And Now for Something Completely Different

This week I read a great column in Writer Unboxed by Sarah Callender about navigating between hope and despair, and the part writers have in “disturbing the universe.” She used a line from T. S. Eliot‘s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” as a provocative jumping-off point, which reminded me how much I love that poem.

I was going to write that inspiring line down on a post it and stick it to my computer monitor. But that didn’t seem enough. So I thought I’d type it out in some interesting font, print it, and tape it up somewhere. But then that didn’t seem enough. So I concocted a little plan to do a painting. This is the result.

I’m not sure if it’s actually done yet. I may add another layer after this one is dry. But here is how I went about painting it.

First I typed up the line, chose fonts and sizes, and then printed it. I cut the words apart and arranged them how I thought they would fit on the canvas. Then I taped the pieces together and taped them to the back of the canvas so that, when a very bright light was positioned at the back, the black letters would show through.

Next, I painted over the letters with black gesso, which is a fast-drying acrylic medium.

Once I had all the letters in place, I let them dry.

I knew I wanted the corners to be very dark, so I sponged black gesso all around the outside, almost like a vignette.

I let it dry overnight, though I probably didn’t have to. When I was ready to paint today, I covered the whole thing with a coat of liquid clear.

Then I started to lay in the color. I chose only transparent or semi-transparent paints so that the black text would show through and I started with the brightest (indian yellow).

Now, as I tend to do, I forgot about taking any more photos as I laid in all the rest of the colors. But after they were on the canvas, I didn’t exactly like how they came together. So instead of trying to blend them together and hide the brush strokes, I swirled them all with a 2″ brush so that the brushstrokes would be part of the effect.

As I said, I’m not sure that I would consider this done at this point, but I think I need to let this layer of pain dry before making any further decisions about it.

This was a nice change of pace from landscapes and I got to use some very bright colors, which was fun. Of course, it doesn’t match any room in the house, so who knows what I’ll end up doing with it!

Rediscovering the Power of Idleness

In the second episode of Mad Men, Roger Sterling walks into Don Draper’s office and says, “I can never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you’re doing nothing.”

As both a professional copywriter and a novelist, I knew exactly what that meant. Creative work, whether you’re coming up with sales angles and headlines or plot twists and character arcs, requires marination — periods of time in which the writer looks like they are doing nothing at all when in reality there is a whole hell of a lot going on behind the scenes, as it were.

Whether lying on the fabulous mid-century modern couch in your swank NYC office, taking long walks in the woods, or just staring into space at your desk, “doing nothing” is important. It looks to all the world like idleness — laziness, even — especially to those with more visibly active jobs. But it isn’t.

I was recently talking with a friend whose kids are intensely scheduled — school, music lessons, sports, and other extracurricular activities, one right after another, nearly every day of the week. I felt exhausted just listening to her list them all out. When I commented on how that seemed like a lot for a kid to do, she responded that otherwise her son got bored. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that her son will do something amazing with his life (and knowing his parents, I’m sure of it) but that thing will not be becoming a writer.

From my earliest days, I was a “lazy” child. After having had an extremely active (maybe even hyperactive) first baby who climbed and ran and tumbled all over the place, my worried mother actually asked the pediatrician if there was something wrong with little Erin, who spent most of her time sitting and staring off into space.

“She’s just thinking,” was his wonderful reply. And I guess I was.

As a kid I spent a lot of time drawing and reading and sitting in trees, all activities that allowed me to do a lot of thinking. Sure, I played sports and acted in plays and played an instrument as I got older, but most of the time, I preferred to just observe and think. I was never bored. I was never looking for more to do. In fact, I was really good at doing nothing at all, which, as I grew up, I realized not everyone can do.

My childhood talent for idleness came from my father, who loved nothing more after a long day at work than to turn the stereo up loud, sit down, and listen with eyes closed, drink in hand. He wasn’t someone who always had a bunch of projects going. He wasn’t going off to parties or performances. He liked being home and relaxing by himself. I can’t imagine him ever feeling lonely or bored during these times.

I certainly didn’t get my talent for doing nothing from my mother, who couldn’t sit down to watch a movie without also ironing or folding towels or cleaning out her purse. She was the list-maker, the errand-runner, the shopper, the one making dinner and cleaning the house. She was always productive in a way my father and I were not. Nowadays she’s learning to enjoy relaxing with a book (though I suspect she still can’t watch a movie without a sewing project in hand).

