and be a winner. One way I'm focusing on writing, and writing only, is to clear my work space and limit my writing tools to the basics: my Alphasmart; a lined notebook for writing in cafes, parks, or the middle of the night; and a new sketchbook with a small number of my favorite pens and pencils. The sketchbook is for visual brainstorming in between writing sessions and to keep the creativity flowing whenever I need a break. Now to go write my 50,000 divided by 30 equals 1666.666 words for the day. Happy November! Happy Writing!

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Return from #CampNaNoWriMo 2023

Lakeside, CampNaNoWriMo 2023  

Back home from CampNaNoWriMo at last! Well, okay, so I never went farther than the Albuquerque Museum Cafe and any relation to travel, camping, or singing 'round the campfire was all "let's pretend." But isn't that the definition of creativity? Using the imagination and taking it as far as it will go?

One thing I couldn't pretend away though, was how difficult CampNaNo turned out to be, and it wasn't just the very-real mosquitoes. Getting up every day to write close to 1700 words eventually became a Herculean effort and I did have to spend several days catching up with my word count, July 31st being the worst. I didn't finish writing that night until 11:44 PM. On the dot. It was a long evening indeed, but I made it across the finishing line just as the first street racers started roaring outside my windows down Route 66.

Now that two weeks have passed since the end of camp, I guess the big question is, WHY? Why did I want to do something so, well, challenging? Short answer: I wanted to see if I could. This year has been difficult for me on so many levels, and despite hours and hours of grief journaling, my creative writing often found itself buried under mounds of administrative paperwork. Signing up for CampNaNo was an opportunity to start over and see what direction I truly wanted to follow.

It was a good choice. As soon as I actually sat down to write I was back in one of the safest places I know: the blank page. I wrote in cafes. I wrote beside my condo's swimming pool. I wrote in the park. I wrote in bed. I got it done and I'm glad. There are so many benefits to joining in with a writing challenge, starting with:

  1. Discipline. No excuses. You just have to write--so do it!
  2. Commitment. Setting a challenge goal of 50K words or simply 50 pages is a promise to yourself, one you want to keep. It feels good to keep your promise.
  3. Finding a schedule. A challenge is a good way to figure out your best writing times of the day or night. For me it turned out to be mid-afternoon. With a latte.
  4. Visible progress. A writing challenge can bring a good dose of instant gratification. Watching your word counts and pages add up is immensely satisfying.
  5. Freewrite like you mean it. I love freewriting, letting the words pour onto the page without editing, censoring myself, or worrying about "what people will think." Participating in a challenge leaves little time to do anything other than write, write, write, and often you have to abandon linear thinking, switching scenes on the fly, inventing new characters, ignoring transitions. It's great.
  6. You're part of a global effort. It's fun to imagine all those other writers out there suffering enjoying themselves day after day, night after night. Writers tend to be loners, so what's better than a world-wide writer's group?
  7. That idea you always wanted to play with? Now's the chance to go for it.
  8. Beginner's mind. When you're writing fast you don't have time to think about the rules or the "right" way to approach your story. Every sentence is a new beginning, a new way to express yourself. You don't need answers, you just need to listen to that voice asking "what if?" and follow what first comes to mind.
  9. A chance to experiment with form and genre. Bored? Turn your mystery into a series of short stories. Or add some recipes. Or poetry. Mix and match styles and write outside the box--you might find a brand new voice for yourself, the one you've always been looking for.
  10. You can discover what it is you don't like to write. 20,000 words into your manuscript you might discover that you hate writing novels, and that's just fine. Maybe you would much prefer to specialize in personal essays, or you might never want to pick up a pen again, deciding that abstract landscape painting is your true calling. Now's the perfect time to find out.
  11. You'll have 50K words to edit. I'm sure you've heard the truism that writing is re-writing. Except you can't rewrite a manuscript without a first draft. Join a challenge and you're guaranteed a first draft to rewrite for as many drafts as it takes.
  12. You'll have a manuscript to publish. Yay! What more incentive do you need?

