Category Archives: writing and life

Musing on the Muse

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.

I wrote this post over seven years ago and thought it was worth updating and posting again. Although I’m not sure my muse is this bespectacled girl anymore. Maybe more like an amorphous cloud with flashes of lightning?

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 that Disney ride “Pirates of the Caribbean” where the pirates keep trying unsuccessfully to lure a mutt to bring them the jailer’s keys.

In the meantime, 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 as a rare gift from the gods, but could be built into us.

Take a look at these two images for a second.

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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 joined into a story, but according to Linden you will automatically start figuring out a narrative even if I show you this.

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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. If we see a chimpanzee running past us in the jungle, it could be important for our survival to figure out what it’s running from. If we see a panther running by next–that’s one story. If we see a clown car next–that’s a lot less scary story (depending, of course, on how you feel about clowns).

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 the time that the participant was going to have the answer.

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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 and maybe that mutt will bring you the keys.

Contemplation vs. Stimulation

All writers know what a tug-of-war the writing life is – you’re never quite sure whether to prioritize stimulation or contemplation. With the former, you experience the world; with the latter, you make sense of it. During the down time it gets real: cook meals, clean dishes.

I’ve been both off-the-grid (on an island near Martha’s Vineyard) and deep into the grid (NYC) for the last two weeks. The  island has rowboats, it has sheep in the meadow, it has dirt paths leading to beaches with bleached-white whale bones. It has no commercial enterprises. None. Meanwhile, on nearby Martha’s Vineyard, several dozen Venezuelan immigrants were being declared victims of a crime (perpetrated by Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis), so I guess “off-the-grid” is only true up to a point. But in general, the vibe on this particular island is non-vibe. Days spent in contemplation.

New York City, indisputably on-grid, has a 3-story (!!!) M&M souvenir shop, outside of which the question bubbles up: How many M&M souvenirs does any one person need? Key chains, magnets, t-shirts, hats, coffee mugs, wind-up dancing M&M’s, M&M flashlights, M&M phone covers, M&M sheets and pillow cases, M&M pajamas, M&M stadium blankets, M&M onesies. At this level, NYC is a 180-degree turn from the world of the island — it’s ALL commercial enterprise, 24/7.

On the other hand, NYC also has Broadway (both On- and Off- I saw Tom Stoddard’s new play Leopoldstadt and the musical Book of Mormon) and a public library guarded by Patience and Fortitude, two lions sculpted from pink Tennessee marble.  In the streets of the city, you hear many languages spoken by people from many countries. Though the island I was on near Martha’s Vineyard is calm and green, the chaos and energy and diversity of NYC appeal to me just as much. City days aren’t days of contemplation but days of stimulation. Is there anything quite like the thrill of a curtain rising in a majestic Broadway theater?

As I write this, I’m just north of Boston in Lynn, Massachusetts. It’s a smallish blue-collar town. Lots of ponds around, lots of autumn trees currently flaming yellow, flaming orange, and flaming red. Lobster roll restaurants, with “lobster” pronounced “lahbstuh.” The big booming Atlantic Ocean rolling in nearby. Also nearby is Salem, famous for its witch hunts (the real hunts, not the political ones.) Both Lynn and Salem are getting ready for Halloween, putting skeletons on their porches, hanging spider webs rather than hanging “witches,” buying pumpkins to carve. There are no sheep in the meadow, no pink marble lions, no dancing M&M’s. But there are cardinals at the bird feeder and someone paddle-boarding across the pond. This is life at the normal level, the day-to-day level, the cook-and-clean level. And though Lynn is neither off-grid idyllic nor on-grid frenetic, that is, not the stuff of a writerly life, it’s where my daughter and her family live, so it’s perfect for now. I’ve contemplated, I’ve been stimulated. Time now to be with people I love.

Here are half-a-dozen links I think you, as readers and writers, will like:

  1. A video game based on Emily Dickinson’s poetry. What??? https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/you-can-now-play-emilyblaster-a-video-game-inspired-by-emily-dickinsons-poetry-180980305/
  2. “Voices thought lost to history…” An imaginative Irish storytelling site: https://www.virtualtreasury.ie/hidden-stories
  3. Bestselling authors describe how they organize their bookshelves. https://www.washingtonpost.com/books/2022/07/28/book-organizing-authors/
  4. Ever find anything tucked into the pages of a library book? https://www.npr.org/2022/08/02/1114851706/library-notes-books-collection
  5. Are you in a reading slump? Here’s a solution: https://www.washingtonpost.com/books/2022/07/11/reading-slump-help/
  6. Have you ever bought a book based on the blurbs endorsing it? If yes, this might explain why: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/aug/13/killer-crabs-and-bad-leprechauns-how-the-best-book-blurbs-excite-our-brains

GOOD USE OF EXISTING MATERIAL

In our family we give extra points for Good Use of Existing Materials. Mostly this is simplified MacGyvering, done on the fly, like substituting a paper towel when the coffee filters run out, or opening a wine bottle with a screw and a hammer when you can’t find the corkscrew.

