Wednesday Wonders: The Miracle of Wounded Art

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Over ten years ago, I took a class on adult psychology in a small classroom on Pill Hill in Seattle. The professor stood in front of us in a button up shirt with slacks that blended into the dark background of the room behind. As he described his experience of a wrenching divorce, he said he did not try to push through his feeling of pain. That did not work for him. Instead, he suggested that it worked better to fully feel emotions.

He used this story to illustrate a psychological principal that I no longer remember. I don’t even remember his name.

But I do remember seeing his pain.

We students saw his heart bleed although he said the divorce happened years before.

I don’t think he had yet found a way to heal. Even if I had been able to say something to him, he might not have received it from the ESL teacher in the back of the room.

But if could speak to him now, I would tell him to try art. 

Get out your paper and glue for a collage, crack open an old instrument case, write a poem, or take photos of falling down buildings in your neighborhood, I would say. I have no idea why it works or if science will back me up. I only know it works as well as any psychological treatment I known or tried on myself.

In a TED Talk by Angélica Dass, I listened to her tell of the searing comments and prejudices she has endured because of her skin color.

Then I watched her speak of the project she created to help herself manage this pain. Even as she described the way she photographed the people from around the world, I noticed her shoulders ease and her voice warm to the telling.

Maybe that psychology professor already knows about this trick of art and how it lets you fully feel without smashing you to bits under the weight of being human. 

Perhaps he even knows what a gift that art can become to others.

I hope so.

The beauty of Dass’s work cuts through so much of what we use to separate us. I don’t pretend to know why gifts to humanity need to spring from nearly unbearable pain like prejudice and divorce. I only know that they often do and that the art soothes the sufferer when she throws herself into the making.

I also know when someone pulls some once of goodness out of their wounds, everyone touched by the art is the better for it. 

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Did I mention baking? I made these in response to having a crown and root canal this week. They helped. Art with chocolate has to be the best of all.

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Wednesday Wonders: When to Call the Book Done

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The other day my son said, “You know you’ve got a LOT of books on writing on your bookshelf. Have you read all of those?”

Mostly, I told him. (He wasn’t particularly impressed — just astounded that I could stay focused for that long on reading books about putting words on paper.)

And he doesn’t even know about the courses I’ve taken and the blogs I’ve read.

Writing takes a lot of reading.

And, of course, it takes a lot of writing words.

In my online reading, Randy Ingermanson once explained to me that the average writer puts over a million words down before she or he becomes a published author.

The million words could be several different books or it could be the same book rewritten over and over again.

I don’t know how many words I’ve written. It’s hard to keep track.

My very first novel is at the back of my file drawer where it will stay. I think I drafted 50,000 words or so. My second short historical fiction set on Whidbey Island is now around 30,000 words. Here is where it gets tough to track, though. It was 50,000 then I cut it down to 40,000. Then I added some. Then I cut it to the bone at 20,000. I added again to 32,000.

I have a third historical fiction set in Tacoma with a word count around that size, too, including the cuts and additions and whatnots.

Those are the larger pieces that are easier to keep track of. I’ve written scads of shorter pieces, some published, many more not, and some even on this blog. I’ve grown fond of mathematics but not fond enough to actually add up all the single words I’ve written to see if I’ve gotten to a million words. I know publishing isn’t anything like that straight forward anyway.

(You wrote the millionth word! Now you are published! Not exactly.)

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I declared my my second short novel finished last week. Over the last five years I drafted and revised, took classes with it, had my critique group read and re-read it through and then section by section. I’ve had beta readers take a look at it and acted on all of the feedback I’ve received in one way or another.

I’m ready to stop cutting and adding. I’m ready to turn my attention to other things and let the million words add up on some other project.

At first I decided to consign it to the bottom of a drawer, tucked into a file next to the first one about the fairies and the the other worlds full of trees and magic.

Then I read this by Priscilla Long in The Writer’s Portable Mentor, one of the those books my son saw on the shelf:

“Work never sent out is very likely never completed. The author never has to stand by it, for better or for worse. It is never exposed to a stranger’s eye. It is never received with love, hate, indifference, or with interest. It has no audience, no public. As a result, the writer is never obliged to see it through a reader’s eye.”

Well, then.

I guess I’ll send those several thousand words out, roll with rejections, and get down word counts in revising my third novel.

