Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 23

Recently, at my writer’s group, a fellow writer who is beginning her chosen art form told me that she was advised to not write above an eighth-grade level.  I remember several seconds of stunned silence between us before I asked, “Who told you that?”  Based on her troubled countenance, I don’t doubt that the horror of this suggestion came through in my tone.  I’ve also been told that my facial expressions convey exactly what I’m thinking, so I hope I didn’t overwhelm the poor woman with my response.  I wanted her to run screaming, just not from me.  If I didn’t scare her off, I’ll make sure I soften my reactions when discussing such matters in the future.

Still, I am shocked that this type of bad advice is floating around writer’s groups.  The last time I checked, there were still twelve grades a student in America needed to complete.  Somebody please tell me if the progression of education stopped at grade eight.  That would mean my child, currently a senior, has read nothing beyond an eighth-grade level for the past four years.  That’s insane.  Then again, I recall the small heart attack I experienced when I saw Stephenie Meyer’s The Host on the high school reading list.  Which piece of classic literature found itself guillotined at the inclusion of that piece of tripe?

I have suspected for a long time that the art form of writing was under attack.  My fellow writer’s comment confirmed this.  So when did the dumbing down of American literature begin?  I don’t know if I can actually pinpoint the precise moment it occurred, but I can tell you the moment I became aware of it.  (And shame on me for not being more vigilant if it took place sooner.)

Dumbing down is the deliberate oversimplification of intellectual content within education, literature, cinema, news, video games, and culture in order to relate to those unable to assimilate more sophisticated information.

I remember the day I saw a t-shirt printed with the statement “underachiever and proud of it.”  I had another moment, not quite as intense as that with my fellow writer, but one in which I was completely baffled.  I could not fathom a person or society comprised of people who willingly settled for mediocrity in anything and a world in which one did the bare minimum to get by.  There is no hope of success when one functions under such a principle.

And yet, this is exactly where we, as a society, have fallen twenty-five years later.  It’s as if those who bullied the smart kids for hanging out at the library weren’t content to just harass their fellow students.  They wouldn’t stop until the smart kids not only condoned but encouraged this stagnation of the intellect.  If you don’t get on board—don’t hold yourself back from seeking knowledge or temper your drive and ambitions—you’ll be labeled  a snob in the least and intolerant at the worst.

So again I ask:  why this attack on art?  Because art is dangerous.  Art tells the truth.  Artists are freethinkers who challenge the status quo.  It was a novelist and playwright who said, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”  A gold star to anyone who can tell me who said this.  Here’s where the problem of proud underachiever comes in.  The generation in which this concept became acceptable doesn’t care enough to find out who said the above-mentioned quote or what the quote even means.  They are too lazy to want this information for themselves and are disdainful toward anyone who does.  If it isn’t required of them in school, and based on the poor quality of curriculum in American schools I doubt that it is, they won’t reach out and grasp the knowledge.

That’s pathetic when you consider that we live in an era where knowledge is readily accessible.  No more searching through the card catalog or plowing through large volumes of encyclopedias.  You don’t even have to go to the library.  Just ask Alexa, Cortana, or Google what you need to know from the comfort of your couch.  Be sure to wait until the commercial or you’ll miss the best part of your favorite recorded TV show.

What troubles me about his indolent attitude is that it’s creeping backward and contaminating older generations.  Hopefully it won’t pollute the writing of those already established and feeling pressured to churn out more or older writers just beginning to pursue their passion.  As for me, I am personally committed to fighting this process of dumbing down by writing the best literature I can and by seeking to improve myself in every way.  I am not afraid to compete, to go for the gold.  After all, why run the race if I don’t intend to win?

I’ll most likely be among the first to die if America ever succumbs to an oppressive regime because we all know how much tyrants fear artists.  But If I can leave behind a written work that the next generation, possibly the survivors, smuggle from home to home and hold up as an example of what they should strive for, then my art—my writing—will not have been in vain.

The Artist’s Corner – Michelle Smith, Photographer

When I seriously started to hone my chosen craft of writing, one of the first things I noticed was how closely related the approach is too many other forms of art.  Whether it’s cooking, painting, composing, dancing, or taking pictures, we all start with desire and ability.  Where it goes from there depends on our level of commitment, how we respond to mistakes, rejection, and criticism, and how we allow ourselves to grow.  The great artists press on and realize that their success isn’t measured by fame or fortune.

