Monthly Archives: July 2018

Advice from an artist

 

Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received came not from fellow writers, or teachers, but visual artists.

Such was the case this afternoon as I watched Antonia Tyz-Peeples lead a workshop on painting technique at Rhode Island’s Charlestown Gallery.

The Connecticut artist specializes in large-format wave paintings. I met her six years ago and feel lucky to count her as a friend. Yet no matter how many times we chat, I always learn something new.

Working on a small canvas this afternoon, she gave the audience step-by-step directions on brush technique, color mixing, and proportion. None of that may seem applicable to those of us who deal in ink and paper, but consider some of her advice:

  1. “People can use their imaginations. They see something, they know there’s more.” How many of us are guilty of spelling it out for the reader? You don’t have to describe every step down a corridor or every article of clothing. Leave something for the reader to do.
  2. “It’s what you see, not what you think.” She said this while holding a brush tip to the photograph she was painting. In other words, your brain might think your painting needs bright ochre, but if you hold the brush up to the color you’re copying you may find it’s another mix altogether. As writers, we tend to have a vision in our mind of our characters and place details. But just because “egg-yolk sun” sounds good doesn’t mean the sun really looks your breakfast.
  3. “It’s not magical. I’ve practiced a lot. I paint every day.” Tyz-Peeples is not blowing smoke here – she’s the hardest working artist I know. She’s honed her craft over many years, and she is in her studio by 9 a.m. every day. Writers must practice a similar discipline. Sit at the desk, open up the laptop or notebook and do it regularly. Inspiration will land on your shoulder when you keep your appointment with the work.
  4. “I find it very important to have multiple things going on.” Maybe this technique isn’t for everyone, but for me a variety of writing projects – as dissimilar as possible – keeps me focused and energized. The quick stuff, like blogs, letters, and essays, give you a sense of achievement for very little time invested. Analytical writing, such as play or book reviews, keeps my critical faculties honed. And for the long haul, I need at least one book-length manuscript that will require years of work. You wouldn’t want to spend all your writing time on quick-hit pieces with a short life span, but you also need relief from the intensive immersion a novel or memoir requires.
  5. “I can see it with new eyes.” She was talking about letting a canvas sit overnight. For writers, that fallow period might be much longer, days, weeks, or months. I recently returned to my novel after six months of querying to tidy up some loose ends. Its flaws jumped out at me.
  6. “I’m not going to overthink it.” The visual artist knows when a touch-up here or there has the potential to ruin a painting that’s done; so, too, must writers let the work go eventually.
  7. Tyz-Peeples had a practical piece of advice that might at first seem unique to painting: Turn the canvas. Making her horizontal painting vertical, she saw not the finished product but the abstract section she was trying to focus on. Plus, she wasn’t bumping her hand on the easel. In journalism school, our professors taught us to squint at the copy we were editing, or mumble it aloud to ourselves. Whatever the tactic, it disrupts the brain’s visual expectations, helping both focus and concentration.
  8. “I know what the surf looks like. I’ve studied it.” Don’t forget that you, too, know a lot more than you give yourself credit for. You’ve got a lifetime of memories and experiences, good and bad, to draw from. It’s never too late to learn more, but don’t forget just how much you bring to the page.

For further inspiration, check out some of Antonia Tyz-Peeples’s work at www.antoniatyzpeeples.com or follow her on Instagram: antoniatyzpeeples.

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Days that persist in invisible ink

 

These are the ghost days.

You know them, if you don’t call them that. They are the days that are so layered with the past it’s hard to see that you’re living in the present. But they aren’t national holidays or official anniversaries.

They are personal. We call them ghosts because the people they honor are gone.

My parents’ anniversary was last week, for example. They were married on July 12, 1947. In a black and white snapshot, there’s my father, in his fedora hat and suit, and my mother in a blue suit and a hat with a floppy flower. Seventy-one years ago – of course, they are both dead, so there’s no one to send an anniversary card to.

July is full of these dates. My father’s birthday was July 16 – he would be 95. My sister Mary Jane, and my father-in-law, were both born on July 2. Their birthdays pass with a Facebook post of remembrance, maybe. But there are no gifts to purchase, no candles to blow out, no song to sing.

It’s nice that we can mark these days on social media, but Facebook also makes no distinction between the trivial and the elemental. Its algorithms ask me to celebrate friendships with casual acquaintances, while making no note of other, deeper days to remember.

I imagine ghost dates written on a calendar in fading pencil, so only those who know their significance can read them. And when the last person who remembers is gone, the ink will fade away forever.

The one place we can visualize this impermancy is the beach. No sooner do we make footprints in the sand than a wave comes along – first, to soften the impression, then to erase it altogether.

Yet as we walk along the shore, we still look back reflexively, as though to make sure our footprints are still there. Some even make grand castles in the sand, a universal human metaphor for the folly of big dreams.

