Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Food, Glorious Food!

I've been thinking a lot about food, mainly because I haven't been able to eat much of it thanks to an emergency dental issue. All my favorite go-to writing snacks, e.g. carrot sticks, wasabi crackers, tortilla chips, cheese, etc. have been put on hold in favor of soup and endless glasses of water-and-lemon. And if you think writing and liquids make a good combo, let me tell you, they do not.

I don't know why I get so hungry when I write, and it's even worse when I read. I am a born snacker-grazer (thank goodness I love carrots) and one of my pet peeves when reading an otherwise engaging book is the lack of any mention or description of food. Whether the characters are dining on lobster bisque at a five-star luxury resort, or heating up beenie-weenies on a campfire, I want to know. 

Food, to me, is vital to a story: Meg's first disastrous dinner "party" in Little Women; Proust and his madeleine dipped in tea; "Babette's Feast"; Like Water for Chocolate; William Saroyan eating a messy peach in The Human Comedy. In other words, a story without food is like some miserable diet--impossible to follow!

Both the consumption and preparation of food can play a magical part in your own writing. For instance,
  • Food can be the basis of an entire memoir: one triggered by family recipes; favorite holiday meals; what you cooked when where, and why; favorite cookbooks; good and bad restaurant experiences. Tip: a fun way to start is to write a recipe as a letter to a friend--real or imaginary. Spin off into tangents of freewriting as you go.
  • Food can be the subject of a poem or short story, or a whole collection.
  • Food and meal prep can be great ways to "show, don't tell" when exploring fictional characters, and even writing action scenes. What do your characters love, hate, won't for anything? What about their attitudes to cooking--good, bad, indifferent? Do they prefer to order take-out? How do they feed kids, pets, spouses? Are they vegetarian, gluten-free, suffer from unusual food allergies? What's their favorite snack, adult beverage, brand of chocolate? There are so many possibilities I sometimes think you could write a complete character-bio made up solely of food choices and experiences.
Some other ways to include food in your writing can be to:
  • Create a character who specializes in food preparation and the pleasures of the table: A chef, a restaurant owner, a food critic, an artisan cheese maker.
  • Dig into cookbooks and food magazines. Both are excellent resources when you need to find new meals for your characters to enjoy, especially if you're writing about characters in foreign settings. I'm a great fan of food magazines in particular and often cut out the actual recipes along with the accompanying gorgeous photos to place in my work-in-progress files. The photos can later be used for painting references and collage elements. 
  • Use your favorite restaurant as a setting. Better yet--try writing while you're there!
  • Never overlook the opportunity to write your own cookbook, how-to article, or restaurant review, whether for print or online. The same applies to starting and maintaining a food blog if you find yourself falling in love with the idea of culinary writing in all its many aspects.
However you choose to write about food, the one thing I'd like to suggest is never ignore it. There's nothing worse, I think, than to read about a character who never eats unless he or she is some kind of mystic or suffering from an eating disorder. I once read an otherwise excellent mystery set in Barcelona, the home of the world's best tapas, where the characters lived on nothing but coffee. They didn't even get cake! I couldn't stop wondering how they maintained enough energy to catch the bad guys when they never stopped at a single cafe or convenience store. I was starving by the time I finished the book. 

Tip of the Day: As fun as it is to gorge characters on sushi and streudel, you don't want to bore your readers with endless step-by-step descriptions of all-day banquets or baking marathons. Like the best recipes: keep it light, keep it simple, and always keep it tasty. Bon app├ętit! 

P.S. The good news is my mouth is on the mend--I'll soon be crunching on those yummy carrots in no time at all! See you next time.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

How to Solve any Problem with Beads

Some of the beads I've gathered abroad,
or just from a trip to the craft store.

How to Solve any Problem with Beads. Really? Well, that's the title/theme I've just been given from my latest discovery: a blog post generator! 

Back story: I was scrolling through Twitter (when I was supposed to be editing my poetry manuscript) when I read a tweet that totally intrigued me, a reference to using a blog post generator. Naturally, I had to check it out, mainly because I've never come across a creativity generator I didn't like. Whether it's been to name a foreign character, find a setting for my National Novel Writing Month plot, or match a profession to a villain, generators are fun. 

