Tag Archives: creativity

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:

(Couldn’t find credit for artist)

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

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

Are You the One for Me

Author Elizabeth Gilbert believes that ideas are “entities” that circulate out in the universe looking for someone to bring them to life. To Gilbert this isn’t a metaphor or a way to describe the collective unconscious or a shared cultural milieu. Here’s how she puts it in her book “Big Magic.”

“I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are disembodied, energetic life-forms…Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner.”

I heard Gilbert speak a few weeks ago to a packed theater in Seattle. She’s a funny, entertaining and insightful speaker. Best known for the book Eat Pray Love, I was there to hear more about Big Magic, her book about nurturing creativity.

According to Gilbert, ideas are so eager to manifest that if you don’t take them up on the offer they’ll find someone else.

But even though, it’s a privilege for an idea tap on your door, you, as the one committing to a lot of hard work, have the right and, indeed, obligation to interview ideas to see if you and the idea are the right fit. As Gilbert says, “I have many times been approached by ideas that I know are not right for me, and I’ve politely said to them, ‘I’m honored by your invitation, but I’m not your girl.’”

What she said about interviewing ideas struck a chord for me. Like many writers, I often have more ideas than I know what to do with. But, especially when I was beginning, I really had a hard time figuring out which ideas were worth the effort and which weren’t. And there were some ideas that I beat to death, so sure was I that I could turn it into something, even though the truth is it had come to the wrong door.

The way I eventually put it to myself was that certain ideas had “energy.” Certain story ideas somehow seemed to demand my attention and effort again and again. It was more intuitive than formalized. I just gradually began to recognize the ideas that were right for me.

I’d never thought to more actively interrogate the idea as Gilbert suggests, but it could be a fun and useful way to find the idea that’s right for you. And I thought about some of the questions I would ask:

 

 

 

Why do you think you’re the right idea for me?

What’s in your heart? Do you have depth or are you just a pretty face?

Do you have breadth? Is there room to move around in this situation or notion?

Do you have any surprises in store? (I want surprises.)

Can I do justice to this idea? Sure, I can research and travel and work hard and probably learn about just about anything, but am I the right writer for a spy novel set in Istanbul? What would it take to learn about international espionage and learn Turkish customs and culture and idioms and geography and so much more?

But even more important than that is the question: is this story “me”? Can I really see the world like Graham Greene or, another way to put it, is my understanding of the world genuinely expressed through a spy novel or will it feel fake in the end?

If a picture book idea comes to my door, I already have some questions that I like to ask:

Do you have a plot? In other words, are you a story or a concept book?

If you’re a concept book, do you have a different or new way to talk about colors or sounds or feelings or trucks? How much “concept” (as in high concept) is there to you so you can stand out?

If you’re an alphabet book do you have a word for Q?

If you’re a rhyming book, why are you a rhyming book? Do you have a good reason to be or do you just think that makes you cute and what one does in kids books?

Are you simple enough to be a picture book, but profound enough to be interesting to me and a reader?

I don’t overwork the question: will you sell? But I let it brush across my mind. How saturated is the market with stories about schools for kids with supernatural skills? Can you, Ms. Idea, or I bring anything new to the table?

Still in the end, probably the most important question for any idea is: Do you excite me? Do I want to do you?

When I mentioned I was writing about interviewing ideas, fellow blogger Julie Paschkis reminded me how fragile ideas are and that you can over-interrogate them. She shared this poem with me.

Shallow Poem

I’ve thought of a poem.
I carry it carefully,
nervously, in my head,
like a saucer of milk;
in case I should spill some lines
before I put them down.

Gerda Mayer

So don’t grill your idea till it’s sweating under the lights, or to really stretch a metaphor, till the milk curdles. But a few gentle questions could allow you to say “No thanks,” with no regrets. Or, “Yes, let’s do it!” more confident that this is an idea that deserves your love and hard work and that will, in turn, work hard for you.

 

Wordless Letters

J Paskchis wordless letter

This post is about my correspondence with Julie Paschkis while I was in London. Apparently, February is International Correspondence Writing Month (InCoWriMo), so this will be especially appropriate.

