Category Archives: Creativity and Courage

Avenida Chimera

To my surprise . . . I’m writing a novel. Let me tell you first why this is a surprise. a) a short attention span, b) aversion to linear structures of any kind, c) I don’t know enough to write a novel, d) I’m way too busy to write a novel. Well, what gives?

Around New Year’s, when everyone is busy setting goals for the new year, I thought, “why not write a novel.” In truth, I originally thought “novella” which sounded less intimidating.

At the time, I was reading Tracy Chevalier’s first novel, The Virgin Blue. I liked that she switched back and forth between past and present, and that there was a mystical link between the two stories, via the particular shade of blue and the allusion to the Virgin Mary. The psychic linkage between the female characters across hundreds of years’ time, was intriguing although (I felt) heavy handed.

I like reading first novels, because of their rough edges; I don’t mind if sometimes I am not entirely convinced of the “myth” of the story environment. (Entering into a story is, after all, much like immersing oneself into a mythical world, no matter the subject or genre.) I found myself considering the dialogue in the novel, which I thought did not entirely ring true, and wondered how an author creates authentic dialogue. Regular dialogue is usually boring, if transcribed exactly the way people speak. But how to spin the web of the story with dialogue that moves the story along, and sounds believable?


Another novel came to mind, and I started reading it again on Kindle: The Passion, by Jeannette Winterson. One of my favorite novels. When I first read it, I fell in love with the storytelling. I loved how Winterson introduces each character’s story, the soldier Henri and the Venizian androgyne boatperson, Villanelle, as two separate stories that she then weaves together. I loved the unreliability of each narrator. Henri, who tells the reader, “Don’t believe me.” The directness of the characters’ voices, the way she wrote the inner dialogue for a French soldier and an Italian young womn, help me to understand how I might try this, too. Winterson’s first novel was highly acclaimed, but it was this second novel written when she was in her mid-20’s, that was a financial success. She was able to make a living as an author due to the success of this book.

In both novels, I enjoyed the historical setting, was impressed by the research I imagined an author needs to do to keep the reader suspended in the myth of the tale. I started to realize that, as when creating a drawing or painting, you are really creating lines and marks in a way that suggests reality. (If the work is non-represenational, it still must create a believable “structure” of some sort, that the viewer will enter into–yet it is only marks on paper). Is writing a novel that different? How much do I actually need to know in order to write a novel?

It is different than poetry, the wholeness of the illusion that you are attempting to create (if the poet is writing in a non-narrative style, which I do).

Now I have written (only) thirty pages of a novel that was originally titled “Estrella and the Texture of Light” and is now tentatively called “Avenida Chimera”. Loosely based on the life of Leonora Carrington, para-surrealist painter and author, who escaped WWII Europe to expatriate to Mexico City, where she developed a unique and mythical oevre of painting, sculpture, and stories. After writing thirty pages, I have started over, now with the story in a radial structure, starting with three characters around a table.

I found writing the scenes that interested me the most, helped break the ice and kept me excited about the project. Over the past two months I have read, skimmed, analyzed a dozen or so texts related to the novel in progress, in diverse topics such as: Celtic mythology, Spanish Civil War, Vichy France, Provencal lifestyle, surreal novels set in Paris, the occult, kabbalah, Alice in Wonderland, art history texts on surrealism or the movements leading up to surrealism, surrealist games, the Mexican revolution and the industrialization of Mexico, etc. I have never been more intellectually stimulated and outright obsessed as when writing this novel.

The novel starts in a courtyard in Mexico City, with three friends around a table.

A candle flickered on the table between them. From above in this light, all three appear identical. From within the circle, one with an angular face. Another, a long oval, and a third, her face shaped like a heart.

The first voice makes a brief comment in Spanish. A second voice laughs a gentle, dancing laugh. Water murmurs from a nearby fountain, now invisible outside the circle of light. The third, in a sarcastic tone, says something that ends in “inolvidable”. Of the three, only one a native speaker.

