Artisitic Process

Running In Traffic

Do you ever see those kids on the median of a parkway trying to beat the traffic and make it to the other side? I always cringe and pray that they make it over without becoming road splat.

So, why, oh why, was that the image that came to me when I was trying to picture the experience of being hit by inspiration?

I'll back up a little.  I spent a good part of Friday morning talking with my son Michael who lives across the country. Good part in many senses of the word. We so often end up talking art and literature and we we talked for quite a while-- so yeah, a good part of the morning.

He's a musician and a song writer and a lyricist (among his many talents-- I know, I sound like his mother--but so what)  so we can discuss all kinds of English Major stuff that other people usually walk away from and find a football game to watch.  Naturally, we ended up on the topic of 'where do some of these ideas, words, music come from'?  We agree that it is a grace, a gift, a visitation if I may be so bold, and it is wonderful.  Some get big doses of this transmission---Mozart, Shakespeare and Willy Nelson come to mind-- but for a more humble recipient of the occasional glimpses of grace that I receive---I am grateful.  It is why we keep doing this.  Even if our craft never sees publication or more than a little audience, it is still good.  Sacraments are the outward sign of God's grace, so I was taught in first grade (thank you, Sr Mary Norbert) so in the small 's' use of sacraments, these moments are sacramental.

Michael and I talked about both the gift end of receiving the grace and the showing up end--that is, you generally have to show up to work in some sense (though not always--that's the nature of gift) to receive those flashes, those sounds, those words and phrase that flow through your fingertips.

And that is where the picture of a kid trying to cross traffic popped to mind.  But in this analogy, messy though it is, you hope to get hit--not by a car--but by a slam of words, music, lyrics, art.

Which raises a question.  If I am noticing the kid on the median, then somehow he was 'lucky' enough to make it from the other side of the road safely.  Hmm,  that could fall into another category, not so good, as tempting angels.  Got to think about that.  Later.

Frankie's Back

I was in need of a new wireless keyboard.  So, hubby and I visited the local tech stores and set about evaluating the right fit.  The right fit for Frankie's back, that is. Frankie is my puppy.  Well, he's three years old, but he is my puppy.  He started out as my dog, because he was a tiny little thing.  My husband wanted a real dog.  But I wanted a substitiue baby. We were empty-nesters and I wasn't ready for a completely empty nest.

I became Frankie's mother when he was a wee three and a half pound ball of blonde fluff.  He attached himself to my motherly heart when I first held him.  I mean, he rested his cute little head over my beating heart and he had me.  I was in love.  Now this was the first time I had fallen in love with a puppy.  We had had other dogs in the family over the years but they really belonged to the boys.  I was a caretaker, not their mother, or mommy, which is what I am to Frankie.

Silly, huh.  I used to think so.  But love changes everything now doesnt it?

Full disclosure: I have no resistance to cute. Each of my kids figured that out when they were toddlers. Look cute and Mom will melt.  Not the best parenting technique, but they all turned out to be loving and kind adults, so I suppose it's not the worst parenting technique.  And cute, they are all still cute.

Anyway, back to Frankie's back.  In the first weeks of Frankie I had taken on the habit of holding him a lot.  A whole lot.  So, when I sat down to work at my desk, I picked Frankie up and placed him on my lap.  I had already gotten in the habit of working with my feet up on the desk, wireless keyboard in lap, and back tilted in an oh so dilettante way that no one would suspect I was working.  This was not the first time I held a baby while writing.  When Katie was little and I was in grad school, she would attach herself, legs around my waist and arms around my neck and I would write terms papers reaching around her little body while attempting to pull off a scholarly bluff. Precedent. I already told you, I have no resistance to cute.

Frankie grew.  From three and a half pounds to somewhere near 17 pounds.  He's still little, given that he is half Dachshund and half small poodle.  He still fits nicely in my lap, but the keyboard has to fit on his back and balance comfortably for both of us.

Hence, the quest.  We purchased a lovely solar powered model yesterday.  When I tried it out this morning, it did not fit properly on Frankie's back.  Kept slipping. So, return and exchange register here we come.

Later that day: a keyboard that fits Frankie's back and my lap, feet up on the desk.

