Sunday, December 26, 2010

On Creativity (or Lack of It) and the Common Cold

Your throat thickens and then becomes scatchy, your nose begins to drip, your eyes water. You suck a zinc lozenge and sip a hot honey-lemon, hoping to stave it off. But then the cough comes. A mucousy cough that makes you want to constantly clear your throat. You heard somewhere that was bad for you, but you can’t help it. At night you sleep half propped up to allow your lungs to drain (or so you think), and the unnatural posture throws your back out. Your cough is now dry and unproductive. Sometimes you hack so much you can hardly catch your breath. You’re grateful that your stomach feels okay, but you have no interest in doing much. You struggle through a few hours of work, your eyes blurry. In the middle of the afternoon you give yourself permission to take a nap. When you finally feel well enough to emerge into public a few days later, you hear tales of other people’s illnesses. Two weeks. Three weeks. (You consider yourself lucky—you are only on day 8. But later you become hoarse and the cough worsens.) It seems everyone has had it. A powerful germ, this one. Welcome to the common winter cold.

Maybe it was the convergence with the holidays and all the other demands on my time, but this cold really knocked the creative stuffing out of me. I couldn’t bring myself to do anything but stare vacantly at the TV. As someone who doesn’t get sick very often, I am not a patient patient. I felt guilty that I wasn’t using my time productively, especially as I wasn’t going out in the evening. But you can’t force the muse. I haven’t always been a mush brain when I’m ill. I remember a week during my the final month of my senior year of high school when I had some mysterious ailment involving lots of sneezing (it turned out to be a new allergy). I spent my time out in the sunny garden on a lounge chair writing poetry—not something I’d done before or have done since in quite the same way. I remember another time when, despite a bad cough, I produced pages of a novel . Unfortunately, when you’re self-employed, especially with a home-based office, those delicious absences from work, like snow days from school, just don’t happen. I still spent my requisite number of hours at my desk, with little to show for them.

Maybe it’s an end-of-year malady. The creative juices have been depleted and need to be topped up like washer fluid in one’s car. Or recharged like a battery, or completely replaced. Out with the old. Start anew come January 1st, all healthy with a fresh resolve, a sparkling set of goals and a whole year in which to meet them.

There are still a few days left to 2010. A few days in which the phone is unlikely to ring very much. The holidays are behind me now—no more shopping or card preparation, no more guests or visits to friends. TV is all reruns, and I don’t need anything from the winter sales. I am well now. There are no more excuses. The month is still redeemable. I just need to sit in front of the screen, reread what I last wrote, and re-enter that world I’ve created and inhabited in my mind’s eye for so long. It’s not such a big step once I leap across my mental chasm. When I am there, I know I will be hooked again, and that is a good feeling. So, readers, this will be my final post for 2010. I have attained my goal of two a month for this year. Now I need to plunge into my out-of-control fictional world of 1963. Wish me luck!

And happy new year to you (2011, not 1964...)

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.