After I had gotten myself settled in and had recovered from the initial shock of moving to another country, I still felt a bit untethered. Printmaking, my artistic comfort zone, had begun to feel tedious and boring, so I intentionally left my printmaking presses behind in Seattle. Now I had a new environment to explore and no reason not to experiment and be inspired.

But sometimes, having so many options becomes overwhelming. Where to start?

I told Julie how I was feeling. She said that when she isn’t sure where to start creatively, she finds it helpful to make something with someone particular in mind, as if she is making a gift for them. I liked that idea. Julie suggested we both send each other a “wordless letter” every week.

This turned out to be a wonderful solution, in so many ways. I found the challenge of describing what I was doing and expressing what I was feeling, without words, to be a very productive means to mine my experiences.

Julie and I have been friends for nearly thirty years. She knows my art. She knows my insecurities and foibles. She is my dear friend. I knew that whatever I sent her would be received openly and without judgement. That was important to me at a time when I was trying new things that I wasn’t necessarily good at. Some weeks I felt more inspired than others. Some weeks I had less time than others. It was all okay.

The practice kept me being creative, even when distractions and excuses not to stay in my workspace were everywhere, and it disciplined me to do so on a regular basis. During the week, I would keep my eyes open for bits and bobs of ephemera to use in my next missive. Often, what I would make for Julie would lead me to create other pieces in a similar vein.

It also kept me in touch with Julie in a different way than texts or FaceTime or even written letters would have done. It was like a conversation of imagery.

All that, and the joy of receiving something in kind every week. A letter is a gift. We don’t get or give them often enough.

These letters are some of my most treasured relics from my two years in London. All in all, I have nearly fifty wordless letters from Julie. The envelopes were also works of art. I have picked some of my favorites to show you here.

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letterJulie sent me this after I told her about a missing teapot from my parents’ home.

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letterArrows were a common theme for me. Julie responded in kind.

J Paschkis - wordless letterJulie and I exchanged squiggles at one point, and then colored them in and sent them back.

J Paschkis - wordless letterSome of the letters were 3-D.

J Paschkis - wordless letterOthers had movable parts!

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letterRose colored glasses to induce optimism.

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letterThis was a Thank You note from Julie after she and her husband Joe visited us and we took a trip to Amsterdam.

J Paschkis - wordless letterJulie sent me this after I met her in New York for a visit.

J Paschkis - wordless letter A letter for a new year.

J Paschkis - wordless letterAnd this was one of the last letters Julie sent me. It is me, returning to Seattle (the handle on the suitcase goes up and down and the flaps open).

Next week, Julie will share her side of our exchange.

What Would Betsy Ross Do?

This post is drafted from a letter that I recently sent out to artists that I know. Although many of our readers are from outside the United States, I hope that it will still be something in which everyone can find commonality and perhaps participate.

zimand-us_historical_flags-united_states_of_america

We are living in interesting times.

November 9, 2016, was a difficult day for me. It felt like the world as I knew it, or thought I did, had upended itself. I went through something similar in London with the Brexit vote, but this goes deeper, and feels more ominous.

upsidedownusflag

As I usually do in times of confusion and pain, I turned to making things. Textiles have been my favored medium of late, so I started making a version of what I was feeling out of fabric. After I got started, I realized I was designing my concept of a new flag for this country. It is a work in progress. It gives me some catharsis.

m-chodos-irvine-newusflag1detail

But now I want more. I want to see what other people imagine a new, more accurate flag for this country might look like. Flags are symbolic representations of nations. The Stars and Stripes represent unity and balance. Are we still that nation?

So I am asking, regardless of how you voted, What do you envision? Show us.

You may use any medium: fabric, paper, paint, metal, printmaking, wood, computer graphics, collage, mixed media … whatever you are comfortable with.

You can find the specifications of the U.S. flag (as well as it’s history) here, but you are not limited to this format. The size limit is 6’ X 10’.

If  enough new flags are created, I will find a way to publicize and exhibit them, perhaps producing a catalogue.

The deadline to begin is Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017. The final deadline will be March 15, 2017. My goal is to have everything completed for a show by Flag Day, June 14th, 2017.

