Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The 2014 A-Z Blogging Challenge

Taking a deep breath and . . . getting my mind around the fact that I've signed up for the 2014 A-Z Blogging Challenge. Whew. How did that happen??

Blame it on Twitter. Several weeks ago I came across a tweet from a fellow writer announcing she had signed up for the challenge. What challenge? I wondered. (Note to self: Limit wondering. Wondering can be a dangerous pursuit. You never know where it might lead.) Which then meant I had to follow the link that led me to the challenge and to what I now consider my totally insane impulse to sign up.

Here's what the challenge entails: blogging EVERY DAY (other than Sundays) for the month of April. To make things even more, um, challenging, participants must follow an alphabetical order for their posts (A-Z), and with an optional continuous theme. The good news is the organizers suggest writing short posts, somewhere between 100-300 words.

Short posts aside, I'm still asking myself why, oh, why have I done this?

A couple of reasons:  First, although I've been blogging for over five years now, I rarely think of myself as a "blogger." I don't know why, maybe it's because I consider myself a writer first, artist second, and "blogging" sounds too much like a job description. But I am a blogger, and the fact is, I love blogging. 

Secondly, I've always wanted to blog more often than my current schedule of once a week or sometimes less. But usually I'm so busy writing my novel or drawing or cooking or, well, you know, living, that the week disappears before I can get to a second or third post. The blogging challenge might help me to change this--not to write a blog post every day when the month is over (I mean, who'd want to read all that?), but at least a little more frequently.

My chosen theme for the month is My Keeper Books. These are the books I have on my very small bookshelf that are never going to the library donation table, the white elephant gift exchange, or to my best friends--even to borrow (sorry, besties!). But these are the books that I refer to over and over, and that I couldn't imagine living without. Some are decades old, others as new as a few weeks.

I won't be writing reviews or synopses, information that is easily available from Goodreads or What I will be discussing is why these books matter to me: where they came from, who wrote them, why they are so important I've hauled some of them around the world more than once, and will probably do so again. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to examine the books in a new light and with a fresh purpose, and maybe introduce you to some great titles at the same time.

So that's the plan, starting on Tuesday, April 1 (and that's no joke).

Tip of the Day: Here's an easy way you can play along, too: plan to visit, read, and comment on a blog or two every day during the month of April. There's an entire list right here at the challenge site. See you next week!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Kitchen Lessons for Writers

I think I can easily say I enjoy cooking as much as any of my other creative pursuits. Maybe it's the combination of colors (red onion, green spinach, the bright orange of a ripe pepper), or maybe I just love to eat! 

Whatever the reason, I've certainly spent quality time in the kitchen, and like many of my interests, cooking seems to overlap everything else I do. It's also taught me some important lessons not just about food preparation, but about life in general (e.g., never read while stirring béchamel sauce; if the pot won't boil it means the stove isn't turned on; pets are your best friends for cleaning broken eggs off the floor). Other handy tips I've learned include:
  • Kitchen space, writing space--it's all sacred space. For that reason I like to keep my work areas clean, uncluttered, and a pleasant place to be. The less time I have to spend searching for the right spoon or pen, the more time I have to create.
  • Fresh ingredients. Although frozen food can be a wonderful resource on the nights I'm late coming home from work or just don't have time to run to the store, nothing beats fresh. It's the same with writing and painting: the best ideas are the fresh ones.
  • Too much (or not enough) salt, sugar, and spice? A bland stew is boring to eat. Overly-spiced and it's inedible. When it comes to our creativity, not enough seasoning turns the work into a big yawn, but add too much and the story or painting becomes scattered, messy, and difficult to pull together.
  • Use the right tools. Whether I'm cooking or writing I like to keep my utensils simple: cast iron pans, a few wooden spoons, a really good spatula. For my writing I prefer a fountain pen, a legal pad, and my Alphasmart. Once I have a complete draft I clean it up on Word. That's it.
  • Do you really need a lettuce spinner? Depends on how much lettuce you eat! Seriously, though, I've never owned a spinner but I can see its usefulness. Every now and then we need a special gadget to make our work easier and fun. Maybe it's a set of glitter gel pens, or an ultra-expensive watercolor brush. Splurge.
  • Shake up the recipe books. I own one cookbook: Sunset Menus and Recipes for Vegetarian Cooking. I bought it years ago while I was living in San Francisco, and the only reason I keep it is purely sentimental. It reminds me of my days walking home up Market Street, then catching the cable car to go grocery shopping. Once upon a time it did teach me how to cook vegetarian meals, but since then I've modified, added, and changed just about every recipe in the book. It's the same with how-to-write books. Read them, then adapt them to suit your own needs and style. Better yet, put all your new ideas and methods into your own how-to book!
  • Fusion. There's nothing tastier to me than a dinner that includes more than one cultural influence: Thai burritos, or green chili quiche. My fusion tastes extend to my reading and writing, too. "Mixed genre" and "mixed medium" are two of my favorite terms. A mystery with romance elements; a pen and ink drawing on a collaged background and highlighted with watercolor--the possibilities are endless.
  • Bake at 350 degrees for forty-five minutes. There's a reason why you're not supposed to open the oven door while baking a cake. Sometimes you do have to follow the rules, especially when it comes to submitting work for publication: clean, double-spaced manuscript pages; a three-paragraph synopsis; self-addressed envelopes for return or reply. Read publisher's guidelines and follow to the letter!
  • Keep a sharp knife for editing. I'm terrified of knives. They scare me more than I can say. And yet I've learned the hard way that a blunt knife is one of the most dangerous things in the kitchen. My manuscripts benefit from bravery and a sharp pair of scissors, too.
  • Leftovers. Save your snippets of dialogue, character bio, setting, or unused scenes. They can either be recycled into a new manuscript, or stand alone as a poem or a piece of "flash fiction." Every now and then, though, go through your files and see what's gone past it's "shelf-life." Getting rid of the old makes way for the new.
  • Too many cooks can spoil the broth. Some people can't stand mayonnaise. Others complain because you added cloves to the apple pie. And there's always somebody who will insist you absolutely MUST peel mushrooms before adding them to a sautĂ©. Listen attentively, be polite, then see what works and what you need to ignore. Writer's groups, beta readers, your next door neighbor--everybody has an opinion. At the end of the day, only you know what's best for your manuscript.
  • Comfort food feeds the soul. Macaroni cheese; creamy mashed potatoes; endless spaghetti plates; bean soup on a cold day--sometimes old-fashioned is so much better than nouvelle. As much as I enjoy experimental literary fiction and an unconventional narrative, there are days when I need to read and/or write solid, strong, themed fiction that makes me fall in love with my craft all over again. (Hint: re-reading Velda Johnston's Masquerade in Venice never disappoints.)
Tip of the Day: What's a favorite recipe you haven't made in a long time? Examine the reasons for neglecting it: maybe you haven't had the time to spend on the required preparation or to shop at specialty stores for exotic ingredients. Or maybe the needed items are just too expensive, hard to find, and/or disliked by the people you're cooking for. Decide to make it anyway; schedule in a day for shopping and cooking, then invite friends in to share the finished results. While you're eating and socializing, here's a topic for conversation: what other creative projects have you put on hold? Brainstorm ways to get cooking again!