Regarding that last point about publication, as worthy as it is to eventually publish your work and while 50K is an excellent start, a full-fledged, polished manuscript really needs a minimum of 75,000 to 100,000 words to be a satisfying read. My plan is to go for that 100K goal after taking a several-month break. For the moment my pages are packed away in a folder, but as soon as November's National Novel Writing Month 2023 rolls around I plan to jump in with both feet and get that story finished. Until then, you can find me in the craft room painting more landscapes.

Tip of the Day: Now's the time to consider signing up for what will be the 24th year of NaNoWriMo. Begin by collecting writing prompts, character and other reference photos, and doing any research you might need to have in place before November 1. Even if it's a simple outline or a plan dividing 30 days into plot points and chapter breaks, it can be helpful to have your compass ready and your backpack full of ideas ready to go. As they like to say at camp, "Be prepared!"

Thursday, June 29, 2023

31 Writing Prompts for Camp NaNoWriMo '23

Two days to go and here I am, preparing for yet another July and another Camp NaNoWriMo! 50,000 words in 31 days; a totally off-the-cuff decision to participate, but one I'm actually pretty excited about. 

To get myself ready for the big event I've got a new notebook, my favorite pen and extra cartridges of my favorite violet ink (yes, I always write my first drafts by hand), a good supply of snacks, and a dozen or more excellent cafes to visit for those days when I have to write with a latte or else.

But with all the supplies and comforts in the world, there inevitably comes that moment when I'm half-way through my coffee as well as my daily quota (1,613 words per day to be precise) and I'm hit with: "Oh, no--I'm stuck! What comes next? What on earth should I write?" 

Which is why I've always found it more than useful to have a list of writing prompts ready to go.

Back in 2021 I shared a similar list that you can view here if you feel you need for even more suggestions to help the words flow. All of my prompts, this year and those before, are simply to get things moving again, especially for those times I've lost a sense of who my characters are and why they're doing what they're doing. The prompts can be used for new scenes, back story, or just to shake things up and go off on an unexpected tangent. I know this can sound a little scary to dedicated plotters, but as a life-long pantster, I highly recommend the surprise of the road not only less-traveled, but also going for the one you never knew was there in the first place.

So here we go: 31 prompts for 31 days. Use them, share them, change or tweak them to fit your own story needs. Whatever you choose to do, the main thing is to keep writing!

  1. Write about an inheritance that isn't about money.
  2. Add a character obsessed with the paranormal. How does this affect your plot?
  3. A character accidentally stumbles onto a movie set. How, what, why?
  4. Three secrets your main character will never tell.
  5. Three secrets your villain wants to tell the world about your main character.
  6. Characters: main, villain, secondary--one of them witnesses an illegal act. How will this pivot the plot into a new direction?
  7. Write about the time one of your characters went to summer camp when they were ten years old and hated it.
  8. The same character had a completely different experience at the same camp whey they were fourteen. What happened?
  9. An unexpected job offer. What and why?
  10. Write about your characters' feelings about relationships.
  11. A costume party with sinister undertones.
  12. Your main character is going to an event but loses the invitation or the tickets. What happens now?
  13. A visit to an animal shelter.
  14. Several of your characters are having an argument about religion. Why? What are they saying? What is the aftermath?
  15. Write about a new skill or hobby your main character is learning and why they want to learn it.
  16. Choose a favorite piece of music for each of your characters. Write about why it's their favorite and how they feel when they hear it.
  17. What is your main character's imaginary "safe place"? When do they most often go there?
  18. Write about your villain's favorite book and how it has influenced them to be who they are today. How will it figure in your plot?
  19. Write about a childhood rejection.
  20. What is your main character's most meaningful piece of jewelry and why? What would happen if it was lost? Lose it.
  21. A sudden, forgotten memory. What triggered it?
  22. An event your main character doesn't want to attend. Why?
  23. Write about a time your main character said "no" and regretted it.
  24. Write about a time your main characters said "yes" and regretted it.
  25. A neighbor knocks on the door in the middle of the night. Why? 
  26. Your main character finds a hidden letter in a used book.
  27. Your villain steals something valuable. What and why and how will this change everything?
  28. Write about your characters' feelings about children.
  29. What was the worst thing a parent or teacher ever said to your main character and how did that affect the rest of their life?
  30. Write about a dinner party that includes both your main character as well as your villain.
  31. No matter what point you've reached in your story--write the beginning to your sequel!
Tip of the Day: With any writing challenge there's always the temptation to write beyond your daily quota, particularly when you find yourself on a roll and think you could write nonstop for the next twenty-four hours. I can tell you from past experience it's not a good idea. Rather, it's the perfect set-up for burn-out. Writing 7,000 words a day might sound wonderfully productive and impressive and that you're beating the competition, but before you know it, you'll be too tired to keep up the pace for long and will do anything to avoid your next writing session. Worse still, you'll justify not writing because you have "extra words in the bank" you mistakenly think will tide you over. Believe me, I'm all for creative effort, but this is one time slow and steady really does win the race. Good luck, have fun, and don't forget your hat! It's hot out there.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Watercolor Lessons for Writers

