Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Weekly Check-in with Visual Journaling

I can't believe Nanowrimo starts in just a few days.  I can't believe how fast this year has gone, or how behind I am in my WIP revisions, or how much there is I still want to write, draw, paint, do before the calendar turns yet another page.  Life is crazy-making sometimes and that's why it's a good idea every once in a while to stop, take stock, and realize just how much you have accomplished in spite of it all.

One of my favorite books for helping me to stay centered in the midst of chaos is Visual Journaling: Going Deeper than Words by Barbara Ganim and Susan Fox.  It's one of the best books I know on using art (as the front cover says) to:  reduce stress; reduce anger; resolve conflicts; get in touch with feelings; give voice to your soul, even if you can't draw.  My kind of book, for sure!

I've owned and used Visual Journaling for a number of years, way before I heard of the concept of "art journaling," which to me is a related, but quite different process than that described in the book.  That said, I also know I became interested in art journaling thanks to authors Ganim and Fox and their very encouraging exercises that led me from my first nervous pencil marks to drawings and paintings that gave me the confidence to call myself an artist. 

One of my favorite lessons in the book is the basis for the entire text:  the check-in.  The check-in entry is all about simply sitting down with your journal at least once a week and discovering exactly what it is you feel at that exact moment.   The process is simple: open your journal so that you have 2 blank pages facing you.  On the right-hand side, write down an "intention," i.e., the question you want an answer to.  For me this is usually along the lines of, "What am I feeling right now?"   Or, "What is the lesson I am supposed to learn from this past week?"  Or even, "What is the real theme of my WIP?" 

After writing down the question, close your eyes, calmly breathe in and out, and let your feelings turn into images.  Don't judge, just let whatever needs to appear come to you.  After a few minutes, or whenever you feel ready, draw your images on the left-hand page.  By "draw" I mean make purple circles, orange squiggles, little dark green squares, or an entire family of stick-figure lizards drinking tea if that's what appeared in your mind's eye.   Subject matter doesn't matter at this point.  If you have polished drawing skills, by all means use them, but you might also find the most honest, energetic expression of your feelings is to stay with a strong degree of abstraction and the willingness to "just draw, don't think."  Let yourself be a little kid again and don't worry about what the grown-ups next door will think.

Once you have your drawing as finished as you want it, the next step is to write about it on the left-hand page, underneath your written intention.  There are a number of set questions you can ask to get going, such as, "How does this drawing make me feel?"  "What do the colors remind me of?"  "What do I like best about this picture?"  "What disturbs me?  And how can I turn that feeling around?"  You can also ask your own questions, too, ones that fit your intention more precisely.

Visual Journaling: Going Deeper than Words  is an amazing book and it's one that I like to re-visit from beginning to end every few years.  Starting in January 2011 I'm thinking of using it as the basis of my writer's group meetings for the year.  I think the other members will enjoy the book and it will give a new focus to our meetings--something you might like to try, too.  If you don't have a writer's group already, inviting people to join a group based on the book is an excellent way to start one, and if your existing group needs an energy boost, there's nothing like a complete change of writing "scenery" to get the ideas flowing.

Tip of the Day:  Treat yourself to a new mixed-media sketchbook, some colored markers, crayons, an inexpensive tray of watercolors, and your favorite brand of pens.  Experiment with the "check-in" exercise described above and see what happens.  Who knows, you may end up with an entirely new direction and resolve for your creative and/or personal life--one that celebrates your accomplishments and lightens even the heaviest of to-do lists.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Ekphrasis, Anyone?

I have to admit I'd never come across the term "ekphrasis" until I was browsing through an old edition of Poet's Market.  Listed under "E" was Ekphrasis, a literary journal devoted to poetry based on works of art.  Immediately I was intrigued because unbeknownst to me, I'd been playing with "ekphrasis" for years, not only in my daily writing practice, but in my writer's workshops as well.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition for ekphrasis is:  "a literary description of or a commentary on a visual work of art."  The plural of the word is "ekphrases" and apparently the word's first known usage was in 1715.

