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There has been a lot of debate about whether creative writing can be taught and whether it should be taught. I do believe that you can teach certain aspects of creative writing - but then I would say that, having written a book about it! Some say writers should be free to find their own way, to experiment. That is fine, but why reinvent the wheel? I think it is akin to someone who wants to draw buildings or street scenes being told that no one should teach them about perspective, they should find out by trial and error. There are aspects of any skill, including writing, that can be taught, there is always something new to learn and I think the best teachers in any field will encourage students to go out and experiment, but they give them some kind of board to dive from. It is important that the people who are teaching have some kind of credibility and publishing credentials. There are so many universities and colleges offering creative writing courses and I often wonder how many of them give their students any insight into the realities of what it takes to survive as a writer in this day and age. Do they tell them how uncertain a career path it is, that even if the book they write on the coursegets published (with lots of time, help and support when writing it), that is no guarantee for the future?
I get a real buzz from working with emerging writers of any age. I love encouraging people to explore their creativity, and watching as they discover they have written something that surprises them; seeing ideas blossom into stories and their characters growing into fully fleshed out people. We all know that writing can be scary, and sharing it with others is sometimes the most difficult thing, which is why creating a sense of trust within a group of students is so important. They should feel safe, and confident that any comments though honest, will not be destructive. Whether a novice writing in secret, or an experienced writer waiting to hear what people think of your new book, we all feel wary when putting our latest creation out there. People may not like it! But we keep on writing, because we love it, and hate it, and we just have to do it.
I recently spent a weekend at Scotland's Creative Writing Centre, Moniack Mhor. I've been there a few times before, tutoring Arvon courses much like those discussed in the post last Sunday The Arvon Habit by Sheena Wilkinson. This time I was working with a group of adults both at Moniack Mhor and at the Abriachan Forest Trust, on a short course called Words in the Landscape, and what a landscape it is!
View from my window at Moniack Mhor
We spent one day at Abriachan walking in the forest, being inspired by our surroundings.
It was wonderful to stand quietly in the middle of the forest and -
LISTEN to the quiet, and the noises we often miss because we are talking or making noise ourselves -
Abriachan Forest Trust cabin classroom
LOOK at everything around us from the great majesty of trees to the smallest insect walking on the water -
FEEL the wind against your skin, the warmth of the early spring sunshine -
IMAGINE what creatures might have inhabited these woods thousands of years ago, or in an imaginary world far away.
Artist's Impression of Straw Bale Studio
On the second afternoon at Moniack Mhor some of us were lucky enough to be the first to try out the newly finished Straw Bale Studio, an 'eco friendly tutorial space. It was really exciting to see it finished.
I had watched some of the early stages of the build when I was there in August last year. The group created some great stories and ideas for further writing. I always come away inspired and ready to get back to my own writing. Running courses in creative writing reminds me to make sure my readers will care about my characters; to make the plot layered, the characters flawed and fascinating; to work harder on dialogue, and at making the plot grab the reader and pull them through the story. It sharpens my critical senses and reminds me of all the things I have been working on with my students. Teaching creative writing is hard work but rewarding in so many ways.
Linda Strachan is the author of over 60 books for all ages from picture books to teenage novels and the writing handbook Writing For Children Her latest YA novel is Don't Judge Me Linda isPatron of Reading to Liberton High School, Edinburgh
Here’s his premise: Artists would do well to talk about their work as they work. It helps get their audience more involved and is basically just a friendly thing to do. Which sounds right to me–especially the second part.
I’d be interested in hearing your opinions on this: Do you want to look behind the curtain of a writer’s process? Some of the time, at least? Or would you rather just see the finished product and never really know how a book and all its characters and plot came to be?
For me, if someone like JK Rowling wanted to tell me every week what she did to write that current volume of Harry Potter, I’d be ALL OVER IT. But she’s JK Rowling. There might be other writers whose process wouldn’t thrill me at all. Hard to say.
It’s also hard for me to say whether any of you would be interested in hearing about that process from me. My creative mind sucks up all sorts of influences from all over the place, including a lot of non-fiction sources that I enjoy bringing to new readers via my fiction. Would you be interested in seeing that trail of breadcrumbs from initial idea, through research and writing, to final production? Or would you, honestly, not?
I’d really love to hear your thoughts on this! Thanks!
(I know it’s the first of April, but this isn’t a Fools Day post. )
Silence. It’s a horrid thing to have happen. The words in the head gone, or never hanging around long enough to be useful. The shameful feeling of no longer being able to be the writer I've thought I was,.
The silence crept up on me, bit by bit, started by several petty reasons. A sudden family incident that it doesn't help to go on about. A smattering of nagging anxieties, boring and best suppressed. A while with scaffolding rattling outside my workroom window, and similar. A longish Arts Project ,and a worthy commitment that both ate up too much administration time. (Oh, why didn’t I weigh up the time involved at the start?) As well as all the good stuff of life that still needs planning and attention and enjoyment. Way too much on your mind? Best keep your mouth shut, and just get on with it all.
