I'm finishing a book about a young artist who loves horses. She discovers her possibilities with the help of her art and these glorious animals. Just as art and horses empowered me.
Spring in Florida makes me long for a horse, endless trails and country roads shaded by moss-covered oaks. It's been a long time since I've had a horse and I don't live in the country anymore. I live in a city surrounded by ocean. These last few weeks, shut in the house to escape a disease, I've stood in my small backyard and longed to ride away. It's not that I'm unhappy with my life. I'm very happy. But on a horse, you can lose yourself in the natural world.
I had my first horse when I was fifteen. On weekends, we traveled for hours through central Florida orange groves, over blossom-scented hills and along wooded pathways. Later, when I was a young adult, I took a job on a show horse farm. My heart caught fire. I couldn't learn fast enough all I didn't know about horses and horsemanship. I lived and breathed horses, talked horses at every meal, dreamed of nothing but horses. That summer job between college semesters became a two decade career in training horses and teaching people to ride. I eventually returned to school and earned a fine art degree. I used it to paint portraits of horses and their people.
These days, I'm cloistered indoors with the rest of the world, afraid to breathe other people's air, afraid to touch anything outside my house. As I sit here, staring out the window at this fine Spring day, I finish the edits on my book and remember. I may be far from a stable and shaded trails, but inside my mind, I hear and smell horses.
Summer is a time to embrace the outdoors and growing things. I love hanging out with plants. There's so much color and texture in a garden and fascinating paths to explore, from the tiny trail of ants to stepping stones that lead to gates and doors. And everywhere you look, there's a vivid picture or story. I can't go into my yard without seeing a void that needs a spot of color, tall, linear plant or a twisting pathway. When it came time to paint our house, I asked the blooming plants what color they'd like. They picked a medium blue with green tint. Now, my calla lilies, allamandas and Hawaiian Tis are preening and strutting in front of the walls, and the house seems happy with the color. Treating my home and garden as a work of art isn't something I think about, it just instinctively happens.
I'm not alone. Many creative minds apply fertile imaginations to their environment. Frida Khalo's home demanded attention just as she did. Called La Casa Azul after the vivid blue color on her walls, her garden complimented the color, or vice versa. Maybe she consulted her plants before she chose that hue. I know she loved them. In self-portraits, blooms from her garden crowned her hair. The New York Botanical Gardens was so fascinated with Frida's planting skills, in 2015 they recreated her home and garden (see above).
Beatrix Potter was fascinated with plants, fungi and wildlife and she drew them in exquisite detail. From that love, Peter Rabbit sprang to life. Beatrix was a farmer and a conservationist and she created more than one stunning garden.
Many writers escape to their gardens to work. Dylan Thomas penned his poems from this shed overlooking the Taf estuary in Wales. Roahl Dahl admired this shed so much, he recreated it in his garden.
Someday, I hope to add a writing shed to my garden. In the meantime, I'll keep asking my plants what they'd they'd like next.
The Blue House by Peter Andersen / CC BY-SA
Hill Top, Near Sawrey by diamond geezer / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Dylan Thomas Writing Shed by wardyboy400 / CC BY 2.0
No kidding. Yeah, the word has a rigid appearance. If it could speak, it would sound snooty and authoritative, and I doubt it's on anyone's favorite words' list. But it's a tool successful artists and writers count on to get their work done.
When I was younger, I believed creativity happened when the muse struck. Like one glorious, spring day, you wake with an idea and an urge that can't be denied, and the work pours from you in an inspired frenzy. I didn't seriously wait for spring, but I did create based on urges.
Then I started painting portraits for a living. Deadlines loomed. Payment depended on me producing portraits and the more I produced, the more I got paid. So, I learned to work, every day, three hours in the morning, three in the afternoon. Six hours a day is the magic formula for me.
Every artist and writer is different. Author Gary Schmidt writes five hundred words a day, then he stops, no matter how excited he is by the story. Some people are most productive before dawn, some late at night. Some need music, others silence. What's important is finding what works for you and making it a habit.
The only way to do that is by honoring your creative time. Put it at the top of your list and guard it fiercely. Don't let other bits of life shove it aside. I know, I know, that's hard to do. Friends are calling and texting and there's always something fun happening. But when your optimum creative window approaches, hide your phone, your iPad, your laptop. Lock yourself in a room with just you and your art.