Anyone who's been reading my blog will know that I love both art and literature.  I spent two entire years attending art history lectures at the National Gallery in London, sometimes going as often as seven days a week.  I know my Gainsborough duchesses and Mannerist nativity scenes, I can tell you!  So combining my two favorite subjects is a fun and natural way for me to "play."  And while the actual word "ekphrasis" is just fine and dandy for people who like precision, personally I just call what I do "writing inspired by a painting."  Not only is it a fantastic exercise for my writer's groups, it's always been a favorite in my workshops, especially ones I've presented to young writers: high school students and home schoolers.

Here's a couple of samples taken straight from my journals.  They're first drafts, unedited, warts and all, but that's how I like to share my writing here if only to help you break down those inhibitions and just write, don't think.

This first one is based on Goya's painting, "Family of Charles IV":

Our Subjects Hate Us

They want to kill us. 
In turn, Papa, Mama, and
all the others standing here
want to kill their subjects,
if not in blood, then tax them
through the roof:
more wine, more grain, more gold.
There is never enough
for this one starving family
to consume, so we have started
to eat each other.
We have bitten off whole pieces
of ourselves, and finding the taste
disgusting, we spit and vomit and spew
up our lineage all over Europe.
We cannot escape each other.
Like barnacles or mud
On the bottom of a barge,
we cling together.
Members of the same asylum
bound by madness and the fact
that no sane person would

touch us with a pole.

Our madness is contagious, like
swollen joints and bloody noses.
We pass on our tics and stutters,
our narrow vision and faulty hearing.
We pass on our royal blood, so polluted
Even the rats run away from us.

I don't know how accurate my history is there, but I sure had fun!  This next piece is based on a more modern print, "Romantic Stroll," by Brent Heighton.  The picture originally inspired my entire Nanowrimo effort last year, but I also wrote this short piece while doodling on my plot:


We walked a little dog at night,
your hand tucked into the pocket of my coat.
I remember the smell of coal fires,
the smoke curling into the sky like incense,
the kind I knew from those Cairo bars
and the ships we docked at Algiers.

It seemed a hundred years ago, and not
a simple, shortened ten.
You said, “Nothing will ever
be the same again,” and I agreed.
I knew that when the walk was over,
we would return to the crowded flat,
remove our coats, pour out the gin and tonic
into glasses we had already left to chill.
Habits, like walks and dogs, we could not
forego without a sense of loss.
And all the while memories rising
to the surface that could never be repeated:
little girls playing in their starched summer
dresses, the boys in rubber flip-flops,
the sound of birds and monkeys all tangled
up in the soughing of the great green
leaves, their broad plates catching green rain
water and sunlight in one glorious crystalline
riot of coolness on the hottest of summer days.
It left me breathless.
It left me, like so many things, alone.

Tip of the Day:  Look through a book of your favorite paintings, choose one, and start writing.  I experimented with poetry in my examples here, but you might want to go a step further and try plotting an entire novel or screenplay based on a work of art.  And don't just stop with writing.  The collage at the top of the post is a Polyvore set I made taking Gauguin as my inspiration.  Play, have fun, and make something to fill your creative soul.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Researching the Children's Book; Make it Fun!

I'm baaaack--from a great 3-day weekend in Santa Fe, NM, that is.  I had a wonderful time attending the New Mexico Women Author's Book Festival where I presented my talk, "Researching the Children's Book." 

The subject is especially important to me as five of my books are for young readers, and I've never written any book for any age group, fiction or nonfiction, that I haven't had to research.  Convincing other people that this is even necessary, though, is a whole 'nother story.  Only a few days ago someone asked me, "Why would anyone research a children's book?" 

Comments and questions like this can make authors for children want to overcompensate and tackle far more research than is actually necessary or required for the book they are writing.  But too much research can be as bad as not enough.  Staying mired in endless research can be a convenient excuse for not writing anything at all. 

My three rules for researching the children's book are:  keep it light, keep it fun, and keep it as accurate as possible because chances are that whatever you put in a book could stick with a young reader for life.  I know I believed everything I read growing up, and I still can't believe there are no tigers in Africa.  In line with my three rules, I have five steps to keep my research on track: 

Step One.  I only research or write on subjects that I love or find interesting.  I've never chosen a subject because it was "hot" or because I thought it would be a quick sale.  Sometimes editors will suggest a topic to you.  Be wary about saying "yes" too quickly.  If you don't hold much passion for that subject, not only will the research process be long and tedious, but it will show in your writing. 

