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Thursday, February 26, 2015

How Art Informs Writers

"Artists teach writers how to see."
James Baldwin

Many writers use other artistic mediums in concert with their own artistic process. For example, I remember reading something that Lauren Groff said about how fiction writers should read more poetry than anything else. She says this, I think, because poetry activates something in our brains that allows us to expand our minds. We can then bring that heightened state of awareness or openness into our writing.

Of course, art and music pervades the landscape of our lives. But how can we use art intentionally in order to exalt our creativity?

This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending an event in St. Pete called True Creative Stories put on by The New Music Conflagration. At the event, Kylila Bullard, spoken word poet and founder of Poetic Change, spoke about her creative process. She explained the way she used music as her portal into poetry, and she played us several songs that had inspired her work. She also sang/spoke the poems that were born from these musical meditations.

Kylila Bullard
The audience was the given the opportunity to give this process a try and see what roads the music took us down. We listened to Nina Simone's song, "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free" and Jill Scott's "Golden." I had never really tried an exercise like this before and I had a lot of fun with it. It was interesting the way certain emotions or images were stirred up by the music. It's magical to see where your imagination will take you once you hop on board!

I recently read a beautiful book by poet Claudia Rankine - her latest, Citizen. Interspersed throughout her writing, she has included a variety of images, from video stills to sculptures, which I found very intriguing. In doing some research, I came across this interview with her in which she discusses the connection between her writing and art.

"I would think about the essay, as an example, and the images that open out the essay in certain ways, or images that create a surprise moment in the essay came to mind.  It’s almost like working with building blocks. You begin to think, oh, I was really interested in that image by Nick Cave and actually it would work right here. Or, in a call and response way, I would write something and it was as if Nick Cave’s piece spoke back."

In both Kylila and Claudia's case, they use art - visual and auditory - as a pathway into their writing. I have been thinking more about how to incorporate other artistic mediums into my own writing process in a more intentional way. Poetry is a love of mine, but I mainly use it as a soothing way to slip into sleep. I get a lot of inspiration out of experiencing art of all kinds, especially photography and dance. But I'd like to play around with the practice of experiencing art with the pure intention of creating something as a result.

Have you had any experience with this in your creative process? If so, how would you consider the results?

Friday, February 20, 2015

Author Spotlight: Barbara Shoup

Yesterday, I had the good fortune of listening to Barbara Shoup give a reading. She's a YA author promoting her latest book, Looking for Jack Kerouac.

She said she loved novel writing because it uses both sides of the brain. One side is the "What if?" or right side, and the other side is the "What do we do with it?" or left side brain. It's a constant balance between being in control and letting go of control. As a writer, you have to be open to new things. You have to let the story take its course instead of trying to force it to be something that it's not.

Barbara Shoup's novelShoup also spoke at length about something we talk about often in my writing workshops: what makes the reader keep reading? What is the yearning, the heartbreak, the crucial unanswerable question at the heart of this story? Without it, you cannot have a compelling story.

She said that the main way to incorporate this yearning into your story is to access it from deep within yourself. A writer must be willing to mine their own personal history and connect with a yearning they themselves know intimately. Even if the story has nothing to do with the writer's life, there must be something personally at stake for the writer.

Also, she reminded us that "nothing is lost."  As writers, it is our jobs to turn pain into something beautiful. We wrestle with words until we make the pain more bearable. I can speak from personal experience that it is those moments of intense emotion that have the longest legacy on the page.

Luckily for me, her talk focused on her process in writing this book, and in writing novels in general. She prefers to stay away from writing software and uses old-school methods like drawing charts and making calendars. She also explained how she builds a visual map of her story line using colors to track where there are flashbacks and when characters are in scene.  She even passed around her "Process Book," a log she keeps while writing full of factual information, character development, backstory, problems, revisions, and tasks. In order to write Looking for Jack Kerouac, she herself had to take a road trip down to St. Peter to collect "research." Another great reason to be a writer!

Listening to her talk about the process of writing a book was exciting and also daunting. "You can hold a short story in your hand," she said. "But you can't hold a novel in the same way. Sometimes, you get lost. And, to make matters worse, you're never the same person at the end as you were when you started writing the book." She says it takes her years to write a novel, and many - many - drafts. Each time you rewrite the story, you learn something new about the characters, about the yearning, about the possibilities for depth in this story. You start with the bones and you keep on layering.

