Creative Heroes

by Addie Boswell
Published on: January 24, 2013
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My paper portrait of Thoreau

As a painter, portraits are one of my great loves. There is an unspeakable magic that happens when you sit in front of a person for an hour and look at them more closely than they’ve ever been looked at. The model feels the same communion (sometimes they blush under the scrutiny.) This month, for a new art show, I have been working on portraits of my creative heroes. Frida Kahlo, Dr. Seuss, Shakespeare, Louie Armstrong, Henry David Thoreau, Jane Austen. I draw them in loose fashion and transfer those drawings to cut paper.

Though I’ll never get up close to my heroes (sigh), even looking at their photographs and really studying the lines of their faces has given me the same lift. It has also reminded me of all one person can accomplish in a lifetime. As Thoreau puts it, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.” My heroes have this in common: they didn’t find careers that suited, so they created their own. So Dr. Seuss kept to his strange characters and birthed modern illustration. So Austen forwent marriage for her stories. So Thoreau went to the woods. So I continue on, remembering to be uplifted by those who have gone before. I’ll leave you with some of my favorite lines.

Our horizon is never quite at our elbows. — Henry David Thoreau

They deem me mad because I will not sell my days for gold, and I deem them mad because they think my days have a price. — Kahil Gibran

One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar. — Helen Keller

Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elemental truth… that the moment one definitively commits oneself, then providence moves too.  — W.H. Murray

You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait. You need not even wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked.  It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.  — Kafka

Finite to fail, but infinite to venture. — Emily Dickinson

I know nothing with any certainty.  But the sight of stars makes me dream. — Van Gogh

It occurs to me to wonder and to ask how much I see or am capable of seeing. — John Steinbeck.

When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest. 
– Henry David Thoreau

To be nobody but yourself in a world doing its best to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle any human can ever fight and never stop fighting. —  e.e. cummings

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one you in all time, this expression is unique.  And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.  The world will not have it.  It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions.  It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.  You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.  You have to keep open and aware of urges that motivate you.  Keep the channel open. —  Martha Graham, as told to choreographer Agnes DeMille in Dance to the Piper.

By poverty is meant enough money to live upon.  That is, you must earn enough to be independent of any other human being and to buy that modicum of health, leisure, knowledge and so on that is needed for the full development of body and mind.  But no more.  Not a penny more. — Virginia Woolf

Critique Groups for Illustrators

by Addie Boswell
Published on: November 27, 2012
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Knowing how much Viva Scriva serves my writing life, I have tried to seek out the same community of artists over the years. My first critique experience happened by chance, when I met two fellow Portlanders at the SCBWI summer conference in L.A. Our five-person group had busy schedules and too many miles between us and monthly meetings turned into quarterly meetings before fading all together. (I think critique groups are akin to other relationships: timing matters.) Next, I attempted to host a drop-in drawing group, which introduced me to more artists but ultimately suffered the same fate. (Note to self: a small group, even two, of the truly committed will get you further than a larger one. I like the 4-6 range.)

By this time, I had met enough local illustrators to try again. My current critique group is made of 7 working illustrators — still trying to decide on a group name! We have been meeting for more than a year now, and it is starting to feel like a routine. And its great. Because even on the months I haven’t gotten to the studio, I still leave inspired by their talent and the hours they’ve put into their art–which prods me back to the drawing board.

Here is how ours works:

Meetings: One night a month for 2-3 hours. Since we need space to spread out the artwork, we rotate between our houses, and the host often provides a snack buffet.

Process: We bring our latest work, usually 1-4 illustrations or character sketches that are in process. After we get the initial chatter out of the way, one person will present by holding up the art (originals or copies) or passing it around. If she is working on a particular aspect, say color balance or character development, she’ll mention that and we’ll discuss. Our format is fairly loose, as the dialogue seems to flow naturally from the work and everybody takes the chance to talk. This is more casual than the writing critique groups I’ve been in — probably because art is less exact than writing.