Paint. Write. Even if you're not inspired. It won't be brilliant every day and some days you'll think it's trash. But everything you produce is worth the effort. Every jot leads to the next jot. Award-winning artists and writers don't always love what they do or what they create, but they keep showing up at their desks and easels. Because they know a day will come when what they produce makes them smile from the inside out. Those are the days we live for.
I love learning. School learning, book learning, workshops, hand-me-down knowledge, if you're teaching something I'm passionate about, the loading dock in my brain is eager to receive it. Studying craft is vitally important to developing my art and no matter how accomplished I get, I never want to stop growing.
But all that learning can interfere with the creative process, especially if you're a perfectionist like me. When the voices in your head won't let you write a sentence without nagging . . .
Do you really need that adjective?
Shouldn't there be a comma there?
You're using the word just again?
When you doubt the book before the first draft of the first chapter is written . . .
Hasn't this story already been penned by someone who did it brilliantly?
My version will never live up to theirs.
When messages about syntax, character arcs and pacing interfere with the creative stream, it's time to pack all that learning in a box and shove it behind a locked door in your brain.
I've been reading books on writing by James Scott Bell (yes, yes, more learning). He talks about the single most powerful element in good fiction being the joy the writer brings to telling the story. That jolted my artistic heart. I thought about all the books I love, about how from the first word, I feel I'm sitting with a powerful storyteller. Their joy in writing that tale sings from the pages.
After reading Bell's words, memories rose of getting so lost while drawing or painting, the world around me disappeared and I'd lose track of time. The first couple years of writing, my stories came like that. Creativity erupted whenever a quiet moment occurred and was stoppered only long enough to take care of life. Then I learned HOW TO WRITE and HOW MUCH I DIDN'T KNOW. All that learning slowly smothered my creativity.
So my one and only new year's resolution is to rediscover the joy in my art. It's not easy shutting out lessons once you've learned them. But I'm hoping to do that and if you're feeling stifled, I encourage you to do the same. You can invite those critical voices back when you finish the first draft. They'll be more than happy to help you polish and shine. That's the best part about learning, it's there when you need it.
LikeWise began in January of this year, as a search for online venues that connect teen artists, writers and readers with like-minded souls. For my final post of 2015, I'm reviewing what I found.
The most impressive sites were created by fans of authors John Green and J.K Rowling. Nerdfighters and The Harry Potter Alliance connect readers like never before. They've built a legion of reader activists who use their love of story to fuel positive changes, like sending a plane load of supplies to hurricane survivors, forcing corporate giants to practice fair trade, and battling ogres who threaten net neutrality. The Nerdfighters site offers seemingly endless opportunities to connect with all creative types. And The Harry Potter Alliance continues to reach out to the reader community. Next March, they'll present The Granger Leadership Academy, where teams will help attendees develop hero skills. So readers, if you haven't checked them out, what are you waiting for?
Sites for writers and visual artists are harder to find. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is by far the most notable. It offers young novelists support and a discussion forum. Since the focus is on penning an entire novel in November, I'm not sure how long the connections and support last beyond that month. But it's certainly a place to meet teen writers and those relationships could grow beyond the event. For artists, The Art Assignment is a a fun, interactive project hosted by John Green's wife, Sarah. Guest artists present challenges and creative fans post their results on YouTube. It's ongoing, so you can participate when time allows and when it doesn't, pop in to keep up with the projects of your new online friends.
In August, I presented a Plethora of Artistic Links, including contests and opportunities to submit writing and art for publication. When I couldn't find more venues for artists and writers to connect, I drifted toward sites for creative minds: The Maker Movement, inventors, young and old, using technology to fabricate wondrous things; Imagination Foundation, collaborators who create with cardboard, and TED, the place to view and hear people with big ideas. They're fascinating places that feed the mind and fuel creativity.
To be sure, I'm not the most experienced researcher, or the most patient. While fantastic websites may have escaped my feeble fingers, I was thrilled to find an abundance of regional programs, many of them offered through libraries and museums. Nothing beats physical connections. What's important is finding people you trust to share your work with. Whether it's in person or online, I wish you rewarding relationships in 2016.