The main characters are three female artists, expatriated to Mexico City from Europe. As the rest of the novel unfolds, their life stories will emerge through flashback, through dreams, through the reader’s experience of their art-making. Overall, the story is about the challenge and power of art making. The characters happen to be female, at a time when the art world was dominantly “male”, and women were seen as the counterparts of great (male) artists. Through their work, they explore their own beliefs about the nature of the world and society. The story also explores notions of nationalism, and identity, through the thoughts and experiences of these “maverick” characters.

But for now:

The three friends gather as many evenings as possible in the summer, in this high walled courtyard crowded with blue palm and bush sage.

Inside the summer courtyard, quiet music of the fountain. Outside the walls, the concrete sounds of all-enveloping Mexico City repeat at the same pace as they do every day. The conversation topic one day is Mayan mythology. Last week, Sufism. A week from now, interpretations of the Fourth Dimension. Interwoven between these conversations, memories unfold. An insatiable desire to understand oneself as a being in the world. And human comfort to hear the stories of parallel paths that bring each of them to this table.

The first, rises and walks into the kitchenette, brings back a bottle of tequila and in the other hand, three glasses pinched together in her fingers. Sets these without ceremony onto the enameled metal table top. The second pours. The third says, “Salud” and they drink and pour another which they sip slowly now.

It is now completely dark. Two smile and lean in, while the other talks. The candle adds an incantatory effect. Shadow ebbs and flows around the edges of the round table, a table with scratches in the enamel, and polished spots from elbows, dishes, bottles. Blots of wax cluster in the center, and a red wire twists in an upward knot, from the time they constructed an impromptu sculpture into the network of the table.

Picking up the thread of an earlier conversation, Stella, the woman with the oval face, says, “I just do what the painting asks of me.” Adi, with the heart shaped face, nods. Noa, the aquiline, responds, “Eso es lo unico. . .”. They each sip the tequila, and think quietly to themselves as a means to extend the conversation.

I cannot tell you how terrifying and exciting it is to start a novel; all of my fears of my own ability to complete a project arise, at the daunting nature of the task. Then, I get back to work.


A new method

Trying a new art-making method=opening a path to endless possibilities. Isn’t that the real work at hand? Not the individual product, but the work itself.

The “opening-to-possibilities” part, an experience I may be addicted to.

Today you see my first attempt at carving and printing a lino block.

Well, to come clean: about 18 years ago, a group of friends got together for brunch at an artist-friend’s house; she taught us to carve and print a lino block. I carved one small block (of a rose–perhaps carving something so complicated prevented me from trying again till now?).

For whatever reason, only a few months ago I assembled all of the tools and materials needed to carve and print a lino block, and only this weekend printed my first “real”prints. Like many people, I suppose I’m better at generating ideas of what I want to do than actually doing it!

For this project, I used an unmounted lino block, and Speedball carving tool (the handy kind with the blades in the handle). I used Speedball water-soluble inks, mulberry paper, and Speedball brayer and baren. I also used a piece of glass from the hardware store (for inking). I plan on buying better carving tools for the unmounted lino (for sharper blades).

As a reference, I used several large Burr Oak leaves from a tree in our yard, and its one and only gargantuan acorn (the size of a golf ball!). I was fascinated by the thing and determined to represent it as best I could.

I first drew it on paper, then traced my drawing and transferred it to the lino block by placing it face down and then retracing the lines, on the back. Ah, graphite is such a wonderful thing–fascinating that it is the same stuff as a diamond, just on the opposite end of the hardness spectrum!

In the future I will also make sure to leave more lines in the back ground, since I love the effect in other linotypes I’ve seen. Lots of ideas now that this first print is free in the world; blocks of different sizes can be used for different purposes. Next, I’ll use a small (2.75″X5″) block to make a print for handmade cards–not ready to try another 5″X7” yet.

Nuance and unconscious skill comes over time; if you are intrigued by a particular type or method of artmaking, jump in and try it. We live at a time when we can watch a video on how to do just about anything–and if time (and funds) allow, take a class to commune with other newbies!

