Approachable Art: The Nature Journal Nov09

Approachable Art: The Nature Journal...

I first discovered the concept of a serious, nature journal after reading through Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth. The beautiful thing about keeping a nature journal is that your subject of study is both model and still life at the same time. A model is an organic shape which has an individual nature that you can readily identify and that may offer similarities of structure to other models. For example, a tree limb is unique and will be like no other tree limb in existence while still providing a possible similarity in design to the human arm. In this way if you practice drawing an organic form like a tree limb, you are simultaneously building skills to later draw a human limb because it’s also organic and some of the same foundational principles will apply. For example, the human limb is also prone to irregularities and is unique to all individuals. At the same time the journal provides the student with organic models, it is providing a still life. The value of having a still life is that it’s still. It’s not going anywhere. Unlike a squirrel, or a human being, it doesn’t get cranky or fussy with you for taking your time. But again, like the squirrel or human being it is organic so the principles are close enough for transferring skills to a new study of life models. Another perk of the still life is that it looks good when you’re finished. Most of us think of art and we think immediately of the framed still life as the primary example. During the sixteenth century the primary form of artistic expression was the still...

Tools of the Trade: Editing tools for writers...

Let’s discuss what writers need beyond a pen and paper or that all essential keyboard especially when it comes to making revisions.  The best tools are an exceptional dictionary, a handbook guide to grammar, a thesaurus and/or rhyming dictionary, a set of resources for naming your characters, tool bars and a search engine ready to look up not just information but to confirm quotations and facts, and personally I never leave a desk devoid of a stack of chocolate. The Dictionary Why is it necessary? Today we have spell-check everywhere. Except the more you write the more you realize that spell-check is not a highly functioning tool. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used a relatively obscure word that a spell-checker embedded into major software has not been able to clear and identify. I have these Twilight Zone moments when I race over to an online dictionary like Merriam-Webster.com and console myself that I’ve spelled the obscure word correctly. When I am correct, I’m sure to add the word to the spell-check dictionary by right-clicking on the word in whatever program I’m using to add it in. But imagine if you’re sometimes using a small program like Notepad, or in two or three various email apps or web browsers, or you’re using Word. You’ll never want to stop and take the time to open every single place you have spell-check software to correct it. Not when you’re on a writing deadline. Ain’t nobody got time for that! So get a good dictionary, even if you only go online to Merriam-Webster Online and use it. Merriam-Webster Online is free and if you add it to your bookmarks toolbar, it’s right at your fingertips. Enter the word into the search box and it will...

Writers Journey: The Fine Art of Criticism part 3...

Before a writer gets into final revisions, there is usually a process of peer review.  Some writers will join a critique group.  Others will have mentors who are professionals in the field or perhaps they are on staff in some academic facility.  The first external review of a work is often the hardest part of the process.  The manuscript is not in its final stage and the people that the author invites to read it must be sensitive to that understanding. Many fledgling writers are pulled into the allure of the critique group.  It’s my opinion that a good critique group builds a solid writer for a few years, but sooner or later, the dynamic begins to shift when a writer starts coming in to their own professionally and takes on a strong professional voice and begins to kick the training wheels off their bike and ride with the pros.  Eventually you will want to find readers rather than writers when you’re looking for feedback as you evolve as an author because at the end of the day your work will be primarily in the hands of readers, not writers, and there is a distinction. There is a difficulty in navigating most critique groups in that everyone in that circle with you is not only another writer, but also usually a direct competitor.  This is an implicit dynamic that no one likes to acknowledge openly but it’s imperative that you understand this when going in to a group of other writers.  They have agendas and so do you.  The point is to push past this to give and receive a meaningful critique.  There are many good critique groups out there that get it right and most of them have rules and guidelines that help...

Writers Journey: The Fine Art of Criticism, part two...

Research is a must when you are getting into your structure and working on the writing of scene after scene.  If you do your research before or during your writing you will save yourself the pain of finding contrary discoveries later when the editor or copy editor gets hold of your words later in the process.  It’s important to be as critical of your own work as possible now, rather than experience an extensive period of rewriting later. In some ways you can’t avoid certain aspects of rewriting even if you’re a careful researcher or editor on your side of the work.  When books are written largely for target market audiences today, you will find that more often than not, people will ask you to make amendments to what you’re putting on the shelf.  Particularly with large publishers, they do have target demographics out there and they do research on what will and won’t sell according to those demographics.  This can be a trying process for a writer in general as you wrestle with your vision in the waters of a market place that can feel fickle and faddish. The best thing you can do is make sure that your work is well-edited either way.  The most important thing is to hone your voice within the work and to essentially be yourself.  People will often still be drawn to an author’s style or tone.  Authors are like friends to the reader; they will come to read what you have to say the way a good friend opens your emails every day.  So once you’re pushing through structural edits, you need to settle in to what makes the work sound like it comes from you and no other author. One writer, Julia Cameron, suggested that...

