Color Full

Recently I found a tube of Cobalt Blue gouache and I swooned.
Paschkis parrotsI painted several blue paintings.
Paschkis Everything-is-connected

Painting is always a matter of choosing one color to go next to another, and lately I’ve been carried away by the sheer pleasure of doing that.

Paschkis small possibilities and parrots

 

 

Sometimes when I look at other people’s paintings I can feel the artist swooning from the pleasure of the colors. (Angel by Paul Klee).

klee angel899

This image by Borghese di Pietro Borghese was painted in 1448, and the pink still astounds.                                                                                                     .

Borghese

 

In Melissa Sweet’s illustration from Firefly July each shade of pink adds to the ones around it . The greens are gifts to the pinks and vice versa.                          .

melissa sweet moonlight

 

Georgia O’Keeffe experienced synesthesia. She heard colors. This is a collage illustration from Through Georgia’s Eyes by Rachel Rodriguez. Rachel said that O’Keeffe walked through the hills, humming the colors she saw.                                     .

Through Georgia's Eyes paschkis

Do you hear the reds in Margaret Chodos’s illustration for Buzz by Janet Wong?
chodos irvine buzz
The little red triangle says AHA to the orange and yellow/green in this paintingby Douglas Florian.                                                                                               .

florian
Radio Lab has a podcast all about COLOR, rich in information. One fact: butterflies (and pigeons and lampreys) have pentachromacy and can see many more colors than people .                                                                                                  .

paschkis butterflies see
In addition to the physical capacity to see a color (rods and cones etc.) your brain and your eye also need practice and coordination. When you learn a new language it takes time for your brain to learn the sounds that it hears. The same is true with visual perceptions. If you have never seen the color blue you will not be able to see it even if you have the physical ability to do so. Here is a landscape without blue, by Paul Klee- just lush oranges, reds and greens.

klee with the eagle
In Seattle right now there are blossoming trees, bushes and flowers everywhere- a profusion of color, light and shadow. Are humans hardwired for these colors and contrasts to give us joy? These cherry blossoms are from Maira Kalman.

mairakalman

This painting by Klee (below) is called Blossoming.                                                   .

klee blossoming

The podcast used a choir to illustrate the harmony and depth of colors. The bass note of  dark colors brings out the soprano yellow and white. Bright boats and buildings sparkle in the alto fog in this illustration by Melissa Sweet.                     .melissa sweet fog

Pink and green add harmony to the red and blue duet in this bouquet by Joe Max Emminger.

joe max emminger bouquet

And finally here is a swooping, swooning, humming landscape from Matisse.

matisse acanthes

I hope you have a color full week.

p.s. I am having a show at the Bitters Co. Barn in Mt. Vernon, WA , opening on May 9th. Please come by if you are in the area.

The Museum of Childhood

Museum of Childhood entry

Last Wednesday, I visited the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood in London’s Bethnal Green area.

This is not a simply a children’s museum, though many thousands of children visit here each year.  This museum houses the British “national collection of childhood-related objects and artifacts.” The extensive array ranges from the 1600s to modern times.

As you enter the exhibit area, the signage includes this quote from Plato:

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

So, Plato isn’t just talking about children here? He was implying that adults should be observed playing too? Those Greeks.

It would be a hardened and steely adult who would not feel the pull towards play when viewing this collection. No matter what age you are, you will see items that remind you of toys and games you played with as a child, and the rest will make you envious of the children who played with them before they became museum pieces.

Isn’t that writers and illustrators of children’s books are supposed to be able to do –  access the emotions and wonderment of being a child? This museum would be a worthwhile field trip for any of us.

Troll Dolls-Denmark(Troll dolls are what I played with as a child. I spent many hours making clothes for them and styling their luxurious hair.)

Viewing the collection as an illustrator, it was fascinating to see the progression of imagery through time and across cultures.

Game of Goose-Italy-1750The Game of Goose, Italian, 1750.

Cloth toy owlSoft toy owl, designed by Kristin Baybars for Ostrobogulous, England, 1964.

My favorite part of the exhibit was the Optical Toys section. Some of these toys use special visual effects – tricks of the eye – to make two-dimensional pictures appear to be three-dimensional. Others make pictures move, or appear to move.

