Friday, February 26, 2010

ABC competition... update

Sad news.... The ABC's Press received fewer than 100 submissions for their picture book competition, so they had to cancel it. Alas, my book will not be illustrated and posted on the web for the world to see.  I guess it's time to start figuring out how to write a stand-out query letter....

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The thaw

Spring is really and truly on its way, now.  Yes, I realize I obsess over this, but it we endure long months with little or no sunlight here in northern Germany, and the return of light and the possibility that the world will once again be green are what bring us through the final leg of our annual journey round the sun.

The thaw has begun. The great white blanket of snow is slowly settling, hugging the earth more tightly each day, until, in places, it simply gets too close and merges with it. I glimpsed the first bare patch of earth today... not street or sidewalk, but grass... beautiful, green—if limp and waterlogged—grass.

The rest of the landscape is slowly morphing from one of white mountains and plains to one that resembles nothing so much as a beach in winter. I mentioned in a previous post that snow removal is less than stellar here in Germany. In many places, the snow was not removed at all, merely trampled down. The most common solution to the slick walkways, then, was gravel.

We received a steady supply of fresh snow this winter, starting in December and slowly accumulating over the past two months. Some weeks, we got a centimeter or two of snow each night. And after each new snowfall, a new layer of gravel was added. It was quickly hidden by the next layer of snow, so no one really knew just how much gravel had been used. Well, now we know... the sidewalks literally resemble a beach, with anywhere from one to three centimeters of gravel in some places. Melted snow pools in the footprints we leave behind, and if we didn't see cars driving by on one side and buildings on the other, it would be easy to believe we were walking along a beach on the North Sea.

To make the illusion stronger is the flotsam and jetsam now appearing amid the receding snowbanks. The skeletons of discarded Christmas trees, the remains of New Year's fireworks, and the occasional lost mitten or hat lend the scene a surreal beach-like aura... driftwood and beached jellyfish scattered across the sand.

But the thaw is here. One of the trees outside my window has responded to the slight increase in temperature by budding leaves, and I anxiously await the coming of spring in all its glory.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Finding inspiration

The creative process requires input; without it, there can be no output. This is the reason Julia Cameron recommends taking time to "fill the well" with ideas, sights, sounds, conversations, scents. They act as tinder for the creative spark.

So where to turn for inspiration? Anywhere, really. Some of the most delightful ideas come from the most unexpected places...  something lying on the ground, a walk in nature, a ride on the subway, a piece of music, someone else's artwork, newspaper article, blog post, or novel. Yes, reading deprivation can help ignite the creative process, but so can reading. As long as you aren't using it as a distraction.

Pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi based his composition, Le Onde, on Virginia Woolf's book, The Waves. It is an extraordinary thing when someone can capture the feeling created by one art form in a completely new medium.

Can you hear the waves? I close my eyes and picture myself standing on a beach.

Music also serves as a powerful source of inspiration. Berlin artist Christine Düwell finds inspiration in music, listening to the piece as she creates and incorporating the sheet music from the piece into the artwork, itself. (I love all of her work but am particularly a fan of the Linien in der Vertikalen series).

I would imagine that writers often find inspiration in music and other forms of art, although I have only once seen a writer acknowledge such an influence in their book (according to the acknowledgments section of both Eclipse and Breaking Dawn, Stephanie Meyer found tremendous inspiration in music by Muse). So I leave you with their latest single, perhaps it will provide some inspiration.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Reading deprivation

I think I have mentioned that I am working my way through Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way. The book is broken down into weeks, with various tasks to complete that help jump-start your creativity.

I just finished Week 4, which had the most difficult task, by far: reading deprivation. That's right, a whole week of no reading. No newspapers, no blogs, no books, not even work-related reading, if you can help it (though I had to cheat a bit, there... I teach online courses, and email is the only connection I have with my students, I couldn't really skip that for a week). The idea is to hear your thoughts, to "fill the well" as she calls it, by paying attention to what's going on around you, rather than allowing yourself the distraction of reading. It is incredibly difficult to do.

