When Too Much . . .

. . . is . . . well . . . too much.

In writing, there’s such a thing as going too far, or overwriting. In her book Steering the Craft, esteemed author Ursula K. Le Guin says it’s important to “slow down and leave enough white space around the words and silence around the voice.” What you leave out in those pauses, she believes, is infinitely more important than what you leave in.  And yet, there’s a balance. Leave out too much and your reader won’t understand what’s going on. Cram in too many details, particularly in action scenes, and the pace falters. The rhythm, the speed, will be off.

Visual artists know this well. White space, whether that’s literal white space around an image or the grout that fills the gaps in a mosaic, is a key principle in design and applied arts. White space separates and highlights other elements. It allows the mind to rest and reflect, to absorb the message or the image. On the other hand, there are times when words or an artistic medium like paint are overused precisely because that’s the effect the creator is going for (the recent official portrait of King Charles 111 and his big red controversy comes to mind).

Overdoing has been on my mind a lot lately. The first draft of my current WIP is overwritten (as is my tendency in a first draft), the herb bed in the garden is overplanted (I love too many plants; what can I say?) and now my poor back is suffering because I’ve overdone it on a number of levels. My back warned me, but I kept pushing through and didn’t listen. I went too far.

Now, though, too much has been . . . too much.  I’ve been forced to slow down, to pay attention to my body . . . to rest and reflect and to relearn the lesson that life, just like art, also requires some balance. I think Ursula K. Le Guin would approve.

Happy May

                                               

Today is May 1st, also known as May Day. In many places around the world, it’s also International Workers’ Day … a time to celebrate and recognize the contributions of the working class. In some places, in fact, today is a national public holiday.

The ancient Celts celebrated May Day too. They called it Beltane and considered it the most important day of the year. It was celebrated with bonfires, Maypole dancing and feasting, and culminated in the crowning of a May queen.  They also considered it the beginning of summer because in the Northern Hemisphere May 1st falls halfway between our Spring equinox and the June solstice.

It’s not quite summer yet, but the tulips are in bloom, the lilacs are about to open and the garden is waking up from its winter slumber. And that’s something to celebrate. Happy May!

My April Reads

A change is as good as a rest, or at least that’s how the saying goes. I hope there’s some truth to it! We’re on the mainland babysitting our four-year-old grandson and rest is hard to come by. He’s not one for sleeping, and his inquisitive nature is in gear before dawn. That first morning, when he nudged me awake at 5:30 am and I replied that it was ‘too early,’ he snuggled in beside me and tried to engage. “What does too early even mean?” That led to a discussion (one sided) about how I squish my eyes tight in the morning “even like Mama.” So, there’s very little rest to be had, but there’s lots time for laughs and cuddles, crazy bath time routines and books. And here’s what I’m reading this month.

Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae & Guy Parker-Rees

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

Abroad in Japan by Chris Broad

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

Books read to date in 2024: 22

Revise, Revisit, Redo

Celestial events are on my mind lately, influenced at least in part by this week’s solar eclipse. We didn’t see it here but some of my friends and relatives back east had a spectacular view. Even people who don’t normally follow these kinds of things seemed to be talking about it.

Some gardeners believe eclipses, moon phases and other activities in the heavens can impact our plants and gardens. The Farmer’s Almanac even provides information to help gardeners follow celestial rhythms. But gardeners aren’t the only ones who take their cues from gazing skyward. Many of the writers I know do too, particularly when it comes to the planet Mercury.

Mercury, in case you didn’t know, is the closest planet to the sun and the fastest one in our solar system. It rules communication of all kinds, as well as publishing and everything related to that industry. It rules other things too (technology, including computers, and travel being two of the biggies). Three times a year Mercury appears to move retrograde or go backwards for about three weeks at a time. When that happens, lifestyle stories sometimes pop up in the news or on social media feeds warning that Mercury is about to play havoc with communication, travel plans or our computers. And it’s true, if you follow the patterns, that there are more Mercury-related glitches during a retrograde period. But writers love it when Mercury is retrograde because it’s the perfect time to revisit manuscripts and refresh them. In fact, it’s the perfect time to do anything that starts with the prefix ‘re.’ And Mercury is retrograde right now.

Ironically, until the solar eclipse, I’d been too busy to notice. We have five yards of fish compost in our driveway waiting to be spread on the garden beds we’re revamping. I have a manuscript sitting on my desk needing to be reassessed and revised. There’s recycling that needs to be dropped at the depot. An orchid that needs to be repotted. All of these things are calling to me because in a few days we’re heading to the mainland to revisit family and friends and I’d like them done – or well underway in the case of the manuscript – before we go. The eclipse made me take a step back and look to the heavens. That’s when I realized I’m caught up in a number of Mercury retrograde activities. Does that mean I’m in the celestial flow? I hope so.  I’ll report back in a few weeks. When Mercury goes direct.  

What Would You Do . . .

                                          

. . . if you were guaranteed a positive reaction to your effort or decision?  Follow me down the rabbit hole (after all, it is nearly Easter).

