Yesterday, Ana Raquel wrote, “I grew up in an environment that did not stimulate creative development. Nevertheless, in adolescence I was a prolific writer. But suddenly I stopped. I remember thinking that what I wrote wasn’t any good, and that I shouldn’t write any more. I put everything I wrote into the garbage. I don’t know why. Now ten years have passed and I haven’t written anything. What I find curious is that I still remember the pleasure the writing gave me, and being frequently in a state of …flow.’ I would like to recapture that same pleasure, the creativity that I had, and begin writing again. I don’t know exactly where to start and don’t have a clue if I’m on the right path. Any suggestions or advice?”
Thanks for that Ana. In order to rekindle your love and perhaps your proficiency you have to understand what went on. In your teenage innocence you wrote because it gave you joy. Then your restrictive environment kicked in and gave you the excuse to stop. You destroyed your stuff because your discipline was external. You must now internalize your discipline. Actually, this adolescent action-reaction is commonplace. While many flames are permanently snuffed, they need not be. Some folks figure it out and end up loving again. Here’s how they do it:
— Allocate a writing hour for every single day.
— Write whatever holds your interest or takes your fancy.
— If you can’t think of anything to write, write anyway.
— Work for no other reason than to give yourself joy.
— Bring in the wisdom of all your fallow or waste.
— In your spare time read the admired writing of others.
— Share your efforts only with a trusted friend.
— Look for the gleams of personal style and go there.
— When you think you’re getting it right, rewrite it.
— Allow yourself to fall in love with the process.
— Archive your work for your own benefit as you go.
Give this program some honest effort for a six week period. I’ll swear on half a dozen early editions of Webster’s Dictionary that you will find yourself again.
PS: “Success is nothing more than a few simple disciplines, practiced every day, while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day.” (Jim Rohn) “We find our freedom along the guiding lines of discipline.” (Yehudi Menuhin)
Esoterica: Substitute “paint” or “compose” for “write” in the list above. One list fits all. “Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.” (Truman Capote)
Still mine, good or bad
by Dana Dabagia, Michiana Shores, IN, USA
I too was stifled! I wrote constantly. In a freshman English class, my work was spoken of as not being my own. In other words, they thought I had copied it. I didn’t. I wrote with all of the heartfelt love that I had. I didn’t write again for 30 years. I now write poetry to express myself. I finally can speak with the maturity of an adult who is able to look back and say that although my writing may be questioned, it is still mine, good or bad, and others’ judgments don’t matter.
(RG note) Thank you to all who echoed Ana’s situation — especially those who wrote their way out of it.
Honoring the authentic “me”
by Rene Seigh, Huntsville, AL, USA
I was a writer and painter throughout high school, but ‘life happened’ and I quit for almost twenty years. Ten years ago, a friend introduced me to Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life. Natalie teaches ways to quiet our inner critic (‘monkey mind’) and provides writing exercises. I started journaling and writing for pleasure and discovered an important way for me to work on issues. Then, five years ago, my artist brother encouraged me to take a watercolor workshop with him. It was like going home again. I felt so complete that I wanted to cry. I still battle ‘monkey mind’, but I give myself permission to make bad art and enjoy the process. Sometimes I wonder where I might be if I had painted those twenty years. But I’m determined not to wonder that in another twenty years! By allowing my creative spirit to play, I honor the authentic ‘me’ and stay sane in the process.
Working with a trusted friend
by David Hardy, Birmingham, UK
Personally, I have always found painting and writing part of the same creative process. Generally, I see images in my head, and seem able to convert those either into paintings (which now includes digitally) or text. As a result I have now written 7 published non-fiction books (mainly on astronomy and allied subjects, such as optics, weather and energy) and last year, a novel. My latest art book, Futures, Fifty Years in Space with Sir Patrick Moore, also celebrates half a century of our working together as author/artist team.
More birds of a feather
by Jane Champagne, Southampton, ON, Canada
After literally years without feeling that rush of joy in painting, it came again during a two-week painting trip — with one other artist just as devoted to plein air as I am. We were free to go where we wanted, paint what we wanted, and when. I can vouch for the program list in today’s letter. No one can do all of that all at once all the time, and certain elements will trigger the muse for some, not for others. But it works.
