Category Archives: inspiration

What Writers Really Do

Author George Saunders

“What does an artist mostly do? She tweaks that which she’s already done.” So says George Saunders in his brilliant essay on writing published March 2017 in The Guardian newspaper. For me, it captures the process of writing, the feeling of writing, like no other essay I’ve read.*

Saunders discusses many wonderful things in “What writers really do when they write,” including how he developed his acclaimed first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. (Saunders usually writes short stories.)

One thing that jumped out at me is his description of how he revises his work; what he does mentally.

Write-or-wrong-o-meter

“I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the results without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone.”

I do something similar, but I have never made it as concrete as a forehead meter. It’s a gut thing for me. But I think we all know what Saunders is talking about. That knowing that we like it, that it works, or that niggle that we desperately want to ignore that tells us “this could be better.”

It did take me awhile to recognize that gut feeling–to trust that this did need changing or that this really did make the story better. So, if you find it hard to tell where the meter is, other than perhaps permanently stuck in “this is crap,” focus on the niggle part. The thing that catches at you but that makes you want to say, “Maybe this doesn’t matter” or “Maybe the reader won’t notice.”

In other words, start with what you don’t want to be true.

Still I like that he asks only that the needle move into the ‘P’ zone. Not that it top the charts. At least, my zones would not be one fixed point of ‘P’ or ‘N’, but rather exactly that—zones. A band. Of course, you would want to move the needle as far into “Positive” as possible but I’m not sure you could hit the top of the zone with every sentence, every passage.

In fact, I worry that the work would become stilted and brittle if you attempted that. I don’t think perfection is a good standard to set for art.

And that’s not the standard that Saunders sets, although I think he thinks that you’ll get close if you just do this: “Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose… through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.”

I also love what he has to say about how this process respects the reader.

“We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader.”

The changes Saunders makes are based on the idea that “if it’s better for me over here, now, it will be better for you, later, over there, when you read it. When I pull on this rope here, you lurch forward over there.”

But rather than a clumsy place where you pull ropes and your reader lurches, Saunders says you’ll end up in a “rarefied place. (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties—the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off)…”

Oh, don’t we all have those bits of craft and serendipity in our writing that so please the artist in us? And according to Saunders they will be pleasing to the reader, too.

Illustration by Noemi Villamuza

“She can’t believe that you believe in her that much… This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you… you revise your reader up…with every pass… ’No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose of easy notion.’

And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up, too.”

There is a lot more in Saunders’ essay worth mulling over for any artist. You can check it out here:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write

And if you haven’t read Saunder’s short stories—get yourself to a library or bookstore soon. I think you’ll find your reader’s needle is well into the “P” zone.

*Thanks to Wendy Wahlman for handing me a copy recently. It was just what I needed at that moment.

 

 

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If the Chair Fits…

(You should probably sit down to read this one — and put on your Goldilocks wig.)

There are many, many ways into a story. My sister Susan Britton, who is also a writer, likens the process to opening a big bag of dogfood. You pick and pull at the stitching across the top, tugging one thread and loosening another until whoosh! the bag zips open. And the kibble/story is waiting.

I agree, it is a matter of scratching around, trying one idea and then another.

Character is often the way in for me; sketching characters especially. Setting or even a little dialogue may also provide traction. But when I saw San Francisco’s deYoung museum’s exhibit of American chairs, I thought maybe I could sit my way in. If I could sit in one of those chairs for an afternoon, I am pretty sure a story would result; a new twist on butt-in-chair methodology.

1.winsor, side,sleigh

The exhibit was arranged chronologically and these were a few of the oldest chairs. I imagined myself, for instance, seated in the sack-back Windsor armchair on the left, built of oak, hickory, maple and pine in 1780-1800s. I imagined the worn arms under my hands. I’d begin by writing twenty questions as fast as I could. Pencil on paper. Anything that came to mind. This almost always gives me a thread that I can pull to get to the kibble/story.

