Category Archives: The Habit of Art

Inspiration Monday: A Day Out

The Scallop by Maggi Hambling, Aldeburgh, Suffolk.

The Scallop by Maggi Hambling, Aldeburgh, Suffolk.

Warning:  This post has lots of pictures!

Its a lesson my mother taught me.  After my father died when I was 13, she used to take me away.  Just for the day.  Somewhere.  She would ring the school and say I was sick and we would run away somewhere.  Salisbury.  Portsmouth.  Winchester.  Even the Isle of Wight.  Somewhere that was within a day’s drive.  Anywhere that was not home, not full of memories and sadness.  It recharged our batteries, gave us the time to talk about what we had lost, and grow closer.  I have very fond memories of those stolen days.

Running away is a lesson that I have brought into my adult life.  Now, when things get a bit much, when we need to recharge, escape, or just rememebr who we are, Husband and I run away.  This weekend, we ran away to Aldeburgh in Suffolk, which is about an hour’s drive from home.  It is the town famous for its links with composer Benjamin Britten, and the music festival he set up.  It is also the seat of a number of literary festivals, and the setting for MR James’s haunting ghost story, ‘A Warning to the Curious’.  Fishing vessels work from the shingle shore, and you can buy fish straight from the boats, as well as smoked from the new smokehouse. (I recommend their smoked prawns with garlic dip, eaten straight from the packet on the beach, yum!)

Fisherman's shack where you can buy excellent fish caught fresh that morning, or crab, lobster and various local shellfish in season.

Fisherman’s shack where you can buy excellent fish caught fresh that morning, or crab, lobster and various local shellfish in season.

Since I am trying to get back into the swing of taking photographs again, I took my camera, and here are some of the results.  I hope they get your creative juices flowing.

And if you are lacking in Inspiration this week, why not plan a day to run away and just be.

Fishing boats hauled up ont he shingle shore.

Fishing boats hauled up on the shingle shore.  Is that the figure of Willam Ager running along the strand?

DSCI3684

Dead seedheads by the coastal path.

Old fishing boat on the shingle in the mist.

Old fishing boat on the shingle in the mist.

The Scallop by Maggie Hambling, a local Suffolk-based artist.

The Scallop by Maggie Hambling, a local Suffolk-based artist.

The Scallop is a memorial to composer Benjamin Britten, who lived in Aldeburgh.  The words are from his opera, Peter Grimes.

The Scallop is a memorial to composer Benjamin Britten, who lived in Aldeburgh. The words are from his opera, Peter Grimes:  ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned.’  (Are these also the voices of creativity, calling us?)

Approached from the Thorpeness (north) side, the Scallop is said to look like a knight riding a charger.

Approached from the Thorpeness side, the Scallop is said to look like a knight riding a charger.

Utterly mad cow wallpaper found in The Crown Inn, Framlongham on the way home!

Utterly mad cow wallpaper found in The Crown Inn, Framlingham on the way home!

Happy Creating!   EF

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Back to Basics: The Writing Exercise

I’ve pretty much lost two months of creativity this year so far, and I’m keen to get back on the horse, so to speak.  Part of that involves getting back to basics.  And one of the best ways to do that if you are a writer is through the Writing Exercise.

You will need:

A timer

A notebook

A pen

A space where you will not be interrupted.

Fifteen minutes every day.

Yes, I know that the last one can be difficult, but you can manage it.

Look at the list again.  See how cheap those items are?  And yet it’s such a huge payoff for a very tiny investment.  If you don’t have a timer on your phone, you probably have one in the kitchen. The notebook and the pen can be as rudimentary as you like, just so long as you can write quickly and easily without thinking too much about how the tools feel in your hand.  You don’t want writer’s cramp, after all.  Your tools should be transparent.  You don’t want to be thinking about them.  You need to focus all your mind on the story that is finding its way out of your head and onto the page.

There is one more thing you need.

A prompt.

There are loads of them about.  You can make up your own.  You can get a friend to send you a prompt, like a writing dare, every day by email or text message.  You can use a book – I’m using Judy Reeves’ wonderful book, ‘The Writers Book of Days’ at the moment.  Or you can find lots of websites online that will give you prompts.

Don’t think too much about it, whatever your prompt is.  Just take it as a starting point, write it at the top of your page, then set your timer for fifteen minutes and let your brain make hay!

I’ve decided to give myself an extra rule, though.  I was considering the weaknesses in my work and I realised that I have a real problem writing three-dimensional female characters.  All my stories are full of fascinating, psychologically complex men and paper-doll women.  This is a bit worrying as a female writer.

So I have decided for the whole of March that I am going to do a writing exercise every day, and I am only going to write about female characters.

Merciless practise.

