Saturday, April 3, 2010

10 ways to get started as a creative

1. Speak of yourself as a creative. When asked “What do you do?” be creative. I’m a creative gardener. Collage artist. Painter. Chef. Garden designer. Who cares if it’s just your garden. Speak and it will live.

2. Put together a creativity box: scissors, glue sticks, colored pencils, glitter, feathers, pretty papers, pipe cleaners, photo-rich magazines, marbles, velcro, whatever appeals to you. Maybe get a large toy box or covered Rubbermaid storage box that will hold it all. Take a trip to Michael’s or another craft store, set a $ limit, and be creative in your purchases.

3. Get an unlined journal, colored pencils, a sharpener. Develop a brief, daily drawing practice.

4. Or try The Writer’s Book of Days (Judy Reeves) and do a 10-15 minute daily writing practice.

5. Commit to the 12-week program of the Artist’s Way (Julia Cameron). You can commit to the full program or just commit to one portion: Artist’s Dates, Chapter Activities, Morning Pages.

6. Create an altar. Use a small table, a shelf, a shoebox. Use a shawl, a yard of nice fabric, a scarf, a cloth napkin. Add items important to you emotionally, spiritually, creatively. Change it on an important day of the month.

7. Go boldly into your creative life. Commit to the year program of a book like Art & Soul (Pam Grout) or the Creativity Book (Eric Maisel). It’ll change your life.

8. Spend part of a weekend day in creative mode. Decide for a period of time (I recommend 3-4 hours) that everything you do will come out of your sense of creativity. Stack the dishes in the drainer in an interesting pattern. Wipe the kitchen counter mindfully and artistically. You get the idea.

9. Collect photo- and text-rich magazines for collage work as in Visioning (Lucia Cappachione). Create a small (5x6”) collage for each Feng Shui area (called a gua) in your home and what you would like to have happen in that part of your life: Wealth, Health, Creativity, Fame and Reputation, Romance and Relationship, Travel and Helpful People, Spirituality, Career.

10. Create a small group of like-minded souls who will meet for a couple of hours once a month and do show and tell with creative projects. No judgements, no critiques, just holding a space for each other to risk and share your creativity.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The first time I saw him

The first time I saw him, Jake was standing up in a small cage, which had been placed squarely in the middle of a card table strategically positioned to attract attention at the entrance to the pet store. The store was on the bottom level of the swankier of the two Greensburg malls, the one with the major local department store, the Walden Books, and Au Bon Pain, a chain bakery that served the only latte in town. It was 1990 and very pre-Starbucks.

I'd come to mall to get my hair cut and to find another daily meditation book to add to my collection. I was not in the market for a third cat.

Jake was thin and leggy, like a red-haired high school basketball player. He looked at me as I went by but we didn't speak. On the table was a large tented sign that read "Marked down. $9.95." I stopped and put my fingers through the bars and he rubbed up against them.

I walked on, got my hair cut. Didn't find any new books that I needed at Walden Books. Tried on a couple of tops that I didn't need at a clothing store. All the time I kept thinking about the little orange cat who'd been marked down. I went back.

I'd never seen a cat marked for quick sale and I went into the store. The teenager at the cash register told me he was too old for them. "We sell only cuddly kittens. We sell a lot of them. But nobody bought this one and he's getting too old. He isn't cute anymore." When I asked what would happen if they didn't sell him, she shrugged and said, "He'll go to the pound. We can't keep him here." She looked at me as if I should know that.

Jake wasn't handsome, he wasn't winsome,. He wasn't even particularly friendly. But in the way we know these things, I knew he was mine.

$9.95 bought me 20 years of affection, devotion, fondness, and amusement. Jake never turned into anything special. He wasn't a curious cat, a purring cat, a playful cat. He liked my lap, catnip, and a lazer pointer. He liked baskets that were too small, he liked his terrace water dish (I used to joke that he had an obsessive dish-order) and he'd follow the sun around. Mostly he loved me, and I loved him back. And that's plenty. Jake, I miss you.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Instructions for Poets & Painters

From Lawrence Ferlinghetti

I asked a hundred painters and a hundred poets
how to paint sunlight
on the face of life
Their answers were ambiguous and ingenuous
as if they were all guarding trade secrets
Whereas it seems to me
all you have to do
is conceive of the whole world
and all humanity
as a kind of art work
a site-specific art work
an art project of the god of light
the whole earth and all that's in it
to be painted with light