If you post on social media, please tag me, (Margaret Chodos-Irvine on FB, @margaretci on Instagram) and include this hashtag: #newusflag

You may also include the following hashtags if you like: #newflagsforinterestingtimes #whatwouldbetsyrossdo #whatwouldbetsyrossthink

Yours in creative solidarity,

Margaret Chodos-Irvine

applepiecatspot

Noise to Avoid

img_2264

With the recent re-issue of my book “The Christmas Crocodile,” I’ve been doing a few readings and suddenly I’m having to deal again with a big scream that happens in the middle of the book.

I remembered a little essay I wrote at the time, which I submitted to the SCBWI national newsletter. It didn’t get accepted, but I thought it would be fun to put here:

As writers, we spend so much time figuring out how to get published, it’s easy to forget that someday you may actually have a book. You may actually have to read it to others, not once, not twice but potentially hundreds of times.

Having put a loud scream into my picture book The Christmas Crocodile, illustrated by David Small, I learned a few things the hard way. Here’s my handy-dandy list of what not to put in your story if you want to ensure read-aloud ease:

– Do not put in weird sounds you really don’t want to make in front of 100 people such as loud, drawn out screams. (see above.)

– Do not put in alliterative names that are used each time you mention that character.  Rodney the Rickety Rabbit gets real tiresome about the twentieth time you have to say it in full.

– A corollary is to avoid overly elaborate, difficult to pronounce character names. Oonaqaurklypomadorio is going to be a source of regret.

– Do not put in word choices that are tongue twisters.  Beware. These are not always obvious.  One line in The Christmas Crocodile reads:  “He waved his tail farewell.” “Tail farewell” does not trip off the tongue and one quickly wishes they’d written “waved goodbye.”

– Avoid big long sentences with numerous dependent clauses, descriptive phrases, qualifiers and just plain meanderings that looked so good on paper and made you feel literary, but make your eyes bulge and have you gasping for breath when read out loud.

– Be sparing with repetition. Repetition is the spice of children’s books and sometimes you just have to write some variant of the “House that Jack Built.” But you will find yourself beginning to sound like a radio ad disclaimer as you try to speed read through the ever-growing, ever more tedious list. “’This is the mouse that swallowed the house that ate the pig that sat on the rat…’ Oh, hell, boys and girls, you know the rest!”

– If you’re picking a selection to read from a novel, try for at least one readable scene/section that does not require a longer explanation than the reading itself.

– Be sparing with foreign phrases you actually don’t know how to pronounce or dialog requiring accents you can’t do—unless, of course, you want to sound like Pepe LePue.

– Beware of jokes, unless you are an expert in comic timing. Sometimes the audience doesn’t laugh. Sometimes there is dead silence. Sometimes you start to really sweat.

And that’s when you wish you’d written a nice little bedtime book, instead of this one about who can fart the loudest.

P.S. The way I solved the big, long, loud scream I didn’t really want to do was to realize (brilliantly, if belatedly) that I could prompt the kids to do it. They love it, especially within the hushed halls of schools and libraries.

new-crocodile-cover

 

 

Is There a Pattern Here?

Rob Gonsalves

Rob Gonsalves

Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern.
Alfred North Whitehead

I collect images of books in art. And, just as philosopher Alfred North Whitehead noted, I love to find patterns and motifs among them. I imagine that’s the pleasure of most collections.

Recently I was looking at some of my images and noticed a type of illustration that is relatively unusual. I think of it as the surreal image.

There are tons of images focused on books and reading that are fanciful and unreal. They might be charming:

Illustration by Beatrix Potter

Illustration by Beatrix Potter

Or metaphorical:

Illustration by Rafal Olbinski

Illustration by Rafal Olbinski

Or startling.

Illustration by Jacek Yerka

Illustration by Jacek Yerka

But they don’t quite have the quality I’m talking about. I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe the word is “unsettling.”

Perhaps the forest is a little too encroaching, a little too dark.

Rob Gonsalves

Illustration by Rob Gonsalves

Or the vines too silently creeping.

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg

Illustration by Nom Kinnear King

Illustration by Nom Kinnear King

With this one, I keep finding myself waiting uneasily for those eyes to open.

Illustration by Frances Cochiacchio

Illustration by Frances Cochiacchio

Although not all that is out of place is ominous.

Illustration by Michael Sowa

Illustration by Michael Sowa

The  most classically surreal image I have (echoes of Magritte for sure) is mostly just amusing.

