Northern flicker in our backyard
Click the player below (or this link) to listen to an audio recording of this post. Sorry about the slight rustle behind the title of this post—I didn’t catch it until now and I’m about to head out the door, so I’m just leaving it as is. The rest of the audio is better quality!
Because I’m queen of overcomplicating plans for myself, I enjoyed the “An Ordered List” episode of Amy Cowan’s Creativity Matters podcast, in which Amy examines a simple “tell me three things” practice:
Back in Episode 353, I talked about the “3 things” idea after reading Tell Me Three Things, a YA book by Julie Buxbaum. I have come to really appreciate the practice of “3 things” and the way it can be used to bridge the distance, break through a silence, invite someone to share, or open a door. I notice this approach has become increasingly common as a formulaic approach used by marketers, thought leaders, and writers, in newsletters, at Instagram, and on podcasts. The number may vary (e.g., 3, 5, 10), but this idea of an ordered and finite list sets the parameters for the sharing and the receiving (listening, reading, seeing). More and more I see “a list of things” come into my inbox as newsletters, the list format providing the structure and scaffolding for the sharing of sometimes random details. It isn’t a new wheel, but it is a wheel that works, and I enjoy the order of it. There is such beauty in a simple list.
For a long while I’ve been trying to keep Lynda Barry’s daily diary format (with intermittent success), which in my case is boiled down to lists of Things I Did Today and Things I Saw Today, plus notes on what I read, watched, or listened to, and an ‘overheard’ section for any funny or intriguing bits of conversation I’ve picked up, including kid quips, which are my favorite part. Sometimes I’ve aimed for a specific seven or ten items in each list, but mostly I just do bullet points and list as much as I can remember from the day.
For me, this practice is more about recording the bits and pieces I’m likely to lose if I don’t write them down—a yellow-rumped warbler at the feeder, our first!; a new leaf on my hoya plant (it’s a very slow grower, you see); hearing my friend Jennie say, “I’ve only ever once held a dolphin skull in my hand.” That line is enough to call back up the whole conversation—Jennie and her sister Julie, and my friend Ben’s mom Carolyn, whom I’m enjoying getting to know; the four of us sitting in a booth in the OMSI cafe with seats sliding gently from side to side on caster wheels; conversations about art and photography and the sisters scuba diving into a cave full of dolphin bones—and afterward picking up ramen with Rilla to take home, and Rilla looking around at the small tables, the window full of plants, people leaning over giant bowls of broth and noodles, the neat trays of paper-wrapped chopsticks and jars of spice—watching her take it all in, her hair in little twists behind each ear, her purple-glitter nail polish, her sparkling eyes—oh! all of it from one Jennie quote in my notebook!
It’s a good practice, but I had to write “I’ve been trying to keep” rather than “I’ve been keeping” because I’ll sometimes let it lapse for days at a time, a whole week even, and I may try to go back and fill in, but you can’t really—the entire point (for me) is capturing the things I’m not likely to remember a week, a month, a year later.
I’ll remember having lunch at the brick-oven pizzeria with my friend Lisa yesterday and even the main drift of our conversation—words seem to file themselves in a more accessible part of my memory—but will I remember the prosciutto and arugula piled high on our pizza, drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette? The glow of the oven behind Lisa’s shoulder? We talked about our radiation tattoos and our creative practices. We arrived on opposite corners outside the pizza place at the exact same moment, and since the light was against me we stood smiling at each other across the wide boulevard for long minutes as the cars rushed by. Now that I’ve written that moment, I’ll have it for keeps.
Tell Me Three Things would make a terrific format for blog posts, and I may keep it in my pocket for times when I’m not sure what to write about. I didn’t think I knew what to write about today, but just mentioning the Three Things gave me 700 words’ worth of things to say.
I would love to hear your Three Things for today, if you’d like to share them.