The silence grew, added to by the shadow of a “big book” not doing as it should, and one single minor review that hurt badly. Beware too thin a skin. Then there was that guard-down, coming-out-of-the-loo moment slap into the face of a slightly sneery librarian’s harsh remark. (Just who did I think I was, pretending to be a writer, I thought.) Then that one twisted school visit – out of many good ones, I know, I know - that didn’t go quite right. (Curse you, Powerpoint facilities!)Gradually the book that should be being written, is half-written, has paused for far too long a time.
Don't worry. I don't need a large red-spotted hanky or sympathy to wallow in.
This is just my explanation of why, slowly, the words had stopped, and that some kind of action was urgently required.
What action? I decided to try the “Artist’s Way” again, again. So the rest of this post is about is the famous Three Pages - or my version of how I did, and how I DO do them.
A quick aside, if you haven't yet heard that expression yet. The Three Pages writing exercise comes from the American writer and creative renewal guru, Julia Cameron. Her first book (1994) had the title “THE ARTIST'S WAY: A COURSE IN DISCOVERING YOUR CREATIVE SELF", and took the model of the AA 12-step programme. Julia continued with more books on this theme and a strong on-line presence. Her books do offer good and wise suggestions and I respect her enormously, especially for fighting her personal demons.
Julia writes very American, and I am not. When she lyrically describes breakfasting on her sunlit porch, or riding her horse through the desert, or spending money on sparkly pencils in stores, or walking the streets of Manhattan, or meeting up with this or that creative film or theatre person in her cafe, or suddenly having a dream about putting on a musical and that happens . . .
Oh dear. Apologies. Julia. The crabby bit of me makes me shrug my shoulders and go “meh”. I'm sure it is all true, but that life is not my life. Never has been my life. These events may be a movie or life elsewhere, but not here. (Peers out at the grey drizzle outside)
Julia’s main demand, echoing Dorothea Brande’s original and earlier book Becoming A Writer, is this. Every morning, as you wake up, you write three pages. I tried this often, as my family grew from babbling to teen-sulking around me. Sorry, Julia, but I failed too soon each time I tried. ( Back then, I was a working, work-worn mum. Somehow my role was to get everyone out there each morning or we starved. Time management wasn’t my thing - and I was doing diplomas and degrees around that time too, studying in the evenings. Not a good mix.)
Last November, with that cold grey dog Silence crouched by my ankles, I decided to try the Three Pages method again. (Not Page Three, please note.) However this time I would do it MY way. I would scribble those Three Pages down whenever I could. If I couldn’t, I wouldn’t grieve. Or feel bad. Or all that other negative stuff that cascaded down. Agreed? Yes.
I did - and have now been doing - the Three Pages. I've done them for (counts on fingers . . .) about five months now, and the good news is that - even in my revised, occasionally feeble and now-guiltless version - the Three Pages have worked. I miss it when I don;t do them. Words and ideas have started whispering in my head - and something’s begun ticking again on my big project.
BUT WHAT DO YOU DO FOR THE THREE PAGES?
I use a large A4 yellow-paged notebook. Yellow because it isn’t white work paper, and the colour cheers me. Size is important too. Three large pages gives a generous space for you to listen to your muttering mind, and let all the low-level, hidden frets to rise up to the surface, to spill out somewhere around mid-second page. Aha, you think. So that’s what’s really making me so cross and fidgety!
I use a beautiful old green art-deco fountain pen, inherited from my father, which makes for comfortable writing. I keep away from the scary computer screen, the scene of my failure. The physical act of writing by hand seems to feed the task.
I use green ink, because this is not work, right? (Blue ink: school. Black ink: for depression or drawing Red ink : corrections and being marked. ) Green ink? Yes! Interesting and inspiring. Even if my fingers are always covered in green stains.
I note the day, date and year at the start, keeping a light watch on when I last made time for myself. If I have missed any days, I let myself wonder why, then start again. I even note where I’m scribbling. “Writing this in bed. . .” or “At my desk. 4.30am”.
I note the time I start, out of curiosity, and when I end. Dawn, morning, afternoon, late night, before I sleep. All sorts of times, whenever I can. The aim is to do it, not to be perfect. (Sometimes my three pages take 50 minutes. I note that I lose focus, get distracted. Small must-be-done’s arrive, start yapping and too soon I give in, but I try better next time. Yet, thinking about this blog, I got three pages covered in 20 minutes.
I use the Three Pages for . . what? Not for “writing on a given theme” at all, nor as a diary, although some entries do sound a bit like that. Nor are they reflective odes to all that is lovely around me, ever searching for the precise, right , perfect word. The Three Pages work by getting the hand and head moving, and even if angry thoughts flicker on some pages, somehow the yellow paper isn’t greyed over with gloom.