This time of year life seems to speed up. There are so many scribbles on the calendar, it's hard to keep track, and 2016 urges our brains to charge ahead. Between festivities, gift-giving and gatherings, we creatives struggle to balance work and play.
If you have a project due, like a book publishers are waiting on, you're probably huddled in a hidey hole, curtains drawn, ears stuffed with cotton and a towel crammed under the door to drown out holiday music and the smell of baking cookies. You finish a day's worth of edits and crawl out of your cave, then dress for the party you wouldn't dare miss, if only your head wasn't filled with plot. But as your significant other shows off his eye-popping Christmas sweater, your brain sneaks back to story. And there it is, the perfect twist for that boring scene you couldn't figure out! Your fingers itch to type. You can't wait to get home to your computer. But
. . . you glance at your beloved, now singing off-key carols with friends and family.
They laugh and roll their eyes at your unfocused look. But they get it. They understand the creative process commandeers our brains, and they love us anyway. So you stay at the party. Life is not all about art, even when there are deadlines. And tomorrow, bright and early, it's you and the cave and the book.
If you DON'T have a publisher breathing over your shoulder, set your work aside and enjoy the holidays. Creativity needs down time. It's fueled by the life we engage in, including manic shopping with strangers wearing bells and blinking sweaters, and making a mess of your kitchen with people you love. January 2nd, when the confetti is swept aside and a new year stretches before us, we'll pull up our story files, set a canvas on the easel and create.
Whatever holiday you celebrate, focus on love. It flows more freely this time of year, so open your heart, give and receive, store the good feelings to fuel your next year.
In author Terry Pratchett's Disc World series, dragons are real, as long as people believe in them. The stronger the belief, the more magnificent the dragon. In the series' first book, The Color of Magic, the main character is high above the ground, escaping on someone else's imagined dragon when he realizes doubting the dragon's existence could mean a long fall to the ground.
An article I wrote called Never Stop Believing was recently published in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Bulletin magazine. It was about perseverance and fighting doubt in your work. I don't think I've ever met an artist or writer who hasn't faced doubt. For some, it's a constant companion. Writers experience it when their first drafts are criticized by peers, their polished work rejected by agents and editors, and their published work picked on by negative reviewers.
Yet, we keep on creating. It's who we are. Art grows inside of us and begs to be fulfilled. So we write our stories and craft our artworks and we try to believe they're worthy. That's where the dragons come in. I love the idea of a mighty beast as metaphor for our belief. The stronger our faith in our work, the more powerful the dragon. And it isn't just about our work, it's about believing in who we are, right now, no matter what we look like or what we've accomplished or how we compare to others. If we don't believe in ourselves, we cripple our abilities and potential.
Imagine you're nestled behind a dragon's wings, flying high over your town. You've just finished your latest art or story and it's good, maybe better than good. You can't wait to show it to others. Some love it and some don't. You downplay the praise and focus on the criticism. Your dragon starts to fade and you're falling fast towards the ground.
If we rely on others to confirm our art is worthy, we abandon the creative spirit inside of us. That spirit needs our faith to keep it flying high. So envision your dragon and feed it often. Grow it into something powerful and beautiful, just like you.
Rejection. I do not like that word. It's right up there with Voldemort and Scrooge. Okay, so it doesn't shoot killing spells at baby wizards or sneer at starving orphans, but it does break our hearts.
You spend hours perfecting your story or painting. Family and friends applaud your brilliance. Your teachers say it's ready to send out in the world. You submit it to a contest, publisher or art director and as you wait for their response, you try, yes you do, to keep hope from building in your heart. But it's there. That dream of hearing your work has been selected, it's won the prize.
When it doesn't, it's hard not to feel defeated.
Every time we submit our art to others for review, we face rejection. There can be only one winner. Maybe there are awards for second best and almost good enough. Everyone else is left wondering what the judges thought of their work. It's so easy to go straight from wondering if they liked it at all to thinking they hated it.
