Thursday, August 26, 2010

My New Studio--and Why Writing is a Lot Like Building

Welcome! Clay table on view....
This side is for watercolor and art journaling....
Snazzy window and miniature rose bush we saved from destruction...

And ta-dah! Doors closed, artist at work. Excuse the state of the lawn--will be replanted ASAP at the same time the river stones are smoothed out and "beautified" with pots, plants, etc.

So there's my little studio, finished at last.  Other than a desperate need for some landscaping repairs, I'm thoroughly pleased and can't wait to begin a "real project" this weekend using up my clay scraps.  Over the next few weeks I'll be figuring out what kind of extra shelving, cork boards, and storage I need, but for now it's everything I wanted and I couldn't be happier.

During the construction process I kept thinking of a much bigger job my husband and I took on many years ago while living in Georgia--we built our entire house, and it wasn't easy, I can tell you.  Putting up the studio was a mini-version of that same experience, and every nail, wall board, and coat of paint brought it all back with a vengeance.  At the same time, I was constantly reminded of the similarities building had with writing.  For instance,

1.  Materials List.  Write it down, make it happen.  Somewhere back in my list of goals to achieve I wrote:  "I have my own studio space."  Writing down your goals is important.  Make lists of stories, books, essays you want to write and then take the mindset that they are already written.  You'll be amazed how your productivity increases and your pages build up.

2.  Blueprints.  In the beginning of any construction project, things look great on paper, but once the foundations are laid--everything seems so tiny; it's impossible to believe there will ever be enough room.  It's the same when we're working with that first idea for a piece.  We start off with a bang and then once we start writing, we ask ourselves, "Is this enough??"

3.  Framing.  But once the walls go up, that space is downright palatial.  Same with writing.  Once you get your characters, goals, and plot points in place, you can often end up with too much going on!  Rarely is an idea "too small."

4.  Speed Writing.  It's amazing how quickly the framing can go:  from zero to, "Wow!  That really looks like a house!"  It's a lot like when you get all that great outlining, character bios, and research finished and realize you are very close to creating a real manuscript.

5.  Work Stoppages.  It rains.  The plumber is sick.  The bulldozer breaks.  That tile you wanted is out of stock.  Your query letter is rejected--twenty times.

6.  Perseverance.   The wiring, the sheetrock, the plumbing--horrible, tedious, messy jobs, but you can do it.  Eyes on the prize.

7.  Finishing details.  For a house it's all about switch plates, bathroom hardware, and crown molding.  In your writing it's the difference between "lackluster, boring, and dull" or including specific, unique, and personal detail that makes your story and characters shine. 

8.  Clean-up Crew.  Usually my job (yuk).  The hours I have spent picking up squashed Coke cans, bent nails, torn plastic sheeting, wood off cuts, and broken shingles easily compete with the time I've spent editing my work.  'Nuff said.

9.  Move in day.  Hurray!  You're finished--a complete house; a complete manuscript.  And then as you walk around admiring those lovely countertops and door handles, you start getting ideas for “improvement.”  Don’t.  Just don’t.  Enjoy and use your space for a while before you start plotting any twists and turns.  Better still, wait to put those ideas into a new story, or at least wait until you have the guidance of a professional--e.g. your editor.

10.  Housewarming Party.  I still have a houseplant someone gave me for my very first house--one I didn't build, but by the time I'd remodelled every room it seemed as though I had.  I remember the fun and excitement of getting the house ready to show to my friends for the initial reveal--the same energy you want to put into your cover and query letters.  Make it pretty--at least while you're on stage!

Tip of the Day:  Virginia Woolf was right:  we all need a room of our own.  If you don't have one today, design your perfect space and imagine yourself already inside.  If you can dream it, you can have it.  Now start drawing that blueprint...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Art Journal Class, My Favorite Tips

What I did this summer:  took an art journal class!  Starting in early June until just a couple of weeks ago I spent 3 hours every Tuesday night at a local continuing education center learning how to make my art journal both pretty and practical. 