Illustration by Patrick Desmet

Illustration by Patrick Desmet

Maybe what’s holding these together for me is the thing unnoticed. Something’s odd. Something’s off, but it’s only we, the observers, who are noticing.

Illustration by Rob Gonsalves

Illustration by Rob Gonsalves

In fantasy literature, there’s a type of story that fantasy writer and academic Farah Mendelsohn calls liminal. It’s a type of fantasy that’s a little hard to define, but basically it involves a protagonist who doesn’t quite cross through the portal into fantasy, but stays on the border between the real world and the world of the fantastic. Perhaps these images aren’t so much surreal, as “liminal.”

To pull this post back into the world of writing children’s books, I’ll just add a couple links here. One of the questions that almost invariably comes up when I teach classes in writing fantasy and science fiction is where someone’s story “fits.” Like most of children’s literature, there are defined categories in fantasy that are good to at least be familiar with. As a writer you may choose to match those characteristics or violate them, but it’s good to know what rules you’re breaking.

Here’s a list of 10 good terms to be familiar with if you read or write fantasy. And the other is a link to a little information about Mendelsohn and her books. She’s good to know about if you’re going to go deeply into fantasy writing.

In the meantime, don’t turn too quickly to find out about the rustling from that bookshelf behind you. Perhaps it’s best not to know.

Community, Connection, Creativity

The floweristas convene in a big workroom at the back of Orcas Center on the morning of the concert. Fresh from their gardens, they bring magenta hollyhocks, bright blue hydrangeas, fat white roses, squiggly branches and phlox. The workroom buzzes as they create huge arrangements to grace the sides of the stage and the lobby.

2015-08-14 11.22.21

Planning up to a year ahead, volunteers plant their gardens with an eye toward creating flower arrangements inspired by each of the concert programs. 

In the nearby kitchen, other volunteers plate cheeses and appetizers for the post-concert reception. Still others prepare the post-reception dinner for the performers. And in the lobby, volunteers settle ticket sales, having already set up an art show of local work.

It is all in anticipation of the 19th annual Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival, and it truly takes a village.

We were there for the opening last month, in the island’s 200-seat community theatre. Framed by vats of hydrangeas, a trio named Time for Three – two violinists and a bassist – took the stage. They did not look like classical musicians, rather mid-thirties-aged hipsters dressed in dark t-shirts and torn jeans, like in their student days at Curtis Institute.

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 7.48.44 PM

Time for Three: Nikki Chooi, Nick Kendall and Ranaan Meyer

They took us by storm: with dazzling violin runs in exact duet, with bowing so fierce the horsehairs hung ragged on Nick Kendall’s bow. They offered up a whirlwind called Ecuador composed by bassist Ranaan Meyer, and a mash up of Purcell and Stairway to Heaven complete with guitar solo ripped from Kendall’s violin. Then, sweet and pure, violinist Nikki Chooi introduced the melody of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. They passed it back and forth, layering the harmonies, as tears welled in my eyes.

Time for Three impressed not just by their virtuosity, but by their joy in the music. Could it get any better?

The next morning we were part of one of the festival’s three “hamlet” concerts. For these, the musicians travel to outlying communities on Orcas. My friend Betsy, a head flowerista, did the flowers for this one, and I got to assist. We helped set up early at the Olga Energetics Club in what is essentially a large living room, pushing the old couches to the walls and lining up mismatched chairs. A spot was saved for a neighbor who is unsteady on her feet, with extra space for her service dog.

Then the audience began to arrive. Each carried a covered dish, sweets and savories for the after-concert reception: veggie spreads, crab in pate choux, butter cookies. One neighbor provides champagne each year. Another brings her famous apple cake.

We filled up the straight chairs and the folding chairs. Three generations of the Friedmann family squeezed into a couch along the wall: Aloysia Friedmann, violist, the artistic director of the festival; Aloysia’s father Martin, a violinist who played with the Seattle Symphony for 25 years; her mother Laila Storch, oboeist, who taught at UW, and her daughter Sophie.

And the music started.

It had been stunning to hear Time for Three play in the theatre, but was even better in this simple room where we were 10 feet from the musicians. They played without amplification. Raw, pure stuff. Heaven should sound so good.

