Category Archives: Blogging about Life

Could Boredom Become a Guilty Pleasure?

We once went to a Guilty Pleasures holiday party. My husband wrapped up a pack of Q-Tips for the gift exchange. Another guy brought one of those Safeway roasted chickens in the tinfoil pack. My favorite was a pair of giant underpants that had four leg openings. The guy who unwrapped it said, “Guess I’ll be carpooling home tonight.”

My guilty pleasures are simple: relaxing in a hot bath while watching an episode of Friday Night Lights on my iPad, or listening to an audio book on my iPhone while gardening away a Saturday, or even just playing WordsWithFriends and checking email on my phone while waiting at a traffic signal.

I know it’s wasting time, but I didn’t realize there was a bigger cost to my technology-filled approach to downtime. That’s because I didn’t know about the correlation between boredom and creativity.

I learned about it Monday on NPR. In a segment called Bored and Brilliant – the Lost Art of Spacing Out, New Tech City’s Manoush Zomorodi reported on “studies that suggest we get our most original ideas when we stop the constant stimulation and let ourselves get bored.” In fact, one study showed that subjects who were assigned the most boring task – reading the phone book – came up with the most novel ideas.

Manoush spoke with cognitive neuro-scientist Dr. Jonathan Smallwood who studies the relationship between mind wandering and creativity. “There is a close link between originality, creativity and novelty on the one hand and the spontaneous thoughts we generate when our minds are resting,” he said. In short, he said creativity is dependent on daydreams which are dependent on boredom, the default resting state of the brain.

When you turn to your phone to avoid boredom, you also miss out on the creativity that bubbles up from your resting brain. Further, Smallwood said, when we use cell phones to fill every moment of spare time, we don’t have a chance to “see and learn where we are in terms of our goals,” what scientists term “autobigraphical planning,” a form of positive, constructive daydreaming. Without sufficient autobiographical planning, people get stuck in a rut.

The New Tech City podcast is aimed at cell phones, perhaps the most harmful interrupter of boredom. Who is not familiar with what Smallwood calls the “easy, lazy junk food diet of the phone?” I’d include its hussy big sister, the iPad, so seductive with NetFlix and audio books and games. I realize I often scroll and swipe to fill the silence in the nooks and crannies of time that used to be prime for daydreaming. There was a time when it was pleasure enough to take a hot bath, or weed and spread compost, or drive along the coast without connecting to the internet. Was I more creative then?

Luckily, the folks at New Tech City are leading a program to help people decrease cellphone use and thus rediscover the art of spacing out. I am curious to see how it might impact my creative life, so I signed up.

And I made a resolution for 2015: Get bored more. I think I’ll start with a hot bath…

• • • • •

You might like to listen yourself: Bored and Brilliant – the Lost Art of Spacing Out. http://www.wnyc.org/story/bored-brilliant-project-part-1/

Library Love Revisited

BL signage

Two years ago I wrote about my deep appreciation for my local library in Seattle. Now I live in London, where public libraries as we now know them got started.

Founded in 1753 as part of the British Museum, The British Library is the grandmother of them all. It was originally intended as a kind of national museum created to build on its initial collection of books, manuscripts and prints. Over time, as it’s collections increased to include drawings, scientific materials, maps, music, stamps, coins, periodicals – anything printed with historic significance – it became clear that it needed its own facility to house and exhibit its treasures. The current British Library was formally opened in 1998 near St. Pancras station.

In planning my first visit to the British Library, I scheduled myself a (free) tour of the Conservation Center. There, I saw the staff working on a number of current projects: preparing 19th century maps for an exhibition in India; repairing the disintegrating bindings of letters of state from Oliver Cromwell’s era; building boxes for a Franz Kafka award for magic realism and a torch from the 2012 London Olympics; mounting original, handwritten lyrics by John Lennon. Sorry, no photos allowed, but I did take pictures of some of the Royal binding stamps in the hallway.