Some artists are working on book dummies and bring their progress month after month (inspiring!) Some of us bring the occasional mural or commissioned piece, from our ‘fine art’ backgrounds. But mostly we talk about the wonders and trials of children’s illustration, sharing picture books that inspire us, or upcoming workshops and contests. And always, we encourage each other forward.

How to start one? You can find your local chapter of SCBWI through the national website; most chapters have ways to post online. If you are in Portland, look up the Portland KidLit Facebook Page too.



Ruts and Grooves

by Addie Boswell
Published on: October 26, 2012
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This is another bit of inspiration from Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, which I have been enjoying recently. The “Ruts and Grooves” Chapter seems especially suited to writers.

On Ruts: “A rut can be the consequence of a bad idea. You shouldn’t have started the project in the first place. A rut can be the end product of bad timing. For some reason, you are out of sync with the world. You can have the brightest vision with the most mind-blowing idea, but if the world isn’t ready for it you can spin your wheels for years. A rut can form because of bad luck or circumstances conspiring against you. More often than not, I’ve found, a rut is the consequence of sticking to tried and tested methods that don’t take into account how you or the world has changed.”

These ruts can be particularly maddening. We work so hard to develop good work habits and writing routines, only to find them fight against us when they finally become second nature. As the artists say, back to the old drawing board…

If you feel in any sort of rut, Ms. Tharp recommends questioning everything. I found this exercise to be very helpful.

1. Identify the concept that isn’t working

2. Write down your assumptions about it

3. Challenge the assumptions.

4. Act on the challenge.

I’ll leave you with her quote from novelist Mark Salzman, on breaking out of a rut (via an artist retreat.) “And you know what? It was like waking from a bad dream. All of a sudden, everything was like a gift: the fall colors, the sounds, the little homemade cookies in the picnic baskets. But mainly the removal of all the reminders of art as a profession, as a way of making money or gaining a reputation and the like. Rather, here I was in a community of people who seemed dedicated to art almost like a sacred pursuit.”

Back to the old, miraculous, drawing board…

If I Had a Tiger Mother…

by Addie Boswell
Published on: September 26, 2012
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I have been waiting in the library queue for this book for quite some time. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua— you know, the book that sparked so much controversy about strict vs. lax (Chinese vs. Western) parenting. And while I was expecting to be appalled by the former approach, I found myself thinking…if only I had a Tiger Mother.

If I had a Tiger Mother… I would write 2000 plus words every day, even when I was “too busy”, too lazy and too sick.

If I had a Tiger Mother, I would not sleep in after I’d stayed out too late the night before. In fact, I wouldn’t have gone out the night before.

If I had a Tiger Mother, I would know my long-term goals (Pulitzer Prize) and my short term goals (Caldecott Medal). What’s more, I would get daily notes and tasks that led directly to them. (Studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately ten times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children.)

If I had a Tiger Mother, I would never have to wonder if I was on the right path. My Mother would constantly remind me of what I was doing, and would, in fact, physically block out all the other things I could be doing. (Especially slumber parties, sports, the internet, and shopping.)

If I had a Tiger Mother, I would have read Sartre and the classics instead of Sweet Valley High, and my writers vocabulary would be more erudite and perspicacious. (And I wouldn’t need a Thesaurus to find those words.)

If I had a Tiger Mother, the simple repetition of practice and study, day after day after day, would have have produced amazing self-discipline. Surely, I would be a more successful and accomplished human being by now. Right?

Of course, if I had a Tiger Mother, I probably wouldn’t have become an artist and writer in the first place. And I might be in serious therapy, and I certainly would have missed out on some great friendships and sports teams. No, I’ll take my fabulous Western-approach mother. But… could I have a Tiger Mother as an adult?

Instead of feeling self-righteous or offended, I was strangely inspired by the book, and the sheer volume of work accomplished by both daughters and mother. Maybe not all eight-year-olds should have to practice six hours of violin a day, vacation and sickness be damned. But then again, if they can do it, what’s my excuse?