Friday, March 7, 2014

My Favorite Art Prompts (Great for Writing, too!)

Deciding what to draw or paint every day can be just as worrisome as wondering what to write. That's why I rely on my grab-bag of prompts for both activities, whether they're from magazine cut-outs, art history books, or my handy pile of themed index cards. 

Today I thought I'd share some of my favorite idea-starters, ones that can be used for artwork or sketching practice as well as steering clear of the writing doldrums:

  • Illustrate a fairy tale. It helps to choose a story you truly love, but if, on the other hand, you feel that "Sleeping Beauty" or "Little Red Riding Hood" have been over-done, or are too iconic, try choosing an unfamiliar tale, one from a culture foreign to your own, or one you've made up!
  • Collage your current goals. Magazines are a great way to find your initial pictures, but don't overlook the hidden gems you might discover in junk mail, retail catalogs, or business brochures.
  • Last night's dream. Although it can be fun to reproduce the objects and scenes from a dream, I personally find it more evocative to paint the mood of my dreams. Fortunately, I have always dreamed in color, but even if you're a person who dreams in black-and-white, you can still explore what you think the colors of your dream would be if they appeared on paper.
  • A still life of five random objects. Don't think--just gather items without judging or evaluating their artistic worth. Your job is to arrange the items in such a way that they take on a whole new life and meaning. Aim for, "Wow! I never thought of that before!"
  • Copy an Old Masters painting in pencil. Don't be overwhelmed if the painting you've chosen to copy is too big, too detailed, or just plain old "too good." Instead, play with line work, blocking out the composition, or a portion of the picture, e.g., a section of drapery, the trees in the background, the hands in a portrait.
  • Cut up or tear a reproduction or photocopy of an Old Masters painting and turn it into a collage. Pay special attention to the colors and themes of any materials or ephemera you add to your composition. Try some startling contrasts or harmonious blending. 
  • Your hand holding an object. Sometimes when I'm really stuck for subject matter I'll simply draw my hand and wrist. To make the exercise more lively, I've started adding objects to the mix: my pen, a toy, a cup of tea. Often these drawings can be the equivalent of a complete, but much-less complicated, self-portrait.
  • Draw or paint a landscape with only two colors. Limiting yourself to a two-color palette can be a fun and inspiring choice. Will you use complementary colors (say, red and green), warm vs. cool colors, or two shades from the same range, for instance a light violet paired with a darker purple? It's interesting to note how the colors you pick can often speak more loudly than an entire rainbow of color.
  • Collage with black-and-white photos. Make photocopies or prints of vintage photographs, whether from your own family or those found in used bookstores or thrift stores. Tell a visual story; then add writing or calligraphy to embellish the composition. Alternatively, you can use the pieces to make a strong and surreal abstract.
  • Cut shapes out of various colors of construction paper. Then arrange them into interesting designs you either glue to paper and paint over, or use as a reference to copy and turn into a separate, and original, piece.
  • Draw to music. Never fails. Whether you're doodling or painting a masterpiece worthy of gallery space, listening to music while you work is a great way to loosen up and fully express yourself.
  • Read a poem. Then paint your feelings, or illustrate your favorite line(s).
Many, if not all, of these ideas can easily be turned into writing prompts. For instance, rather than painting a fairy tale, try rewriting one like I did with "Little Goldie"-- my take on "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." Happy creating!

Tip of the Day: Write these and any other prompts you can think of on scraps of paper. Fold each one into a square, then place it into a jar or bowl to select at random each day. Be sure to keep the prompts when you're finished; repeating the exercises with new subjects, mediums, and approaches is a valuable practice in itself.