Let me tell you, it’s already working, three days in.  I have already created a female character that I absolutely love and want to come back to.  But I am determined to go on.  Like a ballet dancer working at the barre, or a concert pianist doing scales, I am going to practise and practise until I feel I am really making some progress.  And then I’m going to practise some more.

It’s the Habit of Art.  And it feels great.

I am doing writing exercises every day for the whole of March.  Fifteen minutes a day.  No neat handwriting, no fancy notebooks, just a cheap pen, an exercise book and my timer.

Why not join me?

(You can read more about writing exercises here.)

Happy creating,

EF

Inspiration Monday: Telling Details

sussex church

The Zen of Details

At the moment, I am fascinated by ‘telling details’.

At our writers’ group last week, my friend read out the first pages of her novel, a description of a little girl watching her mother as she used a sewing machine to make a new dress for her little girl.  It took me right back to my childhood, watching my own mother labour over the sewing machine.

It was the little details that transported me.  The jar of spare buttons which the little girl was allowed to play with.  The thunk of the presser foot being let down onto the fabric.  The smell of sewing machine oil and new cloth, unwashed, still fusty from the haberdashery.

I have re-ignited my enthusiasm for my writer’s notebook with these details.  Using the little components of life.  Scribbling them down when I notice them.

The way the local cockerel sounds like he has a sore throat when he crows.

My husband saying ‘Marriage is about sharing’ when he farts.

The dust that builds up in the corners of the treads on the stairs, and how gritty it is.

Puffs of pollen falling off the sunflowers I have rescued from the storm-lashed garden, falling like yellow flour on the tabletop under the vase, powdering a biro that had been abandoned there.

These are the little glimpses of our everyday life that we mostly ignore, but when someone draws our attention to them in prose or art, they enrich our perception, throng our minds with memories, ground us in the present in a way nothing else can.

At the moment I am working on a series of short fanfics that are grounded in these details.  I am trying to use a single detail to spark each story.  Each story then contributes to a wider portrait of a relationship.  This means collecting details. So here I am with my notebook, going back to the very beginning of my writing career, ‘back to basics’ if you like, collecting scraps for here and there and jotting them down.  I feel like a mosaicist building up a mural made of broken pots.

And it is delicious.

 Creative Exercise:  Lists

Unearth your notebook, if you haven’t been using it much recently.  If you are an artist, grab your sketchbook.  Now open your mind.  Start noticing things.  It takes practise to be sufficiently present in life to recognise the tiny details that contribute to the big picture of shared experience, but once you start, you will find them coming thick and fast.

  • Walk around the house and look at the piles of stuff that have built up.  Write down where they are.  Make a list of what is in them.
  • When you visit the bathroom at a friend’s house, look at their lotions and potions.  Make a list to jot down later.  What do the bottles and jars tell you about their life and health?  If you draw, make a sketch of them, or if it’s easier, draw the contents of your own medicine cabinet.
  • Standing in the queue for the checkout, look in other people’s baskets.  What are they buying?  Another list.  What does this say about them?  Can you make a still life that communicates what they are eating, who they are eating it with, and why?

Open your eyes wide.  Your mind is constantly sifting sensory input, picking out things that may or may not be important.  Usually, you toss most of your perceptions aside.  Instead, write down as many as you can.  Use them later in your work.

Happy Creating,

EF

The Wild Donkeys: A Strategy for Choosing a Creative Project

donkey

‘So, how’s the writing going?’

This from a man who is one of the Blessed Few.  A writer whose work was picked up by an agent straight from the much garlanded MA in Creative Writing at the Unversity of East Anglia.  Alumni include Ian McEwan, Rose Tremain, Hanif Kureshi, Tracey Chevalier and, well, you get the picture.  He is in glittering company.

He is also a really lovely man and a dear friend who takes a genuine interest in my work, so I rein in the envy monster and give him the polite and honest answer.

‘Fine.  Well, actually, I’m a bit stuck.’

‘Creative block?’

‘No, too many ideas.  I don’t know where to start.’

‘You should be writing a novel, you know.  I read some of your Sherlock stuff the other day.  It’s really good.’

‘Thank you.  I’ve written seven novels so far.  Writing a novel isn’t the hard part.  Its choosing which one to write that’s difficult.’

‘Well, just pick one and start.’

I love men.  Everything seems so easy to them.  And they are so good at handing out really practical advice.  (You’ll also notice that I don’t ask him how his novel is going.  That’s because I know.  I recognise that pained look.  I’ve seen it in the mirror too many times.)

OK, I know its good advice.  The right advice.

As Leonie Dawson puts it, I need to choose a wild donkey and ride the shit out of it till its done.

Every writer has a place where they habitually get stuck.  A psychological Marianas Trench on the road to getting their work into the readers’ hands, one that they tumble into every time.  For some it is grinding the words out, which for them is like sweating blood.  For others, it is coming up with the idea in the first place.  Some worry when they get to the middle because that’s always where they get bogged down, and some will spend ten years writing the first page.  We all have our Achilles’ heel.