In A Snapshot of Writing, I detailed one of my favorite crossover art forms, photography.  After re-reading the post, the idea came to me to feature other artists and discuss their approach to their chosen art form.  I decided to start with brilliant, budding photographer Michelle Smith.

Welcome to The Artist’s Corner.  Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I’m a survivor.  My strength is my compassion.  I’m a pet person with a rescue cat addiction.  I’m destined to be the crazy cat lady, but my husband and son won’t let me.

Do you put yourself into your photography?

I do.  I’ve had some rough spots in my life, so I’m trying to tell a story through what I’m taking pictures of.  They reflect who I am and how I’m trying to find myself.  I want to be seen, and although it’s who I am now, it’s not where I want to stay, it’s not who I want to be.

Ankle deep in commitment.

What has your experience been?

I was a stay-at-home mom for ten years before I started my career at thirty-four as an EMT and then progressed to paramedic.  I worked for a private ambulance company for eight and a half years, three and a half years of that was in training and education.  I currently work in the ER Department of a hospital as an active paramedic.  I love it!

Did your work experience lead to the pursuit of photography?

No, actually it didn’t.  My husband’s job did.  He’s a detective who trained in taking crime scene photos.  His experience piqued my interest in photography.

How did you develop your passion for photography?

I started going with him to take picture outside of the crime scenes.  He shot landscapes, objects, places, and eventually senior class pictures.  I found myself telling him what to take pictures of, and I started taking the camera from him.  He’d just chuckle at me.  Then he started explaining what I was looking for and how to work the settings, but I didn’t pay attention at first because it wasn’t my camera.  I let him move the settings, and I took the picture.

That lasted for about six months until he gave me a camera for Christmas.  We were going on vacation, and he knew I’d want my camera for the trip, so I got it in November.  It was either give me my own camera or lose his!

What’s your inspiration?

Spending time with my husband because it’s something we have in common.  Listening to him patiently tell me how to use my camera.  Taking long car rides to where we’re going to go take pictures and chatting about it on the way.

What do you enjoy photographing?

I enjoy taking pictures of abandoned places because I feel sad for them.  I think of all the things that took place there.  I don’t have memories of these places so I think what happened here?  I wonder about the families that were displaced, the moms who raised their kids there, and the people who lost their jobs.  Where are these people now?  Time has forgotten these places and no one wants to hear the stories, so I take pictures of the abandoned places and tell their story through my photography.

Where can someone find you online?  Do you have a website?

I have some of my pictures posted on ViewBug under the name Just4FunPhotography.  You can find them on the home page newest to oldest.

In which contests have you competed?  What awards have you won?

On ViewBug, I participated in peer-created challenges and received the People’s Choice award in the categories of Lanterns, Save the Rain Forest, and Toy Planes.  I also received the ViewBug Member Selection Award and Staff Winter Selection for 2015.  I took first place in Nature and also in Architecture at the Portage County Randolph Fair.  At the Lake Community Branch of the Stark County District Library’s Annual Photo Contest, I took first place in Nature and second place in Architecture.

Do you take photos for people?  How does a client contact you?

I haven’t yet for major events such as weddings, graduations, but I’m willing to learn.  I think I’m afraid to because you can’t have that moment back like you can with a landscape or object.

What is your process for photographing people?

Well, actually, my focus is on landscapes or objects.  I’m not a big fan of people pictures, so all the movement in my photographs is natural:  waterfalls, wind through the trees.  Right now, I don’t incorporate people.

How is what you shoot for yourself different from what you do for people?

When I shoot for myself, I look at the picture with a more critical eye because I am the photographer.  I’m harder on myself than when I’m shooting for others.  That’s not to say that I don’t put all my effort into shooting for other people.  I take their requests very seriously.

It’s a great satisfaction for me to be able to take a photo for someone and capture it exactly as they wanted.  Recently, I took pictures of pigs at a fair for a friend who grew up raising pigs for 4-H.  I wasn’t sure I got exactly what she wanted because I couldn’t get past the fences to take the pictures.  She loved them because that’s what she remembered:  looking at pigs up close through the fence.  It was a successful shoot because I made her happy.

Has your work ever been used for commercial purposes?

No, but I’d definitely consider it.  For National Geographic; I want that shot!  It’s the dream.  I’d also like to see my picture of a baseball player on a card or the electronic billboard at the game.  Or maybe a hockey player because of their facial expressions.  If you have patience, and capture the right moment, they have some intense expressions.  But then I’d have to photograph people!