I suppose I knew that all along from my music and drawing. Unless I share what I am doing, the art wilts in a corner. More often than not, I never make it at all if I know no one will ever see it.

May you know the joy of calling things finished even if that means you have to take a risk to get there-

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Wednesday Wonders: Penguin Writing Magic

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A short while back, I listened to a T.V. screenwriter explain his process while making the series Colony.

Carlton Cuse described a large room filled with writers throwing ideas around the room that bounced off of one another and grew bigger, taking shape and then forming storylines. The creator of the series Lost told the interviewer he could not say who came up with the idea to have the occupying sympathizers drive black SUVs. It was group think at its most creative.

My writing is not often like that. I sit alone at a desk with stacks of papers and only my herd of cats climbing over a labrador to give me any feedback most of the time.

But this week I watched my family come up with some new ideas that gave me a glimpse of what it might be like to work in an idea-bouncing environment.

I have three cats, in case you managed to avoid my onslaught of kitty pics last year.

Two are black medium-haired males and the third is a calico about half the size of the other two. Their official names are Ash, Jack, and Sissy.

One day, my husband and I sat on the couch watching the two boys wrestle , biting and flipping over one another, laying their ears back and then pouncing.

“Where’s Private?” my husband asked, as if the calico resembled the smallest cutest penguin in the Madagascar series.

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Who are you calling Private?

I laughed at the idea of comparing cats to the penguin pseudo-military group but it did fit.

Later I told my teenager and we began to riff on how the other two might belong to the Madagascar escapee organization.

“Well,” Kieran said. “Ash is like a cross between Kowalski and Skipper.”

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Plotting. Always plotting this one.

We agreed he is the most brilliant of the lot and most like a leader of the group at the same time.

And Jack. Jack the thirteen pound moose-cat is most like Rico. No question.

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‘Rico’ playing chase with the boys.

I can see why Cuse likes the back and forth of writing because I loved this cat-penguin analogy game with my family. The energy was loose and free and nothing but fun. If a connection didn’t work, we tossed it and moved on.

Sometimes I feel a similar sort of creative fire in my writing critique groups when we are at our best. After we have read each other’s stories for long enough, we begin to feel connected to the work in a way that is a little deeper than someone who only gives the story a one time read through. Everyone relaxes (even the writer having her ideas knocked around) and the creativity goes up a notch.

As I come skidding into my latest deadline, I hope to work a little more like I did in the penguin-cat games. (And I am finally skidding along! Hurray!)

May you find friends and family to stir up ideas-

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Wresting cats fighting over a fabric fish

 

 

Wednesday Wonders: A CT Scan to Diagnose and Treat Stuck

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Stuck Ostrich

I am stuck. I have a deadline of May 19th to finish revising my novel and it won’t let me move forward.

Maybe it’s because I’ve gotten side tracked with writing for the band I play with.

Maybe it’s because the day job has been especially demanding lately.

Maybe it’s because the cottonwood covering the air and earth with it’s gorgeous white balls of fluff causes my throat to close up and my voice to turn husky. (The husband likes the sound of it, but now it’s veering toward a whisper which I don’t think is all that cute.)

Maybe it’s because I got a rejection. (Good grief, I say to myself, one rejection should not stop you!)

One of my wise friends tells me to set the novel aside and come back to it later. I can’t even seem to do that.

So instead I am trying a technique I heard from Elizabeth Gilbert, that guru of creativity and giver of artistic permission slips.

I am running a reverse CT scan on myself. To do this, I slowly scan my consciousness to see if some glimmer of curiosity for my book still exists in the tomography of my creativity. (It’s a reverse scan because I am searching for goodness instead of the disease that the medical world tries to find.)

If you ask, I will let you know if I find any sparkles. I may not. It may be time to let this novel go and move forward.

I’ve got until the 19th to finish scanning.

In the meantime, here are the sparkles of wonder I found while keeping my eyes open in the everyday.

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A great day out with the boys at our favorite after-the-beach dinner spot The Spar. A restaurant with Duplos and chess sets can’t be beat. 

 

Of course, the flowers in my yard and on my walks sparkle. Even though spring is biting me in the nose, I adore it as much as ever.

 

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A clarinetist I am sorry I never got to meet. Dr. Michael Lovezzola’s daughter sent me this to go with the piece I wrote recently. I can feel how much she misses him in her photos.