Great Post: Criticism vs. Critique

by Addie Boswell
Published on: August 26, 2012
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From the Chronicles of Harriet, this post says it nicely! Read the full post here: A CRITIC CRITIQUES CRITICISM CRITICALLY.

For the sum-up:

  • Criticism finds fault. Critique looks at structure.
  • Criticism looks for what’s lacking. Critique finds what’s working.
  • Criticism condemns what it doesn’t understand. Critique asks for clarification.
  • Criticism is spoken with a cruel wit and sarcastic tongue. Critique’s voice is kind, honest, and objective.
  • Criticism is negative. Critique is positive.
  • Criticism is vague and general. Critique is concrete and specific.
  • Criticism has no sense of humor. Critique uses humor to soften the “blow” of the critique.
  • Criticism often looks for flaws in the writer as well as the writing. Critique addresses only what is on the page.

Be a World-Traveling Writer

by Addie Boswell
Published on: July 26, 2012
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This month, words have taken two of the Scrivas to the far reaches. Nicole is in Belgium, scoping out this festival while Sabina is in Romania, visiting the home of her ancestors. While both of them are undoubtedly enjoying some personal time, the main purpose is to research for their novels-in-progress. For the same purpose ScrivaLiz traveled to the Phillipines to look inside volcanoes and I went to Rio de Janeiro to study life on the streets. These were all WRITING trips. None of us are wealthy, or more-than-usually adventurous; we generally don’t take these kinds of fabulous trips for vacation.  And, three out of four were made for books that haven’t been sold, or even submitted yet. No advances. So how did we do it?

We got Help. When you’re planning (or even pining for) such a trip, it helps to tell everybody you know. You never know when an excited relative or fellow author will kick in money or point you to free housing. But if you’re looking for a large chunk of money, say to fund your airfare, try for a grant.

A good place to start looking is the library, where the always-helpful librarians will point you to databases. The Foundation Center may be the best compilation. Here’s a few more you may be interested in.


    The Creative Habit

    by Addie Boswell
    Published on: June 26, 2012
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    Twyla Tharp’s excellent book has been resonating with me this month, especially the need for ritual in a creative occupation. The Scrivas talk about this often: our different but similar time schedules, processes, even places to write. Yes to more ritual! Yes to creative self-knowledge! Yes, yes, yes!

    And then, there was this one little paragraph in chapter three: “I wonder how many people get sidetracked from their true calling by the fact that they have talent to excel at more than one artistic medium. This is a curse rather than a blessing. If you have only one option, you can’t make a wrong choice. If you have two options, you have a fifty percent chance of being wrong.”

    That paragraph hit me in the gut, strongly enough that I had to close the book and have an imaginary argument with the author. The wrong choice?! You see, not only am I an artist and writer, I use different mediums, and write in different genres, and even teach different ages. I go back and forth between my jobs like a delighted child. Or a crazed bumblebee, muttering similar things to myself, “If you would only concentrate on one thing, you could have been a great success by now.” No matter how true, when Twyla says it, I feel righteous indignation.

    Have you ever asked yourself, “If I had to do only one thing for the rest of my life, what would it be?” If you can answer only one thing, it is a blessing of sorts (go forth!) But most likely, you’re like me and can narrow it down to three or four, and then remember something else you hadn’t thought of and start the process all over again. If I really had to choose, I decide, I would pick reading.  And then I get sad, thinking of how I would be reading and I’d get these great ideas and wouldn’t be able to write them down. And I start over with the whole imaginary argument. What a silly argument, and a moot point. As if anything you love could be wrong.

    So, I realized, there is Twyla’s approach; a single-minded intent on goal (in her own words, “a bubble of monomaniacal absorption”). This is the way of many of my creative heroes: Picasso, Kahlo, Motzart, Shakespeare, Jobs. And then there is the Renaissance-Man approach, where the habit is to follow the creativity where it leads, or even invent a new genre. The way of Da Vinci, Seuss, Bono, and the Scrivas, who are writers and mothers and teachers and gardeners and a hundred things more. The child, in a continuous state of wonder. The bumblebee, perpetually drunk on nectar. Thanks Twyla, for reminding me.