The Three Pages are just me writing,however the writing turns out, whatever the words think: a sort of low-level meditation. The pages are private: what’s in three pages stays in three pages, or they did until I used one set to consider my thoughts for this blogpost. Maybe the pages are changing? Maybe they are becoming about what I write about? Who knows?
For me, the Three Pages have become a place to rest and be alone. No readers, no editors, no revisions, a space where inspiration is not demanded, where my writing doesn’t matter - although in a way, it does, very much. And day after day - or almost - the pages have helped the other, the “Real Writing” begin again, too.
I’m sure that, to some of you, this wittering about silence will sound self-indulgent and weak. "Lives are different" is all I can say, and I have worked on some briefs that ended up in print and cheered me immensely. It was the big writing thing I'm wanting to finish that scared me. Onwards - and this post makes sense to anyone, thank you for reading.
A while back, I had the opportunity to chat with Paul Pate regarding his graphic novel Detective Perez Welcome To Rust City. His tenacity and perseverance in completing the book really inspired me.
Since that time, Paul and his long time friend Alfred Laurence has started a fresh new podcast and I was lucky enough to be a guest. We talked about the trials and tribulations of being an artist, a little bit about my film making experience, creating comics and what I’m currently working on. Hopefully, you’ll have fun listening to our wacky conversation and find a little bit of inspiration for your own journey.
For the last five years I’ve been writing and rewriting a book in which twin sisters, taking alternate chapters, tell their life story. They are child prodigies, musical geniuses, but rather than virtuosos, their instruments are the enigmatic black boxes and warm circuits of the recording studio.
There is a third voice, their bitter old brother. He is the main protagonist, but he’s almost a ghost.
I created playlists of music to listen to as I constructed each character: one sister always seeking out new sounds, forever stretching the possible, the other twin crafting these experiments into something intricate and more beautiful. One is an experimenter, the other is obsessed with craft.
Creativity, it seems to me, is the constant smashing of the old and familiar, and then remaking something new with these fragments. I wanted my book to be about creative children, and about creativity. How we battle against our own instincts to make something worthwhile.
Authors are forever compromising, trying to do things differently, yet always holding back, aware that something too idiosyncratic will frighten publishers and audiences away. My new book may be a little eccentric, but I hope it's not that quirky.
I’ve spent five years nurturing this trio of siblings, taking them from their father’s recording studio in Frankfurt, via their grandparents’ loft in the west of England to the improbable denouementin the deserts of Kazakhstan. Their musical odyssey is a search for authenticity, theirs and mine. It’s the book I’ve always wanted to write, I just hope I can find a publisher who believes in it too.
We've discussed here that willpower can be depleted. Our biggest store of self-discipline is early in the day. We try to duplicate that morning boost of willpower experience by breaking our day into units, so that we keep starting over again. The Unit System! Lee suggests that that early period of the day is best for creative workbecause that's when the prefrontal cortex of the brain is most active. A "study looked at morning and evening MRI scans and observed that mornings showed more connections in the brain—a key element to the creative process." He says this study also indicated that "analytical parts of the brain (the editing and proofreading parts) become more active as the day goes on."
Conclusion? Writers who have a number of projects underway may want to work on the ones that involve generating new material earlier in the day and the ones that require revision-like activities later.
Don't Care For Mornings? Try A Routine During Another Part Of The Day.
What about those of us who don't see ourselves as morning people? Set your time and stick with it. "Routine," Lee says, "reinforces neural circuitry, and the more you work at the same routine, the stronger those connections become." So you can compensate for not using what scientists consider the best creative time by maintaining a routine.
As For Me
I like to do a sprint in the morning before I actually get started working. Stopping after a short, intense burst of work gives my mind something to dwell on while I'm doing the less challenging activities involved with getting ready for the day. After reading The Best Time to Write and Get Ideas, According to Science, I'm going to be sure that that sprint involves new writing and not editing, research, or formatting manuscripts. I can do that much later in the day.
One of my favorite parts of writing happens when I’m not writing. You know, those moments during the day when you’re thinking about, maybe even dreaming about, the story or the characters in your work in progress. I love brainstorming, whether it’s my own book or someone else’s work, because there’s a sense of play to it; you aren’t committing anything to paper yet, so it doesn’t take much work. (It also may not feel like work, so you might worry you’re just procrastinating, but trust me, it’s useful.) You can feel free to be as goofy or wild as you want–you’re just throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. And it’s cool because you’re working on your book anywhere and everywhere: in the shower, walking your dog, on line at the bank, riding the train, reading other books, watching TV, in meetings at work. A little part of my brain never stops thinking about my novel.