Below are various views of a teleorama from Germany, circa 1800-1820.  teleorama 1-Germanyteleorama 2-Germany teleorama-GermanyI think making a teleorama of sorts could be a fun project to do with children. If I could figure out the telegraphing part.

P1020361 P1020363Magic lantern slides, 1890 – 1900. Made in Germany by Gebrüder Bing & Planck.

P1020368 P1020367Kaleidoscopic lantern slides, 1850-80. Using a double rackwork mechanism, these slides show a changing pattern of colors by turning a handle.

Le Phenakistiscope discs detail Le Phenakistiscope discDisks for a Phenakistiscope from the late 1800s.

viewing Praxinoscope 1880By looking through slits into a mirror while spinning the disk of a Praxinoscope, the pictures appear to move.

These and other such moving-picture toys led to the invention of modern moving-picture technologies,

Movie Makerwhich then led to the invention of toys like the Movie Maker, 1960-1970, made by the Arnold Arnold Toy Company, USA;

Star Wars slide setthe Star Wars Slide Projector set;

Early computer gameand, eventually, computer games.

And then there were the toys that really do move, like the amazing automata of the French company Roullet et Decamps, 1870-1880.

cat emerges from the hat, sticking out its tongye to the sound of a music boxThis cat emerges from the hat, while sticking out its tongue to the sound of a music box.

Rabbit in a cabbage, French 1870-1880, Roylet et DecampsThis rabbit rises out of his cabbage while wiggling his ears and munching.

plays ‘Rigoletto’ and ‘Carmen’ opera tunesThis French monkey musician, 1870-80, plays ‘Rigoletto’ and ‘Carmen’ opera tunes. This wasn’t a toy for children. Adults got to play with this one.

cuckoo on wheelsThough far less elaborate in mechanism or decoration, this hand-carved and hand-painted wooden cuckoo on wheels is also beautiful. Pressing down on the bird’s tail makes the white-leather bellows create bird-like noises. A traditional toy from Germany, circa 1900.

Lajkonik horsemanThis ‘Lajkonik’ horseman is from Poland, 1958. When pulled along, a wire swings the horseman’s club.

Russian musical bearA clockwork Russian bear plays music on it’s balalaika.

wind-up toy monkeyA Chinese wind-up monkey, circa 1970.

Clockwork bugJapanese clockwork bug that jumps around when wound, circa 1950-70.

1940-ishMarx Company, New YorkTin Plate novelty toy1940s tin plate merrymakers. The Marx Company, New York.

animatronics 2 animatronics 1Lots of robotics. Even some robots.

Of course, an exhibit of toys that move must include toy cars.

Hillman Minx car The Hillman Minx battery operated car, made in the 1960s in England by the Tri-ang company.
Pedal carThe Royal Prince pedal car, also by Tri-ang, England, 1930.

Chevrolet blanc et noirThe sleek Blanche et Noir, made in France by Vilac, 1989.

And other vehicles with wheels.

wire motorcycle-Africa wire bicycle 3 wire bicycle 2-AfricaThese bikes were made in Africa from scrap wire, 1980 – 1983.

Puppets are moving toys that have taken to the stage.

PuppetsYellow Dwarf theatre, 1868The Yellow Dwarf theatre, 1868; a theatre made for one family and designed to perform one play, The Yellow Dwarf. The story comes from fairy tales published in France in 1697 by the Clountess D’Aulnoy.

St George and the Dragon puppet-1920-30A Saint George and the Dragon puppet, circa 1920-30.

paper puppetsA shadow puppet theatre, 1850s.

1963-70, EnglandAnd finally, one more toy that moves, as if by magic. England, 1963 – 70.

What I like so much about all the toys that move, or seem to move, or move with us, is the ingenuity and inventiveness involved on the part of the creator. The artists and craftspeople that invented these toys knew how to access their childlike imaginations to fill our hearts with wonder, which is something children, and adults, will always be drawn to.

Maybe creativity is really just another form of play. If so, it’s something I never want to grow out of.

Cloth Clown

Hope so bright

My students still don’t know what they will never be. Their hope is so bright I can almost see it. I used to value the truth of whether this student or that one would achieve the desired thing. I don’t value that truth anymore as much as I value their untested hope. I don’t care that one in two hundred of them will ever become what they feel they must become. I care only that I am able to witness their faith in what’s coming next.”
Sarah Manguso in “Ongoingness.”