As a teenager, my sister jumped at the chance to get a job and earn money that she could spend while out with her friends. I resisted getting a job for as long as I could. I didn’t care about earning money because I didn’t go out with friends. I didn’t care about having a car, going to movies at the theater, going to the mall. Everything I liked to do, I did by myself and none of it cost more than I could earn doing chores around the house (which I would always put off until the last possible moment).

I was lazy and content.

Then at some point, perhaps once I was done with college, I turned into my mother.

With just a job and no school, I suddenly had a bunch of empty time to fill and a bit more money to spend. I began making lists and thinking up little projects and shopping for stuff I didn’t need. I started hobbies — scores of them — and filled my time with stuff to do. I still didn’t care to do the stuff that actually needed doing — like cleaning and laundry and grocery shopping — but by golly I made a lot of cards and jewelry and quilts.

I kept busy and I somehow got the notion into my head that any recreational time I had should be productive. That there should be some visible result or product of anything I did. Something to show for my time. I have no earthly idea where this notion came from. It certainly wasn’t a concept I was raised with. My parents never told me that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”

Maybe it was just the natural result of reading DIY magazines. Maybe I spent too much time at Michael’s and Jo-Ann’s. Maybe it was just living long enough in a frenetic, get-ahead-or-get-left-behind culture. I have no clue. But somehow I had lost the white space in my life. And while my twenties may have been extremely productive years in terms of things created, they were barren years in terms of creative thinking. They were years I thought about how I’d like to write . . . and yet didn’t write a word worth reading.

Lately I’ve been reclaiming my down time, from both responsibilities to others by quitting a few activities and from the arbitrary busyness I have tended to create for myself. I’ve spent entire afternoons reading and not felt guilty about wasting time. I’ve spent entire days closing myself off in a room to write. I’ve spent entire weeks off work without checking my email. I decided that it’s okay for my garden to just be pretty and not productive. It’s okay to binge-watch The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross. It’s okay to amble through a park and watch ducks and collect pretty leaves.

Nothing has to come of it all. It’s just pleasant idleness. It’s just enjoying myself, my family, and my world.

And in rediscovering the idleness I was so good at as a child, I find that I am recovering the “empty” time I need in order to write.

“I can never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you’re doing nothing,” Roger Sterling said to Don Draper. But he wasn’t doing nothing. He was doing his job, and doing it in such a way that he made his company quite successful.

At the end of our super busy months of September and October, I told my husband that I was not going to say yes to any invitation to go somewhere and do something on any Saturday in November. And except for one Saturday in December, the same conviction holds true. I don’t need the time to do anything specific at home beyond rake the leaves and do the laundry. I need that time to just do nothing. 

I know that to a lot of people this seems kind of rude and selfish and antisocial and lazy. But it really isn’t. My 9-5 job is writing. My avocation is writing. And my writing well is not filled by engaging in activity for activity’s sake. It’s filled by reading, walking, observing, thinking. It’s filled by things that look like nothing.

Writers like Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, William Wordsworth, Henry Miller, Charles Dickens, Henry David Thoreau, C.S. Lewis, Madeline L’Engle, and many others understood the importance of giving the mind room to work by simply taking a walk, and this article has a lot to say about why that is. I heard a speaker at a recent conference relay some advice she had drawn from another writer (whose name escapes me) that “If you aren’t reading so much that you feel guilty about it, you aren’t reading enough.”

“It is in our idleness, in our dreams,” said Virginia Woolf, “that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” And if I, as a writer, intend to be about the business of discerning and presenting truth, I need the time that I need in order to discern it and present it in such a way that the reader experiences it in the most fulsome and lasting way possible.

If you are a writer or a painter or a poet or some other kind of artist who has been feeling guilty about the time required to do your art well, I invite you to join me in recovering and relishing your “idle” times — which of course we know are anything but. Others may not understand, but what they don’t realize is that every time they read a book or watch a movie or listen to a song that speaks to them, they’re enjoying the result of someone else’s strategic idleness.