What’s your favorite photograph that you’ve taken?

I have to choose one?  I have two!  I captured it on my first day out with my own camera.  Picture this:  With butterflies all around, capturing just one was difficult.  I turned to notice the curls of a flower vine hanging just above my head.  As I admired its beauty, this butterfly fluttered right down onto the dangling vine.  I was filled with excitement and literally shook!  I slowly raised my camera into position, took a deep breath, and then snapped the picture.  Then I recalled my lessons; even though I took the picture, the settings may not have been correct for this situation.  I reined in my excitement and slowly changed the settings to capture the picture as you see it.  I smiled, thinking to myself, Wow that’s going to be amazing.  This photograph has no post-process editing.  I named it Curly Q.

My second favorite is of the 1792 distillery rickhouse in Kentucky.  It’s called Master Distiller Approved.  I applied the rule of thirds and vanishing points to the picture, but when I snapped it, it came out with too much backlight from the windows.  I closed the aperture, and it was perfect.  Plus the smell of bourbon in there was heavenly!

What’s your dream photograph?

Are you really ready?  People are going to think I’m freakin’ crazy.  I want to capture what was left behind after Chernobyl.  After viewing other photographers’ work, I became inspired and decided that’s one of my dream shots.  It’s part of the abandoned place thing.  So many lives were lost, these people had no time to pack, they were evacuated in forty-eight hours, and told they were leaving for just a short time.

The other, I’m claustrophobic so it’s never going to happen, is to photograph the abandoned hulls of underwater shipwrecks.  I’d like to do war ships, but you can’t get close.  Talk about stories to tell!

What’s your biggest beef with photography?

Photoshopping!  Lightroom, a program that fixes the picture and makes it more than it was to begin with.  It’s not real, and photographers are getting awards for this type of work.  The pictures are over processed, over edited.  There’s a minimum of allowable tinkering.  All I’ll do is sharpen, define, and noise reduction which fixes shaking.  If the picture is already good, it’s not even noticeable.  There is some post-processing no matter who you are (National Geographic, Victoria’s Secret, or Sports Illustrated), but you can’t make a bad photo good.  Well, you can, but that’s cheating.

My other complaint is photographers who steal other people’s work.

Would you like to work full-time as a photographer?  If so, how do you see your business growing?

Absolutely!  To enjoy your hobby as a career could be more relaxing than the grind of an everyday job that is so-so.  Not that my job is so-so.  Remember, I love being a paramedic.  Breaking in to the world of photography to make your name takes time and commitment.  There’s the investment in equipment unless you get hired in somewhere that supplies equipment.  So, I’d work for someone commercially to get started.

Then there’s the investment in your craft.  I’m still learning and growing my confidence.  I need to work at handling variables such as people (they’re so unpredictable!) and not putting a picture in my head and trying to make it happen.

Do you work alone or with a partner?

I prefer going with someone else.  I enjoy going with other people whether they’re photographers or not because when they see something they want a picture of, I can give it to them.  I don’t have to guess at what they’ll like.  It’s quite confidence building to deliver a picture right then and have them be pleased.  Plus I like to chat with people!

Triple Play on Words

Today’s The Weight of Words arose from a conversation I had with a Facebook friend regarding which flavor of MoonPie appealed to my palate.  I paused over what I had typed, and since I’m a writer (and it would look bad to post a typo) and a perfectionist, I took a moment to double check myself.

Turns out I used the correct spelling of palate which refers to the taste of something, one’s preference in taste, and the top of your mouth.

Her discerning palate detected the flavor of oak, apples, and honey in the chardonnay.

Banana MoonPies reign supreme on my palate!

Touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth to feel the hard and soft palate.

Palette can be the board upon which artists place dollops of paint or a range of colors.

She mixed cerulean and cobalt blue on her palette to create a most beautiful shade for clouds.

The sunset was a palette of subtle pinks and smoky purples dashed with mandarin orange rays.

Pallet is a platform used for moving things.  It can also refer to a small bed or straw mattress.

The warehouse workers loaded the pallets with dry goods before shrink-wrapping them.

Mother made a small pallet of blankets on the porch during summer for us to sleep on.

Sidebar:  Did you know that MoonPie has a website where you can buy the delicious treats and other cool stuff!