Don't give the Scroogey thoughts in your head a voice. They lead to a slippery slope of doubting your work and your ability. Writers and artists have a natural urge to create. Unfortunately, it doesn't come with ego armor. We have to build that bit by bit, and we have to strengthen it often. Like Harry, Ron and Hermione, practice your shielding spells.
Every book I write, is created with the hope that someday it will be published. That means submitting each and every one to the publishing world and facing rejection.
Here's the thing about publishers: they're people, just like you and me, with different tastes. Some will throw my books in slush piles without a second glance. Some will like them, but not enough. Hopefully, one will love them enough to publish. Unless you hide your art in a closet, it will be viewed and judged by people, and not everyone will love it. I think that's a good thing. I don't want to live in a Voldemort world where everyone likes only Voldemort books and art.
There's room in this world for all kinds of art. Yours will find the people who love it. Keep growing through critical feedback, embrace positive reviews and believe in your work. Don't let rejection defeat you.
Summer's almost over. Is that groaning I hear? No more sleeping in or freedom to plan your days. But heading back to school isn't all bad. There's shopping for new gear and clothes, reconnecting with friends you haven't seen since June, making new friends, feeding your brain and sharing your creative passion. In my county, school starts next Tuesday. You have one last week to hit the beaches, malls and movies with friends before your minds are called to greater challenges.
Picturing the school year ahead, I focused today's LikeWise on a plethora of links. Plethora. Sorry, I love saying some words, even if it's just in my head. You can check the links out all at once or peek at them whenever you feel the urge.
First up is Study.com's 40 Best Websites for Teen Writers. This is an awesome list, including communities and courses (some of them free), grammar and reference, creativity boosters and publishing advice.
For inspiration, visit The Academy of Achievement's Arts Page. You can match your personality with the world's most respected achievers, watch podcasts and browse a list of recommended books.
Teen Ink's Art and Photography Resource Page offers art, photography and museums links. Their site also features links for:
And a General Resource Page. Besides art, photography and writing sites, you'll find environment, reference materials, volunteer opportunities and a fantastic summer camp and courses list, so you can daydream about next summer.
Finally, here's a list of teen blogs for artists, writers and readers:
The Metropolitan Museum of Arts Teen Blog
The Whit Blog from The Whitney Museum
Contemporary Austin's Teen Blog
YA Author's Cafe
The YA Blogosphere, a directory of YA book related blogs.
Enjoy the last days of summer! And it's okay to admit you're a tiny bit excited about going back to school.
I've been thinking a lot lately about art. Not any one art, all art, and how one creative process inspires another. When I studied painting in college, students were urged to explore mediums and other arts: dance, music, theater. Artists collaborate all the time. Theater and dance productions call for artists to do make-up, costume and set design, as well as actors and dancers. Musicians make choreographed videos and help create album covers. Visual artists stage events, using music, performance and video to express their concepts.
But writing is different. Unless, you're writing a picture book or graphic novel, your writing will most likely be represented by words on a page. Yes, an artist will create a cover, but authors aren't majorly involved in that process. I've been a visual artist all my life. Does that sound weird? It's true. I believe I was born with the urge to make marks on paper that expressed what I couldn't say in words. My writing grew from that art. My paintings were always telling stories. Just look at Toto. He's sick of following Dorothy through OZ. He's grabbed the ruby slipper and he's headed toward a tropical paradise with the wicked witch in pursuit.
For me, I think every work of art begins with a story. Seven years ago, a series of drawings begged to be a book and I've been writing ever since. Even though I don't illustrate my stories (mostly because young adult novels aren't usually illustrated), I visualize them. And I wonder, besides standard illustrations and creating imagery with words, how can I use my visual art skills in my books?
Other artists have asked that question too. I'm in awe of author/illustrator Brian Selznick who produces cinematic experiences with image and text in books like The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck. And David Weisner, whose images are so powerful, he needs no words to tell picture book stories like Flotsam. At this stage in my life, I'm most interested in creating pictures with words. But I'm glad the artist in me asks questions that prompt my brain to think outside the box of traditional storytelling.
I hope the questions inspire you to unlock the gates in your brain. Pollinate your chosen passion with other art.
I write middle grade and young adult books with a magical twist. I'm represented by the fabulous Leslie Zampetti of Dunham Lit.
Lorin Oberweger - Freelance Editor