I remember when I first started out writing. I deeply needed someone to tell me I had talent. That I would make it. I wanted to be that one in two hundred.

After all, I was trying to do something improbable and hopelessly romantic—be a writer. A “real” writer. One with published books. Good books that maybe made a difference. Or were, at least, read with appreciation. I wasn’t interested in scribbling away in my garret with no concern for worldly success. A successful artist—that’s what I wanted to be.

Now, I also teach writing. And, although, Sarah Manguso doesn’t spell out what kind of students she has, I’m betting she teaches aspiring authors, too. The thing about teaching writing is it’s hard to not feel a bit like a fraud. As Manguso knows, I know that many of my students won’t “become what they feel they must become.”

So are writing teachers fostering false hope?

We are fostering hope. But is it false?

I’ve come to have a somewhat Darwinian appreciation of the process. Many must try. A few will make it. Like tadpoles becoming frogs. Nature seems to need lots of raw material to draw the few from.

I’m one of those tadpoles, too. I didn’t become quite the frog I dreamed of. But unlike nature, it’s possible to become a partial frog and know you’ve achieved something.

Or here’s another way to look at it. The way that I think Manguso means: that there is value in the hope itself. It’s important and meaningful to have that in your life. To have a dream and go after it. I’m lucky no one told me that I’d make it or not make it.

I had to fall back on my own motivations and my own terms of success. And that’s really the only way it can be. How badly do you want it? How hard are you willing to try? How much of a chance can you take?

I don’t know many people who regret having tried. There is the fear that you will feel like a fool. You’ll have wasted your time. But I can’t think of anyone I know who feels that way. In an illustrated essay, reproduced on Brainpickings, Debbie Millman talks about facing the choice to try.

I could have it all

And she talks about deciding later in life to take the chance. To try. To hope. To not, as she puts it “determine what was impossible before it was even possible.”

At the least, I can help a student find out about the possible.

So these days, like Manguso, although I’ll do everything I can to help them, I don’t worry as much about whether or not my students will make it. I’m in awe of them trying. The guts it takes, the honing of their skills, the camaraderie they develop, the furthering of the art itself that they represent. I know that some will completely drop this dream. Some will become appreciators. Some will become patrons. Some will redefine success until it matches what they’ve achieved. Some will become successful only to find that they preferred the dream to the reality. Some will become what they feel they must become.

I don’t think any will lose for the trying.

 

 

 

Strange and Wonderful Connections

Atget_-_Avenue_des_Gobelins

Eugene Atget – Window, Paris

A writer in Russia recently got in touch with me via the email address she found at my personal blog, The Drift Record, to ask a favor. She needed a poem sent to her, one I was not actually familiar with, though I had written about the author of the poem, Nelson Bentley, in one of my previous blog posts.  The Russian writer had been unable to find a copy of the book which the poem she wanted appeared in, but she knew I had a copy because the poem I had written about – “Zero Tide” – is in the same book. She asked if I would be willing to send her the poem “Atget’s Lens”?

What a thrill, to get a request like that from someone I didn’t know in a part of the world I’ve never been to. Such an unexpected, lovely connection! I had met Nelson Bentley decades earlier when he taught at the University of Washington – he let me sit in on a few of his classes while I was deciding whether or not to finish my B.A. in Creative Writing. He was a kind and popular professor, a colleague of Theodore Roethke, and much loved. His death not long after that, at the relatively young age of 72, meant I never got to study with him, but I admired his work. So I found the book – Sea Lion Caves – and typed “Atget’s Lens” out and sent it on across the miles to be translated by this new Russian acquaintance.

Nelson Bentley

Nelson Bentley in his office at the University of Washington

Atget - abbott_portrait

Portrait of Eugene Atget by Berenice Abbott

“Atget’s Lens” is a complicated poem that I hadn’t remembered, but after finding it again and typing it out, I was startled by how lovely it is, how beautifully Bentley handled the formal restrictions, and by how difficult it would be to translate, due to its compressed syntax.

Not only was I drawn to the poem, I was drawn to its subject. Atget was a French photographer who pioneered the new field of documentary photography in the early years of the 20th century. I have several postcards of his work, which focused primarily on street scenes in a Paris that Atget felt was slipping from view.  His work was not well received while he was alive; it was only after his death, when the New York photographer Berenice Abbott championed it, that the value of his photographic documentation of a bygone Paris was recognized.