    What if My Novel Takes Over My Life (Again)?

    by Addie Boswell
    Published on: May 26, 2012
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    I’ve got this idea for a novel. This really great idea. It’s been flitting in and out of my head for nearly a year now, wiggling its way closer to my heart. It has a title, and two strong characters, and a loose plot. Some days my fingers itch to write it. Once I pulled the car over to scrawl some notes on the back of a map. But I haven’t typed a single sentence. The novel keeps returning and I keep batting it away, afraid that if I start, it will swallow me up, taking my other projects with it.

    At least that was how it was with my first novel. For nearly three years, I dove wholeheartedly in. It wasn’t hard like I thought it would be. The words nearly tripped over themselves in their haste to be written, some 85,000 at the fattest point. No, the hard part was living with my characters, in their hormonal teen minds, in their corrupt and confusing city. Not just watching them survive violence, prejudice, hunger, betrayal, and drug addiction, but actually pushing them in front of the train. I didn’t realize how wearying it was until I put the novel away for a few months. I didn’t realize how caught up I had been. I didn’t realize how ignored my smaller books felt.

    Hugh Laurie, recently ending his role on “House,” said, “Having to inhabit a character who is that cynical and morbid and occasionally suicidal, a character that tormented, can get to you after awhile. It can start playing tricks on you. You start wondering why you’re doing it, whether there’s any value in it.  A sane person would say that’s ridiculous, it’s only a television show. But if we believed it was only a television show, it wouldn’t be a television show–it would be a cancelled television show.”

    We have to love our characters, and worry and hope and dream with them. And there is such joy in being swallowed up. For me, writing that first novel was akin to falling in love. Sometimes I felt high. Some mornings I went straight to the laptop, not even stopping to brush my teeth. For idyllic weeks in the dead of winter, I ignored my family and put off my other jobs to be with my characters. They were always in my thoughts, keeping me up at night. And for them, I read over a hundred YA novels, took a research trip to Brazil, learned Portuguese, and wrote thousands of words more than I thought I was capable of. To them, I showed true dedication.

    But still — in retrospect — it seems a lot of time to give up. A lot of time to give up with mere hope of monetary reward. Even if it was only ten hours a week I spent (a conservative estimate), that’s over 1500 hours, un-billable.  One thousand, five hundred hours of creative juice, spent. And the more I think about this, the more I think: it’s bat-shit crazy to write a novel. To do it again would be lunacy.

    But I’ve got this idea.

    This really great idea…

    Critique Monogamy?

    by Addie Boswell
    Published on: March 26, 2012
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    Having been together now for nearly five years, we Scrivas consider ourselves a committed group. But Viva Scriva wasn’t our first love. No, most of us had 2-5 critique groups before. Like all relationships, they came to an end for a variety of reasons. The personalities didn’t jibe. The long-term goals were different. The timing was simply off. Now entering the mature phase of our group, we trust and support each other all the more. But… don’t assume we’re monogamous. In fact, you might be shocked to know the kind of “alternative” critiquing that goes on behind the scenes.

    :ScrivaAmber, in her trans-media project Angel Punk, gets storyline critique and general big-picture editing from the non-writers who encompass her creative team and her investors.

    :ScrivaLiz “hires” college students to act as writing interns. In exchange for editing her manuscripts and performing a range of other duties (research, transcription, marketing), Liz teaches the interns editing and writing career practices. As the most prolific Scriva, Liz also has a second critique group sometimes to keep up with demand.

    :ScrivaRuth went one step further and partnered with a whole graduate student class (Ooligan Press at PSU) to put the just-released Blue Thread through the editorial wringer. Besides providing line edits and developmental letters, they also created the book’s design and marketing plan.