MacGyver was a television series about an undercover government agent who preferred to fight crime with ingenious feats of engineering rather than lethal force.

Pajama bottoms that double as capris, an old sweater sleeve reborn as a winter hat, certainly duct tape and bungie cords put to inventive use: all qualify for GUOEM points.

This post itself should earn me some points. It’s a topic I first explored ten years ago on the now-defunct blog of the Vermont College Children’s Writing MFA program faculty. So meta.

My beloved Aunt Norma belongs in the Good Use of Existing Material Hall of Fame. She was a recycler before recycling was a thing; a model of economy and ingenuity. Consider her reuse of milk cartons, for instance. Like many, she used empty milk cartons as containers to freeze soup. But she also cut them lengthwise to hold chicken breasts which she defrosted on the floor in the front of the refrigerator to take advantage of the warm fan there. On her kitchen counter, flattened milk cartons found new life as cutting boards. In her storeroom, she organized stuff into more milk cartons.

Even her Fourth of July party featured old milk cartons. It included a Milk Carton Regatta, motored and non-motored classes, racing across her swimming pool. No milk carton went to waste at Aunt Norma’s.

In my experience, Good Use of Existing Material applies to making picture books, too. The six Zelda and Ivy books are rooted in my childhood as the middle child of five – sibling rivalry is my God-given existing material. More recently, Ocean Lullaby grew from a beach singalong with a grandson on my lap, when I looked out and wondered how the sea-animal families settle down at night. Even on vacation, existing material is waiting to be shaped into stories.

Your own particular existing material is your take on it all – what grabs your attention, what makes you laugh and shiver and cry. The task is to identify the materials we have to work with – including the metaphors, the details and even the individual words – and then to use them ingeniously, with the snick of a key in the lock, to create the story.

Kinda like Macgyver.

– LMK

THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH

It’s Back-To-School time and I am reminded of my own elementary school experiences:

I am the new kid at school. Again. After lunch at this new school, we third graders have to sit on benches under the basketball nets until the older kids finish eating and we can all go out for recess.

I sit next to Joanie who has a cool Roy Rogers lunchbox. How can I make myself interesting so that she’ll want to play with me?

“My whole family used to work in the circus,” I tell her. “My cousins flew on the flying trapeze.”

She glances my way.

“And my aunt danced with a bear,” I add.

That seems to get her attention. And the attention of a few other kids sitting nearby.

“Really?” asks a wispy-haired girl in front of us. I think her name is Rene. The others lean in.

“We had a pet baby elephant,” I continue. “She was an orphan so I had to feed her from a bottle. I named her Mimi.”

Now the boys behind us are listening, too.

“Right. You had a pet elephant,” jeers a boy named John who has been sent to the principal’s office twice in the three days I’ve been at this school.

But the other kids are starting to doubt me, too. I can see it in their faces. I need to think quickly.

“And then I woke up,” I say.

“You were dreaming all that?” asks Joanie.

“Yes.”

She doesn’t play with me at recess.

I was a liar liar in my early years. Pants. On. Fire. When my mom thought I had lied, she made me stick out my tongue to prove it had not turned black. Of course, I would not open my mouth for fear of being caught. I did not realize Mom was lying in this matter of the black tongue. Such innocence. Such irony.

I was ashamed of the whoppers I told when I was a little kid until I realized maybe lie ability was not a complete liability – but maybe even good practice for a life in fiction writing. (In my early years as a picture book maker, I even explored the idea of my family as the circus in a board book dummy, the sketches of which decorate this blogpost.)

To craft a believable story, we are called upon to create a believable lie. We must invent it all: dialogue that rings true, plausible events, realistic challenges for our characters’ lives. Like good liars, we freely mix in actual factual details from the real world to lend credence. We fabricate to reveal a bigger Truth.

But back to those black-tongued childhood days. I wonder how many of you writers out there were also child liars? Let us know in the comments — and even If you weren’t, you can always make something up.

Contributed by Laura Kvasnosky, no lie.

CAUSE AND EFFECT

Sometimes you don’t know the meaning of a picture book project until you are well into the work. So it was for our new book, SQUEAK!

The text and thumbnails were done and sketches well underway on a beautiful morning in Spring 2016 when insight struck. It hit during our docent group’s tour of Dunn Gardens, led by then-head gardener Zsolt Lehoczky.

As we headed out onto the Great Lawn – which is an important feature of this 100-year old Olmsted-designed estate garden – Zsolt noted the lush grass was pocked with gopher mounds. He explained that the rich soil attracts lots of worms and the worms attract the gophers.