Eugène_Atget,_Street_Musicians,_1898–99

Eugene Atget – Street Musicians

Atget lived and worked at the turn of the century; half a century later, an English professor in Seattle wrote a poem about him;  decades after that, I wrote about that professor; and a year after that, a Russian writer wrote to me about the professor. From Atget to Bentley to me to Russia – like depot stops on a strange and wonderful train ride.

Atget - Church of St. Gervais

Eugene Atget – Church of St. Gervais

So if you’re feeling a little burnt out on blog posts, as we all do at times, I’m writing this to encourage you to keep it up. Someone might get in touch with you years from now and say “I just read you blog post, and I’m wondering if you could do me a favor….” And you’ll become another stop on a journey that connects one artist to another and another.  Meanwhile, here is the poem I sent across the sea. In it, Bentley mentions many of the subjects of Atget’s photographs. Hope you enjoy it:

Atget’s Lens

Final turning of a place to poem,
A lone vision to a textured home,
And look to book;
Who’d think to find you in a photograph,
Perfectly quiet in the arrested chaff :
A love that took?

A lettered wagon tired in early light,
A snarling knocker that will never bite,
Transformed tokens,
Answer for an old brown grateful Paris
That entered intact the rare, knowing iris
Of Atget’s lens.

A peddler sedate on steep-slanted bricks,
Trees waving in twenty great gold clocks,
Dummies proud stance :
All waited for James’ pen or Atget’s mounts.
It’s the selection of which love counts,
The surest glance.

City and heart sings this humble realm,
An ardor that clears away the film.
Order is all;
Its constant surprise is where it will appear,
Implying the search that makes an atmosphere
Or a total.

– Nelson Bentley

Atget - Door Knocker

Eugene Atget – Door Knocker

Atget - Street Peddler

Eugene Atget – Street Peddler

DESIRE

Ah, Spring. Everywhere I look it’s the force that through the green fuse drives the flower. Nature has sensed the void she’s said to abhor and is filling her incompleteness with trilliums and trout lilies, spidery maple leaves and daphne odora variegata. Bare branches fizzle with chartreuse fuzzies and soft blossoms.

blog2

It seems a feeling of incompleteness is part of the human condition, as well. And like Nature, we attempt to fill this void. We fall in love, create children’s books, play with a dog, watch a sunset. All these solutions work to some degree. Other times we try to fill the inner void with music or religion, or running, or drugs, alcohol, sex, or chocolate. Stories even. Yet the void persists.

The open palm of desire wants everything. It wants everything.
It wants soil as soft as summer and the strength to push like spring.

– Paul Simon, ‘Further to Fly’

I think it’s this incompleteness that beloved writer Norma Fox Mazer pointed to as a main character’s necessary “deprivation.” As sure as Velcro hooks grab Velcro fuzz, characters hook readers through their incompleteness. Because we feel a lack in ourselves, we have a ready place to hold a character’s longings and out-of-balancedness. “Deprivation” has many guises. For example, the children in Sarah Plain and Tall’s yearning for a mother, or Peter Rabbit’s need to get into the vegetable patch, or even Olivia’s out-sized dream to be the Queen of the Trampoline – all incompleteness and desire.

I’ve heard it said that 90% of children’s literature is about belonging or searching for home. Maybe that’s what our own incompleteness is about, too.

What a ramble. But it’s spring and the garden calls. And if I may paraphrase what Rene Zellweger said to Tom Cruise in the movie Jerry Maguire, the garden completes me. At least for awhile.

p.s. Here’s the Dylan Thomas poem referred to above:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman’s lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.

Which Came First?