    :And I had an epiphany a few years ago that my art could benefit from critique. So now I have an illustration group that meets monthly, and a “drawing buddy” I meet with once a week. (Single critique buddies are especially helpful for dipping your toes in, or if you write in a very specific genre.)

    :And then there are editors and agents and copywriters, and sometimes researchers and experts, people you can hire. Online critique. Phone critique. Improv critique. Oh my!

    After a bad group or some ugly feedback, its tempting to give up on the idea altogether. And we all know great writers who don’t show their work to anybody. But we writers who want to work consistently take our critique consistently, even when its painful and we don’t agree. So go find your perfect relationship. Break up and start over. Mate for life. Swing. Just, make sure you get your critique.

    Tips for Creating Buzz

    by Addie Boswell
    Published on: February 24, 2012
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    Have you heard about Blue Thread, Ruth Tenzer Feldman’s romp through time and social politics? Scriva Ruth’s book is getting great local buzz, thanks to the book itself–and some very smart marketing by the author and her team at Ooligan Press. (Read more about Ruth’s partnership with Portland State students here.) “Buzz” is that nebulous term we all want: other people to find, talk about, and share our books with their ever-expanding networks. We assume good books will create their own buzz, but still: what can an author do to help?

    The main thing I’ve learned by watching Ruth is: Involve all the people you can! While having 30 students critique your book may sound like a particular form of torture, think of an extra 30 “agents” invested in the book’s success. Think of those agents as young, connected, and well-versed in social media, and you’ll start to wonder where you can find your own college class. Here are some other people you might think about involving:

    • Your neighbors. If you frequent a library, restaurant, or small business in your neighborhood, they might be a good fit. In Ruth’s case, she connected with her neighborhood branch of Albina Community Bank, to participate in their “First Thursday” art walk (details below).
    • Groups that fit your niche.  This works especially well for nonfiction titles: in Blue Thread‘s case, Ruth sought out Jewish-themed organizations and publications across the country, as well as organizations celebrating the women’s suffrage movement. (Set in 1912, the book’s publication date was set to coincide with centennial events in Oregon.)

      Ruth in 1912 costume

    • A local non-profit. ScrivaLiz did this when she launched For the Love of Music: The Remarkable Story of Maria Anna Mozart. Not only did Liz involve a guest musician, she benefited Ethos, a nonprofit that spreads music to kids. (She and Ruth also both developed historical costumes for their events — always a big hit!)
    • And finally: your FAF — my shorthand for the “Friends and Family” network. Don’t underestimate this gold mine of support. Your FAF wants your book to succeed just as much as you do, and it feels great to support other people you believe in. You also get a secondary benefit when you link up with friends: the reassuring faces take some of the stress off “pushing” yourself. For the First Thursday event, Ruth invited local women authors and artists (including me) who fit the theme of women in history. Now you’re invited too!

    Nest of Words, paper

    Thursday, March 1, 6-9 p.m.

    Artists and Writers CelebrateWomen’s History Month

    Albina Community Bank (in the Pearl)

    430 NW 10th Ave., Portland

    Authors will sell and sign their books, which are primarily, but not exclusively, for children or young adults. Joining Feldman are Carmen Bernier-Grand (Alicia Alonso: Prima Ballerina and Frida [Kahlo]: ¡Viva la Vida! Long Live Life!), Pamela Smith Hill (Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life), Barbara Kerley (The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Suzy) and What To Do about Alice [Roosevelt]), Michelle McCann (Luba: The Angel of Bergen-Belsen and Girls Who Rocked the World), and Elizabeth Rusch (For the Love of Music:  The Remarkable Story of Maria Anna Mozart, a biography of Wolfgang’s musical sister). All of these women have won state or national awards for their work.

    Artists Addie Boswell and Sine Morse will display vibrant oil paintings and paper designs inspired by children and by Portland. Their work, as well as Feldman’s suffrage book, will be available for sale for the month of March.

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