For me, its choosing which idea to stick with.

So I have decided to take September off.  Not from writing; quite the opposite, in fact.  No, I’m taking the month off from worrying which novel to concentrate on.  I’m in a physically stuck place right now, and I need to concentrate on my health, on getting my body moving again after a summer of boom and bust energy.  I’m looking to create a smooth, even flow in my life, in my health, and my art.  I have faith that if I can manage to attain a relative level of consistency in my body, the answer will come to me.  Yes, maybe that sounds mad, but its just how my creative process works.

And in the meantime, I’m refreshing my theory knowledge, reading, working on my notebooking, and bashing out some major fanfiction.  I’m easily distracted, and having short stories and novellas on the go is a great way to handle that.  But sooner or later, I want to create something major.  Something big.  Something that shows both me and you, dear Reader, what I can really do.

Happy creating,

EF

On Cabbages and Trombones – Making Language Strange

The expression ‘cabbages and trombones’ was one used by the poet Ian Macmillan at a recording of a poetry radio show which I went to see with a friend a while back, and the phrase stuck with me.  He was talking about how poets seek to make language strange and startling, how they seek to use it to weave a rich tapestry of image and idea.  That, after all, is the purpose of poetry, to enrich our experience of life with pattern and syllable.

The concept chimed with me again when my husband was wrestling with a writing problem of his own.  Besides being an academic, he runs an online whisky company, and occasionally works as a whisky writer.  He had been asked to contribute reviews of a variety of whiskies for this book.  Little bottles duly began to arrive in the post every morning, and off he went at a rate of three or so per evening.  Everything was fine for the first thirty tests or so.  But then he began to run out of descriptors.  Just how many new adjectives can you come up with when you’ve got 60 whiskies to review?  They can’t all taste of TCP or green jelly babies.  Can each review really be different from the last?

And today, as I busy myself with planning my new writing schedule, and working on new stories, it has come back again.

Experts say those with a college education generally have about 12,000-17,000 words in their vocabulary, but as writers we need to have far more and we need to use them in unusual and riveting ways.  I realise that I have dropped into the habit of reading very little but fanfiction, and if you are a fanfiction reader yourself, you will know that there are a lot of linguistic ruts involved.  Favourite words include laving, ravishing, carding (of luxuriant hair), trembling and so on.  No fanfic is complete without somebody emitting ‘ragged breath’.  If you have read enough of these, you begin to spot the clichés.  If you read too many, they scream out of the screen at you.  (I hold my hands up and say I am as guilty as any of falling into this trap!)

The trouble is that if you don’t read more widely than just what other people write on the internet, your vocabulary stays static.  This is what mine has been doing.  Now I am writing again on a daily basis, I have realised how stagnant my linguistic skills have become.  Of course, its not just words, but metaphors and similes.  I need to polish up my style, make it strange and new.  I need to expand my consumption, and open my mind.

 WARNING:  Incoming Master Plan for Expanding Lingustic Skills:

I’m taking a two-pronged attack:

  1. Widen my reading
  2. Use my notebook at all times

I’ve been reading just fanfics and nonfiction all summer, and its been a long time since I actually finished a proper novel.  You can’t be a writer if you don’t read.  Mostly I just read at bed time, a few paragraphs to help me drift off.  But I need to take Stephen King’s sage advice:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

Stephen King, “On Writing”,

Hodder and Stoughton (2000) p164

 Of course, I’ve got a whole pile of books lying around, waiting to be ploughed through.  Top of the pile are ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern, and ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan.  I don’t especially like McEwan, but I am determined not to let this bloody book defeat me.  It’s the third time I’ve tried to read it, after all, and I refuse to be beaten!

I have also decided to follow Ian Macmillan’s advice.  Poetry is the way to go.  I’m not a reader of poetry – I’ve barely read any since my degree – but if you want to know about making language strange, go to the experts.  I went to the library yesterday and got out two collections, one of Ted Hughes, and one of Simon Armitage, because I had heard of them.  I’ll let you know if it works.

The second prong (I love that word, don’t you?) is more nebulous.  Out comes my little red Moleskine.  I need to think about how I am going to get the ball rolling on this particular aspect, but just jotting down a few ideas on what the weather feels like, smells like, tastes like, or overheard conversations, or the colours of shadows, might be a good start.  Again, I’ll let you know how I get on.

In the meantime, here’s to cabbages and trombones.  And whisky that tastes of TCP and green jelly babies.  Both of which have taught me a lot about writing.

(Incidentally, you may like to know that I am currently publishing a new fanfic called ‘A Shadow of His Former Self’.  You can find it here at A03, and here at Fanfiction.net.  I hope it takes your fancy.)