I can’t speak to every writer’s experience, but this is how my imagination works. The more I think about the story, the more ideas I have. Often, my subconscious mind makes connections that needed days, weeks, or months to develop. Initially, I avoided outlining because I wanted to give myself as much of that flexibility as possible to discover the story and let it develop organically, but I’ve since realized that outlining can also get you thinking about the whole thing much earlier, and there’s nothing limiting about it–it’s just one path, and you can take the story in different directions any time a better idea presents itself. I like research for the same reason; all that reading feeds me more ideas and opens up new possibilities.
So this book I’m working on… It started with a lot of brainstorming and outlining, then I started drafting it and inevitably veered off from the outline a bit. I got some great notes from my editors, and I just completed the first major revision—a few hours ago. As I tried to re-imagine the plot and characters and come up with a better ending, the whole process reminded me of something very old, something from my childhood: Choose Your Own Adventure.
You’ve probably seen a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) book at some point, or one of the many similar series borrowing the concept. They’re basically stories that present many decisions for the reader, allowing you to have some control over the story. “If you decide to start back home, turn to page 4. If you decide to wait, turn to page 5.” There are usually only a few “good” endings and many bad, boring, or mediocre ones. When I read them as a kid, I always wanted to make sure I had taken every choice, explored every path, seen every ending. And I realized recently that all those CYOA books had been training me from early on to be a creative writer.
The way I plot out a book is really similar to how these books are set up. At each major plot point, I have to decide what the characters are going to do next, and what impact that will have on the story farther down the line. I’m constantly coming up with various scenarios and playing them out, discarding them, picking up another thread, trying something else. Working with Scrivener makes it even easier, and more fluid, because I can rewrite a scene several different ways, then revert to a previous version if none of them fit. I can move the scene or cut it entirely. I’m trying to see every path, and test every ending—all in search of the one “good” ending for the book. Of course, it’s preferable if I don’t have to actually write every alternative first.
It’s probably no wonder that I like stories about parallel universes so much. In some ways, each draft of my book is an alternate version of itself. (Sometimes I can’t even keep them straight anymore. Was that in the final draft, or did I cut it?) Fun fact: In the original ending of Fair Coin, Ephraim stops Nate from using the coin to facilitate a shooting spree at their high school. What?! Yeah. It was super dark, and very wrong for the book, and I knew it while I was writing it. (On the other hand, it was also my first novel, so.) But I often have to take some of those wrong turns and try out the “bad” endings — sometimes just to get to the end — before I can figure out what the real ending is supposed to be. Making mistakes doesn’t make you a bad writer, it just means you have to turn to a new page and try again. Revision is like getting to erase those unsuccessful outcomes and make a better decision.
Did you read Choose Your Own Adventure? Which was your favorite? And how do you plot out your endings?
E.C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts and raised by a single mother and a public library in Yonkers, New York. He is the author of the Andre Norton Award–winning young adult novel FAIR COIN and its sequel, QUANTUM COIN, as well as numerous short stories in anthologies and magazines. You can find traces of him all over the internet, but especially at his blog, Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.
All the excitement surrounding The LEGO Movie sparked a renewed interest in the venerable building toys at my house. The following books that include all kinds of tips, ideas and techniques to re-purpose existing LEGO pieces for all sorts of fantastic creations.
“Nicki is not so happy about having to move to Zimbabwe, Africa. She is not sure what to expect and is truly surprised when one of the first things she sees is an elephant at the airport.”
“Nikki thought she was waking up, but maybe it was a dream. Why else were her parents sleeping in her bedroom and why she was sleeping sitting up in a chair.”
Nikki’s mother gets a job that takes the family to Zimbabwe, Africa. Like most young kids, Nikki does not want to leave her home and her friends. She wonders how she will hang her posters on a mud wall. She is also fearful of all the wild animals that she believes will be everywhere. Nikki might be right. At the airport an elephant—a green elephant with red and yellow spots—takes her suitcase off the belt and walks away with it. Dad insists there are no elephants in the city.
In her new home, Nikki sees a menagerie of animals come through the bushes defining her backyard. Rhinos, lions, zebras, baboons, and an ostrich run and play in front of Nikki’s bedroom window. Dad sternly insists there are no wild animals in the city. Nikki spends all her time playing with the elephant from the airport, much to her parent’s dismay. They never see any of the animals that hide in the bushes until Nikki is alone.
The first reading of Elephants at the Airport was confusing. Why could only Nikki see the animals that were real enough to play with her? The title on the cover states, Elephants at the Airport and nothing more, not even the author and illustrator’s name (that is perfectly okay). A closer look at the credit and title pages shows a subtitle: Once Upon a Time in Zimbabwe. Now I get it. The story is a fable. Nikki has no desire to move to Africa and is terrified of the unknown. To make things worse, a green elephant—with red and yellow dots—grabs her suitcase. Dad refuses to believe his child.
Zimbabwe is not a place to fear, but a magical place for kids where the animals entertain Nikki in front of her bedroom window. The story lacks development. Mainly Nikki and her father are in a stalemate over wild animals in the city in which they live. Dad even takes Nikki to a game park—actually a mechanism to end the story. Nikki declares the elephants were great, but her favorite is still the airport elephant, which causes her dad to yell,
“There are NO elephants at the airport!”