I was walking beside fellow-docent Elizabeth Conlin. Under her breath, she murmured, “We’re all in this together.”

And I realized that’s what SQUEAK! is about. It’s the story of how, in a cause-and-effect way, a little mouse’s squeak can wake up all the animals in the meadows and mountains. “We’re all in this together.” Elizabeth’s comment became the epigraph for the book.

SQUEAK!  itself caused a further effect: I have come to know Elizabeth better. It turns out this cause and effect mechanism is key to her way of being in the world. She writes:

“I was tickled about the meaning of SQUEAK! when you told me about it. We were standing outside the classroom and I think the wisteria was in bloom. I’ve thought about it often. I love the possibility of kids experiencing your book and realizing that every sound and every movement they make can reverberate far beyond their imaginings. I love the idea of children being exposed to that concept.

“We are, essentially, vibration. The only true choices we have are in how to use and direct our energy/vibrations. I became a Kundalini yoga teacher when I discovered that I have the ability to positively effect the people I come into contact with — that I could learn to do it better and more consistently with just my vibratory frequency.”

When you put a book out into the world, you really don’t know what the effect will be, much as the mouse in SQUEAK! has no idea his tiny utterance will awake an entire ecosystem. Books themselves are both a cause, and the result of a lot of effect.

•• • • •  •  •   •

Next Monday evening, Sept. 16, at 5 pm, we will have the first public reading of SQUEAK! at Seattle’s University Bookstore. We plan a participatory reading. Everyone who comes can be part of the cause and effect of the story. The initial squeak will come from our two-year old grandson in his mouse suit. You are invited to get in on the fun. Plus, there will be snacks!

Note: Dunn Gardens is open through October and offers docented tours as well as ‘wanders.’ It is one of Seattle’s secret treasures. For more information about visiting: https://dunngardens.org/visiting-tours

 

 

Fox-founded Friendship

In December 2015, I received an email from a father in Novato, California: “I wanted to write you because you’re my daughter’s favorite author. And we just wanted to let you know how much we LOVE the Zelda and Ivy series! I wanted to thank you for writing and illustrating the book series my daughter will always remember as her childhood favorite. You are truly a hero of hers!”

He went on to say how they have several copies of each of the six Zelda and Ivy books and that they’ve done all the crafts on my website.

“And last year our family had a baby sister, and my older daughter thought Ivy would make a perfect name. And honestly, we were a coin flip away from naming our second child after your book’s character.” (They named her Zoe.)

Luna and Zoe and their fox friends.

As the years passed, Luna, the older daughter, began a tradition of making a yearly Christmas art project that related to Zelda and Ivy: Z&I Christmas ornaments for the tree, an elaborate Lego Z&I house, including outdoor sandbox, swing, pirate hideout, lemonade stand, birdbath, bunkbeds, piano – the complete setting of the books.

When we did a launch event for Little Wolf’s First Howling at Charlie’s Corner in San Francisco in April 2017, Luna and her family drove down and we got to meet in person. I invited them, if they were ever in Seattle, to come by my studio for an art project and tea.

At Charlie’s Corner: Luka holding Zoe, me with Luna in front, and Yukiko.

Luna sent another amazing Christmas project last December: a Twelve Days of Advent calendar that has Christmas outfits for Zelda and Ivy paperdolls behind each door.

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Then last month, they took me up on my visit offer. We made gouache resist paintings together in my studio – and chomped on cucumber sandwiches (of course) with tea.

Thanks to Luna’s father, Luka, for these photos.

All of this is the unexpected golden extra – the cream that I didn’t even know was in the offing as I worked alone in my studio cooking up the Zelda and Ivy books.

It makes me smile to re-read Luna’s dad’s note: “Our family has TONS of Zelda and Ivy inside jokes too: we often play Go Fish, joke about cucumber sandwiches, sing “Take me out to the ball game” as a bedtime lullaby, often play pirates, occasionally change our names to Yolanda/Boleo Rose and say “halibut” if something is amiss, Luna got a (velvet-looking) gown (gloves and boa included) last Christmas, and a baton she reluctantly shares with her younger sister Zoe, she also has a Lucky Jewel, camps inside, digs holes to China, creates interesting “concoctions” and much more..”

What is better than to know something I wrote became part of my readers’ family’s lexicon and lives?

When Luna’s family visited, they brought along Fourth of July outfits for the Z&I paperdolls

pdollsand a beautiful illustrated book of Luna’s own, The Fox Princesses, in which sisters named Luna and Zoe team up with Zelda and Ivy to help a bear.

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The cover and the conclusion of Luna’s latest book.

Best of all, was to have these sweet sisters working beside me at the drawing table on a lovely July day, together in that happy hum of creating.

Like Luna near the end of The Fox Princesses, I beamed.