Last week, I wrote about how it was that I began to writing fiction. This set off a chain of introspection and emotion. You see, despite all the years, and the seven novels and various short stories later, I still write in complete obscurity. I have not been published and I’m concerned about self-publishing because frankly I have no idea how good or bad my storytelling and writing ability are. I know I am a better writer than I was at the beginning of the process, but I don’t have readers, and they are the final piece of the whole writing gig. Mostly, you only know yourself by looking at your community and seeing how or where you are alike or differ. Approval and appreciation, or the lack thereof help you know where you stand.
I can poke you in the eye with a bright image from my visual arts portfolio, every now and then, either here or on Facebook and Instagram and I get appreciative responses, but writing doesn’t enter your perception all in one go like images do. A reader is a more equal and intentional partner in the process.
So much mulling things over in my mind. Of course, the blues ensued. The upshot is that I’ve decided to take a bit of a break from writing to see what happens. It might be a wonderful relief, or maybe I’ll miss it so much I’ll be back at it in no time. We’ll see.
I’ll continue to post here every Monday morning, but mostly I’ll poke you in the eye with an image I’ve created. [picture a sticking-out-tongue emoticon here and then a smiley face]
Years ago, while going through a tough patch, I picked up Julia Cameron’sThe Artist’s Way, and I began to write Morning Pages. This, in case you don’t know, consists of writing three full pages, in cursive, about anything that comes to mind. The idea is, I think, to help you introspect, to figure out what you think, and believe, and if those beliefs and thoughts are true to you. They are meant to give you a voice, when you’re voice has shrivelled up and gone away.
Morning Pages are what started me writing fiction. Two things happened. I got very tired of my whiney daily litany of misery. The repeat, repeat, repeat pathos made me dispair. One morning I wrote three whole pages of Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
One day, I ended up writing in third person, and made my first attempt at writing fiction. Here is the first chapter of The Spell, if you’d like to see what happened. The Spell is young adult fantasy fiction. An dark plague has come to Erdry, and young Averil, third daughter of Doft the Mender, must create the spell that will destroy the darkness.
You know how, sometimes, there seems to be more than one person in your head? There is the smart wise person, the endless nag, the I know better than you guy, and the mouse that is the daily you? Sometimes, in the drivel that showed up under my pen, someone else spoke. Someone who was like my dad, wise and caring, but not my dad. Bit by bit I found out “D” was a dragon. Uh, huh, my own personal dragon. Not the indiscriminate terrorizor you read about in some books and comics, more like John Hurt in the TV series Merlin.
I still talk to “D”. Here’s what happened this morning after a whine about how a medication I’m taking isn’t doing enough:
D: I would roll my eyes, dear, but dragons don’t trouble themselves with eye rolling.
Me: [sticking tongue out at D] You’re a right bastard today. Go breath somewhere else.
A little conversation, not nearly as wise as some, but it reminded me not to take myself so seriously.
One of the hardest things in the making of art is judging improvement in your skills. We talk about the necessary 10,000 hours of practice that make you good at something. We think about that and decide maybe it isn’t 10,000 hours of practice that is needed, but instead, you need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to make you a master.
I’m old. I’ve had tens of thousands of hours of practice in all manner of things, and I don’t think I’m a master of anything. There are things other than practice that make you a better artist. An intimate familiarity with the things of music are a necessary tool but that knowledge alone doesn’t make art. What is necessary is an openness to experience, and an understanding that experience in one domain has an echo in another. That somehow, curiously, everything is fractal and this is that. This is a hard thing to practice.
So how do you judge? Sometimes you know you’ve reached a point of excellence by the reactions of others in your creative domain. Sometimes you know because one day you find that you, yourself, know that this thing you made is good. And sometimes you have no clue at all. You just keep doing it because there is something more to be said and something more to be proven, or understood.
My son enables my passion for new technologys. In 2001 he gave me a Wacom Graphire II. One of Wacom’s tiny digital drawing tablets. With the use of the included pen and a software that supported the hardware, you could make a painting direct to digital.
I made the painting above with this little Wacom tablet, in a software called GIMP. (I was all about Linux in 2001, and still have one Linux only computer). The lines are wobbly, but, art-wise, this painting is no worse than many I make today. In this case, I have no clue as to whether I’ve improved, so I’ll keep on keeping on until I do. Hmmm, how did I get that watercolour like look…
I read books on creativity all the time. I’m not sure if it’s because I, somehow, want to be assured that I’m creative, or whether I want to understand what goes on in that process. Either way, one thing that comes up time and again, is the admonition not to rely on inspiration. In fact talent and inspiration are two terms that almost everyone disses.