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 18

writers-soul-18Last week I read the chapter in Heather Sellers’s book, Page After Page, where she compares the source of one’s great writing to a compost heap. That seemed apropos because there are days when I feel like my writing is… well, you get the point.

Anyhow, if you haven’t read her book, I highly recommend you do. There is a reason I keep returning to it as a source of inspiration unlike any other writing book I’ve ever read. Rather than expound upon those reasons again, simply search my blog for posts where I mentioned Heather Sellers and/or Page After Page. Back to the compost.

According to Mrs. Sellers, our life provides the best source of writing material because we keep it hidden beneath layers of time, and like compost, it ferments to the place where the events become less painful and/or incredibly memorable. It is then that we should till the compost of our existence, digging deep, to dredge a great story. How profound.

But I don’t want to write about the time in third grade when two friends, with whom I thought I shared an amazing friendship, passed notes saying they’d rather not hang with me. I intercepted one such note. Or the time my dad gave my dog away on my birthday and packed me off to my cousins’ house to spend the night while he did so. Or the time my mom accidentally put my guinea pig out to graze right after my dad fertilized the yard. Or the time my first real boyfriend trounced my heart with my former best friend. You get the picture.

Just so you don’t think I’m poor-mouthing my life, or parents, there are great memories, too. One that springs to mind I don’t actually recall, but I’m told I gushed, “I love my daddy; he lets me ride my horsey,” after I received a hobby horse for Christmas. Then there are all the wonderful memories of my mother as Troop Leader during my Girl Scout years, especially when she took us to COSI.

What concerns me as a writer is writing about myself and/or writing myself into a story. Several people who have read different pieces of my work say things like, “Oh, Prudence Mayfield is so you,” (The Secrets of Dr. John Welles) and, per my husband regarding my current WIP, “Yeah, the mother in that story is totally you.” My son also says this about the daughter in the same story. And once, my mother said, “I recognize what happened in this short story as you in high school.”

These comments surprised me because I wasn’t consciously writing myself into my work. I suppose subconsciously, I was dredging through my compost. So much the better if it makes the writing great. But to intentionally write about myself and experiences? I’m not so sure about that. There are some dark, dank, compost-y places in my head and heart that I believe should just stay there.

Another reason why this whole thought process intrigues me is because I have a major complaint against writers who vehemently insist that the story wasn’t about them. Then you read their biography and, just as you suspected, it reflects their life so perfectly, they might as well have used their real name.

Now I know there is a small part of every writer that is written into his or her work even if it’s just his or her preferences regarding food which his or her protagonist just happens to like as well. Even hopes and dreams can reflect who the author is. Writers – quit trying to deny this. So, I’m left with the questions: how much of myself do I intentionally write into my work? And, if asked, do I confess that I wrote a passage so well because I experienced what my character(s) did? Or do I turtle my head into my coat and swear it wasn’t me?

I already believe that I serve my heart upon a platter for dissection, AKA public opinion. All artists feel this way. Rather than becoming caught up in trying to determine how much of me is in the story, just enjoy it, and trust that I have quite a bit of compost from which to grow new tales.

A Day in the Life

img_20160922_0851090761So the top portion of my uniform is back from the laundry. I sure hope they removed all the cat hair this time. I adore my cats, Henry and Simon, but let’s face it, they leave quite a bit of hair in places they shouldn’t. Like my couch and my uniform. It’s a good thing they’re light-colored cats or it would really show up! But I hear the laundress is an amazing woman. I believe she’s a writer, too.

a-day-in-the-life-2Anyhow, I have to don the bottom part of my uniform because I have to stop working for a few moments to take the kiddo to school. For some reason, he doesn’t appreciate my choice of uniform pants. I tell him he has no sense of style. He rolls his eyes. What can you expect from a teenager? He comes home from school, wipes out the food in our cupboards like a ravenous locust, and has the gall to look at me in my uniform and say, “You haven’t showered yet?” The ingrate. Does he think all this writing happens by magic? And what does the kid have against the Autobots?

a-day-in-the-lifeAt least I can stop by the refueling station for some gas after dropping him off. I know some people prefer that pricey fuel with the fancy green mermaid on the cup, but I find my favorite establishment brews a tasty cup of java juice. Besides, I don’t require all that frou frou stuff to keep me going. The grittier the brew, the better the writing I always say. And depending on how good they did with mixing the perfect balance of coffee and cream will determine if I visit my other favorite libation in the evening to keep the writing going.

