Filling the Well, Mosaic Style

I’m not great at finding time to play, and that’s been especially true lately with so many demands on my time. But as Julia Cameron talks about in “The Artist’s Way” it’s critical to take breaks, interact with the world and fill the inner well that fuels our creativity.

I thought about that last week when I took a class from Debra Hagen, a Nanoose Bay artist who specializes in mosaic art. I knew almost nothing about mosaics until I visited Debra at her house (okay, technically Team Sheltie went on a play date to visit Debra’s two shelties, Seamas and Merlin, and the humans accompanied them). Her home is vibrant, welcoming and filled with samples of her gorgeous mosaic art. 

Every piece drew me in. Some were bold, others were more subtle, but they were all beautiful. When Debra said she gave classes in her studio downstairs, I was tempted, though I’m not at all artistic. I can’t draw, paint, or sculpt I told her. I’m lousy with textiles. I’d probably mess up papier-mache.

Debra assured me it didn’t matter, so I decided to make a trivet. Something bright for my new kitchen.

 

 

Debra’s studio overlooks the garden and it has the kind of happy vibe found in any creative space: a feeling of expectancy and a sense of promise. Plus, it’s filled with more of Debra’s stunning art.

I enjoyed a cup of tea while Debra gave me a very brief introduction to mosaics. She pointed out her many containers of tesserae, the small blocks of stone, tile, glass or other materials used to make mosaics . . . and the pottery and china that can be broken up and also used in a mosaic. It’s referred to as pique assiette.

She talked about the substrate or rigid surface that you need to form the base, the adhesive or glue that’s used to attach the tesserae, and the basic tools like the wheeled nippers I’d need to do the job.

Like writing, the first step was settling on an idea and getting started. I quickly realized saying I was going to make a trivet was like saying I was going to write a novel. The statement was too broad. In the same way that a novel needs a plot or a character or a problem from which to build, my trivet needed something from which to build too: a central focus or a color or a piece of tile. Something. I decided on a heart for the center which Debra helped me outline on my plywood substrate.

 

We looked at the various bits of red tesserae that might work, but I wasn’t hooked. My eye kept going back to the china and pottery.

I found a plate with colors and a pattern I quite liked. Though it wasn’t at all red or heart-themed, something told me to go with it. I began breaking it up.

I hadn’t consciously noticed the couple on the plate when I chose it, but as I began to play with my layout, I decided they would form the center of the heart. How could they not?

Because I wanted to be sure I was happy with my layout, I placed many of the pieces on my substrate before I began gluing. That made for a longer process but I felt more confident doing it that way. At the end of the day, I wasn’t finished, but my heart had taken shape and I was thinking about background colors which I’ll tackle next time. 

Once the background tesserae is glued down, those small pieces will need 48 hours to dry before it’s time for the final step: grouting.

I left Debra’s studio feeling refreshed and energized . . . and thinking about my next mosaic project!

Debra is a great teacher. She’s instructive and helpful, and at the same time she’s wise enough to step back and let the artistic process unfold. For more information on her classes or to buy one of her mosaics, she can be reached at goldbugmosaics@gmail.com

 

You Know You’re a Writer When . . .

Here’s a blast from the past. . . a blog post I wrote in 2013 that’s as true today as it was back then.

I wasn’t that odd as a child, not really, although if you ask my father he’d probably disagree. I was sensitive to my surroundings (especially to the undercurrents of conversations and what wasn’t being said); I was prone to storytelling (others referred to this as exaggeration); and I had three special (imaginary-to-everyone-else) friends. I played with them, had conversations (and arguments) with them and I ate meals with them too. This did not please my rational father. He didn’t realize he had a writer-in-the-making in the house.

How do you know you’re a writer?  You know you’re a writer when –

You had imaginary friends as a child only they were real to you.

You are prone to wild imaginings that can literally make your heart race.

Conflict makes you smile.

You don’t get non-readers.

You laugh out loud at conversations in your head.

Some of the letters on your keyboard are worn off.

You have pens in every room of your house, including the bathroom and beside your bed.

A song on the radio sparks a story idea.

You stare at random people and memorize their quirks.

You can predict the conflict or turning points in movies, and your family has made you promise to keep quiet until it’s over.

You get excited by Scrivener.

Eavesdropping is second nature.

You love bookstores (but hate them if they don’t carry your books).

You live in a constant state of ‘what now?’ closely followed by ‘what if?’

Twist is not a cinnamon stick.

You have scribbled an idea, a word, or a piece of dialogue on a restaurant napkin, boarding pass, old envelope, school newsletter, or empty toilet roll.

You find those odd bits of paper – sometimes indecipherable – in pockets, wallets, purses, drawers, stuffed between the pages of a book, and you save them.

Pacing is a concept not an activity.