For example: Who made this chair? For whom? Under what circumstances? Why does it have so many kinds of wood? It is obviously handmade, perhaps with crude tools. Was the maker poor? Who sat here? What conversations took place? Was it drawn close to the fire on long winter nights? What stories were told? Somewhere along the way, ideas related to the story would start to suggest themselves: i.e. maybe the story is a story within a story. I would capture these thoughts and keep asking questions.

Had this chair ever been broken? It is so old. Was it handed down through the generations? Was it prized? I could not help connecting the chair to my own memories. It is a little like my grandfather’s Windsor rocker. Like me, did a little girl feel safe in this chair? Or was it a “naughty” chair, where a child was put for time out? Was it ever pulled to the table for a special guest? Or used to reach a secret from a high shelf? Or to put the star on the top of a Christmas tree? In the eight or so generations since this chair was built, did it travel? Did it ever fall off of a truck in the middle of I-5? Was it the only nice thing on the top of the pile when someone was thrown out of a house? That’s 20 questions. Hmmm. I see a couple of directions I could further explore.

Or maybe I would need to look more closely at the chair. I would get up and draw it from several perspectives. You can get to know something better by drawing it because you have to look carefully.

4.corner,chip, gill

As I thought my way down the line of chairs, I could see that in every case I would be scratching around for a story with queries about the chair itself, the people who had owned it, and its significance in their lives — and probably it would evoke a connection to my life, a memory that would create personal meaning.

2.un-id

For instance, this maple Shaker rocking chair made in Waterviliet, New York c. 1805 suggests babies rocked and little ones cuddled before bed. The high back is distinctive, a ladder back. The worn arms speak of years of rocking and crooning. How would it fit in a modern setting? The seat looks new, which leads me to wonder if it were discarded and found and renovated and reloved? Who would have discarded it and why? Who would have found it? What a treasure it would be to a young family — like my own when our kids were little and I loved to rock them.

victorian

Look at this fussy pink-cushioned armchair from the Victorian age. It seems eager to take a role as an endowed object in a story. Who would have sat on its tight padded seat? Perhaps talking about this chair would offer a repressed Victorian character an avenue to express her inner passion.

L to R: Frank Lloyd Wright chair, 1907; Timothy Gandt armchair for Stickley, 1901; Greene and Greene chair, 1907.

Perhaps we should divvy up these chairs and create an anthology of stories they inspire. They seem full of possibilities. Then we can sit in the line and one by one spin their tales.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Christmas for Bear: Writing a Holiday Book

The sixth book in the Mouse and Bear series, A Christmas for Bear, came out this September.

Holidays are a sure fire subject for a kid’s picture book. These days there’s a book for just about any special day you can name: Arbor Day, Halloween, Easter, Passover, Kwanzaa, Fourth of July… in fact, if you’re looking for a book idea, go through the calendar, pick a marked day, and write. There’s probably an editor looking for one of those.

Christmas is, of course, the granddaddy of all the holidays in the U.S. My Amazon search for “picture books Christmas” netted 6,782 results.

I’ve written two holiday books, both about Christmas. My first was A Christmas Crocodile illustrated by David Small, reissued last fall by Two Lions Press. My latest just came out, A Christmas for Bear, the sixth book in my Mouse and Bear series. It’s getting great reviews, including a star from Kirkus!

As with any familiar topic–bedtime stories, first day of school, a new sibling, a major holiday–part of the trick to getting published is finding a fresh way to talk about it.

With my first Christmas book, The Christmas Crocodile, the idea simply came to me–a crocodile who eats up Christmas. It took years to work it into its published form, but I was pretty confident that there weren’t many books out there featuring crocodiles and Christmas.

My latest, A Christmas for Bear, also had an easy genesis. Christmas was, of course, a natural topic for this very Western-culture-based book series that featured a joyous, celebratory Mouse and an always reluctant Bear. My bigger challenge was how to ring up something new about Mouse and Bear themselves.

Sharp-eyed readers might notice a hint that maybe Bear has presents after all.

I decided to flip things on their head a bit. I wanted Bear to be the one offering celebration. I felt that Bear should be the party guy this time around, so he’s eager to throw his first Christmas party ever. But not being very well versed in  holidays, Bear decides Christmas is all about food, mostly pickles, and a nice Christmas poem (The Night Before Christmas, of course). No presents necessary.