May you find your sparkles,

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And one more…

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The long legs of my five-year-old when he tries to sit on my lap. His are the bruised legs on top. Mine are underneath with the mismatched socks. I think I’ve got two years before he outgrows me.

Wednesday Wonders: Leap into Making the Art, Good or Not

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I do kid crafts. Sometimes I do them without kids.

My latest big idea was a Leap Year Day with a frog theme. (Get it? Leap? Frog? I found this grand idea surfing around the Internet.)

I planned to make a time capsule out of a Pringles can, green construction paper and various cheap decor. The idea was to put mementos from the lives of my kid and the kids of my friend Billie Jo into the capsule. We’ll store it and check it again on the next leap year in 2020. (Egad, that feels way beyond a space age year.)

There was only one problem.

My kid wasn’t in the slightest bit interested. Neither was my friend’s boy. They both would rather bounce off the walls and fight over possession of various toy trucks than make a craft.

I didn’t let this stop me. I made my own parts for the time capsule. My friend and her two girls had a good time with me as we made handprint frogs and decorated the capsules.

This is one of the beauties of being an older mother with another older kid who also has no interest in crafts — I’ve learned not to depend on the interest of 5-year-olds for my own joy.

I reminded myself of this lesson recently as I started to fret over the submissions I made a few months back. I waited patiently for a response for about a month, and then I began to get antsy. When would they get back to me? 

Worse, this impatience started to stall me out on the projects I was doing.

I remembered leap day and thought maybe writing and other life arts are an awful lot like doing crafts with kids who may not have any interest in playing your games.

I make the stuff. I put it out there. And then I make more.

Maybe others will be interested. Maybe they would rather fight over their possessions, bounce off the ways , or do some other surfing on the internet. Whatever they choose to do, if I keep my head and my heart in my work, I win.

Neil Gaiman had something to say along these lines. He once tried a project only for the money and it failed. Here is what he shared in a commencement speech I love:

“I decided that I would do my best in the future not to write books just for money. If you didn’t get the money then you didn’t have anything. If I did the work I was proud of and I didn’t get the money, at least I’d have the work.”
― Neil Gaiman, Make Good Art

And I would say that you can substitute the word ‘money’ with ‘approval’ or ‘the interest of others.’

I don’t know if my frog party was ‘good art.’ But it sure was fun. I’d do it again even if I were the only one at that party.

And I guess that’s what I do every morning I wake up and make my art, good or not.

Wednesday Wonders: Finding Help When Art Scares You Silly

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Clarinetists with warm-looking fingers

Thursday night I was driving down to the church when I realized my fingers were freezing, my heart was beating, and my mind kept thinking of all the ways I was going to embarrass myself.

I wasn’t headed to a solo performance with my clarinet. It was the rehearsal with the choir.

The music I was playing for Lent only had one short run. The key signature wasn’t difficult, but the time signatures changed from 4/4 to 3/4 to 6/4 to 2/2. They changed repeatedly from measure to measure, even during my rests in places where I didn’t have them marked in my transposed version. I had to rely on the director to see when to play my notes on the entrances.

For those who don’t read music, imagine a dance where the rhythm keeps changing and everyone will see your neon tap shoes stomp on your partner’s toes if you get the count wrong.

The whole thing nearly gave me hives.

And I didn’t feel any better after we practiced together.

The rehearsal ended with me totally flubbing the last notes and everyone thanking me for agreeing to play for the church in three days.

I felt like they thought I was a lost cause, but they weren’t going to worry too much. It was just a regular Sunday, not Easter, after all.

I tried several mental tricks to calm myself, many of them things that I tell others when they are stressed out.

  • I took deep breaths.
  • I thought of other times when I had been successful.
  • I reminded myself that the people listening loved me and would still love me even if I played all the wrong notes and came in after the song was over. My family might even love me more out of sympathy.

These things helped a little. I looked for more ways to reassure myself.

  • I reached out to the pianist and begged her to help me since I could not practice the timing alone. (Miki agreed. She is such a blessing.)
  • I imagined feeling calm and successful after the piece was over.
  • I asked my dear friend Ruth to pray for my peace of mind.

These things helped more but not enough. My fingers were still so cold I could hardly work the keys on my instrument. (Cold fingers are one of my stress reactions. They are not helpful.)

Finally, as I was sitting through the beginning of the service, waiting an eternity to stand in front of the crowd, I thought of a writing idea I use when the words get mired in fear.