Every writer has to figure out what works for them, and that takes time. It is my hope to use my summer to find out what my artist's way is... Check back for more updates as I blog about my writer's journey!

And thank you to Barbara Shoup for introducing me to this beautiful quote:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. –Ernest Hemingway

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Wrangling the Restless

Blogworld, I have a confession to make. I have been letting my restless self get the best of me.

This past weekend, I went to Miami where I went dancing every night and flitted around the city visiting friends. I fell into my old ways, doing a million things at the same time and filling my hours to the brim with activities. I stayed up too late ever night but morning still found me working in the garden, pulling weeds from my food forest.

As I flip through my calendar, it is clear that the rest of the semester is more of the same: spring break in the mountains, a writing conference in the Midwest, camping adventures, birthdays and blessings. After April, summer looms like a blank slate, nearly four months of potential travels. My wanderlust has been in overdrive as I troll discount flight sites to see where the wind will take me. As someone once told me, I definitely don't let the grass grow beneath my feet.

Some may call this busyness but I call this life. I am beginning to accept this truth about myself: movement is my medicine. Who's to say that being on the move means not writing, reflecting, or honoring the artist within?

No one, really. I think that is an idea that I have created and internalized all by myself, the notion that a writer must be stagnant or padlocked to their desk.

 Stay, Carmella. You must stay at your desk and not move, a little voice inside me whispers. And there is truth in that, too. The writer must know how to glue their bum to chair sometimes, but it is just as important for this writer to go salsa dancing on a Friday night, or to fly to Central America spur of the moment to meet up with an old friend. In between the lunch dates and the salsa swings, you can always find me with my pen in hand, scribbling furiously in my notebook, my spirit on fire with the innate need to translate these experiences into art.

We are all different - our needs, desires, dreams, realities. Our writing processes are just as diverse. Rather than try to fight mine, I have resolved to accept it and work as best as I can given my reality.

It's a question of time and energy. Some people gather energy when they spend time by themselves. While I enjoy these moments too, where I really fill up is in my interactions with others. A day without human connection is a dark day for me.

So that's what I was doing back in Miami. Filling up my tank. Squeezing, dancing, hugging, walking, sharing, laughing, breaking bread, singing. Living.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Revere your Reader

Last week, I read two very different books (for very different classes): Chomp, a young adult novel by the Florida all-star, Carl Hiaasen, and Stitches, a graphic novel by David Small. 

In our conversation about Chomp during my middle grade novel class, we all came to the conclusion that Hiaasen, not quite understanding how to write for kids, dumbed down his writing for a younger audience. We see no subtext in his language, besides in overly sarcastic remarks (mostly about bodily functions). Everything he writes literally means we he is saying (or the complete opposite when it comes to sarcasm), therefore lacking depth and nuance. He leaves nothing for the reader to discover on their own. Moreover, the story is event-driven rather than heart-driven, meaning that it reads more like an action-packed thriller with little emotional substance. 

Stitches, on the other hand, has very few words at all. Having had one of his vocal chords removed as a child, Small chose this medium - the graphic novel - to tell his very silent story. 

I'm not entirely new to this genre. My dad being from Belgium (where comic books are practically a religion!), I "read" a lot of Tintin and Asterix growing up. I remember spending hours with these books, taking in each image and detail. I loved every story and never tired of going through them again and again.

As I flipped through Stitches, I found myself creating an inner dialogue and essentially building the story in my head. It was amazing how invested I became in the story considering how little writing there was. As I read, I wondered: What can images do that words can't? And how can I as a writer evoke authentic emotions and true silence without over-writing?

What Small does beautifully in Stitches, and where Hiaasen fails in Chomp, is in trusting the reader. Our job as writers and artists is to bring to light the human condition in a way that is accessible to our reader or viewer. We draw the dots, but it is up to the reader to make the connections. Therein lies the pleasure of reading, or contemplating any art form. We take it in and make it our own.

My goddess writing teacher has an exercise called the red chair. She tells the class to picture a red chair, any chair. We all visualize this in our minds. Then, she tells us to imagine a red tuffed armchair with gold tassels from the 1970's. As you may have experienced, this chair is much harder for you to envision.

If we do not give our readers the space to make those leaps in their mind, how will they connect to the story? The truth is that you cannot write emotion on the page. A writer's job is to draw the dots that help your reader feel the emotion on their own.


Shameless plug for the yoga/writing retreat I will be co-leading in Jamaica this Memorial Day!