BL royal binding stamps 2 BL royal stamp

I also visited the library’s permanent exhibit on the first floor. There it displays some of its most impressive treasures. These include a Gutenberg Bible, pages from Da Vinci’s notebooks, and Shakespeare’s first folio. The Magna Carta is usually there, but it is off display for a future exhibit. Some of my favorite items there are: Jane Austen’s writing desk; a page from the 11th century Beowulf poem; a letter from Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII to Cardinal Wolsey, dated 1528; a Kufic Qur’an from AD 850;

BL Kuric Quran

The Guthlac Roll, a 12th – 13th century scroll showing events in the Life of saint Guthlac of Crowland;

BL Guthlac Roll-Angels Visit Guthlac BL Guthlac Roll-Demons Attack Guthlac

The various scripts and handwriting were fascinating to see all in one room. From Florence Nightingale’s wispy report on her nursing staff in the Crimea (1854-56), to John Lennon’s lyrics for “A Hard Day’s Night” scrawled on the back of a birthday card for his son, Julian. Sorry, no photos here either.

In the center of the building is the King’s Library, a towering glass-encased structure that houses the foundation of the library – King George III ‘s book collection. It consists of 65,000 printed books and 19,000 pamphlets from Britain, Europe and North America from the mid 15th to the early 19th centuries. I guess he was a bookish sort of king.

BL Kings Library wall

Then there was the “Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination” exhibit which ends later this month. The history of British Gothic literature from its beginnings  in 1764 with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, to present day Whitby Goth culture. It appears to be true that Goth with never die.

The items chosen for this exhibit included some I expected, and others I didn’t. I took a few photos of pieces that intrigued me. If there was a no-camera sign posted, I failed to see it…

“The Nightmare,” by Henry Fuseli (1782). It combines “the supernatural, the macabre and the erotic to brilliant effect” and “highlights the importance of the unconscious,” all classic Goth elements.

BL Henry Fuseli-The Nightmare

William Blake’s Time “in his character of destroyer, mowing down indiscriminately the frail inhabitants of this world.”BL William Blake-Time as Destoyer

The Wicker Colossus of the Druids from a 1771 travel guide to England and Wales, illustrating the legend that the Druids made human sacrifices by burning people inside giant wicker effigies. Is this where the idea for Burning Man came from?BL Wicker Colossus of the Druids

Caricaturist James Gillray’s “Tales of Wonder!,” (1802) is a satirical look at the excesses of Gothic novels and the “excitable imaginations of those who read them. “BL Tales of Wonder-James Gillray

The original manuscript of Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley, with comments in the margins by Percy Shelley.BL Frankenstein ms-Mary Shelley w comments by Percy Shelley

Arthur Rackham contributed to Gothic literature, as in this illustration for Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Oval Portrait,” (1842).BL The Oval Portrait-Rackham

“The Man of the Crowd,” another short story by Edgar Allen Poe, here illustrated by John Buckland Wright (1932).

BL John Buyckland Wright-Poe-The Man of the Crowd

Oh abhorred Monster! Frankenstein, illustrated by Lynd Ward (1934)BL Frankenstein-Lynd Ward

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles” in lurid technicolor!BL-Hound poster

No Terror and Wonder show would be complete without zombies. BL-Zombies poster

Even Gothic drama has its humorous side. “The Curse of The Were-Rabbit” (2005), is described by co-creator Nick Park as “the world’s first vegetarian horror film.” BL Nick Park-Were-Rabbit

I finished my full, bookish day with a round through the British Library Bookstore. I bought a dozen or so postcards to send to my American friends (and some to keep for myself). The world of books is a place in which I am quite happy to linger. If you are a library lover, you will enjoy it too.

Editing

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 11.14.41 PM

“Boldly and bluntly simplify the subject so as to reveal its true essence.”
– Kiyoshi Saito, (1907-1971)

I have spent the last three months preparing to move from Seattle – where my husband and I have lived since 1986 – to London, England. I fly out at the end of the month. These last few weeks have been a lesson in letting go.

