May 14, 2013
Recently, Jil Ashton-Leigh of Steveston, B. C., Canada told me about a wise Chinese art instructor who looked at her painting of the Fraser River and said, "Your mind--it is too fast." He told her to sit by the river for 30 minutes each day--no camera, no cellphone. "When you observe the river then you will come to know it," he said. If you're interested, you can read Jil's full letter, The Art of Patience, at the top of the current clickback.
Thanks, Jil. I first noticed my own problem about 20 years ago. I was losing patience with any outdoor painting I started. I was jumping up and running around with my camera looking like an advanced case of St. Vitus' dance. It wasn't the coffee.
It was something more serious. In my love affair with technology, I had mistaken my camera for a life. In my compulsion to grab every image, I lost sight of places I could pleasantly inhabit. I had become a mere collector without actually observing the things I was collecting, and I was feeling bad about myself.
Further, I realized I was living in a world that was "putting in a nickel and trying to get a dollar tune." I took the advice of the great American art educator and author of The Art Spirit, Robert Henri. He warned of the potential problems of too much camera, too little time. To build observational skills when painting from a live model, he frequently placed his students and their easels in one room and the model in another. "There is no art without contemplation," he told his students as they trudged back and forth.
One fine day I had my "hour of decision." Just as a child eventually deserts its soother, I suddenly didn't need my camera any more.
Brothers and sisters, if you've been troubled, or if you've been teetering on the edge, both Jil and I need you to convert. Glad tidings are in the grace of patience. "All things come to he who waits," wrote the poet Violet Fane in 1890. Sit still. Look around. Be one with nature. Inhale life. Observe the nuances. Come sit by the river.
PS: "Patience has to be cultivated. Perhaps the entire creative process can be viewed as a patience builder." (Jil Ashton-Leigh)
Esoterica: Several years ago I was visiting William Wordsworth's cottage near Grasmere in the English Lake District. Alone, I followed his trails out behind and above his property and into the shining dales. Passing slowly by nodding daffodils and under scudding clouds, I suddenly got it. No wonder Wordsworth was such a great poet! He took the time to think, to wonder, to contemplate. While predating the phone and the instant camera, he nevertheless had a warning:
"The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!" (William Wordsworth, 1770-1850)
6 Things Ayana Mathis Knows for Sure About Sticking With It
The author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie explains how to keep going, no matter what the journey.
As told to Leigh Newman
1. Sometimes You Need a Manual
A really incredible book—even if its subject matter has nothing to do with your situation—can help you to understand your life and circumstance more clearly. For me, one of these books will always be Toni Morrison’s Beloved. While working on The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, in fact, I used it as a kind of manual, to instruct me as a writer. For example, I was struggling with the use of time. Toni Morrison is a master at moving between the past and the present in brilliant leaps that never confuse the reader. Her novel became a teacher to me, demonstrating how what has happened to a character 10 years ago factors into what is happening right now. This is something characters do on the page, but people also do it in real life. We are all an aggregate of our past and present, of personality and upbringing, race and class, the list goes on. Understanding the ways in which these things impact our present situation is crucial to getting by and getting through.
2. When in Doubt, Cook Italian
When you’re working on a project for months and months—whether it’s a book or anything else that requires a sustained effort—it’s easy to get discouraged. The rewards are few, and you feel as if it's never, ever going to be done. At the end of particularly trying days, I head into the kitchen and cook something that’s fast, delicious and not particularly hard to make. Spaghetti alla bottarga is a slightly obscure but amazing dish I've made over and over. You sauté some garlic and cherry tomatoes in olive oil, toss in cooked pasta and grate the bottarga (fish roe) while everything is piping hot. In about 20 minutes, I can see (and eat!) the fruits of my labor, which makes facing the next day’s long slog so much more endurable.
3. Friends Make Everything Easier—and Smarter
A few years ago, I met a writer named Justin Torres in a creative-writing class. The evening of the second session, he read a story called “Niagara.” Listening to him, I thought, “My God, who the hell is this guy?” I was gob smacked. The story was shockingly good. (Several years later, he published the brilliant We the Animals.)
Over time, Justin and I became very close. We can talk about anything from, say, Friday Night Lights on NetFlix to the particular challenges faced by writers of color. Having friends who are just a little smarter than you or a little further along in their goals is crucial when you’re trying to do something difficult. These kind of intimates set the bar a little higher. It isn’t simply that they inspire you, it’s that their example makes you aspire to do better and be better.
4. Accept the Fits and Starts
One the most challenging things in life is learning a new language. I lived in Italy for five years in my late twenties and early thirties. I wasn’t writing during that period. I got a job with a tour operator in Florence—and I had to learn Italian. The interesting thing was, there were days when I could chatter on about anything under the sun, only to find that the next morning, I couldn’t even order a coffee. Acquiring any skill is like this: You make a little progress; then you lose ground; then you make a little more progress. Accepting the fits and starts is the only way to keep yourself from giving up.
