Friday, May 17, 2013

BREAKTHROUGH

I've been wanting to write for a very long time now. And I don't mean blog pots---I mean actual writing-- as in a story of my own. I don't think you can read as much as I do and love reading as much a I do and not eventually, somewhere deep down, start to think that maybe you, too, have a story to tell.

The urge to write is a funny thing to a person who doesn't write. It's like a lifelong vegetarian suddenly getting a craving for pot roast. You've never eaten it before, so  it's pretty freaking strange that your body (or imagination) is telling you that you want it.

Writing has always been an awesomely cool idea to me. But having never done it before, it remains a Schrödinger's cat of mystery. If I never open the box I'll never know if I'm a good writer or a bad writer. Of course it's a defense mechanism to protect the gee-golly hope that maybe I am a good writer! This is a problem. Because unless I actually try it, my writing will not just be an unknown neutral, it will be both good AND bad, as both exist as true until proven otherwise.

But how do I try? How do I begin? Writing a story is so unbelievably daunting. How do authors know where to begin and where they want to end up? How do they craft the plot? How do they imagine all those beautiful little moments that reveal character or move the story along? How do I write a story if I don't know exactly where I want to go with it? There are so many unknowns and that is SCARY.

It was then, in this moment of panic-- that I had a moment of clarity:

Writing a story is and always will be infinitely intimidating.
So stop thinking about it that way, and find a new way to look at it:

Think about writing as taking a trip. 

When you go on vacation, you know where your initial destination is, you know who you're traveling with, and you know when you expect to return. The rest of it---the unplanned, the unknown, is THE REASON you take the trip. You'll see a new place, and have new experiences. Things will happen. By the end of the vacation, you will have amassed a story to tell. It could be dull, it could be thrilling. Either way, you will have a beginning, middle, and an end.  If you knew every detail that would unfold before you took the trip, you probably wouldn't feel the need to go anymore. The mystery of possibility makes the trip fun to live through. The same is true for the one writing the story, and the one reading the story.

We're both embarking on a trip with my characters. We know where our journey begins but we don't know what we'll go through together before we get back. We'll see new places, meet new people, be thrown into unfamiliar situations. The way we handle ourselves will inevitably reveal character. The things that happen will become plot.

Write, and things will happen. That's all there is to it.

So yesterday afternoon, lead by a force deep down in my gut that I could no longer ignore, I tried IT. Pencil to paper. Excited by possibility, terrified by expectation...

And lo and behold---
WORDS CAME OUT.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

LIONS AND TIGERS

Yesterday I had a vivid, cinematic dream in which I was more viewer than participant.

It began with a montage of old sepia toned film clips-- one of which featured a lion tamer on stilts in a darkened circus ring. The tamer has his back to the lioness. He loses his balance and begins stumbling backwards towards the lion, sitting calmly on her pedestal. In a flash the lioness lashes out her paws, swiftly and effortlessly snapping the tamer's neck before he even realizes he's fallen within her grasp. 

The montage stops. A new scene opens on a wide expanse of green field. I am outside, it is warm and bright under the midday sun. In the distance, I see a lion in the field. Slowly, the camera pulls out, revealing a tall chain link fence enclosing this field. The camera pans along the fence perimeter. A figure is standing on the outside of the enclosure. It is an aged (but not ancient) buddhist monk, clad in saffron robes. He is expressionless, yet somehow comforting. The camera pans to his left, and I see that directly in front of where he is standing, the chain link fence is broken in a four-foot gap of twisted metal. I gasp. Instantly I realize there is NOTHING separating the lion in the field and this solitary monk. I scream inside my head: "RUN! RUN! GET AWAY FROM THERE!" In my mind I envision the distant lion bounding towards the man. I panic. Can't he see the fence is compromised?? Why isn't he running away??? Yet the monk stares back at me, unconcerned. 

Calmly and slowly he walks away from the fence towards some grass nearby. I'm overwhelmed with anticipation that any second that lion will emerge and there will be nothing to stop what may come. But the monk carries on, seemingly oblivious to the impending danger. 

He takes out a deep blue blanket and lays it on the grass. 

The final scene of the dream is in the form of an illustration, as if from a book.

White background. Birds eye view of the blue blanket and the peacefully sleeping monk. Curled up beside him is the sleeping lion (which has become a tiger). Together they are Yin and Yang. 
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I awake, the image lingering in my mind's eye. 
This dream is so odd. So abstract and yet specific. I can't shake the feeling that it is trying to tell me something-- that encoded within the imagery and loose narrative is a message I need to hear.

