Monthly Archives: August 2014

Up on the board: visions of future stories

The bulletin board in full view: paintings, postcards, even prose.

The bulletin board in full view: paintings, postcards, even prose.

Creativity board 004I’ve written before in this space about the creativity bulletin board. I started this version when I turned my oldest son’s bedroom into my office, but in truth I’ve been doing these photo mash-ups for many years. When I was in college, I pinned up newspaper photos of Watch Hill and Misquamicut, to assuage my homesickness, and Bruce Springsteen, well, because he’s Bruce Springsteen. Even as a teenager I would cut out photos and paste them into my journal – paintings of flowers or brooding models or New England scenes.
As writers, we paint with words. But no one really thinks in words. We dream in images. Our memories are not verbal stories so much as collections of images in a certain order. We talk about our mind’s eye because the brain – which processes experience, forms memories, imagines the future – is a visual organ. If you are a memoirist, the stories you are telling started out as pictures of the world, before being cemented into visual memory. Even our fantasies are a kind of experience that gets firmed up into a memory that can be called up, again and again, like a re-run on television.
The creativity bulletin board may seem chaotic, but it holds as much logic as visual memory. Up on my board today is a mishmash of photographs, paintings, maps, postcards, and, yes, even text that is all connected somehow to various writing projects I’m working on. Some of it has to do with a novel I’m writing. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park map, a postcard from 1950s Florida, the painting of vintage gas pumps, a portrait of my Aunt Dot, the watercolor of columbine by the Canadian artist Barrie Rennie, and photos of my mother are tied to this story, as is the word conte: which, in French, means story, and is also the name of the mountain in the novel: Leconte.
Other images are tied to a memoir I’ve started – obviously, these include pictures of myself as a 17- and 19-year-old, but less obviously are models wearing clothes from the 1970s and text from an FBS catalog of that time.
The third set of artifacts is connected to my father: he’s here sawing lumber in the early 1980s, and at a lumberjack competition before I was born. The toolbelt painting, by the artist John Whalley, also evokes my father. I am not explicitly writing about him at the moment, but one function of the bulletin board is inspiration, for writing projects not yet imagined.
The black cat? I don’t know why she’s there, either, but I like the ambiguity of her white paws. The elegant woman, a portrait by the Italian American painter Luigi Lucioni (1900-1988), struck me similarly. You could say she has a Mona Lisa smile, but her gaze strikes me as not only mysterious but confident and self-possessed, even disdainful. Yet, as the Jackson Browne song goes, “there was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes”: this woman is beautiful, possibly wealthy, but she has been knocked around a bit by life, I imagine. The contradictions in her face are where character begins.
The wave painting by Connecticut artist Antonia Tyz Peeples is one of the few images I rarely take down. It’s hard not to get caught up in the spell of a wave, frozen in motion, every jump of spray captured as though by a camera lens. Life crashes over us, again and again, yet each arc of spray hits us differently.
There’s nothing difficult about this process. There are no rules. I collect images that I like: postcards, advertisements, snapshots, clippings from art magazines. I switch up the board’s contents every few weeks. At the very least, the board gives me something to look at it when I’m “lost in thought.” At the most, it gives me ideas, connections, a starting point.
A few weeks back I wrote about who we as writers surround ourselves with. Just as we should be spending time with people who are leading creative lives, so too we should surround our writing space with images that appeal to our visual selves. How can we expect readers to visualize our stories if they aren’t born of the visual?

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A Writer’s Garden of Friends