Nikki replies that he is right; the elephant is now at their home. She then runs out to play with Airport. Nikki happily skips out of the house and her parents look out to see their daughter with something green and wonder . . . could it be? An acceptable ending I suppose. Kids will laugh and so might their parents.
To me, the ending just tells me the inevitable. An easy ending that does not develop the protagonist. Nikki should change by story’s end, but she changes on the first morning. It seems the character that might change is dad, a secondary character. Does he now believe wild animals are in the city? Does he now believe a green elephant with red and yellow spots plays with his daughter? Nikki folded her fears and her lack of enthusiasm for living in a new country too soon in the story.
Young children will like the imaginary playmate aspect of the story. They will like Airport, maybe even more so because of his coloring. They will most likely not care that the story is poorly constructed and in need of a good edit. Though they might want to know where the other elephants are at the airport.
I love the cover and really like the elephant. The artist draws a nice, realistic elephant. The illustrations are good. A few have what looks like paint smeared across the paper, making the image difficult to see. I think this is supposed to indicate speed—of the animals as they play. A few other images are mostly shades of brown with a bit of color, making it difficult to see what the image represents. That very well could be a printing problem, but in the end, whatever the problem, these spreads are not good. It really is a shame because the illustrations are extremely good.
[After watching the trailer, it is clear that the problem is with printing. The illustrations, every one of them, are gorgeous and detailed clearly in the trailer, but muddled on the page.]
Elephants at the Airport: Once Upon a Time in Zimbabwe takes a young girl out of her familiar surroundings and places her into a strange land of wild animals. Nikki quickly recovers from her fears and plays with the elephant from the airport. Dad is not happy, thinking his girl is isolating herself. She has a great time playing with what might or might not be an imaginary friendly elephant. I like the premise of the story. Elephants at the Airport has wonderful story potential but it needs work before I would purchase this adorable green elephant.
Learn more about Elephants at the Airport: Once Upon a Time in Zimbabwe HERE.
“How many hours a day do you write?” is one of the most frequent questions I encounter when I speak at schools. That’s a tricky one to answer when you write nonfiction. The truth is, because research is such a major part of the process of creating nonfiction, nonfiction authors may go weeks or months without writing, and yet we’re working all the time. That’s the case for me, at least. My writing months are the treasured few in a given year that follow the sometimes interminable phase of research.
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of emptying and solving our family’s wooden tray puzzles. Some were easy. Some were not. I learned as a child which ones I could do quickly and which ones were more difficult. As my puzzling skills improved—and I began to memorize the layout of each puzzle—I took the logical next step to increase the challenge and dumped all the puzzles out together and proceeded to sort the jumble of pieces into their respective frames. That was fun. It took time, but it was so satisfying to turn the chaotic pile of colored wooden shapes into familiar scenes.
I still puzzle: here's my 2012 holiday diversion.
In my teen years, I returned to puzzling, but this time they were the 500-piece cardboard variety. My father and I worked on puzzles recreationally, perhaps with a football game or TV show playing in the background. We loved the work—the incremental progress that could be measured by locking each piece into place, the strategy required to best solve a particular design, the satisfaction of placing the final piece into place.
Many years later, after I became an author, I realized I could not have found a better way to prepare my mind for a life of research and writing. Every project I undertake is a new puzzle. Each fact collected adds an element of understanding to the project. The more I collect, the clearer the picture becomes of what I am trying to create.
The Big Sort--organizing note cards before writing.
But the picture—that’s the one difference between puzzling and authoring. We know exactly what a jigsaw puzzle should look like by the image portrayed on its carton. A book is another matter. Authors start with topics and a basic knowledge of a subject, but the details and nuance that follow add a dimension of creativity to our work that eclipses the jigsaw puzzling experience.
My office--the epicenter of puzzling and writing.
I’m in the puzzling phase of a project right now. Completing the reading. Converting the facts I’ve found into notes. Drawing connections in my mind. Those interconnected steps will empower the words that begin to flow in a few more weeks. I have no doubt that my childhood passion for and practice of puzzling helped to make me the writer I am today. Patient. Persistent. A puzzler.
How many hours a day do I write? Throw in the puzzling and it’s more than a full-time job. On any given day you'll find me, metaphorically at least, spilling the pieces of the project onto the floor to see what picture emerges.
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 ways 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 sauté. 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 Venicenever 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!
“Tapir and his friends all have nice new notebooks, just waiting to be filled. Giraffe decides to write a poem, Hippo writes a story, and Flamingo composes a beautiful song. But poor Tapir can’t think of anything to write – and the harder he tries the more upset he becomes! But everything starts to change when Tapir stops trying to write and begins to draw… this gentle story will inspire even the littlest artists to find their creative sparks.”
