The Artist’s Way week 5: fasten your seat belts

Last week I blogged about doing the twelve-week course in  Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.  That was week 4: reading deprivation. This is week 5.

The topic

This week’s overall topic is barriers: self-sabotage/things you do to keep yourself stuck. Seriously working on week 5 results in a bumpy flight. (And why would you do the work of this course if you DIDN’T take it seriously? What a waste of time that would be.)

The tantrum

On Monday night around midnight, I was in the kitchen, tired and hungry and unable to sleep, making some hot milk with honey, and the honey bottle slipping out of my hand and knocking over the sugar bowl, which hit the floor and shattered.

Sugar is a lot like sand, on the floor.

I slammed the honey bottle down on the counter—WAY more angry than the situation required. The top to the bottle broke, something I did not realize until I tried to squeeze some honey into the hot milk and got about a cupful of honey to a half-cup of milk.

Honey is sticky, especially when it is everywhere.

What was strange about that situation was that I was angry at my inner artist. I blamed her for the broken sugar bowl, the spilled honey. I wasn’t just cursing myself for being careless; I blamed her.

What was THAT about? Was I just tired and frustrated? Was the artist grabbing for sweetness?  Whatever the motive, I’ve been calmer and more balanced since. Kinder.

The lesson

A task this week was to draw a cartoon that  illustrates “your favorite creative block.” Although I can’t draw, I drew a picture of someone standing next to a table on which was a cake. She was looking away from cake while reaching toward it. The caption was “I want this. No I don’t.”

Halfway effort is waste of time. It leaves you both satisfied and unsatisfied. Better things ahead.

The Artist’s Way Week 4: Reading deprivation

For Christmas a friend gave me a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.  In a vague intuitive way,  I thought  “something good is about to come from this.” It has. It will.

I had the mistaken impression that The Artist’s Way was one of those feel-good books for creative types, to be read once in cozy circumstances and then relegated to a bookshelf, to be removed when you need to feel good again.

Not so. The Artist’s Way is a twelve-week course in recovering creativity and focus in daily life. It is intensive. It brings up hidden things. Julia Cameron also links creativity to spirituality (a nonnegotiable point for her), and any time you venture into that country with an open mind, you embark on an adventure around every corner of which may be something you did not expect.

The tasks vary from week to week. The primary task of week 4 is Reading Deprivation. That means to stop idle-time reading. Cameron might have meant to stop reading entirely, but on a practical level this was impossible, not to mention undesirable. So I set two conditions:

  1. Social media (Facebook, Twitter) 1X/day.
  2. No reading in the evening. AT ALL.

Wait—ONCE a day?

I was an early adopter of social media.  I’ve been using these sites in one iteration or another since the late 1990s. They are about connection. Also  they are about hiding out from work, about being bored with work, and about nothing more than habit.

Here’s what I learned: the number of times I used to check into Facebook was too many, but once a day is not enough. Not for me. I am spending a half hour there every morning rather than the usual 5-6 minutes. I miss half of what I would otherwise have seen and barely respond to anything because that half hour is agenda driven. It is not fun. It is like skimming through 8,000 emails to see if there is anything important.

When the purpose is connection, all kinds of things can be important, including trivia. Sometimes especially trivia.

So when the week is up, I’ll give myself 3X/day and see how that goes.

Not surfing the Internet to waste time (as opposed to doing research) turned out to be surprisingly easy. That does tell me how little the purposeless surfing added to my day. It did nothing, basically.

My oldest habit—broken

I always read in the evenings. Even before I learned to read, books were part of the night, because I was read to. Going cold turkey on this particular habit was a major change.

The first thing reading deprivation did was to produce a flurry of housecleaning. The place now has better-looking kitchen cabinets and a number of other improvements. I stopped short of rearranging office furniture, but I did do a lot of throwing out and sorting.

There was something of the “new broom” about this cleaning. Reading deprivation is a big enough deal that it felt like a harbinger of change.

I was halfway through a new book when reading deprivation week came around and have been looking at it wistfully. A purchase from Abebooks arrived yesterday and I did not open it.

I have rediscovered the music on my seven-year-old iPod. I went through a Gregorian chant phase a few years ago. That’s nice music to get sleepy to.