You found it easier to write when you first started.

You have missed a turn, an exit ramp or possibly a plane because you were so absorbed in your story.

You weren’t comfortable as a journalist because you always wanted to change the end of the story.

Proofreading is automatic.

Character is not about your personal ethics.

A hero must be flawed. But sexy as hell.

You gather ideas, thoughts, bits of trivia and snatches of dialogue like black pants gather lint.

You visit a cemetery and take notes.

People you barely know ask you to read their book, their article, their life story. Or ask you to write it.

You have a weird combination of insecurity and confidence.

Finishing the scene is more important than answering the phone.

The Muse is an intimate.

And, finally, you will read anything.

 

Just Listen

A few weeks ago, I attended a weekend workshop. It had nothing to do with writing; it was about soul growth and reincarnation for those of us ‘woo’ types who believe in that sort of thing. In spite of the focus, writing was never far from my mind. That’s partly because I’m writing a book with a past life theme, but also because of a comment made by the facilitator.

“Imagination is real,” he said. “It’s a form of communication if only we’ll listen.”

We tend to think of imagination as pretend. His point was the opposite: imagination might be intangible and immeasurable, but it is as real as love, which also happens to be intangible and immeasurable. Imagination, he added, is communication from the soul . . . from spirit . . . from God . . . from the Source . . . whatever and however you describe it. I wondered if he was describing the muse?

Not every writer believes in a muse though many do, and Ray Bradbury was one of them. “I’m not in control of my muse,” he once said. “My muse does all the work.”

Steven Pressfield who wrote The War of Art believes in the muse too. “When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us,” he wrote. “The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.”

On the other side of the equation, a number of successful and prolific writers find the notion of a muse or any sort of communication absolutely ridiculous. Jodi Picoult, a favorite writer of mine, is one of them. Picoult believes writing is total grunt work; it’s not about the muse. Nora Roberts says every time she hears writers talk about the muse, she ‘wants to bitch-slap them.’ Stephen King says writing is a job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. “It isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about,” King says.

Maybe not. But there’s no denying that for writers and other creative types our imagination bears a great deal of responsibility for the work we do.

The night before I sat down to write this blog, I saw Paul Simon interviewed on Stephen Colbert. He was talking about the inspiration for his song ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War.’ Apparently, he was at Joan Baez’s house doing some collaborative work when Joan had to take a phone call. Restless or bored (or maybe a bit of both), he pulled a book off her shelf and began skimming it. He came across a picture of a man and a woman with a dog. Below the photograph was the caption ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte with their dog after the war.’

He began to think . . . to daydream . . . to weave a story out of the image. Communication, by definition, is a form of sending or receiving information. In that moment, Paul Simon was receiving something intangible that fed his imagination . . . and he listened.

In the end, I guess it doesn’t really matter whether you think imagination is real or pretend. All that really matters is listening to it. Listening and doing the work.

The Importance of Joy

For those of us who are news junkies, last week was tough (one could argue that news junkies have had it tough for the last two years, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog). I spent way too much time focused on the Ford/ Kavanaugh testimony before the U.S. Senate, and listening to the analysis afterwards. It brought up a host of emotions for me, not the least of which was how difficult, painful and costly it can be to speak your truth, even when others attempt to deny it.

After a while I had to switch off, switch gears, and seek out something lighter. It was a good reminder of how valuable joyful fiction can be during difficult times.

That started me thinking about joy as a whole: where we find it, how we nurture it and why it matters. That led me to this Ted Talk by Ingrid Fetell Lee. It’s a fast listen – less than fifteen minutes – and it will make you smile. https://www.ted.com/talks/ingrid_fetell_lee_where_joy_hides_and_how_to_find_it?referrer=playlist-how_to_notice_and_build_joy_into_your_life

 

Hats and Books, Oh My

Writing books and making hats have something in common. Who knew? I certainly didn’t when I commissioned Lynda Marie http://www.lyndamariemillinery.com/to make a fascinator for me to wear to our daughter’s wedding. She knew the color of my dress (royal blue), the basic style (simple) and that I was wearing fun, in-your-face pink shoes. I wanted something elegant, I told her. Wedding guest classy, maybe with a little touch of sass.

I was excited when she showed me some of the elements she planned to incorporate. It was going to be beautiful; I had no doubt about it.

A few weeks later she called to say it was ready. Full of anticipation, I went to her studio. The fascinator was gorgeous, I absolutely loved it, but it wasn’t what I expected. In fact, Lynda Marie ended up using almost none of the original elements she’d planned to use. “I tried,” she told me. “I really did. I kept fiddling and rearranging and trying to incorporate some of the pink polka dots and a little of the other material too, but the result just didn’t feel right.”