So, I’ve Been Watching a Lot of Bob Ross Lately…

Reader, if you were watching PBS in the 1980s and early 1990s, you no doubt know of the phenomenon that is Bob Ross‘s The Joy of Painting. What you may not know is that there are seasons now available on Netflix. And further, that they are most excellent viewing material when you’re doing laundry or lying in bed at night, drifting off to sleep.

You also may not realize that watching The Joy of Painting nearly every day will make you want to paint some big ol’ mountains, happy trees, and happy clouds that live up there in the sky. Now, I’ve never painted with oils before, but Bob Ross says I can do it, and I don’t think you’ll find a more sincere and encouraging teacher. So I’m pretty sure that my Christmas list this year will include a number of items that will get me painting in oils come 2017.

In the meantime, it’s summer, and I have places to go and photos to take, which I hope to share with you soon.

 

Portrait of a Landscape

Last month I shared a photo from an excursion to Fenner Nature Center and mentioned I’d like to paint it. Yesterday afternoon, I did.

January at Fenner Nature Center

I did it partly as an avoidance tactic (the couple-day warm up has made me think I really ought to clean out the garage) and partly because I’m stuck on manuscript revisions (until I can get a call with a criminal attorney who is out of town) and partly because this is a big reason I quit a bunch of stuff (unscheduled time for creative endeavors).

This time around I didn’t take pictures between each step because I was mostly working wet-on-wet and you have to work fast without letting things dry between washes. But I do have a side-by-side comparison for you.

FennerPaintingComp

I wasn’t trying to reproduce the photo, just to use it as a reference, especially for the low horizon and big sky you get with the portrait orientation. Taking all photos in a landscape orientation (even when you’re taking photos of people, traditionally called portraits) is an easy trap to fall into when you have a traditional camera in your hands. It’s how they’re oriented — buttons, hand holds, etc. — and it’s especially easy to only take landscape photos of…well, landscape. But turning the camera in your hands can give you a far different perspective on your subject.

Looking at the side-by-side, I’m thinking I could have tried to keep the light bits of the sky a little brighter yet. I could re-wet the sky and lay in some darker clouds to make the contrast greater, but, as I said before, there’s always the risk of overdoing it.

I think I’ll let well enough alone.

Painting the Self Portrait Step by Step

This morning seemed the perfect time to start my self portrait. Dawn was bright and the air outside a crisp 4 degrees Fahrenheit, so why not stay inside and fiddle with paints? Things turned out far better than I had anticipated. For those of you unfamiliar with watercolor painting, it’s done in stages, starting with the lightest and most translucent colors. Each wash gets gradually darker, and if you go too dark too fast, there’s only so much “erasing” you can do, because painting over something lighter doesn’t work — the darker color always shows through. So watercolors are fairly unforgiving. But I’ve found through the years of dabbling in it that I’m so drawn to watercolors done well, so I keep on trying to get better.

I thought it might interest you to see how one gets from a drawing through the various washes to the final product, so…

First there's a light line drawing (too much pencil shading can destroy a watercolor painting, so the key is to stop before you think you should).
First there’s a light line drawing (too much pencil shading can destroy a watercolor painting, so the key is to stop before you think you should). This photo distorts the drawing a bit on the squatty side. Better angles on the rest…
Next lay a light wash (you can always go darker). Mine is a mixture of burnt sienna and alizarin crimson.
Next lay a light wash (you can always go darker). Mine is a mixture of burnt sienna and alizarin crimson.
I added cobalt blue to the skin mixture to get the tone for the shadows and used a darker wash of the original, with a bit more of the red, for the lips.
I added cobalt blue to the skin mixture to get the tone for the shadows and used a darker wash of the original, with a bit more of the red, for the lips.
Cobalt blue for the eyes, starting light. I'll add some payne's gray to the blue in a later wash.
Cobalt blue for the eyes, starting light. I’ll add some payne’s gray to the blue in a later wash.
This is where I figured I'd really mess up. When you first start adding dark colors it's a little nerve wracking because they are so hard to fix if something goes wrong.
This is where I figured I’d really mess up. When you first start adding dark colors it’s a little nerve wracking because they are so hard to fix if something goes wrong.
Now for the hair. Lay in the lighter warm highlights first. I used raw umber for mine. I also darkened the lips a bit at this point.
Now for the hair. Lay in the lighter warm highlights first. I used raw umber for mine. I also darkened the lips a bit at this point.
Here's where I really started thinking this would not work. The hair just didn't feel as nicely rendered as the face, though I knew most of it would get swallowed up by the black background eventually. The reddish brown tones in my hair are done with burnt sienna. The darker the color the less water I mixed in.
Here’s where I really started thinking this would not work. The hair just didn’t feel as nicely rendered as the face, though I knew most of it would get swallowed up by the black background eventually. The reddish brown tones in my hair are done with burnt sienna. The darker the color the less water I mixed in.
Now we start to get the background color and the shirt color. With such a dark background, you can see the flesh tones started to look too light, so I had to go back in and darken them.
Now we start to get the background color (a mixture of payne’s gray and burnt sienna) and the shirt color. With such a dark background, the flesh tones started to look too light, so I had to go back in and darken them. I also added more of the crimson to my cheeks.
Here is the final product. I kept going back in and adding more shadow to counteract the dark background. Not sure I'm quite happy with the way the hair darkens and blends with the background, but overall it did turn out better than I thought it would. And with watercolor you have to be careful of not going too far. You have to quit while you're ahead sometimes.
Here is the final product. I kept going back in and adding more shadow to counteract the dark background. Not sure I’m quite happy with the way the hair darkens and blends with the background, but overall it did turn out better than I thought it would. And with watercolor you have to be careful of not going too far. You have to quit while you’re ahead sometimes.

