Sometimes life hands you hot fudge sundaes. Sometimes life hands you a steaming pile of, er, beets like the tray-full my friend, the lizard man is toting.
I'm not a beet fan. Yes, I'll eat them roasted with yams and potatoes, drizzled with olive oil and flavored with rosemary. But steamed, or worse, canned?
Ick, ick and more ick.
But in writing, the beets life hands you can add more flavor to your WIP than you think. I just had one of those steaming piles land on my doorstep and at first all I could do was regard it with dismay. But here's the good news. I'm a Mad Men fan.
Now what does that gloriously wonderful show have to do with beets or writing? It's all about the riding lawnmower. Oh, and the unfortunate events misusing such a garden tool can cause to occur.
In the last episode of Mad Men, a drunken secretary races a John Deere madly through a celebratory office party. Of course there's a mishap. And one amputated foot later, the character Roger Sterling leans into the office past a blood-spattered window and remarks to the despondent employees inside, "Relax boys. Somewhere, sometime in this business, this has happened before."
God bless Roger Sterling.
Of course what happened to me has happened somewhere and sometime before. It's actually a pretty relatable experience. So, I integrated my beet pile into my WIP. And now my main character is sharing my misery. It also gave me a chance to put my particular misfortune, which thankfully wasn't of the riding lawnmower variety, into perspective. And you know, it added a nice dimension to my story.
They may not be so bad after all.
Especially chased with a nice, relaxing glass of wine.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Monday, September 21, 2009
I remember thinking when I was a little kid that teachers seemed both impossibly old and knew everything there was to know in the universe. There was no way, I thought back then, that I'd ever be even half as smart as they were.
Now I spend a fair amount of my time teaching art and writing to little kids. And funny, now the tables have turned. They all seem impossibly young and there's no way, I'm thinking, that I can ever be even half as creative as they are.
Will I ever get a break?
Magic 8-Ball says: Don't hold your breath.
Here's the problem-we live so much of our lives wanting to be something that we're not. When I was a little kid, I wanted to have the power and the smarts of my older teachers. Now that I spend a nice chunk of my time at the hairdresser's getting the gray erased from my head, I yearn for the freedom and the creativity of the little kids I'm teaching.
But the wisdom of the Magic 8-Ball aside, I don't think it has to stay that way. We can go from wanting to getting. And to do that, the first thing we need to do as artists and writers is to remember how to play. Not the adult, competing with teeth bared, leaving no one standing kind of play, but the twirling around in the grass until you fall down or barf sort of play. Or the play where you walk along a curb, pretending that instead of the street just below, it's red hot lava, and if you slip, you'll be burnt to a crisp or eaten by the lava sharks.
Kids do this all the time, no matter all the fuss about them spending too many hours in front of electronic devices. Kids still do play. I see it all the time.
And one thing that is sure to make my day as a teacher is watching them play with their art or writing. Last week, I began a session with a new group of students. The first thing we worked on was dialogue. So I brought lists of animal riddles and the kids were to add tags and punctuation, morphing the riddles to actual dialogue.
The jokes were pretty standard stuff, riddles I remember thinking were funny when I was young-but not so much anymore. But the more elephant riddles or dog riddles or duck riddles I read out loud, the more the kids laughed. And before long, I was laughing too, remembering just why, long ago, I'd thought they were funny. I'd dropped my adult shield for awhile and played.
Then came the time for the kids to read some of their new sentences out loud. There were the bunch of standard 8 year old fare like:
"What's gray and goes up very slowly, but comes down quickly?" burped Burp Man.
"An elephant in an elevator!" barfed Barf Man.
But it was the next boy who read who made me realize how just how important it is to truly play when writing. He stands to read, looking very pleased with himself and giggling a bit before he begins.
"What do you call a cat that eats lemons?" demanded David Hasselhoff.
"A sourpuss!" roared the ghost of Abraham Lincoln.
My mouth fell open and then I laughed. I laughed until my eyes streamed and my nose ran. And then I vowed that I would never forget to play like a kid ever again.
Will I break that promise? Of course. I already have countless times in the last few days. But will I remember to try? You betcha.
The drawing at the top of this page is a sketch for an illustration for a book called, "I Want to be Big Too". It was only published in Korea so I've never seen the final project. But now I think I may have done those kids so far away a disservice. They can get as big as they'd like but I want them to hold onto the magic they haven't outgrown yet.