An odd discovery: when I look at photos in a catalog and do not read the accompanying text, the photos look different. Imagination provides the stories rather than the sales pitch I am not reading. It’s nice.

When I lived in Washington, DC, I bought a beautiful art book from the National Gallery on the 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. That was a fine thing to rediscover. Look at his paintings.

To waste time (I knew I’d find a way), I discovered an addictive little computer game called Balloon Pop. If you know someone whose organizational skills and productivity have always annoyed you, Balloon Pop will derail them. It is part of a sweet and charming animation called Circus. It costs two dollars, and you can give it as a gift.

Just saying . . .

Sequel in bloom

The sequel to my high-tech science fiction novel Cel & Anna is both fairly far along and overdue—how overdue makes me want to cry—and its tardiness is due to two things:

  • My failure to get up every day in the early morning and write, and my failure to spend every weekend writing, and my will to spend evenings away from the computer.
  • This story is exploding in every direction. It is blooming like a garden in a riot.

It doesn’t help that the sequel takes place in two locations: earthworld, that place with blood and bones and hardware, and networld, where a new race of beings called Infimi are being fruitful and multiplying.

Beltzhoover the Vast and others

In networld there is a creature called Beltzhoover the Vast, who presides over an empire. Naturally, when you think of a name like “Beltzhoover the Vast” you are bound to shoehorn him into the story. You can’t waste a  name like that.

A tribe of Infimi called The Dreadful Night are in the game. They have big mouths and dangerous intentions, and call humans “wetware.”

Inexplicable music in a house of ghosts

A character hears a tune on a soundbox that transports her to place of joy she has never known and does not understand. At the time, she is engaged in some ghost-busting for money, and is in a room full of people who hear the same tune but are unaffected by it. Then she is attacked, violently, by a ghost that wanted in on the extraordinary, inexplicable experience she had just had.

She has to keep her cool till she can get out of that house and go home.

“Great,” I said to my muse. “You want me to describe that?” My muse, which has the demeanor and attitude of Edward Gorey’s Osbick Bird, did not bother to answer.

My muse

Some other stuff

  • The hapless flight of newly unemployed Outsiders Lucky Lucheron and Trielia Nice-Rust, who wonder whether love can sustain them in spite of having very silly names.
  • The happy birth into unhappy circumstances of a baby girl named Shiloh.
  • And how it all shakes out at the end.

I lean on the words Neil Gaiman, a writer I admire:

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written.

The Zone: an update

In 2009 I tried writing about the Zone. This blog is another try.

The Zone is that place where the road is wide open, and all the lights are green. Time fades out and doubt disappears. Anyone wholly absorbed in a task can find themselves in the Zone.

Color of money

In the 1986 Martin Scorsese movie The Color of Money, Tom Cruise plays Vincent Lauria, a kid with a gift for playing pool. Paul Newman plays Fast Eddie Felson, who is trying to teach Vincent to be a pool hustler.

One night Vincent rebels against Fast Eddie’s lessons and starts playing the way he knows he can. For about 3 minutes, The Color of Money is about being in the Zone.

biogofstory

Shirley Jackson must have been in the Zone when she wrote The Lottery.

She conceived the story one spring morning while pushing her toddler daughter uphill in a stroller also laden with groceries. She was pregnant with her third child. After she put away the groceries and settled her daughter in the playpen, she started writing. By the time her oldest child came home from kindergarten, she had finished her masterpiece.

She describes the experience in “Biography of a Story”:

I found that it went quickly and easily, moving from beginning to end without pause. . . . The story I finally typed up and sent off to my agent the next day was almost word for word the original draft. This, as any writer of stories can tell you, is not a usual thing. All I know is that when I came to read the story over I felt strongly that I didn’t want to fuss with it. I didn’t think it was perfect, but I didn’t want to fuss with it.

Her agent didn’t like “The Lottery” but sold it to The New Yorker, which didn’t like it either but published it to a firestorm of controversy in 1948.

She often was asked how she came up with the stark, shocking plot. “It was a warm morning and the hill was steep,” she said unhelpfully.