Keeping the right company
by Mary Madsen
Ana needs to spend more time in the company of her own kind. Even though I once had successful careers in several different areas of writing, after just four years out of the game, it’s been necessary for me to go back to square one. I read biographies of writers (Steinbeck was so bad in the beginning he was kicked out of Stanford), read stories about their careers (James Lee Burke, considered a writer’s writer, couldn’t sell his first novel for nine years), and I go to any lecture by a writer or listen to their interviews. All writers have faced a struggle, and it helps to discover you’re not alone. An excellent source of archived author’s interviews is www.npr.org. She’ll find E.L. Doctorow‘s talk about the “Rhythm and Rhyme” of literature, and she’ll find John Irving‘s talk about how he has overcome his lack of talent by rewriting. Geesh, I should have such a lack of talent! If she has access to CNN-2, she can watch 48 hours of BookTV each weekend, or access some of their interviews on www.booktv.org.
by Mary Timme, Aurora, CO, USA
I find that many more talented than I don’t produce nearly the volume of work that I do. Sure, I can usually tell if what I’m doing is any good or not, but a lot of the time getting through ‘bad’ stuff is just what is needed to get to the good stuff. Plus, I’m stubborn — which I prefer to call “steadfast” — so I’ll keep at something when I know it isn’t good and think I may be able to resurrect parts of it. Never happens, but I do it anyway. Then I reach the wonderful place where I think, “Well, you got that out of your system. What can you learn from this experience and what would make it absolutely wonderful?” If I didn’t ask that question, I think it would all have been for naught. So much of what we do and see and think is through our private and individual filter of perception. It is the unwillingness to share ourselves that we cheat ourselves and the world.
Project’s a snap
by Sara Genn, New York City, NY, USA
I would add to your list that one’s work ought to centre round a “project.” Last week I met Joshua Benjamin Levine whose art is that he bought himself a digital elf on his 28th birthday to record the “flash before your eyes before you die.” He is consciously snapping his life away and archiving every photograph on a website. He started in 1999 and he’s still going. He had a curator choose 250 of them. They compiled a slide show for an exhibition. They are very snap-shotty with almost no narrative. He has a backpack with cameras all over it and 4 screens on his back — anyone who encounters him gets photographed based on where the cameras are (on a helmet on his head, on his back where the screens are). He calls his project “copyright 1972” — he was born in 1972.
(RG note) Josh Levine’s project is at www.copyright1972.com. For an insight into the regular writing habit built around a project, my daughter Sara is continually adding to “It’s the writing” in the Saraphina Mosey travelogue.
Link to the spirit of others
by Brian Knowles, CA, USA
For close to 60 years, I have been developing my skills as an artist. For some 35 years, I have been developing my skills as a writer. Now the skills are in place. I can draw on them any time I wish. But I don’t paint just to paint, or write just to write. I write and paint when I have something to say; otherwise I’m squandering words and brushstrokes. Words, as symbols for thoughts, are too precious to squander. Each brushstroke is precious, never to be repeated. The one big gift each artist gives to the world is his or her uniqueness. We are all existentially alone, yet we try to reach out to others through our art, our writing or our music. These things collectively are our “voice.” We’re saying, “I’m here, and here’s how I see the world.” If that resonates with others, we feel appreciated, and part of something larger than ourselves. Through our art we are linked to the spirits of others.
Computer file of “ramblings”
I write in addition to painting. I started writing because my daughter asked me to write about my life. I started a computer file called “ramblings” and wrote about anything I remembered at the time I was at the keyboard. I sort of arrange them in chronological order when I could remember dates. Since the title allows me to ramble, it is easy to sit down and just start with what I am thinking about, from earliest memories to current events.
Keeping a journal
by Niramon Prudtatorn Freese
I am a writer from Thailand with 3 books published. I now live in Canada. Since I came here seven years ago I stopped writing for a living but I picked up some brushes and paint instead. I am still writing a journal. In 1996 I start writing morning pages, 3 pages every day as advised in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It feels good to reread them. My advice to Ana Raquel is to write the present moment, describe what is in front of you, what you hear, feel in the senses, the taste in your mouth, the shapes, colors and texture of what you see. The thinking in your head and the feeling in your heart. If you have that moment you never run out of what to write about.