I was talking to a friend recently about our mutual realization that we probably worry a bit too much about what others think. We didn’t go deep into the why of it; we were intent on enjoying our lunch. Instead, we briefly shared how this trait shows up in our respective lives. Curiously, we didn’t touch on how (or if) it impacts our creativity, though we both pursue creative work.

A few days later, I told a different friend, this one a talented visual artist, that I wanted to create a mosaic with our house numbers . . . something I could put on a large rock for the end of our driveway. I’ve had the idea in mind for over a year. We live on a cul de sac and the house numbers are not sequential or in any way logical. The numbers we have on our house are often overlooked by delivery folks. We need something with more presence at the street. I could get a rock engraved, but I wanted something different. Something with a little more color and interest.  Something personal.

I’m not a visual artist. I’ve made a couple of mosaics in my life, with guidance, and I had so much fun doing them! And while I’m happy with the mosaics I made, I’m under no illusion that they demonstrate any great artistic or design skill. Still, I love that I was able to create something visual like that myself. Why not do something similar on a rock?  I wondered. Especially since I already have a decent-sized rock waiting to be used.

I started thinking about the shape of the rock in question . . . I considered colors . . . I began to cast around for design ideas.

That’s when it hit me: the end of our driveway. Our driveway.  And instead of feeling filled with anticipation and joy, I felt a tiny jolt of horror.

The rock, or, more specifically, the mosaic, would be on full display for everyone to see. Not everyone would like it. Some people might even point out its flaws, for flaws it would certainly have.

I’d stepped right back into worrying what other people would think.  

Mr. Petrol Head can relate. After twenty+ years of sporadically working to restore a 1959 Sunbeam Alpine, his restoration is nearly complete. So much so that he’s finally taking it to a couple of British car shows this summer. Everyone who comes loves cars, so he’s sure to get a lot of positive feedback. But he’s likely to get some ‘constructive’ feedback too. “It’s not 100%,” he admits. “And someone is bound to notice.”

Regardless, he’s taking a risk and putting himself out there. Instead of asking himself what he would do if he was guaranteed only a positive reaction to his efforts, he’s asking himself the only question that counts: what is he so excited to do that it doesn’t really matter what kind of reaction he gets?

I admire his attitude. The question is, can I embrace it? Only time, or more specifically the rock, will tell.

Small Things

                                                             

I met a writer friend for coffee last week. She had a pacing issue with her manuscript and wanted to talk. She’d lifted out a key scene to use as a prologue and she didn’t know how to deal with the narrative gap she’d created. I hadn’t read her novel (and she wasn’t asking me to), but she felt somewhat overwhelmed with, as she described it, her conundrum. I listened, I asked a few questions and after a few minutes, I made one small suggestion. And by small, I mean small. Yet that seemingly small suggestion prompted an idea in her mind that led to the workings of a solution.

Small things can have big consequences, life-changing ones. Just ask someone who missed a plane on 9-11. . . or someone whose loved one didn’t.

We don’t always know the consequences of the decisions we make either. I’ll never forget the two women I overheard one morning in a coffee shop dissecting the previous night’s date. Apparently, she had a terrific time; the guy in question was intelligent, charming and attractive. But as she told her friend, “I just can’t get over the size of his nostrils.”  Small things, nostrils, though apparently not so in this case.

Small things can spin our lives in directions we don’t expect (I wonder what would have happened if that woman had gone on a second date?) and small things can take our art in new directions too.

It’s the big markers we usually think about when it comes to our art – getting a book published or going on an author tour; selling a painting or having a show. Those things are important milestones and definitely worth celebrating. Even finishing a book or a painting or sculpture is a big deal. No question.

Yet it’s the small, seemingly insignificant steps that get us to those big finish lines. Motivational author Julia Cameron believes that work begets work and that “large changes occur in tiny increments.”

All the more reason to celebrate the small things. And perhaps even embrace them. Especially when it comes to nostrils.

My October Reads

                                    

The world outside my window is misty today. The rain is falling, the wind is up, and the autumn leaves are swirling. The garden is nearly put to bed for the winter, though the hardier leeks and chard and kale are still in the ground promising us some good eating ahead. Inside, the fire kicks on more often in the mornings now, the manuscript revision calls, and there are plenty of books waiting to be read. Here’s what I’m enjoying this month:

The Starfish Sisters by Barbara O’Neal

Greenfeast: Autumn & Winter by Nigel Slater

The Little Book of Ikigai by Ken Mogi

Books read to date in 2023:  53

All In Good Time

                                                  

I’ve written here before about being a turtle instead of a hare when it comes to producing art. Go here if you missed that blog post.  https://lauralangston.com/get-your-turtle-on/

The idea that we don’t always get instant results came to mind again recently. On this date in 1501, Michelangelo started carving the statue David . . . and he finished it three years later. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, considered one of the greatest masterpieces of all time, took Michelangelo four years to paint (and speaking of churches, La Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona – one of Gaudi’s most famous works – has been under construction since 1882 and it’s still not finished).