Now back to the novel I've been coaxing out of the ether.  Frankie, are you ready to work?


Cave Days

I'm kinda liking hibernation. I've got my feet up on my desk, keyboard in lap, soup simmering on the stove and a fresh cup of coffee at hand.

It's day four of being confined to the house because of an ice storm in Texas.  The rest of the country has been covered in feet of snow, but so far we have escaped the wrath of winter with only a slick covering of ice and now a fresh falling of powdery white to cover and keep the streets frozen. Still, Texas is pretty much closed for business. My son in Boston doesn't want to hear about not being able to drive on the ice.  He keeps shoveling the white stuff onto piles that are taller than he is, and standing on corners waiting for buses while the wind chills him to several degrees below zero.

But here I am, in the comfort of my home. All meetings and appointments have been canceled, my pipes haven't burst, there's food in the 'fridge and the heat is on.

And, I have the luxury of chewing on a quote. I offer a paraphrase:  the process of writing is like giving birth to yourself, to that person we were born to be, to the one whose destiny is encoded in our soul, our diamon, our genius. (Steven Pressfield, via Clayton Lutz, on Glimmer Train Bulletin .)

When someone writes about destiny, encoded on our souls, discovering the person you were meant to be, they've got me.  Maybe it's because I read so many fairy tales and heroic journeys in my life, maybe because I've studied and taught scripture, maybe it's just the person I was born to be, but I am a sucker for soul talk.

Spending time with the soul quote, the words 'gather and sift' kept bobbing in my brain.  All of life experiences count. They all matter. But it is in the sifting of these experiences that reveal who we are, our strengths and weakness, our love and character.

Gather and sift. We live in the wet and sticky, dry and crackly, freezes and heats of life. We live in thee meadows and sunshine and the babbling brooks of life. We gather and sift. We discover who we are when we are stripped down to our essentials. Gold in the fire, burn away the dross. Comforts removed, independence gone, dignity redefined, we are who our life has shown us to be, we are the choices and habits and prayers that have built us, the generations preceding and the generations following.

These cave days have let me make some real progress with my novel.  No meetings, no driving and no place to be has let me drop down  a few levels into the story that I am trying to give birth to.

Meat and Potatoes

Pot Roast, anyone? Characters in my novel-in-progress have been hovering around the kitchen, the living room and the back yard for weeks now, waiting to eat Pot Roast. They've been lingering and thinking, but now it was time to eat. But I couldn’t seem to get them to the table. Well, finally, they can have their supper.

How did such a thing happen? Well, that’s what I’m writing about: the glimpses of the numinous we get to be part of in the creative arts.  Mine is quite a humble glimpse, but, I am thrilled by it.  Why?  Well, let me tell you.

I started this novel quite a while ago.  Started with a writing prompt in a seminar.  I don’t remember the prompt, but the picture it nudged into life has stayed with me for the last few years. I ‘saw’ a woman holding onto a Miraculous Medal. She is in pain.  She is angry, confused and her world vision has been turned inside out.

But that’s all I had.  I hadn’t yet learned what it was that upset her, what sent her into a deep well of darkness.  I had to discover that.  So over time, much time, since I am quite slow at this, my character Rose had to turn into a real person, albeit one that lives in my imagination and in the pages I have churned out.  But the truth is, she lives in this other place, this place I couldn’t just access by willing it. I had to ‘drop down’ into that place where writing happens. Then, I had to be let in.

Someone I know often said that a person with a pencil in his hand can make characters do and say anything the writer wants.  That may be true, to an extent.  But, it is only part of the story.

Talk to writers for a while and they may let you in on a secret: the best, most compelling writing comes not from the conscious, willful mind. The writing that delights the writer (and hopefully the reader) comes from something bigger than our own little controlling sensible logical day-time brain.  It is writing that surprises the writer.  It is the turn in the story or development of character and plot that has its own trajectory, its own secrets to reveal. It is the thin slice of gold that is the real reason writers face a blank page day after day, hoping, working, putting letters on a screen, in anticipation that we can get to the yellow brick road, even if only for a few steps.

