Art-making is an ever-evolving journey. You wouldn’t start teaching child to paint by giving them the finest oils or talking about technique or comparing and contrasting Picasso’s Blue Period with his Surrealism Period. You would start with the basics: finger, meet paint; paint, meet paper. (No, not wall! Paper!) But as artists delve deeper and deeper into their craft, they will need different tools and have different questions than they did at first.
After receiving the standard education in writing, I began exploring ideas of structure and formatting. Then, querying and publishing. Then refining technique and trying new genres and wordsmithery. I still work on all those things, but now I also have more philosophical questions about what it means to be a writer, what purpose and responsibilities I feel I have, how I can use my stories for good without being trite or preachy or pandering. As my questions have changed, so have the paths I’ve taken in search of the answers. These are some of the tools I have picked up on recent expeditions.
Like Stories of Old
I have many reasons to sing the praises of K. M. Weiland’s Helping Writers Become Authors podcast, but the latest is that she has introduced listeners like me to the Like Stories of Old YouTube channel. The narrator of LSOO combines analyses of stories, books, and movies with philosophies about life in general, so that each informs the other. I feel like his videos make me a more thoughtful person and a more thoughtful writer.
I very much enjoyed his Stories vs. Reality series, where he took the famous Hero’s Journey and compared and contrasted it with an everyday person’s life. And his series on The Lord of the Rings was particularly thought-provoking and even moving. I appreciate his in-depth insights, as well as the reading recommendations I get from the sources he cites. Bonus: his (Dutch?) voice and accent are quite pleasant. If you like philosophy and want your writing to reflect certain values or larger truths or just tap into the power of the stories that have endured, I can’t recommend this channel enough.
The Artist’s Way
Many a writer friend has raved about The Artist’s Way, so I finally got myself a copy of the book. I suppose you could consider it a sort of self-help book for writers and all kinds of artists, really. We tend to get in our own way as much as anything else does, so this book is aimed at unblocking your creative energy through a combination of exercises and playful exploration. The primary tools used are “morning pages”—three pages of longhand stream-of-consciousness blathering, like a journal that no one need ever see—and weekly artist “dates,” where you hie yourself to wherever draws your fancy for a couple of hours: museums, gardens and parks, a beautiful building, a concert, etc.; whatever stimulates you.
We’ve begun re-remodeling our kitchen (long story), so I’m only in the first week of the book, but I’m already finding how much my playful side feeds my creativity. One cannot draw water from an empty well or fish from an unstocked pond, so we have to find ways to refill them. By loosening the reins a little, I’ve noticed a steadier flow of ideas, a stronger ability to problem-solve, and a deeper love for the craft in general.
One of the exercises involves pretending I have five lives to live to besides this one and making a list of what professions I would choose for each. Then I was to select one from the list and find ways to play at being it for the week. My chosen careers were Broadway star, linguist, scientist, detective, and politician. I went with detective, so I’ve been learning to collect, study, and compare fingerprints and am ordering a murder mystery puzzle to solve (not the cheesy dinner theatre kind) called Unsolved Case Files. It’s supposed to have realistic cold case materials. I’m very much looking forward to putting all that Forensic Files and CSI bingeing to good use.
Your work area should be conducive to your art. Painters and other visual artists may choose a space for its lighting. For some artists, all they need to create is a strong wifi signal and a place to rest their laptop. I’ve tried writing in cafes and such, and they can be very stimulating—sometimes too stimulating. I get distracted easily. I prefer a peaceful spot with natural colors and a few well-chosen odds and ends.
Settling into a work area takes time and effort, and even more so when it’s your home and you’re remodeling. And since we’re never not remodeling, my writing space has had many iterations over the years. Right now, my nook looks like this:
I’m currently in the land of Spare Oom, up against the window that looks out on my garden, greenhouse, and a finch feeder. Actually, the ugly trailer is in the way right now, but I’m happy enough knowing the plants are on the other side of it. On my new live-edge wood desk, I have my chicken day calendar, holographic BRAVE ornament (no longer in its protective cellophane wrapping, so very brave indeed!), and my beloved Calathea that likes to startle me with its nyctinastic leaf rustlings.
To my left, I have created my wall of adventure. It’s actually my sewing cabinet that I’ve stuck photos of my travels and achievements on. I like to remind myself that I am more adventurous than I sometimes feel, and these pictures are excellent confidence boosters. On the actual wall behind my laptop, I have similar tokens: my NaNoWriMo winner’s certificate, an Awkward Yeti comic that I would love to own a legit copy of (shhh, snitches get stitches), a bird painting I did to remind myself that art doesn’t have to be perfect to be fun, and my Junior Miss medallion (Hello, fellow Has Beens!) to remind me that once upon a time a panel of people thought I was smart and talented and had it together.
I think it’s important to surround yourself with these kinds of subliminal messages, in order to create a space that is inviting and inspiring. I want to shape colorful worlds, and, for me, that begins with a pleasant environment. Behind me may be house projects and chores calling for my attention, but I try to keep my back to them and block out their calls while I’m constructing worlds out of thin air.
This may sound silly, but I have a thinking penny. Well, a two-penny, technically. When we went to Europe last year (Ah, travel, how I miss thee!), we made a day trip to Bath, England, just for me. Being the hardcore Austen fan that I am, I wanted to see the place that she lived and that inspired so much of her work—and maybe see if her ghost still haunts a place or two. Of course, if you’re a real Jane fan, you’ll know that Jane’s ghost would not care to spend much time in Bath, as she was often unhappy in that city, but I was hoping she’d make an exception and meet me there, like the friend she’s been to me for so long.
I’m being cheeky, in truth, because I don’t really believe in ghosts; they may or may not exist, but I’ve never seen one that I know of. However, I was open to receiving any messages that Jane or the universe might care to send me in that historic city, through whatever medium she chose. I visited all her old hangs that were on the map I got from the Jane Austen Centre (you know it’s fancy because the r and the e are switched), as well as any locations mentioned in her books. I saw her various homes, the gardens she roamed, and even ate the famous Sally Lunn’s buns she complained of “disordering [her] stomach” by pigging out on.
I immensely enjoyed my time there, but was about to despair of receiving any otherworldly messages when I stumbled upon a twopence—or “tuppence,” as the chimney sweeps would have it—in the middle of the road. I decided to interpret it as Jane deigning to give me her literal two cents, though I’m sure she would never stoop to such lame punnery.
The coin had gotten scuffed from its time underfoot and under tyre, so that the edges are a bit ragged and the queen has a zombie-like appearance, but it has such a pleasantly rough texture that I like to turn it over in my fingers and rub my thumb across its surface while I mull over a writing issue or am brainstorming. I consider it a talisman of sorts, and it sits on my desk, watching over my work. Writing is such lonely labor that it is nice to think I have the best kind of company for it: the silent kind.
For all you artists, I hope these tips help you. But what about you? What’s inspiring you lately? Show me your workspaces! Tell me about your talismans! Share your ghost stories!