Now the really hard part starts: tending one’s social media without getting sucked in to cute kitten videos and all the political garbage flying around. Ten minutes is what I usually allow myself which means I’ll be on Facebook and Twitter at least an hour. My punishment is to stare at a blank screen for the rest of the day as I try to come up with blog posts, short fiction, and another chapter in my current WIP. One of the benefits of being a writer is that you get to use cool acronyms like WIP, POV, and MSWL.

img_20160812_185540197So here I sit. Instead of fascinating storylines that will keep my readers riveted, all I can think about is the ten years’ worth of scrapbooking I need to do in time for my kid’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor. See how I worked a little shameless bragging in there? Another cool part of being a writer. Then there’s the weeding I need to do in the flowerbeds all the while knowing I won’t get to it until next spring when I plan on tearing them out anyhow, all the folding I need to accomplish because I was ill this past week and chores stacked up, decisions about what to make for dinner, wondering who will show up to Critique Group tonight, and my book club selection I need to finish reading. I need a nap.

img_20160906_081749882Time to throw some glitter at the screen and hope the writing fairies show up. Or I could text my mother to see if she’s up. There’s a good chance that making contact with her early in the day will result in an invitation to breakfast. The best part is that I can wear my uniform over to her condominium association because no one over there cares what I look like when I arrive. Got to love the elderly and their screwy sense of fashion! Of course, Mom’s place is the black hole of comfy-ness, and I’ll waste the entire morning over there, accomplishing jack squat toward my writing. Perhaps I’ll just raid the kitchen for some cashews and press on.

Being a writer may sound like an easy job. After all, the uniform alone is a major plus. But imagine giving yourself really hard homework for the rest of your life. Not only do you have to create the task, you have to provide the solution. There are days you love it and days you wish someone would have hit you in the head with a ball bat or at least warned you what it would be like. It’s an addiction, and no matter how long a break you give yourself, you always come back to it. It is a vicious cycle, and the doubts and fears can pop up at any time even when you thought you’d vanquished them two years ago.

And yet, you can’t help but create, and when you remember that you’re part of an amazing group of people known as The Creatives, which also includes artists, musicians, photographers, etc., it helps you get through the long, dry spells of no ideas and rejection letters. Take comfort in the fact that unlike many people who only wished they had taken up the pen, you actually did. When querying feels like you’ve placed your beautiful baby in the public view and begged for someone to tell you everything that’s wrong with it, remember that you had the guts to query in the first place. You rock. I rock. Heck, we’re all pretty amazing when you get right down to it. If me telling you that isn’t enough, take it from people who have been where we’re all hoping to end up. (Writing Inspiration)

Now, go forth and create. I have to get back to staring at my blinking cursor.

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 16

Writers are an odd lot. We’d be the first to admit it. Writer’s post things like “That moment when you finish a book, look around, and realize that everyone is just carrying on with their lives as though you didn’t just experience emotional trauma at the hands of a paperback.” And because we’re writers, we’re also readers. At least we should be.

We reading/writing types are deeply and emotionally attached to the characters we read about. They become real for us in a way that often defies description. The closest I can come is to say that when I finish a well-written book, I feel as if I’m leaving behind great friends. Non-readers may scoff at us, suggesting that we simply re-read the book. That is an option, but what we want as readers is to move forward with our favorite characters, possibly gathering them all together regardless of genre, entwining them in our lives. That may seem a titch odd, but what can I say? We’re artists; perhaps this is why we write.

The interesting thing I have discovered as a reader/writer is that just like our real friends, we each have different criteria for which fictional characters we will allow in our lives. What first brought this to my attention was when I learned that my friend was reading Gone With the Wind for her classical literature book club. We discussed the book over lunch during which I admitted that I pushed myself to read it and could barely make it halfway through. I hated every minute of that piece of vintage literary fluff which actually surprised me because it came so highly recommended. After Margaret Mitchell’s endless declarations about the quaint South and dreary passages of battle scenes, the book was incredibly mediocre. Yet it wasn’t the writing that ruined it for me.