Writers Journey: The Fine Art of Criticism...

We’ll be looking at criticism for the next few weeks and I’ll be reviewing the steps within the author’s editing process, then the whole process of editorial review at and before the publishing level, as well as what happens when the critics finally assess your story or novel. The fine art of criticism begins with the author and continues in many stages through to the editorial phase of any work. There are many pitfalls along the way, and some of them are natural and occur because it is impossible to be perfectly objective about one’s own work. The closest you can get to being truly objective is to put something away long enough to absolutely forgot that you’d written it in the first place. When you pull out the manuscript and wonder what had compelled you to write this or that detail, or what possessed you to add this or that scene, then you have a good grasp on what it’s like to be on the other side as the reading audience or the editor looking over your work for the first time. This is why a lot of authors have taken years to perfect a work of art. Some, like E.M. Forster, sat on manuscripts for up to forty years and sometimes it was not by choice. But the time to perfect the manuscript, to age with your piece, is nevertheless valuable. What a writer looks for in tightening up a draft is manifold really. At the start, the most important factor in your drafts is to take the large view and work to the small view. This is why it’s vital to just keep putting down pages daily and building up the material you have to work with. As a writer, we’re one...

Writers Journey: Sensationalism...

Sensationalism is a modern American phenomenon these days.  We should take care to notice that goals of any positive value are worthy of respect and admiration.  This is not just a warning for writers, but for anyone with a career goal.  If a student wishes to graduate from college and enter a career as a teacher’s assistant, earning an income of thirty thousand to fifty thousand a year, this is a worthy goal.  So long as that student keeps their expenses in under their wage, this person can be said to have attained success.  They earn more than they spend, and they provide a service to humanity. However, one will often encounter mental hiccups in their most basic endeavors because of an obsession with sensationalism in America today.  If you are not a Forbes CEO, or a national best-selling author, you may encounter many blank stares among family and friends, and even your college faculty.  I recently sat through an unfortunate session at a local college where students were encouraged to earn a hundred thousand a year, find two houses, have three cars, and this was considered ‘making it.’  And I realized that this ideal is extremely sensationalized let alone economically and environmentally unsustainable.  Two houses.  Three cars.  Everyone should have it.  So the theory goes . . . Nowhere does this apply more than to the working artist.  A writer is automatically successful because they finish a final draft.  That’s it.  That draft may never see publication, but the success is still there.  Looking at history, this is how now-famous writers like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters were initially successful.  They wrote stories for their families, for each other, and those stories were taken by their families to publishing houses which accepted...

Writers Journey: Support and Freedom...

We live in an age where we are expected to earn revenue on what we produce.  This expectation was brought about by the Age of Enlightenment and furthered by the Industrial Revolution.  If we are successful novelists, for example, we must churn out a New York Times bestseller every year or two.  Culturally, we are told a myth that insists that we earn money from our art. This ‘Hollywood fantasy’ of earning money per project is actually very new and flies in the face of thousands of years in which artists lived under another kind of system:  namely support from a patron.  I don’t advocate that we go back to having patrons, which is what you might call feudalistic even on a good day, but I do want to point out that it’s easy to mistake one thing for another and this is where we can accidentally confuse having money and being paid for our art with true freedom to make the art that must be made. The biggest misconception an artist faces is the definition of the word resource.  If you want something, say quality light and space to paint in, that doesn’t mean you need money to get it.  It means you need a resource (space and light) and your first inclination may well be to pay for studio space for it.  Stop right there!  What you really need is space and light.  In our consumerist mentality, we will often equate this with real estate.  But space and light is not the same thing as a studio situated downtown.  Space and light may be had in a breakfast nook, or outside at a park, or on the back lawn.  One of your friends may have space and light that they’ll willingly share...

Writers Journey: Ancient Wisdom...

