Tag Archives: the writing life

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.


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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How Writing Made Me Own-up

woman_writing2When I was granted a summer 2014 writing residency in Prague, I knew I would have to start admitting to people I’m one of those, you know, writers.  That, while others spend their non-working hours attending birthday parties, growing tomatoes or spelunking, I’m happily hunched over a page, creating characters and searching for exactly the right dialog for those made-up characters in my made-up stories.

Usually, I’m pretty outgoing.  But I don’t say too much about my own writing.  For one thing, people who aren’t familiar with the long, solitary process often equate writing with publishing.

“What have you written?”

“A couple of novels.”

“I don’t think I’ve heard of them.”

“They’re under my bed.”

This is when I get the raised eyebrow, the look of pity.  And I suppose writing can seem like a sorrowful endeavor.  At the end of a lengthy road, what we have in our hands often does land under the bed.  Or, buried in a stack of spiral notebooks we’ve been filling while squirreled away in garrets.  Or even in the reject pile, when we finally try to market what we’ve worked on so diligently.

Yet writing, like any other activity we pursue for love, is an end in itself.  As with knitting, gardening or playing soccer, there’s a comforting familiarity in handling the tools.  There’s an understanding of how things have to come together.  There’s growth over time, and an ability to draw back and look at what we’ve created.  Finally, there’s a headiness in getting something exactly right and a triumph when we finish–even if it doesn’t go anywhere but under the bed.

And so, when I received the news that I’d be going to Prague with nineteen writers of all ages, genders, genres and experiences, I mentally prepared myself to reveal to others that I write.  That, if you count the weepy poems of my youth, I’ve been writing for half a century.  I got ready to discuss the joys and disappointments of working for hours at a keyboard.  And I braced myself for the question of how widely I’d published.

As I knew they would, the comments came.  Like rapid fire.

“Wow, Prague!  Where’s Prague?”

“Wow, Prague!  Got your passport?”

“Wow, Prague!  Who’ll take care of your dog?”

It appears that the only person surprised by my revelation was, um, meI have been uncloseted as a writer, apparently for some time.

When one of my students heard the news, he said, “Wow, Prague!”  And then he repeated to me what I say to students and colleagues  before we part for an extended amount of time.  “Come back with stories!”