Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Paralleling Creativity Lines

I find it interesting that creative people tend to be creative in a variety of ways. I have a brother-in-law who writes, and he also composes beautiful piano music. My husband's aunt writes and is also an artist by profession. I write and do crafts.

For about four or five years, I've been a Stampin' Up demonstrator. (I also do other crafts, but primarily cards and scrapbooking are my main focus.) It's interesting to me how my various creative outlets parallel each other so well.

As a SU demonstrator, I've primarily been considered a "hobbyist." That means I have mostly been selling enough to support my own purchases, plus a little on the side. But I haven't been totally satisfied with that, although it is about all I have time for. Recently I've been feeling really stagnant with my demonstratorship. I don't have a downline (SU is a direct sales company), and I have a few loyal customers who come to my classes regularly, but I don't really see any new faces. I've really enjoyed SU, and being a demonstrator, so I've tried some new things to share that with people.

I have tried a variety of different options to create more contacts. I've started a website that has brought me several new, loyal customers. I hosted an event last weekend that I think was really successful. And I am participating in a training program that focuses on recruiting. I have been forced (through assignments) to talk to customers about joining SU, and I've actually found that there is more interest than I had anticipated. I'm even hosting an event at my house June 3 to tell more about being a demonstrator to anyone who is interested.

So, how does all that fit in with writing? Well, my writing path and creativity have followed a similar pattern. I started out writing creatively pretty haphazardly. A few poems here or there, but I never really considered myself a writer. Then I took a class in college that changed my life. It was a YA lit class that we were supposed to outline a novel idea as the final. That in conjunction with my methods course that emphasized that as teachers of writing, we must be writers ourselves, completely changed my perspective.

When I had time, I took that novel outline and completed it. I was so proud and excited that I had finished such an ambitious undertaking. I shared it with my mentor-professor who ripped it to shreds. But the difference was that I actually cared enough to revise it. I wrote one revision, but it has essentially sat since then.

I had had a dream early one morning that presented me with another novel idea that I decided to pursue. I started writing it a little here and there, but I still kept my "writing" side of myself pretty quiet. Until one evening.

I went to a dinner program with my husband for an alumni board he had just joined at the university. Another professor was there and we were talking. When he asked me what I did, I told him that I had taught, but was currently a stay-at-home Mom. Then (here's where I parallel most closely with SU), for some reason I risked sharing with a complete stranger something I hardly even told my friends and family. I told him I was writing a YA novel.

He became animated and said he was a writer too. Who would have thought a business/computer professor would also be a writer? He told me about the League of Utah Writers and told me to email him and he'd give me the meeting information. Excited that someone believed in writing as more than just a fun hobby or pasttime, I emailed him the next day. I was surprised to find he actually emailed me back (who was I, anyway? Just a random stranger he met at a dinner he got roped into attending). From pretty much that point forward, I've never been embarrassed to tell someone I'm a writer (thanks, Eric).

I found that the same as with Stampin' Up, as I tried to improve my personal skills in my creativity and execution, I was also more confident in sharing with other people about something I love doing. And as I shared with more people about my creative loves, I found that a lot more people than I ever thought were interested in them too.

And here's the final parallel: I am at "amateur" level in both right now. I was watching AFV today, and the host presented a great definition that actually struck home. When you are a hobbyist at something, you can suck all you want. But if you define yourself as an "amateur," you are expected to become a professional. I know that writing should take a priority in my life, and it does, but right now I have greater priorities. I have a family to raise, a home to take care of, and schooling to complete. I try to write consistently, but do not do it as regularly as I "should."

And I'm okay with that right now. I do not have the time to turn my Stampin' Up demonstratorship into a full business right now, and my family situation is such that I cannot write for an hour every single day. But I'm working to grow both of them. Although I am only an amateur demonstrator or writer, I will be a professional at each some day.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible

by Barbara Kingsolver

So, my book group read this book about a month ago, but I am just now getting around to writing a review about it. First of all, a warning: this is a very long novel, but don't be overwhelmed by that. My husband borrowed the audio CDs from the library and just listened to it during his daily commute. It took him probably about a week to week-and-a-half, and he thoroughly enjoyed it.