The blog post generator I found was no exception, the only difference being that I had to enter three nouns before the generator could assign my topic. My choices were: creativity, beads, and writing. I then clicked on "go" and ta-dah: How to Solve any Problem with Beads. 

I had a good laugh, and then thought, hey, why not? That's a great topic! The only trouble was, I didn't know whether it meant how to solve big problems, like, how to bring about world peace, or how to get your neighbor's dog to stop barking; or did it mean, how to solve any problems you're having with beading, such as how to correctly fit those pesky crimp covers used for finishing the ends of necklaces and bracelets. If so, I have to admit I don't have any solutions for crimp covers (the bane of my beading life) other than try, try, try again, but I also know that in the trying I've been able to zone out and solve (or at least meditate upon) quite a few day-to-day challenges including writing and painting problems.

My (tiny) bead table.

I know I'm not alone in my fascination with beads. Beads in all forms and shapes have a long history of decorative and spiritual use, from Buddhist malas to Christian rosaries and burial relics in ancient grave sites.

5000-year-old beads I saw at the National  
History Museum in Taipei, Taiwan.

I've always been particularly intrigued by a story I once heard on NPR about the tradition of making rosaries from actual rose petals. The petals are boiled, rolled and formed into beads for drying and stringing. Holding the finished rosary in one's hands supposedly emits a strong scent of roses, something that must be quite heavenly to experience.

Unfortunately, I can't get a rose bush to thrive long enough to bloom, let alone think of gathering its petals for bead-making. On the other hand, finding beads while traveling, even if it's only to the next town has solved the  "what to bring home as a souvenir or gift" dilemma nicely. 

More than anything, beading has been a way for me to take a break from writing or painting, although there are some nice parallels to the visual arts, especially when it comes to working with color. I often like to start with a single shade and then search out whatever in my collection matches or complements that choice. Once I have all the beads I think I might want to use, I rarely settle on one design; I change, rearrange, or completely re-think the entire scheme several dozen times before I'm satisfied with the outcome.

Works-in-progress! Note the tiny gold crimp
covers lying there all on their loathsome lonesome. 
I'll get to them . . . soon . . . 

Right now I'm doing my best to solve my bead storage problem. It's amazing how many little containers and boxes are required to keep everything in order. For a born-minimalist like me, it's a nightmare. To make more room I've decided to use up all the beads I have before I buy anything new. Part of this clean-up effort has been to toss the less-attractive beads I've been hanging on to for no good reason other than they were part of my favorite way of buying beads in grab bags--random assortments that suit the puzzle-solver in me to a T. Now if I could just get those crimp covers to work . . . 

Tip of the Day: Try beading! A simple way to dive in is to visit your local bead or craft store and buy not only a grab bag but a few "focal beads," the larger, flashier beads meant for the center of a necklace or bracelet. You don't have to make jewelry or buy expensive tools to get started. Instead, string a few beads together to tie on to gift packages, the ends of bookmarks, or to decorate your journal. After that, you might want to carry on to the real thing, thereby giving yourself all kinds of interesting problems to solve. Happy Summer!

Monday, April 24, 2017

Spring Get-Away: Corpus Christi, TX


I've just come back from a week's holiday in Corpus Christi, Texas, a place I've wanted to see for many years after taking a workshop from poet Denise Brennan Watson. In the workshop, Denise often referred to her childhood in Corpus Christi and how it influenced her found poetry and food writing, as well as her love of cooking and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor's Vibration Cooking: or, Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl (which in many ways inspired my own WIP Ghazal). When I read The Undertow of Hunger, Denise's first full poetry collection, I was completely hooked. I just had to go to Corpus Christi one day.

Now that I've been there, I realize there was a lot I didn't know: mainly that the wind blows every single day and night, as in every single second of every day and night; the seagulls are small and cute but even noisier than the howling wind; the seawater is warm but posted signs warning of currents and jellyfish kept me from doing much more than wading; and the town itself can be rather empty. For an entire week my husband and I rattled around the quite lovely downtown all on our own, wondering where the other people were. I'm still wondering. However, it was nice to never have trouble finding a parking spot, the store owners and restaurant servers were polite and glad to see us, and the only panhandler we encountered asked for a dollar and then changed his mind, saying he "didn't really want it."