Step Two.  Once I've settled on a topic, I ask myself three questions:  What do I already know about this subject?  What would a child want to know about it?  And what are the things I need to know for this particular project?  These questions keep my research focused.  They also help me to think in terms of "kid-sized portions." 

Step Three.  Once I've brainstormed my answers, I start my research, often starting with the encyclopedia followed by the children's section of the library.  In today's info-driven world,  the choice of resources can be overwhelming, a dilemma made even worse by the Internet, which I have to say is not my favorite place to acquire facts.  The information found there is often too subjective and in some cases, downright wrong.  That said, the Internet is great for finding leads and links to sites and book titles I feel I can trust. 

Whatever your preferred method, though, the worst thing you can do is check out 50 library books and set out for a "course of study."  Perhaps the most cumbersome part of this process is accumulating so much good information that you feel compelled to add it to your book whether it fits, is required, or is even interesting to anyone else but you.  This is particularly true for fiction.  Novels can be ruined by research.  Information-heavy stories often seem contrived and can ring false, especially for younger readers. 

Step Four.  Now that you have your basics in place, you will want to add the flavor, the spice, those specific and unique details that make you and your reader feel "I really was there!"  My favorite research technique is to travel, which I admit is not always the easiest to do, but travel doesn't always have to be out of the country.  It can be as close as visiting the next town over.  If you can take a trip, take your journal, make dated and continuous entries, and go to all the places that have nothing to do with tourism:  grocery stores, schools, suburbs, post offices, banks, malls, apartment blocks, recreation centers, toy stores, houses of worship...in other words, all the places that make up a child's world in that particular setting.  Record details with your five senses, especially if you visit any kind of local industry.  And stay honest:  if someplace is stinky--say so!  Inquiring kids love the worst of details. 

If long-distance travel is impossible, I've often found foreign consulates and embassies to be great sources of information.  Not only do they have dozens of free publications they will happily give you, but many of them have excellent libraries and and photo banks for you to use as well. 

Magazines, my source for all sorts of things such as collage and found poetry, are also pretty good when they're used the way they were designed:  to be read!  Writer's Market can be a  starting point for finding industry-specific magazines with topics ranging from ice cream making to tropical pets to motor racing.  And don't forget to clip out, arrange, and study the accompanying photos for details not included in the actual articles. 

Step Five.  Beyond the reference book.  Sources such as cookbooks (children love to learn about weird food); foreign newspaper classified ads (What's for sale?  How much does it cost?  What kind of jobs are being offered?), and local chambers of commerce can all point you in a new and unexpected direction. 

And then there are blogs.  Here's where I think the Internet comes into its own.  Sometimes it seems the whole world is keeping a blog, and that's not such a bad thing.  Blogs, especially those written by young people and children, can be good sources for personal, day-to-day tidbits that you would never have been able to access in the past.  Written by real teens and families, blogs tell real stories about aspects of life you could never make up. 

Step Six.  Round-up.  Once your facts are in place, sift through and don't be afraid to discard anything that's boring or puts you to sleep.  As a writer for children, always think in terms of, "What would I have loved knowing as a child?"  As soon as you start thinking, "Children need to know..." or, "Children should know..." you're entering dangerous territory, one that borders on the moral tale: "And after her disobedience burned down the entire street, little Suzie never played with matches again..." 

The best advice I've ever heard came from my first editor when I wrote my first book on New Zealand:  "We want a nonfiction book that children will choose to pick up and read because they want to, not because someone told them they had to."  Goes for pretty much everything we want to write, don't you think? 

Tip of the Day.  More than anything, children want to know about other children.  They want to know what happens during a school day, what games children play around the world, what are the jokes, what pets do they have, the clothing, what do their houses or rooms look like?  When reading for pleasure, children rarely care about how many tons of export products come from where, or the precise dates that mark the beginnings and endings of long ago wars.  Keep your information interesting and you'll keep a child reading.