Monthly Archives: February 2015

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.

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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.

Soup

I have a cold that has lingered for far too long.

dame dearlove ditty 1805

from Dame Dearlove’s Ditties, 1805

I need soup!
Julie Paschkis - Get Well Soup In 1991 I took a children’s book illustration class from Keith Baker. He told us to take other people’s vegetables, but make our own soup.

Yury Vasnetsov Turnip

Yury Vasnetsov Turnip

Good advice! The Russian illustrator Yuri Vasnetsov makes a heady broth, rich in vegetables. I’ll have a sip of that.

Yuri Vasnetsov Magpie

Yuri Vasnetsov Magpie

The colors are nourishing in Growing Vegetable Soup by Lois Ehlert.

Lois Ehlert: Growing Vegetable Soup

Lois Ehlert: Growing Vegetable Soup

Marcia Brown suggests getting the community to help cook. This lesson has stayed with me since preschool, although the story of Stone Soup seems different when I read it now. I had remembered the soup but not the soldiers.
stone soup cover
Alice and Martin Provensen are serving a meal to the King of Cats at William Blake’s Inn. Who knows what kind of soup is in the tureen? The drawing contains vitamin E (elegance) and vitamin C (charm).
provensen king of cats
Mulready’s (1809) offerings in Grimalkin’s Feast might appeal more to cats than to humans.mulready grimalkin 1809
Eat up!

Old Mother Hubbard -1889

Old Mother Hubbard -1889

When it comes to soup, as when it comes to anything, Sendak says it all.sendak soup

chicken soup with rice
I hope my cold is soon gone and that you all are enjoying a good, soupy winter. Bone appetit!

Paschkis soup song

Paschkis papercut

A Movement of Ideas

W Morris-book text

“Don’t copy any style at all, but make your own”  – William Morris

I have never had anyone tell me that they don’t like the designs of William Morris and his circle of artists/artisans, nor have I ever heard anyone complain that they are too ornate, too flowery or too pretty. You cannot deny the beauty of their complex patterns and rich colors. They transcend what usually would be considered merely decorative.

I don’t know if an interior decorator of today would choose a William Morris wallpaper pattern for a home that wasn’t undergoing some sort of period restoration, but in smaller amounts – calendars, cards, notebooks – the designs appear as delicate, ornate treasures. Somehow they combine the beauty and abundance of nature with the precision and control of design in a perfect balance.

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I took the train to the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, London. She is design student at Pratt in New York. This was kind of a pilgrimage for both of us. (Once again, I must apologize for the poor quality of some of the photos. I have no choice but to take them on the fly, and the lighting in this museum made it particularly hard to get good pictures. I hope that they will at least give you the feeling of being right there with me, looking over my shoulder, so to speak).

I knew of William Morris as a designer and craftsman, but I didn’t know his first fame came as a poet and writer.

He also was a translator, weaver, embroiderer, stained-glass artist, type designer, calligrapher, publisher, wood-carver, political activist –  and owner and manager of a highly successful interior design retail shop. Could he sing?

In the late 1800s, William Morris helped start what was to be known as the Arts and Crafts Movement; what he considered to be a  “movement of ideas’ rather than a distinct visual style. Members believed tin social reform, education, environmental sustainability and self-sufficiency, as well as hand-craftsmanship, designing from nature and sympathetic use of materials.

In addition, Morris believed that no one should design an object without a full understanding of how it was going to be produced, which explains why he was driven to master so many crafts himself.

Morris’s first wallpaper design was inspired by the rose trellis in his garden.

W Morris-Trellis wallpaper (1862)

You can see in this drawing how he drew and redrew as he revised his ideas, working the same piece until it was complete. He believed this approach was the best way to maintain the harmony and integrity of the work.

W Morris-Trellis wallpaper design (1862)

He hadn’t yet gained full confidence in his drawing abilities so he asked his friend and colleague Phillip Webb to draw the birds. He was 28 at that point.

Here are more of Morris’s drawings:

W Morris-Design for African Marigold textile (1876)W Morris-Lily and Pomegranate design for wallpaper (1886)W Morris-Wallpaper for Queen Victoria

As a printmaker, I can appreciate that Morris insisted that his wallpapers be hand-printed from carved wooden blocks. Even though the technique was slower and more arduous than machine-printing, the results were far better and thus were worth the extra effort. Printmakers are artisans at heart.

W Morris-Hand-carved woodblock was used by the M & Co printers to make Daffodil pattern

Morris also designed textiles and researched the use of organic pigments and dyes.

This copy of Herball or Generall Historie of Plants was Morris’ own book that he had studied since he was a child. This page shows the roots of the madder plant which produce the madder rose dye.

