The Artist’s Way

I wish I could be disciplined enough to write one post a day instead of churning three or four posts out in one day and then ignoring my wordpress for two weeks. I think if I was a reader I would be confused. My brother-in-law gets confused easily. He likes to follow along on my writing, which is really cool to me, but whenever I write posts all at once, he thinks he has fallen behind. So in advance, Daniel, I do apologize. This is merely the third post I will be writing today. Perhaps it will be the last, though. You might catch up quickly!

The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, doesn’t remind me of the previous books I’ve read. Before I couldn’t stop writing about the book I was reading, whether it was “Fifty Tools” or “On Writing.” Now, though, I am in a little bit of trouble. I am on page 177, and I think I have found only one or two things to comment on.

First, it amazes me how with each writing book, specifically this one, there is an element of spiritualism. Almost each book I have read so far uses a Bible verse as an illustration, and even in this book, Cameron builds her entire premise on “spiritual electricity.” Somehow writers seem to understand two things: 1) the Bible is well written, and 2) writing is not done alone. Writers need Someone bigger–God–to be part of the writing process.

Secondly, The Artist’s Way is more than a writing book. It covers a new part of the creative journey. Instead of offering technical tips to writing better, Cameron says, “Come, go on a journey with me, a journey of recovery.”

Do you like to create but you are afraid to? Do you take time to have fun in a day, treat yourself well, dream big, and actually live the life you would you like to? Julia Cameron walks college students through this book every semester, but she wrote this book specifically with independent students in mind. Laid out in a twelve-week format, there is a brief chapter to read at the beginning of the week and a set of tasks to do throughout the week.

The tasks are not hard; they are actually quite easy, and I think I would enjoy doing a lot of them: “list twenty things you enjoy doing; describe five traits you like in yourself as a child; list five people you wish you had met who are dead,” etc.

They are simple, yet they make a point. How well do you know yourself? Are you living as God created you–free and completely alive–or are you churning through life, addicted to “what gets you by” or numbs you out so you can’t feel, so you don’t have to deal with the black hole you are wallowing in? Are you living life?

The Artist’s Way is about living a journey, about growing, about dreaming, and Cameron has laid out all the steps; I would encourage anyone to read through her book. If life is monotonous and gloomy, think of The Artist’s Way as a helping hand to see sunshine. Try some of the tasks. I started writing “Morning Pages” (write three pages of random everything each morning), and although I don’t end up writing every morning, I love to write them when I do. They give me a voice, and they pin my ideas down on paper.

Yet I would offer one warning. Don’t expect this book to bring about full recovery from discouragement, frustration, co-dependency, or depression. It won’t come. These expectations are too high for a single book written by human hands. We are all only people. God has to be involved.

God is the one who brings healing. Jesus Christ came, died and rose again, offering us freedom, peace and true life. He is holding out life, abundant life, to each of us. All we have to do is accept it, asking Him to save us. We can’t do it on our own, no matter how many well-written books we read or how many growth-processes we have worked through. Jesus Christ, as the true Healer, worked many miracles among the people in Israel, and He’s still in the miracle-business today. Ask Him to help you. He will.

So, do find a copy of Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and have fun discovering more about yourself. Work through pain and hurts, delight in watching song birds and sunrises again. Write. Paint. Draw. Go horse back riding, scuba diving that trip to Australia you always wanted to make. Delight in being who God created you to be.

Cameron’s book can help; I know it would have helped me over the past three years as I’ve been growing and climbing my own seven-story mountain. Her book helped me today: “Oh, so other people go through stuff like this too!”

It would have been nice reading through The Artist’s Way earlier in my life as God rebuilt this broken reed and helped me learn how to dance again.

“One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” -Andre Gide

Elements of Style

I posted on facebook the other day, “Having breakfast with Strunk & White,” and some people thought my breakfast was a very fine wine while others insisted, “Your style is great. Why are you reading about it?”

Apparently, not everyone has taken an English composition class, tried to understand poetry, had a father who collected books galore, or  searched for top punctuation books online. Apparently, not everyone has heard of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.

The illustration version is beautiful; yes, I must be an English major to say a punctuation book is beautiful, but Maira Kalman did a great job. The pictures spice up the black and white pages, and in a creative way, they explain some of the rules. They make me laugh. They are colorful, out there, a little Picasso thrown in beside the Hemingway and Whitman. Art at its finest.

The rules are to the point. Some of them are obvious. Don’t make two independent clauses one sentence with just a comma in the middle. Everyone should know this. It’s like a run on sentence with a little bump in the middle, not enough to stop the train of thought and tell it, “There’s a new thought coming up.” Some of them, for me, were new or at least a little rusty. “Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.” Um. Okay. If I should.