Happy creating,

EF

The Need for Habit

calendarI’m crabby.  It’s been two days, and I’m not fit to know.  This should not be happening.  I’ve had a lovely holiday, nearly two weeks with the Husband at home, sunshine, dear friends and family visiting, trips to the beach and great food.  Yesterday, even the Husband noticed I was out of sorts, which is saying something!

This morning I was fed up to the back teeth with myself.  I really hate feeling like this.  Stale.  I sat down with my journal and worked it out.  What is it that is making me so grumpy?

Turns out, it’s the very thing that should be making me happy.  My holiday.

The critical mass of creativity has now built up to such an extent that I need to get back to work.  Holidays are great, and important times for reflection and rest.  Don’t get me wrong.  But I’m ready to get back to it now.

What I’ve been saying all along is true.  You need the Habit of Art.

Well, I need it, in any case.

I need to get back into my routine.  I need the Husband to go back to work so I can have the house to myself.  I need my thinking time, my moodling time, and I can’t have that with someone else in the house, no matter how much I love them (and I do), because my first reflex is always to consider them first, and put myself and my art second.  Even inside my head.  I find myself resenting the people I love, and my family and friendship commitments, if I don’t have this mental and creative space.  My well has been filled, my Muse is ready to let rip, and I am bubbling with ideas.  What I need is the time and space to get to it.

I need my routine back.

I can’t do this yet.  I’ve a bunch of things to get through first.  Lots of socialising with dear friends.  There will be more trips to the beach, and strawberries to eat in the garden in the sun.  My Muse can get as grumpy as she likes, but I can’t let her out just yet.

It’s not long now, though.

And it’s great to know, thanks to my journal, that it’s not the fact that I have run out of ideas that is making me a bad-tempered cow.  My creative juices haven’t run stale.  It’s just that there is no space right now to get the words or paint on the page.  I must be patient.  The time will come.  I have had my rest, refilled the well, and now I am revving at the start of this new race!

And then, come the green light, and Hooray for the Habit of Art!

Happy creating and holidaying, whichever you are doing,

EF

Outflow: My Creativity Right Now

Picasso ceramicsWe are having a heatwave here in the UK, and I’m not very good in hot weather.  The result is that my brain has gone on strike, as has much of my body.  Which makes me think about ‘creative seasons’ and the Habit of Art.

My ongoing health problems taught me long ago to have peace with the days when I can’t do anything beyond lie on the sofa and practise my groaning. ( I’m getting quite good at groaning, I have to say.)  Chronic Illness is, however, a bit of an extreme way of forcing oneself to recognise one’s creative cycles, and not one I would recommend.

There are lots of creativity gurus who are adamant that turning up at the page, or the canvas, and making yourself do the work is the only way forward, and for the most part, I would agree.  But what do you do on the days, like today, when it just ain’t gonna happen?

Take note, that’s what.

I find my creativity goes in bursts, as I have mentioned before, and in recent years I have noticed that my writing seagues slowly into art in the summer months.  Writing is a great thing to be doing when the weather is cold and wet, and all you want to do is curl up in the warm.  In the summer, though, the urge to get out there into the landscape and experience the world is almost irresistible, as anyone who has ever worked through the summer in an office will agree.  Right now I am experiencing the difficult-to-ignore urge to paint rather than write.

And I am OK with that.

Yes, I am feeling a bit frustrated that I can’t settle to the writing projects I want to progress, but I can’t force it, or I will get resentful, and probably produce pages of complete drivel that I’ll hate later.  The urge to be creative is still with me, though.  It is just taking a different, more exterior form.  I want to draw, paint, decorate pottery, make cushion covers, garden, and bake cupcakes.  So that’s what I’m going to do – at least as soon as the weather cools down and my brain starts functioning again!

There is a tension between turning up to create and the creative seasons themselves, and the skill of a true creative is to be able to accept the difference between a) the resistance to sitting at the desk and working, which is procrastination and stopping oneself being all one can be, and b) the natural flow of creativity as it morphs from one season to the next.  There is much to be said for making yourself sit down to create every day, but using it as a stick to beat yourself with is not helpful.  We need to be aware of when our creativity transforms, and to trust it enough to go with the flow.  This doesn’t mean I am abandoning my writing for good, simply that I know that right now, that isn’t where my best work will come.

The image in my head to illustrate this is when Picasso discovered the provencale village of Vallauris and threw himself into the art of ceramics.  I have no doubt there were those who worried that his canvas days were over, but that was far from the truth.  Instead, he trusted his creative urges enough to know that ceramics was a road he had to walk at that point in his life.

So I am trying to emulate Picasso, and to be at peace with where my creative road is taking me.  It’s not easy, and Nigel has a lot to say about not having the gumption to get on with the novel, but frankly, STUFF NIGEL!  Lets get out in the sun, eat ice cream, and do creativity the way we need to right now!

Happy sun-bathing and creating,

EF