As Jackson’s comment proves, the Zone can be hard to explain. For some reason, listening to John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change” helps me get to it while writing. No idea why.

The other day I heard “Wild Night” by Van Morrison: “Everything looks so complete / When you’re walking out on the street / And the wind will catch your feet / And send you flying.”

“Zone,” I thought.

When have you been working on something and found yourself in the Zone?

What movies, books, art, or music come to mind?

The circling muse

There are a lot of fascinating things about J.K. Rowling’s success story, but one of the most interesting is the weird case of Nancy Stouffer, who created a character called Larry Potter.

To be clear, I am certain that Rowling took nothing from her. Absolutely nothing. You can read about Stouffer’s unsuccessful attempt to prove she did at Wikipedia.

So what is interesting?

In 1984, Nancy Stouffer wrote two things: The Legend of Rah and the Muggles and Larry Potter and His Best Friend Lilly.Larry Potter is featured in a series of activity booklets for children. He wears glasses and has dark hair.  The Ande Publishing Company,  founded by Stouffer, published Legend of Rah booklets in 1986 but sold no copies. In 1987 the company went bankrupt.

In 1999 Stouffer decided she wanted a piece of the Potter pie. She did not get it.

There’s a theory about stories . . .

The theory is that stories exist out there somewhere. In the air, in the collective unconscious, whatever you want to call it. The stories choose you rather than the other way round.

I like this theory. It explains how I happened to write a science fiction novel involving a computer in love set in a semi-dystopian future in The Reunited States.

Even though:

  • I don’t read science fiction.
  • I don’t know anything special about computers.

Writers imagine their muses in different ways. Mine looks like Edward Gorey’s osbick bird and talks like Yoda. (“Write about the computers of the future, you will.”) It still is here, nagging me about the sequel.

So in the 1980s there was a muse out in the ether with a story involving a boy with spectacles and dark hair. The muse circled the world, osbick bird fashion, and lit on Nancy Stouffer. Stayed awhile and let her take a shot at telling the tale.

Then it evaluated the situation. Didn’t like what it saw. (“Larry Potter, not the right name is.”) It flew away.

In 1990, it found a young English woman stuck on a delayed train between Manchester and London. Later she would say: “I really don’t know where the idea came from. It started with Harry, then all these characters and situations came flooding into my head.”

The muse smiled

It was a beaky, subtle, entirely knowing smile, which meant “I’ve got you now.”

Quote of the week: Joyce Cary

“Certainly an artist has no right to complain of his fate. For he has great pleasures. To start new pictures. Even the worst artist that ever was, even a one-eyed mental deficient with the shakes in both hands who sets out to paint the chicken-house, can enjoy the first stroke. Can think, By God, look what I’ve done. A miracle. I have transformed a chunk of wood, canvas, etc., into a spiritual fact, an eternal beauty. . . .  The first stroke on a picture, or a back fence, must be one of the keenest pleasures open to mankind. It’s certainly the greatest that an artist can have. It’s also the only one. And it doesn’t last long—usually about five minutes.”

—Joyce Cary, The Horse’s Mouth, 1944

Adept

I’ve been working with computers longer than my nieces have, but they know more than I do and always will. They grew up with computers. I did not. And that makes all the difference.

I started with a little beige toaster called a Mac Plus. I  learned to use it  by trying things that didn’t work and continuing to try until something did work. There was a little game whose name I have forgotten that I played first thing every time I turned that Mac Plus on, because playing that game was the one thing I was sure I knew how to do.

But my learning stalled in work-related tasks. Today I am not adept at anything except getting Microsoft Word to lie down and roll over — a useful if unexciting area of excellence. I still try things over and over till  I get them right. I’ll spare you what I had to learn about POD and digital platforms.

Last week I watched my oldest niece idly turn four Paint drawings of Cel, the computer in CEL & ANNA, into a flash animation. Claire and Brynn showed me some portfolios belonging to graphic artists about their age. The drawings were arresting and beautiful, and most were created on a computer. The medium is natural to these young artists; they know how to use its strengths. They grew up with it.

Writers sometimes feel that stories choose them rather than the other way around. This is how I feel about CEL & ANNA. Why am I the one to tell this techno-fantasy, semi-nerdish future romance suspense yarn?