Despite the blustery weather, heavy thunderstorms, and getting my thumb smashed in our hotel room door when the wind whistled through the hall one particularly wild afternoon, we saw some impressive sights. Our room was right on the beach, and we could see the USS Lexington, now a museum, from our balcony. I loved how it was lit up at night recalling its nickname the "Blue Ghost", creating a ghostly and haunting image indeed. Going on board in the morning was even more intriguing. A trip that I thought would take half an hour at most turned into a four-hour exploration of decks, captain's and crew quarters, galleys, sick bay, chapel, engine room, bridge, and all thoroughly re-constructed to depict how life would have been on board during WWII. I was fascinated and frequently moved by the well-presented exhibits, and took the elevator only once at the end of the tour. After climbing and descending dozens of ladders placed throughout the ship I was grateful for the chance to simply push a button and ascend into daylight again. Well worth the visit and I do highly recommend going there if you're in the area one day (and feeling fit).

Another great place next to our hotel was this beach store that carried every kind of towel, flipper, swimsuit, T-shirt, and souvenir any tourist could possibly want. We bought a wind chime (what else??).

The Art Center was yet another good venue, complete with a restaurant where we had morning tea and cake while a local Irish band fiddled away:

Foggy, mysterious, yet pleasantly warm:

This (scary) (in the wind) bridge connected our hotel to downtown. I think we crossed it 500 times, but my husband claims it was only 499:

More views from our room. A beach of our own!

I wasn't able to sketch in the wind, but I did take some photos specifically for a future series of "Urban Sketching-style" drawings:

On our last day we visited the Aquarium. Although we were indoors, I couldn't sketch there either because it was apparently Kindergarten Day: hundreds of tiny tots in matching T-shirts to identify themselves as five-year-olds (just so there was no confusion with the few adults in attendance). I don't know which was louder: the wind, the gulls, or the children, but coming home to Albuquerque I'm still in awe of the silence.

Final shot of the docks. I think this would make a good painting, too:

Between wind gusts we went to some excellent restaurants (the Vietnamese one being my favorite. Breakfast with a city view upstairs at the Omni Hotel was also spectacular.), saw several movies, including "King Kong, Skull Island" (perfect escapism) and "Gold" which we soon recognized as having been filmed in Albuquerque! Other highlights were finding a bead store where I bought new beads for new jewelry projects, and going to Barnes and Noble where I purchased a book I'm still reading: Elizabeth Kostova's The Swan Thieves. I love it, and will forever pair it in my mind with a beautiful old city I'm glad I got the chance to see. Thank you, Corpus Christi, for an unforgettable time!

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Weekend Get-Away, Los Poblanos

Weekend getaway! This time at Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Organic Farm--really just a hop, skip, and a jump away from where my husband and I live, but different enough from our living room to provide a much-needed respite. 

Situated on a leafy, semi-rural road, the farm dates back to 1934 and is famous for its lavender fields as well as its many lavender-based products. I love lavender anyway, but the Los Poblanos variety has a unique (to me, at any rate) scent that borders on another of my favorites, anise, and after years of driving past the entrance it was a thrill to get to stay right there on the premises.

Not that it was easy to get there, mind you. Thanks to the endless road works currently plaguing Albuquerque, the alternate route we chose to travel down was blocked by a massive SWAT situation, then yet another road was blocked because a driver had passed out in the middle of the street, and then after several more twists and turns we got lost. Lost in our very own neighborhood! Finally and after what felt like the very worst of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, it was a huge relief to get out of the car and be greeted by this gorgeous guardian to our casita:

Other than the peacocks, our main reason for choosing the inn was for its farm-fresh menu with plenty of vegetarian offerings. Starting with a champagne lavender cocktail, my entree consisted of what I can best describe as a New Mexican vegetable pot pie. It was delicious with just the right touch of green chile, crispy tortilla strips, and buttery parsnips. Paired with a New Zealand Pinot Noir, rosemary bread rolls, and peach and lavender gelato for dessert, I ate every bite without an ounce of guilt.

Our vintage-style room was cozy and cute with high wooden ceilings, a spacious bath and even a kitchen area. The marshmallow-soft mattress was a bit too soft--several times I woke up during the night thinking I was being smothered by clouds, but the sheets were heavenly, so silky soft that I soon fell back to sleep, no problem. My only true complaint about the room was that the TV didn't work. And, believe me, I know how shallow that sounds. But my husband and I had our hearts set on watching the Melbourne Grand Prix, the first Formula One race of the season, and we couldn't get the darn thing to work . The hotel staff tried to help, but technology eluded us all and we had to give up, remotes in hand and that weird "I don't know what to do now" look on our faces. Oh, well. Fortunately we had the recorder set back at home, but it was disappointing to miss out on that initial viewing of what was a very good race. (We did see it later at home.)