I have been going through everything we own to clear the house for incoming renters. I have picked up every object, pondered it, and decided whether to ship, store, or discard it.

This has gotten me thinking about the process of editing.

Editing your life is like editing your own personal narrative. I am an accumulator by nature, but not a collector, nor a hoarder. The difference is that I enjoy getting rid of stuff, if only to clear the clutter to let the better bits shine.

When I am writing I follow the same process. I have less confidence in my words than my imagery, so I don’t mind keeping my words to a minimum. If I can prove to myself that every word has a reason to be there, I feel I have created the cleanest, least cluttered prose possible. It’s less risky that way. Clear the knick-knacks off your literary shelf.

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 11.15.36 PM

In my artwork I am constantly editing and revising. I strive to follow the words quoted above. Kiyoshi Saito is a contemporary Japanese woodblock artist and a master of selective visual editing in his imagery. Choosing what details to include and what to leave out reveals the aspects most elemental to an idea.

Get rid of the lesser bits. Pack them away or let them go. Only set your choicest pieces out for display.

My next post will be written from the UK. Just think of me as the Books Around The Table foreign correspondent for the foreseeable future. I look forward to exploring new territory and sending back the best bits to share with all of you!

And now, back to packing!

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 11.17.17 PM

 

The Complete OED – Not Concise, Not Compact

OED“Compact” – from the Latin compactus, past participle of compingere meaning to put together closely (com+pangere = to make fast, to fasten.) Used as an adjective = Having the parts so arranged that the whole lies within relatively small compass, without straggling portions or members; nearly and tightly packed or arranged; not sprawling, scattered, or diffuse.

The word was used in 1676 by someone named M. Hale: “The Humane Nature..hath a more fixed, strong, and compact memory of things past than the Brutes have.” Since “the Brutes” can’t talk, I’m not sure how Mr. Hale came to his conclusion. Even so, the idea of “compact memory” intrigues me. I like the way it sounds – almost counter-intuitive. Can memory be compact? Maybe, maybe not. I feel a poem coming on….

OED 2

All this gets jotted down in my notebook because I just inherited from a beloved aunt a complete 20-volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition – definitely NOT the “compact” nor the “concise” versions. It sprawls, in fact, and I’m having fun with it. Never thought I would own the complete set, pricey as it is, though I used to dream about it, especially when I was studying poetry in grad school, exploring language at the level of the word, the syllable, the glorious etymologies. My friends and I sometimes gave each other writing prompts that involved the OED, searching through the surprising etymological roots of a given word, then spinning the root a new direction, gathering fresh images and using phrases in surprising and odd ways (and what does “Say it new” really involve if not oddities and surprises?) The OED is perfect for exploring the “brute” side of language (i.e. its wild-animal, unpredictable nature and its “straggling” and “diffuse” parameters.)

Etymology is not unlike genealogy – both words and people have roots that ground them, histories which make an effort to explain them, and spirits which animate them. Both are subject to interpretation, despite the precision with which editors of dictionaries and encyclopedias (as well as genealogical experts) like to operate.  Here’s a typical OED entry, with guides for how to read it.

oxford-english-dictionary-pageI’m so grateful to have this 20-volume “toy” to play word games with (more ambitious than it sounds) and I hope my aunt comes to me in some form or another (a seal or heron is nice, though my dad actually claimed the latter when he died, and my grandmother the former….) so I can thank her. I like the idea that the people I’ve loved and lost come around in one form or another in an effort to stay in touch with me. They bob up or pass by (“passant = passing, transitory, transient, fugitive”) regularly when I’m at the beach, and I’m grateful. I’m sure my aunt will come to me  though I’m unsure still what form she’ll take. I’ll be on the lookout.