I told the song that if she wanted to come out of me, she was going to have to do some of the work because I wasn’t sure I could do it myself. I even got a little snotty with her because I was feeling so stressed about my potential public humiliation. (Never mind that I had agreed to play and, on some level, deeply wanted to do it.)

I had often talked to my stories this way but I had never tried it before with a song.

I instantly felt calmer. It was almost like the song had just been waiting for me to ask.

Ten minutes later I walked in front of the pews and played. I made a few small mistakes but came in at all the right places in the right tempo. Or maybe Lenten Song moved through me and managed her own entrances.

Either way, I loved the peace I found by talking back to my art.

It’s a little woo-woo, I grant you. But the older I get, the more woo-woo the the best parts of life feel to me.

I didn’t make this up myself, by the way. I got the idea from Elizabeth Gilbert’s first Ted Talk and from her book Big Magic.

I’m beginning to think that this sort of sass might work for any great endeavor we try.

Want to finish a degree? Take the classes, study hard, and then tell the degree that if it wants you to earn it, it will have to step up.

Want to raise children? Change the diapers, set limits, hug them often and get serious with the universe, explaining that you are going to need help with that insanely impossible task.

Want more peace in the world? Volunteer, be kind to others especially when they cut you off in traffic, and then tell the world that this is way too big of a task. Insist that you are going to need help to see what to do and how to get it done. A lot of help.

Get snappy with the degree, the universe, or the world. This is key. Maybe talking back shows you are not kidding around. I don’t know. I just know it works for me.

And then relax. The song, the degree, the grown children and the world might surprise you with the impossible things you can do.

They might even surprise you like “Lenten Song” surprised me with the exact right timing so that the people in front of me could hear the song the way she wanted to be heard.

May you rest in the help you can find when you need it-

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Here’s the “Lenten Song” written by Mark Hayes and the solo played by a flute.

And a few other wonders from my week:

A recycled bit on the wonder series:

I love the way writing and other art forms open my eyes to the surprises around me in my everyday life. Many of these wonders will also be in my Instagram account since I discovered the joy of that program during an advent photo project.

I collect these surprises like little rocks in a kid’s pocket. I may use them in a story. I may not. Either way, life gets a little brighter when I take the time to notice.

Wednesday Wonders: When Your Art is Worth Saving

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By Sydney Zylstra (retrieved from the attic in 2011)

“You know all those paintings your mother makes and then throws out?”

My sister and I nodded as my dad said this. We knew.

“Well, I pulled a few out of the garbage and stuck them up in the attic. Remember to get them out of there when I die so she doesn’t toss them.”

I understand why my mother wanted to throw those beautiful pastels away. It helped her feel free to make mistakes and go on to create more when she knew she didn’t have to keep or share what she created.

She probably felt something like Molly in this clip Jody Casella shared with me recently:

I also get why my dad didn’t want to let them go. He couldn’t see her mistakes. He only saw a picture worth saving — something he didn’t want in the trash even after he died.

I am drawn to that video of Molly and the memory of my dad stashing away my mom’s art. And I’m happy to say I no longer feel like dipping my manuscript in alcohol and setting it on fire over a gas burner. 

Instead, I keep this mantra by James Scott Bell posted near my computer screen:

“It can be fixed.”

That helps enormously when the mean voice in my head chatters on about all that is wrong even as I work to make it better.

And I’m glad Dad saved the pastels. A year or so after he died, my mom found them on my wall and stopped, looking them over for a slow minute.

I held my breath, praying I would not lose my treasures.

She surprised me by insisting they needed a coat of sealant to protect the surface. She then took them down and returned them to me, never suggesting that I throw them away.

Those canvases covered in flowers still hang in my hallway, reminding me to look at what’s worth keeping even when, at first, I might not think my characters have led me down the right path. 

May you know the joy of creating and the power of saving your work-

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Extra wonders:

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Seattle waterways before the Ballard Locks and the ship canal connected the lakes to the sound.

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My book and I loved this trip to see my Seattle family and visit the locks. So much to research for us here!

A recycled bit on the wonder series:

I love the way writing and other art forms open my eyes to the surprises around me in my everyday life. Many of these wonders will also be in my Instagram account since I discovered the joy of that program during an advent photo project.

I collect these surprises like little rocks in a kid’s pocket. I may use them in a story. I may not. Either way, life gets a little brighter when I take the time to notice.