Mouse, naturally, finds the “no presents allowed” idea not so great. And the story centers on Mouse’s attempts to find the present he is sure must be there.

Mouse searches for a present all over Bear’s house.

In today’s world, it’s not that common for commercial picture books to work with the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of Christ. So if you’re not going to celebrate the religious significance of the festival, you substitute other things: love, togetherness, friendship, family, bounty, kindness. Christmas stories are almost always sentimental in one way or another—in fact, it’s one of the few times you can pretty shamelessly lay on the sweet if you want. But I’ve always wanted to avoid getting too saccharine. So for me, humor is the way out. But, even so, I want to say something.

What I remember most about Christmas as a child was how safe I would feel. I didn’t put it that way in my mind. But I knew I would eat well, I would laugh a lot, I would feel close to my family, I would nap in front of the living room fireplace, my father would read The Night Before Christmas, I would have trouble falling asleep. I would get at least one thing the next day that was unexpected and special.

Even though I’m not Christian, I was raised as one. And it’s a little sad to me that we don’t have some shared sense of the numinous, a shared acknowledgment of wonder and awe. But I, and most people I know, are not that comfortable with an established creed. So we really have nothing that calls us collectively to the deep and the mysterious.

So what could I do to evoke some of the values this holiday was supposed to celebrate?

I thought about what the two friends could give each other. Bear gives Mouse a telescope. In my mind, it was a way to evoke that “big thing” that was there in the original meaning of Christmas. For Mouse and Bear (and for me, too) that something big and mysterious can be found under the night sky.

Mouse gives Bear a shiny, red sled. A call to adventure and fun and a time to acknowledge where this series has been going all along—the deep friendship of these two very different characters. This is the real gift of Bear’s Christmas. But I did want to get actual presents in! Good luck making the child reader happy with a pious lesson instead of presents on Christmas morning!

 

 

 

 

 

The Top Four Lists of Writing Tips

 

Okay, I lied. These are great tips, but not necessarily the top four, but numbered lists are pretty irresistible. For some reason we love them—Top Six Beauty Tips, the Ten Best Eats in Portland, Eight New Looks for You, 13 Reasons Why.

Maybe we like the promise of something simple, definitive, brief—condensed wisdom. The other day I started browsing through a compilation of writing advice put together by the amazing Maria Popova, who writes the blog Brain Pickings. It’s a guide to 117 columns she’s written over the years on authors and their advice to other writers.

It’s well worth checking out all 117 essays for inspiration and entertainment, but I focused on the ones that promised to be simple lists, like Henry Miller’s 11 Commandments of Writing or Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.

And then I rather randomly picked four that I liked because it was fun to see them all together. It’s interesting how practical most of the tips are. Writers, it seems, do not want to talk high-faluting artsy stuff when it comes to advice to other writers. Even Henry Miller’s list was surprising mundane, mostly counsel to himself bordering on “don’t forget to buy milk.”

I suspect as writers we know that we only hope to catch lightning in a bottle—it’s not something we have much control over. So the best we can offer is “here’s my bottle.”

KURT VONNEGUT

Kurt Vonnegut

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

JOHN STEINBECK

John Steinbeck

  1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
  2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
  3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
  4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
  5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
  6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

MARGARET ATWOOD

Margaret Atwood

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­ization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

JOYCE CAROL OATES

Joyce Carol Oates

  1. Write your heart out.
  2. The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written. FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE.
  3. You are writing for your contemporaries — not for Posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become Posterity.
  4. Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”
  5. When in doubt how to end a chapter, bring in a man with a gun. (This is Raymond Chandler’s advice, not mine. I would not try this.)
  6. Unless you are experimenting with form — gnarled, snarled & obscure — be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.
  7. Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!
  8. Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader — or any reader. He/she might exist — but is reading someone else.
  9. Read, observe, listen intensely! — as if your life depended upon it.
  10. Write your heart out.

I was thinking, as I wrote this, that I might comment on some of the advice—maybe something from my own experience or somesuch. But as I looked over the lists, I realized the other thing that maybe we like about lists–they don’t offer a lot of context. Instead, you, the reader, bring the context. You fill in the blanks with your own experience and decide if it rings true for you or not.