Not to be deterred, we got the excellent fireplace going and I settled onto the couch to read my latest find, yet another of my beloved Phyllis Whitney novels, The Stone Bull, this one from 1977. To my mind, Whitney is THE master of Gothic romantic suspense, and nothing could have been better for a stormy night snuggled up in one of the hotel's dressing gowns while listening to the peacocks' shrill cries battling over the wind.

The next morning after bathing and shampooing in as many lavender gels as possible, we had a small but nice breakfast before we went exploring and came across one of the greenhouses:

 And more scenic views:

Including this little courtyard:

Followed by a trip to the Farm shop:

Naturally I had to get some lavender lotion, as well as some pinon incense (which smells exactly like the firewood provided for our room), and surprise, surprise: a Palomino Blackwing pencil, something I've heard about for years but never purchased. Apparently these pencils were the top choice of back-in-the-day Hollywood script writers, animators, and musical directors and were considered superior to any other writing instrument of the time. The logo printed on the pencil claims it will work with "Half the pressure, twice the speed." Sounds good to me. Right now I can't decide whether I want to use it for writing, drawing, or just looking pretty on my desk. Whatever, all I know is I'll have to order at least a dozen so I can start making some decent sketches of Mr. Peacock in all his glory:

Tip of the Day: You don't have to travel far to go on a vacation; sometimes just up the road is good enough. Best of all, new settings, sounds, meals, and experiences can go into your next manuscript or sketchbook without enduring hours of travel or jet lag. Whoever said "there's no place like home," got it right--being a tourist in your own town has all the benefits of "Half the pressure, twice the speed!"

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Seeing with a New Perspective

How's everybody been? I've got spring allergies and zero energy for anything other than reading. The best I can do right now is say I got out of bed. I could blame some of these ailments for ruining my last outing with Urban Sketchers, but the truth is I had a lousy time because I could not, could not, get a grip on something that has plagued me my entire creative life: I can't draw perspective.

Perspective has always been a difficult subject for me. In theory I understand the concept: horizon lines, vanishing points, objects getting smaller and smaller the farther away they are from the viewer, but I've never been able to get it to work. I've even taken entire classes on the subject, but to no avail. Maybe it's something to do with a lack of hand-eye coordination, or a rogue gene that doesn't allow me to comprehend angles. Whatever it is, it's made me both dread and hate the topic, which is completely contrary to my desire to draw buildings and urban landscapes, especially when I travel.

The situation zoomed into sharp focus when I went to the Albuquerque History Museum with my urban sketching group. No matter how hard I tried, I could not capture the scene I wanted to draw: an early New Mexico pioneer wagon installed in a room full of saddles, vintage clothing, maps and other memorabilia. The wagon attracted me the minute I saw it draped with fur pelts, Navajo blankets, and carrying a load of clay and iron cooking pots.  I thought it would make a great picture using graphite and colored pencils--the only mediums we were allowed to bring inside the museum. Except when I sat down to sketch, I couldn't place the wheels, the axle, the sideboards, the seat, the frame or those fuzzy bunny furs anywhere close to where they should be. Over and over again I drew in the lines, erased them when they didn't meet where they were supposed to, and then repeated the process until I gave up and sulked all the way to the coffee bar. In other words, I had a very bad perspective on just about everything.

When I got home I knew I had to get help--anything to finally learn. After some intensive Googling and checking out reviews on YouTube, I bought Matthew Brehm's Drawing Perspective. With any luck, it's going to change my entire perspective about perspective and please, please, make it fun

So far, I'm impressed with what the book has to offer. If there's such a thing as a good book that will teach me "how to see and how to understand" I think this will be the one. The chapters are arranged in a logical order of 1-point, 2-point, and multiple-point perspective, as well as up, down, curvilinear (didn't even know that one existed) and everything in between. The watercolor and pen-and-ink illustrations are gorgeous, the instructions are clear, and there's a series of practice grids and fill-in-the-blank exercises at the back of the book. I'm feeling hopeful.