 In my small corner of the world, I’m revising a novel I’ve been fiddling with for probably three years now. Some books come together quickly, but others don’t. I’m more accepting of that than I used to be. Maybe because I’ve been at this writing gig for decades. Maybe it’s life experience. More likely it’s a combination of both.

And as always, the garden (and nature generally) reminds me on a fairly regular basis that some things take time. For instance, I’m harvesting tomatoes right now. We have a glut of them and they’re especially sweet this year, especially fresh off the vine. But they’re also wonderful in other ways too.  I turned some into confit last week . . . it took about five hours in a very slow oven. While that was cooking, I filled the dehydrator with tomato slices. The process of getting them to sweet, dried rounds took a couple of days.  

All things in good time. Or, maybe that should read: time makes all things good.

Wild Magic

                                                          

Pure creativity is something better than necessity – it’s a gift – it’s the frosting. Our creativity is a wild and unexpected bonus from the universe.’  Elizabeth Gilbert

A few weeks ago, my neighbour emailed me a picture of the clematis blooming in her back garden. It normally produces purple flowers. But this year, and for no discernable reason, the vine is awash with pink and white striped blooms too.  It is, as Elizabeth Gilbert would say, a wild and unexpected bonus from the universe.

Around the same time my neighbour emailed me that picture, a writer friend emailed and said the ending she had in mind for her work in progress had taken a left turn. “The character took over and did something I never saw coming,” she said. “And the ending is so perfect it’s almost like magic.”

That’s pure creativity. Unpredictable, a little wild, and magical. It doesn’t matter whether we’re creating in the studio or at the keyboard, whether we’re in the garden or in the kitchen, there’s a kind of alchemy that happens if we listen to what we’re creating and let it have a say in what it wants to be. A touch of wild and wonderful magic that’s both humbling and awe-inspiring. And one that can bloom with beautiful results, just like my neighbour’s clematis.

Freedom to Rise

                                               

About three years ago we moved to a community with a high percentage of retirees. And even those people who haven’t retired talk excitedly about the day they’ll finish working and punching a clock.

The upside of an artistic life is having the freedom to set our own schedules. We are our own bosses. But distractions abound, those we create and those created by others, and those distractions can make it hard to maintain a creative routine. It’s taken me a few years of living here (and getting sidetracked more than I care to admit) to finally recognize that I do best with some structure in my life. That realization led me to think more carefully about structure – the role it plays in life and art, why we need it, and how we ignore it at our peril.

Structure is, by definition, something arranged in a specific pattern of organization. Its role is to contain or hold something so it’s not all over the place. Structure can act as a framework, or it can be an arrangement of parts, acting as a support or even protection.

A structure can be a skyscraper or a shed, our bodies, or a sentence. A rose needs the structure of a cane for support. Bread dough rises higher when it’s contained by the structure of a bowl or basket. Novels depend on structure to tell a story. A visual artist depends on the structure of the canvas to hold her medium. And many psychologists tell us that humans, particularly children, need structure and routine. While acknowledging that holidays and regular breaks are important for our health, they say a significant lack of structure on an ongoing basis can lead us to feel uncertain and unbalanced, even out of control.

That’s certainly been true for me.

Before we moved, my weekdays were fairly structured. I wrote every day, with the occasional Friday afternoon off. In gardening season, I’d write three or four days a week so I could get the garden in. I’d book weekday errands or appointments for my lunch hour so I could get back to my desk afterwards. While I wasn’t the most prolific writer, I was consistent and productive.

Moving to a small town 45 minutes from a hub city changed everything. I now needed several hours, sometimes half a day, if I had to drive in for weekday appointments. And though I made a few new friends who were creative types themselves and understood my need to protect my time, not everyone was accepting. Organized activities where I could network and meet new people frequently took place on weekdays. So, because I wanted to make connections, I made allowances. I found myself accommodating others and making appointments during prime writing time. My calendar began to fill with commitments. My routine was torpedoed. I began to feel unsettled. Uneasy. And I was disappointed, mostly in myself. Why, I wondered, couldn’t I juggle as well as I once did? I’d fit my writing around the schedules, activities, and demands of the kid for years and I loved having that flexibility. Why wasn’t it working for me now?

Because, I realized, the kids had something of a schedule – the school year – and I followed it. Now I was surrounded by people who had no structure to their days at all and were loving it.  I was trying to follow suit because I wanted to connect and make new friends but my writing was suffering. I was suffering.

The truth is I crave and need structure. It’s how I’m wired. Just as a bowl provides the support for bread dough to develop and rise, having structure in my own life gives my creativity the support it needs to expand, grow, and flourish. Structure helps me stay focused. It gives my life balance and that, in turn, makes me calm and happy.

So, while the people around me might love the fact that they’re no longer punching a clock, I’m going back to punching one. But it will be a clock of my own making. One that blocks off three (four if I’m lucky) writing days a week, and leaves the other two days free for family, friends and fun. And the occasional run into the city for a pesky appointment.  

Wish me luck.