I love to write; I love to paint, usually on the same day and often at the same time. Ink and watercolor, stories and images, my mind swirls with so many ideas it's a wonder I can settle down long enough to work on anything. If I could write and draw with both hands, that would be my ideal definition of time management.

Between the two, however, watercolors--no matter how many hands I use--will always be my most difficult challenge. Words come more easily to me than any skill with paint, probably because I consider writing to be talking on paper, and I'm not exactly an introvert when it comes to conversation. After I'd published my how-to book, The Essential Guide for New Writers, I was delighted when one of my writing students said, "The book just sounds like you!"

I don't know to what degree my watercolors "look like me" and I hope it's very little. At the moment they tend to be rather gloomy, not exactly how I want to be pictured for the rest of my life, but let's consider it a phase.

Unlike a manuscript draft which can be rewritten ad nauseum, you only get one chance with watercolors; start gloomy, stay gloomy. There's no going back. Once you begin, there you are. Watercolors simply cannot be "fixed." Whether it's a bug flying into a freshly painted surface, or my hand suddenly dropping a loaded paintbrush onto a pristine area that was meant to remain white, things happen. Yet with every "mistake" I have also discovered I can turn happy accidents into something worth keeping. So what if the white paper is now orange? Call it a sunrise. Bug smears? A vital part of my style.

The other day while I was painting outside on my balcony (not for glamor, but because it's the best place to make a mess), I started thinking about how I would feel if I had to give up one or the other. There was so much I had learned from each discipline and not about technique alone. Patience, realistic expectations, perseverance, these things are integral to my approach to creativity and stem from rock-solid basics:

1. My Favorite Supplies. Every new watercolor painting begins with paper, paint, and brushes, and preferably high quality paper, paint, and brushes. But something I've learned is that quality rarely has anything to do with price. In reality, quality is whatever is the most fun to use. A springy brush from the discount store or a smooth-gliding glitter gel pen can make me want to paint or write all day. Most of my painting disasters have stemmed from using the most expensive supplies because they weren't conducive with what I was trying to do. Student-grade paint, for instance, has turned out to be in many cases much richer in color than pricey "professional" brands. Brown paper bags are an amazing background for painting with opaque watercolors.

It's the same with writing tools: take those gorgeous leather-bound journals you see lined up in bookstores or gift shops. Gilt-edged blank pages, jewel-toned covers; they terrify me! They're so difficult to use: the covers don't fold back enough for writing on the go and the paper can be too textured, making my pen skip, stop, and eventually destroy the pages with ink blots and holes in the paper. For me, the very best journals and notebooks are spiral-bound and have cardboard covers I can collage with my own designs. The paper inside accepts any kind of pen, even an ink-dipped twig. I can't write in anything too genteel, nor with a designer pen that looks great advertised in a magazine, but is so heavy it could double as a snow-shovel. Struggling with supplies because they're beautiful and what "the professionals use," is a surefire way to write or paint nothing at all.

2. Work from light to dark. A frustrating aspect of watercolors is how you have to work in layers. It's nearly impossible, for instance, to create a shadow area in a painting with just a single stroke of dark color. To make matters even more frustrating, watercolor has a tendency to always dry lighter than what you thought the color would be. You have to lay down an initial wash, wait for what seems like forever for the paint to dry, and then add another layer of color. And then another. Sometimes this can go on for an entire day!