The OED set I now have is practically brand new, and I wish my aunt had been allowed many more years to study it and enjoy it. I found a paper tucked into Volume XVI (“Soot – Styx” – I even love those words on the cover – nicely matched, aren’t they?) which has the word “Spirit” written on it, along with the definition. In my aunt’s handwriting, it says, “Spirit – OED – the animating or vital principle in man (and animals); that which gives life to the physical organism in contrast to its purely material elements; the breath of life.” Indeed, the etymology goes back to the root “espirare” – meaning “to breathe.” The word “inspiration” has the same root.

We like to understand and define things. We like to know where the edges are and we usually like things tidy. Life isn’t always like that. Sometimes, it throws the whole 20-volume set at us, and we don’t feel like “the whole lies within relatively small compass.”  As a writer, I work with words, characters, history, roots.  And I work to make sense of things (isn’t that what “story” is – a desire to make sense?) When you lose someone you love, you tell yourself a story that more or less makes sense of it. But in 1898, someone named Illingsworth said, “If matter and spirit are thus only known in combination, it follows that neither can be completely known.”

I can live with that. Some of our stories present the compact edition, “tightly packed or arranged.” Some sprawl. A passing cormorant – a seal, a heron – lingers near us the next time we’re on the beach. We define what we can, and we leave the rest to mystery.

James Murray, principle editor of the OED, in his Scriptorium (also NOT compact.)

James Murray, principle editor of the OED, in his Scriptorium (also NOT compact.)

Days o’ The Week

Days o the week pattern

Routines don’t seem to be part of my genetic coding. My brain must be lacking the necessary programing that makes repetition easy and comfortable. I can do it, but it doesn’t come naturally.

Unlike my husband, who gets up in the morning and proceeds with his usual, ordered, getting-ready-for-work tasks, I get up, and invariably think, What now? Should I take a shower first, or go get some breakfast? Or maybe I could read a bit more in that book I started last night before I get up… There are so many possibilities.

Maybe being self-employed and able to set my own schedule is responsible for this deficiency, or maybe my inability to naturally settle into a routine is why I’m self-employed.

It’s different when I am working on a book contract or illustration job (when I know exactly what I need to do each day – work till the project is done), but right now I don’t have any deadlines pending, so when I get to my workspace, I often can’t decide what to do first. I should probably work on that story idea I’ve been playing with, but working on that print I started last week is so much more fun than writing, but I also want to decorate this box I have with cuttings from old cookie tins… Sometimes I feel like I flit around my studio like a butterfly in a rose garden.

This is not something I am proud of, or even particularly happy about. I envy people who don’t have to think so hard about how to proceed with their day.

For example, consider the early American settlers (well, the women anyway) who followed the prescribed adage that divided their existence into seven tasks, one for each day of the week:

 

Monday = Wash

Tuesday = Iron

Wednesday = Sew

Thursday = Market

Friday = Clean

Saturday = Bake

Sunday = Rest

 

Iowa State historical society

Granted, that was a time when doing the wash took from dawn till dusk, and this arduously tedious life was probably not terribly fun, but can you imagine having only seven things to worry about accomplishing each week? No emails to answer, no dance lessons or soccer practice to take your kids to, no meetings to prepare for and attend. And a whole day set aside just to relax, without your needing to feel guilty that you aren’t being more productive.

I’ve been thinking about this idea – having one chore for each day of the week – but instead of household duties, I wonder if I could organize it to be a more work-related guideline for someone like me, who has a lot of creative things I want to do, and even more that I should be doing, but who has difficulty making decisions and getting into a regular routine.

So, how about a week that looks like this?

 

Monday = Write

Tuesday = Draw

Wednesday = Design

Thursday = Make

Friday = Sell

Saturday = Read

Sunday = Rest

 

Only one task per day, like a pioneer woman who has to sweat away at drafting her designs before sunset. I will still have to figure out how to still get all my emails answered and errands run and meetings attended, plus the other twenty-three items on my to-do list – not to mention housework! – but maybe I’ll try this new schedule out, at least during my usual working hours.