The basic plot line of the story is that a Southern minister (I want to say Baptist, but don't quote me on that) packs up his wife and four daughters in the 1960s and moves to the Congo to preach for a year. The family (the father in particular) arrives with expectations to change the heathen ways of the natives, and instead the story shows how Africa changes each of the members of the family.

First of all, Kingsolver has a beautiful way with words. She describes all the elements of Africa through the eyes of her characters. This is effective because the characters compare American life (what most readers will already be familiar with) to Africa and its ways (what many readers won't know about), so the reader feels like he/she is going on the journey as well. The reader feels the oppressive heat, the red earth, the frustration when nothing grows, or the fear of hunted animals. The reader is gradually guided through the story as well so he/she eventually develops sympathy then empathy for the African lifestyle.

Kingsolver is also a master of voice. The story is told through the four daughters' voices, with an occasional insert by the mother. Each voice is distinct to the character's status, age, ability, and personality. Evidently the audio version does not name each new speaker at the new chapters, but my husband was still able to tell who was controlling the story simply by its language. Even what the various family members find important enough to report about (to the reader) helps establish their individuality.

Though perhaps overly simplified, the characters are good representations of various responses to African life. Each family member responds to the various situations and experiences differently, and the story follows a logical influence through to the end. It is fascinating to see which characters are changed, and which remain the same, but the final outcomes are all credible according to the personalities of the characters.

Finally, the story is historically grounded in political actions of the time, but the reader does not feel overwhelmed by the history. In fact, perhaps the opposite occurs. The author takes the approach that the characters are too involved in day-to-day survival to take much notice of the political dynamic; they do not realize they are living historical events until reflecting back years later. Though there is enough history to ground the reader, someone looking for a history lesson will be disappointed with this book.

In conclusion, I would definitely recommend this book. Its biggest drawback is its length (about 2 1/2 inches thick), and I would recommend the audio version if that seems a bit overwhelming. But the story as well as the perspective of the author are well worth the effort.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Novel Revision Retreat

So I am literally currently sitting in the main room at Stonefly Lodge in Ashton, ID.  The wall-length and -width windows look directly over the Snake River with a farm on the opposite bank.  The drizzly, gray sky mutes the small copses of trees scattered on the land.

And I have yet to step outside.

I am participating in a retreat presented by Darcy Pattison all about revising novels (which is why I haven't posted because I was frantically getting ready for this).  Some things have been good, and some things have been not as good, but nothing has been bad.  We are having a break right now, and boy do I need it!  My brain hurts.

Darcy is a visual learner, and so she has come up with a variety of techniques for revision that map things visually.  One thing I really like is her shrunken manuscript technique.  She (We/You) shrinks the manuscript down to 30 pages (I had to go 5-pt font to get it to fit).  Then you can highlight based upon various things in order to see the flow of the story.

I am planning to go home and highlight my plot arc, and emotional arc. I know in particular that my emotional-character arc is in dire need of some clarification and revision.  As I go through and highlight the instances my character tries (and fails) to resolve her initial emotional need, then lay all the pages out, I will see where I am strong in her development, and stagnant in her development. 

With the plot arc, I'll highlight the indirect, direct, and final "battle" scene between my protagonist and antagonist.  Then when I lay it out and find pages of no highlights, I'll recognize a place where my story lags.

Another technique that I want to apply after another revision or two (when my big-picture plot and character problems are resolved) is that of sensory details.  Darcy had us read a scene to re-familiarize it, then set the manuscript aside.  We tried to visualize the scene in our minds, then list at least three different things from that scene in each sense (visual, hearing, scent, kinesthetic, taste).  Then re-write the scene afresh implementing those senses.  I know I need more "action" and "grounding" in my dialog scenes for sure, and I bet I'll find other places that need it too.

Anyway, these are just a couple of techniques I am going to try.  But I am still trying to process everything we have talked about (and we're only halfway done).  So my brain hurts.  You can learn what I'm doing by completing Darcy's book Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise.  The visualization techniques are eye-opening (wink, wink).