I’d love to know: did any of these tips strike you?

 

 

 

ONE SUN ONE MOON

Wren, Oregon — Early Monday morning we slipped under the wire fence and climbed a hillside cow pasture, then watched while the light dimmed and crickets tuned up their fiddles.

famonhill

As the moon slipped in front of the sun, the skies darkened to indigo and the most wondrous jewel was revealed, hanging in the sky where the sun had been – a total solar eclipse. We were transfixed.

myphotoeclipse

Then roosters crowed and the skies began to lighten again.

Over the next hours, as the eclipse moved coast to coast across America, millions of people shared our gobsmacked, goosebumped wonder.

Eclipses have amazed humans for a long time. Ancient Mesopotamian warriors who witnessed a solar eclipse on May 28, 585 BC interrupted a longstanding war between the Medes and the Lydians. They saw the eclipse as an omen. Fighting immediately stopped and they agreed to a truce.

For modern scientists, this eclipse offered a chance to study the sun’s corona. A Nova special which included film of Monday’s event, detailed how scientists are trying to understand the forces that impact coronal heating – the surface of the sun is 10,000 degrees but the corona can heat up to 1 million degrees.

ourshirts

We gathered in a field near my sister Kate’s house. She labeled it a “Partial Reunion Total Eclipse,” and made t-shirts based on our LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING artwork. Note the wolves wear protective sunglasses and the white ink glows in the dark.

•  •  •  •  •

Monday’s eclipse may have been the most photographed event in the history of mankind.

My friend, photographer Max Waugh got some amazing shots from Central Oregon.

Solar Eclipse Composite

Solar Eclipse Composite

See more of Max’s images here: Max Waugh

In Seattle, my friend Karen captured the effect of the eclipse on leaf shadows in her driveway.

Another friend, Melanie, set up an Optical Sun Projector with binoculars and snapped photos as the reflection crossed a screen. She explained: “The binoculars are set up on a tripod, facing the sun. One lens is occluded to allow for one image. This will project a reflection onto a screen. I made my screen out of white black-out fabric and made a little tent over to help balance light.” The image on the right takes into account a cloud passing by.

Before the advent of photography, artists painted the eclipse. A current exhibit at the Princeton Art Museum includes the paintings of Howard Russell Butler, whose “scrupulously accurate paintings” captured the colors in the corona. Check out his methods here. http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/transient-effects

•  •  •  •  •

I was proud of the moon on her Big Day. I am a longtime fan. I wear a crescent moon necklace. Joe Max Emminger’s painting of a tender moon hangs in our entry

joemax

and Margaret Chodos-Irvine’s moon series hangs over the piano — where the chart for “How High the Moon,” stands ready.

mci

The moon has a starring role in my picture books, too. The highpoint of FRANK AND IZZY SET SAIL, where they sing to the stars, features a crescent moon,

F&I.31

and Kate’s and my latest, LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING, is all about howling the full moon to the top of the sky. I love how Kate painted the moonlight into our book.

LW5C 0204 2

This eclipse was incredible, even more incredible when you think it is only possible because the sun and moon appear the same size in Earth’s sky because the sun’s diameter is about 400 times greater – but the sun is also about 400 times farther away. The disc of the moon fits perfectly over the sun.

Like the millions of others who witnessed Monday’s eclipse, I was filled with wonder when the temperatures dropped, the sky darkened and the beautiful jewel appeared. Quite a memorable Partial Reunion Total Eclipse.

finalimage

 

What Kind of Animal Fantasy Are You Writing?

Original illustration for Charlotte’s Web by Garth Williams

For reasons, I’m not quite sure about; virtually all of my books involve animals, either as protagonists or catalysts. There’s my six Mouse and Bear picture books; I have picture books about a Christmas Crocodile and an ant who takes a day off, and a middle grade novel about a lizard who wants to be an artist and another about a magical school teacher with miniature animals living in the classroom supply closet. The book I’m currently working on features a heroic rat.