“Tapir had some pencils and a nice new notebook. But he didn’t know what to write.”
Tapir and his friends all have new notebooks and pencils. Giraffe, Hippo, and Flamingo all easily fill their notebooks with poems, stories, and songs. Tapir is stuck. He is having classic writer’s block. Nothing would come to mind. Tapir thought he must doing something wrong. He imitated his friends. First, Tapir tried humming but no words came. He tried chewing on nice green leaves off the tree, but all that came was a grumpy feeling. Finally, Tapir tried wallowing in the mud. Nothing. Tapir’s friends told him not to worry something would come to him. Poor Tapir didn’t think so. He walked away, way up to the top of the hill, where he could see everything and everything was so beautiful. No words came.
For anyone who has ever had writer’s block, this is the picture book for you. Poor Tapir could not think of anything to write. Giraffe is writing poetry, Flamingo composes a song, and Hippo writes a story, but Tapir could not think of anything to write. Words would not come for Tapir. He tried so hard to force words to flow. Tapir tried copying his friend’s methods—humming, eating leaves, wallowing in mud, but they didn’t work because Tapir’s mind works Tapir’s way.
I love that Tapir wandered off somewhere quiet where all he had was his own resources. Then he simply looked around and inspiration hit. Words still did not come to Tapir, because he did not need words to express himself. Tapir needs pictures. When he was lost for words, Tapir tried to be like his friends when all he needed was to be true to himself. What a great message.
The beautiful illustrations are in lighter shades of blues, greens, and yellows, with orange and a little brown thrown in. Author/illustrator Natalie Russell’s spreads are screen prints, not charcoal, pencils, or digitally made with Illustrator or Photoshop. Even drawn creativity can be many different styles, just as writing can be many different forms and genres. It is good to remember Hippo’s process of writing stories will not be Tapir’s way of creating pictures. A gentle push—a walk up a hill—might work, but creativity cannot forced.
Lost for Words will entertain young children and might spark their imaginations. The story of these four friends and the different ways they filled their notebooks is itself creative. After reading Lost for Words several times—or maybe just once—young children will be asking for a notebook of their own. Some will find words and write a poem or a story, or maybe a song. Others will draw pictures to express themselves. If Lost for Words encourages creativity, it has been a success.
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 objectsto 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.Add a Comment
I visited the studio of an abstract painter once. There was a group of us. All the others were painters; I was the only writer. We started flicking through a portfolio of abstract paintings, and I have to say that they all looked much the same to me: like wallpaper samples. But every now and again when the next painting was revealed, these other painters would collectively say: “Ah! Now that’s interesting!” Their reactions were spontaneous and genuine – and I realized then that they were seeing something that I was missing.
I’m certainly no expert, but I’ve come to understand that appreciating abstract art is about how a painting makes you feel. It’s not about what you think it is. But this is a difficult mindset to get into. Like a lot of people, I like to understand something. I like to know what it’s about. I need to be able to articulate what it is telling me. I’m not used to asking myself how a painting makes me feel.
I visited another abstract painter’s studio yesterday. She had a canvas leaning up against the wall that looked unfinished to me. There was an outline of what could have been the figure of a woman in the middle, and a pool of yellow in one corner and some bright splashes in the other. I wanted to know what it was about: was the woman falling? Was this the sky and this the ground? Which way up was it supposed to be? I wanted to be about something – I wanted to understand the message. “It’s not about anything,” said the artist. “It’s what it is, that’s all.”
A Young Lady's Adventure by Paul Klee
This painter works by feeling. She doesn’t know what she’s going to paint before she starts a canvas, she only knows the colours she wants to use, and which brushes. Then she’ll ‘play around’ until some combination of colours appears that she can ‘have a conversation with’. Then she follows the conversation to see where it leads – which might be nowhere. Or it might become something bigger than she herself was capable of, if she’d tried to impose a plan on it beforehand.
Painting and writing are both creative activities, and I recognized parallels in how she described her process. I know that my trouble with writing is that I need to know where it’s heading, I need to know what the message is, well before it appears. I know that this inhibits my creativity, and presents me from feeling the ‘conversation’ that the book might want to have with me.
I asked her how she managed it. “The first thing you have to do,” she said, “is stop. Then, you have to feel with your heart where you need to go next. You need to be playful, you need to be brave, and you need to take risks. And you mustn’t be afraid to make mistakes.”
I know she’s right. The best stuff is always the stuff that we never intended to write about. The best things can’t be articulated, and the most wonderful thing about writing fiction is when a story surprises you, and turns out – to your delight – better than you feel you could have made it. The same process would seem to apply both to painting and to writing – and also, in fact, to life.