I know that feeling. There have been times, particularly in the early stages of a novel, where I’ll fiddle and rearrange and fiddle again. Something just doesn’t feel right. If I can’t stop fiddling, I know I need to take a step back and re-evaluate. Is the premise weak? The character’s motive flawed? Is the tone off? Am I worrying too much about whether the story will sell rather than the story I have to tell? If my gut tells me something is off, then something usually is off. Gut feelings rarely steer you wrong.

The same can be said for bespoke hats. “I was trying so hard to make it work but that first creation didn’t feel elegant,” Lynda Marie says. “I was fighting with the pink polka dots and trying to force it because we’d talked about using them, but the result was nothing remotely close to what we’d envisioned.” She pauses. “Some hats come together easily and others don’t, but as my boyfriend reminded me, if I didn’t like the result then chances are you wouldn’t either.” As soon as Lynda Marie let go of what she thought she needed to do and went with what the fascinator was trying to tell her, the piece came together quickly and easily.

Sometimes we have to get out of our own way, leave our expectations at the door, and let the hat or the book or the painting or the quilt (or whatever else we’re trying to create) tell us what it wants to be. Sometimes we have to let the muse have her way.

The results, inevitably, will always be far more beautiful than we could have imagined.

Hat (soon to be) In Hand

In six short weeks, Ms. Uptown Girl will be married. She’ll need a name change for my blog at that point since she’ll no longer be a Ms. or living uptown, but I digress.

In order for the wedding to proceed with any kind of class, I need a fascinator. Ms. Uptown is marrying into a British family (not that British family obviously) and the wearing of hats and fascinators for weddings, even a relatively simple 70 guest affair taking place outside beside the ocean, is something one does. The groom’s mother is wearing one, a number of her friends are wearing them too, and while I haven’t been told I must, it does seem a little, well, lacking in enthusiasm (if not taste) for the bride’s mother to turn up hatless.

And so I began to shop. Selection was thin to non-existent; I even struck out in the big city across the pond. There was nothing remotely suitable. I was either looking at hats big enough to power a small helicopter or pieces of lacy frippery designed more for a baby’s head than mine. Ordering on line was out of the question. I wanted to try it on for size and comfort, and it needed to work with whatever I ended up wearing. I was about to be hatless in Victoria.

Enter Lynda Marie: http://www.lyndamariemillinery.com/

The idea of having a fascinator made hadn’t occurred to me until I ordered my dress. When I mentioned then that I was looking for a fascinator and having some trouble finding one I liked, they pointed me in Lynda Marie’s direction.

She works out of her studio in Victoria where many of her creations are on display.

 

I quickly fell in love . . . with her style and with her enthusiasm. Shopping had never been so much fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

She told me about her training in England where she studied under a milliner to the Queen Mother . . . and then how she’d trained in New York where she honed an edgier, more contemporary style. I learned that hats are made from hat block forms or moulds . . . that fascinators are light, decorative headpieces usually made with feathers or flowers or beads  . . . and that those larger fascinators we saw on display at Harry and Meghan’s wedding are referred to in the trade as hatinators.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I learned that the sky is the proverbial limit in terms of color and style and all the fun, frippery bits that go along with it. As I write this, Lynda Marie is working her magic and creating something just for me. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with.

Check back because when she’s done and after the wedding, I’ll post a picture. I’m sure whatever she creates will be gorgeous! 

Overheard This Week

You’ve lost weight.

Thank you.

Word for word and overheard last weekend. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out who was speaking and in what context. I was in a dressing room desperately shopping for The Dress That Will Live Forever when a couple of women crowded into the changing cubicle next to me. Within seconds they were discussing their respective appearances; in particular, their weight.

If you think about it, you’ve lost weight is a statement, not a compliment. Yet if you’re like many women living on this blue planet, you’d probably take it as a compliment. A compliment, however, is an act of praise or admiration. In that context, the unsaid part of that exchange is that the woman being spoken to, the one who has apparently lost some weight, is being complimented because she’s more attractive now that she’s thinner (there’s a wealth of politics in that assumption but that’s another blog so I won’t go there).

Given the volume at which the two women were speaking, I can guarantee I wasn’t the only one who heard their exchange. And I’ll bet I wasn’t the only one relieved to have her naked jiggling flesh firmly behind closed cubicle doors where no well-intentioned friend might feel the need to comment on it.

You can never be too rich or too thin. It was the Duchess of Windsor who coined that famous phrase, and it’s an attitude that’s been, for many of us, absorbed into our psyches. Certainly if I wrote a scene with two women in a dressing room and I used those same words, even without context, most readers would jump to the same conclusion and take them as a compliment. They wouldn’t think anything of it.