Yesterday, I had lunch with a writing friend – ostensibly we were there to talk about an author event that he is moderating next month, a panel of which I will be a member. But of course our talk was wide-ranging and rich and included plenty of wry commentary on the trials and travails of what we call “the writing life.”
What advice would we give our audience next month? My attention drifted to a party I’d been to the night before. It was a mellow summer night in a rural town in Connecticut; our hosts were a painter and her husband, a couple I’ve only known for a couple of years. I came alone, because my husband had a rare Sunday night shift at the paper. There’s always a little anxiety in walking into a party where you don’t know anyone but the people who invited you.
I shouldn’t have worried. The night was rich with warmth and conversation. And I shouldn’t have been surprised. My friend, the painter, has an inner light that attracts interesting, creative people. I met another painter whose work I’ve admired from a distance. We had a deep, thoughtful conversation about the tension between earning a living (out in the world) and creating art (by yourself, away from the world). I sat near an older woman, an antiques dealer who is just getting out of the business of selling botanical prints. She was the sort of person who is open to anything. We talked about Tarot cards and our parents’ dying. Another man told of restoring his 200-year-old farmhouse and the ghosts that lived there. The air crackled with story, friendship, possibility.
So I said to my friend at lunch: If you want to have a writing life, pay attention to the people you spend your time with. Are they open, positive, explorative people? Do they challenge you to look at the world in new ways? Or do you associate with rigid, closed people who see life in a negative light? Who spend most of their time complaining? You don’t have to fill your dance card with writers, although I think writers are fine people and I have many as friends. But I think it’s essential that you have a widening circle of friends who go through their life with eyes open. Energy and optimism are contagious. The quality I mean is hard to define, but it was everywhere in the group of people I met last weekend. And by widening circle I mean that a new friend in your life always leads to another.
My husband and I like to give parties in which many of our guests don’t know each other. We also invite people we are just starting to get to know. Part of being alive is welcoming new experiences, and every new friend has a story to tell, a point of view to share. This is not to say that you don’t keep the close friends who’ve known you forever and whom you can confide in – I have a few of these, and I treasure them. They get invited to the parties, too.
How does widening your circle affect your writing? For one, it helps you to appreciate the many facets of the human spirit. Writers are explorers. We chart new territories. We try to find meaning in the world. Part of that is appreciating the differences in people. But part of it is also being an optimist. Some of you may disagree with me on this, but I think the act of writing is essentially a hopeful one. The most tragic novel, the bitterest memoir has to end in some sort of redemption. If you make your living by diving into the darkest corners of the human soul, you need to be able to rise up and catch some air. You need to shine a light on that darkness. The explorer of the human soul has to dive for the pearl.
The other reason for widening your circle is pure selfishness. I like to associate with people who are smarter than I am. These are people who have figured out things about the artistic life that I haven’t. People whose example helps me learn new ways of confronting the obstacles writing presents. Sometimes, this may result in what business types like to call “networking opportunities,” but I see that as a tangential bonus. Recently, two writing friends offered to introduce me to their agents. I appreciated each offer as sincere, and, although my manuscript isn’t ready for me to go agent shopping yet, I eventually intend to accept these offers. But I am not friends with either of these women because I want them to help my career. I am friends with them because they are great, fascinating people with whom I can commiserate. One is a writer I met after interviewing her about her first book. The other is a woman whose novel I had given a rave review. In each case, I felt a connection with them that has led to friendship.
If you are open to it, the universe will introduce you to people who can stretch your imagination, enrich your outlook on life, and, yes, help you become a better writer. But first, you need to be willing to step into that party where you don’t know a soul.

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When to say no

So much of the writing life is about saying no.
By that, I mean saying no to the things we shouldn’t be doing. Writing itself is about saying yes, to the universe, to inspiration, to opportunity. But that’s another story.
The kind of “no”s I’m talking about help us make room in our life for writing. When we don’t say no, we find ourselves doing things we don’t want to do and feeling irritated when our writing time compresses, is fraught with distractions, or disappears entirely.
This is a lesson I am still learning.
I recently said no to something that would have been a huge time-suck. That’s good. But I said yes to a freelance story I really didn’t want to do, and it is dragging me down. I’m trying to remember this because there’s a chance I may have another offer of work in a couple of weeks, and I need to say “no” to it, too.
In all of these cases, money is dangled in front of us. Gee, I really don’t want to teach another class … but it would mean more money. Gee, I really don’t have time to do that feature story … but that venue pays well. The rationalization is time: well, it wouldn’t take that much time, would it?
The problem is, even if a story takes, say, four hours to research and write, it can hang over your head for weeks as you make appointments, chase people, and simply fret about the fact that it isn’t done yet. The check at the end will never compensate you for all those hours in which you couldn’t fully immerse yourself in writing because you were waiting for a call-back or fact-checking a piece. The state of mind that it takes to do something else – whether it’s editing a research paper, preparing for a class, or writing a review – is the opposite state of mind from writing. If you want to nourish your creative self, you would almost be better off cleaning house, baking, or weeding the garden than writing for hire.
Of course, as my husband likes to say, “That’s easy for you to say: you have a sugar daddy.” The reality for most people is that they must earn a living. I am not completely relieved of that need, my husband’s support notwithstanding. But I do have a freedom to say no that some people don’t have. So when money is tight, how do we resolve this conundrum?
The less the job involves our creative selves, I think, the better off we are. We all have heard how writers like Jack London and John Steinbeck worked menial jobs before their careers took off, and in many cases these experiences – whether on shipboard, in London’s case, or in a fish hatchery, for Steinbeck – led to some of their finest work. Maybe you don’t need to pump gas or work in a factory, but any job in which you can observe and interact with people will inspire your writing.
For those of us piecing a living together with freelance projects, a good question to ask is: How will this further my goals? I write reviews for a daily newspaper. This gig pays very little, but is enjoyable and builds my audience, which outweighs the low pay and time involved. Reading other writers also keeps me abreast of fiction trends. So, in balance, it is helping to further my writing goals. Last summer, on the other hand, I wrote dozens of free-lance stories, editorials, and reviews for newspapers because I had no teaching income. The time and distraction this involved detracted from my writing. This summer, I took on one, five-week class instead. The money was the same, but now my distraction was concentrated to a limited time.
As writers, we have such low self-esteem that sometimes the mere offer of work prompts us to say “yes.” Think twice about taking on any work that you know deep down is going to interfere with your writing time without furthering your goals. In the end, it isn’t worth it.

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