I am someone who drinks in words. If there are words in my line of sight, I read them. Graffiti, advertisements, books, newspapers, websites, anything. Not in English or German? Doesn't matter, I still try to sound out the words, to see if I can decipher their meaning. I am surprised by how often I am able to do so. To spend an entire week not reading was very difficult. I found other things to do to fill the time, mainly cleaning (after the plumber created a 40cm x 40cm hole in the wall of our kitchen, coating the room with dust in the process) and mending (which had been piling up and I am relieved to have finished).

But the most difficult part for me was right before bed. I read in bed, every night, and not being able to do this was downright painful. The first couple of nights, I found myself lying there, thinking how much I wanted to read something... anything. It was anything but productive. But by the third and fourth  nights, I found that I could move beyond my desire to read and get to my thoughts. I had a few ideas pop into my head, ideas I was able to implement later in the week (I am creating a blog from the perspective of the characters in my story, more on that to come...).

Now that I have reached the end of the week and am allowed to read again, I can say that it works. Reading deprivation is not an easy process, but it does free your mind and enable you to focus on things that are immediately relevant to you.

The added bonus, for me, was that no fewer than seven books found their way into our home within 48 hours of starting my reading deprivation. It was difficult not to be able to look them over right away, but if a little "fasting" brings on such bounty, I might just have to try it again soon!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The song that heralds spring

I feel a return to my roots today (I used to study birds)... Today is a beautiful day: the sun is shining, and the snow is glinting like trillions of tiny diamonds. It certainly doesn't look (or feel) like spring might be around the corner, but I know it's there, lurking, waiting to spring out at us (no pun intended). I know because the birds are singing.

I have noticed a marked uptick in the amount of activity and song among our feathered friends over the past week or two. They know spring is nearly here, despite the perpetually frozen ground and utter lack of anything growing. How is it that they know?  The lengthening days.

We have finally entered that time of year when the amount of sunlight we get increases by about 4 minutes a day, which is enough that you notice it from one day to the next.  Last week, it was still dark when we got up in the morning, now it's noticeably lighter. With 4 minutes a day, we add nearly half an hour a week to our daylength, and it is this increase in photoperiod (as scientists call it) that tells the birds spring is coming.

Photoperiod is incredibly powerful in changing both physiology and behavior of all kinds of organisms. So what, exactly is going on in the birds that they are suddenly so active? It turns out that their gonads (testes and ovaries) are increasing in size, and the resulting influx of testosterone in the males is stimulating them to sing. Sounds weird, I know, but in the Northern Hemisphere, at least, that's what happens (birds in the Southern Hemisphere do not experience this). Why on earth would birds experience such a bizarre physiological change? Other organisms don't... what makes birds different? Flight and migration are two important factors.

Have you ever considered the amount of energy required to fly long distances? Yes, airplanes burn a lot of fuel, but imagine you were a bird, flying day and night to reach your overwintering site. You would need a lot of fuel to get there. And just as airlines limit the weight of your luggage to reduce the amount of fuel required for the trip, birds can reduce their weight in preparation for their journey. And so they do. As days get shorter at the end of summer, their gonads decrease in size, drastically reducing the amount of weight the bird needs to get off the ground for the trip. Those species that stick around through the cold, snowy winter undergo a similar change. If conditions aren't right for breeding, why waste energy on organs you simply cannot use?

Then comes this time of year, when the one and only consistently reliable cue that the seasons are about to change is the increase in photoperiod. Birds must be ready to breed as soon as conditions are right, so their gonads begin to grow, returning to a functional state. Gonads produce hormones, hormones stimulate physical activity and, in males, song. And we humans get to enjoy the show.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The power of exercise

Creativity is not typically associated with physical exercise, but perhaps it should be. My last post got me thinking about the importance of exercise in stimulating the creative juices.

In the midst of a long, cold, snowy winter, with limited opportunity for physical exercise, I found it difficult to get to those days of punctuated writing. I was getting frustrated. During a talk with my husband (in which I vented my frustration), we began to see that the act of being active was the key to my punctuated break-throughs. It became clear that exercise, even just walking, seemed to be a trigger for me. I started walking home after dropping the children off in the mornings, and, sure enough, the creative spark returned.