But if I used the words you’ve lost weight in a scene set in a doctor’s office, or during a visit from a hospice nurse, and if I made my characters come alive in a way that demonstrated they weren’t obsessing about their appearance, hopefully the reader would draw a far different conclusion. A twenty pound weight loss to someone with a heart condition or diabetes could mean health instead of illness. A ten pound weight loss to a pregnant woman could portend trouble ahead. A mere five or even a three pound weight loss to someone who is terminal could mean their life is winding down. The response in a scene like that would probably go from a shallow thank you to a deeper what does that mean? Or even what do we do now?

My mother-in-law died in late March. Having been there while she slowly faded over a period of months, steadily losing weight and unable to swallow at the very end, the words you’ve lost weight came to have a significance beyond appearance to me. Bones need flesh to cover them; without it, we suffer tremendously. Trust me on that. Of course I’m still happier keeping my naked jiggling flesh behind closed cubicle doors. Except now when I catch sight of those jiggling bits in the mirror I’m not so quick to judge. I look at all that padding . . . padding that protects my bones and makes my life comfortable . . . padding that’s a testament to the fact that I carried two brilliant children for nine months (and enjoyed a few too many pieces of carrot cake in the process) and I say a silent thank you. You’ve lost weight means something quite different to me now . . . and that’s not such a bad thing.

What If?

Many years ago, when I was feeling overwhelmed with responsibilities and uncertain about what writing project to tackle next, a good friend asked me a very simple question.

What if you didn’t have to worry about (insert concern of the day here)? Back then I’m guessing I was concerned about family responsibilities and/or generating income. She repeated her question. What if you didn’t have that on your plate? What if you had unlimited options? What would you choose to do next?

What if is a particularly potent phrase, especially when it’s combined with the kingdom of possibility. What if you weren’t afraid? What if you could write whatever you wanted and know it would sell? What if you had the money/had the support/weren’t concerned about potential humiliation/had a sitter/lost that last ten pounds/looked into that trip?

What if can lead us out of our heads and take us to our hearts. It’s a good phrase to ponder, especially at the start of a new year. Choice, as Carolyn Myss says, is the most powerful thing we have going for us. If you’re interested and can spare 25 minutes, she has a terrific YouTube video on this very thing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-KysuBl2m_w    It’s worth watching.

And the Final Question

What are the three things that trigger your creativity? That was the final question posed by Susan Wiggs at her writing workshop a few weeks ago.

Of all the questions she asked, that one was by far the easiest for me to answer. In fact, so many things trigger my creativity I found it hard to keep it to only three. But when I really stopped to think about it, a number of my creative triggers fall into the same category.

Nature.

I didn’t see the connection initially. Only later when I read my list did I realize how much inspiration I get from being outside. These were the creative triggers I noted down that fell into the same category: walking on the beach; hiking through the park; cycling into the country; planting, digging and playing in my garden. All of those things give my thinking brain a rest and let my creative side come alive.

Travel feeds my creativity too. Circumstances have been such over the last few years that most of my travel has been the armchair variety, but you’d be surprised by how much inspiration you can get from watching a great travel documentary, visiting an ethnic restaurant or reading travel literature.

That brings me to my final creative trigger: books. In my world, reading is not only a source of information but it’s also something I do for pleasure, for escape, for relaxation and for the sheer joy of it. A good book (and, yes, even a bad book) fires my imagination and fuels my creativity long after I’ve read the last page.

What fuels your creativity?

 

The Essentials

Last week’s blog about writing gurus was sparked by a Susan Wiggs talk I attended a few weeks ago. As I mentioned in that post, Wiggs had some questions for the audience. Question one revolved around our writing gurus. Her second question was this: What are your three essential writing tools?

I don’t need much. In fact, it would be pretty accurate to say all I need is either a notebook and a pen or some kind of word processor. That’s it. I’m a minimalist at heart. Less is more in my world.

Given the choice, however, I do like a nice pen. Black ink over blue, a rollerball over a ball point and it needs to feel good in my hand. I can’t quantify that; it either fits well or it doesn’t. It’s like pants. Some look great on the rack but you never really know whether they’ll work until you try them on.

I also like a notebook with pockets. Once I get rolling on a book I tend to make notes or collect pictures, bits of trivia, anything that might contribute something, however small, to the work in progress. Having a single place to keep everything saves me searching through piles of stuff later on.

Last but not least (and the hardest to come by) is quiet. I love quiet for first drafts especially. I’m not one of those writers who produces well in a coffee shop. I don’t want people peering over my shoulder, talking to friends, playing music. I like to create in isolation. Unfortunately, Team Sheltie doesn’t do quiet all that often. Neither does the band that moved in next door. They practise a lot. A LOT. During the day. When I like to write. If they don’t stop soon, I may be adding another essential to this list: a pair of headphones.

What essential tools do you need for your creative work, writing or otherwise?