More than a punctuation handbook, Strunk and White define style, a much stickier part of writing. Anyone can say, “Don’t cut a sentence in two.” That is common sense. What doesn’t make sense is, “When can I break the rules?” When can I, as the author, throw something out there, something uncommon, something unheard of, something that no one has used before?

Strunk and White say, “Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind?”

It’s next to impossible, isn’t it? Yet S & W attempt it. Or they offer hints and ideas of what good style looks like. I think style is half-learned, half-given, and half-fought for, yet their thoughts are very helpful, and I plan to keep them in mind.

Also, this book will join my library shelves someday–illustrations and all–and I plan on referring to it during my own career and recommending it to any careers watching my shaky footsteps. 🙂

British Author Tells Grammar’s Story

It was a very cute little book, one that I actually found myself falling in love with as I turned each page. Humorous, witty, and very insightful, Lynne Truss doesn’t leave any question unanswered when it comes to grammar; but she does lay it out in an amazingly clear, beautiful style. Eats, Shoots and Leaves becomes a story of grammar, and if you argue, “That’s not possible!”,  let me tell you, it actually is! 🙂

Besides the fact that she is from Britain and so the punctuation and spelling are slightly different from ours (which she mentions and clarifies), her humor and scope of vocabulary is astonishing. Sometimes I feel like I am reading a well-written ten-year-old’s term paper; it’s not that it is simple–it is that it is fresh, new, exciting, and not at all boring.

I thought periods were frightfully dull, but after reading her book, I am learning about the dance punctuation plays with words so a reader can hear the rise and fall of energy and emotion as well as the writer. The length of pauses bring life into a simple paragraph of writing: one for a comma; two for a semi-colon; three for a colon; four for a period–and yet, I may be getting her descriptions completely mixed up because I am just remembering and writing about the book; I’m not copying word for word what she said; I am throwing out here what my memory learned.

Like about the uses and brilliance behind semi-colons and colons! I had no idea! Did you? No idea at all. Now I stick them liberally in all my writings: and I am afraid I have no idea how to use them anymore! 🙂

It’s great fun! Reading a grammar book and coming away with more inaccuracies than before . . .  I am afraid Truss would be horrified. Her seventh sense (the one that finds advertisements misspelled and billboards unpunctuated) would probably explode in shock. She meant her book to be a guide; I made it into a liberator.

She wrote it to catch people who punctuated inaccurately; I may become her top villain.

Yet I won’t trade my beginning struggle with correct punctuation and go back and unread Truss’s book. It may have given me confusion, but first, and overall, it gave me the world.

Opening a new expanse for me into the heart of Punctuation Capitol (no pun intended 🙂 ), I have been intimately introduced to every punctuation mark out there (I think every one, anyway), and I am delighted to have met them. I will be using them all frequently, whether correctly or incorrectly, from this point out.

Instead of enemies, Eats, Shoots and Leaves taught me that punctuation is and are friends.

Tool 50 ~ Own the tools of your craft.

“Build a writing workbench to store your tools.”

This tool is Clark’s last, and it’s where he explains the magic behind magical writing. Clark says, “I thought great writing was the work of magicians. . . This was magic, the work of wizards–people different than you and me” (241).

But then, the teacher, Donald Murray, taught him back in 1983 about a workbench–the workbench. There is a method to the madness.

1. Idea — be curious. Find the stories happening in reality around me.

Explore — Be a modern-day explorer and see what’s out there.

2. Collect — I love doing this, and I think it is the reason I like being around people. They are so comical! Their quips of humor, bits of conversation, things they will say or won’t say, the cars they drive . . . so humorous! So “collect words, images, details, facts, quotes, dialogue, documents, scenes, expert testimony, eyewitness accounts, statistics, the brand of the beer, the color and make of the sports car, and, of course, the name of the dog” (242). I must learn to write beyond my fingers. I must learn to write with my feet.

3. Focus — “What is your essay about? No, what is it really about” (242)?

Select the best stuff — So I did all the research. Now I must only put in the facts that are necessary.

Recognize an order — A sonnet or epic? What form am I going to use?

4. Draft — Use whatever is my method to write. Some people draft and revise at the same time (mostly me!) while others draft and then revise. Either way, draft.

5. Clarify — Spend hours changing “the” to “a.” Get the words right so others can see them too.

For the hands-on writers like me, grab a huge piece of paper and “draw a diagram of your writing process. Use words, arrows, images, anything that helps open a window to your mind and method” (244). Organize this writing toolbox like a box of paint tools or car tools. Label them, lay them out, categorize your thinking.

Clark explains, “So in my focus box, I keep a set of questions the reader may ask about in the story. In my order box, I have story shapes such as the chronological narrative and the gold coins. In my  revision box, I keep my tools for cutting away useless words” (244).