I’ve hatched a new book! It’s about a chicken named P. Zonka.Paschkis Zonka cover

But an egg came before this chicken – many eggs.eggs

Every year my sister Jan and her husband Greg have a huge party where we (family and friends) decorate eggs – also called pysanky. And Jan and Greg keep chickens. I started to wonder what it would be like if one of those chickens laid a pysanka. Hence P. Zonka was born. This is a painting I made of P. Zonka before the text was written.Paschkis zonka study

Where do ideas come from? I think partly from indirection, from wandering. That is where P. Zonka’s eggs come from. Everything she sees goes into her eggs.When I worked on the book I went back and forth between the text and the pictures. Sometimes the text was the chicken and the art was the egg and sometimes vice versa. Paschkis Zonka painting

If you have ever tried to make a pysanka you know that mistakes are inevitable – at some point when you least want it a blob of wax dribbles onto your egg and it cannot be removed. The trick is to think of that blob as a blobbortunity.Here is an example of a blob transformed into beauty by my friend Aliza Corrado. When her egg was completed it was impossible to tell which part was a blob and which was intentional.aliza's egg

Likewise, wanderings and errors enrich our work. Whenever I finish a book I see all the ways it could be better or different. P. Zonka’s creativity is spurred by digression and synthesis. So is mine, but there is also a strain of dissatisfaction – the sense with each project that I could have gone further or been freer. These wishes for something different are somewhat painful, but they are also great big blobbortunities. They push me  to make another painting or book, another chicken or egg. And so the process goes on.Paschkis Zonkapaschkis pysanky
p.s. If this post makes you want to decorate eggs, here is a guide to having an egg party. Peachtree also made an activity guide with a whole range of egg-tivities, available here. And if you are in Seattle, please come to Secret Garden Books in Ballard this Saturday, March 21 at 2 PM for a book party. I’ll be reading and signing books. I will give away one of these pysanky and also a print from the Julie Paprika website. And there will be cookies!paschkiseggsIMG_0075

The Illustration Cupboard

I must say, having to write a post every five weeks is getting me out of the house regularly. Each month I look for something to investigate that will fit into the realm of what Books Around The Table discusses (writing, illustration, children’s books, life…). Sometimes I have difficulty deciding which to choose.

This is more important than you may assume, as I find that as I no longer feel like a tourist here, I no longer head out sightseeing as often as I used to. Even in a city as exciting as London, one gets caught up in the regular, mundane tasks of life. It’s easy to miss out on something that comes to town for only a short while.

Someone in the local SCBWI group here posted on Facebook that Jane Ray was having a show at The Illustration Cupboard. I wasn’t sure if The Illustration Cupboard was a gallery, or someone’s closet, but it turned out to be a bit of both. It started twenty years ago in the spare bedroom of someone’s apartment, but it now occupies a space in the St. James’s art district of London.

Illustration cupboard storefront

I have been a fan of Jane Ray’s work for many years. She has a perceptive eye and a delicacy of detail that I enjoy, and a dark edge to her work that I appreciate, especially in the realm of children’s books.

These pieces are all spot illustrations from the book The Lost Happy Endings. They are exquisite in person. My poor pics do not do them justice.

Jane Ray-Birds in leaves and trees-The Lost Happy Endings

Jane Ray-Grey Squirrel Red Fox-The Lost Happy Endings

Jane Ray-Owl Frog and Other Such Creatures-The Lost Happy Endings

I didn’t realize until going to the gallery that Jane Ray is a London native. The gallery has works on display by other artists that are favorites of mine, as well as many whom I’m not familiar with. I am finding there are a number of children’s book authors and illustrators here in the U.K. that we in the states have seen little or nothing of. Some have made it across the Atlantic, but it would seem to be relatively few. It’s like discovering a library in an alternate universe – one full of wonderful books that I have never seen, yet all in English! We can get so isolated in the U.S.

Illustration Cupboard bookshelf
Here are a few other pieces from the gallery’s walls:

Shaun Tan is an Australian illustrator whose work is fascinating.

Shaun Tan-Bull & Grass

Check out his book of sketches and paintings if you can. It’s wonderful.

Shaun Tan-The Bird King

You will no doubt recognize the style of David Vinicombe from his work with Nick Park at Aardman Animations.

David Vinicombe-Sheep Tower-Big

Brian Wildsmith is another British illustrator whose work I have long admired for it’s vibrancy and exuberance. He builds his images with both collage and paint. It is always a thrill to see works like these up close.

Brian Wildsmith-Tales from Arabian Nights Front Cover Brian Wildsmith-detail from The Arabian Nights front cover Brian Wildsmith-another detail from The Arabian Nights front cover

John Lawrence is a renowned English wood engraver. This piece was created especially for the gallery’s Summer Envelope Exhibition 2013.