And the first thing you have to do
is paint out postmodern painting
And the next thing is to paint yourself
in your true colors
in primary colors
as you seem them
(without whitewash)
paint yourself as you see yourself
without make-up
without masks
Then paint your favorite people and animals
with your brush loaded with light
And be sure you get the perspective right
and don't fake it
because one false line leads to another


And don't forget to paint
all those who lived their lives
as bearers of light
Paint their eyes
and the eyes of every animal
and the eyes of beautiful women
known best for the perfection of their breasts
and the eyes of men and women
known only for the light of their minds
Paint the light of their eyes
the light of sunlit laughter
the song of eyes
the song of birds in flight

And remember that the light is within
if it is anywhere
and you must paint from the inside

(How to Paint Sunlight)

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A recent effort at really bad writing

“You can’t leave me, Lionel,” she said sobbingly. “Not after all we’ve been through.”

“Don’t start in on me, Gwendolyn,” he said peevishly. “You know I can’t take it anymore.” He put his cigarette out in his mashed potatoes.

She looked down at the tin tray, at the Thanksgiving TV dinner she’d heated up for him special. Guess he’s not a Hungry Man tonight, she thought to herself.

‘But what about the kids?” She began to cry broken-heartedly, wiping her eyes with locks of her long red hair. “Little Lionel and Gwennie? You know how much we need you.”

“Need my dough, that’s all.” He grunted bitterly. “All I am to you is a paycheck.”

That stopped her in her tracks. He was right. She did need that paycheck. His hundred bucks every week kept the kids in Twinkies and Ho-Hos and fed her Cheetos and cola habit. Oh, she knew she needed to stop. They all needed to stop. Gwennie had tipped the scale at 300 pounds last week, way too heavy for a 4-year-old. And just last month Gwendolyn herself had spent a week at Nutrition Oaks, the junk food rehab, but it had been a waste of food stamps. She just couldn’t eat straight. She just couldn’t!

“You know that’s not all,” she said coaxingly. She unbuttoned another button on her lime green plaid cardigan and crossed her arms under her breasts, pushing them in his direction. “I need your manliness, you know that.”

He grunted begrudgingly, casting a leer at her chest. Then he pushed off the table with his palms and heaved himself up out of the chair. “Got to go,” he said unconvincingly. “Got to gas up the rig. Got a load of pig’s feet to haul to Harlem before Saturday.”

She held her breath awkwardly, then made a small mewing sound. “Can’t I go this time?” she said pleadingly.

“Criminy sakes, woman,” he said argumentatively. “Who would take care of the kids? You can’t possibly expect Ma to watch ‘em for all those days. You know how bad her arthritis gets when the kids are around.”

“I just worry about you so on the road. I know there are whores at the truck stops waiting to pluck my man,” she said tearily, “right out of his happy home.”

Not much of a home, thought Lionel as he looked examiningly around at the grocery bags of candy wrappers that spilled over onto the kitchen floor and the sink that overflowed with greasy paper plates and lipsticked styrofoam coffee cups. “Bob ‘n me, we don’t pay them no never mind,” he said at last, with a sly grin. “’Sides, what would I pay them with, with you taking every red cent for your filthy habit.”

Gwendolyn felt cowed. Every time he brought up her addiction to trans fats, she felt a deep wave of shame engulf her. And then there was Bob to worry about too.

Bob was Lionel’s driving buddy, a tiny man barely five feet tall but the sway he had over Lionel was gigantic. Bob was a bad influence, plain and simple. When Lionel had been on the road a while with Bob, he refused to put the toilet seat down after he used it. He dropped his towel in the middle of the bathroom, left his underwear in a heap on the bedroom floor.

The latest had been the worst. Bob had begun to comb his few remaining hairs over from one ear to the next, and wouldn’t you know it? Lionel had to shave his head and get a comb over too. Now little Lionel Jr. was begging for one!

Lionel strode over to the refrigerator and pulled out the last 6-pack of beer and stowed it under his arm. “Be seein’ ya, gal!” he said departingly.

Suddenly, there was a knock at the back door.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

How to tell if you're committed to your writing

"If you're interested, you do what's convenient. If you're committed, you do whatever it takes."--John Asaraf

I used this quote last night at to talk about why my relationship with getting off sugar is different this time around. And it's such a good quote and so pertinent to our relationship to our creative self-expression that I wanted to post it here and talk about it from that perspective.

