Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Nearly Forgot: National Poetry Month

 
Small Fish in a Big World. 
 Ink and gold watercolor, 9" x 12".
 

Until this morning, I had forgotten that April was National Poetry Month. However, thanks to a tweet I spotted when I turned on my computer first thing, I was suddenly reminded of how much I used to enjoy participating in 30-day April poetry challenges. They were great, creative, fun . . .  I always signed up to take part. Then came 2020 and I got a little, uh, distracted. I didn't even think of poetry, not once.

However, today when I read a tweet from author, poet, and memoirist Diana Raab (@dianaraab, dianaraab.com) suggesting the idea of starting a poem with the words "I don't know" it all came back to me. I wanted to write a poem. I HAD TO WRITE A POEM! It was a dark and rainy day, I had a fresh cup of tea, and more than anything else, I felt as if I sure didn't know very much, hence a poem to find out more:


2021

 

I do not know why things

are falling apart

faster than a cheap pair of shoes,

or why I no longer want to write,

or why I wake up feeling sick in

the middle of the night.

 

I guess it turns out I'm tired

(so little sleep!)

and falling apart myself.

 

Somehow, I think, I must sew the pieces back,

to stitch and try to resurrect, like Isis,

the scattered parts of a body

that has to carry me forward still.

Just breathe, I tell myself, 

just breathe and carry on.

One day we will fall together again,

pieces of a puzzle,

meteors from the sky,

ash that falls like snow.

                                                         * * *

And that's my poem for today. I think I've re-inspired myself enough to not only work on my WIP (don't worry, I still want to write) but also to get back into the poetry habit on a more regular basis. I didn't realize until today how much I've missed it. Although the month is nearly over, there's the entire rest of the year to fill a journal or two. With gel pens!

Tip of the Day: Create your own poetry challenge for any time of the year. Find a theme that fits a particular month or season (summer, weddings, family reunions, autumn leaves) and make a list of 30-31 prompts to help you start each daily session. Collecting magazine cut-outs can be an excellent resource for interesting and unusual ideas. Explore, experiment, and keep in mind there's no such thing as "the right way" to write a poem. Enjoy the journey. Let me know how it goes.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Spring into Spring! Try Something New

 

© Creative Commons Zero / Dreamstime.com

Happy Spring, Everyone! What are you going to do with this happy and colorful season? How about giving yourself the gift of a brand new creative start? For instance:

  • Try writing in a new genre. Although I primarily consider myself a literary author with a background in writing for young readers, I've always wanted to try writing a traditional mystery for grown-ups. With that goal in mind, I've purchased a copy of Hallie Ephron's How to Write and Sell Your Mystery Novel. The book is brimming with dozens of useful exercises designed to cover all aspects of the genre, exactly what I needed to get going. Conversely, if you've written several mysteries already, you might want to try writing a historical romance, or a children's picture book. Spread your wings!
  • Draw or paint in a new medium. (Even one you usually resist.) The key here is to not worry about results and to focus on exploration. If you've only painted with watercolor, try oil paint, charcoal, or melted crayon. Often you can surprise yourself by using untried materials in your own way, rather than "following the directions."
  • Take a Five-day Challenge. Five-day challenges are a great way to start or finish a particular project, especially one that's caused you to stall or procrastinate. Five days may not seem like a lot, but it's astonishing how much you can accomplish if you make the effort to show up every day. So what have you been putting off? Starting your novel? Hemming a quilt? Painting a series of animal portraits? Set aside a dedicated time to work for five days straight and plan to be amazed at your progress.
  • Buy a new journal or sketchbook and use it for a single theme. While it's easy and tempting to use your journal or sketchbook as a catch-all for every fresh idea or observation that pops into your head, it can be far more rewarding to assign one subject per book. Using one sketchbook for drawing faces and hands, and another for ink studies of trees can help eliminate the problem many artists have of wondering "what to draw or paint" every day. It's the same with writing. Having a journal solely for, say, character studies, and another for poetry means you'll be ready to write the minute you sit down at your desk.
  • Choose a subject to research. A good friend of mine has just returned to her home in Mexico from a trip to Guatemala. I'd love to do something similar, but travel's not an option for me right now. However, that doesn't mean I can't go for a little armchair travel with the help of my laptop and local library. One of the subjects I've decided to explore based on my friend's journey is Mayan clothing. I've become captivated with the hand woven and embroidered huipiles that Frida Kahlo so famously wore. After only a few pages of research I'm already inspired to dive into some new sewing, drawing, and painting projects utilizing these wonderful designs. 
  • Write some flash fiction. The beauty of flash fiction is its brevity. Set a timer, set a word length, choose a word prompt, and get ready to write. Although you may want to edit, revise, and polish your work at a later date, the secret to good flash fiction is to immerse yourself in the moment: write as fast as you can in as short a space as you can. Let the words take over. Approach the exercise as a game or challenge rather than a race to perfection.
  • Try virtual school: watch a series of how-to videos and don't forget to do your homework. While my favorites are always the art classes, there is simply no limit to what you can learn online. What's important here, though, is to go beyond being a passive viewer and to put what you've learned into practice before moving on to the next video.
  • Find a discarded manuscript or some old sketchbook pages and rework them. If you're anything like me, you have a cupboard or storage box filled with practice work: sketches and story snippets that may not be your best but certainly helped you reach the skill level you have today. Open the box and see if there's anything you can salvage and re-use. Is there a story you can completely revamp with new characters and settings? Can you draw or paint fresh pictures based on your old sketches? (Bonus tip: Is there anything you can part with and declutter while you're at it?)
  • Write, draw, or paint with an unusual implement. Try writing or drawing with a coffee stirrer, a bamboo stick, a broken twig, a feather, your fingertips. Pencil tip erasers. Your non-dominant hand. Gold ink, tea bags, squashed flower petals. Play with a variety of supports: cardboard, newspaper, an old sheet or a piece of unwanted clothing. Let your creativity flow.
  • Create some found poetry. Found poetry is much more than cutting out groups of eye-catching words and phrases from old books and magazines, or reassembling the entrees listed in a menu to read like a sonnet: it's what you bring to the table as a writer and artist that turns the mundane into a work of art. Rather than transcribing a handful of found words from junk mail and shopping lists onto a blank page, try gluing your finds onto an interesting background, one you've painted, or in the same way as your text, rescued from the trash.
  • Explore nature. There's nothing like being outside to clear the mind and get the ideas rolling. Creative activities can span the range from planting a garden to starting a nature journal. Try sketching or writing outdoors more than you usually do; visit a botanic reserve or park; sew an apron for yard-work. Buy some cheap terra cotta planters and decorate them with paint or collage you varnish onto the surface. Glue on some seashells or glass tiles.
  • Leap out of your comfort zone. Yes, leap! And don't overlook stretching, bending, walking, dancing and moving in any direction you can. One of the greatest dangers of modern creative life is the tendency to sit still for hours and hours at a time while your brain is moving at lightning speed. If you've ever stood up from a lengthy computer session and groaned from the kink in your back, you'll know exactly what I mean. Not only will moving at regular intervals help to improve and maintain your physical health, it's important for your emotional well-being, too. Writers and artists can be hard on themselves and a quick walk around the block has the power to change everything. 

Tip of the Day: Creative exploration should be fun--and easy. If you're a writer who's never picked up so much as a pink pastel, don't pass up an attractive paint-by-number kit or an adult coloring book. It's the same for artists; your local bookstore or library has shelves and shelves of inspiring how-to books for beginners wishing to take their first steps into poetry or memoir. Go for the basics and see what you like. It might be the start of something big!

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Achievement and All That Jazz

© dreamstime.com

Dancing on the beach . . . 

I've loved this photograph from the minute I found it. It was just what I was looking for to use in my book trailer for Better Than Perfect, my YA novel set in 1970s New Zealand. The scene made me think of "poised for success," which was exactly how I wanted to portray one of the book's central characters, Ravenna St. James. Ravenna is a teenage girl on the brink of adulthood pushed by her mother and family to achieve more than she is emotionally capable of. Her younger cousin and the first-person narrator of the story, Elizabeth Haddon, is forced to live with Ravenna and her family when her own mother dies. Living in Ravenna's shadow as she sails from one glory to the next, Elizabeth begins to doubt her own self-worth and fears she will never do anything in life to equal or surpass her cousin's many achievements.

Elizabeth has always been one of my favorite characters. Her concerns and struggles to get somewhere in life are feelings I believe we all deal with on one level or another from the day we're born: our first smile, our first words and steps, our first "A" for spelling. Woe betide the child who's running a little behind or to a different drumbeat!

What got me thinking about achievement and its accompanying baggage was reading a tweet (what would I do without Twitter . . . ) about how difficult it was to write an author biography, you know, those paragraphs you're supposed to include with your manuscript submission package along with your synopsis and marketing plan. Personally I hate writing them. All I can ever think of is, I lived here, I lived there, I am boring. When I do take the leap and try to include any accomplishments that might make me sound like a more interesting person, I immediately pull back, thinking: Whoa, stop right there. That's way too braggy, tone it down. And cut out all that arty stuff. Nobody wants to read about your bead making or silver clay experiments. Which then leaves me with: I lived here and there and have a BA. Whoopee!