When one of my characters needed a cigarette, he went to the back porch to light up.  It is raining.  Without warning, he steps into the rain. This impulsive act sets in motion a way to break the tension and allow dinner to proceed. I didn’t know he was going to do that. Actually, until the words showed up on the page by way of my fingertips I was struggling with what turn of events would progress the story. I was thinking too much. I was in my own way.

Remember the Nav’i in Avatar?  Those long pony tails were not just for show, they were the cord by which the large blue people connected with the horse like flying creatures, each other, and the tree of life that was at the center of their culture.  Connected, they were more than they were alone; they were one with the greater energy that is always present, but often ignored.

I had been trying to steer my novel in a certain way, like the man turned Nav’i in Avatar was trying to steer his ride.  Once he was connected, braid to braid, he was part of the process, not part of the resistance. He could move forward.

Now that my characters have had their dinner, I wonder what will happen to them next. Guess I’ll find out.

Dessert, anyone?


We are coming to the end of NaNoWriMo.  I'd surprise myself immensely if I manage the full 50,000 words by Monday midnight. The experience, though, has been fruitful if not completely successful.  I've gotten a few story starts, anecdotes, character filling out and understanding of what it is I am trying to say in my novel.  There are decisions to be made. Directions have to be chosen, because when you are writing about three generations there are too many distractions and side roads to wander and take you far away from the point, the point, that is, that you think you are trying to make. Since I usually write works that are shorter than a novel, much shorter, my learning curve has been steep. Here is one  fictional scene of what developed during my exercise of NaNo:

The side board in the dining room has rings. Concentric circles from sweated glasses left there, bare bottomed or through flimsy coasters that couldn’t do the job.

The rings have been polished over, but the lighter stain shows through years of benign neglect.

I kinda like them.

They conjure episodes of when life was simpler, for me, at least. On any given Saturday night in those days people would ‘drop over’. The men wore jackets and ties. The women wore dresses and spiky heels. The women all wore hose, of course, even in summer, except for the women who were ‘sporty’, the ones who smoked and dyed their hair and wore the kind of lipstick that left smudges on everything they came in contact with: napkins, glasses, cigarettes, cheeks. My mother wore stockings.

My parents always had a supply of rye, scotch, gin and beer on hand. And that awful Tom Collins mix.  The small bottles of ginger ale and the pretty maraschino cherries were forbidden to us. I really liked ginger ale, but we could only have it from the big bottles we got when we had bologna and Virginia ham and Wise potato chips for supper.

We’d sit at the top of the stairs, in our pajamas. The grownups would come in, loudly, laughing already, strong perfumes floating up the stairs, along with the smell of hairspray and cigarettes.  Dad had set up bar on the dining room table ready with pitchers of Manhattans, the makings of highballs and gin and tonics. Mom had cheese and crackers (I helped arrange them on the crystal dish before we had to scoot upstairs) and some cheesey puffs fresh from the oven that she made from directions on the side of the biscuit tube.  The maraschino cherries were in an etched dish with a tiny fork. There were green olives with pimentos in a divided dish, next to some pickle spears with little colored swords piercing them.

We’d hear the glasses clink with ice cubes and every so often a loud rise of laughter would follow one of the men who told a joke, I guess, that earned a lot of sloppy sshh’s from some of the women.  My sister would fall asleep right there on the landing on the pillow she brought from our room.  After she fell asleep I would wander down, wearing my best innocent I just woke up face, pretending to seek a glass of milk.

I was intercepted, as I had hoped, at the bottom of the stairs, by a woman with Lucy hair and an outline of poppy red lipstick on her mouth.  The cigarette she was balancing and the lip of the glass had stolen the rest of the color. She managed a long ash creeping almost to the cotton filter in the same hand in which she held a tumbler nearly empty of amber liquor. The cherry was still there, marinating in the watered down Manhattan.

When she bent down to give me a hug, calling me sweetie, and oh what a doll, she swept the fallen ash off the shoulder of my pink flannels. I was momentarily smothered in her ample cleavage popping over the v-neck of her tight dress.  Her perfume and cigarette made my eyes water.  It was not the perfume my mother used.  She speared the object of my real quest with a tiny green sword and presented it to me.  I slipped away with the rye soaked delight before she could hug me again.