When we're writing, it's tempting to want to get everything right with only one draft. But more often than not we have to write, and write, and write some more to really achieve the exact meaning of what we're trying to say. Don't give up when you re-read a first, second, or third draft and find it to be too "light" or lacking the depth you want. Keep going. Experiment with different approaches to your subject matter. The main thing to keep in mind is that you will reach the right shade with perseverance. Keep going.


3. Let the paint dry! Depending upon where you live, waiting for a watercolor layer to dry can be fast or molasses-slow. In Albuquerque where I'm currently based, I don't have long to wait, but when I was living in Georgia, the humidity kept my paper wet for hours. Whether you're in the desert or at the beach, it's still boring to wait for paint to dry, but it's also essential. The quickest way to create "mud" on the page is to rush into adding fresh paint before the previous layers are dry. My solution has been to work on several pieces at once, which is also the way I write. At any given time I have about three manuscripts in progress: a short story, a journal of ideas and freewriting, and at least one novel. If my enthusiasm wanes for any of it, I can move to something new.

Multiple projects can be helpful with painting, too. If my paper is taking too long to dry, I like to doodle in my sketchbook, or put some color washes onto a new sheet of paper. While the clouds are drying on the first piece, I can start painting the hills on another. It's a handy trick that saves time and keeps me from wanting to rush in too quickly, and thereby destroy, whatever I'm working on.

4. Don't over-mix your colors. A common error many watercolor artists make is over-mixing their colors: putting, say, some blue and red on their palette and stirring it into purple soup. A much better technique is to wet your paper with clean water, then drop in some blue followed by a drop of red and let the two colors find their own chemistry. The ensuing violet shade will be much richer and more interesting than a standard recipe purple.

For writers, over-mixing colors is the equivalent of over-editing. Polishing and rewriting a piece too many times can edit the life right out of it. Sure, you want your words to be clear and understandable, but don't over-strive for perfect grammar or syntax if it's going to end up putting your reader to sleep.


5. Use your largest brush. Tiny, delicate paintbrushes are cute and look as if they're exactly what you need for painting hundreds of tree leaves or fur on a cat, but the truth is you can get into terrible trouble by being too finicky. It's a lot more liberating, and exciting, to paint bold and quick with your largest brush no matter how small your paper is. Using a flat, wide brush is the equivalent of freewriting, letting first thoughts, first words spill onto the page in broad strokes and unrestrained, uncensored expression. You can always go back later into a piece with a smaller brush, outlining and emphasizing your details. But start too small and you'll be fussing over your work for hours and days without any visible progress.

Tip of the Day: Find an old manuscript you've put away, one you've given up on either because you were tired of editing it, or tired of marketing it without adequate response. Taking the suggestions listed above as a guide, see if you can apply any of them to your story. Do you need to take a new approach to your theme with some freewriting? Are there scenes that would benefit from added layers of darkness? Have you been using too small of a "brushstroke" to paint your setting or your characters' emotions and reactions? See how far you can go in a new direction. (And don't forget: Extra credit for writers who try some watercolor paintings based on their plot!)

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Los Caminos de la Vida

The paths of life
are not what I used to hope
are not what I used to believe
are not what I used to imagine
The paths of life
are very hard to travel
they are hard to walk
and I can´t find a way out

Los Caminos de la Vida

The paths of life,

They are not what I used to think,

They are not what I used to imagine

They are not what I used to believe.

The paths of life,

They are very hard to walk,

They are very hard to travel,

And I can't find a way out. 


I hope I am not as desolate as these song lyrics imply, but I have to admit to feeling somewhat lost without my husband. Nothing in my past prepared me for the road of grief and loss; no one ever told me it would be so hard. But that doesn't mean I'm entirely without direction or hope, or that I can't "find a way out."

One of the things helping me to find a way both in- and outward has been my return to reading. Not being able to read during the initial stages of grief is apparently quite common, so finding myself once again enjoying a book has been a huge relief. At the top of my "that was so good!" list is a book recently published by my friend and former writing group member, Suzanne Blazier. In September of 2019, only months before we were all hit by the pandemic, Sue did something I had often dreamed of doing but never had the nerve to try: she walked the Camino Francés, the historic pilgrimage route from  St. John Pied-de-Port, France to Santiago de Campostela in Spain and then on to the Spanish coastal town of Finesterre. 