Curious about the potential effects of exercise on creativity, I did a little research and came across an article on the Effects of Exercise on Cognitive Creativity. Here are the rather amazing results (from the abstract):
The potential effects of aerobic exercise on creative potential were explored both immediately following moderate aerobic exercise and after a two hour lag.... The results supported the hypotheses that creative potential will be greater upon completion of moderate aerobic exercise than when not preceded by exercise (immediate effects), that creative potential will be greater following a two hour lag time following exercise than when not preceded by exercise (residual effects), and that creative potential will not be significantly different immediately following exercise than after a two hour lag time following exercise (enduring residual effects).
There we have it. It's not just me... physical activity boosts creativity in others, as well.

Physical exercise has been shown to be beneficial for a wide variety of reasons: improved brain function (including the ability to plan, organize, and multitask) and improved mood, not to mention the oft-cited reasons of weight control. Now we have evidence that it also boosts creativity and problem-solving abilities, and not just over the short-term. Perhaps more writers and artists need to focus on doing their physical exercises in addition to their creative ones.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Writing in punctuated equilibrium

It sounds almost cliché to talk about my writer friends, but it's true... everyone is writing a novel. I have always been impressed by people who write every day. They get up and start writing first thing (or as soon as the kids are off to school), making steady progress on their work in progress (WIP). I imagine such a writer must have the entire story sitting in her head, just waiting to flow out through her fingertips onto the page (or keyboard, as the case may be). It seems as though that is how writers should write, so why doesn't it work for me?

When I try to write every day, I encounter snags. I sit and debate how to approach a particular event, wonder about what the characters will do next, how they will deal with a particular situation. In the end, I just sit and think, ending my writing session with a page just as blank as when I sat down.

This worried me for a while, until I thought about how I have written other things in the past (various theses, my dissertation, research papers...). They never came out bit by bit as I sat in front of the computer each day.  They came out in fits and spurts, with each flurry of writing taking the work to a new level.

I sit and think about my WIP, coming at it from different angles, taking into consideration new pieces of information, molding it and shaping it in my mind until it starts to take on a form that "feels" right. I don't write a word during this process. And it is only when this stage of equilibrium reaches a tipping point that a flurry of writing can occur, bringing me to a new state of equilibrium.

Quite often, my stages of stasis occur when I get stuck on a particular part of my work. The one method I have found to break through to the next punctuated writing session (via an unexpected and often delightful idea of one sort or another), is to put the whole thing aside. Read through the work then go do something else (my best ideas come when I get some form of exercise). Surprising results can come from a bit of rumination, making the creative process perpetually new and exciting.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The future of picture books as ebooks

I have been pondering the future of picture books this past week, after some interesting ebook information from Maureen Crisp. Apparently illustrators are working on technology to make picture books into ebooks.  Maureen says (in answer to my query):
One of our top illustrators here in NZ has been working with a digital development company over the last few years on visually interactive books. He showed us at a festival a few years ago and it was amazing. The kids put on goggles and read a book where the illustrations started to move like an animation when they moved a wand over a spot on the page. The goggles provided a 3d experience...and it was still in development then. These were ordinary picture books with optional enhanced content...the animation was similar to a video they are experimenting out there...
It sounds fascinating, and from an adult perspective, it sounds wonderfully stimulating.  But would such technology be appropriate for children? I am thinking of the target audience for most picture books, and having animated ebooks might not be the best option for young children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of 2.5 not watch television (they do not specify other forms of video, but I would imagine they fall under the same umbrella), and that children over 2.5 be exposed to it in limited amounts. Why no video for the toddler set?  According to the AAP, children who are watching television/video are not doing other important activities, such as:
  • Asking questions
  • Solving problems
  • Being creative
  • Exercising initiative
  • Practicing eye-hand coordination
  • Scanning (useful in reading)
  • Practicing motor skills
  • Thinking critically, logically, and analytically
  • Practicing communication skills
  • Playing interactive games with other children or adults (helpful for developing patience, self-control cooperation, sportsmanship) 
Now an X-box-like picture book experience may well be a better alternative to standard video and television. Presumably, parents are still reading the books to the children, which would foster communication and thinking skills. Eye-hand coordination skills would be developed through use of the "wand" to animate the pictures (taking the place of lifting a flap, for example), but many of the other skills noted above would be missed. But perhaps many of them are when reading a paper book, as well. 