Simplify. Concentrate. Limitations can be useful. Narrow walls make it easier to focus straight ahead.

Is this idea even possible in our modern, hectic world? Am I crazy to attempt such a strict regimen considering the lack of imposed structure I am used to?

We’ll see. I’m not going to start embroidering it on any tea towels quite yet…

Sunday dishtowel detail

This Is Your Brain on Folk Music

Inside_Llewyn_Davis_Poster_72dpi_RGBInside Llewyn Davis, the latest film from the talented Coen Brothers, is finally out on DVD – I’ve been dying to see it, but it came and went quickly to theaters in Seattle, and I missed it. As a writer, I’m always interested in seeing what other creative people’s take is on creativity and the creative life in general. The wait was long, but it was worth it.

It’s one of those love-it-or-hate-it films (as is most of the Coen Brothers’ work) with quite a few people disappointed by it.  I loved it. I thought about it long into the night, and the next day found myself singing songs from the folk music scene of the early 60’s. Those were the years I began to get interested in poetry, read Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsburg and Kenneth Patchen. I subscribed as a teenager to the Village Voice (worlds away from my own non-Village home in San Jose, California – but hey, we had our own little coffee house called Freight and Salvage.) I took guitar lessons from Marty Ziegler, I listened to Richie Havens, Tom Paxton, the Clancy Brothers. In the movie, when a young clean-cut duo gets up to sing “The Last Thing on My Mind,”  I could sing every single word of it. What is it about memory – our brains on music – that allows us to call up song lyrics (and the touch, taste, smell, sound, and sights of the moments that surround them) so easily when we can’t even remember where we put our keys or our reading glasses? Here’s a wonderful rendition of it with Liam Clancy and Tom Paxton.

And many years later, those evenings spent singing folk songs with other faculty members of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, up in the faculty lounge late at night during our residencies, with Leda Schubert on guitar and my fellow Books-Around-the-Table friend Laura Kvasnosky sometimes there on ukulele – those moments were golden.

But my reaction to Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t all about nostalgia.

The film deserves attention from anyone involved in the arts because it examines creativity, talent, personality, ethics, integrity, commercialism, perseverance – and how all those elements get harnessed or go wandering off in an artist’s life. [If you have trouble with spoilers, you might want to skip the next few paragraphs. Me, I never mind knowing in advance what’s coming – it helps me watch the scenes more carefully….]

There’s a scene in the movie where Llewyn has a chance, finally, to audition for Al Grossman (played beautifully by F. Murray Abraham, who did such a fantastic job in another movie which examines artistic talent, Amadeus.) Grossman was the manager in the 60’s of the famous music venue Gate of Horn in Chicago, and he represented most of the big folksingers of the decade – Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Odetta, Richie Havens, and – later – Janis Joplin.

The audition is Llewyn’s big chance, yet he chooses an obscure traditional ballad, a difficult song to perform, and Grossman responds by saying he doesn’t see much money in it. He gives Llewyn mixed advice, some good (look for a partner who can add depth with  harmonies) and some offensive (cut the beard into a goatee, clean up) and Llewyn simply walks away.

Llewyn's Audition with Al Grossman

Llewyn’s Audition with Al Grossman

It’s almost like the musician gives the manager a test by singing this ballad in its pure, traditional form – and Grossman fails the test. At least that’s how I saw it play out. Historically, of course, it was Dave Van Ronk (the real-life folksinger Llewyn is based on) who failed Grossman’s test and then drifted back into the small Gaslight Cafe scene of Greenwich Village rather than use the Gate of Horn and Grossman’s mentorship as a springboard for national success.

