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Art in the Balance


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I tend to take writing classes from seasoned writers because I like their metacognitive approach to the craft. Besides sharing the nuts and bolts of writing, they volunteer insights I’ve never considered before. I love how one teacher asks questions, and sends us off to find the answers. Another gives us the answers, and sends us off to ask the questions. Some talk about the parallel journeys in writing. The first is the “outer” mechanics of simply getting story onto the page. The second is the “inner” journey that changes us as writers–how the “I” that goes into the writing is not the same “I” who comes out the other side.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been following the advice of a former writing teacher, who recommends delving into other art forms in order to inform our main art. I’ve been playing with paints, dyes, stamps, embossers, glue, and colorful papers. I’ve been following others online who make visual creations, and trying to teach myself what makes something engaging and successful.

I’m discovering that a lot of visual art principles translate to writing. For example, to be interesting, a photograph needs depth. In writing, a story needs depth, too. A tale will get  much of its depth and richness from an unstated back story. The clearer the writer is on the backstory, even though he or she only alludes to it, the more depth the story will have.

We see the principle of texture in a hand-knit sweater, bumpy from the sort of yarn and pattern used. Likewise, a story can be textured in many ways. Its characters can be grizzled, kindly, or long-suffering. The landscape can be harsh, lush, or relentlessly unchanging. Actions can be erratic and surprising.

Repetition in visual arts, such as the use of triangular forms, or rectangles that echo the shape of the canvas itself, help us to respond subliminally to a painting. As writers, we can use repetition for foreshadowing, or to strengthen a motif. Fairy Tales have always used the repetition of threes, from characters, to wishes, to bowls of porridge.

Balance usually means a visual piece has focal points that lead the eye from one place to another, without causing it to halt abruptly. This creates a feeling of satisfaction or completion. Balance in a story means that something unsettling will need a period of equilibrium. If there’s an argument, the story will need resolution somewhere. If there’s evil or horror, there must also be hope or humor or justice.

Striving to create successful visual art also helps me to recognize techniques in the art of others. I begin to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, and can apply those techniques to my own art, and ultimately, my writing.

I’ll never be a wonderful visual artist. One of my deficiencies is execution. That is, it’s difficult for me to translate what’s in my mind’s eye onto a page. I’m getting better at it, but my writing will always be stronger than my visual art. However, my former writing teacher was right. There is cross-genre pollination, a universality, in artistic techniques, which are necessary but not always apparent, until we begin to use them in their many forms.


One Mountain, Coming Up

Snow-capped or green, jagged or rolling, the next mountain comes.

I’m at a small, charming cabin near a deep, cold lake, 750 miles from home. I’ve planned this trip for over a year, in order to catch my breath, look back at my career, examine my metaphors, and look ahead to new interests.

In short, I’m starting to scale my “second mountain,” a term New York Times Op-ed Columnist, David Brooks, uses for the next big challenge of life. He outlined his ideas at the 2017 Aspen Ideas Festival, stating the first mountain brings productive work, family-raising, establishment of a supportive community, and discovering one’s faith or life philosophy.

Brooks’ “second mountain” can be anything that creates a change from the norm, whether it’s planned (job change, permanent move, retirement), or unplanned (crisis). It is characterized by the realization that life is deeper and more mysterious than we once thought. On the second mountain, the search for meaning becomes the guiding question, and generativity, one of its key responses.

Brooks’ message was important for me to hear. Retiring from a teaching career in which I felt relevant, connected and professional was difficult. I wasn’t sure how I would approach open, unplanned days. Mostly, I didn’t know if those dreams I had about writing more than ever would come to pass.

So, I took the geographical cure. I left home. Twice, actually. Once, immediately after school was out, to relax and decompress after the whirlwind of packing up a life. A second time, to reflect and to mark my transition by participating in a 5-mile walk across an iconic bridge.

Brooks talks about the discomfort of transitioning to the second mountain. We are not just breaking away from things, but actually breaking them–sets of behaviors, procedures, and norms we’ve relied upon. He terms this “the valley.” While he says we can sometimes see more from the valley than we can from the mountain top, we can still feel disenfranchised. What worked for us before doesn’t always work for us on our second mountain. We need a new skill set.

What’s interesting to me is that the second mountain was probably always in the distance to begin with. That is, the seeds of things are often planted early in us. And even on the first mountain, we are inexorably moving toward the second. The unfamiliar places we come to can still feel somewhat familiar. And, Brooks says, both mountains come with mentors.

I return home next week.

My two breathers have been necessary and important doorways. I don’t yet know much about my second mountain, except that it’s right here, in front of me. And I can’t yet tell if I’m refreshed, revitalized or excited. I do feel open and curious about it. And in an odd way, ready.


The Writer’s Notebook

This week, I’m starting an online FicIMG_0718tion writing course through the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  For seven weeks, I’ll be sharing ideas, responding to questions, submitting my work and critiquing the work of others.  Probably, most importantly, I’ll be reflecting on my own writing process.