Back in the day, early mornings were my blogging time. In San Diego especially, I remember a stretch of years when an assortment of nurslings and toddlers woke at the crack of dawn, and I would put on Little Bear or Signing Time and perch the laptop on the arm of the sofa, writing a post while the baby nursed. Blogging was my daily habit in those days, and in our Virginia years, too, when I used it as a way to transition from the busy-homeschooling-mom part of my day to the writing-a-book-on-a-tight-deadline part. Writing about the kids helped me cross the bridge from mom mode to writer mode. When people asked me, back then, how I managed to blog on top of everything else, that was my answer: blogging was what helped me do everything else full-throttle.
Here in Portland, early mornings are time I’ve reserved for reading and writing poems—the poetry before screens practice I’ve written about elsewhere. And the rest of the day has been so full, full of family and work and walks and chorale. Blogging became a sporadic activity because it didn’t have that dedicated space it used to own. I tried evenings, as a wrap-up to the day, but my tired brain raised a protest. 😉 So I’m back to mornings—getting up a little earlier in order to keep my poetry time intact, and then, after Jane leaves for work and Wonderboy for school, while most of the other kids are still in bed (except Huck, early bird), with the caffeine beginning to kick in and, here in January, the sun rising behind the bare trees out my studio window, I’m giving myself half an hour to write a post.
I think I’m a little rusty! Posts may be choppy and chatty for a while, until I get back in the groove. If I’m pressed for time (sometimes the poetry practice runs away with me, and I mean to let it) or if I oversleep, my plan is just to dash out a quick did/saw list. That’s a journaling habit I’ve drawn from the inimitable Lynda Barry, who shares in her books Syllabus, What It Is, and Making Comics a “daily diary” practice she requires of all her students. You can get a peek at her framework in this Brain Pickings post, and here’s a video demo from Lynda’s own Tumblr. I tend to dash off a modified version in my notebook: a list of things I did each day, a list of things I saw (lots of crossover with gratitude lists here), and any memorable lines I’ve happened to overhear. The “done” list is especially important for keeping me grounded, because my to-do list is always so long and if I don’t keep a separate record of things I actually did in a day, I measure myself harshly. Of course the to-do list will always be long! But the done list is mighty long, too, and I have to see it in print* to internalize it. (*In cursive, technically.) 😉
Okay, the thing that always makes posts run past their allotted time slot is the looking stuff up and linking to it—the fun part, the show and tell! I have three minutes left here today, which isn’t enough time for fiddling with a new photo & adding tags & all that bloggity stuff. I’m going to enter a random keyword into my WordPress photo library and go with whatever it pulls up. There—I entered “sun,” and the pic at the top of this post is what grabbed me. That’s a photo taken on one of my walks last year. Sunflower season—not exactly relevant to January but I like it!
Must dash. Happy Wednesday, friends.
School started back up for Wonderboy last week, and his earlier bus pick-up time this year means a new morning routine for several of us. I’ve pushed my own wake-up time from 6 to 5:30 to give myself a full hour for my daily creative practice before my boys get up. This is a bit too early for comfort, but I cherish that quiet morning time with poetry, cocoa, and my notebook. My studio window faces east, so I get to watch the sun seep upward from the neighbor’s roof into the clouds, like rose and apricot-colored watercolors blooming on wet paper. There’s a pair of trees over the back fence whose combined shape looks like a hedgehog in profile with its paw raised to its open mouth as if it’s calling out to the sun, singing it awake.
It always makes me think of the hedgehog in Watership Down, only that one is singing to the moon, not the sun: O Slug-a-Moon!
I read from books of poems for a while—currently Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumathathil and Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings by Joy Harjo, along with daily selections from Holly Wren Spaulding’s poetry challenge or her Patreon. After a bit (and as my special caffeinated hot chocolate kicks in), reading becomes writing, and I freewrite to one of Holly’s provocations or using the method Lynda Barry lays out in her indispensable book about writing, What It Is. These scrawled pages are rough, unfiltered, as freewrites are supposed to be; and then I reread and harvest a word here, a fragment there, arranging the raw phrases into drafts of poems.
Sometimes I wake so early that I have time to stitch or sketch while listening to a few minutes of a Commonplace Pod episode before the boys appear in my doorway. Wonderboy eats breakfast and Huck snuggles into my writing chair for a bit. Scott gets up to pack WB’s lunch. Huck moseys down to the basement to watch a video. I take a peek at Instagram, maybe share a stitch-diary photo in my Stories. The bus arrives. Scott reads in bed for a while. I turn on my laptop and open a tab to WordPress or Patreon. I congratulate the green hedgehog on successfully waking the sun for one more day.
