Pinus Contora 

Ouch, I thought, a splinter?  As my hands caressed the weather-worn, greying plank, turning it, examining it for weaknesses that might eventually compromise the finished piece, a tiny prick made me drop it as though it had opened a vein.

It was, after all, a good excuse to walk away.

I had sat down expressly to transform it. I had had some idea of what I wanted, but no inspiration. I saw red: not in the angry, metaphorical way, but the color red filling my imagination, bursting, a clouded Holi festival in every shade from rose to sanguis. It is in that space where all the joy and wonder of a creative moment, all of the air that fills my lungs spreads to my waiting hands, only to explode from my chest in a rush of despair.

“Why” begins to interrupt. Do I have a voice? Is it worthwhile? Who will want to see this? 

The answer is an apparition.

It is often said of artists that narcissism is the first requirement. Thumbing through even the thinnest of art history books, one finds edgy, erratic, often abstruse behavior among the great masters. Art, it seems, requires a dance on the tightwire that hangs between sanity and genius.

Having grown up in a household where art had no value, I now find myself opening every creative vein I can just to find the one that flows freely. So far, none have. I push, every day, learning the tools and techniques. With each new medium I touch, with each surface I alter, I understand better and better the act of love that art truly is. Even as I write these words, I am utterly gripped by creating a melody within them that will compel you to keep reading. These are experiences I did not have at a time when painting a pig blue or a tree purple was the process in which one idea might fluidly transform into another. Occasionally, I color outside the lines, and I don’t feel the need to correct it and then, as I let go, more and more, I begin to love what I am touching and changing. It comes down to that one nebulous moment when I give myself permission to do whatever I want without needing a reason why. It is the moment when the wildfire clears the way for the new seeds.

To the many whom I’ve heard say, “I have no talent for art,” I say, expressing yourself doesn’t require “talent” in the traditional sense. It requires that you somehow package what you feel in a way that makes you happy. A year ago, I said I couldn’t draw, but I’ve changed that. I’m learning about the many mediums and tools. I’m immersing myself, and therein lies the danger.

Just as when I began to write publicly, I now study, rather than just view art. I find myself hyperfocused, deconstructing method, material, meaning. I become so lost in the detail, that I must navigate both the joy of understanding and the defeat of accepting that I will never create something so exquisite that it moves mankind century after century. And that is the moment I burn.

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a friend who is a successful artist. He spoke candidly about having an artist’s statement and an idea of the theme in his work. I realized that, fundamentally, art is a commitment to visually communicate something for which the artist has no words. Ultimately, I am compelled by an unusual tendency to assign color to emotions. I reach my roots into that fleeting moment, and that is when I grow.

Over and over, I’ll burn when I despair over how much time was lost to fear, but in between, in fleeting moments, new roots grip the ground as from my hands, something lovely comes.

 

“63”

I have 63 unfinished blog entries, representing 63 unfinished thoughts. 63 times that I thought something might be relevant or interesting. 63 flames that I’ve been unable to fan. I wonder if I’m the only writer for whom this is a problem. Am I? How many drafts do you have? How many times has something irritating and irrelevant killed one of your darlings before they had a chance to really live?

Year of a Hundred Things – Thing #85 – “Speaking in Images”

During his reign, Leopold II had enslaved much of the Congo in order to produce rubber to meet the demand of the newly developed Dunlop tire. Leopold’s overseers were particularly brutal, killing and mutilating even children.

In 1898, young missionary Alice Seely Harris arrived in the Congo Free State – as it was then known – to teach English to the native children. So appalled was she at the corruption and exploitation that she documented it in photographs. For three years, she amassed a collection of imagery that would change policy in the Congo forever. Her photographs were seen all over the world at speaking engagements and in publications. She was the first photographer to harness the power of mass media to promote change.[1]
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Uncorked

Weak springs creaked as she sunk heavily into the cushions, letting her things scatter across the remaining length of the couch. For a moment, she thought that nothing had ever given her so much relief as her head rolling back against the arm rest. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Nothing impelled her to move, not even the din of objects, specifically the contents of her purse, crashing against the wood floor.