Then they had a little Q and A.

Someone asked, “What inspires you?”

Bassist Ranaan turned to the Friedmanns on the couch, then reached toward Laila Storch, matriarch of the family, who had studied oboe at Curtis at least 40 years before the trio members.

You inspire me,” he told her, “I see how music sustains a life.”

So what does all this have to do with creating picture books? Maybe it’s more about the general idea of creating. Maybe all those Orcas islanders: the ladies growing and arranging the flowers, the volunteers selling tickets and passing out programs and setting up chairs and bringing covered dishes; maybe those musicians, too, that Time for Three trio, putting their bright and brilliant music out into the fresh Orcas morning, maybe as they participate in the thing they are creating they get the same feeling I get when I work on a picture book. That feeling of how good it is to be alive.

It sustains me.

betsy,laura,flowers

With Betsy, my friend of 40-plus years. Betsy and and her husband John retired to Orcas ten years ago and invite us up each summer for the chamber music festival. 

 

 

Into the Woods With Jung

the egg

Why does Harry Potter battle spiders? And Wilbur, the pig, befriend one? Why does Odysseus sail the sea and that girl go down in the basement in every horror film?

There are lots of reasons for these creative choices, but I think chief among them is the fact that these are all “charged” symbols, characters and events. They carry more than their literal weight when it comes to creating emotional and psychological effects in the reader or viewer. And as a creator it’s worth your while to learn more about deep symbolism.

Carl Jung is a great place to start. The early-20th century psychologist was one of the first people to explore the human unconscious to try to codify the powerful symbols and images that arise from there.

Recently I checked out Jung’s The Red Book from the public library. It’s Jung’s fascinating exploration of his own unconscious through symbolic writing and his own illustrations. (All the illustrations in this post are from “The Red Book.”)

The writing can be hard to work through. Some is reasonably accessible:

Christmas has come. The God is in the egg.

I have prepared a rug for my Lord, an expensive red rug from the land

Of morning…

I am the mother, the simple maiden who gave birth and did not

Know how.

I am the careful father, who protected the maiden.

I am the shepherd who received his message as he guarded his herd at

Night on the dark fields.

Some of the writing not so much:

However, I am not ready, since I have still not accepted that which chokes my heart. That fearful thing is the enclosing of the God in the egg. I am happy that the great endeavor has been successful, but my fear made me forget the hazards involved. I love and admire the powerful. No one is greater than he with the bull’s horns, and yet I lamed, carried, and made him smaller with ease.

But his paintings are powerful and evocative. It’s hard to say exactly how. I don’t know why I keep coming back to study this dragon slayer, but I do.

dragon

Of course, most of his paintings are deliberately symbolic and as, Jung notes, a symbol has “a wider ‘unconscious’ aspect that is never precisely defined or fully explained. Nor can one hope to define or explain it. As the mind explores the symbol, it is led to ideas that lie beyond the grasp of reason.”

Jung goes on to say: “Because there are innumerable things beyond the range of human understanding, we constantly use symbolic terms to represent concepts that we cannot define or fully comprehend.”

In The Red Book, Jung was exploring his own mind, but he believed that many of our symbols (or archetypes, as he called them) were universal coming from the “collective unconscious” of humanity.

One of my writing friends is very aware of Jungian archetypes and other mythic materials such as Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. And she consciously works these ideas into her stories. The result is often images or characters or events that are supercharged. Somehow they are more evocative or disturbing than their obvious elements would suggest.

mosaic face

But even if you aren’t that conscious of universal symbols, there’s a good chance you’ll hit on them if you let your thoughts and emotions go deep. What scares you more than it seems it should? What naturally comes to mind as you take your character on an adventure? Does she end up in a cave? Does he travel by water? Meet a monster? Climb mountains? Explore attics and basements?

boatWater is often a symbol of the unconscious. And it’s not simply by chance that heroes on a quest for self-knowledge will often cross something watery. We see it in some of our most powerful fiction from The Odyssey to Moby Dick to Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Monsters are constantly rising up from water–the serpent thing in the trash masher in “Star Wars”, the Loch Ness monster, the Swamp Thing.