To get an answer, I have to go back to the freshening times when that Mac Plus was my guide to a new country. The world was about to change forever and everyone knew it. So maybe it is not so strange that I imagined a future world again about to change forever—because of a computer.

The story is ready to leave me now. I have the feeling this is what it really will do. Claire and Brynn came up with idea after idea about how to promote my novel once it is published. They didn’t have to think about this question. They knew.

The Zone

The Zone is that place where the road is wide open, and all the lights are green. Time fades out and doubt disappears. Anyone wholly absorbed in a task can find themselves in the Zone.

TCM 2008

In 2008 a “design/animation/live-acting team” called Fresh Paint created a promotion for Turner Classic Movies called 31 Days of Oscar. It has the look and feel of the Zone. The web site notes that when the Oscar promotion was a finalist in the One Show Design competition, it received “thunderous applause at every screening.”

Fresh Paint reprised the promotion in 2009, using a different montage. You can see both versions on YouTube: 2008 and 2009.

Color of money The Zone gets respect from Martin Scorsese in his 1986 movie The Color of Money with Tom Cruise and Paul Newman.

Tom Cruise plays Vincent Lauria, a kid with a gift for playing pool. Paul Newman plays Fast Eddie Felson, an old pool hustler trying to turn Vincent into a young pool hustler. One night Vincent rebels against Fast Eddie’s lessons and starts playing the way he knows he can. For about 3 minutes, The Color of Money is about being in the Zone.

On the soundtrack is Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London,” which is weird but right.

I went to YouTube and found it: first search, first hit. “This is my favorite scene from the movie,” wrote the person who uploaded it in 2008.

The scene is better with the movie wrapped around it, but it works on its own.

biogofstory

Shirley Jackson must have been in the Zone when she wrote The Lottery.

She conceived the story one spring morning while pushing her toddler daughter uphill in a stroller also laden with groceries. She was pregnant with her third child. After she put away the groceries and settled her daughter in the playpen, she started writing. By the time her oldest child came home from kindergarten, she had finished her masterpiece.

She describes the experience in “Biography of a Story”:

“I found that it went quickly and easily, moving from beginning to end without pause. . . . The story I finally typed up and sent off to my agent the next day was almost word for word the original draft. This, as any writer of stories can tell you, is not a usual thing. All I know is that when I came to read the story over I felt strongly that I didn’t want to fuss with it. I didn’t think it was perfect, but I didn’t want to fuss with it.”

Her agent didn’t like “The Lottery” but sold it to The New Yorker, which didn’t like it either but published it to a firestorm of controversy in 1948.

She often was asked how she came up with the stark, shocking plot. “It was a warm morning and the hill was steep,” she said unhelpfully.

I’ve written in the Zone; also baked bread. What about you?

A splendid teacher: Brenda Ueland

gold3

The day was October gorgeous. In the Dollar Tree the radio was playing Pat Benetar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot.” Sugar Camp Road had a cathedral look from the gold trees. So I decided to blog about If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence, and Spirit.

“For many years I had a large class of people at the Minneapolis YWCA. I think I was a splendid teacher and so did they.”

—Brenda Ueland, Preface to the Second Edition, 1982

I don’t know what those YWMC students expected before the first class, but I doubt it was Brenda Ueland. Some of her students went on to publish, some didn’t. But it is easy to imagine all of them being changed forever by the woman who talked about the creative impulse inside every person, a force that comes from God. And then taught them how Ueland2to use it.

Writers: this book will make you happy. It is a drink of cold, clear water from a deep well.

With every sentence you write, you have learned something. It has done you good. It has stretched your understanding. I know that. Even if I knew for certain that I would never have anything published again, and would never make another cent from it, I would still keep on writing.

Does the message sound too idealistic? Too unworldly? Think of this: Brenda Ueland published three books (the other two are ME and Strength to Your Sword Arm) and many articles and short stories, did incalculable good as a teacher, and died at age 93, full of years and vigorously engaged to the end. Seventy-one years after its original publication in 1938, If You Want to Write is still in print.

Publisher is Graywolf Press.