I am going to use Poetry Monday to highlight one of my favorite blogs, Books Around The Table, co-hosted by four marvelous illustrators, Margaret Chodos-Irvine, Laura Kvasnosky, Julie Lario and Julie Paschkis. Their posts are always rich in visuals and inspiration and Julie’s Undersea Post this last week is a perfect example of why I like this blog. A reader shared this poem by Elizabeth Bishop in the commentary. Julie’s response is my own, “I love the mixture of beauty and ugliness in the language and imagery.”
I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled and barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
–the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly–
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
–It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
–if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels–until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.
This week I’ve been thinking about the creative process, reflecting on Jonah Lehrer’s lecture, reading the blogs and thinking about my own work which has been slightly bogged down to my mind. I challenged myself to try and post every day to this blog during the month of April (yes, a weekend vacation with spotty internet derailed this goal), in part because I have had trouble posting even once a week. For me, this is a symptom of the writing and visual work overall getting pushed to the side for job, home, family and other commitments.
Janice Hardy’s terrific blog, The Other Side of the Story posted an interview with author Nancy Raines Day this past week in which she talks about what I call sideways thinking – the act of thinking about a creative project without grappling with it directly. A concept, a vague idea, a desire can lay in wait, sitting on the back of the creative stove until it comes together and you are off to the races. Nancy Raines Day says in the interview,
“You have to tell the universe what you’re looking before and be ready to receive it when it lobs back an answer. I try to keep myself in a creative frame of mind. “
This was true for me when I created the Negro Leagues suite of prints for my first gallery show in Seattle, over twenty years ago. I was much further along in the process; I had done all the research for a suite of prints about the Negro Leagues, knew I would include text and had a way to get the printing done (the estimable printmaker Barbara Roberts would edition the images, while I would print the letterpress text in my garage); but I still hadn’t chosen the players. I wanted to tell the story of the Negro Leagues through the words of the players, gleaned from interviews, done by several authors, with Negro Leaguers who were elderly or had passed and been remembered. I was overwhelmed, and solved the problem by going to the studio every day and rereading Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series. I lied about my progress as the deadline to begin production approached, knowing that when the time came I would have my lineup and know what I must do.
“It’s going great,” I’d say at the end of the day as Vic picked me up at the studio. And then one day I finished a novel and, imbued with the spirit of adventure and friendship and the sun and water that those books provided me, I went into the studio and made my decisions: who would be portrayed, the size of the paper and the edition, what text I would use. I was ready and could now simply do the work.
This experience is how I know that floating in the mineral pool at Indian Springs and driving the back roads with my husband, taking pictures of the various ways grapes are trellised, will allow me to resolve my plot issues, my production issues and my me issues. Practice is about showing up every day and doing the work, but sometimes the work is a kind of sideways thinking, a figuring-out that happens while the well is being refreshed so that the next time you lower down the bucket it will come up filled with the clear, sustaining stuff of life.
I’ve been working with a colleague on last year’s Annual Report for 4Culture, the arts, heritage and preservation agency I work for in King County. The challenge is to deliver the facts and figures that are the very reason for being of an annual report, and somehow impart the energy and accomplishment of our activities and interactions with our community that happen over the course of a year. It’s a challenge that has made me revisit the website redesign for Public Art I worked on several years ago with the brilliant and ever-patient Sean Stearns, that has served to inform other redesign for 4Culture’s online presence. How do you tell a story fairly simply when it has complexity?
Several years ago I was excited about the idea of storytelling entering popular culture. I had not only been working on fiction in my own writing but had been developing how to tell the story of 4Culture online, and specifically 4Culture’s public art practice, for four years. Story was how I talked about this work, and how I framed it to my director and the advisory committee as I worked with them to budget and plan for implementation. The online resources we ended up building for Public Art and then for the overall organization aren’t perfect but they are rich. The stories are there, the challenge is how to bring them to the surface – something I work on doing in my writing practice every day. We are looking to evolve the site to better tell our stories, but that’s part of the process. Everything online has to change, as in the end it is a living thing made up of complexity and a myriad of influence. Three years, tops, and you need to refresh your architecture. So it’s all a work in progress, always.