I seem to have a thing for animal fantasies. Like all fantasy, the fantasy world has to have consistent rules, and once upon a time, to help me figure out what I was doing, I developed a list of books featuring animals and broke them up into categories as I saw them. I discovered that animal fantasy books seemed to fall into five main types. I thought it would be fun and maybe helpful to share for those of you who also find yourself writing animal fantasy.

MUTUAL WORLD

From A Wind in the Willows, illustration by E.H. Shepard

Animals and humans live side by side in a mutually perceived world. Animals have human cultural artifacts and interact in a human-like way with humans. Some examples:

-The Wind in the Willows—a blend of human culture and animal realism, i.e. they live in burrows, but burrows furnished with fireplaces and easy chairs.
-Stuart Little—milieu is a human culture with Stuart living in it as if he were a boy. But he has some mouse-like qualities. Interestingly, I think Margalo the bird he loves acts as a purely natural bird
Dr. Doolittle—Certainly Dr. Doolittle and people close to him share a mutual world with the animals, other humans see animals as merely animals
Freddy the Detective books—the setting is naturalistic i.e. the farm animals live in the barn, but they use a few human artifacts and a few people know the animals are intelligent. They talk to the animals, although the animals don’t actually talk back to them.

ANIMAL UNDERWORLD

From Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM, illustration by Zena Bernstein

Animals often have a human-like culture, especially the ability to talk, and sometimes their world includes tools, clothing and other artifacts. But the animals are perceived by humans as animals in a natural world. The animals are often threatened by the human world. No communication between animals and humans other than what would seem normal to the humans. Some examples:

-Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Babe
Holbrook, A Lizard’s Tale
Charlotte’s Web–actually, Fern, alone among the humans hears them talk, but we never see her in conversation with them. She merely observes their world—privy to it because she can see into their world by virtue of her innocence. As she gets older and interested in a boy, she loses this.
-A Rat’s Tale–human artifacts adapted to animals’ use, but humans never realize this. Much like the Borrowers
A Cricket in Times Square
The Mouse and His Child–features toy characters, as well as animal characters, who are mostly perceived by humans as regular toys and animals

ALTERNATE UNIVERSE

From Bread and Jam for Frances, illustration by Lillian Hoban

A world only inhabited by animal characters, but their world operates like the human world. Animals in clothes, driving cars, etc. Some examples:

-Abel’s Island
Beatrix Potter books–animals live in cottages, wear clothes, etc. No humans in most of them. Peter Rabbit is an exception and would fit under the Animal Underworld category
Time Stops for No Mouse
Piggins books
Redwall series
Doctor DeSoto
-The Frances books

There something of a subset in this category that shows up a lot in picture books which is the animal world as a kind of Arcadia, a timeless pre-industrial world:

-A Visitor for Bear
Frog and Toad

ALLEGORICAL WORLD

From Watership Down, illustration by Aldo Galli

Animals live in a natural environment, but deal with issues relevant to human culture. The constraints of the naturalistic setting often enhance thrust of the social commentary. For example:

A Hive for the Honeybee
Watership Down
Animal Farm

A SECRET INNER LIFE

Behavior and cultural issues true to natural animal life, but animals think, feel and communicate among themselves. For example:

-Bambi
Black Beauty

Like all efforts to categorize things, some of these books blend in bits of other categories. For example Watership Down has some intrusion by an unknowing human world, making it also an Animal Underworld.

And there are books like Curious George which despite its very human-like little monkey I wouldn’t call an animal fantasy. Maybe there should be a category called HUMANS MADE TO LOOK LIKE ANIMALS. We could fit the Berenstain Bears under there as well.

Even though they are stuffed animals, I think the Winnie-the-Pooh books would fit under the Animal Underworld category with only one human, a child, as in Charlotte’s Web aware of their sentience.

And then there are books like The Mouse of Amherst that I can’t quite fit into any category. The mouse lives in an Animal Underworld, but she communicates through poems with Emily Dickinson, as if they perhaps live in a Mutual World. And there’s a cat who seems to be merely a cat. So, maybe anything goes as long as you know how your world works.

From The Mouse of Amherst, illustration by Claire A Nivola

 

What Would Betsy Ross Do? The Exhibit!