(RG note) Artists frequently mention the value of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. As you may have noticed we often underline and make hot the titles of recommended books. As a convenience to readers these hot items take you directly to the exact spot at Amazon.com where you may read further critical input and buy the book if you wish. Also, if we make the reference hot, you can bet it’s a treasured book in my library, too. The trouble with my library is that nobody ever lends me any shelves.
Valuable working education
by Isobel McCreight, Orillia, ON, Canada
When I was in the 10th grade of high school, my father told me I had to leave school. The very next day there was an announcement over the P.A. system, requesting students who would like to try out for an apprentice in commercial art at a local printing shop. I went there full of fear but knowing that I could do it. Seven guys and one girl tried out for it and the girl got it…me! I should have paid them for the experience. Everything I learned I am still using today. You learn the art you are doing has to be ready for the customer when he comes, not when you feel like doing it. The camera work, setting type, fonts, paste ups, learning lithography along with your art work that you proudly show your family in your first printed brochures. I am still doing artwork with desktop publishing, designing brochures and cards, along with my oil painting and the teaching of art.
by Ariane Goodwin, Millers Falls, MA, USA
There’s a critical key missing in Robert Genn’s list: reconnecting with your teenage self.
In 1995, my doctoral dissertation on adolescent creativity broke new ground by focusing on how teenagers defined creativity for themselves. (Most research is based on an adult’s proposed theory, the researcher’s, and then the research is done to back this theory up. I went the opposite route and asked 194 teens if they felt as if they were “highly creative.” You’d be in the minority if you guessed what percent responded with a “yes.” I based my intuitive, and later confirmed by research, hunches on Rothenberg’s research on highly creative adults who all cited the teen years as the beginning of whatever specific work they were doing as adults.)
What’s important for you to know is that creativity is intimately connected to identity development, one of the major tasks of adolescence. (This may seem obvious to the lay person, but academia still hasn’t caught up with my research. You won’t find this information in any books on adolescent development, even the ones 600 pages and longer.) As such, the foundational sparks of your creative being were, and still are, being held by your teenage self. Think of it in the same way you think of the “inner child,” for in truth, we embrace and enclose each of our developmental selves all the way up to — and some believe — beyond the grave.
I recommend that you try something called left-handed journaling (if you are right handed). Ask your inner teen a question with your right hand, switch the pen over to the left and let the left answer. The idea is that the dominant hand represents the dominant side of our personality, which often overrides the ignored though vital aspects of our whole self.
Think of this as a reunion with that part of yourself who cherished and nourished your creative fire. She will open a doorway you closed and take you into a magnificent garden.
1. You want to start out with the same gentle courtesy you would extend to a new acquaintance, or an old one you haven’t seen for a while, with those “how are you, what’s up” questions that can bridge to the deeper ones, like, “What was really going on when you trashed all that work?”
2. And, since the left handed writing tends to be quite awkward, I switch the pen back to my right hand and legibly print out a word above the scribble so I’ll remember it later.
3. Make sure you have quiet and uninterrupted time to do this.
4. Don’t try to do it all in one sitting. Create a practice. (For example, all through graduate school, before I wrote any papers on teen development, I connected with my inner teen for ideas and did it through left-handed journaling. I’m not sure how many people nail an A+ at the doctoral level, but with her help it became part of the scenery.) Reunion with neglected parts of our self is the deep nourishment of the soul.
Values of higher learning
by Norma Laming, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
I am disappointed at the generally negative view of studying art in further education. Yes you can go to a log cabin and hole up, but you may find that you just stew. Remember that even Van Gogh studied for years in art classes and, judging by the standard of his early drawings, he certainly needed to. He was also hugely aware of the art world and what other artists were doing.
Yes I suppose one could hole up somewhere, turn out piles of stuff and come out the better for it (though you don’t need to go off to the backwoods with a log cabin to do that) but you could just as easily get cabin fever. It seems to me that most artists we admire, whoever they are and whenever they lived, have laboured in the foothills and learned their trade, been challenged by deadlines, ideas they disagreed with, projects they didn’t want to do and generally absorbed the creative around them. In a log cabin, one day may seem the same as the next and who is going to push you? Inertia, entropy, depression… we do not all function best in splendid isolation and mankind is a social animal. It has taken me a long time to realise that inspiration comes not from, say, reproducing a pretty view but in abstracting something which is special to me. Once I realised that… I remember the shock of excitement when I realised the vibrancy of my local inner city motorway, criss-crossed with high rise blocks! But it took me ages to get there and how wonderful if I could have been helped on the way a bit sooner.