Inside Llewyn Davis didn’t garner the usual prizes or attention that Coen Brothers’ films usually do (think O Brother, Where Art Thou – which the wonderful T-Bone Burnett, a big part of Inside Llewyn Davis, also helped conceive.)  I’ve been trying to sort out why, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the hero of the tale is so complicated – it’s hard to understand him. Does he self-destruct over and over again, or is it just a hard, mean world for a struggling artist? He’s not always nice – in fact, he’s often unappealing: sarcastic, smug, dismissive, judgmental, irresponsible. He takes advantage of people, rotates through their apartments eating their food, using their couches to crash, sees himself as a person who does not compromise, is not interested in the real lives of other people. He’s all about himself and his music – and you never quite know if he lost his musical partner to suicide because of troubles the partner had or because of how little joy or support Llewyn was capable of. Nevertheless, one of the crew says (in the Special Features section – watch that, it’s fascinating, especially T-Bone Burnett talking about jamming for the movie) that she thinks everyone in the movie is a phony except Llewyn. I didn’t feel that way at all – I guess it’s all about perspective. But in a certain way, as a writer, I empathized with Llewyn’s attempts to stay true to his talent. Besides, he’s just so sad. Even a person who does it to himself deserves some sympathy, no?

So please, rent the movie, watch it and come to your own conclusions. Talented artists are not always easy people to get along with, and Llewyn is not a nice-guy hero. The same was true about Mozart in Amadeus, of course – Salieri, his less talented colleague, watches as the miserably adolescent Mozart giggles his way to fame and fortune. Llewyn has his own failings – and he’s no Mozart-level genius. So…is the film saying that a lack of talent does him in, or a too-highly-honed sense of integrity, or just plain bad luck being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or his own disaffections or….? What are the Coen Brothers telling us about artistic endeavors? I’m not sure yet. If you’ve seen the film, help me figure it out – add a comment below. Why do some artists make it and others don’t? What, as an artist, do you owe to your own talent? Is the world a hospitable or hostile place for artists? And is Llewyn actually a talented artist or an Almost-but-not-quite? Or is he despicable, as many viewers claim?  What does the world owe him? What does he owe the world? As writers, we can think about that a bit.

llewynAnd what do you think the cat is all about?

Gosh, I love a movie – or a book or a song or a painting or any work of art – that leaves you thinking.

While we think about the answers to those questions, let’s go put on a few of our old records (still have a phonograph?) and be amazed by our musical memory. How many you can sing along to from Bob Dylan’s “Freewheelin’,” Richie Haven’s “Mixed Bag,” Ian and Sylvia, Peter Paul and Mary, the Clancy Brothers, Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez? Hey, how about Dave Van Ronk’s incomparable “Dink’s Song,” which you’ll recognize as Llewyn’s signature piece. Lovely song.

CALLING THE MUSE

Seattle hosted the national AWP (Assn. for Writers and Writing Programs) conference for four days last week. My fellow BATT-blogger Julie Larios and I were on a panel entitled, “Calling Your Muse,” along with authors Zu Vincent and Debby Dahl Edwardson who we know from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

For my part, I hoped to leave our listeners with an easy-to-follow, How to Call Your Muse list.

In our audience were over 100 writers. Surely these people had some ideas how to call a muse. If I’d known anything about crowd-sourcing, I could have crowd-sourced a good list.

Or I could have based my list on my experiences over the past 20 years, creating 17 picture books and a middle grade novel.

But I felt more research was needed.

So I imagined hiring George Clooney to lead an investigation. Yes, he looks hot in a lab coat, but this would be strictly scientific. He’d film me writing, then do a frame-by-frame analysis. Maybe the Muse would even be caught on camera?

moose

mousse

George’s research would reveal exactly how I do it: Eight Easy Ways to Call the Muse

    • Snuggle your dog
    • Nibble dark chocolate
    • Look out the window and squint
    • Tap out a few words.
    • Check your email
    • Sip tea
    • Google something, possibly related to the project
    • Scratch your ear
desk

On location for George Clooney film.

That’s it: snuggle, nibble, squint, tap, check, sip, google, scratch.

