Thursday, February 25, 2021

Achievement and All That Jazz


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 /

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.