I understand it to an extent. Talents aren’t share equally among everyone, and we don’t want to make anyone feel bad because they were born with a little less of a particular talent than someone else. And there is in the creative community this idea that the talented rely only on their talent and don’t work hard. That’s wrong I think, but I’m going to leave that for another time.
Another thing that books on creativity disparage is inspiration. I’m not saying you should sit on your duff and wait for inspiration before you attempt your creative project, but for heaven sakes if it comes along grab it with both hands and enjoy the blessing.
In my last post I noted that I’d finally painted something I didn’t hate. I made a tiny beginning. Then a day later I had the opportunity to visit Lorenzo Dupuis’s studio. What a wonder! I still feel all melty inside when I think about his luminous work, and I was/am inspired. For months and months I’ve been feeling as though I’m repeating myself or taken what wasn’t mine from others. Now, there is a path, a way to learn, a voice to find and I’m going to follow that inspiration. And surprise, surprise there are hints that I’ve been moving in this direction for some time. Yes, I’m worried that my work will look too much like Lorenzo’s, and guess what, he worries that his work looks too much like someone else’s. Creativity is a funny circular thing. Accept your talent, your inspirations and make something of it!
As a creative person I find I have two major modes: the inner mode, which is the one that rummages around in my mind looking for patterns and divergences. And the outer mode that engages in the world and socializes with other people.
For me those two ways are very distinct. When I’m in a creative groove I’m inner focused, sometimes to an extreme. I do not want to be disturbed by disturbing things, like the wrong kind of news, the wrong kinds of sounds, the wrong kinds of light and people.
But, soon enough something curious happens. Idea generation begins to stagnate, and boredom and self-doubt set in.
It is at this point that being social, meeting with people, and being outwardly focused is the thing I need. Now, as an introvert, I find it difficult to breach that ‘being social’ barrier. I go kicking and screaming into socializing. When I, finally, capitulate I have a wonderful time. I forget all about creating things. I don’t have solutions to a paintings in my head. I don’t connive ways for my story characters to find their way out of a difficult situation. In fact, I don’t think I could do those things if I tried. It takes me days after a social period to get back into my head, and into a creative mind-space. I make tentative attempts. Again I doubt myself. But little by little, I move back into that inward space, and lo! All those things I experienced during a social time well up and become energy for something new. And the cycle begins again.
We all need social connections and community. Some of us need more than others, but everyone needs at least a little and if you do creative work you’ll do well to remember that you need it more than most. Think about it. Without input there can be no real output.
When I studied Fine Arts at the University of Saskatchewan we made a sharp distinction between ‘fine art’ and what was often termed as ‘Sunday painting’. This university was very influence by abstract expressonism, especially the works that came out of New York in the 40s and 50s. A Prairie province, like Saskatchewan, coming late to the dominion of Canada (1905) and always tending to feel a little backward, embraced New York and it’s ideas with with a fervor we didn’t give Canadian artists.
As a young sprout I wanted desperately make good art. But I had no idea about this kind of painting at all. What I wanted to do was make drawings and paintings like Rembrandt. But I learned. Iit was exciting to hear the theories of these men of (yeah, mostly men, but my painting above was influenced by Helen Frankenthaler) were exciting and nicely laced with high spiritual thought. Little by little I developed what Mr. Greenberg would have called taste.
And, though not intentionally, I began to looked down on those who could draw realistically and render. I made massive paintings using no method that you might call traditional.
Fishing with My Father, above, was entirely built from bits of paper, glued down on a sheet of plastic, and poured over with acrylic paint washes. Then I added more bits of paper, string and whatever looked interesting, to come up with this final product. The painting is 8 feet tall by 12 feet wide.
Fast forward many years: I still like abstract expressionist art very much, but I’ve found myself yearning to draw and paint recognizable people and things. I long to render and get lost in the minutia of the subject. And guess what I’ve found. There are so very many artists, from Urban Sketchers to Illustrators who do marvellous work, that I in my ignorant pretentiousness never looked at.
So here’s a thing I’ve learned. There are all kinds of taste in art. In fact because I’m a painter, I’m now pretty much a dinosaur because current tastes are for video art, sound art, and compilations of ideas that have nothing to do with the kind of esthetic taste I was taught to cultivate.
So, here’s some advice, younguns, listen to many teachers, stay humble and learn from everyone. Here’s to staying open!