But the more I thought about it, I realized what’s actually happening when I SNSTCSGS is not only calling the Muse, but also answering the Muse’s call. Or maybe – more exactly – conversing with the Muse. It’s a two-way street. I gather the storybits and tools that call her. In turn, she calls to me, urges me to use all this stuff. That’s how the Muse works.

The 12,000+ writers who attended AWP have gone home but I’ve continued to muse on this muse thing. I’ve decided there must be more than one muse, that it takes a village –  well, at least a Swiss army knife of muses –  to get the work done. For starters:

THE ILLUMINATOR MUSE – How else to explain why a writer’s attention is drawn to stuff that is charged with story? She shines her light on ideas, objects, memories, experiences, words themselves, art materials, research, juicy bits of overheard dialogue. The list goes on and on. For instance, my attention is drawn to my #4 watercolor brush and naples yellow gouache and I want to paint something. It will be sunny. Oh, already a story starts to gather.

Making stories depends on assembling material and tools, on gathering quirky facts and notions, on laying seemingly disparate things side by side, on comparing, contrasting, connecting. Sometimes the Illuminator Muse carries a candle like Wee Willie Winkie, and other times she holds a Klieg light high above her head. “Pay attention,” she says, “And report back.”

GESTAPO MUSE – This one has a big glue pot and keeps me in my chair. I almost wish she’d carry a cattle prod, too, and deliver a jolt when my attention wanders.

MARSHALL McLUHAN MUSE – The Marshall McLuhan Muse calls with the seductive nature of the creative zone itself. The medium is the message. Work comes out of work. Or, as Julie Paschkis puts it, “Put in the drudgery and the alchemy happens.”

CRAFT MUSE – A practical gal, the Craft Muse inspires with conferences like AWP, classes, SCBWI talks, and, of course, through other people’s writing. I’m especially inspired to create books that become part of the circle of parent and child reading together, a circle I loved dearly.

I am sure a muse team assembles for each writer, offering skills as needed. For instance, a journalist friend reminded me about the Deadline Muse. How could I forget this muse that calls me every month when it’s time to post here?

What we were really talking about at our AWP panel was twofold: where do ideas come from and how do you sustain motivation?

Muse-assisted or not, my ideas come from paying attention, a habit of mulling, and from savoring stuff that amuses me. (Ah, “muse” is hidden there.) And why write? Writing’s how I figure out what I think. It makes sense of my world.

So I’ll stick with my snuggle, nibble, squint, tap, check, sip, google, and scratch.

But I wonder. Maybe we could sort of crowd-source with our BooksAroundThe Table readers. How do YOU call the Muse?

More Magic

If you played along with my post about drawing your way into a story by sketching animal characters, (https://booksaroundthetable.wordpress.com/2014/01/11/magic-formula-how-to-write-illustrate-a-picture-book/), you have a couple of likely suspects ready and waiting in the wings for the action to begin. I bet your characters are already making suggestions and you have some ideas about where this story’s going.

lilac663

A character ready for center stage.

Next step is to focus on your characters’ “out-of-balanced-ness,” the aspect of the character(s) that the story will grapple with and depend upon. Norma Fox Mazer, who I was lucky to teach with at Vermont College of Fine Arts, called this out-of-balanced-ness the character’s “deprivation.” I like her term because it points to a need or void in the character that the story will address.

So think about it. What do your characters need? This could be anywhere on Maslow’s pyramid: basic needs like food, water, and sleep; safety needs; need to belong; need for esteem, and/or self actualization needs like morality, creativity and justice.  Be as specific as you can. Then craft a story situation that puts this deprivation front and center.

You already have clues in your character sketches. Keep drawing as you think about what your characters need. It helps to give them names and special objects. For instance in Zelda and Ivy, Zelda’s baton is important to both Zelda and the story. It becomes the symbol of power.