W Morris-herbal

Not only were the color tones of the organic pigments more natural and better suited to his designs, they caused less pollution than the aniline dyes that had become prevalent by then.

W Morris-Brother Rabbit printed cotton (designed 1882)W Morris-cloth detail W Morris-Strawberry Thief printed cotton (design registered in 1883)

At age 49, to the surprise of many of his colleagues and friends, Morris became a revolutionary socialist. He felt that the British government was an hypocrisy, taxing the poor while favoring the rich (sound familiar?). It bothered him that only the wealthy could afford the high-quality goods that Morris & Company produced. “To apply art to useful wares…is not a frivolity, but a part of the serious business of life.”

He became a well-recognized public figure.

Funny Folks-W Morris cartoon

Morris envisioned an “ecotopia” society, where people lived communally with no central government, private property or currency. He attended protests, gave lectures, and published books.

He founded the Kelmscott Press:

W Morris-Kelmscott frontispieceW Morris-PsycheW Morris-Troy type Parlement of Foules   W Morris-Amonges thise povre folk

His youngest daughter, May Morris, also became an accomplished designer and textile artist.

May Morris-Honeysuckle wallpaperMay Morris-embroidery detail

Morris & Co. also sold ceramic ware and tiles.

the Martin Brothers-bottle  William De Morgan-Bottle with design of cranes killing snakes (1888 - 1907) Sands End Pottery, Fulham, London, England   William De Morgan-Lion Rampant

What I have shown here is a very small sampling of what the William Morris Gallery has to offer. Next, my daughter and I hope to visit Kelmscott Manor in the Cotswolds. That will be another pilgrimage for another day!

You are a creative being in a creative universe

marthagraham.2

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action and, because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique… it is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. Martha Graham

Usually when I talk about writing and the writing life, I talk about the hard work: how many years it takes, how much practice and determination is required—probably because it took me quite awhile to not be discouraged by how hard it was.

But not all of it has to be hard. There is a part that comes naturally. The part that is your birthright as a human being–your creativity.

Graham talks about a vitality, a life force in us that translates into action. Don’t we all sense that force, that energy inside of us? There seems to be something that wants to express itself through us.

I wrote a chapter book, Holbrook, A Lizard’s Tale, about a lizard who wants to be an artist. In there I call this force “the big thing inside.” I was trying to find a way to express the creative drive in terms a child could understand. In the way I understood it as a child. It felt like there was something bigger than me inside. Something that felt important for me to do or to say. I didn’t really know what to do with it—but it wanted expression.

It’s there in every one of us—that yearning to be bigger than ourselves, to do an indefinable “something.”

galaxy

I believe creativity is your birthright. You were born into a creative universe. And you were born to be creative in it. Look around you. Everywhere is the result of tens of thousands of years of human creativity. Tiny insights, giant leaps, a small refinement here, decades of labor there—and there is a house, a chair, the art on your walls, the paper of your books, a spoon, the phone, your medicine, your glass of water, a button… Even a pencil means over time figuring out wood, glues, metal, synthetic materials, ergonomics, graphic design—not to mention the basic reason it exists at all, language and its symbolic representation.

The source of human inspiration has been called many things: the muse, divine inspiration, being in the zone, getting into the flow, the creative spark, daemon, genius, hunch, revelation, vision.

Socrates said, “I decided it was not wisdom that enabled poets to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.”

Time after time in descriptions of great scientific discoveries, works of art, works of literature—you’ll hear about the idea that comes in a dream or vision or suddenly is just there.

The scientist Friedrich Kekule discovered the molecular structure of the chemical benzene when he dreamed about a snake coiled and biting its own tail. In an intuitive flash he realized that the molecular structure was a ring of carbon atoms.

benzene molecule

Many of Mozart’s compositions would simply play themselves in his head with full orchestration.

Author Michael Ondaatje says plots often come to him as “a glimpse of a small situation.” The English Patient started out as two images: one of a patient lying in bed talking to a nurse, and another of a thief stealing a photograph of himself. Every author I know has had the experience of an idea that seems to come out of nowhere.

The idea of a mouse who showed up and wouldn’t go away just popped into my head one day and became the basis for my book, A Visitor for Bear. I wasn’t thinking about mice or bears or brainstorming story ideas at the time. But there he was. Such moments feel like a gift from that force that Graham talks about.

But in our scientific age, we no longer look to the gods for this gift. We look to the human brain and we call the gift giver the subconscious. The good news is that it’s available to all of us, not just a select few. And there are ways to make its visions and messages more accessible.

I’ll talk more about your subconscious and how to make it more available to you in my next post in a few weeks.