And because it’s so fun to see a reference photo and a painting side by side…

Side by side, I can see where I went a little astray with the eyes. But, all in all, not too shabby, I think!
Side by side, I can see where I went a little astray with the eyes — one looks further back in my head than the other. But, all in all, not too shabby for the first try. I’m amazed I got the colors as close as I did.

You can definitely tell I am not a professional! But it’s a fun hobby to pull out now and then. Now the perennial problem…what do I do with it?

A Self Portrait Photo Reference

When thinking rather halfheartedly about the new year I mentioned in this space that I might try to paint a self portrait in 2016. To that end I thought I ought to take a reference photo to guide me (looking in the mirror and moving all around doesn’t seem wise for a beginner like me — come to think of it, the whole thing may be a disaster). I think I have one I like…

Self Portrait Reference Photo

I have only now to decide whether I might like to make this even more interesting by trying out oil paints for the first time rather than watercolors. The dark background would certainly be easier in oils, though the skin would be easier in watercolor. Maybe I’ll start with a watercolor study and then do one in oils.

But don’t expect too much of me. It’s Ash Wednesday and today of all days I am more keenly aware of my limitations and all the ways I fall short. I’ve had some success in the distant past drawing human beings, but never painting them. I haven’t decided yet whether to show you the results of my efforts if they turn out catastrophically bad…

“Wasting” Time to Awaken Your Inner Creative Spark

While I spent most of my time in Albuquerque writing, one workshop I did attend was Kimberly Brock’s Tinderbox Workshop. Before we all packed for the trip, our Retreat Planner & Organizer Extraordinaire Orly Konig-Lopez told us what we should bring: a journal or notebook, magazines and glue, stickers and interesting paper, markers and pencils. It was clear that this workshop would have less to do with writing than most offered at writers conferences or retreats. As I had recently purged my house of unwanted magazines (see earlier posts on decluttering in anticipation of listing our house for sale in the future) I decided to bring my watercolors and some pastels.

I won’t go into details about the workshop content (except to say that if you have a chance to be in a Kimberly Brock workshop you should take it) but I will say that she had to assure participants that they were not “wasting time” by not writing and that there was not a “right way” to do the exercises. I’ll share a page from the journal I was working on as she spoke about creativity:

Underneath that collage is a pretty simple painting of a face with colors coming out from all angles — my interpretation of what Kimberly was talking about. When she said we were going to start covering it up with collage, I said to myself, “Um, no. I will not be doing that. Thank you very much.” I was happy with what I’d painted and drawn and I wasn’t about to obscure it with things pulled from magazines.

But then I did. And it was fun. It’s been a while since I did any sort of collage and it was pretty fun finding images and words that inspired me and went along with some of the concepts Kimberly was talking about.