The Roman poet Virgil spent a great deal of time thinking about the life of a writer. In fact, his first major work spends many lines just dwelling on it. It is called The Eclogues and young Virgil wrote this daunting piece of work while looking for his patron in the arts. He rose to the eye of Augustus shortly afterward so the work has held some merit in the eyes of history. Questions of the writer’s life or the validity of art in the big picture are themes to be found all over The Eclogues which are set in a pastoral, idealistic setting in order to help overcome place and time and project the reader into a tranquil state for reflection. In Eclogue 3, two poets perform before a laboring farmer in the fields. Their names are Damoetas and Menalcas. They perform before the farmer named Palaemon. This farmer is busy irrigating his fields but he listens with some patience and attention to each poem recited by Damoetas and Menalcas. In the end, Palaemon can only admit that he likes both poems and then he wanders off to finish his tasks for the day because his fields are finally irrigated. Here, David R. Slavitt remarks in his discussion of Virgil, “Which doesn’t have an awful lot to do with art except to suggest that in the real world, it is difficult to get the attention of the public and almost impossible to hold on to it. The real world intrudes as represented by the farmer, who has practical concerns to deal with, is, at best, willing to listen but not much involved, and therefore – let us not kid ourselves – is not particularly knowledgeable either.” This insight dates to about the 1st...

Writers Journey: You Need Philosophy...

When I started the Writers Journey series of articles, I made mention that a writer must have something to say. Further to that is: a writer needs to tap into some universal truths about the human psyche or condition. Even during periods of popular writing styles which went against such sentiments, such as the trenche-de-vie (slice-of-life) style, the most enduring of those works ended up touching upon core truths by way of subtext or analogy even when their writers were attempting not to do that. In fact I would argue that part of writing is drilling down into a thought so far that you end up striking literary oil whether you wanted to or not. Most writers will eagerly tell you about their defining moments, moments when they really got into a piece of work. It’s the point where they can feel the whole of the work coalescing together like water slipping rapidly down the vacuum of a drain. But how does a writer hone this skill for finding the core truths of life? There is the ultimate draft upon draft way until you blindly hit upon something. There are also other ways. One way of writing with something to say is to study philosophy. Here, you probably are wrinkling up your nose. And I did. When I started getting serious about writing in my early twenties I could not be bothered with such challenges. But there comes a point where life itself may toss a writer upon the rocks and leave them bereft of every floating surface that ever buoyed their perception of reality. Most people call this a mid-life crisis and when it comes it usually shakes up life and forces someone to find a new point of view. The mid-lifer reassesses life. Some people...

Writers Journey: Writing is Ancient...

Writing is an ancient pursuit; in fact ‘writing’ existed before we wrote at all.  Stories have been a constant companion to human beings since before recorded history.  Before we had reason and science we had stories and when there was something we didn’t understand we strove to acknowledge it somehow through telling a story about it.  Stories are also a way to remember what is important.  It’s important as a writer to set aside all personal ambition for a moment and really stop and consider the history of the art of words.  We take words for granted so much today.  Nearly everyone can speak, and a lot of people can write.  Today it’s easy to push aside the veneration that writing, that story-telling in particular, deserves. Even an examination of language will confirm that language itself is special, even sacred.  Ancient Hebrew did not contain vowels.  It was conjectured that one possible reason for this omission was to preserve the sanctity of what was being written down for those initiated into its secrets.  If vowels are the ‘breath’ of words, then omitting them stole breath from those trying to read without understanding.  And when we look into the history of language itself, we begin to see in these examples just how important language was and still is today.  Consequently, if this fascinated you then I recommend reading David Abram’s book The Spell of the Sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human world.  It’s an exploration of language throughout history and reveals more fascinating insights into language itself. When I talk with most aspiring young writers today, their main ambition in writing is to become famous first, and published as a byproduct of that fame.  Never mind the fact that fame itself is such a...

Writers Journey: Writing is Hard...

There are things you should know as a new writer. There are things you should remind yourself as a working writer. The biggest of these is that writing is just hard work for most people. It’s not as fun as people think it is and once you do two or three paragraphs, it gets harder and harder to keep pulling out material. I once heard a great analogy for writing as a process: Writers, unlike other creatives, first have to make their material from scratch. A potter sits down with a lump of clay for example but a writer has to first make the clay with which to work; clay in the shape of the first words of any rough draft. Then a writer gets to work with those words like a potter works with clay. Making the clay can be boring stuff and very hard work besides. In this respect, writers are stuck with an extra layer of work above and beyond other artists. I would say that only a composer of music has the same experience. The composer must first have a piece of music with which to play his or her instrument. On top of that, nonfiction writing is quite difficult even for creative types. Technical writing is hardest of all; even technical writing about artistic endeavors. To explain the process of craftsmanship takes a certain type of person; one who is a good teacher, really, a good expositor. In art school, for example, some of the best fine artists can’t articulate how they do the most basic things. If asked how they made a certain stroke, they would be hard pressed to put that experience into words. This makes sense because many artists are drawn to a non-verbal medium in...

