Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Prolific artists

Two years ago, I visited The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts.  Built for and designed by writer Edith Wharton, using the principles she articulated in The Decoration of Houses (1897), I experienced The Mount as an environment ideally conducive to Wharton's intense productivity.  (She produced 40 books in 40 years, winning a Pulitzer prize in fiction for The Age of Innocence in 1921, plus magazine articles, poems and short stories!)

She accomplished much of this work without leaving her bed.  That is to say, she wrote before she began her day.

The docent described her work habits.  First thing in the morning and without speaking, Wharton's maid would awaken her with breakfast.  Wharton's dogs would pile into bed.  Though she may occasionally have paused to enjoy the view of her gardens from the window, she would write for two hours, long-hand, dropping each sheet onto the floor as she went.

View through the antique windows of Edith Wharton's bedchamber.
The maid would slip quietly into the room, collect the sheets from the floor, and stack them neatly on the desk in the office situated adjacent to Wharton's bedroom.

When Wharton finished writing for the day, she would dress and change locations, and edit while sitting at her desk.

Her chambers were designed to support this method of work.  Her home was organized around her needs as a writer first, then hostess, designer, and gardener.

Her routine did not vary. Even though as a woman in her day she was not supposed to be a writer, even after her marriage, she remained committed to her identity as a writer, and identity she forged as a young girl and supported by her mentor -- none other than Henry James!

I intended to write a long blog article dissecting how her physical organization and functional dedication might have produced the climate that led to such an outpouring of work.

Then I discovered an excellent article on the same topic.  Rather than rehashing it, I'll simply point you to it.  Written by Clay Collins (of The Growing Life) as a guest blog for Leo Babauta (of zenhabits), I encourage you to read it, then come back and share with me how you've structured your life to support your own creative production: Living the Prolific Life: A How-To Guide

My own productivity has been slammed lately with motherhood, a nearly-fatal illness, one home for sale, another under construction, closing my studio and opening a new business.  I came back to this blog, and looked at some work I'd started but never finished, and found the seeds of this concept.  Funny how the key to my own quandary sat here, unfinished and ignored.

Stifled by my lack of stability and my inability to carve time out for myself, I had not made time to write, until I'd encountered Jeff Goins.  His suggestions work because they work inside chaos. 
No mansion. No maid. No excuses. No crafting a perfect existence so that I could write from my persona.

Just get up early, clear my clutter, and write from my heart. 

Check. Check. Check.


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Lollipop Trees

"At the age of four, a child I knew drew extraordinarily vibrant, imaginative trees. Crayon, chalk, colored pens, and silly putty were all useful. These trees were remarkable in how clearly they showed the bulbous lobes and branchy veins of individual leaves in a kind of cubist, all-the-way-around view that would have delighted Picasso. Meticulous observation of real trees, and a certain daring that is characteristic of four-year-olds, combined to produce these striking artworks. 
By the age of six, this child had gone through a year of first grade and had begun drawing lollipop trees just like the other kids. Lollipop trees consist of a single blob of green, representing the general mass of leaves with details obliterated, stuck up on top of a brown stick, representing the tree trunk. Not the sort of place real frogs would live. " —Stephen Nachmanovitch

I worked hours drawing a tree, in many-colored pencil, on an oaktag scrap I had hoarded from a class election, and presented my final drawing to an older boy who lived up the street from me.  Steve looked at it with derision, and dubbed it a lollipop tree.

"Trees don't look like that."

"My tree doesn't have lollipops on it. It has leaves."

"Show me a tree that has leaves like that, " and with that, he won the argument.

I did not attempt another tree for nearly thirty years when, as a student of landscape design, it became unavoidable.  And what I learned to draw were adult versions of lollipop trees.  Oh sure, they were anatomically accurate, properly leafed out, and shaded to look three-dimensional.  But our trees all looked similar!

So, in a fit of exasperation, I went outside with a sketch book and a pile of pencils and drew lollipop trees  sticks (textured to look like a tree trunk) and blobs of green (with approximately the "right" color leaves.)  I drew like this for about an hour, making myself silly with laughter.

And gradually, I noticed my drawings had changed. My hands had been looking at the trees.  The tree branching structures and leaf patterns and bark textures were finding their way into my pencils, which were furiously scribbling odd little lines and layers of color.

I switched to my camera, and started photographing them.  I digitized my sketches, and overlaid my hand-drawn images onto the photographs and melded them. I worked this way for another few hours, until I finally had my own tree vocabulary, and a new set of techniques for rendering plant materials that were all my own.

In this way, I freed myself from iconic, schematic representations  by enthusiastically and consciously giving in to them.  I also silenced my inner critic with laughter.

You can, too.  Find that inner nag, and say, "yes, you are right. I'll show you." Do precisely what the little demon says you "always" do.  Lean into it.  Write a flabby sentence. Draw lollipop trees.  Sing off-key.  Do it until you laugh.  That sound is your own voice asserting itself.

Follow that one.