Now don’t get me wrong. I like birds. I liked them a lot, but I also have a bit of a phobia about them flying near me, and to be honest, to hold a bird in my hand, warm, and frantic with its heart nearly knocking through its chest, well, that freaks me out too. I try not to give in to fears and phobias, but it doesn’t mean that they’re not still there.
Tuesday last, I’d went for my usual early morning walk. Nearing home, I heard a persistent knocking. I stopped and looked around. I saw no one about. Doors were closed, no hum of lawn mowers. Nothing. But there it was again the knocking. I glanced at an elm near by and almost missed it. Man, Spiderman has nothing on the Downy Woodpecker. It walked vertically up the trunk of the tree dispatching bugs as it found them. No, I wasn’t afraid. I was thrilled to see this incredible little bird so close up.
Breakfast done and cleared away I headed to my downstairs studio. I’d started a painting–yeah, me–and it was going well. I couldn’t wait to get back to it.
In a moment I was immersed. I had some podcast going, or perhaps an audio book by Peter Grainger, I can’t remember which. I heard something, but it came to me distantly as sound sometimes does when I’m in the midst of creating.
Again, louder, insistent, a scuffling noise, something banging on metal, Then silence.
My studio is off the family room. In the family room we have a Franklin stove type of fireplace. When we bought this house we were told that the installation of the fireplace was not up to code, meaning that the house insurance company said it’ll cost you big time if you plan to use that fireplace. So we stuffed the stovepipe with that pink fibre glass insulation to keep out the cold of winter and put an electric fireplace insert into the firebox. You know the sort of thing. Fake logs, fake flames created by some kind of light doing some kind of thing, and behind it all a heater to throw some warmth at you.
There is was again. The loud scuffling noise. Some knocking. It was coming from the fireplace stove pipe.
No, no, no! I can’t deal with this. It’s a bird. I know it’s a bird, and I have to get it out, but it’ll fly all over the house and I can’t. I just can’t.
I call my husband at work. He pretty much said, “You’ll have to get it out. Put the dog and the cat into a bedroom. Close the door on them, then open all the outside doors, and remove the fireplace insert.”
Sometimes husbands aren’t as useful as you’d expect. I thought maybe he’d drop everything, rush on home, to take care of things while I cowered in the bedroom with the dog and the cat.
Big breath. I screwed up my courage, did as my husband suggest and pulled out the fireplace insert.
And nothing. No bird. A little pile of dirty pink fibreglas insulation lay at the bottom of the firebox along with–was that bird crap? Maybe it wasn’t a bird. Maybe it was a bat. Ha try again. I knew it was a bird. Somehow, there was a bird in the stove pipe and it was above the fibreglass stuffing. I got a flash light and tried to figure out a way to solve this. maybe I could pull out the insulation, but if I did that, I’d pull the bird down on me. I stuck my head in the firebox and craned to see what I could see. Nothing. I could see nothing at all. Nothing save a black hole. I needed help for this job, and that poor bird would have to wait until my husband came home. He’d put the insulation into the pipes and he surely knew where he’d put it.
I took the dog for a walk. I couldn’t bear to stay in the studio and listen to that it try to knock it’s way out of it’s sheet metal prison.
About mid afternoon, I heard a ruckus downstairs. Not the bird surely, this was more noise even that it could make.
Oh my God! The cat was in a panic. The dog started to bark. A large–I mean not your wren or your sparrow, not even a robin sized bird, but a BIG bird was fluttering around in the firebox, stopping now and then pausing to cling to the mesh firescreen.
I called off the dog, grabbed the cat and put them both into a bedroom, closing the door on them. I ran around closing the doors to every room that had a door. I opened all the outside doors. Then cautiously I went back down the stairs. Yes, it was till there, it’s yellow tail feathers spread, its chest heaving. I took a small blanket from the couch. My intentions were to throw the blanket over the bird, pick it up and put it outside. Cautiously I pulled back the fireplace screen. In flash the bird was past its edge and in the air.
Stupid, stupid me. I should have closed the window shutters. It slammed hard into the window. Its poor beak was seriously bent out of shape. Again I tried with the blanket, and this time I caught it. Darn good thing, because I don’t think either of us could have taken much more.
Holding it as gently as I could, still in the blanket, It carried it outside. My intention was to set it on the lawn. Its feet never touched the ground. Zoom! It was gone.
So okay, I guess it wasn’t a HUGE bird, but it was pretty big. It turned out to be a Hairy Woodpecker and I’m happy to report that before it zoomed away, it’s beak looked okay again. I guess they’re used to hammering it against things.
Phew! Two close encounters in one day. I may yet get over this phobia.