John Lawrence-Envelope III

Neil Packer is a British artist whose work is new to me. I am now an enthusiastic fan.

Neil Packer-Odysseus on his way to Ithaca Neil Packer-The Stone Ship Outside the Harbour

Neil Packer-Tiresias the Blind Prophet-The Odyssey Neil Packer-detail from Tiresias the Blind Prophet-The Odyssey

So much to discover here in London. Looking forward to next month’s quest.

Musing on the Muse

Illustration by Fred Callieri

Illustration by Fred Callieri

What’s your muse like?

Here’s Shakespeare on the subject: “O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.”

And here’s Stephen King: “My muse is here. It’s a she. Scruffy little mutt has been around for years, and how I love her, fleas and all.”

I’m not sure what my muse is like. I think perhaps it’s a scholarly girl with big glasses reading in an easy chair, glancing up once in awhile to send me a smile.

Whoever or whatever your muse is, chances are you struggle like all creative people to tap into its powers. Sometimes the words and images flow, sometimes it’s like pulling teeth.

About four weeks ago, I wrote about our birthright as creative beings and the idea of inspiration. This week I wanted to talk a little bit about what science has to say about inspiration.

Science has renamed the muse our subconscious and discovered some interesting things about that “scruffy little mutt.” For one thing, our muse may not necessarily visit from above—a rare gift from the gods–but be built into us.

Take a look at these two images for a second.

donkey sunflower.009

According to David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, odds are good that as you look your brain is beginning to construct a narrative, a story, a reason why these two images go together.

And it isn’t too hard to start to imagine how these two images could be related, but according to Linden you will automatically start figuring out a narrative even if I show you this.

rhino teeth.010

No matter how improbable, your brain wants to make a connection. Linden says you can’t help it. It’s what comes naturally. Linden believes the brain is hard-wired to tell stories. It’s a subconscious function that automatically kicks in as we work to make sense of what’s happening around us.

Our brains are putting together a causal link: this is happening because that happened and that happened because of that other thing. And isn’t that the essence of story–connecting one action and to another exploring actions and their consequences?

Another interesting thing about our brain is it often seems to know things before we do. I can remember writing stories where I’d put in what seemed an incidental detail—the white rose on the dresser—in the beginning of a story only to discover that this seemingly arbitrary detail was perfect for my ending. It’s an experience familiar to many writers.

It’s as if some part of our brain knows our story before we do.

And according to science your brain literally does know things before you consciously do. In a study where participants were asked to solve a puzzle, scientists could tell before the participants consciously knew it that they had solved the puzzle. How? They could see that the brain started to form alpha waves. Sometimes they could predict as much as eight seconds ahead of time that a person was going to have an insight.

Human head silhouette

There are two types of brain waves associated with subconscious creativity. Alpha waves are a function of deep relaxation. In alpha, we begin to access the creativity-that lies just below our conscious awareness – it is the gateway, the entry-point that leads into deeper states of consciousness.

That deeper state of consciousness is signaled by theta waves. The theta wave state is also known as the twilight state something which we normally only experience fleetingly as we rise up out of sleep, or drift off to sleep, although theta waves are abundant in experienced meditators.

It’s these relaxed brain wave states that give us access to our unconscious thoughts and images. And there are ways to encourage them. For one thing, those alpha and theta waves like what Emily Dickenson calls it “reverie.”

You no longer need to feel guilty for staring off into space, doodling aimlessly or watching a fly crawl across the ceiling. Next time family or friends look at you accusingly as you sit there chewing on your pencil eraser with a dreamy look on your face, you can tell them it has been scientifically proven that you are working. Even Einstein agrees.

“Creativity is the residue of wasted time,” he said.

One last bit of science: it is still a bit speculative, but there’s a scientific theory that the human brain has a tendency to change its dominant wave frequency towards the frequency of a dominant external stimulus.

Basically what that means is that your brain waves will tend to fall in with a dominant rhythm in your environment: a drumbeat, a heart beat, the fall of your footsteps—they call it entrainment.

So the creative muse likes rhythmic activities: music, walking, chopping vegetables, riding along in a vehicle.

Beautiful women in the hammock on the beach

As Mozart said, “When I am traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that ideas flow best and most abundantly.”