I was grateful to the Bancroft Library for the site they developed for the centennial of the fire in 2006, and to New Media Consortium, which grew out of San Francisco MOMA’s multimedia interpretive program, for which they developed Pachyderm, for the models that led my thinking as I worked. Museums had to problem solve the loss of viewership at the same time as music and movies were struggling with a changing business landscape. People had a lot of other ways to enjoy culture. So museums figured out that it wasn’t enough to simply have a great collection; you had to tell its story in such a way as to intrigue the public enough to engage with that collection. You had to get them in the door with that story, or you had to offer virtual interaction that was valuable enough to garner financial support. And with social engagement (event and social media) they crafted a new model of how the public interacted with the museum, and to the redefinition of what a museum’s mission should be. Culture always leads.
The museum was a huge inspiration to me in crafting storytelling for our agency. The nexus of story and culture, culture and commerce is an informing mechanism of our time. The aim is to tell authentic stories that will connect with an audience. This is also the mission of the fiction writer. Solving design and content problems toward an end of telling the organization’s story, I often meditate on my own practice and how the nut of the thing remains the same, and successful outcomes can be measured by the same yardstick. Is it real? Do I care? Can I connect?
In a term coined during an online critique with kidlit writer pals, I have been seeking zing. Zing to increase the fun factor, zing to energize my other endeavors (writing, breathing, walking around) and zing for the principle of the thing. That would be the principle of zing.
Had the second open studio today and finished up my double sided paper puppets. Simple, limited but very fun to make. Anything that involves glitter and feathers and googly eyes has got to count for a lot.
Wishing you a zingalicious weekend. It’s sunny here in the Northwest – we’ll all be out in it until it disappears again.
I’m not having enough fun.
I started the year with reflection and resolution, having made it through the holidays intact and if not refreshed, then at least rested. I engaged with my new job duties right off the bat, worked at adjusting to the shortened hours at my job and set up a new schedule for my creative life. I rewrote the beginning of my novel, incorporating the advice given by my critique group and esteemed faculty at the SCBWIWWA fall retreat. Then, as the snow fell, the power winked out and the generator kicked on I slowly ground to a halt.
I had plenty of food. I had heat. I could take a shower and even run a load of laundry. But my husband was in B.C. and I was on my own as the tree limbs cracked off and fell on the roof. The landline cut out. No internet or television of course. Cell towers lost power and so could not provide a signal. So I wrote and I thought a lot and I took notes and I read. I did not motor on joyously through my book. In that endeavor, I slowly ground to a halt.
I thought: I can’t write my way out of this. The whole idea is stupid. It’s not going where I thought it was. It seemed clever but now I’m not so sure, maybe I should just cut my losses. Hell, I’ll shit can the thing. I have all these other shiny ideas, easy to write, ALREADY OUTLINED. I am not an outliner but I was driven to it. I was talked down off of that branch by my pal Dana before it broke under me, and I recognized this monologue for what it was: winter talk. It’s January. February is just around the corner. We have not seen nothin’ yet as far as the Northwest winter goes. It does go – on and on.
Here’s what I decided: I’m not having enough fun, and fun is really important to me. So instead of distracting myself with a shiny new story, instead of further whining and dark thoughts, I am going to be in the business of manufacturing fun. Like a little jolly elf, with a tiny, tiny hammer and a sweet little workbench, and a twinkle in my eye. I’m having some friends over on Friday to design puppets. Then we’re going to make them. Then we’re going to make stuff up for them to say. Then we’re going to play. Hopefully by then there will be less winter left and some fun will have spilled over into my writing. Wish me luck.
Our first snow of the year has come and gone several times over the course of the day: big, fat, wet flakes that lay down an inch or two of snow efficiently and then melt away. Just before the snow begins to fall again in earnest the birds come to the feeders that Vic keeps full of seed and suet blocks and seed blocks. Our usual flock moves excitedly from one food source to another, Juncos, House Wrens, Nuthatches and Chickadees moving through the whitening branches and perching on the tomato cages, while from the undergrowth the Towhee asks his (or her) one-note question over and over, “What?” And then after a pause, “What?” For the third year we have hummingbirds wintering over and they are feeding today, too.