A writing teacher I had many years ago stressed the importance of being archivists for our creative process.  That is, we need to be familiar with when, where and with which tools we write best.  When famous authors comment on their habits and processes, we see how familiar they are with their own inner workings.  Stephen Kings says he writes all morning every morning–even on holidays.  His desk is not pushed against a wall, but is smack in the middle of the room.  Twain, Wharton, and Capote wrote lying down, while Hemingway preferred standing.  Some writers like music in the background.  Others want  a lit candle, a glass of wine, or a cup of coffee nearby.

For the longest time, I included time of day and geographical location in my notebook entries. And I saw that my teacher was right.  A pattern began to emerge.  I discovered I write best in late morning or early afternoon, that sometimes I can write for whole days, forgetting to eat, and that when I don’t feel physically well, the writing can be dark and weird–and sometimes I like the results.

But today, reflecting on the workshop question, I realized that there was something I once took for granted that is absent from my writing:  my spiral notebook.  When I decided to write for publication, I began using the computer.  It’s quick and forgiving.  It allows me to move blocks of text or get rid of it so completely it looks like it never existed.  I can research distant libraries or reach people around the globe in an instant.

With these capabilities comes a price, however.  I have forgotten the value of what Natalie Goldberg calls “writing practice.”  I’m so focused on the goal that I don’t sit thoughtfully with a pen in my hand, noticing and recording.  Goldberg used writing as her buddhist practice.  She did it daily, before moving to her writing goal for the day.  Noticing and recording are two activities integral to the writing process.  And keeping pen to paper on a regular basis is certainly one way to move through writer’s block, especially if we follow Goldberg’s lead and “keep the hand moving.”

Another writing teacher urged my class to do writing practice long-hand because of the heart connection.  She said, “the brain thinks it, the thought travels through the heart and then along the arm to the hand, which writes it.  The eyes read it. It is processed through the brain, and the circle begins again.”  This is probably true of other arts as well.  Painting and potting, for example, and fiber arts like knitting and quilting.  And while a laptop is necessary eventually, it doesn’t facilitate this infinite, organic loop.

I still work full-time, and scramble to find writing time.  But the workshop has made me understand how important that daily, long-hand practice was to my creativity.  I remembered the intimate connection with my writing self and how it fed me.  Today, I decided I will go back to it, even if it’s a couple of times a week.  And I think I’ll start right now.

If you have a moment, please share what feeds your creativity.  What “things” do you need to get comfortable so the juices flow?

Travel and Creativity


Travel has magical effects on creativity.  This week I’m in northern Minnesota, writing with writers.  We’re sharing resources, tips, workshop info, instruction on things like how to blog, and of course, eating delicious North Woods food.  That would be wild rice.  That would be cranberries.  That would be walleye.

It’s rainy and windy outside, warm and cozy inside.  The cabin sleeps nine people even though we’re a group of three. We have a roaring fireplace, fuzzy robes and warm socks, endless space to spread out, bottomless cups of coffee.  And the view is beautiful.

What is it about all this that helps get the creative juices flowing?  Writing friend Altha has pointed out that when we leave behind our day-to-day lives, we change our “container.” There is novelty in the new.  It makes our brains perk up and take notice. It makes us feel rejuvenated.

I think there are other factors at play, too.  One is the energy of sharing a common goal.  Even though writing is a solitary act, it’s easier to produce when others are focused on their laptops, composing like me.  Another is the expanded sense of space.  Anything pressing at home or work is physically distant.  We can let it go in order to be singleminded and present to the work at hand.

When I travel, the creative aspects of my life surface.  I get a different view of myself and what’s important.  My craft comes easier.  It’s like a little geographical jump-start.

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The Problem With Prague

For the month, I’m changing the emphasis of my blog from “wondering” to “wanderinIMG_0718g.”  That’s because I’m in Prague, Czech Republic, on a writing residency.  Residencies vary in their context.  Some simply provide a place to sleep and work, with a venue to show or read what you’ve done.  This one, associated with Western Michigan University, is more of a “study abroad” program.  Twenty writers of various genres from all over the US will live in community for 4 weeks of seminars, master classes, peer reviews, one-on-one conferences and readings.

The residency begins Sunday, June 29, with a kick-off dinner and orientation.  We dig into the writing on Monday.  However, there will be lot of time to explore this inspiring city and surrounding areas.  So I’ll be posting lots of photos.

The problem with Prague is that it’s so photogenic.  It’s over a thousand years old, with a varied topology and mix of architecture.  People call it “Golden Prague” because of the ornate gold work found everywhere–on its buildings, statues and monuments.  It’s also called “The City of a Thousand Spires,” due to its many churches.

Prague crackles with vitality as well.  It’s hilly and scenic.  A river runs through it.  People enjoy the beauty in a multitude of ways.  They stroll under sweet-smelling lindens that line the river walk, listen to musicians, eat at outdoor cafes, shop at open-air markets, and boat on the river.  Runners, bicyclists, skate-boarders and segway-ists keep up a steady stream of activity along the walkways.  The trolleys clang, the train whistles blow and, each hour, a bell-tower somewhere chimes.

There are photo ops everywhere–up, down, in the distance and up close.  Prague is always posing.  You get a shot, and five steps later there’s another.  Or the same shot, with different lighting.  I hope the photos I post this month give a glimpse of this most amazing and alive city.