The way I first heard it described years ago was “bed, bath and bus.” Do something mindless, repetitive and meditative. In other words, allow yourself to muse.

Bits and Pieces

Empty House

Oof. Empty house.

For the last two weeks, my husband and I have been prepping the house for a floor refinishing: a crew will come in on Monday and begin to bring the tired red-oak hardwood floors back to their former glory. Clearing the books, furniture and tchotchkes out (oh, my God, so many books, so many tchotchkes) has helped me organize a few things, it’s true. But the empty main floor rooms now echo when we speak, and the effect is strange.  It’s eerie, emptying out a house without actually moving out –  a little like having a family member suddenly go berzerk and start running around naked. I feel both amused by it and embarrassed for it…

[…funny how typing out the word “embarrassed” makes me see how similar it is to “bare assed”….]

Sorry – what was I saying? It’s easy to fall right off a cliff when it comes to thinking about how strange words are, isn’t it? Ah, yes, I was talking about an empty house.

When a house gets down to only walls, floors, ceilings and windows, all the flaws of the poor creature show. The little buckles in the wallboard underneath the bedroom windowsills where condensation dripped before we could afford to replace the old windows – we’ve been meaning to fix those for so long. Then there’s the dust on the very top of the tall dining room hutch – you know, where I haven’t dusted since we moved it in twenty-eight years ago. There’s the newly exposed place behind the bookcases that’s a different color than the rest of the room – we got lazy and didn’t move the bookcases when we repainted. Time to unlaze.

On and on it goes, the list of little neglected things about an old house – bedraggled, rumpled, familiar. Both sweet and destitute. It’s as if our house over the years became an old hooker with a heart of gold. Or a featured structure on the  Abandoned NYC blog.

The-Turbine-Room_New-York_Untapped-Cities_Will-Ellis11

This is the point in my post where I might normally turn the whole “empty house” thing into a metaphor for the writing process, but honestly, the hard work of emptying each room has left me feeling singularly uncreative, mentally. Hard work can do that –  which is obvious if you think about how few coal miners or restaurant dish-washers or factory-line workers have enough energy left to be creative. And this hard labor moment of mine is temporary – I’m not going down any mine shafts day after day.

For example, I took time out for the Oscars (even the red-carpet silliness.)  And I took a walk around Greenlake because February sunshine in Seattle cannot be ignored. And even with all I’ve had to do, I’ve been conscientiously reading the headlines from all the newsletters and posts I get in my email each morning via the New Yorker, The New York Times, Bill Moyers, Facebook, The Guardian, ad infinitum. When I’m tired, I save up the reading of the whole articles/essays for “later.”

I’m going to share half-a-dozen links from my last list of Things-to-Read-Later, which I’ve just managed to go back and read now that the rooms echo. Each bit and piece has something to do with creative endeavors, which is what Books Around the Table is all about, and which I hope to get back to more fully once the rooms of the house are full again, and which (in a perfect world) everyone would have the time and energy for.

Robert Frank's "Miners"

Robert Frank’s “Miners”

You can follow these links at your own convenience, depending on the state of your house, state of your head, state of your free time, and/or your comfort level with disorganized browsing. My comfort level with that activity lately has been high.

1. Click here for a gorgeous piece of writing by George Szirtes for the latest issue of Poetry: “Formal Wear: Notes on Rhyme, Meter, Stanza and Pattern.” It’s an essay for those of us interested in poetry’s musicality and mystery. Here’s a teaser: “Sure, rhyme can be predictable. The good poet’s job is to make it less so. On the other hand rhyme is also a mnemonic and an early pleasure. Rhyme is an extraordinary and surprising coincidence….I would contend that the constraints of form are spurs to the imagination: that they are in fact the chief producers of imagination.” 

2. Click here and here to see the paper-sculpture work of Patti Grazini, who has a new show currently at Seattle’s Curtis Steiner Gallery. Grazini never fails to amaze.

3. Click here for some thoughts of my own over at Write At Your Own Risk, about what to keep, what to throw out, what you own, what owns you, how random news clippings can become sources of inspiration, and how basements come in handy.