These dates are like that: long-ago footprints on the palimpsest of sand. From the Latin palimpsestos, “rubbed again,” palimpsest means a medium on which original text has been erased to make way for new.

I like that “rubbed again” (some dictionaries have it as  “scraped”), because it evokes not only the vigorous action of an eraser turning marks into dust, but the irritation it causes to the paper. Think of a child erasing a test answer until a hole appears on the page. Now imagine such a vigorous erasure on our skin, and the pain each time a date has to be scrubbed off forever.

The “again” also implies the repetitive nature of change and grief. How many times do occasions vanish from our lives, and how long does it take our mind to forget them? The answer, of course, is that dates may be erased but the mind imagines them still there. So we rub, and rub again, trying to retrain the heart, to stop squinting at our emotional calendars, to cease looking back at our own footprints.

Ultimately, ghost dates may make us sad, but they are also testimony to the human spirit. Each June 30 I remember my grandmother. Born in 1903, died in 1994, she was a woman of another century, gone 24 years now. Yet in my heart her boundless affection lives on. Written in permanent marker, my memories of her attest to the power of love, to the persistence of the intangible.

 

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A reader’s guide to convalescence

I am convalescing. That’s a word we don’t use too much any more; from the Latin, con +  valescere, to grow strong, from valere, to be strong. Maybe because convalescence takes time, and we have so little of it. We might speak of being “laid up” a couple of days or “on the couch,” but most of the time we fight our illnesses and push to get back to normal as soon as possible.

But convalescence is a wonderful concept; it’s about giving your body time to repair, heal, “grow stronger.” Doctors don’t prescribe it, because it doesn’t come in a pill bottle, profit anyone, or require a medical degree to understand. Maybe you could see the results of it through some sort of electronic imaging, but then again maybe you couldn’t. My doctor came the closest to prescribing it when he said the cure for my malady was colon rest, which is about as disagreeable prognosis as I can think of. Note he didn’t say that the patient needed rest, only one of her organs, a prescription that involves a liquid, then soft, diet.

But I am prescribing convalescence for myself. Although I can’t really stop working, this time of year I teach one morning class, that’s all, so I can spend the afternoons on the couch if I want.

We have stopped going out for breakfast and instead I sit outside here on our apartment deck, sipping tea and watching the cardinals flit from branch to branch. I’ve stopped drinking, so no more glasses of wine when we go out to eat – which we do seldom now. I’m not in the car as much, so going somewhere as become a treat, a time to take in the shades of the night sky, spot wild tiger lilies on the roadside, appreciate the fine combings of raked hay.

Mostly, I read. Since my childhood, books and convalescence have been intertwined. One winter week in 1972, my mother, sister and I – recovering from the flu – read Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s Cross Creek. Home from school with a cold, I would thumb through the ancient volumes in my mother’s bookcase – Dr. Chase’s medical book, which convinced me on more than one occasion that I was dying; Mrs. Beecher’s guide to housework, which mostly involved managing her servants; and the Book of Knowledge, with its condensed versions of classics like The House of the Seven Gables and Jane Eyre.

Convalescence and reading are both slow activities. Reading helps our bodies rest while our minds stay active; I could skip across the fields with Jo March even though I was too sick to cross the street. There’s something soporific about words on the page that allows us to drift easily into a slumber we might otherwise resist. I’ve been doing a lot of napping, too. Whether curled up on a rattan chair on the deck or under a blanket on the sofa, I move easily between the page and my dreams.

I’ve read contemporary novels (Gail Godwin’s Grief Cottage, the marvelous The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar), travelogues (Adirondack Passage by Christine Jerome), and American history (George R. Stewart’s guide to how everything here got its name, Names on the Land). There’s no limitation of genre; the point is to be transported.

Jerome’s account of her canoe trip through the Adirondacks, which traces the route that George Washington Sears took in 1883, is just the sort of tale for the laid-up. I might not feel like straying off the couch, but in my mind I’ve paddled Raquette Lake, Blue Mountain Lake, and the Saint Regis lakes, thrilling to the queer laugh of the loon, dodging stomach-twisting rollers, and marveling at the sky-splitting pines of the wilderness.

In a similar way, Cross Creek took us out of our tissue-sodden misery that long-ago February. We took turns lolling in my mother’s bed, literally passing the book to one another, enjoying this rare indulgence of leisure. The orange groves of Florida in the 1930s could not have been farther from my provincial existence in rocky New England. The smudge pots that Rawlings lit to ward off frost, the stray breeze that cooled her porch, the lap of a paddle as she canoed from house to house – it seemed a magical, upside-down world, where creeks became highways, where winter could be spring, where oranges actually grew on trees.

Ultimately, no matter what organ our doctors seem intent on fixing, it is our minds that control our bodies, and our minds that need these oases of quiet. So I rifle through my bookcase, looking for the next journey of my convalescence. Will it be Steinbeck’s California, Wordsworth’s Lake District, Nin’s Paris? Maybe it will be all three. After all, a proper convalescence should last a good long while.

 

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