Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Break Out of Your Shell!

"Mussel Shells"
Faber-Castell Polychromos Pencils
on Canson Pastel Paper
The drawing challenge from my color pencil group this month was to draw seashells. As you can see, I tackled four of them including the inside surfaces. Despite my initial resistance (too hard, too repetitive, not my thing, etc., etc.), I learned a lot from this exercise, much of which can be also be applied to my writing life, starting with practice, practice, practice. 

Thanks to my reluctance to start, I procrastinated like a pro. I answered email, cleaned my house, wrote more poetry; anything to avoid drawing. Finally the day came when I either had to get to work or go to my group empty-handed, aka "being a quitter." Not my favorite option. So with deep misgivings I started in with just one. Hmm. Not so bad. So I tried another. And another. And before I knew it I had drawn all four. Hey, I did it! Which made me realize:
  1. Repetition is valuable. One of the main things holding me back was fear of boredom: how could I draw four similar shells without losing my mind? The truth, however, was very different: first, the shells were NOT similar, and second, by repeating the process several times my technique improved as I got to the last shell. Practice, practice, practice! Whether you want to improve your drawing, write exciting action scenes or learn the intricacies of arranging a pantoum, it takes more than one attempt to get it right.
  2. Don't hide away in your "I can't do it" shell. Rather than setting yourself up for failure by aiming for the most incredible work in the whole of human history, start a dreaded project by drawing or writing in your most basic style: just get some shapes or words down on paper. Once that's done, tweak a little here, add a little there--before you know it your right-brain will be engaged and intrigued with all the possibilities. At this point, I dare you to stop.
  3. Shells make great writing and art journal prompts. The first time I wrote about a seashell in my art journal was an entry about playing with my grandmother's collection of shells from the Gulf of Mexico when I was a little girl. I loved holding those shells to my ear and "listening to the sea." You might have a similar memory, or you might want to write about your first trip to the beach, or your own collection of seaside finds. On the fiction side, including a seashell in a short story, poem, or novel could trigger all sorts of themes, associations, and plot twists--especially if the shell is rare and valuable!
  4. Artwork isn't always about drawing. How about brushing some ink or paint onto a shell and using it as a stamp in your art journal or mixed-media piece? Or pressing a shell into earthen or polymer clay? Drilling a hole into the top of a shell to add to a jewelry piece? Or simply painting and/or collaging the shell itself for a whole new look? 
  5. Using shells for meditation and mindfulness. No matter how small or seemingly insignificant, there's something profound about a seashell. Whether it's the patterning, the colors, or just the fact it once housed and protected some small and distant creature, shells make a good start to pondering life's mysteries. Add them to household altars, your writing room or studio, your garden or any other kind of creative sanctuary you like to visit. Personally I like to keep them all over the house in various nooks and crannies. 
Shells have always fascinated me, but that's no reason to take them literally and hide out inside one of my own. The drawing challenge for July is to draw green leaves. I'm so fired-up by the prospect I'm going to start and base an entire art journal on the subject. No hesitation, no holding back, just going for it. Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme! 

Tip of the Day: One of the things I love about drawing is how it relaxes and pulls me into what I could almost call a different dimension. Memories; new ideas for writing; the book I'm currently reading: my mind seems to just float along with the tide. While I was working on my seashell piece I was reminded of one of my favorite books that I hadn't thought of for a long time: Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea. If you've never read it, or haven't read it for a long time, I can't think of a better text to check out for summer inspiration. Enjoy!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Sssh: Writer At Sleep

Sleep, glorious sleep--for a long time it's eluded me, and from what I hear, many of my creative friends have much the same problem. For roughly about the last two years, I've spent most nights tossing and turning, my mind going a zillion-miles-per-hour as I worry over plot lines, imaginary illnesses, remembering I have to pay a bill in two weeks, and oh, don't forget to return those library books by the weekend. . . . On and on. I'd say it's been a nightmare, except I haven't enjoyed any of the sleep that goes with a bad dream! If I got four hours a night in Slumberland, I considered myself lucky.

And then I got my Bucky pillow. Oh, my goodness.

I don't endorse many products outside of recommending some of my favorite art supplies, but I felt compelled this morning to tell everyone about my new pillow. I've had it for exactly two weeks now, and during these two weeks I've slept right through the night, EVERY NIGHT! Peeps, this is a miracle.

One of the reasons (I'm pretty sure) that I've had so much trouble sleeping is that I haven't used a pillow for decades. Every pillow I've ever tried has given me a headache, tried to suffocate me, or slid off the mattress (either that or I've thrown it overboard). Things got so bad a few weeks ago I even contemplated buying a new mattress. Then, out of the blue, I thought of trying a buckwheat pillow. Prior to this I had only read about these pillows in Japanese novels, and I've always been intrigued by the concept. However, the time had come to stop wondering and discover for myself what they were all about. 