I am particularly concerned about the ability of ebook Readers (e.g., Kindle) to read to the children. This may sound like a benefit at first... children can sit down and read stories even when parents don't have time. Great! But what do children miss in these situations? Potentially a good number of the activities listed above.

Children could not ask questions about the story (or get an answer out of the Kindle, at any rate). They could not  take the initiative to go through the book at their own pace, to scan through the images and identify objects they recognize (this may be possible, given particular settings, I don't know that much about the upcoming technology and am speculating, here). And it would limit their creative expression. I know my oldest likes to make up stories about characters in the book (why someone looks angry, for example... what happened just before that part of the story). When the images are animated, this level of curiosity is overwhelmed by the brain's need to process what they are watching. 

And I sincerely hope parents wouldn't take this as an excuse NOT to read to their child. In today's busy world, it would be a tempting excuse to let the child entertain his- or herself. 

I wonder, too about the ability of young children (those for whom picture books are a staple, particularly the board books) to understand what they are seeing in an animated book.  In their article The Medium Can Obscure the Message, Troseth and DeLoache describe the results of an experiment in which young children (aged 2, 2.5, and 3 years) were shown a video monitor of someone hiding something in another room, then asked to find that item. Only the 3-year-olds could do so. But when shown a picture of the room and having an adult point to the location of the hidden object, 2.5-year-olds were also able to find the object. Clearly, children are able to process still images and determine the symbolic meaning behind them (the images, after all, represent actual objects) earlier than they can draw meaning from animation.

So where does that leave us for the future of picture books? I think the animated alternative could be great, if it is used only for books geared toward older children. I could easily see my travel adventure stories in an animated format, but they are intended for the 6-8-year age range. I think that any book geared specifically for toddlers should remain in paper format (who says all books need to transition to ebooks, after all?). I simply hope that we think before we leap into this new world, to avoid performing a giant, irreversible experiment on our children and their mental and physical development.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The need to play

Setting up play dates with other kids is getting to be a real challenge. Scheduling around tennis, swimming, art, music, and other activities makes it difficult to get two children together for an afternoon.  I'm referring to the activities of my child's friends.  Their parents ask when we're free, and I always have the same response: we're always free.

What? No tightly scheduled series of character-building activities designed to make my child the perfect candidate for Harvard when he's older? Well... no. So what on earth do we do every day, anyway? Most of the time we play. Legos, Play-doh, drawing, story-telling, pirates, train-set... you name it, we play it.  My oldest is allowed one structured activity through the kindergarten (we are in the process of switching from music to art), but beyond that, we don't "do" those kinds of things. Not yet.

I was feeling a bit guilty about not providing the opportunity to do more structured things until I came across an article in Scientific American Mind recently: The Serious Need for Play.  Okay, it's actually from Feb/March of last year, but I just read it.  Have I mentioned that we have a major time delay in getting our magazine subscriptions to Germany? We do.  So here's my new, old news: people need to play.

According to the article, unstructured play has been shown in a variety of studies to be extremely important in social and mental development. Playing a game that has set rules doesn't count. Neither does playing a musical instrument. We are talking about free play, about giving children time to let their imaginations take over, to explore unseen (previously unimagined) universes and to create worlds with rules of their own. Even better if they can do that with other children, as this helps them hone their social and communication skills.

Free play allows children to become more creative, to be better problem-solvers, and to reduce stress. It allows us greater flexibility, which can help us to feel comfortable when we encounter new situations.  Play is not just part of being a child, but an essential part of learning how to be an adult. Animals of all kinds play when they are young... there must be a reason for it.

That's all well and good, but does the lack of free play have detrimental effects on development?  It appears that the answer is yes. One study cited in the SciAm Mind article found that who enrolled in play-oriented preschools are more socially adjusted later in life than are kids who attended play-free preschools where they were constantly instructed by teachers. By age 23, more than one third of kids who had attended instruction-oriented preschools had been arrested for a felony as compared with fewer than one tenth of the kids who had been in play-oriented preschools.  And as adults, fewer than 7 percent of the play-oriented preschool attendees had ever been suspended from work, but more than a quarter of the directly instructed kids had. [emphasis added]
Powerful findings, to my mind.  And a good reason to continue limiting the amount of time our children spend in structured activities. Parents need to put aside their concerns regarding free play and, like a writer does with his/her writing time, schedule it into the week.  Doing so allows children to grow up into adults who can not only manage, but also thrive, in an unpredictable, complex world. And finding time for free play as adults is equally important, to reduce stress and enhance creativity.