4. Click here for a look at a N.Y. Times article about the National Gallery of Art’s new Robert Frank online archive.  One of the photos in Frank’s book The Americans  provided the inspiration for my first published poem. That article, by the way, is part of a wonderful series at the New York Times called LENS: Photography, Video and Visual Journalism. Articles from it often end up on my Read-It-Later list.  Click here to see the most current posts.

robert-frank-drugstore-detroit-1955

From Robert Frank’s The Americans – Drugstore, Detroit, 1955

5. Click here to read an interview in which the director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (who made Birdman) talks about reading Raymond Carver and Tolstoy.

6. I’ll share one of my poems with you because it’s about seizing the day and about Time with a capital T, as in never having enough.

Carpe Something

Before we can sneeze,
it’s another day.
In some accelerated way
it’s now impossible to seize
the day. Instead, let’s seize
things sideways, let’s side-step days,
let’s seize things month-wise.
Let’s give that a try, please.
Or thirty tries. Or thirty-one tries.

And that’s it for my post today. Bits and pieces this time around, while my muscles ache and my creativity recovers.

QUALITY WORDS

Like Mark Twain, I am a sucker for the right word. Twain’s the one who famously noted the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is akin to the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

For instance, I was immediately won over by my sister Susan Britton’s novel-in-progress which begins:

Jara, the lightest of sleepers, heard the noise first—the snick of a key in the lock, the creak of the door, the scuff of boots on the concrete floor of the main room below her. No light leaked up the ladder opening into the attic where she lay in bed. The Takers had a rule about no light. Immediately, Jara’s whole self went crazy with fear except for a small important part of her that knew exactly what to do. She had been practicing for this moment since she was twelve years old. Now she was fifteen.

She had me at “snick.”

Our very youngest readers deserve a rich vocabulary in their books even more. They are acquiring language, and the picture book has a big role in introducing a wide vocabulary. It can present ”the right word” in a context that reveals specific, nuanced meaning.

PZonka-Interior-WorkingA spectacular use of “spectacular” in Julie Paschkis’ new book, P. Zonka Lays an Egg, just out from Peachtree. “Spectacular” describes the title chicken’s first creative output.

Last month in the New Yorker, I read about a program in Providence, RI called Providence Talks that encourages low-income parents to talk more frequently with their kids. This effort is based on the word-counting studies done in the 1980s that determined the number of words children hear in their early years correlates with academic success, better health, and higher income later in life. (These studies also inspired Geoffrey Canada’s amazing Harlem Children’s Zone project).

The word-counting scientists found that wealthy parents talked more with their kids. As recounted in The New Yorker, “Among the professional families, the average number of words that children heard in an hour was twenty-one hundred and fifty; among the working-class families, it was twelve hundred and fifty; among the welfare families, it was six hundred and twenty. Over time, these daily differences had major consequences. Researchers concluded that with few exceptions, the more parents talked to their children, the faster the children’s vocabularies were growing and the higher the children’s I.Q. test scores at age 3 and later.”

SWOOPMore perfect words: from Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson (Candlewick). The “swoop” makes me swoon.

The White House took on this issue, too, in a conference last October on “bridging the word gap.” Their conclusion had a different emphasis: “Among 2-year olds from low-income families, quality interactions involving words — the use of shared symbols (“Look, a dog!); rituals (Want a bottle after your bath?”; and conversational fluency (Yes, that is a bus!”) were even a better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, including the quantity of words a child heard.”

Certainly being read to provides quality interactions involving words, as a letter the New Yorker’s Mail section noted a few weeks after the article about Providence Talks. The letter writer extolled the importance of the quality of words young children hear, and noted researchers at UC Santa Cruz found: “Picture books were three times as likely as child-directed speech to use a word that isn’t among the most common English words; a result found regardless of parents’ social class.”

That’s our job as picture book writers: to serve up quality words that exactly serve the story. The right word in context broadens vocabulary and fits like the snick of a key in a lock.

luluOne last example, from Harry and Lulu by Arthur Yorinks, illustrated by Martin Matje (Hyperion). The text reads:

Harry jumped up on the bed and licked Lulu’s face from top to bottom. Lulu was delirious. Then she remembered.

“Wait a minute,” she said to Harry. “You’re not a dog. You’re just a stupid stuffed animal and maybe I should throw you out the window or kick you down the sewer or something!!” Lulu went to grab him.

Harry thought of yelping for help, but instead he decided to speak English.

“Delirious.” A quality word.