I went to my local European-style pharmacy and sure enough they had them for sale (and on sale!). I bought two--one for me, one for my husband, and that first night I slept and slept and slept like I would never wake up. It's been that way ever since. I can't believe it. My husband is sleeping much better, too. Over the weekend I asked him if he wanted to go back to his old pillow. His reply? "Never!"

The pillows I bought for us are organic buckwheat on one side, millet on the other. They're smaller than a standard bed pillow, can be configured in a variety of heights and densities, and provide the best neck and shoulder support I've ever experienced. Although I have no scientific proof to back me up here (so please don't quote me), I have a feeling that the pillow is hitting all the right acupressure points in the back of my skull to induce sleep. I can't think of what else it can be, but whatever it is, it's truly amazing!

Sleep is vital to creativity. Heck, it's vital to life! I can't overstate how much better I'm feeling during the day, and how much less back pain I wake up with (currently none at all. Keeping my fingers crossed. . . .)

My next purchase will be to buy the Bucky travel versions of this incredible invention. Now that I've become such a total fan I can't imagine leaving home without one. And as my husband says, in case of global disaster, we can always eat them. A good deal, all round, I'd say.

Tip of the Day: There are many brands and types of buckwheat pillows available, "Bucky" being only one of them. But if you're suffering from any kind of insomnia or sleep-related problem, changing over to this type of pillow might be just the answer you're looking for. And if it doesn't work for you at night, I think you'll still be pleased at the way it makes an extremely firm and supportive head-rest for reading in bed or on the couch. Sweet dreams!

Monday, June 6, 2016

Poem Sketching

From my weekend sketchbook: Pentel Stylo pen, Sumi ink, and watercolor.
I've been studying Chinese painting techniques, especially trees--
very meditative and just right for poetry!

How did it get to be June? And how have I managed to skip out on blogging for so many weeks? It seems like the A-Z challenge was only a few days ago . . . 

May was a hectic month: Someone drove into my new car (all fixed now, yay!), I wrote at least ten versions of a new query letter and synopsis of The Abyssal Plain (finally settling on one I liked, thank goodness), and my day job was intense--I went to the post office so often it's a wonder they didn't offer me a cot so I could just stay the night.

So in between driving here, there, and everywhere and buying postage, I started writing poetry, and then I started sketching poetry illustrations, and before I knew it, I was living on another planet--a secret creative place that shut out the whole world. I didn't Tweet, I didn't email (sorry, email friends), I didn't blog, I just zoned out and concentrated on doing what I wanted to do: write and draw. 

The poems, as well as the drawings, are based on my trip to Taiwan last year. Ever since I got home I've been trying to duplicate my feelings and experiences through my artwork, but there always seemed to be something missing. Now I know it was the words to go with my pictures. While I was still searching for those missing pieces, I knew I didn't want to write some sort of travelogue (I did enough of that in my Taiwan Travel Diary blog posts), and I certainly didn't want to start a new novel or short story collection. But I wanted to express myself in some strong and meaningful way, and poetry seemed to be the perfect vehicle.

I try to write at least one poem a day, basing it on various aspects of my journey: from riding the bus, to savoring tea and cake while thinking about monkeys in a museum tea shop. To get the ball rolling, I use a brainstorming technique I learned in Writing From the Inside Out by Sandford Lyne. Before I start writing, I take a piece of paper and head up two columns: one titled "Inner" and the other "Outer." "Inner" is for everything that involves feeling, e.g., what were my thoughts, emotions, even my state of health? "Outer" is for everything that was happening around me, including the weather as well as the people, places, and details of what I observed. Once I have all my memories and notes in place, I weave them together into a poetry draft, seeking connections and making leaps into new directions for more writing. It's a helpful and enjoyable process, and sometimes it almost seems as if the poems write themselves.

The most exciting part of this new work, however, is that I now have a good use for my paintings of Taiwan, as well as a reason to continue painting them: illustration! Best of all, I can use the same pen to draw and write with, LOL!

Old tree trunk: Pentel Stylo pen, sumi ink, 
and Japanese watercolor.

Tip of the Day: You don't have to be a published poet or MFA candidate to write poetry. All you need to be is someone in love with words and the chance to play with language. The next time you sit down to journal or freewrite, try putting your feelings into a poem. It doesn't have to rhyme or have verses, or even have proper line breaks--it just needs to be you experimenting on the page with a fresh approach. If you need some inspiration, read a few published poets first and then try the "Inner and Outer" technique to organize your thoughts and feelings.