This isn't the first time I've wondered about what is a real achievement. Last year in particular when we were first getting used to lock downs and the lack of genuine social interaction the subject truly troubled me because 2020 was meant to be The Year of Achievement!  I had made so many plans in the weeks prior to the pandemic to put myself forward, to enter art shows, to sell my jewelry at craft fairs, and of course to market and sell my manuscripts. Then practically overnight all the doors slammed shut. Even my agent couldn't get a single response from the publishers she tried to contact. How could I achieve anything locked in my room? 

The answer was to keep going regardless of circumstance and to create my own definition of achievement. In my journal I wrote: 

Achievement doesn't have to be grand, showy, or seen by the neighbors. Achievement is reaching your own self-created milestones, taking on something you love but that also has degrees of difficulty that require dedication. Achievement is sticking to your plan and seeing it through to the very end.

Following that, I then wrote my steps to get there:

  • Focus, focus, focus. Be still and pinpoint exactly what it is I can do with limited opportunity.
  • Choose one project to work on at a time. Just one, and fall in love with it.
  • Give that project my full attention and effort.
  • Commit to finishing, no matter what.
  • Use and appreciate adversity--find the silver lining. For instance, without my usual daily distractions, classes, and groups I can find loads of extra writing, drawing, and creative time. Seize the day!
  • Use positive affirmations, e.g., "I wake up happy to focus and continue writing my novel."

My list worked. Looking back over 2020 and now into the wide open space of 2021, I feel I achieved quite a lot. And you can too, one small or large action at a time. The main thing to keep in mind is never underestimate your achievements, and never compare them to others. Each achievement is unique and valuable in its own right. Don't fall into the trap of thinking achievement means publishing a best-seller or getting a six-figure publishing deal. These things are only for the moment anyway, wonderful high points good until it's time to repeat them. More often than not the true achievement is having the courage to write, edit, and polish a 300-page manuscript that may never see the light of day but one you're willing to submit 564 times before you call it quits. (But please don't quit.)

Tip of the Day: Whether you're writing an author biography, an artist statement, or just a daily journal entry, a good first step to evaluating your true achievements is to make a list of every past thing you regard as important to you, great and small. Don't censor yourself. Have fun, be braggy, be silly. Now pick the top three that relate best to whatever it is you're drafting and expand on those. I promise you'll be surprised at just how accomplished and fascinating you really are!

Thursday, February 4, 2021

On the Subject of Erasers

© commonstockphotos / dreamstime.com
 

As much as it would be great to erase 2020, it's a good thing I can't. The year taught me more than I could ever have imagined, and I'm grateful for what I was able to learn and even enjoy during one of the strangest times of my life. And it's not over yet!

2020 makes me think of when I was first learning to draw: it was hard, but I was determined to not give up, even when my art teacher said: "Never use an eraser." Never? Never ever? You're kidding! It sounded horrific, but I was also intrigued and my curiosity impelled me to give it a go.

Coincidentally, it was around this same time that I was reading Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones and her advice on freewriting:  just write, don't think, don't cross out or erase what you've written. Wow; don't erase applied to writing too? 

It does, and I've never looked back. First thoughts and first marks are often our freshest and most honest, especially when we're working on the first draft of anything: a short story idea, the final chapter of a work-in-progress, a sketch of the garden, a journal entry--just write, just draw, and most of all, don't worry. Here's why:

  • When we are learning to write or draw or even plant petunias, yes, we want our work to be "right." And of course it's important to eventually learn correct and pleasing proportions, grammar, and sentence structure, but erasing won't make that happen. Only doing the work will teach you what "right" means and what's right for you. If you think a line in your drawing is crooked or wonky and you really hate it--just draw a new one next to it. Same with your writing. Think you've written a "dumb sentence?" Write another one, one you like better. Keep going. (If you're afraid of wasting paper, try writing or drawing on junk mail, old envelopes, used paper bags, or the backs of manuscript pages. Whatever helps you to practice freely and fearlessly, do it.) 
  • Not using an eraser teaches you to make confident lines. That's why drawing in ink or writing by hand is such a good discipline--it's not so easy to get rid of what you think you don't like. And who knows? You might love what you've drawn or written the next time you review it. How terrible it would be lose what might be the best of the entire piece.
  •  Abandoning erasers can lead to developing your own style more quickly, especially with drawing. Keep in mind that a "perfect" drawing is often a boring drawing, one that could be made by any old "Anonymous." (Ditto for many a book.)
  • At this point you might be asking, what about erasing the guidelines on a drawing that are the basis or outlines for a painting? Well, if you've got that far, congratulations! Leaving, or erasing, your pencil outlines is entirely up to you, but personally I love seeing pencil lines in a painting. Not only do they add, in my opinion, a lot of extra energy and charm to the finished work, but they help me to see what the artist was thinking and what his or her process was to develop the piece.
  • Finally, not using an eraser can turn your drawing or writing practice sessions into memorable creative outings. Standard challenges such as "write for twenty minutes without stopping," or "draw an object or a skyline without lifting your pencil or pen," are far more authentic when you don't erase. Gesture drawing in particular is a wonderful exercise that encourages you to draw from the heart without concern for results. (You can read more about gesture drawing in my recent post on the topic here.)