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Not Exactly Cronkite

During college, I worked as a bank teller. Obviously, that position requires some very specific training, including how to remember details when witnessing any criminal activity in the bank. During the week-long training class, around lunch time, a man walked into our class and presented something to the instructor. He said very little to her, did not address the class at all, and then left the room. About an hour later, in the middle of the lesson on how to handle a bank robbery, we were asked to provide a description of the man who’d entered the room. There were roughly thirty people in the classroom and not one of us produced a description good enough for a sketch artist to draw a likely representation. We were in a safe, well-lit room, experiencing no stress or duress. Yet, we could not remember enough to convict our would-be criminal.

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Temptation

For some bizarre reason, I am obsessed with archeology and history as it applies to the Old Testament. I’ve tried to figure it out, but frankly, lost interest in the reasons. Perhaps it supports my real obsession with the psychology of motivation. Tonight, I started a recent Nat Geo issue that was entirely dedicated to Biblical history. The first section, logically, is dedicated to the Pentateuch. I’d never really read the story in such a condensed arrangement. Taking out much of the text truly simplified the message and my wanna-be-psychologist-in-training mind went to work on it.

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On Writing Economically: A Challenge

I once argued with a man, whose writing I greatly admire, about a phrase he used in conversation. He is a brilliant man, but not musically trained, so I surmised that he’d simply never learned the actual definition of the word in musical terms. The word was crescendo. I often hear that particular word used incorrectly, which I find fascinating, because it is a word that combines a literal economy and a lovely cadence.

What do I mean by “economy,” you ask? Well, now, that is a good question and while I never give writing advice (because I don’t feel like I’m qualified), this idea has become more of an art form for me, so I thought I’d share it.

When writing (or speaking publicly), a greater clarity can be achieved by minimizing extraneous words and phrases, replacing them with single words that convey the same meaning. Crescendo is such a word. It is frequently used at the end of the phrase “rising to a crescendo.” Ironic, considering that the word MEANS “rising.” A musical crescendo describes a piece which begins quietly (or piano) and rises gradually to forte.

There are a number of words that easily replace a wordy phrase and give more accurate descriptions of action. Take the phrase “gives out,” for example. There are several meanings for that phrase. The sentence, “her knee gives out,” is entirely different than “she gives out candy.” And there are several, more descriptive words available to better communicate the image to the reader. Replacing the word “failed” for “gives out” in the first example gives a stronger sense of disappointment. “Buckled” communicates a more serious injury and “snapped” more serious still.

This particular exercise forced me to focus on the phrases are the worst offenders. A common culprit is “in regards to,” which should be replaced with “regarding.” Nice. Neat. Economical. Once I realized that almost all offenders involved a preposition, I decided to write a list of those I could remember off the top of my head.

Now, before I list these irritating little phrases, I want to add the caveat that phrasing used in dialog is the exception because characters speak differently. Removing extraneous phrasing requires a better than average vocabulary (and sometimes a Thesaurus) and casual conversation shouldn’t be that much work, especially if the characters are young or uneducated. But in exposition, when communicating grief, for example, the phrase “she was sad” just isn’t going to do it. “She wept,” “she grieved,” “she sobbed,” are all phrases that make the reader understand that she has lost something significant. I know that is an oversimplified example, but it works.

So, what are some other examples? Well, here you go (and feel free to add your favorites in the comments.)

Sample:
“She scooped out the ice cream into a bowl.”
Improvement:
“She scooped the ice cream into the mug she’d painted herself.”

Sample:
“She took everything out of the closet.”
Improvement:
“She emptied the closet.”
Better still:
“She gutted the closet.” This invokes a sense of violence, as though she was emptying the closet in a cathartic way.

Sample:
“She gave up.”
Improvement:
“She acquiesced.” (Communicating giving in or quitting.)
“She submitted.” (Communicating a resignation to an external force.)

There are hundreds of occasions when I’ve pulled out the thesaurus trying to find inspiration in a word that not only eliminates several other words, but inspires a clearer, more accurate description in my work. I rarely consider anything so concrete when I write because I am entirely organic in all of my artistic endeavors. But this technique, this “economy,” is more like choosing the type of paint. Sometimes, oil works better than acrylic or pencils.