What does a writer blog about in a pandemic? I've seen lots of blogs about how to carry on with writing, how to keep mentally healthy and forgive yourself for not being as productive. We're all feeling lost and off balance. Writers and artists might have some advantage. We're used to isolation. Most of us need it to create. But we also need stimulation and support.
I miss critiquing manuscripts over coffee and muffins with my writing partners. This week we'll Skype for the first time and critique online with our coffee at our desks. Can you imagine enduring the plagues of the past when there was no internet? We're the first generations to experience a worldwide epidemic and stay connected. It's a test of the internet's scope and of our tolerance for digital contact.
The term social distancing is kind of indicative of internet relationships. We can see and hear each other, but we can't touch. What will we be when we emerge from this pandemic? Will we be leery of showing our physical self to the world? Will we be shy of standing too close, of daring to touch another? Will hugs feel scary instead of comforting?
I'm a major introvert, so in some ways this isolation is a relief. I don't have to work up the courage to present myself to the public. I don't have to worry about my schedule becoming too crowded and have to talk myself out of panic. I don't have to make excuses when I'm too overwhelmed to accept an invitation. But I worry about total isolation becoming too comfortable. I treasure the relationships I have. I don't want to lose the comfort I've worked hard to feel when I'm with the people in my life. So this week when I Skype with my group, I'm going to strive to come to the meeting with the self I'd bring in person. And I'm going to keep imagining the day when we once again gather.
I hope you are all well and finding meaningful ways to connect.
Book reviews are helpful to writers and readers. I've been a lazy reviewer in the past, so in an effort to become a more consistent reviewer, I'm hoping to post one a month.
Today, I'm featuring VINCENT AND THEO, THE VAN GOGH BROTHERS by Deborah Heiligman. It won ALA's Excellence in Fiction and Printz honor awards for 2018 and I can see why. Besides books on writing craft, I don't read a lot of nonfiction. But the artist in me couldn't resist this book.
It's thick (409 pages), but the chapters are short and mesmerizing and their complimented by Van Gogh's sketches and paintings. It's clear from the start, this author immersed herself in the life of these brothers. The biography is based on the enormous volume of letters Theo and Vincent exchanged. It's a tragic story, but also one of hope and endurance. Vincent's mental illness is portrayed with honesty and sensitivity, as is Theo's poor health from syphillis. Vincent's devotion to his art and the brothers' devotion to each other transcended the tragedy in their lives. When you finish this book, you'll want to set it down gently and find a quiet space to let it settle in your soul.
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
twinkiesNative Floridians aren't easily distracted by nature. We grow up with a variety of amphibians and reptiles, including alligators, over 12,000 insect species and forty-four snake species. We learn early on to leave gators be. Don't feed them, for crying out loud, unless you want them knocking on your door and looking at your fingers as if they're Twinkies! We know which snakes and bugs are poisonous and we learn to get along with them all. It's their planet, too, and they'll likely be here long after we're gone. I'm always surprised at newcomers who are disgusted by lizards. I think they're cute.
We're used to hot, humid weather that melts ice cubes before they've had a chance to chill your drink. Daily thunder storms with booming lightning don't stop Floridians from going about their business. When I was a little girl, we invited the family to our house during hurricanes. The kids played games. I don't remember what the adults did but it seemed everyone had a good time and the next day, we picked up and moved on.
Writers are a lot like Floridians. We don't let much distract us from our work. Even when we stop typing, we're figuring out story in our heads. We do it while driving, doing chores, waiting in lines and sometimes when we're supposed to be listening to the person next to us. Work isn't nine to five for us and storytelling isn't just a job, it's a mission.
Two weeks ago a storm called Irma headed to Florida with her eye set on Tampa Bay. I imagine every writer in the state stopped writing like I did, to watch that storm on the news. It was a monster, wider than the state, chewing up the islands below us and leaving devastation behind. Now that I'm grown, I take hurricanes seriously. And from the sounds of it, so do most Floridians, including the children's writing community. Thousands listened to the dire warnings and evacuated. The people who stayed behind searched for a safe place to ride out the storm.
We boarded our windows and doors, filled our cars with gas and our cupboards with canned food and water. Neighbors helped neighbors and wished each other well before heading inside to sit awake all night, listening to Irma batter our houses. On Facebook, the children's writing community lit up with offers of help and thoughts for everyone's safety. After Irma passed, Floridians cleaned up downed trees and smashed fences. They sweated in houses that no longer had electricity. Some faced destroyed homes and a long road back to normal.
The writers in my group struggled to drag their thoughts back to their stories. A statewide series of workshops was postponed and a contest deadline extended. But we will recover, and we won't have to do it alone. The children's writing community supports its members. Lin Oliver and Stephen Mooser of The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators have offered to cover the costs of everyone (everyone!) wanting to attend the postponed workshops. The workshops have already been rescheduled, and I'm busy working on my contest entry. Writers, like Floridians, expect hardships and challenges. We're not going to let a storm, no matter how fierce, keep us from our art.
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.
This year, I'm focusing LikeWise posts on opportunities for teen artists, writers and readers to showcase their talents. I'm starting with The Scholastic Art and Writing Scholarships. Established in 1923, it gives senior high students access to over $3.5 million in scholarships from local institutions and $10,000 individual scholarships at the national level. Silver medal awardees can earn $1000, and selected works will be featured in the National Catalog and The Best Teen Writing anthology.
Students from grade 7 through 12 can apply for awards in twenty-two diverse categories, from comic art and sculpture to flash fiction and novel writing. Anyone enrolled in a North American educational system can apply, including home schoolers and those attending American or Canadian schools abroad. Students are encouraged to explore topics freely. No work will be excluded because of content.
Contest deadlines vary by region and there's a handy form to determine your deadline on the website. When I typed in my zip code, it said the deadline in my area for the 2016 awards was December of last year. But the contest for 2017 opens for everyone in September. That gives you plenty of time to dream up a new project or polish one you've already created. In the meantime, check out previous winners on their website and get inspired on their blog. And if that's not enough to stoke your artistic fire, check out this video of the 2015 award ceremony. Wow, oh, wow. They really know how to honor.
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 month, I'm taking a break from LikeWise because my brain's a tad overextended. Since it's the season of thanking and giving, I hope you have much to be thankful for. And here's my giving advice: never obsess over what you don't have to give. Instead, focus on what you do have, including yourself and your talents.
To make up for this brief post, here's a festive video:
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.
I write middle grade and young adult books with a magical twist, and I'm represented by the fabulous Leslie Zampetti at Open Book Literary.
Lorin Oberweger - Freelance Editor