Z&I"2Let'splaycircus."447

“You can be the fabulous fox on the flying trapeze,” says Zelda. “I will announce your tricks.” From Zelda and Ivy.

You can summon more pieces of your story by drawing your characters in their surroundings, or by collecting photos of the place the story will take place. For instance, for Frank and Izzy Set Sail, I collected photos of Lake Magiore in Italy.

54-306

F&I.lkmagiore665

From Frank and Izzy Set Sail.

At the same time, make notes about how they might talk to each other, keying in on points of contention and agreement. Can you put this in dialogue?

The machinations of story do not require you to know the whole when you begin. As you keep gathering images, and drawing, and writing snippets that you think might belong, eventually you realize you have enough on the page for the story to begin to speak.

Then all you have to do is listen. It really is kind of magic.

Season’s Greetings!

BATT holiday 2014 card

To all of our wonderful Books Around The Table readers – here’s to another creative, courageous, resourceful, inspired, productive, and successful new year. Thank you for joining us!

All Hallows

What a strange conglomeration Halloween has become. It’s such a weird mixture of fear, horror, candy, naughtiness, and dress-up.

Though it originated in rituals marking the passing of harvest season into winter, Halloween melded with religious beliefs and became the last chance the dead have to visit the earth, and therefore a day for the living to watch out. But Halloween now has morphed into a day to celebrate one’s alter egos. And eat bucketfuls of candy. Is that not creepy?

Even so, I can’t resist the Halloween spirit. With half a roll of black butcher paper, some colored tissue, a craft knife and lots of tape, I worked fiendishly fast yesterday afternoon to put together some Halloween decor for our front window.

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It seemed to be successful. We went through 200 pieces of candy in an hour-and-a-half. One trick-or-treater told me she liked our window.
I said “thank you, I made it myself.” She replied “you must be very artistic.”
I took that as a compliment.

While most of the ghouls and goblins and superheroes who came to our house last night wore store-bought costumes, I most enjoy the home-made get-ups. The Doctor was here.

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As were this black fairy and killer bunny. The girl made both costumes. I was seriously impressed.

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My neighborhood has some freakishly inspired souls that keep the rest of us on our toes as far as Halloween decorations are concerned. Down the street there is the “Big Scary House” that transforms its front yard into Horrorsville.

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This includes two wooden outbuildings, a smoke machine, lights, numerous gravestones, skulls, bones, an entire hedge covered in fake cobwebs, and about fifteen strategically placed statues of horror figures, some of which turn out to be alive and jump out at you when you walk by. It is terrifying, believe me.

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When my youngest daughter was little she wouldn’t even walk across the street from that house on Halloween. The screams start at around 6:00 and continue steadily till 10:00.

Then there is a friend of mine who lives a few blocks away. She constructs a facade for her front doorway every year. Past years have featured a robot, an enormous spider, a man-eating plant, a demonic clown (that was super scary), and a giant chicken with a missing leg giving out chicken drumstick candies. This year it was a huge rat coming out of a sewer pipe. A black light brings it all to life in a frightful kind of way (note the severed plastic arm in the rat trap coming out of its mouth).

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But if you really want to see who sets the creative bar devilishly high in my neck of the woods, you must visit the Skeleton Theatre – a fifteen minute repeating show that involves animatronics, video footage, professional lighting, and of course, skeletons.

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This guy has been seriously bitten by the creativity bug (or zombie). In his day job, he works as a sound designer and composer for live theater, but after hours, he dreams up shows that star skeletons. This year it is the voyage of the Ulna 13. Here’s a preview if you’re curious.

What is it about the gut-wrenching mixture of too much candy and (almost) dead people? If it wasn’t so much fun it would make you sick. I’m not sure I get it, but I still find it amusing. Especially the chocolate.

Almond Joys and Heath bars aside, what I like best about Halloween is the creativity it brings out on parade. That, and having people brave the urban mythology to take candy from strangers. What other excuse do we have to drop in on our neighbors these days and comment on their decor?