So for you toolbox, why not start with Roy Peter Clark’s 50 tools?

The Next Few . . .

Tool 28 ~ Put odd and interesting things next to each other.

I loved this tool!! It is so much fun, and it reminds me of wall art or interior design or anything interesting and entertaining! Think of Jumbo shrimp. Or grotesque comedy (Yah, Flannery O’Connor!).

“Help the reader learn from contrast.”

Put something random by something else that is even more random, and see what happens.

Clark’s example? Gustave Flaubert’s description of Rodolphe Boulanger seducing Madame Bovary in an agricultural fair. Between “Manure for sale!” and “Here’s the prize for the best pigs!” Boulanger poured out his sentiments. Just a guess, I doubt they worked.

Next . . . .

Tool 29 ~ Foreshadow dramatic events and powerful conclusions.

This one is rather obvious and spelled out in two thoughts:

“Plant important clues early.”

And . . . “one must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it” (145). Yup.

Tool 20 ~ Choose the number of elements with a purpose in mind.

“One, two, three, or four: each sends a secret message to the reader.”

One — use it for power —  “Tom Wolfe once told William F. Buckley Jr. that if a writer wants the reader to think something the absolute truth, the writer should render it in the shortest possible sentence. Trust me” (99).

Two — for comparison and contrast —  “In The Ethics of Rhetoric, Richard M. Weaver explains that the language of two ‘divides the world’ ” (100).

Three — for completeness, wholeness, and roundness — “With the addition of one, the dividing power of numbers two turns into what one scholar calls the “encompassing” magic of number three” (100). “In our language and culture, three provides a sense of the whole” (100).

Four or more — to list, inventory, compile, and expand — “Once we add a fourth or fifth detail, we have achieved velocity, breaking out of the circle of wholeness” (101).

 

Tool 19 ~ Vary the lengths of paragraphs.

“Go short or long — or make a turn — to match your intent.”

I never realized this before. I understand varying the lengths of sentences, and it is what I do all the time. I don’t like getting bored when I read what I write, and I don’t think anyone else likes to either.

So I spice it up.

Yet I didn’t realize, I guess, how paragraph length can affect rhythm just as heavily, and perhaps more strongly, than sentence length.

One of my favorite ways to throw a stop sign in front of a reader is to leave one sentence all by itself. Whatever speed the reader was going, he comes to a rather abrupt halt. Just like that. The solitary sentence makes a point, being off in the white page all alone, but I never realized I could be intentional with it. I could plan to leave it by itself.

Hmmm . . . I am also a firm believer of children’s books. At least they know when to shut up and stop talking and throw a paragraph break out there. Literary critics? Not so much.

Tool 18 ~ Set the pace with sentence length.

“Vary sentences to influence the reader’s speed.”

I can only compare this concept to music–make the pages sing, writers!

“Writers name three strategic reasons to slow the pace of a story:

1. To simplify the complex — in another word — CLARITY.

2. To create suspense — great example — Jesus wept.

3. To focus on the emotional truth — again — Jesus wept.

“So write with a combination of short, medium and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music” (91).

 

Tool 17 ~ Riff on the creative language of others.

My first thought? What does “riff” mean? No one uses that word anymore!

“Make word lists, free associate, be surprised by language.”

Actually, Clark explains, “riff is a term from jazz used to describe a form of improvisation in which one musician borrows and builds on the musical phrase of another” (84).

It’s not plagiarism to learn how to make sugar cookies from your mom’s firm hands. It’s “new knowledge” exploding from “old wisdom” (85). Just like “Thomas Edison solved a problem in the flow of electricity by thinking of the flow of water in a Roman aqueduct” (85).

And I have to end with this full quote:

“Riffing on language will create wonderful effects you never intended. Which leads me to this additional strategy: always take credit for good writing you did not intend because you’ll be getting plenty of criticism for bad writing you did not mean either”(86).

Tool 14 ~ Get the name of the dog.

It’s like writing news stories all over again.

The town was struck by the tornado.

Right.

A black funnel touched down in Branson, MO.

Specific sensory details kick in, giving the reader something to see. And in seeing, Clark says, they understand.

“Dig for the concrete and specific, details that appeal to the senses.”

There’s a national Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Inside, there’s a room of just shoes. Shoes are shoes, and there is nothing unique about these shoes, except that each shoe belonged to a victim. A person once stood in each flabby fabric, very-empty shoe. A sensory detail captures the abstraction of the Holocaust and brings it down to a child’s level, down to the very floor where our shoes are. We can understand.

For fun (75):

“Read today’s newspaper looking for passages that appeal to the senses. Do the same with a novel.”

“Most writers appeal to the sense of sight. In your next work, look for opportunities to use details of smell, sound, taste, and touch.”