I'm a big fan of morning pages, but there are definitely times when I need a break. It's not that I don't find the pages useful, but every now and then I need to shake up my routine and make life more . . . exciting. One of the ways I thought of doing that was to start my day with a "mini-project" instead of the usual three handwritten pages Julia Cameron recommends in The Artist's Way. I got the idea from a gardening book that mentioned how Renoir painted a single rose every day before tackling his main work-in-progress. I don't know if I could stick to a regimen that centered on a single subject, but I can certainly appreciate the need for a warm-up exercise. With that in mind I sat down and brainstormed what might work for me--and for you, too!
Write a structured poem such as a sonnet, pantoum, or ghazal. Base the poem on last night's dream.
Cut three pictures with a similar theme or subject from a magazine. For example, 3 pictures featuring purple. Or three pictures of dogs, or children, recipes, etc.
Collage a three-page character bio--for either an existing character or a new one.
Play with watercolor brushstrokes: random colors, patterns, feelings.
Sketch one item only, e.g. a cup, an apple, a toy--using a single medium.
Write three pages of dialogue.
Place an artist's mannikin in a fresh pose every day. Record the poses in a single sketchbook used only for this purpose.
A quick sketch of where you are right now. Try a different color of pencil or ink for each day.
Clay: make a small pinch pot, egg cup, votive, bead, dipping bowl, soap dish, or incense holder.
Three pages of flash fiction.
Mini-collage on a piece of junk mail.
Set a timer and create a new Polyvore set or Pinterest Board in twenty minutes or less.
Tip of the Day: At the end of the month, collect all these mini-projects and use them to create a larger piece, or to inspire you in some fresh way. For instance, a sketchbook of mannikin poses could be the basis for a new children's book. The stacked journal entries could be part of a framed collage. At the same time, examine what you enjoyed writing or drawing the most. Did you have a favorite theme, color, or medium? Take note and keep exploring.Add a Comment
When our creativity seems to have deserted us and we feel like we’re making the same piece of art over and over again, it helps to have a fresh perspective. Exercises designed to pull us away from the rut we’re stuck in can point us in a new and exciting direction. Nick Bantock knows all about these ruts, and has provided us with a guide to getting unstuck.
The forty-nine exercises in this book provide unexplored territory for our creativity to run riot. Using magazines, paint, postage stamps, and other assorted collage materials, we’re encouraged to be haphazard in our approach and to think outside the box. Our intent is not to produce art, but we may be surprised by the results of our activities.
Although this book is written for all forms of creativity, those who specialize in the visual arts will probably find it most helpful. Other creative folks won’t have some of the materials on hand or a good understanding of the concepts presented, but may still enjoy dabbling in unfamiliar territory as a means of loosening blocks. The Trickster’s Hat is chock full of fun projects that will stimulate the creative urge and open us to new possibilities.
Today, September 15th-ish is INTERNATIONAL DOT DAY! DOT Day celebrates Creativity, Courage & Collaboration! .. Peter H. Reynolds wrote a picture book called The Dot! After teacher Terry Shay showed The Dot to his classroom on September 15, 2009. From there DOT Day was born! From Peter H. Reynolds: Imagine the power and potential of a …
The Artist’s Way is one of the best-selling and most helpful books on developing creativity. But a special book was needed to help parents teach their children to honor their own creative gifts. In The Artist’s Way for Parents, Julia Cameron shares some of the secrets she learned in being the parent of a creative daughter.
The basic structure of this volume is similar to other “Artist’s Way” books. Broken down into twelve chapters with headings such as Cultivating Curiosity, Cultivating Limits, and Cultivating Independence, Cameron explores sub-topics within this framework. An exercise for parents and/or children is included after each lesson. Familiar tools are utilized, such as morning pages and creative expeditions (artist’s dates) along with something new – sharing highlights of the day with your child.
Allowing a child to have a safe environment to create in is key to maximizing his highest potential. But this may not come naturally, and guidance from an expert can be helpful. If you want to nurture your child in exploring his creativity, The Artist’s Way for Parents would be a valuable resource. I highly recommend this book and the others in the “Artist’s Way” collection by Julia Cameron.
Do you have trouble starting a new creative project? Is the blank canvas or screen too intimidating to face, so you try to avoid it? Do you wish and hope you could be an artist, but never follow through on your dreams? If so, The Art of Getting Started might be able to help you in your creative pursuits.
This unique book on jump-starting creativity doesn’t spoon-feed good ideas and suggestions for moving past blocks. Instead, it’s chock-full of exercises designed to get you out of your head and onto the page. While encouraging us to make messes and allow our work to be less than perfect, it forces us to take action and not sit around waiting for inspiration to strike.
It’s risky to start a new project when we don’t know the outcome. But if we never start, we can never know the joy of completion and the chance of success. If you work through the exercises in this book, you may find some of your creative blocks vanishing, leaving you free to create.
My long-suffering Facebook Friends heard me go on at length yesterday about the 120 plus or minus cupcakes I had to ice and box up. During a roughly 6-hour period I also made an additional two-dozen cupcakes that didn't need icing as well as some mini-meatloaves and asparagus for dinner.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, Gail. But did you do any writing?