Last night was the culmination of something that started nine months ago – the opening night of “What Would Betsy Ross Do? The New American Flag Project,” a community art project that evolved from my reaction to the 2016 United States presidential election.

You may have seen my call to participate on this blog in December last year.

This is my artist statement from the show:

The morning of November 9, 2016, I woke up feeling intense anxiety with an image in my head that I had to go do something about.

I started piecing bits of fabric together in a concentric pattern. I stepped back and looked at the piece, and it occurred to me that I was redesigning a new United States flag based on what I saw this country becoming – an endless circling of opposing forces. It was cathartic.

Then I started wondering what other people would do with the same idea. Regardless of how they voted, what did they think? The Stars and Stripes are meant to symbolize unity and balance, but do they still accurately represent our country now? What would Betsy Ross’s flag look like if she were to create it today?

I sent a note out to friends and artists whom I thought might be interested. As more people began to respond, I looked for a gallery to show the work. I am very grateful to Cora Edmonds and her staff at ArtXchange for stepping forward to host the show.

Some participants are professional artists. Some are not. Some are people I know and some are friends of friends or relatives of friends. Others came to the project through social media connections. And some are students of teachers who brought the idea to their classrooms.

To all of those who participated, I thank you for your thoughtfulness and your efforts. You gave me my wish; to see what other people think, to bring together a community of creative people, and to heal through making art happen.

Art may change the world we live in. Or it may not. What is important is that it gives us a way of dealing with the world on our own terms.

Initially, I just wanted to see what other people would do with the idea of redesigning the U.S. flag for today’s America. Then I wanted to bring people together to share the experience of making art that makes a statement. Then I wanted to find a way to exhibit their works for the public to view.

I got all three.


J Kennard-WWBRD? flag

Along the way I connected with a varied group of people, some of whom I knew and others whom I’d never met. I led a workshop for middle school students at Coyote Central (two other artists led art classes with young people as well). I got to work with the dedicated staff at ArtXchange Gallery.

The opening event was the icing on the cake, or perhaps the cookies.

I feel very fortunate to have been given the idea, the opportunity, and the support.

To see all the flags individually as well as the artists’ statements, please visit the ArtXchange Gallery website.

In addition, fifteen of the artists contributed to printing a collection of postcards with their images from the show. Proceeds from the sales of these packets will be donated to the ACLU at the end of the exhibit.

Cora Edmonds at What Would Betsy Ross Do? exhibit with postcards

As I write when I sign copies of Apple Pie 4th of July – make your own parade!

Sailing Away

If you had to guess what kind of boat is most associated with books, what type do you think it would be?

Just like cats and books, birds and books, and rain and books go together, so do books and sailboats (although there are some rare exceptions to the sailboat).

For these summer days, I thought it would be fun to look at  my collection of images of books in art for the theme of boat. I found quite a few.

Not only does the sailboat work conceptually since sailboats and books are both places of leisure, contemplation and escape:

Illustration by Pawel Kuczynski

Illustration by Yuko Shimizu

Illustration by Catherine Nolan

Illustration by Natalie Andrewson

It works artistically given how books and boats echo each other visually:

Illustration by Pawel Kuczynski

Illustration by Henriette Sauvant

Sometimes the books and boat metaphor can feel a bit stretched:

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I do like the idea of books as an ark to preserve knowledge–although I’m not sure what the cylinders on the roof are about.

Books and boats can also be seen as a metaphor for capturing knowledge:

Illustration by Christiane Beauregard

Illustration by Gurbuz Dogan Eksioglu

Or maybe the appeal is that with both boats and book we are set a-sail on something vast and deep:

Illustration by Pawel Kuczynski

 

 

 

 

African Prints Fashion Now!

Julie Paschkis, Deborah Mersky and I just returned from a field trip to Los Angeles to see African Print Fashion Now! at the Fowler Museum.

All of us are fans of the large and varied category of fabrics known as African prints. Deborah first introduced me to them many years ago when she brought some pieces for Julie and me back with her from a shop in New York. Then Julie gave me some yardage from Vlisco for my birthday.

“African print” is an umbrella term for commercially produced, patterned cloths made for the African market. The most prestigious, true “wax print” is a complicated process using wax or resin resist.