Pinterest offers a somewhat mindless way to do some pre-work, reflecting on artworks whose style you admire. See my growing “collection” on my Linocut board.

The beauty of attempting to make art is, hey, it’s just paper and ink, you can do no harm. But you may regret never trying!

For a fun guide on lino, rubber, foam, and stamp printing try: Block Print by Andrea Lauren. It’s amazing the art you can create with even a few white rubber erasers as your printing blocks.


The Same Object, From Many Viewpoints

Creativity challenge: try writing about the same object in at least 13 different ways.

(Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is below for inspiration.)

-OR-draw 50 drawings in four hours . . . staying with the same object for as many drawings as possible.

In Experimental Drawing by Robert Kaupelis (1980), one exercise provided is to draw 50 drawings in four hours. He suggests several variations, but remarks that some of his students chose 50 different topics while others tended to draw the same object multiple times, using different media, different styles, different angles.
I have attempted this exercise but keep getting distracted after about ten drawings. . . I do plan to finish this exercise, hopefully this weekend.
Think of how challenging it will be to stick with the same object for more than ten drawings! What I have learned from attempting this exercise, is that even after a few drawings, my style loosens up, I take greater risks, think of unusual solutions prompted by the medium I am using. I drew objects such as stacked pots, a pile of bricks, close up views of tree bark.
I think it would be fun to do the drawings first, and then the writing.
There is a reason why artists work in series, or revisit the same topic throughout a lifetime of work (think of Cezanne’s still lifes, Degas’ dancers, to name some examples that come to mind easily).
Enjoy the Stevens poem. Find other examples–and think about your topics! If you are snowed in, what about looking out the window for inspiration? Or at a fire in the fireplace? Or if you live someplace with sunny skies, wander outside to find your topic in nature, or along the city streets where you live. One thing is certain, you will never look at your surroundings in the same way after completing either or both of these exercises.
Happy drawing, happy writing! Happy Thanksgiving!

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. Copyright 1954 by Wallace Stevens. Reprinted with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Creativity and Courage

How many times do you hear someone say, “I wish I was creative” or “I can only draw stick figures”?

I admire people who go against the inner voices that tell them “you can’t” and who try anyway; I had the opportunity to overcome some of those voices.

In spring 2015, I felt burdened physically and emotionally by a grueling work schedule, personnel “challenges” that made day to day work difficult, with no end in sight to the relentless avalanche of paperwork. I felt a sense of sadness that perhaps in giving up teaching for an administrative position I have given up my true career. (While teachers are in demand in New Mexico, the pay is low and conditions are not great; I would have to spend time and money to get licensed in the state, etc., etc.) When in an emotionally dark time, it is so easy to see the “can’ts”, isn’t it?

I made a decision to sign up for painting classes that started in June [2015], as a “light” to keep me going. I am not one of those people who says “I can’t draw”, however, painting remained an absolute mystery. I had painted, but my paintings always seemed cartoonish, and I could not fathom how to start when faced with a blank canvas.

After the very first class, I was struck by the uniqueness of each person’s work. As our first exercise, all eight of us painted the same philodendron, “Phil”, and you could see some of us were more expressive, loose in our brushstrokes. Others were more precise, more detail-focused. Even though we used the same color palette, our personalities showed through our color mixes. No two paintings of Phil contained exactly the same green, although green is merely a mix of blue and yellow. Some of my classmates claimed they could not draw, yet every painting was beautiful!

When you start to feel like a cog in a machine, or stuck in a routine that starts to feel meaningless, remember this. Cherish the uniqueness of how you see the world, and enjoy the unique qualities in others’ perspectives. In our uniqueness is our strength; skills can be learned, it just takes time.

My first ever painting . . . Phil!

“Each of us is a unique strand in the intricate web of life and here to make a contribution.”
― Deepak Chopra

This post was originally posted on my previous blog, in October, 2015.