During each 3-hour session, we covered a wide variety of activities and prompts.  We had long writing sessions, very active studio projects, and quite a lot of literary inspiration taken from authors all the way from Tim O'Brien to Grace Paley.  The following list comprises my favorite techniques gleaned from the class that I thought were easy, effective, and something you might like to try too.

1.  Write an illustrated letter.  Write it to yourself, your best friend, someone you haven't seen in a long time, or may never see again.  In class we wrote about an experience from the past, but the technique can be used for any topic at all.  To illustrate our letters, we wrote on tissue paper then traced small images from books of clip art.  I placed my illustrations randomly across the pages.  We then folded our letters and put them in envelopes we decorated and glued into our journals like Nick Bantock did in  Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence.

2.  Choose an object that has a special memory for you, then write about it, followed by a drawing.  For this exercise I chose a seashell that reminded me of one I used to play with at my grandmother's house when I was little.  First I wrote out the memory, then I did a quick sketch in class.  Later at home I finished the drawing, giving it more detail.  It's an image I am now going to use more frequently throughout the rest of the journal, almost as a motif or symbol of some kind.  Tip:  Working with a special object like this could be a good way to find your "logo" or "brand" as a writer or artist.

3.  Make a map.  Playful, imaginative, or absolutely accurate, map making is a great way to stimulate your creativity.  The choices are infinite; for instance you could make a map of your backyard, your life history, your goals, or where you went on your last vacation.  In class we took our cues from old, heavily illustrated maps filled with sea nymphs, countries and territories that no longer exist, and artwork that deserved to be framed.  Using collage, rubber stamps, and colored pencils I made maps of fictional places I am currently writing about; two of them for my next book, Overtaken.

4.  Illustrate your daily writing exercise.  For this project we wrote a story in class using my favorite technique--magazine cut-outs of people.  I wrote a story set in Barcelona (a place I've never seen, but oh, do I want to go there) and then painted 3 small watercolors to go with it.  Rather than painting directly onto my journal pages, I cut down watercolor paper to fit and then simply glued the sheets in.

5.   Make a family tree.  This exercise was so much fun I'm still working on it.  There are many ways you can approach this, from drawing a literal tree, or any other design you like that allows room for listing family members, to going online to find all kinds of formal templates if you want a more traditional look.  In class we made family trees of our real families, but I've since taken it further by making trees for my fictional families.  I've added collage and rubber stamping to the pages to add more life and detail to both approaches.

6.  Mandalas.  Mandalas are essentially illustrated, meditative circles used for focus and spiritual contemplation.  Making your own is both very relaxing and very self-expressive.  In class we used pre-printed templates as guides that we then painted with watercolor, but you can use any medium:  colored pencil, oil pastel, even crayon.  An excellent book on the subject is: Mandala: Luminous Symbols for Healing, 10th Anniversary Edition with a New CD of Meditations and Exercises by Judith Cornell.

7.  "Old Master Drawings".  This technique was perhaps the simplest, but in many ways my favorite.  Using sepia, indigo, terracotta, and white colored pencils we proceeded to make simple but beautiful sketches of driftwood on Kraft and Canson papers that we then glued into our journals.  Whatever subject you choose to sketch, the combination of materials gives your journal a very "finished" old-world look I find utterly charming. 

8.  Illuminated Letters.  I love ancient, hand-lettered manuscripts complete with gold leaf, intricate calligraphy, and of course those amazing illustrated letters that begin each new page or chapter.  For this exercise we again used templates from books of clip art, but rather than just color them in, we traced the letters onto plastic vellum and other nice quality papers.  I personally loved the vellum and want to buy more of it; colored pencil just glided over the surface like velvet, making it hard to stop drawing.  When cut out, the letters can be glued into your journal to add a magnificent touch of luxury and color to your next piece of writing.

9.  Letter to the Future.  Ah, where do we go from here?  Where do you want to be in two years, six months, next week?  Tell someone special and seal it with a kiss.  I wrote a letter to my muse and we have a date to check out the contents in November at the start of Nanowrimo.  Just like Tip #1, we put the letters in decorated envelopes and glued them into our journals.