5. When Your Tank Gets Low, Refill with Beauty
When I was young and broke, poetry kept me going. A poet named Yusef Komunyakaa saved the day. Whenever I needed to recharge, I turned to his collection Magic City. Like me, he had grown up with only his mother, so in his work I found some echoes of my own experience, but more importantly, he writes vividly about childhood and the strangeness and magnitude of a child’s imagination. The first poem is called “Venus’s-flytraps.” It’s about family secrets, but there is such mystery in the poem—it perfectly describes the way a child fills the gaps in her knowledge and understanding with make-believe and imagination. For anyone who has had difficulties as a young person—which is all of us; I can’t think of anyone who had a perfect childhood—it is especially powerful. Painful events are articulated with such breathtaking beauty. The language soars above the darkness being described—and it takes you with it, so that you too are flying.
6. Sing! No Matter What
When I was a little girl, I was often asked to sing solos at my family’s church. I loved to sing, but I was also knee-knocking frightened of getting up there. My mother would have to take me aside and talk me through my nerves. She’d say, “Whatever you’re most afraid of is the thing you most need to do.”
While working on Hattie, especially those early chapters when I was feeling my way into the book, I'd think, "What am I doing? I am not equal to this task. At all." Later, after I had gotten an agent, the fear became, "She'll hate it. Publishing houses will hate it. I'll have put myself out there and it'll be a great big humiliating flop." I knew I had to get over my fear. It wasn't so much a matter of conquering it. I don't believe that's how things work, because fear doesn't go away. You have to do what needs doing in spite of doubt, sometimes even in spite of terror. So I’d think about what my mother used to say to me. And it helped—just like it did when I'd have to walk to the front of the church and sing “Amazing Grace” when I was a little girl.
Where to find the Oprah's Book Club 2.0 version of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
Read more: http://www.oprah.com/oprahsbookclub/Oprahs-Book-Club-Ayana-Mathis-on-Overcoming-Obstacles/2#ixzz2JgEnrYZ6
How to Raise the Stakes in the First 50 Pages of Your Novel
By author Jeff Gerke (The First 50 Pages).
After successfully engaging the reader, which is Job 1 of writing a novel, Job 2 is to create suspense. When your reader is engaged with your hero and your story world, you can afford to coast along a bit before that engagement begins to diminish (not that you would intentionally do so). But before too long you're going to need to continue reeling in the reader. He won't stay with you for the whole book if he gets bored after the opening.
Suspense means different things for different novelists-and different genres. If you're writing a thriller, you'd better have a roller coaster going pretty much from Page 1. If you're writing a romance, the suspense is likely driven by whether or not the hero and heroine will finally get together-it's of the will she or won't she variety. In an action/adventure, suspense might be in finding out if the hero will save the world or achieve his dream.
But no matter what type of novel you're writing, there had better be some kind of suspense in it. The reader must be asking, "How will this turn out?"-a question preferably followed by: "I have to find out, and I can't go to bed until I do!"
Some suspense will be created simply by engaging the reader with the main character. We keep reading because we want to see if he reaches his objective, whatever that may be.
Another surge of suspense will be generated when you introduce the villain-that equal and opposite force that's going to cause fits for your hero. The mere presence of a person who stands to hurt our hero in some way will raise our excruciatingly wonderful anxiety. And excruciatingly wonderful anxiety would be a very nice definition of suspense. We can't stand it, but we love it.
Let's look at some other ways to elevate suspense in the first 50 pages of your novel (You can find even more excellent tips in Jeff's book, The First 50 Pages).
Establish What's at Stake.
If I told you I was going to give you a million dollars, you'd probably be thrilled. If I told you I would give you a million dollars if you could get to Clipperton Island (a tiny atoll about 800 miles southwest of Acapulco) by noon tomorrow, you'd start feeling something else.
That something else-an almost frustrated kind of urgency tinged with the possibility of a great payoff-is what you want your reader feeling as she reads your novel.
There's a very simple formula for creating the stakes (and thus suspense) in your story: Show your reader something she wants, and then threaten it.
Show her a man longing to be reunited with his son. Show the son wanting to be back with his daddy. Then have someone abduct the boy and smuggle him to another country. Aaagh! How will that man find his little boy? We want to know now!
Show a woman locked into an engagement with an awful man. Show her meeting a wonderful man she really loves and who loves her back. Then bring tremendous forces into play so that the woman feels she must marry the first guy no matter what. No! It can't be!
Show us a ragtag group of freedom fighters who want only to live free of tyranny. Then show the evil Empire arriving with their Death Star to destroy the rebels' hidden fortress. Can they be stopped?
You see how it goes. Make us care about something, then put that something in danger. As these examples show, the danger doesn't have to be life and limb (though it can be). The prospect of the hero not getting what she dreams of (and what we've come to dream for her) is terrible enough.
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HOW TO RAISE THE STAKES IN YOUR FIRST 50 PAGES