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Many African prints, including some that say ‘genuine wax’, are printed with simpler processes such as roller or screen printing. They are still very appealing. 

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The designs often carry symbolic meanings, and are chosen to communicate the cultural heritage and status of the wearer. Many motifs appear frequently in different designs. Keys and locks are common.

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Some have political or popular figures.

IMG_3293I always like the ones with birds.

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These two were designed with a similar theme in mind, over fifty years apart.

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Some are electronic.

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Fans are popular.

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Some designs are geometric and others floral. Many are both.

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It seems as though nearly anything can be made into a beautiful print cloth design.

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I’ve rarely seen African prints for sale in Seattle, but London fabric shops have a large clientele for African-style material. My collection grew substantially while I was there.

IMG_1148IMG_1143IMG_1141IMG_7782Julie and I even went to Helmond outside of Amsterdam to visit the Vlisco factory for a bit of viewing and shopping.

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Established in 1846, Vlisco is the premier producer of African prints. It was hard to leave with only as much as we could carry. 

The origins of these prints can be traced back to painted and printed cottons from India for trade between South Asian and East Africa. These then inspired batiked fabrics in Indonesia. Later, Dutch and British manufacturers started producing mechanically made wax-resist prints for the Indonesian market. When the Indonesians rejected their products, preferring their own hand-dyed cloth, European manufacturers shifted their market to West Africa.

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There, they began to work with local traders, most of them women, to provide goods that reflected the cultural values and aesthetics of their clientele. During the 60s and 70s, newly independent African nations opened their own factories. More recently, Asian companies have flooded markets with more affordable designs, many of them knock-offs of Vlisco and other well-loved patterns. This has hurt the European and African companies, but has also increased the global awareness of African print textiles.

Both men and women wear clothing and accessories made from these fabrics.

Below are a few pieces shown in the exhibit.

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Here are two more that I saw in shop windows in Montreal recently.

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Why do I like these prints so much? Perhaps because of their connection to the printmaking techniques that have always appealed to me. Or maybe because of their playful and bold designs. They are as illustrative as they are decorative. I use patterns and color on clothing to add to the story in my children’s books too, but mine aren’t quite so bold.

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I think what appeals to me most is the anything-goes approach to pattern design.
Fashion is always a form of personal expression. These fabrics just sing a bit louder than gingham or chambray.

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When Your Mind is Blank

Kelly Barnhill, author of this year’s Newbery winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, says her book began with a vision that literally stopped her in her tracks:

I was out for a run, and I had this image appear in my head, unbidden, that was so shocking to me that I had to stop in my tracks. It was of this four-armed swamp monster with a huge tail, and extremely wide-spaced eyes…and these big, damp jaws and it was holding a daisy in one hand and was reciting a poem…

That’s one way ideas come. A gift from the universe. And there are the good times when they seem to come crowding into your mind. But sometimes they don’t come at all. That’s what I want to write about today–what do you do when the ideas aren’t popping.

First, let’s get in the right frame of mind.

There are two types of brain waves associated with generating creative ideas, especially the kind that seem to come from nowhere. The ones that just rise up into your conscious mind. They are alpha and theta waves.

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. And they often rise into consciousness on that walk, in the bath, on a car ride.

A deeper state of consciousness is signaled by theta waves. It is also known as the twilight state–which we normally only experience fleetingly as we rise up out of sleep, or drift off to sleep. Probably most of us have been jolted occasionally by a sudden idea or solution or vision in these moments.

But how can we get into these creative states?

Artists through the ages have tried! They’ve called on the gods, made deals with the devil, called on love, passion, nature, drugs, alcohol and madness.

But actually those alpha and theta waves? They like certain conditions, especially alpha.

Your brain waves will tend to fall in with a dominant rhythm in your environment: a drumbeat, a heartbeat, the fall of your footsteps—they call it entrainment. So the creative muse loves rhythmic activity: music, walking, chopping vegetables, riding along in a vehicle.

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.”

It’s no coincidence that Barnhill’s vision of the swamp monster came to her during a run.