If you're interested in starting to write, you'll probably do what's convenient: buy some books on becoming a writer (although you may not read them or read them all the way through) and then buy some more. You may buy some blank journals or notebooks or a new thumb drive. You may start attending writer's conferences or the local book festivals and you'll listen to writers talk about their lifes, their sucesses, and their efforts. But chances are if you're only interested and not committed, you won't do a lot of writing and you won't keep at it, because it isn't convenient. It isn't convenient to spend a couple of hours writing each day in an already full life of work and family and relationship and all the things that keep us busy. And so it's easy to let this new interest go as quickly as the use of that sports equipment in your basement.

If you're more interested than just starting, you may take some classes and as long as you have the deadlines, you'll produce the writing assignments (or most of them because work or a vacation may interfere). You'll read a few more of those books, maybe something more specific to the genre you're interested in. Or you'll start reading writing blogs and you'll begin to do some Internet research on a bigger project. You'll research some writing retreats or residency program requirements. You might even join a support or critique group as long as it's conveniently timed. But chances are you won't be writing regularly. You won't be able to set deadlines for yourself and keep them. When the inner critic starts pushing you around, you won't push back. Instead you'll find it harder and harder to go to your desk or pick up your notebook. Then you'll be too busy or too tired to go to the group.

I know all this because I've been in both places. And I'm in something parallel now. I am committed to completing my second novel. I work on it steadily, scheduling time, locking my inner critic in the front hall closet when his voice gets too loud. I keep the characters and their problems fresh in my mind and give them some attention each day. I know I will finish the novel and probably by year's end.

The problem is with trying to market my work. I am interested in getting published. I'm actually very interested. But I'm not committed. I'm doing only what seems safe and convenient. Anything too risky, too scary, too "whatever it takes" isn't happening. It's easier to fall back on my commitment to write. It's more convenient to write (less risky) than put myself out there.

So how do we move from interested to committed?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Two essentials for novel writers: #2

Last night, I talked about the importance of character cards for fiction writers to help them keep the details of a character's physical description and personality straight. Tonight, I want to talk about constructing a plot line.

Plot line is pretty much what it sounds like. It's most easily done on a large piece of butcher paper that you can pin up on a wall in your office or house. (I've also done it vertically on regular paper that is scotch-taped together end to end.) It includes one or more time lines for the plot(s) of the novel.

First, there's a space for each chapter of the novel on the main plot line. At each chapter "notch" on the line, you list the significant events of that chapter and the main/secondary characters that are affected by them.

Second, if timeframe is important or you have parallel stories, like I did in my first novel, you include days of the week or dates of the year or times of day for each chapter or episode within a chapter, depending on the sequencing of your plots, so that you can keep that straight and help readers to do so as well.

Third, you can use the plot line to track the narrative arc and/or the protagonist's moves towards and away from what he wants (Robert McKee suggests using a +/x/- system here).

All of these things can give you a better handle on what's happening in your stories and help you check for missing events/chapters, redundancies, or illogical or non-chronological decisions you've made.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Two essentials for novel writers: #1

When I work with fiction writers who have a big project (novel, series of novels, a collection of inter-related short stories, even a memoir), I encourage them to do two things once they've completed a chapter, no matter how rough: create character cards. This is one of two invaluable tools for keeping things straight.

1. Character cards
While this can be done electronically, old-fashioned 3x5 or 4x6 index cards work best. For each character who gets a physical description of any amount, you create a card that contains as many of the following details as you include in the text:
  • Full name
  • Age
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Hair color
  • Eye color
  • Education
  • Occupation
  • Tics and quirks
  • Scars, tattoos, piercings
  • Etc.

None of these needs to be exact. Age could be mid-40s, or even middle-aged. Hair color could be dark or more specifically reddish-brown or blue-black. It's whatever you've chosen to include so that reader can create a visual image of the character.

The point of the card is to keep track, over the long haul, of details. One of my earliest manuscript clients had an intriguing lengthy novel about football in which the main character had a robotic double. There were only three main characters but there were several dozen secondary characters in the book's various sections. I was continually finding name changes (Ann, Anna, Anne) for these secondary characters as well as changes in hair color, quirks, even the location of a scar.

The book had been written over nearly a decade in the man's spare time. He would work on it for several months and set it aside. His short-term memory had obviously let go of all the details. A stack of character cards would have helped him keep track. While I could point out the discrepancies, he as author needed to make the decision.

There's more good information about character studies and character cards in Robert Ray's Weekend Novelist.