When I got home, I didn’t want to put my paints away. The retreat was held at Hotel Albuquerque at Old Town, a beautiful space that really got under my skin in a good way. So I decided to paint one of the pretty outdoor spaces: the pavilion. Friday night we all ate BBQ under here and Saturday there was a gorgeous wedding in this space. But it was most beautiful to me when it was empty of people and dappled with sun and shadows.

It’s funny how creativity works. I went to New Mexico to write, to learn, and to meet other writers. Bringing paints was definitely not part of my original plan. Neither was collage. But I came home with a heart and mind full of the place and a bit of dormant creative spirit unleashed. So now I not only find myself painting, I’m also plotting a novel set in our hotel, with an ensemble cast drawn from some of the people I saw (and many more I am imagining). Opening the door to one part of your mind often lets in enough wind to blow open other doors.

When was the last time you let yourself just fool around with art supplies for a few hours? When was the last time you allowed yourself time to just have fun doing something kind of mindless, like you did when you were a kid? My guess is that it has probably been too long.

So when are you going to start?

I Am Building a World for You

For the past several years in my creative writing life, I have been developing a parallel world. It is not a huge departure from reality. It’s not fantasy or sci-fi. It’s not a world that you would not recognize. In fact, you may find yourself very much at home there. It’s a mere side step, the sort of shift you make to get out of someone’s way when they are moving faster than you’d like to move. It’s stepping off the sidewalk and onto the grass where it’s more interesting anyway.

This world is located in my very own state. Its cities and lakes and rivers and other features are all born from reality before they go through a subtle metamorphosis in my mind. And when they come out of my fingers, they are new. Because the writer of fiction does not merely record. He interprets. What to our eye may be a leaf of a certain shade of green becomes something more in fiction. Raindrops become tears, shafts of light become memories, birds become souls, forests become prisons, parties become battles, and folds of blankets become entire histories laid out in cotton.

It’s useless to attempt to keep the writer’s mind centered on what is. It is so much more satisfying to build what isn’t…yet. I’m readying a new manuscript for submission to agents that I can envision as the first in a series of three. I’m already developing the stories for the second and third. And yesterday, while I was driving my son to karate, the germ of a new story wormed its way into my mind. A different setting, but the same world, and connections to a character or two in this possible series of three. An expansion of the world I have been building in my mind and on paper. Nods to earlier work are winks to the loyal reader, an inside joke just for her.

I’m drawn to literary worlds like this. Wendell Berry’s Port William, Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Careers made largely by developing a parallel world and staying in it for decades, learning all of its secrets. Even the series we read as children carry shades of this — Madeline L’Engle’s stories of the Murry and O’Keefe families, L. M. Montgomery’s Prince Edward Island, even the world of The Baby-Sitters Club. Places and characters we didn’t want to leave.

I’d like my own fiction to be like that — stories you want to stay inside.

So I am building a world, street by street, field by field, house by house, character by character, secret by secret. And I’m more hopeful than ever that I’ll be able to share it with you someday.

A (Mostly) Living Nature Diorama, or What I’ll Be Doing with My Time as an Old Lady

For the past few weeks my son and I have been gathering materials and building an Itty Bitty Bungalow for a contest being run at our local greenhouse, Van Atta’s. After many hours of hunting down the perfect materials and construction, this is our entry:

itty bitty bungalow

The house walls are last year’s Japanese anemone stalks from the garden. The roof is shingled with pieces of pine cone (that took forever). The little trees on either side are maple seedlings growing as weeds in my garden. The door is pine bark. The lawn is moss from my driveway. The flag is yew bark and a bit of dried oak leaf shaped like Michigan’s lower peninsula. The acorns are a bench for the star of the whole scene: a dead stag beetle we came upon last summer.

Nature diorama cuteness

Our handsome beetle is raking his moss lawn with a rake I made from toothpicks and epoxied to his body. Then I suck a needle in his..ahem…nether regions and stuck him into the soil. Every time I look at him I crack up.

Nature diorama cuteness

I can see myself doing a lot of this sort of thing when I’m an old lady. So instead of being the crazy old lady with the nine cats, I’ll be the creepy old lady with all the dioramas of dead bugs in her house.

Yeah. That will definitely be me.

Voting on the entries happens this weekend at Van Atta’s Spring Open House. I won’t be there (I’ll be in Colorado visiting a friend) but my boys are going to vote in my absence. We’ll let you know if we win anything next week!