For myself, I am hoping to study for a foundation degree and then a bachelor’s degree part time, even if it’s just a way of helping me (by making me) carve time out of a job I have never liked that takes up every bit of time there is. The college will have to be local so I will not be able to choose where I go with the same freedom as if I were a youngster starting out; I am already mid-40s. However, I do know that I want to be pushed, challenged and required and assisted to develop discipline as an artist and to find my own style. Perhaps I could do that on my own but frankly I doubt it and why turn my back on the help I can get? At worst I will get studio space and exposure to loads of ideas and challenges, at best I will develop a life as an artist, raise my game and tap into what is going on, creatively. May I suggest that it is too easy to become repetitive, to turn in on oneself and to become a hobbyist. Sure, I may not like what I hear and see at college and from what I have come across that’s highly likely, but that might be a good thing, no?
Path of the independent artist
by Joan Bazzel, Franklin, NC, USA
I’m no stranger to “art schools,” but I truly believe that either you have an artist’s heart… or you don’t. Art making is not something that can be taught. Art appreciation can be taught, design concepts can be taught, color co-ordination can be taught, the proper way to hold a brush or various other tips and techniques can be taught, but the grasp of pure creativity cannot be taught. One must feel it, see it, breathe it, be it …you cannot buy it from a school. In our current culture of higher education, which is big business, the status quo seems to be leaning in the direction of accepting “paper” before product. I heard on NPR today about a retirement plan for artists concocted by an amalgam of curators, critics, collectors and educators, which would enlist artists (with paper) whom these 4 entities deemed worthy. This plan would require the chosen artists to supply work to be held/sold for future disbursement of funds upon the artist’s retirement — at 60%-40%, the latter sum going to the artist. Hmmmmm, says who?
Independence has always made institutions nervous. It’s self-defeating for universities to applaud the independent artist when their talent proves that higher education in “art” is unnecessary. So the universities busily attack the credibility of such characters (easily done) in favor of the omnipresent resume. The work becomes secondary, the paper primary. Of course, a real artist is so absorbed in their work that none of this matters …unless they must earn a living from it. So I completely agree with your advice to the person who is unsure of direction …indeed, I find myself giving the same advice to young folks these days. It takes true talent and courage to be independent in a world full of clones.
Artists’ responses to Canadian fires
by Stewart Turcotte, Kelowna, BC, Canada
The anniversary of the Interface Fires of 2003 is rapidly approaching and the world is returning to normal, at least in our community. I just wanted to pass along thanks to all of the artists who donated artworks to the fire victims in Kelowna, Barriere and Lewis Creek in British Columbia, Canada. A special thanks has to go to Robert Genn for insuring the message got out to artists all over the world through his letter. To date about 140 pieces have come in from as far away as the United Arab Emirates and pieces continue to arrive. About 315 families lost their homes and many lost all of their belongings as well. The Kelowna Art Gallery has donated space to show the gifted pieces for the entire summer in their public space. The show is hung now and it is a stunning collection of diverse artworks in many media. This will undoubtedly go down as one of the most relevant of all of the KAG shows to date as it shows how the art gallery is able to exhibit a show that has a direct impact on the community it is supported by. More than that, the show is a testament to the goodwill of artists from all over the world. Pieces will still be accepted until August 15 at which time the pieces will go home with their recipients.
(RG note) Thanks to those in our amazing community who gave so much to this and other causes. If you wish to contribute a work of art — there is still time — please send your work directly to Stewart at Hambleton Galleries, 781 Bernard Avenue, Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, V1Y 6P6. For further information please write Stewart Turcotte at email@example.com
(RG note) These days there’s a large number of letters coming in that require an RG note. I really appreciate these questions and thoughts — they are often useful in deciding what to write about. Believe me there’s no shortage of great stuff. While it’s not always possible to reply directly to every letter, yesterday I decided to chip away at a few of them. You can find these at I sincerely hope you get something out of them. Thanks so much for your input — and your friendship.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2004.