I plan to start working with the book this weekend, and then try bringing it to work with me to use during lunch. At the same time, I'm following the author's advice that I start looking at the world around me in search of those vanishing points and parallel lines. 

I'm excited to begin my foray into the world of straight lines and realistic architecture, but I'm also a little conflicted: a part of me doesn't want to get too perfect. After all, I'm not applying to architectural college; I just don't want my urban landscapes to be overly droopy, or to imply that I'm too lazy to learn a valuable technique and skill. Similar to my approach to writing, I want to know the rules so that I can eventually, and when necessary, break them: if I want wonky buildings and unconventional characters to live in them, I want to paint and write them on purpose! After all, a bit of whimsy can often be just the thing to make any creative work your very own.

Tip of the Day: To go along with my new course of study, I've been collecting my favorite resource: magazine cut-outs. This time I've gone in search of urban landscapes from every viewpoint I can find. I'm building up (no pun intended) a pretty good library of photos, and I think they'll be super helpful as I work my way through Brehm's book. They're also going to serve double-duty as great writing prompts. Whether you're writing, painting, or designing jewelry, nothing beats a good photo-reference file.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Re-Writing My Picture Book WIP (the Way I Really Want To)

Here's a secret: whether I'm writing a query letter, putting together a manuscript package, or just drawing a tree, every time I "follow the rules" I fail. Yet every time I take matters into my own hands and do it "my way," I get a positive response. So why didn't I listen to my own advice when it came to writing my most recent children's picture book? 

The answer is pretty simple: I got scared. Scared of doing it wrong (there's so many great picture books out there, how could I possibly get it right?); scared of looking like I didn't know what I was doing (even after studying a zillion books on marketing and submission); and especially scared of scaring little children with my potentially traumatizing text. I didn't trust myself one little bit.

The situation was made much worse when I attended a conference on writing for children. My reason for going was to learn how to shape up my manuscript to best fit the market. To make sure I understood what the editors were asking for, I took careful notes: 

  • They wanted stories with a "Mama" character. Okey-dokey, my main character did have a mama--check that as a "yes, can do." 
  • They wanted lots of visceral gritty-growly "noise words" (Buzz? Kerplunk? Smash? Does "meow"count?). 
  • They particularly enjoyed spooky-creepy stuff (no worries about traumatizing the tots). 
  • And they especially requested anything that reflected bad behavior. (Hmm. I don't like bad behavior . . . very much . . . ) 

In other words, they really wanted authors to get those childhood frustrations and thwarted emotions onto the page and out in the open. 
The only problem was, none of their requirements fit my manuscript, Where are the Cats of Barcelona?, a story that takes a little girl through the beautiful city of Barcelona in search of a kitten to call her own. Other than Mama, I didn't have any of the must-have requirements: no tantrums, no ghosts, and definitely no biting, scratching, or rude words. Suddenly my book seemed like a major loser.

To compensate for these glaring omissions I began to rewrite my story, this time with as much awfulness as I could squeeze into the limited word length. Short of Mama getting drunk, it was a pretty strong effort. The only problem was it wasn't MY story. Mama ended up being a total wet blanket nay-sayer; my main character morphed into a whiny spoiled brat, and even the cats she found weren't very attractive. Now, re-reading the manuscript two years later, I'm not surprised it was rejected more times than I care to admit.

The good news is I've now put all that good advice thoroughly behind me. In its place I'm happy to report that I've gone back to my original version: a story that is sweet, dreamy, and best of all--quiet. It's the perfect read-along bedtime story--the one kind of book all the editors who spoke at the conference agreed will never go out of fashion!

There are still some things I want to work on such as perfecting my line breaks and getting the flow just right, but these are things that center on design and craft. My current revisions are based on what will suit the story, not to pull in elements that supposedly fit the market but have nothing to do with me or my book. And who knows, my next step might even be to attempt the illustrations!

Tip of the Day: The first reader you should always write for first is yourself. Whether you're writing a 600-page historical epic or a 600-word fairy tale, write for you! The only thing that will ever truly make the market happy at the end of the day is good writing, so don't be afraid to edit, tweak, and polish, but say what you want to say before you pull out the red pen. Always stay true to your original, heartfelt vision.

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.