The message I have found is this:
The monk was not unafraid. He knew the natural danger and threat presented by the lion and the faulty fence. But he also knew he could not control what may or may not happen to him. He acknowledges the existence of his fear, but behaves despite it. In so doing, he has mastered his fear and attained inner peace.

Only by accepting the existence of lions (or tigers) in our world can we find peace within it, and within ourselves. 


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

NESCBWI RECAP: MY 5 KEY TAKE-AWAYS

What a weekend! This is the first moment I've had to properly collect a few of my thoughts about the NESCBWI conference held this past Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Springfield, MA.  It was a great experience, filled with kind people, informative workshops, and new friends. Thanks go out to NESCBWI for putting it all together!

Here are my personal take-aways:

1. I know more than I think I know. 
Generally, during and after each workshop, I found myself thinking...gee...I already know most of what was said. That doesn't mean the workshops and information weren't valuable---it just serves as a reminder that over the past seven years, I've done a lot of researching and gained a lot of experience on my own that I've either been using or have filed away for future use. Bottom line: I'm not a newb. That much is clear.  

2. I still need to work on self-confidence issues. 
While I do take pride and feel good about my overall craft and presentation, when it comes to the content of the work itself I'm always pretty self-conscious. I do work hard and try hard to make smart decisions, but I still feel like I'm pretending to be an illustrator. I doubt my own drawing/painting abilities, I doubt my compositions, I doubt my own imagination/creativity (or lack thereof). I compare myself too much to those I admire. If this weekend has shown me anything, it's that I should believe in myself a little more. My work is polished. My portfolio varied. Throughout this weekend I felt a lot of support and encouragement from strangers who offer a more objective view of my work.  It left me feeling like I will get to where I want to go if I just stick with it. I'm already headed in the right direction and I have experience to back me up. I have the tools I need, I just have to figure out what I want to do with them.

3. I depend on external validation more than I'd like to. 
That doesn't mean that I only want compliments--in fact the opposite is true. I sincerely appreciate constructive feedback that guides me to ways to keep improving. Throughout the weekend I had generous, positive interactions with fellow illustrators about my work. Yet that positive reinforcement did very little to elevate my self-worth. Instead, I allowed the disappointingly dispassionate two minute  critique from the small panel of industry reps to make me feel rather lousy about my work. It left me second guessing deliberate decisions and confused about how to fix what they didn't like. But I'm smarter than that--I should be able to take it by now! I ought be able to swallow criticism and not get overly dejected that easily. Not everybody has to completely embrace my work. I can't please everyone. I can only take all the feedback in and trust myself to know what I want to do with it moving forward. 

4. KidLit can be a very friendly industry. 
I met a lot of very kind, very awesome, very talented people this weekend. It was wonderful to make new connections with strangers who share a common love and respect for children's literature. It really is all about networking and establishing a supportive community. We're all in this together, pulling for each of us to succeed, or at the very least, to keep pursuing our passion. Whether it's connecting with those just beginning their journeys, sharing common experiences with a fellow published illustrator, or getting the chance to meet the author of the book I illustrated, everyone was so darn nice and generous with their time. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  

5. I want to succeed in this industry. 
I want to illustrate. I want to write. I want to make books that express who I am and how I see the world. And I want to be able to share these books with the children for whom they are intended. Sharon Creech and Grace Lin's uplifting key notes in particular reminded me of that. Life and art are intermingling at all times, and it's up to us to open our hearts and minds and allow those moments to flow into our creativity. It's not about making pretty pictures or telling pretty stories. It's about capturing an idea and contributing a very human part of ourselves.

Sometimes when I'm in the trenches pulling my hair out over an educational project I don't want to be doing, I question whether I want to be doing this at all. But so many times this weekend my heart panged with overwhelming hope, skipped with a jolt of inspiration, and beat with a constant sense of purpose that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is the place I want to be.

So I'm going to keep at it, and start listening to what's on the inside, waiting for its chance to come out.

So---did you attend the conference, too? What were your take-aways?
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Here are the only two shots I snapped this whole weekend. I guess I was too busy making friends to spend time behind the camera!












My entry for the poster contest for Jane Yolen's poem Infirm Pachyderm.