As the snow thickens everything quiets and you can hear wings working in quick bursts, or the sandy sound of a bigger bird like a Flicker landing on the fig tree. The smaller woodpeckers come in pairs – I think they are Downy – cocking their heads and peering about jerkily. As nervous as they look, they are the last to fly off if a door or gate is opened and a human comes into view. Snow brings the shy ones out, like the Townsend Warbler we rarely see, with his yellow head and shoulders.
Across the room from where I write, the cat sleeps on his pillow, gently snoring while Ollie patrols the yard’s perimeter and races back toward the house, stopping to lick snow.
These past few weeks I have been adjusting to a new job and have been meditating on and writing down my goals for the year. The strategy of what this year’s position should mean to a narrative about my working life; what new skills I’d like to learn or share with colleagues; the word counts and chapters and drafts I intend to complete and be accountable for; the illustrations for a picture book that have been haunting me and how I can form a story from their first glimmerings. Watching the birds feed as I sit at my laptop I realize I need to add this to my list: Pay attention, listen, watch and take the time to appreciate this moment. The first snow of the new year.
I commute to work by bus. This is my writing time and the time I review other manuscripts to give feedback to my writing pals. Before the bus leaves the park & ride I have my laptop open and am starting to work. I keep my head down to the work until we reach the I-90 bridge. I always try to sit on the north side of the bus so I can look south across the water. Today I check to see if Mt. Rainier is out and rest my eyes on the water. The mountain is a cloudy shape, like a whipped cream version of itself . The sun is out and the water gleams. As I do every morning I close my eyes and breathe, saying to myself, “I am the water, I will be the water today.” Sometimes I substitute the word ‘mountain’ for water, depending on what quality I think is most needed for the day ahead. I hardly ever attain this goal but I love this moment in my day, refreshing and just for me.
Alas, I didn’t document this morning’s mountain shrouded in clouds, but this photo gives a great version of my morning (and afternoon) lookout. Photo via pacific standard
Before leaving for LA, I printed up business cards and cards to put out with my portfolio at the SCBWI conference this coming weekend. I hadn’t been on the press for a long time and had honestly forgotten how much I love the slow process of building the type and images into a finished design. Letter by letter, upside down and backwards: one of my favorite meditations. Then, the printing – the pleasure of laying out multiple images, the satisfaction of crisp type on beautiful paper. In the type run for the jumping pig, printed on handmade individual sheets of Italian paper, getting the type square was difficult and I only realized halfway through that a minute adjustment would bring the type into a more perfect alignment. In the past I might have thrown up my hands, shed tears, insisted on reprinting. But this time I just accepted that I was tired, that the uneven paper was a challenge, that the piece still looked great and that few have as critical an eye as I do. I took the lesson that I needed to be rested, that I needed to take more time at this task, that I need to print more often to get my mojo up and running, and that sometimes good is good enough, all things considered.
Chilling in LA and looking forward to the conference.
Fabianna Rodriguez’ terrific blog has this gem posted a few days ago that is perfect for Inspiration Wednesday. Visit her blog and read the whole post, but here is her list of strategies for energizing her art practice. These can be extended to a writing or performance practice – you know they can. Brava, Fabianna! A great new discovery in the blogosphere.
Here are a few tips for other artists around the practice of being a lifelong student in the arts:
1. Take art classes in field that interest you, and treat them as labs – places where you can experiment, open yourself up to new techniques, and learn from others. I let go of the idea that I will produce finished pieces, and instead, go crazy trying everythign out. I also time myself so that I don’t get attached to what I make.
2. High quality art classes are often in the range of $300-$800, so I set aside a budget every year to take workshops at least once a quarter. You can start small, and set aside the price of going out to eat, it’s not food for the stomach but food for your heart. Even if you don’t take a class, you can use the funds to pay for the time of a master teacher, or studio rental for 1 day. Of course, there are free classes too, but I am not going to focus on those in this blog, because I haven’t had great experiences with free workshops.
3. I recently realized how important it was for me to leave my home to take a class. If possible, you should leave and go to a place where you can treat it like a vacation. Take time off work to do your class.
4. Sign up for e-newsletters of places that offer classes so that you are in the loop around special offers. Often, the best classes fill up fast, so its important to stay updated on things in your area or your field of interest.
5. Read books. I hardly learn from books, but recently, I started reading about Chinese woodblock printing in preparation for a woodblock class I’m taking next week. I realized how incredibly valuable it is to prepare for workshops by reading up on the material. In fact some people can learn entirely from books.