Scarlett was. I hated her. Each self-centered deed and word I had to endure at the hands of Scarlett made me want to beat her with a stick. I rooted against her at every turn and rejoiced when she didn’t get her way. Throw in spineless Ashley and sickening Melanie, and there was no way I was going to finish this book. I simply cannot stand annoying people in my real life, so why would I waste my time enduring three fictional nuisances? My friend, on the other hand, found Scarlett to be funny in her total self-absorption. Maybe my friend is more patient that I am.

Writer's Soul 16Then Dale came to mind. She’s a character from Joanna Trollope’s book, Other People’s Children. Dale was every bit as self-serving and manipulative as Scarlett and more so because she possessed a psychological hold on two other characters. She was evil, she was brilliant. I hated her with a passion and seriously considered writing Mrs. Trollope to request a sequel in which Dale was killed off slowly and painfully.

So what was the difference? Well, I’d never willingly allow someone like Dale in my life, but I wouldn’t hesitate to take her head on either. Whereas pathetic, annoying Scarlett wouldn’t earn a second glance from me as I ignored her in the most obvious ways possible. However, we’re dealing with the fictional realm, and in this world, Scarlett would never be able to compete with Dale as a worthy opponent and one that would engage me as a reader. Where Margaret Mitchell failed with Scarlett, Joanna Trollope succeeded with Dale.

In addition to the writing behind amazing characters that have the ability to evoke great response from the reader, our desires and tolerances make them appealing to us whether they are the protagonist, antagonist, or peripheral character. These factors combined determine who we will welcome into our minds. The beauty of this is that your choices don’t have to be all pleasant ones. You can fall for the bad character without any harmful side effects unlike real life where allowing the wicked person into your life may destroy you. It’s quite brilliant, really, and I wonder why more people don’t read.

Write Happy!

Dream Cooking

Dream CookingThe weather in Northeast Ohio has been bitterly cold lately. We’re paying for the month of December when we ran around in shirtsleeves and windbreakers. Personally, I’d rather spread out the bad weather instead of having it dumped on us all at once.

The cold puts everyone in the mood for soup, stew, or chili. Recently, my husband’s family all met at his parent’s house where everyone enjoyed a delicious ground sirloin and root vegetable stew. I took two loaves of bread which we cut into huge chunks for sopping up broth. The evening was a perfect blend of good food, great conversation, laughter, and reminiscing.

Today I’m making a pot of chili to combat the falling temperatures. Every family has their own recipe, or rather non-recipe, of ingredients combined without measuring until the chili tastes the way it’s supposed to. As I chop the onion and green pepper, press the garlic, I think about my Swedish photographer friend who I met on Twitter.

I came late to social media because it served no purpose in my life. If social media couldn’t allow me to hear my friends’ laughter, dry their tears, feel the warmth of their hugs, share a glass of wine or cup of tea, or lend a shoulder, then it held no value. Why would I even consider it when I’m the person who complained that e-mail doesn’t allow for the tone of voice to come through and it leads to too many misconstrued statements and hurt feelings? I’m still extremely cautious about what I type in posts, e-mails, tweets, etc.

Then one day I had to take the plunge into Facebook, Twitter, and a blog for the sake of my author platform. I’ll cut to the chase and admit that’s it’s proven to be successful and quite fun. Also quite addictive, so remember why you signed up in the first place. Don’t ignore the work, writing in my case.

But the most important part of my social media experience has been the connections I’ve made with people I’ve never met, only seen in the little photos they use as their profile icons, and never heard speak. They’ve become real friends, and it’s them I’m thinking about today as I cook.

I wrote a post about apple pie not too long ago, and the friend I mentioned above commented that it’s a favorite in Sweden as well. She tweeted a picture of her beautiful kitchen, and I instantly fell in love with it. I replied that someday, we would cook together in her kitchen. She agreed…someday.

Ever since that tweeted conversation, I have dreamt about the two of us baking together. We would probably start with apple pie, while laughing and chatting at her kitchen table, hands warming around mugs of tea. We’ll take turns peeking in the oven, mouths watering, as we anticipate the rich dessert.

My imagination doesn’t end there for I’ve made other wonderful friends online. My handsome photographer friend from India breezes in without knocking because all are welcome here. He arrives from whatever exotic location he was photographing. A touch of mystery swirls in on the chill breezes, and we laugh and scold him to shut the door. After much foot stomping to knock snow off his boots, he sits at the table with his own mug of tea. No apple pie yet; it’s cooling on the counter.