I want everyone to remember to play.
Posted by Nancy Coffelt at 1:19 PM
Monday, September 14, 2009
I spent a fair amount of time this last week picking grapes at the farm of chidren's book author and Rotten Ralph illustrator Nicole Rubel (http://www.nicolerubel.com/). And then we hauled all those buckets of grapes to my house where we spent another full day cooking all those grapes down to juice in a medieval-looking contraption that hissed and steamed and made my already flat hair go even flatter.
But the results are delicious. I may not know what kind of grapes they are and we didn't worry about the blends of each particular batch. Instead Nicole and I trusted that if we had good ingredients going in, then the end product had a good chance of turning out okay as well.
But near the end of the day, my mom showed up. "What is that thing?" she asked, pointing to the monster on the stovetop. Nicole and I shrugged.
"It's the grape cooker thingy," I answered.
"You've been doing this all day?" Mom then points to the rivulets of condensation rolling down the kitchen windowpane.
Nicole and I nod.
"Why don't you just get a juicer?"
"Because," I sputter like the grape cooker thingy, "we do it this way."
But after she left, Nicole and I wondered if all these years we had been taking the long way around unnecessarily, that we'd been wasting time, that we hadn't taken advantage of an obvious shortcut. But after asking around, I was relieved that we had been absolutely right to spend those many, many hours boiling grapes. It DOES taste better that way. Whew. I may not be a teenager anymore but I still haven't outgrown the need for my mom to be WRONG about something.
And now that my cupboards are full of jars of juice and I'm back to writing I'm seeing how wrangling with the grape cooker thingy is a lot like working on a book. You need to start off with the best ingredients you can. Is your idea sound? Are your characters interesting? If the answer is yes to both then you're not guaranteed a successful outcome, but it doesn't hurt.
Once you have your ingredients then it's cooking, I mean writing time. And that is a long, long time. My computer may not steam up the windows of my studio but it does steam up my brain and I wouldn't be surprised if that makes my hair go flat too. But bit by bit, I have more of the work behind me and the completed first draft chapters are as satisfying to look at as when a new line of jars of juice fills even more of the counter space.
The grape cooker thingy has been put away until next year. But the writing? That's something that never goes out of season.
Posted by Nancy Coffelt at 4:05 PM
Monday, September 07, 2009
Love is a wonderful thing. Wait, that's not right. Love is a many splendored thing. It also makes the world go round, so they say. But then again there is that ditty - Love Stinks. But you know, this little piggy thinks that's just all fine and dandy too.
It's not even close to Valentine's Day and I'm thinking about love this morning. Not for people or even for the little dogs sitting at my feet gazing up at me with adoration. There's a good reason, I'm not equating love with their canine stares. I have a bowl of cereal on my desk and they know it.
"Give us the cereal bowl," their laser eyes beam into my brain, "and nobody gets hurt."
No, I'm thinking about how much I love what I do. I don't think I think about that point enough. In fact, when I get really busy, if I have deadlines or a tough consignment piece to complete or if my teaching schedule suddenly blossoms into something that looks like the man-eating plant in "The Little Shop of Horrors", then I can feel overwhelmed, put-upon - resentful - and that's a long, long way away from love.
And that's a shame. Because I'm wasting all that creative time feeling negative when I could be savoring every single micro-second of what it feels to be able to have a job like this.
I have been extremely busy this summer and I did fall into a kind of do or die funk. I was going to get things done even if it killed me. But this last weekend someone said to me, "You're so lucky. You must love what you do."
My first instinct was to launch into a litany of "poor me, I'm such a pathetic martyr, suffering for my craft". But then I realized the truer answer would be "poor me, I'm such a pathetic martyr, suffering for my crap". Because that's exactly what that type of thinking is.
I am lucky. Oh, it wasn't just luck that allowed me to make my living drawing, writing, or working with others that want to learn to draw or write. I put the time and energy in and there have been lots of dark nights of the soul when it was hard - but the love of it all kept me hanging in there.
And now that love has settled into an old-friend type of love. It's comforting. It's constant, but just like when something outrageous or hilarious flies from an old friend's mouth, that old love can surprise you, shock you, challenge you and make you fall in love all over again.
I am lucky. I write and draw-therefore
Posted by Nancy Coffelt at 9:46 AM