Writers Journey: Poetry and Prose...

I touched on prose and poetry earlier and would do so again now.  The difference is important to determine if only superficially for now. Poetry is a heart-felt expression of a vision that unites people by its utterance.  Poetry speaks to the spirit like a photograph capturing an intangible moment with words that are not often sensible and yet dive down beneath rationality into something within everyone that beats a little deeper.  It is not that prose cannot do this within its structure as well, and I would argue that prose itself may contain moments of poetry within it, as so well-shown by J.R.R. Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings or lines by James Joyce, such as “Soft morn, City.”  It is more that the vehicle of prose is a different animal, looking to share an experience which is longer than a vision and therefore cannot be a photograph of the ineffable when it must be a long chain unfolding into tangible experience. A good story will bring something new into the world.  So will a good poem.  Both are capable of bringing the reader a new awareness.  At its best, prose pushes past materiality and consumerism into a realm that pulls the reader up out of a sea of merely surviving and into possibilities.  Sometimes witnessing these truths, these possibilities, hurts as a reader, particularly when times are very tough.  It is a good storyteller that will mediate the message to the reader in a way that wakes us up like a man in a Russian classic, so that we exclaim, “Gentleman, I’ve had a good dream.”  We keep that dream, rather than refuse it, because even if it hurt a little, it empowered us. A well-written story seems to slide deeper into...

Writers Journey: Too Long Didn’t Read Culture...

We live in a too-long–didn’t-read culture today. (tl;dr) No one feels this more than the aspiring novelist. The poet may have a better chance at success in such a short-attention-span marketplace. The difference between the poet and the prose writer is worth mentioning either way. There are novels that are filled with poetry. And there are nearly novel-length poems. But the genres are separated by a small distinction in that prose is largely carried by the mind; poetry by the heart. For all of James Joyce’s poetic wording in Ulysses, the story is driven by the rational mind along some essential plot. Whereas a poem goes where the heart goes, even if it is as long as Virgil’s Aeneid, which may be said to have a fragment of plot within its mythic design; the chief ambition is to evoke emotion. A novel evokes an experience that may further produce emotion. Today, we rely on recording devices as our memories. That reliance has advantages but also with it comes the disadvantage of poorly sustained personal memory. A glance down a common list of symptoms for today’s many modern illnesses will reveal ‘difficulties with short and long term memory’ as frequently listed. Sometimes I wonder whether or not this is simply a universal symptom of the human condition today. In the ancient times, poets like Homer had whole ballads the length of The Odyssey and The Iliad in long-term memory, able to call upon those tales at festivals and recite them before an audience. They were trained to do this of course but they came from an oral tradition in which their culture valued recitation of verse at least once a season of every year. We rely very heavily on books to provide us with entertainment...

Writers Journey: On Subject-Matter...

In the last article in this series, I jokingly suggested that a fiction writer might be able to take any subject-matter as their premise as long as their characters were interesting.  Here I would like to pause for a moment and mention that there are some subject-matters that seem dull and some subject-matters that are dull. Insight is the main quality to determining which is which.  Insight followed by a certain amount of sensitivity.  But what is insight?  Merriam-Webster defines it as “the power or act of seeing into a situation: penetration” and also “the act or result of apprehending the inner nature of things or of seeing intuitively.” It’s a good phrase:  seeing into a situation.  When we are looking at subject-matter that may appear dull, it takes a certain level of penetration, of intuitively seeking the inner nature of something that brings its inner luster to the surface.  Like many precious stones that come out of the earth looking like unformed lumps of dull matter, it takes a writer quite a long time of concentrating to determine whether or not something is of any use.  Raw sapphire or emerald appears deceptively uninteresting.  But given the right cuts it can become a faceted gem. A writer may not cut into her subject-matter in order to find and reveal its facets, but should be able to take the reader through the subject-matter in such a way that the journey within becomes as clear as cut crystal.  Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener is a good example of a tale that reveals facets within what might appear to be dull material.  What could be more mundane than the work of a scrivener? Bartleby worked at his craft until one day he answers his employer with what soon...