Right behind him, my American poet friend knocks politely before poking his head in and calling hello. His online presence is so kind, so thoughtful, that I imagine him as soft spoken, warm, and gentle: a perfect blend of Robert Frost and a favorite uncle. His photography includes familiar pictures from daily life. That, too, is comforting. He joins us at the table, eyeing up the cooling pie.

Three more photographer friends arriving from India, America, and Finland join us as if they lived right around the corner. There’s enough room around the table that’s magically big enough to accommodate all of us. Many hands participate in the preparation of a pot of something savory now simmering on the stove. Fresh bread is baking. The men demand dessert; the ladies smile and say not until after dinner.

Then my writing friends drop in. I’ve invited them to meet the photographers. The first is a lion-hearted writer with a terrific smile. Then my comic-loving writer friend and my successfully self-published writing friend from England join the United Nation of Artists gathered at the table. Just as the table is being set for dinner, my part-scientist/part-writer friends hustles in. He laughs and says the weather is either cold with too much snow to shovel or hot with too much grass in need of cutting.

Chairs are added to the table, writers squeeze in between photographers, dinner is served. Conversation is replaced with murmurs of satisfaction. The stew is delicious. Suddenly, the door bangs open announcing one more writing friend to add to the mix. She apologizes as she wriggles out of her coat, tosses her snow-crusted gloves on the warm stove, brushes her long brown hair over her shoulders, and finds an empty spot at the table meant just for her. The t-shirt she wears catches every eye; it’s printed with the naked torso of a man staring just below the chin and ending just below his navel. Grins of appreciation for the intriguing shirt leave no doubt in which genre she prefers to write.

After dinner, as friends turned family push back from the table claiming they have no more room for another bite, dessert is served. Coffee and tea are refreshed. A pie that normally would have served eight at the most transforms into miraculous bounty. There is enough for everyone to have seconds. It is around midnight, and everyone’s spirits are still high. All heads turn at the sound of the door opening one more time.

The last friend to join our impromptu party has been out walking, planning paintings, sussing life’s situations, and enjoying his retirement. His wandering has brought him home, so to speak. Everyone presses him into a chair, places stew, bread, and pie in front of him, and asks after his wellbeing.

I sit back and listen contentedly as writers, photographers, and painters blend perfectly. Art talk abounds. Mugs of warm beverages have given way to glasses of wine. We’ve already started planning our next meal together.