As David Elkind (child development expert at Tufts University) says,
Play has to be reframed and seen not as an opposite to work but rather as a complement.  Curiosity, imagination and creativity are like muscles; if you don't use them, you lose them.
As someone trying to recover my creativity, this sounds like a wake-up call. Let's not allow our children to lose their imaginations as they grow up. Here's to finding a little time for free play each week....

Friday, February 5, 2010


My world is color coded. This is something I never really realized until I read an article on synesthesia and discovered that I am a "synesthete." Synesthesia, which occurs in approximately one out of every 2,000 people, occurs when the brain connects two seemingly disparate things. The most common form involves color: days of the week, letters, numbers, or months may stimulate a particular color in someone's mind. Other forms link taste or smell with other things, such as the sense of touch or with musical notes. Quite often members of an immediate family will share a particular form of synesthesia, although the associations may not match up (e.g., the letter A is blue to one person but yellow to another).

For me, numbers are most vividly connected to color, with months less strongly so. Doing a Sudoku puzzle is easy when I can look at the puzzle and "see" which color is missing. A friend of mine sees the color-number association so strongly that she remembers phone numbers by remembering the way they "look" in her mind.

Each morning I write morning pages—three pages of free-association writing (I am working my way through Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, which I highly recommend)—and I write the date at the start of each session. I am continually amazed by the impact this small act has on my mood. A date associated with colors that I like makes me happy, one with dreary colors brings me down. And the colors stimulate other ideas in my mind, small nuggets that often develop into story ideas.

The impact of color has become even stronger of late, as we live in a snowy, monochromatic world of white and gray. I find myself craving color. Not just waiting for spring but thirsting for the bright yellows, purples and greens of early spring flowers and plants. In fact, I crave color so much it has determined the location of my next picture book adventure story: Scotland, a verdant world richly cloaked in every shade of green.

And for the times when I cannot escape into my colorful stories, I can gaze at the the multi-colored snowflakes the children and I made a few weeks back. Anything to keep me afloat until spring comes. I keep telling myself that each day brings us one day closer.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Finding time to write

Ah, winter, the season of the terminal sniffles, sneezes, coughs, and loss of productivity.  I have been trying to find a good way to organize my time... to ensure that I devote time to my work (the one that pays the bills), my family, and my writing (blogging and "real"), not to mention the assorted household chores that keep our family's chaos under control.

Since the writing (sadly) tends to fall by the wayside, I decided to try a new approach this month: two days are set aside for writing and nothing else. Naturally, this new beginning was blindsided by illness.  Both children home on my designated writing days, and I have sniffles, sneezing, and coughing of my own... but here I am.  I am determined to make this work.

How to find time to write is something many (most? all?) writers seem to struggle with. I have read advice from a variety of sources on how to deal with it.  The major piece of advice everyone seems to agree upon is that you need to reallocate your time, triage your activities, if you will, and do away with those that simply do not fit into your schedule.  Or if you cannot do away with them, at least put them off (or better yet, get someone else to do them!).

When I was in graduate school, I was taught to schedule writing and research time into my week and treat that time as sacred.  Would we allow someone to schedule a meeting during one of our classes?  Of course not!  So why allow our writing time to be parceled out to others?  It's a good rule and guides my efforts to devote two days a week to writing.  Now if only the kids didn't need to stay home, it might just be productive....

Another alternative is to make use of every available moment.  This approach, termed "The 5 Minute Writer" by Jane Choate, calls upon writers to literally make use of every spare moment.  Look up potential character names, brainstorm story ideas, back up files, send an email query, proof read a couple of pages of your WIP... these are all suggestions for activities that she has found useful in her efforts to find time to write, and each can be done in as few as five minutes.

They are good suggestions. My only problem is that I tend to get drawn into my work, once it gets going. Forcing myself to stop after five or ten minutes is painful and frustrating.  But perhaps when my current work is further along, those options will better serve my purposes. In the meantime, I hope they might benefit others—no matter what kind of writing you do, you can always find a way to get it done, as long as you make it a priority.  Happy writing, everyone!