It was a very long trip. And far more difficult than I realized until I read the full manuscript. From nearly-impassable trails of sharp, jagged rocks to battling constant rain and catching a debilitating cold, it's a miracle Sue came home in one piece at all. Yet, regardless of her challenges (maybe because of them?), Sue managed to find a wealth of beauty and meaning along the way, moments she made time to write about in her insightful journal that eventually became Prancing in the Pyrénées, Sloshing Through Galicia; My Way Along the Camino Francés.

I don't want to give away too much of the story, because I hope you will read Prancing in the Pyrénées for yourself, but I do want to say how much I love this book, and for reasons that have nothing to do with me ever walking the Camino. 

The first time Sue's story inspired me was while her book was still in manuscript form. It was smack in the middle of the pandemic restrictions. All of my writing and art groups had closed down and the only activity open to me was endless walking, something I mentioned in my last post on Urban Writing. Back then I suppose we were each in a separate state of shock, unsure of what was really going on. My "therapy" was to walk every day. Each morning when I would embark upon my solitary and lonely walks, I would imagine I was on the Camino, making a pilgrimage of some sort to understand what on earth was happening. Some days I would walk thinking of how the world could heal itself; other days I would walk in an attempt to figure out what I meant by "healing." Thinking of Sue's trip gave me a reason to walk beyond mere exercise.

Now that the pandemic is over and the manuscript draft is an actual hold-in-your-hands book, Sue's story continues to inspire me. I keep turning over what Sue achieved, thinking of how she did it and how to use the same motivations that kept her going forward. Chapter headings such as "Solitude," "Where are you from?" and "Re-entry" have made me think of how I, as well as other readers, could use these titles as journaling or writing prompts in our own lives. Some ideas that came to mind were:

1. Write a travel memoir of your own. This might seem a bit obvious, but if you focus on trips that were more than "just for fun," what significant journeys have you taken that were deeper than rest and relaxation? How were you changed by travel?

2. What do you need to travel with? What can you leave behind? Besides being an entertaining read, Prancing in the Pyrénées definitely has its practical side. Advice on topics from language skills to what items to bring or leave at home are invaluable tips for anyone seriously planning a Camino pilgrimage. As a dedicated minimalist, I was impressed with Sue's pared-down list of travel items, from clothing to toiletries. There are so many areas in our lives in which we carry too much: shelves of unused art supplies; books on a TBR pile that will never be read; photographs of distant events that mean little or nothing to us. What do we really need to carry, not just for survival, but to be happy?

3. Many years ago when I was still thinking about what it was I most wanted to write, I took take a class on travel writing. At the beginning of the class the instructor explained the origins of the word "travel," saying that it came  from the Old French word "travail" which in turn was a reference to weaving, describing the action of a shuttle carrying thread back and forth through other threads on a loom to create a piece of fabric. To my ears, "travail" was more closely related to "trouble" than travel, but I also have enough horror stories of my own to know how troublesome travel can be! In her book, Sue does an excellent job of sharing her travel-travails and how she overcame them, persevering to complete her trip in the best way possible. Have there been times in your life when you wanted to give up on a project, goal, or dream? What did you do to keep going? How did you encourage yourself? What roads or projects were you forced to abandon? Do you think of re-starting any them, and if so, how could you make that happen?

The Mexican poet and Nobel laureate, Octavio Paz, once wrote that reading is a pilgrimage. He believed that readers are forever changed by what they read, and in turn they cannot help but express that inner change to the world around them. I couldn't agree more. From Sue's book I've learned how vital it is to clear the road for those who follow, write the guidebooks for those need them, and to be as honest and open about our lives as we can be. Whether you plan to walk to Spain or sit reading in the sun with a cup of tea, Prancing in the Pyrénées will be the perfect travel companion.

Tip of the Day: As an additional resource, Sue has also created a blank Camino Journal for pilgrims to take notes and record their days. Although the book is designed for travelers, you might want to think about using it to journal from the prompts I've listed above. Use it to brainstorm your most memorable paths and journeys. What could you write about them? What did you bring home to share?

While you're writing, here is Los Caminos de la Vida in its entirety. It's a sad song, but like so much of life, strangely filled with comfort despite the darkness. That said, may your path be always safe and sure.