Tip of the Day:  Even if you haven't held a paintbrush since kindergarten, don't be afraid to try art journaling.  Sometimes the most important things we have to say are best said without words.  The beauty of the art journal is you can have both:  stories, thoughts, images, favorite recipes, family photos.  Anything and everything goes.  Best of all--there are no rules, just the invitation to show up at the page and have fun.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Finding Poetry, Part II

My last post promised to share some excerpts from my found poetry pages "next week."  Next week has turned into this week, thanks to an overly hectic work schedule and a much-needed, short vacation up to Taos, New Mexico.  Despite having lived in New Mexico for exactly seven years this summer, I had never been to Taos before so I was thrilled to finally get there.  Everything--from galleries to shopping to scenery-- was even better than I imagined it would be, and I highly recommend a visit if you're ever in that part of the country.   

Before I start though, I just want to mention a quick side trip.  On our last day I particularly wanted to see the Mabel Dodge Lujan house not just for its lovely Pueblo-style architecture but also for its many D.H. Lawrence associations.  My husband was a good sport driving me up and down a few wrong roads until we finally found the place, listening all the while to me raving about "D.H. this and D.H. that..."  Even as we parked and stepped out onto the crushed gravel walkway leading to the main house I was still talking about D.H. and Frieda, rather loudly, too, and when we opened the door:  a poetry class was in full swing.  Ooops.  I think they were having some kind of "silent session," very quiet, very Zen, very un-D.H. Lawrence.  I apologized for interrupting (all the while wishing they could have put up a sign...) and settled instead for a walk through the grounds before deciding to head back to Albuquerque. 

Halfway through our walk my husband said something about T.E. Lawrence--like, when exactly had he been to Taos.  It was one of those surreal moments when you realize you've been so wrapped up in your own little world you haven't given a single thought to whether or not you're being understood.  Here I was thinking of fierce literary arguments and thrown plates, and my husband had been thinking of sand dunes, the first World War, and Lawrence of the Pueblo.  And that to me is what found poetry is all about: taking fresh meaning from unexpected sources.  So in that wonderful spirit of chaos, here we go, starting with:

1.  Music poetry.  Several years ago I kept a journal solely on music and sound.  I wanted to write only poetry, essays, and short stories on the theme of music.  Using my X-acto knife to cut through magazine columns I found:

A harmony of
        wind trails
                   your spirit.

Softly open to
  the song of
      how old you are and
         travel happy.

Another small piece reads:

In the mirror
  I learned
    music making.

Deafening, whomping
drowning out the song.
Burnt sacrifice.
No miracles, but
  some kind of knowledge.

In a third piece I went to my word pool of cut out words and phrases all relating to music and sound that I kept in a basket.  Taking them out at random I came up with:

Conversations with

Dancing goats
   Learning to fly
They fall to earth.
They are surrounded by
operas in the dark
Voices and visions,
hushed tones.

Animals as normal people
No more ox tongue performance
The first call
It just screams.
Makes you think.

2.  In my last post I mentioned how I like to concentrate on the theme of food and using food magazines as my resources.  Here is an example where I used food magazines to find words and phrases as I did in the sample above.  Because I spread the cut out words across a larger journal page, I've included slashes to represent where I joined phrases on the same line:

I remember/the robust tanginess
of chilling buttermilk

cooking barefoot,/when I was young,/in search of
miraculous/baskets/bowls, and
a paper heart.

Pruning roses/freighted with winter
snowflakes and hearts --
a place where/chaos is/luxury,
maybe even peace.

How do you discover/other worlds
the secret
glimpses of the past?

Lately, I have begun to suffer
from a nineteenth-century/serenity
a permanent
Good things emerge,
connected by design.

3.  Lastly, here is a small example, again using my X-acto knife, that I think sums up my feelings of what it's like to work with found poetry:

The secret
life of

Less than a
a spirited quest.

Tip of the Day:  Try making your own found poetry.  Don't worry about making sense--just make yourself happy.  That's all creativity should be about anyway.  Have fun--and if you'd like to share your work, please let me know!  I'd be more than happy to put up a link to your own blog in my next and future posts.