Slowly, each friend fades from view, disappearing in the steam rising from the pot of chili I am stirring. But I can still sense them with me. I say still even though I haven’t met them yet. Someday. Someday it will all start with an apple pie baked in a beautiful kitchen in Sweden.

~~~~~

Thank you to my wonderful friend, Rosita Larsson, for the picture of her beautiful kitchen which inspired this post.

Seeing Is Believing

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then allow me to share with you what this beholder has been eyeing up lately. My appreciation for art in all its many forms wasn’t developed by education or by listening to the critics but rather by finding what I liked and seeking out more of the same. I’ve applied this to the books I read, the way I write, paintings and photography I view, the music I listen to, and the food I eat. Today, let’s focus on visual art.

Michael Ferguson is an abstract artist whose work I found in my Twitter feed. I must have been following someone who retweeted Michael’s art, because the icon he uses for his profile, his own piece titled Essence, immediately caught my eye.

Through our conversations, I’ve learned that many things besides a paintbrush can be used for applying paint to an artist’s chosen surface. Cereal boxes remain among my favorite tools that Michael has used in his creative process. Like many things in life to which I never limit myself to one favorite, I really couldn’t say which of Michael’s pieces I like best. For the sake of space, I’m going to feature Shapes – World simply because my eye landed on this vibrant, colorful piece first. My initial thought upon seeing it was that it looked like a painted dreamscape.

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Shapes-World by Michael Ferguson

I also met photographer, Robert Nacke, on Twitter. Robert’s work resonates with me because he has a unique ability to capture familiar images and present them in a simple yet elegant way. I’ve seen many of his chosen subjects in my everyday life, but don’t think for one minute that this makes them commonplace.

The plump goose crossing the road or the doe with her spotted fawns are brought closer with a fine eye for detail and elevated to the level of art. You can’t help but feel as if what matters and/or what is special in life are important to Robert, too.

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Traveling Song by Robert Nacke

But my association with artists on Twitter didn’t end there. Photographer Rosita Larsson caught my heart with her picture of bleeding hearts, my favorite childhood flower. When I think of Rosita’s work, warmth and freshness always come to mind. I thought her florals were my favorites until I had the pleasure of viewing her forest scenes, nature abstracts, buildings, and landscapes, and I realized that I loved everything she shoots.

She manages to imbue every picture with such clarity that you want to reach out and touch the scene just to feel the velvety dampness of the petal or the heat radiating from a sundrenched stone wall. Rosita’s art breathes life and lifts your spirits all at once.

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Bleeding Heart Up Close by Rosita Larsson

What I love about the work of photographer Irfan Dar is how he fluctuates between wide open pictures with simple objects just catching your eye to close up pictures of intense focus. Whether it’s crisp detail or softened edges, black and white or color, Irfan’s work always has a touch of the exotic in it.

I sense motion in Irfan’s pictures even if it’s just the mist moving subtly across a dense forest or grains of sand shifting beneath a camel’s feet. His photographs will make you want to travel to the places he has been and see the things he has seen.

Solitary by Irfan Dar

Solitary by Irfan Dar

Ismo Raisanen photographs astound me with the depth of color he captures. It’s as if nature gives the very best show when he’s taking pictures. Even snowy winter scenes are brought to life with a range of shades I wouldn’t usually have associated with the season.

The other quality I like about his pictures is how he uses natural lighting to enhance the colors of the landscapes he photographs. Of course sunny scenes depict light in a most spectacular way, but you won’t be disappointed with his shady scenes that provide a great sensory experience to all who view them.

Midsummer Night's Magic

Midsummer Night’s Magic by Ismo Raisanen

I was first drawn to Derrick Scofield’s photographs when he tweeted the South Fork Trestle in color and black and white. Both pictures were equally beautiful in their own way, almost as if he had taken pictures of two completely different bridges.

Derrick presents a wide range of subject matter for his photographs, and this variety lends even more appeal to his artwork. One might be tempted to think he snapped a series of random shots, but closer inspection will reveal that this is the work of a talented photographer because no one person is that lucky. Each scene appears exactly how it should have been photographed, capturing the moment perfectly, lending an emotional quality to the picture.

South Fork Trestle

South Fork Trestle by Derrick Scofield

South Fork Trestle 2 by Derrick Scofield

South Fork Trestle 2 by Derrick Scofield

I hope you enjoyed this visual tour of some of the finest artists on social media today who I have the pleasure of calling my friends.

The Ever-Evolving Art of Writing

I remember the moment I understood that my writing is art. It came after watching a YouTube video of Neil Gaiman give a speech to a graduating class. Prior to that, I believed art was created by masters who worked a lifetime producing museum quality pieces. What a thrill to know that I am creating art.

makegoodart_gaimanBut my discoveries didn’t stop there. As I set out to, per Neil’s advice, make good art, I found that what I wrote kept changing. Fortunately, it changed for the better. I learned some things that I’ll definitely employ and other things that I’m sure will not work for me. One thing I came across, and have blogged about before, is pantsing versus outlining.

Let me clarify: I hate labels. Once you label something, you’re obligated to define it. After you define it, you must maintain it. This leads to the messy business of judging someone who doesn’t agree with your label. That causes more labeling of those who aren’t like you.

What I’m saying is, while I still adhere closer to the pantser end of the spectrum, by the end of my novel, I discovered I’m somewhat of an outliner, too. Go ahead and create a label for that, if you dare.

My outlines probably don’t conform to what one might find in a writing workbook or to those created by other authors. However, I have my color-coded, multi-tabbed spreadsheet of information created so that I don’t to forget all the wonderful ideas that flooded my head when I first decided to write a novel. Unlike traditional outliners, my ideas aren’t all solidified prior to the beginning of my writing; I like to surprise myself, leave a little wiggle room, add some things and remove others.

So, maybe I’ve been producing something a little closer to an outline than I originally thought? I can think of two outliners who are probably happy-dancing right now.

I will never judge anyone for the way in which they choose to create their work of art. That would be like criticizing someone for being a hands-on learner while you’re a book learner. In return, I’ll ask the same of everyone else toward me. At the end of the day, we’re all artists.

Today, I’m stocking my Writing Toolbox with a piece from NY Book Editors called Planning to Outline You Novel? Don’t. This one tips the scales toward pantsing. Whatever style you choose to create your novel, just remember that it has to meets your needs.

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