For some reason there seems to be an almost universal fear of spiders (why do we find the swastika so creepy? Is it just contemporary cultural association or does it go deeper.) Yet, EB White makes Wilbur’s friend a spider. White says  that’s because he became interested in spiders after watching them on his farm. But it’s hard to believe Charlotte’s Web would have the power it does if Wilbur had befriended a less symbolically charged creature. And I suspect EB White was deliberately playing against type and stirring unconscious emotions with this choice of hero.

Jung believed houses and other buildings are symbolic of our own psyches. Tower rooms may represent our conscious intellect. Dark basement our subconscious and every maker of horror films knows that nothing is more frightening than the idea of going down into the dark unknown that lingers there.

I’m betting most of these creators–from JK Rowling to John Carpenter to Ursula LeGuin–were well aware of the symbolic charge of their choices. And you can be to. If you’re interested in exploring archetypes and symbols more, some good books include Man and his Symbols, a book featuring an essay by Jung and then commentary by others on his ideas. There’s Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces, Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey and Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment and authors like Clarissa Pinkola Estés who writes extensively about women and their particular symbolic needs and expressions.

red sun

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In The Study Rooms at the V & A (Part I)

W Crane-babys bouquet sketch fly detail

This morning, a moving company loaded our London belongings into a shipping container. For the next month we will be traveling while our stuff makes it’s way to our home in Seattle.

Since we decided to move back to Seattle from London, my sightseeing to-do list has become an imperative. At the top of the list has been scheduling a date at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Prints and Drawings Study Rooms.

The Victoria and Albert Museum of art and design (V&A) is a monument to humanity’s creative efforts, and for nearly two years it has been a short tube ride from my home. I have gone there numerous times, but never feel I have seen all that is on display.  I always look forward to discovering something new.

Inner courtyard at V&A

Scheduling an appointment was much easier (and less intimidating) than I expected. Rather than surly guardians of culture, the staff are like friendly librarians. I was afraid that I had waited too long and there would be no sessions available for months, but I got an appointment for the following week. The hardest part was deciding what to request out of the some 750,000 objects in the museum’s prints and drawings collection.

There were five of us waiting at the assigned meeting point outside the V&A National Art Library entrance that morning. We were led by a museum guard through a cordon into a wing of the museum usually closed to the general public.

into the V&A

We trailed behind the guard through hallways lined with boxes and filing cabinets, past offices and copy machines. We rode an elevator and climbed three flights of winding stone steps worn down to a curve from decades of traffic. The old plaster walls were chipped where displays had once hung.

V&A red stairways

The circuitous journey seemed designed to make sure we could never find our way back. One of the others in the group said something about leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.

The study room itself is large and bright with several long tables. We checked our belongings into lockers before entering. Pencils, paper, computers, phones and cameras are allowed. NO pens.

V&A study room

The first item I had requested was waiting for me. The staff demonstrated how to properly handle the artwork. At first I was afraid to touch anything, but they assured me that the items could withstand my gentle examination.

Thus began one of the highlights of my time in London.

I spent the morning looking at an original textile design by C.F.A. Voysey,

CFA Voysey-birds and berries design

a box and sketchbook of Randolph Caldecott drawings,

R Caldecott-studies of women in coats

and an incredibly beautiful pencil and watercolor “dummy” for A Baby’s Bouquet by Walter Crane.

W Crane-Babys Bouquet dummy cover

I refreshed myself with lunch in the William Morris room in the museum café

V&A cafe Morris room 2

and repeated the convoluted journey back to the study rooms to continue with sketches for Winnie The Pooh by E. H. Shepard,

E H Shepard-WTP in tree sketch

and drawings by Arthur Rackham.

A Rackham-sketch detail

Whenever I go to the V&A, I feel happy and excited, but this day was special. This was a Thrill. I couldn’t get over the fact that, not only did I have the opportunity to look closely at drawings by some of my illustrative heroes that are rarely seen, but I could actually touch their work. It was amazing. I was on a high. For the next three days, anyone I spoke to heard all about it.

But that is all I will tell you for now. This is a teaser of sorts. I will continue this post in five weeks when it’s my turn again. By then I will be back in Seattle (just barely). In the meantime, you can peruse the 1,165,712 objects and 624,590 images from the V&A’s full collection online. Have fun!