Monthly Archives: March 2015

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.

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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.