6. Reach out to your masters now! If you know of someone you admire, reach out to them, ask them to mentor you in a particular area. Maybe you need help with color theory, or maybe with learning how to cut a linoblock. I recently reached out to one of my masters to ask him to help me hand print on Japanese paper. Whatever you do, do it now. I say this because, masters are not around for ever. One of my favorite teachers of all time, passed away a few years back, and I often wished I had spent more time with him.
7. Thank your masters. I always try to give my masters pieces of my work and to express my gratitude to them, because their lessons are real gifts to me.
8. Cross the sea to find your master. I have a dream of going to Japan to connect with masters of the Mokuhanga tradition, which is a Japanese style of printmaking. So every year, I apply to a fund that facilitates exchanges between Japanese and American artists. I’ve applied at least 5 times now, and have not gotten it. But I don’t give up, because it is my dream to learn this craft.
9. Be committed to your “schooling.” This is definitely what I’ve had the hardest time with. Usually, a few days before my scheduled class, I will realize I have to much work to do, so I sometimes consider cancelling my class. But thankfully, my mom reminds me to view this as an investment in myself, and to make sure to treat my learning as sacred time.
10. Investigate scholarships or fee waivers for your classes. Many of these art programs offer scholarships. Also, many cities around the country have funding for artists who want to take workshops (usually around $500). Investigate.
11. List your classes in your resume.Image: Self Portrait by Favianna Rodgriguez
The SCBWI Western Washington conference is several weeks in the past and I had intended to post notes from the workshops that inspired me immediately, but I found that I needed to let the experience sink in. Newly finished with a terrific online YA novel writing workshop with Claudia Gabel and some fantastic fellow writers/critique partners, I am casting a (slightly) despairing eye on Act 1 of a new manuscript with an eye to revision. Eventual revision. Must. Move. Forward. In any event I pulled out my notes from Rosanne Parry’s workshop on Character and the 7 Deadly Sins in order to use her ideas to examine my plot and characters.
Parry is a terrific speaker – if you are running a retreat or conference look no further.
Developing flaws in the characters you love
There is a need for character flaws in creating tension and story arc. Look at what sin is tempting to your character. The 7 Deadly Sins is a fairly durable handbook to human nature. Here they are:
1. Pride or vainglory – the preoccupation with the self. Rudeness, cheating, prejudice, class consciousness. In fantasy: hunt for immortality.
2. Envy or Covetousness – a desire for what belongs to others. Sibling rivalry, jealousy
3. Anger or Wrath – uncontrolled feeling of hatred. Reflexive prejudice, bullying, violence, inciting violence in others. Paranoia, distrust. Fear is usually at the root. Anger is a superhero sin. Superheroes usually get into trouble though anger, but also use it to do their good work.
4. Laziness or sloth – failure to engage in productive work. Cheating, procrastination, refusal of the journey, self-doubt, and unwillingness to risk – all have sloth at the heart. Many fairy tales feature this sin.
5. Greed or Avarice – seeking more than your share. Cheating, callousness. This sin is at the root of a lot of competitiveness. Attention seeking behavior is rooted in greed. Social gain is a goal of greed as well as financial gain.. The Lorax is a quintessential story of greed. A lot of dystopian fiction deals in this. Parry mentioned Unwind, a YA book.
6. Gluttony – excessive consumption. The behavioral root of addiction. Gluttony is at the heart of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Every character except Charlie is driven by gluttony. In The Lion, The Witch & the Wardrobe, Edward betrays his family for Turkish Delight – and it’s not even a good kind of candy. (Loved this editorial comment.)
7. Lust or Luxury – excessive interest in physical pleasure. Olivia the pig is driven by this. Twilight is not her favorite book but a very good exploration of Lust.
A sin is:
• Habit of thought or action or interaction, which is harmful to the person who chooses it (leads to choices that bring harm).
• The attitude that underlies a hurtful choice.
• The engine of character growth.
• The seven motivations for conflict in a story.
• Reasonably universal across cultures.
Parry uses these sins and their motivations to build and examine character. I am looking at what sins would drive my characters to do, as I review my first chapters to get them in shape for submittal to the SCBWI summer conference (the 40th anniversary!) in August.