I’m sleep-deprived but happy.
Speaking of my Patreon: I’ve restructured the tiers with new benefits for fall. I mentioned last week that I’m giddily immersed in a new creative project which combines hand-drawn embroidered pieces with poems. I’m documenting the process on Patreon with lots of sketchbook and work-in-progress peeks. I usually wait until a project is out in the world before I say much about it, so this is quite a departure for me—as is the project itself.
February 16, 2015 @ 9:28 pm | Filed under: Art
On Twitter, Kim asked if I had any advice for a family getting started with sketching and art journaling. Did I ever!
I’ve Storified the conversation, if you’d like to see how it unfolded, but I’ll recap it here as well.
My replies below, expanded a bit. Points #6 and 7 are the most important.
Suggestions? Yes, lots!
1) Koosje Koene’s Draw Tip Tuesday videos. She also offers classes in drawing and art journaling. (Here’s a post I wrote about her videos in November.)
2) Sign up for a free two-week trial at Creativebug and take Dawn Devries Sokol’s Art Journaling class and Lisa Congdon’s Basic Line Drawing. I wrote about how much Lisa’s class inspired me in my “Learning in Public” post.
3) A bunch of books to inspire you: Lynda Barry’s wonderful Syllabus; Danny Gregory’s new Art Before Breakfast (it’s a delight; I’ll be reviewing it soon) and the much-beloved The Creative License; the Illustration School series; the “20 Ways to Draw a…” series; Claire Walker Leslie’s Keeping a Nature Journal; the Usborne “I Can Draw” series. And a few more recommendations in this older post.
4) Maybe try a Sketchbook Skool course! They offer a free sample class (I mean klass) so you can get a taste of the magic.
5) Cathy Johnson videos. Rilla loves Cathy’s art and her gentle delivery.
6) The most important thing! Really just dive in and do it—if you do it, the kids will follow. Mine truly love to see me working & playing in my sketchbook. Actually, Rose was just commenting on it today, before this Twitter conversation occurred. She said she has really enjoyed watching me start from scratch (so to speak) and work at learning to draw. They all seem to love to see me trying, making mistakes, learning, improving. My progress excites them almost as much as it does me. 🙂
7) The REALLY most important piece of advice I can give: Allow plenty of TIME and room for mess. Many parents say “I want my kids to be creative” but can’t tolerate mess. Art is messy. Creativity is messy. You need space to leave work out and return to it. Supplies in easy reach. And big spans of time for messing around, staring into space, doodling, doing things that look unproductive. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is to any creative process. Time and room. (More on this in my post “Makers Gotta Mess.”)
When I’m writing a novel, my most intense work happens while I look like I’m doing nothing at all. Sitting and staring blankly, chewing my nails, or filling an entire page with tiny lines and spirals. This is my body getting out of the way so my brain can get down to the real work of creating.
And for the visual arts, these totally tactile pursuits, you’ve got to have a place to spread out your paints, your pencils, your small objects that make you itch to draw. You know what’s nice and tidy and doesn’t clutter a room? A cellphone. If you want them to spend less time staring at screens (I’m not knocking screens here, you know I love me some screen time), you’ve got to grant them some real estate.
With that in mind, I make a point of keeping art supplies in easy reach. We have a dedicated kitchen drawer for placemats, paper, paint supplies so even the youngest kids can help themselves. Jars of colored pencils & crayons on table, a sharpener on the kitchen counter, a stack of art books on the shelf nearby. I want them to have constant free access to art materials. It’s also a good idea to keep a bag packed for outings. I described ours in this old GeekMom post.
8) And what materials do I recommend? For littles: good paper, cheap paints. I elaborated on my reasons in this post from several years back:
When my older kids were little, I read lots and lots about the benefits of providing children with really high quality art supplies. In some cases, I still agree: Prismacolor colored pencils are worlds better than your drugstore variety. The lead is so creamy and blendable. They’re expensive but they last a long time—we’re on our second set of 72 colors in over ten years.