But let’s say, you’ve walked your feet off, bathed till your skin is a prune, chopped broccoli for hours, and you still got nothin’. There are also more deliberate ways to generate ideas. Let’s start with this simple formula for a story:

A (character) who (core trait) wants (goal plus hidden need).

The core trait is a simple, quick way to give your character a personality. It’s a good way to think about picture book characters who need to be developed quickly and simply.

So the formula for my book A Visitor for Bear might be: a bear who is grumpy wants to be left alone (but the truth is he needs a friend.) The formula for Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats might be: a couple who are old want a cat (but the true need is companionship or something to care for.)

Of course, these formulas are for books that have already been worked out, and A Visitor for Bear actually was one of those “just popped into my head” ideas, but let’s say you really are at a loss for an idea. So let’s look around and just grab something.

“A cat who is ugly wants to catch a mouse (and I don’t know the true need yet.)”

Okay, I truly did just grab this out of my head. Let’s see what happens if we work with it. I especially like to play with the core trait, because how a character is challenged or changed is what makes the story interesting.

1.Make the core trait conflict with the goal/need.

For example, in Millions of Cats most couples might look to have a child to meet that need to have companionship or something to care for—but their core trait is that they are old. Not only does this heighten their loneliness, it means having a child is not possible. It ups the stakes and means there will be obstacles to overcome in order to not be lonely in their old age.

2. Work with an unusual trait:

Rather than creating a character who is easily scared (a familiar trait), how about someone who loves to scare others?

Rather than someone who’s nice, create a character who’s grouchy (That’s my bear in A Visitor for Bear.) Rather than a child who is scared about the first day of school, a child who can’t wait! Rather than a child who won’t eat his vegetables, a child who is a vege fiend!

3. Combine disparate traits:

A gentle giant. A kind witch. A pacifist bull. A mighty ant.

4. Put two characters with conflicting traits together:

A cheerful mouse and a grumpy bear

You can also work with plot.

5. Set up an unlikely or improbable goal:

A cow who wants to be a ballerina. A horse who wants to drive a car. Your character can be fairly ordinary but there will be story conflict and reader interest because of the improbable goal.

So let’s start messing around with that idea about an ugly cat wanting to catch a mouse. Notice it’s a mundane familiar goal. Picture books have to be simple so if I combined an odd core trait with an unlikely goal it can get complicated. An ugly cat who wants to go to the moon. It might work, but it becomes unclear what’s the real issue of the story.

So I’ll stick with “ugly cat wants to catch a mouse” and start to play with the options. An ugly cat: well, that’s a bit unusual. We don’t often deal with an ugly character in a picture book. But the story immediately suggests humor and the character is not human, so we can have fun with it.

Does his core trait (ugly) conflict with the cat’s desire to catch a mouse? Maybe. Maybe he’s so ugly he scares away mice before he can even get close. Okay that seems funny to me. So I can go with that.

Since he’s always scaring away his intended prey, what does he do? Put on a mask? Put a bag over his head? Try to creep up on mice backward? Now I’m starting to see the obstacles that will make up my plot.

Can I take advantage of two unlikely characters together? Cats and mice aren’t known to be friends. Cats are the predators. Mice, the prey. Cats big, dangerous, brave, graceful. Mice, small, scared, hiding, weak. I could maybe play off those stereotypes or start flipping them in some way. A big mouse. A tiny cat. But I need to ground my story in that core trait. What the one thing I know for sure about my particular cat. He’s uncommonly ugly.

Is my mouse perhaps uncommonly handsome? Or is he the world’s ugliest mouse? Do they have that in common?

Since this is child’s picture book, I know I want to drive it to a happy ending (although if the tone is exactly right, you could perhaps have a more macabre ending like I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. But that is a rare exception.) So now I’m liking the idea of the having the world’s ugliest mouse because I can see friendship there. That’s probably my cat’s true need—friendship or acceptance.

To really develop this story would take a lot more time and thinking. And, more often than not, you might find your story idea ultimately doesn’t work or doesn’t really hold your interest. But generating a story idea in this very deliberate way might get the story making machine inside your mind turning over again.

So grab a random character, a trait and a need and start walking!