Monday, December 13, 2010

On Mosaics as an Antidote to Writing

The chilly and sometimes damp days of early winter attract me to colors, textures, and shapes rather than words, characters, and plots. I spent the last two weeks putting together my annual photo card, a manual task that can be completed in front of the television: open pac kages of Strathmore creative cards with deckle edges, stamp the inside with a dove and the word “Peace,” place four photo mounts in the corner of each photo, remove backing of mounts, gently place on the center of the front of the card, label with name, date, and place; then address and affix correct postage to envelope, write a few cheery words, seal up with a wet sponge applicator, choose and apply decorative labels to keep envelope shut. 140 times.

It requires little in the way of intellectual input—occasionally I have to locate an errant address by emailing someone or write a longer message to people with whom I’ve had no contact in the last year. My holiday photo cards are small artworks of which I am proud, and people seem to like them. Months and sometimes years later, I find them still propped up on friends’ mantles; a few have framed them. A concrete legacy of my time on this planet.

It’s easy for me to feel inadquate when I write. In contrast, when I create something visual, I am much less critical of myself. My process is more spontaneous, less deliberate, more childlike, I suppose. The product of an artist mother, I’ve dabbled in numerous arts and crafts over the years in addition to photography (the most ongoing on my artistic pursuits)—watercolor, bookbinding, printmaking, pottery, batik, Chinese brush painting, collage to name a few. The latest is mosaics. Texture, color, shapes, and only a few rules (keep the spaces between your pieces small, put contrasting colors next to each other to make them pop, let the glue dry for 24 hours before you grout). The results are so satisfying.

As with writing, I start with an idea. The idea can be a visual image or a feeling I want to invoke (such as being at the seaside), or it can come from the material itself (such as a piece of pottery). I confess that as a writer, I don’t always plan out my writing. Sometimes, depending on the length of the piece, I see where my characters take me. But with novels, it’s difficult to do that and not end up with a mess.

For me, the mosaic emerges. I don’t draw what I want in advance. I sort through a box of pieces or look at the shelf of colors and choose those that appeal to me. I locate or cut pieces to fit together, like a puzzle, except that I am the creator of the puzzle. I don’t know how it will turn out until it’s done. Getting those last pieces into place can be a fiddly but a doable challenge with limited options. Another surprise in mosaics is what happens when you grout your work. A dark grout creates a completely different look than a light grout.

But here is what I really like about mosaics as compared to writing. You know you’re finished when you wipe off that last glob of stray grout and polish it up a bit. It can’t be altered (I suppose it could, but who would want to?) You either like it or you don’t. How many times have you read over something that you were satisfied with yesterday only to feel that it’s all wrong today? Or one of your writing partners makes a comment, and you see that something you thought was okay is not working. So it’s back to the computer for another revision. Only in publishing--that elusive holy grail--can you feel that the writing is finished.

And even better as far as I’m concerned is the abbreviated time commitment. I can take a satisfying photo in a few seconds, or complete a small mosaic in a few hours. Even a flash fiction takes longer than that. So, to keep my sanity as a writer, to feel like I am not on an endless treadmill, to see the fruits of my labor, I’ll continue to find my antidote in the visual arts. And if you are a friend of mine, I’m not likely to write you a story, but I might send you the results of one of my latest creative detours.

So why bother writing? That, my friends, is a topic for another musing.

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