If it sounds as if I'm totally against erasers, believe me, I'm not. Revision work is an entire art in itself, and that's when it's the appropriate time to examine what material to leave in and what to leave out. For artists, erasers in all their many forms are amazing tools for purposefully removing areas of graphite or charcoal to create highlights and white lines such as whiskers on a cat, or veins on a leaf. As for writers, pushing the "delete" button is invaluable when you've given your main character at least three different names and changed your setting midway from Ohio to France without realizing it. The secret is knowing when and why to use your eraser, and always with a light touch. Moderation in all things!

Tip of the Day: Here's a nifty trick for those unused erasers: try making rubber stamps. Whether you use the kind on the end of a pencil or those larger pink rectangles you remember from school, you can easily cut and carve your own design(s) with the aid of an craft knife. Tap the finished stamp into ink or paint to create plenty of new lockdown fun. (Note: Please be very, very careful--those blades are sharp! The Voice of Experience.) See you next time.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Start a Creativity Journal for 2021

 

© creativecommonstockphotos / dreamstime.com

Happy 2021! What are you going to write or make this year? Whatever it is, a good way to get started and stay on track is to use what I call a "creativity journal." Unlike a journal that records general daily thoughts and events, a creativity journal is a dedicated space solely for dreaming, planning, and keeping all of your "how to" notes and supply lists in one convenient place.

The notebook I'm using this year is the "Celeste" edition from Paperblanks and is meant to represent "a Venetian morning alight with marvels." (Sounds good to me!)

The journal is a handy 7" x 5", just right for quick thoughts as well as more serious contemplation. I especially like the elastic band (not shown) attached to the back cover that keeps the journal closed when I'm not using it. I also like the creamy, high-quality paper and the nifty pocket glued to the inside back cover, great for business cards, receipts, and oh, you know, stuff.

One of the first things I like to do with my creativity journal is divide the pages into various sections and headings that I can complete, and refer to, throughout the year. Once these sections are in place I can go back to them at any time. For instance, I have sections for each month of the year with further areas to list how I plan to fill in the weeks. Other sections are specifically to log my ongoing progress with tasks such as manuscript drafts, painting series, or maintaining my blog. My final journal pages are left blank for all those deep, meaningful questions always at the top of my mind, e.g., What do you long to make if time, money, and skill wasn't a problem? Very important issues!

More journal sections I've included in the past that you might like to try using are:  

  • A place to record accomplishments, finished projects, sales and reviews.
  • A section for how-to notes taken from books or magazine articles.
  • Areas to paste in small motivational magazine photos and quotes.
  • Pages for baby steps: things to do on a daily basis that will take me to the finishing line.
  • A place to list favorite supplies or ones I'd like to try in the future.
  • Sales opportunity pages: lists of agents, editors, craft fairs, online sales outlets
  • Pages devoted to ideas for branding, asking myself, What's my message; what's my theme?
  • A place to list possible workshops, classes, books to read, or any areas I need to research in order to accomplish my goals.
I'm sure you have plenty of other ideas for things to include in your own journal, but the one section I most enjoy is my vision board. This is something I usually spread over two facing pages, or better yet, the journal cover itself (unless, of course, I'm using a Paperblanks "Celeste" journal and wouldn't dream of pasting on a single sticker!). 
 
To make a vision board in your journal, simply start by asking: Where do I want to be by the end of the year? What kind of creative life do I want that will express my highest potential? 
 
Rather than writing out your answers, go with your intuition and fill your board with collage and artwork. Use magazine cut-outs, glitter pen doodles, fortune cookie sayings, vintage ephemera, bits of junk mail, anything that visually portrays your goals for a colorful, exciting, and satisfying year ahead.

Tip of the Day: Go slow. Take your time with your journal and remember creativity is a process. You've got a whole year ahead to fill in your journal pages with lists, plans, and ways to make your dreams come true; there's no need to rush. Some years I've had to wait all the way until December to know exactly what it was I wanted or needed to do. The main thing is to look upon your journal as yet another part of your creativity, so make it a joy to use. 

Wishing you the happiest of journal discoveries for a bright new year!