But watercolors? Real watercolor paper makes a huge difference, but it’s expensive; that’s one reason I was so taken with Jenn’s idea to cut it into smaller, postcard-sized pieces. But when it comes to the paints themselves, well, I’ve been the high-quality route, absorbed the persuasive literature that talks about rich pigments and translucent hues; bought the pricey tubes of red, yellow, blue; collected jars for mixing colors; watched my children squeeze out too much paint and gleefully swirl it into an expensive puddle of mud-colored glop.
Lesson learned. The 99 cent Roseart or Crayola sets work just fine. In fact, dare I say I think my preschoolers like them better? Mixing colors is fun, but there is nothing quite so appealing as that bright rainbow of pretty paint ovals all in a row. When Wonderboy and Rilla make a mess of their paints, Jane cleans them up with a rag and they’re practically good as new.
For older kids—and for yourself!—my advice is to skip the student-grade watercolors and go right to artist quality. More expensive but the difference is immense. You can use the money you saved buying cheap paints for the preschoolers. 😉
We’re still addicted to Prismacolor pencils—no other brand will do for me. And I like Micron pens for line drawing. The ink is waterfast so you can paint over it (like my pumpkins in yesterday’s post). I also picked up a few gel pens—white, silver, and gold—and Rilla has had unbelievable amounts of fun with them. I love the white one for writing on a dark surface, like on the tag of my pencil pouch here.
Don’t feel like you have to have millions of fancy supplies right off the bat. Look at what Andrea Joseph can do with a simple Bic pen. (Seriously, this blew my mind.)
The sketchbook I just filled up was a Canson Mixed Media, 7×10 spiral bound. The size worked really well for me and the paper takes watercolor okay (not perfectly but well enough for where I am right now). I also have a small Moleskine journal with watercolor paper, but it feels so special I find myself hesitant to use it and reaching for the mixed media book instead. (I’ve just started a new one, same as the one I filled up.) That’s my real playground, the place I’m not afraid to (in the words of my personal hero, Ms. Frizzle) “Take chances and make mistakes!” But I’m getting braver every day and the lovely paper in that Moleskine is calling to me.
I’ve also found I love doing my first rough sketches with a brown watercolor pencil, very lightly. I go over it with ink afterward and then, when I paint, the pencil just blends in and becomes shadow. I don’t sketch this way every time, but for some reason it seems to free me up. I’m more daring with this pencil. It takes me to a confident place between graphite pencil—with its sometimes overly tempting eraser—and straight-to-ink, which is sometimes exhilarating and sometimes terrifying. The brown Aquarelle feels like my co-conspirator. I don’t know how else to describe it. I have even starting making some first tentative stabs at portrait drawing, thanks to this pencil. (I tried a selfie-a-day project for a week. None of them looked much like me, but this attempt on day seven could maybe be a cousin?)
Guys, I still feel so shy about posting my drawings! I mean, I have so many friends who make their livings as illustrators—heck, one of them even just won the Caldecott! (GO DAN! SO THRILLED!) Do you know how nerve-wracking it is to know pros are looking at your rookie work? Of course you do. Because what I’ve learned is everyone feels that way. Even my most brilliant artist friends look at some other person’s work and sigh wistfully, wishing they’d made that piece. I’ve seen it happen time and again. So bit by bit I’m getting brave enough to share my baby steps.
9) Okay, so you have your lovely sketchbook and drawing implements, now what to draw?? Well, I guarantee Koosje Koene’s videos mentioned above will keep you and the kids busy for a good long while. There’s also this wonderful Everyday Matters Challenge list at Danny Gregory’s blog. 328 suggestions, so you’re just about good through 2016. And Kortney tipped me off to this most excellent Lynda Barry post (in Rilla’s words, I simply adore her) about keeping a visual diary.
10) And a last tidbit I almost forgot: A most beloved activity here (especially for Rilla and me) is to listen to audiobooks while sketching. Many of my happiest hours have been spent this way. We’re especially fond of Roald Dahl while drawing. Nobody brings on the whimsy like Dahl.