I did some yesterday morning. And that led to something happening yesterday during my cupcake binge.
While I was revising a chapter yesterday morning, I realized that a lot of what I was reading was similar to what I'd read in the chapter before. I felt that the new chapter was necessary because it dealt with the protagonist's parents' response to what he was doing. But this is a mystery, and the details being discussed had all appeared in the chapter before. If I couldn't come up with a new significant step in the story, I might need to eliminate a section. If I eliminated a section, I might be left with a hole in the plot that would need to be filled.
While I was working on cupcakes, the significant step I needed came to me. I had a breakout experience. With breakout experiences it's easy to focus on the breakout, because that idea/thought is so important. But the breakout can't come without some input first. You take in information, work to a point at which nothing more is happening for you, then let your brain relax with a totally different activity. Like icing and fancying up cupcakes.
So the work/input is important, maybe the most important part of the process.The more you work, the more opportunities you have for breakout experiences. Conversely, the less you work, the fewer opportunities you'll have for those breakouts. Writing every day won't insure a daily breakout experience, but it increases your opportunities for having them at some point.
In fact, writing every day helps make it possible for you to keep working when you're not, technically, working because you're relaxed brain is doing something with the material you provided it with earlier in the day.
Happy New Year, Everyone! Let's make it the best ever.
Usually at this time of year I list my writing goals, but for 2014 I only have two: to edit and submit my two current WIP's--one fiction, one nonfiction--for publication. That's it! Not that I won't be having some fun and entertainment in between marketing sessions, however, because 2014 is the year I plan to go much more deeply into my artwork.
My theme for the year will center on animals and what I can best describe as "seasonal illustrations," pictures that portray and define the various months of the year and what they mean to me: winter snow, autumn leaves, spring flowers. To help me stay motivated and on track with this project, I've set myself a game-plan that will focus on a single medium every month:
January: Conté brand products, both crayon and pencils.
February: Mixed media and collage.
March: Pastels; including soft stick pastels, pan pastels, and pastel pencils.
May: Colored pencil.
June: Graphite--all shapes and sizes..
August: Rubber stamping (with collage and mixed media backgrounds).
September: Oil pastel.
October: Water-soluble pencils (both watercolor and graphite pencils).
November: Pen and ink.
December: Acrylic. (The scary one--I've left it for last, LOL!)
Sound fun? I think so! One of the reasons I decided to try this approach is that over the years I've acquired so many different art supplies that I thought it was time to a) stop buying anything new, and b) find out which ones I really like and which ones I can live without. At least that's the plan--hope I can stick to it, and I hope you'll be inspired to venture into a creative project of your own this year. Let me know what you find!
Tip of the Day: What would you like to explore in 2014 that's outside of your usual comfort zone? Jewelry, pottery, archaeology? I'd love to know--drop me a line, either as a comment here, or at my Facebook page. Looking forward to what you have to share. Best wishes for a great year ahead.
If you want a career in writing, you must keep the stories coming. In the midst of life, with all its ups and downs, words need find their way onto paper. Here’s how to keep the characters talking to you.
Create an office. Even if you don’t have a separate room, create some sort of office space. You need a consistent place to keep your computer, your drafts and supplies. Even if it’s a box that sits under your bed until you need it, don’t waste your precious time collecting supplies.
Instant Success. Do something small that will give you success. Perhaps just a character description or a description of a setting. A bit of dialogue. Start and end each day with something that you know you can complete.
Use psychology. Tell yourself that you only need to write for five minutes. Quickly get into the flow and when you finally stop, you’ve likely done twenty minutes. The key is to keep writing no matter what. If you don’t’ know what to type, try this: I don’t know what to write next. Repeat that 100 times if you have to until it turns into something else. Believe me, you’ll get so bored with that phrase that you’ll write something else.
Plan marathons. Kids are spending the night with someone and the hubby is going hunting? Bingo. It’s time for a writer’s marathon. Star as soon as the house clears out and write until late into the night. Get up early and repeat as long as you can. Marathons like this can jump start a big project, or get you through those rough spots.
Plan a writing marathon to jump start a project or to finish your novel.
Turn off the internal editor. Write, do not revise. Keep the flow of writing going and ignore the internal editor when s/he wants to stop and look up facts or check a dictionary for spelling. This isn’t the time for that. Instead, let the story flow.
Stop early. Some writers swear by this technique: stop writing in the middle of a sentence and pick up right there on the next day. It makes sense. Just competing the thought gets your head back into the story and it’s easy to move on from there.
Don’t wait. Are you waiting until you get answers to a bit of research or until you figure out a plot point? Instead, write and trust the process. Trust that there will be tidbits to save out of whatever you write.
Trust your instinct. Don’t worry so much! And certainly don’t think about what a reader or an editor will say at this point. Just write. Trust your storytelling ability and write. Trust your sense of story. Trust your choice of words. Write, write, write.